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Home » The Vine

The Vine: January 6, 2012

Submitted by on January 6, 2012 – 3:48 PM53 Comments

I wonder if the Nation can help me with a retail request. I'm a graduate student, and I've just split the seams on my trusty old backpack. I'm looking for a replacement that can hold my 13" Macbook, as well as notebooks/books/snacks etc. I cycle to classes, so I definitely need a backpack rather than a messenger bag or similar (I know many people like messengers for cycling but I find them tricky), but I'd like something sort of nice and not totally unstylish. I sometimes have to go from the library to meetings/events/what have you, and while I definitely need something functional rather than decorative, it'd be great to find something that doesn't look distinctly awful.

Also, I live in England, so waterproof or semi-waterproof is a must! I'd love recommendations for particular bags, or even brands in general. Crumpler's "Belly" bag is a bit bulkier than I'd probably like, but is the closest I've found so far; conversely, Belkin & Incase (from the Apple website) seem a little too small/not able to take that much stuff. I may be looking for a sweet middle spot that isn't there, but I'd love any thoughts — particularly if people have used the bags themselves, and found them to be particularly good. Seeing as I use it pretty much every day, I'm willing to pay a bit more if a bag is of particularly high quality or right on the money. 

If Only I Could Have Felicity Porter's Backpack Selection (And Season 1 Hair)

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  • JJ says:

    Try bags by Timbuk2 ( They're a US based company, but I found this link that sells them in the UK:

    They make great backpacks and other kinds of bags for all needs. My messenger bag by them is about 5 years old and looks brand new. It's been dragged through rain, mud, walked on, dragged on pavement etc.

    Best of luck in your search!

  • Kristin says:

    I've still got the LL Bean backpack I bought in 1983….Highly recommend them.

  • C. says:

    I got a "men's city backpack" in a department store — dark gray canvas with leather straps and flap. I had the straps shortened at a shoe repair place and am pretty happy with it although it's showing some wear after one? two? year(s) of use.

    Alternate: what about getting a basket for your bike? Just make sure to strap it down with cable ties to reduce the risk of theft.

  • JLD says:

    Check out LL Bean! I had their campus commuter (which they do not make anymore) for 13 years until the seams gave out. Thanks to the company's 100% satisfaction guarantee, I had no problem exchanging my old bag for a new one. I got the Turbo Transit II in black (, and I love it. I keep my 13" Macbook in a case in the 2nd compartment. The largest compartment fits my books, and the bag has a separate section for a change of clothes (e.g.: workout gear). The straps are thick and the bag has a solid waistbelt if you need it.

  • adam807 says:

    I recently got something similar to this: (my exact model is no longer there) and I love it. And yes, I'm a boy, and that says "Men." But I recently saw a woman wearing my exact backpack on the subway and it looked so good on her I thought, "Wait, did I get a women's bag by mistake? Oh well, it looks good on me too."

  • Cait says:

    The North Face Surge in black saw me through law school in NYC in (relative) style. It's so sturdy, quite water resistant, and I loved the totally separate compartment for my computer (easily fit a 15 in MacBook Pro). Having the separate laptop compartment right up against your back really helps for weight distribution and a slim profile, which is key on a bike.

    (I linked to the website for pretty pictures but you can find them all over the internet for widely varying prices).

  • Cait says:

    Sorry to post again- for the North Face Surge you should check out the measurements of the men's and women's versions; both are awesome but the longer-torsoed might prefer the men's.

  • jennie says:

    I love LLBean stuff, though I've had some mixed luck with the waterproofing. Still, I love their plain old backpack (it's capacious AND has fun little organizer pockets, or used to) and would still use it if I didn't work in an office environment. I don't think their fancier models hold up as well as the basic one, but that might just be me. Patagonia makes some nice-looking backpacks, at least some of which have a water-repellent coating, so there's a range of choices there. I don't have any experience with their backpacks, but I have a messenger bag from there that I love, and it keeps my stuff dry in all but the rainiest commutes. I'm not biking, though; I know that's a different kind of wet than just waiting under a tree for a bus.

  • Jennifer says:

    I had an L.L. Bean backpack last for 8 long years. I gave it up and got a new one after the bottom finally wore through to the part of being kinda see through, but I use backpacks on a daily, carrying tons of shit, very hard use basis.

  • Jaedynn says:

    I really like Golla's stuff. Looks like they only have three backpacks, but they are pretty stylish and claim to be "water resistant" (although I don't know if that is quite the same as waterproof). Here is their website, but you can buy the stuff from Amazon:

  • KL says:

    My friend got this one for Christmas and it's seriously cute! They have a few other styles as well. Might be a little big large for a 13" macbook, but you can't lose in the style department :)

  • Donna says:

    And my first attempt at inserting a link failed miserably. Well, the link works at any rate. The site is called You can click on my comment above to get to it.

  • Ashley says:

    I got this one: before a recent trip overseas and it was the perfect thing. Easy to access laptop compartment, tons of pockets, and a rollout rain cover. I have High Sierra luggage that has withstood major travel for about 7 years and looks nearly new so I have great faith this bag will serve me well for a while.

    Also, take a look around ebags for bags in general. They are like the Zappos of bags and there are always coupons available for the at !

  • Fafolguy says:

    Not sure if they ship to the UK, but I bought the Commuter Laptop bag at Manhattan Portage several years ago and it has been a champ. Sturdy, has both messenger style and backpack straps, and roomy enough for my Macbook, noise cancelling phones, iPod, books, and various other stuff I need on hand. Cannot recommend it highly enough!

  • Nicole says:

    Tom Bihn. They are awesome bags. And the company is great. I have a Cafe Bag that is six years old – looks brand new. I mailed it back to them after I broke the buckle. The break was totally my fault – slammed it in the trunk of the car. They fixed it for free and shipped the bag back to me.

    My LL Bean laptop backpack is two years old and looks great. And it is pretty waterproof – I've been caught in a few downpours hiking to and from my car. Some of the models have reflective strips which is nice for biking. I use mine five days a week and it takes a beating between commuting, kids, being tossed around the house, etc. It holds a crapload of stuff, too.

    Good luck.

  • Libby says:

    My life sounds pretty much exactly the same as yours, and I've been using this one:

    Not the most grown-up, but it comes in different colors and it's been very reliable.

  • TC says:

    You could check out Victorinox Swiss Army backpacks. I have one that is so big I can't get in under the seat on an airplane if I pack it full, but it is still well balanced and easy to carry. I don't see the model I have on their website, but they do have options in multiple sizes. They do not, however, say anything about waterproof/water-resistant, although I would think they have to be to some extent and you could always Scotchgard it for backup. I see retail locations in the UK on their website.

  • Meg says:

    I second Nicole's recommendation of Tom Bihn. Their bags stand up to a wide variety of abuse and come out great. Come visit the forums and you'll get more advice than you thought possible :-)
    Without knowing your size, I'd recommend the Smart Alec, as it's definitely the most adaptable of the backpacks (the Brain Bag is just too big for my 5'0" frame, and the Synapse holds a lot of stuff for its small size but doesn't hold enough giant textbooks for a full day's load, which is sad).
    The bags are about as water-resistant as you can get.

  • DriverB says:

    I second the North Face Surge. Got it in a light blue/gray combo for commuting w my 15in. Macbook, after a long search (including many of the brands above, some of which are lovely, but out of my price range. I find it very comfortable, expandable, and stylish enough that I'be gotten compliments.

  • Eleanor says:

    Oh, I feel you! I'm a graduate student, too, and currently have two options, neither of which is perfect:

    1) My old, ugly, Jansport from high school (year 12 and counting!). It is definitely not sauve, but it still works great and when I sent it in a couple years ago to get the zipper fixed, they re-padded the straps and re-waterproofed it for me, too (for free!).

    2) An Osprey Elroy courier bag (Google finds it nicely). It is much nicer looking– kind of grown-up sporty– but it gets heavy with my beast of a laptop, a textbook, and lunch. Doesn't bike well, either. Lately I've been using it for my part-time office job rather than school.

    Sorry not to be helpful, but I guess it's nice to commiserate!

  • meltina says:

    Haven't bought one of their backpacks (yet!), but I love Sherpani stuff. I bought their micropurse first, and when my backpack failed after 6 years of trusty service, I got one of their messenger bags to replace it (being in the opposite situation: it's easier for me to commute by walking than biking). Their products are pretty stylish, and they have survived Seattle weather pretty well thus far (hint: it rains a lot around here).

    They ship internationally, though I don't know how pricey that would be.

  • bronte says:

    I would go for Kathmandu bags. There are a few that might be suitable. The one I have bought when I was in a similar situation to you isn't in the range anymore, but I have had it for 10 years already and it's still going strong.

    I particularly like the look of this one for you – I think it's the successor to my one.

    Kathmandu stuff is sturdy and water resistant, this one has tuckaway straps too, so when you need to look grown-up and not studenty it turns into a messanger bag. I found it a useful feature when I wanted to avoid knocking people in the head, particularly on the train (which I did a lot when I was a student in the UK)

    Kathmandu UK also has a sale on at the moment. If you choose this bag, and miss the sale. Join the Summit club, it's free or very cheap and the discount you'd get for a bag alone would pay for it.

    Good luck finding a suitable bag.

  • Kate F. says:

    My brother designed this beauty for Archival Clothing, based out of/manufactured in Eugene, Oregon using U.S. and U.K. materials:
    It's not cheap but their whole goal is to make something you'll keep forever. Waxed canvas isn't completely waterproof but it was invented for outdoor pursuits in England! FYI, he's a serious cyclist, too!

  • Rachel says:

    Another strong vote for the L.L. Bean packs. They are so durable, and definitely waterproof. They have the basic backpacks but also have some other bags that might look a little less "backpack-y". Plus there's a lifetime guarantee.

  • Stephanie says:

    A second for Timbuk2 bags. They are amazing. The person who "sold" me on it when I was looking for a new bag described its strength by saying "you could put a rabid racoon inside and it couldn't claw its way out."

    I use their messenger bags, so I don't have first-hand experience with their backpacks. But, my first bag was made 7 yrs ago and is still going strong with daily use (I have a new one now because I needed a bigger one, and my husband inherited my old one). They have a waterproof lining, and the backpack does include a laptop sleeve which the site states will hold laptops up to 15". The colors are totally customizable, and they look pretty classy.

    Seriously, I could not say enough good things about Timbuk2 bags. I live in Chicago, and so many people here carry them, probably because they stand up to the weather, and they let us car-less people easily and comfortably haul around all our shit.

    From the site, about the backpack:
    A messenger-inspired carry-all pack that fits men AND women (Hallelujah!). Its large internal compartment accommodates our daily haul and an internal organization panel makes it easy to find your sticks and keys. Its fully padded laptop sleeve with Swing Around provides easy access to your laptop, ipad or files, and its stretchy u-lock pocket and back pods for ventilation make the Swig a favorite of bike commuters.

  • Anne says:

    I've had an Arc'teryx biking backpack for nearly ten years now. It's not enormous, but fits everything I need it to (I've used it for law school, grad school, and now my husband uses it for his commute to work) and is wonderfully comfortable, both for walking and for biking. And it's incredibly hardy. They don't have the same backpack online anymore, but I just want to vouch for the company's comfort and reliability – their stuff is totally worth the money.

  • Jill says:

    I have a backpack from Vaude, with an extra padded laptop compartment, it also has an extra hood thing to pull over as a rain protection.
    Impressive quality.

  • From my personal experience, I can say that Eagle Creek bags wear like iron. I've never had one break or fray after years of intensive use. They don't advertise them as "waterproof," but they are for normal purposes. Your things might get slightly damp if you set it down in a big puddle or if you're caught in an extended monsoon-style torrential downpour, but for being outside in normal UK rain they are effectively waterproof. Here's further testimony:

    Looks like you can buy some of their bags in the UK through Fox's Outdoors ( Unfortunately, the selection is less than in the States.

    I'm guessing North Face products are pretty comparable, but I haven't used their bags myself.

  • Sue says:

    My timbuk2 bags have always treated me well. They seem to be made of iron, from how they wear. The waterproofing is pretty seriously good too.

    (If your current bag isn't too too badly frayed, had you considered going to a cobbler and having them resew seams for you? That might save you some money, or at least buy you some time while you figure out what you want….)

  • L says:

    I own The North Face's Borealis. The women's version. This one:

    Everyone's suggestion looks awesome as well, when I was researching which one to buy, this one seemed to be the most comfortable and not to big. For me, it's perfect – comfortable (I get shoulder pains easily if I use regular backpacks, much harder with this one) fits everything I could possibly need but isn't bulky, and I have a version that is in grey and purple (which isn't in their website anymore) that looks quite nice. But it does look like a regular backpack, it's not particularly dressy. It's got a built in place for the computer that keeps it in its place – a must if you're biking.

    good luck!

  • If only... says:

    Letter writer here! Thanks so much for the suggestions, everyone. I had looked at the Timbuk2 bags while searching and was wondering if they were worth the expense, so it's great to have some feedback, and a heap of other ideas to chase up.

    C, I do have a bike basket (and cable ties), but my bike only takes a front basket, and when you have a full bag with laptop etc I find it affects the balance of the bike in an annoying way, so I really only use if for lighter items.

    Thanks for your help, Nation!

  • Jo says:

    When I was a kid, I used to go through two backpacks a year (mostly because my mom refused to believe the more expensive brands would last any longer). I came across two great types.

    1) It's not at all stylish, but go to a military surplus store and buy a canvas knapsack for about $30. They're thick, heavy canvas that will not tear and are waterproof.

    2) Try Jansport. I finally gave in and bought a Jansport in college. It cost $90 but that was nearly 10 years ago and it's still going strong. I carried heavy books and my laptop in it all the time and this particular model had a squishy honeycomb-shaped substance inside the straps that made it comfortable and helped reduce some of the weight on my shoulders. LOVE. I don't see any of that type on the UK website for the company, but maybe you can get them.

  • Lisa M. says:

    Another vote for Osprey backpacks: they come in different sizes, and have a built-in laptop pocket, they're cool to bike with (the backpack is shaped to stand away from your back a little, and there are channels in the part that touches your back, to improve airflow, it's hard to explain). I got mine in one of the stores at Covent Garden (if you're in London) – so we know that English stores carry Osprey.

    I would call my backpack water-resistant, and I've never had a problem when I've been out in the rain with it, but I can't say how it would perform in a downpour. Update: the pack that is most like mine has an integrated rainfly! (

    Good luck in your search!

    PS I've had my Osprey pack a long time, and it has been to many countries with me, carrying loads of stuff, and it has held up amazingly.

  • Kat says:

    When I lived in San Francisco, probably 50% of my coworkers biked to work, and were also students, and the ones who didn't swear by Timbuk2 as linked above, were in love with Chrome bags. They were designed for the rainy bay area in winter, and they have ALL sizes, and fantastic waterproofing. The downside is they are kind of pricy, but I can vouch that the Chrome bag I have is indestructible; I've had it for 4 years and am very happy with it so far.

    Good luck!

  • Laura says:

    You can definitely get Osprey in the UK, and my partner swears by them – he's a zoologist and takes them on fieldwork expeditions in east Africa. If they can stand up to him dragging them through the jungle full of five days' worth of supplies, and on one memorable occasion dropping one into Lake Albert, they should hold up to a bit of rain in the rush hour. We just get them from the outdoor shop here in Cambridge; Cotswold Leisure and Millets both carry them, if you have branches of either of those locally.

  • Brigid says:

    I LOVE my Banjo Brother's backpack. The rolltop keeps it super-tight…I've ridden in torrential downpours (10 mile commute to work) and NOTHING was even damp inside. The internal liners are replaceable if you happen to puncture one like I did when I left scissors in there (oops!)

  • Bopper says:

    I say check out llbean also…my kids got backpacks from them in 1st grade and they were only replaced because the kids wanted something different for High School.

  • Felicia says:

    Re @Stephanie: I also live in Chicago and carry a Timbuk2. They're durable, capacious, and pocket-rich. I use a medium size messenger, and I also have two of their smaller, more purse-like Eula messengers. Teriffic bags that have survived Chicago's weather and public transportation.

  • Louisa says:

    Seconding Timbuk2. I got a messenger bag from them that took me through 2.5 years of grad school with nary a blip. LOVED it, and still use it.

  • Bria says:

    I can't recommend the Ogio Metro enough. When I got to law school and found my Timbuk2 messenger bag to be too tough to wrangle when filled with a laptop and a zillion pounds of books, I Googled "best law school backpack" or something similar, vainly hoping someone might have chronicled their preferences on a blawg or something. One hit was an absolute goldmine. I'm not sure I want to know the person who wrote it, as the level of detail this review gave was…beyond methodical, but man – it sold me on the Ogio Metro. It has a nicely padded back compartment for your laptop, a cavernous main compartment for books, side compartments for cords and whatnot, an outer pocket for phone, wallet, keys, a bottom compartment for other randomness, and a little pocket with a headphone thinger to hold your phone/iPod/digital media source du jour.

    My love for this backpack was so profound that about a dozen friends ended up buying one, too. The straps are nicely curved and padded, so it wears very, very comfortably even when filled to capacity. Seriously, this backpack is the best. I carried it through three intense Michigan winters, so I think it also fills the bill for waterproof. Looks like it's available in the UK via Amazon UK

  • Emily says:

    Check out Mountain Equipment Co-op. I have a backpack from them that has survived 12 years of hard use. They are well designed, good quality, comfortable and look nice.

    This company is Canadian but they do ship to the USA.

  • Emily says:

    Oops, I see you live in England. MEC might not be the best suggestion then, sorry.

  • CdG says:

    I have one of these, and love it – holds tons of stuff, without being bulky:

  • Jay says:

    I'm also in the uk. Bit boring but I have a samsonite laptop backpack which has a section with adjustable velcro straps for laptop and a second section for books.
    It's a bit corporate looking but works well for me.

    Also on the waterproof front, my council send out free luminous backpack covers, unsightly but very useful and easily slipped off and stuffed in a pocket.

  • Vicky says:

    I communite to work, and am a HUGE fan of the Ortlieb bike bags. I admit, the panniers might not be the prettiest, but I live in Seattle, when it rains, it pours and my clothes/laptop have never had an issue. There rear pannier with the backpack hookup works really well and has seen me through over 8 years already and still going strong. Looks like they have some new backpacks here as well.

  • Sarah says:

    I realize I'm late chiming in, but just wanted to say that I bought myself a Kelty "vintage style" cycle hiker last year, and have been in love with it.

    I bought the black one, and I love that it looks professional enough to take to work, yet has a little bit of hipness to it from those cute red zippers, and packs all the many pockets and waterproof capabilities you'd expect from a serious backpack. It can hold my laptop, some notebooks, novels, water bottle, toiletries, etc. and is my go-to carry on bag when I travel, plus my day-to-day bag. ( – also available on Zappos.

  • JBP says:
    I would never get a bag that actually has to work (= hold stuff that might be heavy) and hold up well anyplace else!

  • Liz says:

    Another word for timbuk2 – it's worth the shipping cost to England. I have one that converts from backpack to messenger style that I can't bring myself to replace, even though I'm sick of the colors, because it just won't wear *out*.

  • Nicole says:

    I design NokHoo Bags and saw your link to our site (thanks KL!). I'll be happy to give 20% off to anyone who e-mails me and mentions Tomato Nation. Great site!

    n.roberts {at} nokhoo {dot} com

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