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Choosing The Right Gear Bag

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gear_bagSN.jpgGear. It’s an essential part of workshifting. While you don’t want to be that guy or gal, you do need to carry a few things with you when you’re working away from the office. And I don’t just mean a laptop or netbook or tablet, either.

Whether you carry a little or a lot when you workshift, a good bag for all of that gear is essential. Here are a few pointers for choosing the bag that’s right for you.

Size matters

Up to a point, anyway. You’re probably not carrying everything and a microwave oven. But you’re also probably carrying more than just your smartphone and wallet.

Look for a bag that has enough room to carry the tools of your workshifting day. At the very minimum, the bag you choose should have space for a notebook or netbook computer, your phone and MP3 player, some physical files, a paper notebook and pens, and a USB flash drive or two. You might also want to make sure that the bag has space for a book (or an ebook reader), your wallet, a bottle of water or travel mug, and some snacks.

The bag itself should have as slim a profile as possible, though. I’ve lugged bulky bags around and they’ve been an inconvenience to me and to people on transit. Duffle bags are out, as a some backpacks – way too bulky. A good messenger or courier bag is a worth holding on to. More about this in a little while.


I don’t know about you, but I usually need to get to the things in my bag in a hurry. Whether it’s pulling out my wallet to pay for a hot chocolate at a cafe, putting away my netbook, whipping out a USB flash drive, or getting to my Moleskine and pen to jot down a note, I don’t want to struggle with too many zippers or clasps.

A usable gear bag should have enough easy-to-access pouches of varying sizes – small for things like your wallet and phone, and larger for … well, for larger items. Velcro covers or straps for those pouches make getting to what’s in them easier.


No one like a bag (or anything else) that doesn’t last. It’s more than annoying; it adds another expense to your balance sheet. Over the years, I’ve owned a few bags that didn’t last 12 months. Straps frayed and broke. The outer shell tore. Pockets wore out. And I’m careful (almost paranoid) when it comes to my stuff!

You’re going to pay a premium for a durable bag. Even then, you’re not always assured of getting one that will last. There are a few things to look at when choosing the right bag.
First, make sure that the fabric is thick but not heavy. Thin nylon doesn’t cut it. In fact, it’s easy cut. Heavier nylon is good, and it’s lighter than canvas. Canvas, on the other hand, is tough and it’s a lot more resistant to water than nylon.

Next, look at the zippers. Are they thin or thick? Plastic or metal? And how strongly are they stitched to the bag?


Chances are you won’t just use your gear bag for … well, just lugging your gear. If that’s the case, then the venerable laptop bag just doesn’t cut it.

My gear bag (more on this in a moment) is also my carry on when I fly. And I use it as an overnight bag when taking short trips. So I need something that can carry my gear and my travel items. That means a bag that’s big, but not too big, and durable.

A few choices

There are a lot of bags on the market. Here are a few that I recommend, based on all of the factors I discussed earlier.

My favorite, and the bag I use daily is the Carry On Travel Pack from Mountain Equipment Co-Op (a Canadian outdoor and gear retailer). I’ve used that bag daily for over five years, and it’s been everywhere with me from around town, throughout Canada and the United States, and to China. Best of all, whenever I need to I can turn the Carry On into a backpack.

The Tom Bihn ID, while pricey ($140 USD), is well worth the price. If I wasn’t so attached to my Carry On I’d seriously consider one of these. The ID big enough for a laptop and your other gear. It also has enough pouches for any and all of your accessories. The main portion of the bag is also well reinforced with foam, which will protect your laptop.

While the design isn’t quite to my liking, I’m impressed with the Ogio Hip-Hop. Once again, it’s a bag that has more than enough space for your gear and offers quick access to your phone, MP3 player, and even your laptop’s AC adapter. There are also a pair of pockets on either side of the Hip-Hop for bottles of water or a travel mug.

What gear bag do you use? Share your favorites by leaving a comment.

Photo credit: fotolia © 2happy

  • http://avdi.org Avdi Grimm

    I second the Tom Bihn bag. Well worth the price – they are built like tanks. I’ve had mine for a few years and it’s like new. I expect it to last a few decades.

  • http://www.steigmancommunications.com Daria Steigman

    Hi Scott,

    Good post, and finding the right gear bag is on ongoing challenge. A big concern for me is weight on my shoulder, and many of these bags just aren’t designed for short women.

    I seem to alternate between my Eddie Bauer messenger bag, a Target briefcase tote with a slim profile, and my bag of the day, a leather purse that fits my netbook and other gear. Only problem: everything drops to the bottom so I’m still struggling to find cash for the mug of hot chocolate. In other words, I’m still looking for that perfect bag.

    • Scott Nesbitt

      Good point about some bags not being quite right for shorter people. Several of the people I know who are shorter than me (I’m about 5′ 10.5″) have the same problem you describe. Most of them use a backpack but with clip-on pouches on the straps for money and their phones.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/GP6BRJT2IHV2O6AEWJPR3DEKIE David

    I’ve been using the DaKine Heli Pro 20L for a couple of years now and I’ve been quite pleased with is. Just the right amount of storage and compartments, and very well thought-out organization. Looks great, and it’s very durable.

  • Shawn

    Hands down…the Mambo Combo of Waterfield Designs out of San Francisco…holds my 15 MacBook Pro in a separate padded sleeve, plenty of places for gear, power cords, secret pockets, outside zipper slot, top loading, and the coolest para-gliding buckle you’ve ever seen. This is one rugged bag and pricey…but so worth it. Customizable and many, many choices.