A bike messenger weaving through traffic with a stuffed bag slung acorss their shoulder used to be a daily sight in American cities. However, the rise of electronic documents (and, just as crucially, electronic signatures), has decimated the industry. And yet, while the ranks of working bike messengers are dwindling, the bike messenger bags they popularized are ubiquitous. The best messenger bags for men of today tap into the specific urban coolness of the heyday of bike messengers while retaining the durability, cargo space, and ease of access that made those bags so utile in the first place.
The single-strap leather bag traces its roots back to the Roman Empire, but the classic canvas bike messenger bag is so versatile that it started out with a completely different application. Frank de Martini, an Italian sailmaker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, invented the bag for use by linemen who needed to carry their tools to the tops of telephone poles. Though he never patented the design, leaving it vulnerable to being copied by other bag makers, de Martini continued to make the bag he invented in New York until his retirement in 1995. And while materials and preferences have evolved, de Martini’s original design is still the template for many of the best messenger bags on the market even during a time when many working messengers carry larger bags.
Without loads of manilla folders traveling from business to business, today’s bike messengers specialize in bigger items like bottles of wine, high-end light bulbs, and materials that have to be printed (i.e. business cards) — anything that doesn’t require a van to transport. And thus today, messenger bags have grown along with the cargo that needs transporting. The pros are generally using backpacks or just bigger bags, some even with two straps that the messengers of the industry’s peak in the pre-internet era wouldn’t have considered.
Despite the growing changes, the best messenger bags hold the same core benefits of de Martini’s original design, offering a compact, durable way to carry lots of stuff on your back. They’re just as handy for modern commuters as they were for linemen and pre-internet bike messengers. They’re also ideal as a work bag, for shopping, and even as a carry-on thanks to the durability, storage space, and comfort described by all the veteran bike messengers with whom Spy spoke. But even if you don’t need a bag that can stand up to the chaos of a city bike messenger’s typical day, it’s sure nice to have one.
The Best Messenger Bags for Men At a Glance
What the Experts Are Saying
Jory Wallace, the founding owner of Seattle Messenger Cooperative, personally relies on a local company, Dank Bags, a purveyor of simple bags made to order by a veteran messenger. His is made of Cordura, a synthetic material that appears frequently among the best messenger bags.
Andrew Young is the general manager of Breakaway Courier Systems who started as a bike messenger in New York City in 1985. He’s a bit more old school, a loyalist of de Martini’s classic single-strap canvas bike messenger bag which he uses for everything from grocery shopping to traveling internationally. Fellow New Yorker Kevin Bolger of Cycle Hawk, a bike messenger since 1992, helped design a newer, larger two-strap bag with longtime bagmaker Manhattan Portage that’s better suited to the bulkier loads today’s messengers carry.
So while they depart in their specific preferences, each made it clear that a true bike messenger bag is tough, spacious, and comfortable enough to wear for hours on end.
Manhattan Portage NY Messenger Bag
The ethos of this 40-year-old NYC-based brand is “New York tough,” and this bag meets that standard. It’s made of Cordura, the aforementioned heavy-duty synthetic fabric that can also be found in workwear, motorcycle apparel, and military gear. It’s pretty simple, featuring one exterior zippered pocket, two interior zippered pockets, and an open pocket on the back. The shoulder strap is adjustable and sewn directly to the body of the bag. The flap stays down thanks to hook-and-loop strips on the underside, but there are also hard plastic buckles that provide more security on the go.
Bolger says that this classic silhouette is an “easier bag to manage while you’re out and about. You don’t have to take it off your back to access and you can just slide it around in front of you.” And along with its high build quality and ease of use, this bag is one you might find on a real-life bike messenger, meaning that if you’re looking to capture that specific cachet of a bygone era, this is the bag.
Timbuk2 Custom Classic Messenger Bag
Made For: People with very specific needs. Venerated Bay Area bag brand Timbuk2 lets its customers choose from twenty different fabrics, three different trims, and plenty of options for interior and exterior pockets depending on their needs.
Coolest Feature: The crossbody strap can be placed specifically so that when it’s on your right shoulder the buckle is easy to adjust with your left hand. Lefties, rejoice!
Chrome Industries Citizen Messenger Bag
Why It Stands Out: The Chrome Citizen Messenger Bag’s distinct Griffin logo and user-friendly seatbelt fastener are well-known hallmarks that are easy to spot from a mile away. The latter also makes it easy to take off and remove this bag without having to maneuver it over your head, something that feels like a godsend when you’re sore after a long day of work.
Coolest Feature: It’s built to keep your stuff safe. Reflective compression straps keep cargo in place even if the bag isn’t fully stuffed while the shoulder strap comes equipped with a stabilizer strap that connects the front. This mechanism keeps the bag on your back and prevents it from shifting while riding.
Frye Logan Messenger Bag
Why It Stands Out: Sex appeal. There’s something Jonesian (as in Indiana Jones) about this leather messenger bag, with its rich leather befitting a college professor and the gradual patina it collects befitting an international adventurer. It’s a bag that’s just nice to be seen with.
Coolest Feature: The coolest feature of this leather messenger bag might be the absence of features, i.e. it’s the perfect minimalist bag. Otherwise, it’s the magnetic closure that’s easy to snap shut without even looking at it.
Patagonia Stealth Sling
Made For: Recreational fishermen who want a hands-free way to carry their gear. But don’t worry: this ten-liter sling works equally well for anyone who needs a compact single-strap bag, even if they won’t use the miniature fly-tying surface that flips down from the front panel.
Why It Stands Out: While this sling bag might be a big departure from the classic shape, this Patagonia messenger bag retains many of those advantages in a package that appeals to light travelers.
Carhartt Rain Defender Cargo Series Messenger Bag
ROI: For less than $100, this is a bag tough enough to bear the Carhartt name. It comes with YKK zippers, triple-needle stitching, and Cordura coated with durable water-repellent — features that combine to make a bag that’s meaner than more expensive options.
Coolest Feature: This bag comes with Carhartt’s Hook-N-Haul system, a series of sturdy loops that are exactly as far apart as the retractable hooks on a slew of other Carhartt bags, from can coolers to hip packs. So while it works great as a standalone bag, that it’s part of this ecosystem means it’s also expandable to meet your future needs.
Read More: The Carhartt Legacy Backpack Is the New Go-To Accessory for Men
Tumi Academy Brief
Made For: Those who don’t go anywhere without a laptop. This Tumi briefcase has dedicated laptop and tablet compartments to keep electronics secured and protected until they’re needed. It’s a slimmer silhouette than a classic laptop messenger bag, but the adjustable single-strap design means it works well for cycling.
Coolest Feature: Tumi Tracer, a proprietary recovery program that helps reunite customers with lost or stolen Tumi bags. It’s a great backup in case the battery in your AirTag dies at the worst possible second.
Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bag
Why It Stands Out: Peak Design created this bag in collaboration with a professional photographer, and it’s a safe bet that if it can keep fragile photo gear safe it can keep whatever else is inside it safe too, especially with the customizable FlexFold dividers to ensure the storage space fits the cargo.
Coolest Feature: The MagLatch system of four magnetic latches on the outside of the bag which allow the magnetic lock on the flap to sit snugly against the cargo no matter how much is being carried on a particular day.
Topo Designs Global Briefcase
ROI: With three ways to carry (held with briefcase-style straps, on your back with two, or as a crossbody), this bag from the beloved Colorado-based Topo Designs is as versatile as bags get. The more conservative colorways make it look more businesslike while those inspired by natural materials (clay and olive green) create a sportier outdoor look.
Made For: Guys who can’t commit. But the Global Briefcase is also perfect for weekend trips, overnight camping trips, and other occasions when a bit more room is needed than a daily commuter would.
Ortlieb Messenger Bag
Coolest Feature: Bolger is skeptical that any messenger bag can be truly weatherproof, but the roll-top closure and liberal use of Cordura add up to IP64 protection, officially safe from “water spray from any direction.” In other words, don’t submerge it but don’t worry about getting caught in a rain shower either.
Made For: People who don’t want their bag to make them sore while wearing it for extended periods of time. This bag has a foam back, heavily padded pockets, and a sternum strap to ensure a comfortable fit.
Manhattan Portage Empire XXL
Hot Take: This is the bag that Bolger helped design with Manhattan Portage. He uses its much larger volume to service his biggest clients: a specialty bulb retailer and a liquor store with lots of customers who want single bottles delivered. It’s a big bag, in other words, but not so big that it looks clunky or awkward when it’s on.
Why It Stands Out: The reflective coating and neon tape give this thing the feel of a professional-quality bike messenger bag even from afar. Pairs nicely with the upturned brim of a cycling cap.
Mack Weldon GTX Commuter Bag
Why It Stands Out: Waxed canvas is a favorite rugged material of the upper classes — remember all the Barbour coats on the deer-hunting episode of “The Crown?” Carrying this messenger bag, made of waxed canvas in a striking shade of gray, lends some of that royal refinement to a decidedly contemporary design.
Coolest Feature: The rubberized bottom, in addition to being fun to say, means you don’t have to worry about where you set this bag down. SImilarly, the bag that Wallace uses combines rubber with the more heavy-duty Cordura — a messenger material match made in heaven.
Bellroy Tokyo Work Bag
Coolest Feature: Pockets galore. There are dual pockets on the exterior, padded laptop and tablet sleeves, water bottle holders, a phone pocket, places for writing utensils, an exterior document (or e-reader) pocket, and even a raised mesh glasses pocket.
ROI: With so many specific spaces for specific items, rummaging for small stuff that falls to the very bottom of the bag becomes a thing of the past. And if time is money, that means this bag can save some cash.
Read More: The Bellroy Note Sleeve Might Seem Gimmicky, But Its Features Are Actually Great
Métier Vagabond Suede Messenger Bag
Why It Stands Out: A pro messenger wouldn’t ever use this bag — they might even call you a hipster poseur if you rode by with this bag on your back. No offense to them, but who really cares? The high-quality Italian suede, thick zippers, and metal hardware mean this handsome bag will last a long time, and for those ready to make the investment in a more refined messenger bag, this one is hard to beat.
Coolest Feature: Remove the shoulder strap and this bag instantly looks less like a high-end take on a working-class bag and more like a particularly handsome briefcase that would feel at home in the overhead compartment of the first-class cabin.
De Martini 3602 Messenger Bag
Made For: Those who accept no substitutes. While Frank de Martini is no longer with us, the company that bears his name continues to make the messenger bag he designed out of both classic duck canvas and a nylon material similar to the Cordura. And they’re made to order with some customization options, lessening the need to compromise in order to get the cachet of an original.
Hot Take: Messenger bags are functional items first and foremost, but they’re also part of a rich tradition. As bike messengers become a rarer sight in cities, a de Martini messenger bag is a physical reminder of the important role they played before the internet changed everything.
Frequently Asked Questions About Men’s Messenger Bags
Are messenger bags good for carrying laptops?
Many modern messenger bags come with a built-in padded sleeve for laptops and/or tablets. Unless it’s a massive gaming laptop, most notebooks should fit without issue.
Are messenger bags good carry-on bags?
Bolger and Young, two old-school New York City bike messengers, both spoke enthusiastically of using their bags as carry-ons, including on international trips. The less hardcore may want to have a separate bag they bring on the plane, although there is something to be said for unpacking stuff at the hotel and using the same bag as you explore wherever you’re traveling. It comes down to personal preference, but using a messenger bag as a travel bag will only work for most people on shorter trips while traveling light.
How do you wear a messenger bag?
Classic single-strap messenger bags are generally worn over the shoulder of your non-dominant arm while the double-straps that are increasingly popular among real messengers nowadays are basically backpacks. Function aside, consider how dressed up you’ll need your messenger bag to feel when you use it.
If you’re bringing it into an office with a business formal dress code, the best messenger bag would use premium materials in conservative colors. If you’ll use it in more informal settings feel free to go crazy with out-there materials, neon colorways, and maybe even a sewn-on patch or five will fit your needs.
Do you need to ride a bike to own a messenger bag?
Nope, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hop on a bike and let the wind flow through your hair whenever the opportunity presents itself.