Friday Musings: Back to the Backpack?

Not too long ago, I gave up commuting with a backpack in favor of letting my bike haul my stuff in panniers. I had just discovered the Banjo Brothers waterproof pannier and have commuted with a pannier ever since – never looking back. In the meantime, my neck and shoulders have enjoyed the added relief of being unburdened.

But today’s morning bike commute got me reconsidering the backpack. Truth be told, I’ve been thinking about getting another bike commuter specific backpack for a while now. It was seeing that bike commuter this morning sporting a hot pink Chrome rolltop bag that reignited the spark and interest in a backpack. Talk about hi-vis! I could see this hot pink pack from a block away and it actually brightened my mood on this otherwise gray Friday! (sorry I missed the photo op)

Also, just yesterday another biking friend emailed me about his collision with a pothole last August that resulted in him fracturing many ribs and a having a collapsed lung. The staff at the trauma center told him that if he had not been wearing his small backpack he would have been paralyzed. Saved by the backpack?

So – my meandering commute this morning not only took me in a less than direct path to work, but also has me looking back into backpacks again. What goes around comes around, right? This time around I think the options in commuter backpacks have come a long way.

If you commute with a backpack, what’s your preference? (Note: finding a pack that isn’t too big is an issue for me = is there one that’s “just right” for me?) I’ll be trying to figure that out.


  1. Brad

    I commute exclusively with a backpack, both when I run or bike. It’s a now seven year old Mammut Light Speed 25 model. It’s got plenty of capacity with a 25 L volume. I think I’m going to shop around for a a newer version of something…

    I waterproof my clothes with a plastic drawstring back inside and haven’t had any issues yet.

  2. Troy

    I too used a pannier for awhile and I could never get used to the weight on one side, but I also use the bus in the morning and didn’t like having to put my pannier on the ground while I loaded my bike. Plus when I’m on the bus I like easy access to get to my book or phone.

    I have the Osprey Momentum 34 and love it, but there is also the smaller 26.

    My commute is 22 miles one way, and in Seattle I have to carry cold/wet weather clothing. This bag has a ton of pockets, it can expand, the yellow is really visible. It also has handles so it could be used as a travel carry on.

  3. Ghost Rider

    I love backpacks…I “think” the Banjo Bros medium or small might suit you (I’ve only tried their giant one). I love messengers and panniers, too. I think it’s like bikes; sometimes you just want to rock something different.

    Swing on over to Chrome Chicago… I’d recommend trying some on to get a feel for the sizing and whatnot. If those particular ones don’t suit you, at least you’ll have some ballpark dimensional figures to compare with other brands’ packs.

    Oh, also I hear a backpack keeps your back warm in the winter!

  4. noah

    Wearing a backpack for safety is not really a good idea. If you want safety, you’ll probably have to upgrade to a lightweight armadillo suit like the street bikers wear. The down-side is that they’re heavy and hot (hey, just like my backpacks!) but they’re actually designed to protect your back and ribs, and make short work of would-be road rash.

    Style is personal preference, but I’d say a good vest or jacket depending on the season would offer more visibility. I do not have waterproof panniers, but I do have a waterproof backpack. On days like today, I suck it up and use the pack. It’s bright yellow with reflective piping and a reflective triangle on it (Bad Pic: ) so it’s similarly hard to miss, but I’d argue my reflect-o-vest is even more annoying to human eyes than the backpack.

    For me, it’s about comfort and fun, so I tend to use the panniers whenever I can.

  5. Fat Guy On a Bike

    I use a Banjo Brothers medium up here in Seattle. I used to use panniers, but like Troy, I take the bus as well and the backpack is just easier. Plus with all the hills out here, I find it easier to climb with the weight on my back as opposed to on the bike. And the big reflective stripes on the BB pack makes for extra visibility too!

  6. Ben

    I commute with an old camelbak bag “ridge runner” I think. It’s the perfect size. I keep a small fly handy just in case. I also put my important stuff in thick mil ziploc style bags just to be sure. I really like the bag for running and cycling. Seems to fit the bill perfectly. Best of all in winter it helps keep my back warm.


  7. no1mad

    I’ve got a Banjo Brothers large ‘pack in black. I’m a bike/bus commuter as well, and panniers just don’t work for me- though I’ve been known to use a smaller backpack that is shoved into an old Nashbar Townie basket from time to time.

    @Elizabeth- you might see if the Banjo Brothers would send you their new Metro to review.

  8. Troy

    Oh man, I wished I’d heard of the Banjo Brothers before, what a great price. Much better price than the Osprey. I bought mine at REI so I could return it. :\

  9. Elizabeth (Post author)

    I will have to check out Chrome and Banjo Brothers.

    A while back I tried a commuter pack (REI brand) but it was too long.
    Then I purchased a Deuter pack.

    Now I’m just seeking something basic, simple and not clunky that I can use in a pinch – when I either don’t ride a bike with a rack or just for a change.

  10. Elizabeth (Post author)

    I do believe my life was saved by a backpack (and the physics textbook inside) once when I was in college.

  11. Webb

    Since I live in Atlanta, temperature regulation is of utmost importance. I can’t wear a backpack, because if I do, I will sweat through the back of my shirt.

    I put all my weight on a Blackburn Lo-rider, with some cheap REI panniers. Works like a charm.

  12. Mike Myers

    I have a bike-specific backpack from Schwinn, which was made in the pre-Pacific Cycle days. It’s very well designed. There’s a pouch for a hydration pack, the section which touches my back is a wicking material, and it has both a chest and a waist strap.

    I prefer my Chrome Metropolis messenger bag to the backpack. It holds more, and it makes my back less sweaty.

    Still, I prefer to use panniers most of the time, especially in the spring/summer. Florida is hot.

  13. no1mad

    To be honest, I rarely use my Banjo Brothers backpack due to it’s size (and lack of organization). I also rotate between a Knog sling, an Ogio backpack, and very rarely a Banjo Brothers large mess bag.

  14. PhilGE

    Xtracycle – I can put any bag I want into it. I haven’t used a backpack in many years. We purchased Ortleib panniers for my son so he could take both books and alto saxophone to and from school. When he’s big enough, we may get him an Xtracycle as well.

  15. Don

    Lately I’ve been using a waxed canvas backpack my wife gave me, in tandem with a porteur-style front basket/rack. If it’s hot or the pack feels too heavy, I put it in the basket. If I’m in a hurry or lazy, I leave it on. If I have errands, I can put on the backpack to free up the basket. It works out okay. My commute is only 5 miles, so I could conceivably put up with anything, but in these hilly parts the rear rack and pannier approach was too much of a drag on my all-rounder. I’m amazed at how much better the load is carried up front. Even when I’m top-heavy with the pack on my back, it still feels better than the panniers.

    I’ve never had a proper messenger bag, only fake ones that slide around when you ride. If I lived in a real city with a multimodal commute, I’d do the messenger bag, so you can swing it around to your lap when you’re sitting on a bus or subway.

  16. Matt

    Yeah I like the backpack but I get too sweaty for it just about any time of the year. I put it in a pannier and never notice the weight difference.

  17. cyclo

    My commuter has racks and I do have a rack top bag to store a rain jacket, pump, spare inner tube, and CO2 cartridges. However, I use a laptop backpack to store my lunch pack and the laptop computer just in case I need to bring it home. I sewn a reflective bright yellow triangle on the backpack for added visibility at night. The backpack also helps keep me warm when commuting in the winter.

  18. Andy Collings

    Hi. I put in my vote for the Mission Workshop Rambler. I find it’s very comfortable even when heavy on my 46 year-old back! It’s not cheap but is extremely well-built. Most of the time it’s compact but expands to carry plenty of groceries/etc when needed.

  19. Iron_Man

    I only consider it during the winter months. When I do ride with a pack I like using my Camelback HAWG, with or without the bladder. It holds a lot and the compression straps keep things from shifting. I find the best technique for wrinkle free clothing is to roll my clothes up, rather than folding them. This makes it easier to pack the bag too.

  20. Mir.I.Am

    E – I’m rockin the booq Mamba Large backpack in Sand color, which is a tweed/khaki color. Not extremely hi-vis, so-so on waterproof, but excellent for holding weight high on the back instead of low… more comfy for me personally!

  21. Frank

    I use the Novara Backpack (REI brand) for years now and don’t have any complaints. Check out the features here:

  22. Elizabeth (Post author)

    I tried the Novara backpack several years ago. At that time it had a zipper system such that the zippers went underneath along the bottom.

    Unfortunately the pack was just too long for my back so I returned it.

    Definitely liked the built-in rain cover. The Deuter pack I used had one too. And the yellow color for higher visibility. I’m glad it’s working well for you.

  23. A New Bike

    Whenever I have a s-ton of groceries I really want some saddle bags. I think the ideal setup might be a backback that also functions as a side saddle. Does anyone make this?

  24. Elizabeth (Post author)

    Yes – there are several companies that make bags that can serve as either a pannier or backpack. For example, I know that Ortlieb sells a kit to convert the pannier to a pack. And the Chicago-based company Nonetheless Garments sells this pack –

  25. no1mad

    Delta Cycle makes a conversion kit, but I think Arkel has some really good designs- the Bug and Utility Basket among them.

  26. Ron

    I like my backpack from LL Bean. Very comfortable and convenient.

  27. Sarah

    I love my Osprey Momentum It’s designed for bike commuters, and it seems that they’ve thought of everything!

  28. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @Sarah, Hi I’ve recently been using a new REI Novara Backpack that has worked well for me since mid-March. It even has a rain cover and nice reflective accents. And it’s red – so noticeable but not a screaming yellow and not just dull black. Thank you for sharing your positive experience with the Osprey pack.

  29. Quinn

    I use the Osprey Momentum 26L in black, very comfortable. Great bike commuting features and organization, as well as not looking out of place in a biz casual office environment. For visibility (and when it rains) I use a hi-viz Hump waterproof backpack cover by Respro – it has lots and lots of reflective material and seems even more retina-frying than the usual hi-viz yellow.

    I think this is the best way to get “no holds barred” visibility and reflectivity, while being able to take it off and not look garish off the bike for the rest of the day. However, it is a cover and makes getting to small items in the backpack more troublesome if you need to get at them during the ride.

  30. Matt

    I’ve been using this Timbuk2 bag for about a year now, and it’s been great. On a rare occasion I wish it was a little bigger. But, most the time I’m thankful for it’s size because it’s relatively light-weight. It has a pocket in the front meant for a helmet…I generally use it for shoes. The zippers / handles are stronger than the pictures give it credit for. Just my $0.02.

  31. Matt
  32. Ghost Rider

    @Matt — I have a custom Swig…a bit bigger than the TrackII, but the deal-killer for me is that it has no waist belt. I’ve found that a tight belt helps ease the load from my shoulders (as it does with a backpacking bag). The Swig is a great around-town and travel bag, though…just not my first choice for the bike.

  33. James

    I’m a huge fan of the Condor Molle sling when I’m riding – I bought it a few years ago when I was in college and have stuck with it since.

    Strong, durable and it has a neat little pocket inside the main area for me to store my Macbook.

    I know it’s an old post, but if you ever think about revisiting the topic or are looking for a new bag, I’d strongly recommend the Molle. πŸ™‚


  34. Jamie

    I really like the Chrome Barrage, it has loads of space and is expandable, and really comfy. It looks really cool too!

  35. Brian

    i love backpacking. I am a fan of Osprey Momentum. To me it looks like this backpack is specially made for backpacking. While taking a backpack i look for some features. Pull out rain cover is important one for me.

  36. Mike

    Just saw this five-year-old post. I have a Chrome District rolltop backpack that is comfortable and functional but hasn’t held up as well as I would like. The fabric ripples — mfr told me live with it — and the buckle that holds the top closed is half broken. It is not that old and has seen two years of full-time commuting. Will consider a different brand next time around.

    In addition to the spinal protection you mentioned, I like the backpack because it keeps the sun off my back. It also frees my rack to hold grocery baskets.

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