The right bag can make a difference in your everyday life

It’s got to look good, but be functional, too.

a man in a red jacket and jeans carrying a brown leather messenger bag and staring out at gray water and some rocks covered in fog on a cloudy day
Having the right bag is important when you want to pack up all your work and just go stare at the sea.Iswanto Arif via Unsplash

A bag isn’t just a sack you carry things in. For some people, there’s an obsession—almost a lifestyle—in finding the perfect bag for every use. If you’re not one of those people, here’s the good news: I am. And I will be your guide as you hunt for the ideal everyday bag.

Consider the styles

Everyday bags are suitable for everything from commuting into work to darting about a college campus, and there are five main styles. Which one you pick is probably the most important decision you’ll have to make, and the easiest way to decide is to think about how you want to carry your belongings—there are awesome bags in each category.

Backpacks

“The ultimate urban bag,” according to Joseph Cunningham, lead designer of Peak Design’s soft goods and bags. Most are big enough to fit all your electronic devices, as well as any gym gear, packed lunches, and paperwork you’ll need. And, because the weight is spread across both your shoulders, they’re the most comfortable way to carry stuff for a long time. The biggest downside is that while they’re becoming more acceptable in professional environments, they still don’t look quite right with a suit or blazer. They can also be pretty bulky when they’re empty.

Messenger bags

Also known as satchels, these are popular for a reason: “They’re like the classic briefcase—but carry well,” Cunningham says. They look good and, because they sling comfortably over your shoulder, they’re easy to carry on a long commute or while you cycle. You’ll also get quick access to your bag without having to remove it—one of the big reasons bike messengers use them.

Briefcases

They’re not extinct yet, and for formal office environments, it’s hard to beat the look of a leather one. Modern designs also incorporate laptop sleeves, so don’t write them off as a ‘50s throwback. If appearances are more important than function, they are a serious option.

Handbags

Another age-old design that’s not going anywhere, these compact, good-looking sling bags are perfect for days when you don’t want to lug your laptop around. A small one is great for “taking the stuff from your pockets and putting it in the safety of a bag,” Cunningham says.

Tote bags

These aren’t just cheap canvas sacks for carrying groceries or laundry. They also make great everyday bags, and plenty of companies make high-end models with laptop compartments, zip-closes, and built-in organization systems. Their size, easy handling, and simplicity makes them the perfect grab-and-go bag, whether you’re taking your kids to the park or heading to yoga. This is the style Cunningham’s currently carrying daily.

There are plenty of bags that split the difference between categories—backpacks with optional sling straps and tote bags that can turn into backpacks, for example—but they will never be as comfortable as carrying a bag the way it’s designed to be carried. If you want to lug the most weight, go with a backpack. If you’re more concerned with keeping the lines of your suit sharp, buy a briefcase or small messenger bag.

Think about what you’re carrying

a backpack with a laptop in it on a wooden table outside, with an open book and a notebook and pen
If your bag can't carry everything you want it to carry, it's no good.Aaron Burden via Unsplash

A bag has to carry your stuff. Obvious, yes—but important. If you get one that’s too small, it either won’t fit everything or, if you manage to cram it in, it’ll be uncomfortable to carry. On the other hand, a bag that’s too big will leave you hauling around a lot of empty space.

For most people, the most important objects you’ll need to stow in your bag are some combination of your:

  • Smartphone
  • Wallet
  • Keys
  • Laptop
  • Headphones
  • Make up, tampons, and other toiletries
  • Something to read
  • Chargers for your devices
  • Notebook and pen
  • Work documents
  • Gym gear
  • Packed lunch and other food
  • Water bottle

If you’re carrying everything on that list, you’ll need a truly monstrous gear hauler, but most people will be able to get by with something more sensible. Once you’ve got an idea of what type of bag you’d like, consider what you want to be able to carry on a daily basis. It may seem like an outlandish concept, but you can have more than one bag: something small for just your phone, wallet, keys, and Kindle, and a bigger bag for when you need to bring your laptop and gym gear.

Your laptop’s size is a surprisingly big factor in what bags are available to you. The two somewhat standard sizes are 13 and 15 inches, mostly based around the MacBook Pro models with those same screen dimensions. If you get a bag with a 13-inch laptop sleeve, your larger laptop won’t fit. On the other hand, bags designed to hold 15-inch laptops tend to be pretty big.

Also, you’ll need to consider how you want to organize your stuff. Some bags are just one cavernous maw you throw everything into; others are filled with dividers, hidden pockets, and pouches. If you plan to sort your stuff (and will actually stick to it) a well-thought-out bag with a customizable setup will work well. When I travel, I carry a Peak Design Everyday Backpack and use every one of the pouches and pockets—the extra storage absolutely isn’t a gimmick. But, if you aren’t going to use all the compartments, you will overpay for the amount of design and product testing.

Quality is important

a person in a rain jacket walking on a wet road while wearing a teal backpack
If you've got to walk somewhere in the rain, you don't want your bag's precious cargo getting soaked.Ion Sirbu via Unsplash

When you add up the cost of all the gear you carry daily, skimping on the materials your bag is made from is not a smart move. With a laptop, tablet, and smartphone, it’s easy to have several thousand dollars worth of fragile tech hanging off your shoulder by a single strap. Cunningham recommends looking for a bag that is made from some kind of weather-resistant fabric and has solid zippers that will keep it sealed (and everything inside dry) if it rains.

Similarly, if you’re carrying a laptop, go for a bag that has a padded sleeve to keep it protected from any bumps. It’s even better if the sleeve keeps the laptop away from the edges of the bag. That way, if you drop it, your computer won’t instantly hit the floor.

Well-designed bags made from decent materials command higher prices, but if you’re carrying your life around on your back, it’s worth it. For example, the bags on The Wirecutter’s best laptop backpack list run from $80 (The North Face Pivoter Laptop Backpack) to $235 (The ISM Backpack).

Don’t overthink it

This is rich coming from someone who (somewhat professionally) overthinks bags, but unless you want to join the weird ranks of the bag fanatics, don’t stress out too much. Once you find a bag that fits your requirements and can safely carry all your gear, at a price you’re prepared to pay, go for it.