Backpacks for Work

backpacks-for-workAre there any backpacks that are stylish and large enough to hold file folders, binders and more on your commute from work? Backpacks are super trendy right now, but all of the really stylish bags are far too small for file folders or work papers. I was just at an event where I saw a young lawyer carrying a large, stylish backpack and my first thought was, good for her — whether she’s biking to work, walking to work, or just watching out for back problems down the line, it’s a smart move.  Coincidentally, I also recently got a question from Reader B, who wants to start walking to work and carrying large files — so I thought we’d go on a mini-Hunt. Here’s B’s question:

I’m looking to start walking to work more as I recently bought a home which sits about a mile away from my office. However, I’m an attorney and am often carrying case files and other paperwork back and forth. Tote bags, no matter what the straps are like, begin to hurt my shoulders on this. I know a backpack would solve the problem but as a relatively young professional, I’m afraid to look like I can’t let go of my college backpack days. Is it ever acceptable to wear a backpack to the office

Interesting question, B — I’ve written before of my love of walking to work, but I’ll admit that for any real file carrying I took cabs and client-paid cars to and from the office.  A few notes on tote bags, just at the outset: first, note that a leather bag is going to be far, far heavier than a nylon tote for work — and that I always found a single shoulder strap to be more comfortable for a long schlep. (You may also want to check out our advice on how to lighten your load.) Still, if you’re already feeling pain, there are a ton of backpacks right now that distribute the weight better across your back — I’ve rounded up a few of my top picks below, ranging from $29-$550.  Readers, would you consider wearing a backpack to work? Have you bought any backpacks for work lately that you love — and what qualities make one more or less professional and stylish in your mind?

eagle-backpack This one is very “I’m off to backpack through the woods for 3 days” but I’m including it because it’s totally packable — it compresses down to a tiny pocket.  If you sometimes need to carry stuff home — and sometimes don’t — this bag would be the one I’d pick to keep at the office, or throw in my regular tote bag. Plus, it’s only $30. (This Herschel Supply Co. bag is very similar, also $30, and higher rated — I’m just not a fan of the big logo on the front.) Pictured: Eagle Creek Packable Daypack
convertible-backpackThis bag has a very briefcasey look to it — but I like that it converts from a briefcase into a backpack, and has a travel sleeve to help it stay on top of rolling bags. It’s on a huge discount right now, too — it was $165 but is now marked to $39 at Amazon. (This bag looks a bit nicer for $99, but it’s almost entirely sold out at Zappos.)  Coolbell(TM)15.6 inch Multi-function Convertible Laptop Messenger Computer Bag Single-shoulder Backpack Briefcase Oxford Cloth Waterproof Multi-Compartment For iPad Pro Macbook Men And Women(Black)
Fjällräven 'Kånken No. 2' Water Resistant BackpackThis one I almost didn’t include because it looks a bit like it was intended for Swedish schoolchildren, which it was. Still: it’s very hip right now, is water resistant, looks large enough to be functional, could be carried as a satchel, and is only $130. It comes in a zillion rainbow colors, but the black on black one is my favorite. Fjällräven ‘Kånken No. 2’ Water Resistant Backpack
knomo-laptop-backpack This sleek laptop bag looks great, and it’s one of the few that’s got some style but still at an affordable price point — it’s $179 at Zappos.  (Also in this price range: this Victorinox backpack.) KNOMO London Beauchamp Laptop Backpack 
convertible-diaper-bag-petunia This may be an odd suggestion, but it’s one of the only convertible bags I’ve seen that looks big enough for files, and converts nicely into a shoulder bag. Sure, it’s technically a diaper bag — but just ditch the diaper changing pad and wipes container.  It’s $189 at Zappos. (This Botkier bag is almost twice as much but also looks good as a shoulder bag/backpack combo.) petunia pickle bottom Embossed Sashay Satchel
mz-wallace-backpack This MZ Wallace bag looks a bit more fashion-y, but you pay for that — it’s $385 at Nordstrom. Also, at 12″W x 14″H x 5″D, I might worry it would be on the small side for papers and binders and the like. Here are some similarly more fashionable options, but maybe on the small side for papers: this Rebecca Minkoff bag, this Botkier bag, and this Kate Spade backpack.) MZ Wallace ‘Marlena’ Bedford Nylon Backpack
bendel-backpackWe’ve featured Bendel’s Jetsetter backpack before, and this Gramercy Convertible Backpack is another one to consider — it’s super stylish and looks great as a satchel, but also converts to a backpack and a crossbody. At 11.5″H X 15.5″W X 5.5″D, it should be big enough for letter-sized papers as well. It’s $450 at Bendel’s. Gramercy Convertible Backpack
tumi-olivia-backpack-2 If you’re ready and willing to commit to the backpack lifestyle, the Tumi backpacks all look sleek — and I loooove that they look just as good while carried as a satchel.  The Olivia style is pictured here (it’s $495), but do check out this style also, which is a bit deeper and a full pound lighter — but just as sophisticated. Also in this price range: these minimalist Building Block backpacks. Pictured: Tumi ‘Sinclair – Olivia’ Convertible Backpack

Ladies, do you wear backpacks on your commute? Which are your favorites? 


Backpack For Work


  1. I’m at a nonprofit, so YMMV, but on days I know I don’t have to leave the office, I carry a black medium Herschel. Mine has brown closure straps, but they’re available in black on black, too. Super comfortable

    • Herschel Supply Co. Little America Backpack, Black, One Size

  2. Honestly, if I have enough stuff to require a backpack, then I probably require one with real, comfortable straps- not a decorative backpack-style purse. I have a patagonia one that’s all black, in good condition, and that I’m appropriate when carrying during business travel.

    The Cask and Walker backpacks from Timbuk2 both look great as well:


    • Amen. I have a Swiss Army backpack that comfortably holds my laptop and folders. It’s professional because I’m a professional and use it for professional purposes.

    • +1

    • +1. I don’t get the fashiony backpacks. I have a Nike one that a family member was issued at an Olympic observer program (only mentioning this because of the USOC comment on that Boden dress last week) and it’s comfortable, plain black, and has a laptop slot that’s perfect for folding smart clothes into when I’m going to the gym before work.

      • Meg Murry :

        Same here. I feel like the fashion-y looking ones are probably the worst of both worlds – they look odd or awkward both when used as a backpack or when carried by hand, and none of them have straps that look comfortable.

        To be fair, I work in a casual, male dominated industry, but the Targus TSA/Checkpoint friendly plain black backpacks are pretty much industry standard in my world. They are plain, get the job done and seem to last quite a while for a low price point.

    • Boston Legal Eagle :

      Yep, I’ve got this backpack that I commute with. It looks professional and is big enough to hold a laptop, lunch, book, my pump parts and a few other random things. Better for my shoulders than the L&O Sons bag I was using before.

  3. Just get a backpack. A supportive, quality backpack. I’ve seen plenty of people commuting with backpacks on the subway in NYC and Boston.

    • Definitely. SF, too. I’ve been commuting by bike/ BART with a black Patagonia backpack for years.

      Maybe the key to looking professional is color (or lack thereof – black) and streamlined outer shape.

    • +1 This.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      Yup. I see a lot of backpack commuters on the subway and have seen several men and women with them in the elevator of my biglaw office building. I’d stick to black, gray, or navy if I were concerned about it but a regular backpack is fine in my mind.

  4. I highly recommend the Timbuk2 “Uptown” backpack. So far I find it well-designed, attractive (sleek enough for conferences or meetings), and spacious.

  5. This “BUT is is PROFESSIONAL” thing drives me bonkers. Assuming otherwise normal behavior, appropriate dress, etc., it’s going to be fine.

    y’all give me anxiety. It would literally never occur to me to judge someone as unprofessional because they commuted with a normalish-backpack. If it’s a sparkly unicorn backpack, might raise some eyebrows.

    • +1. And some of these so-called professional backpacks look like they’d break if I put more than my phone in them.

      This site gave me serious commuting anxiety, thinking everyone was judging my ballet flats and bag

      • Never too many shoes... :

        I so agree. Maybe it is a function of living through Canadian winters and seeing (gasp) lawyers turn up to Court and meetings in Canada Goose and snow boots. You come in, take off the coat and boots and put on shoes. No big drama.

    • I still have my Jansport back pack from law school. It carries alot of my stuff, and after we got rid of Mason, I was useing it to carry my OWN stuff down to court. Now the manageing partner loaned me his LIT bag and I carry everything in that, including Lunch. The only probelem is that I need to use one of my hand’s to hold it– the backpack I would sling over my shoulder’s and that would keep my hands free. YAY!!! But men started to put their hands in my backpack when I was wearing it in the subway! FOOEY!

    • But you guys…… is my water bottle professional?!?!

  6. I have the Victorinox Harmony bag that Kat linked to. I like it and if you dont need to carry much beyond laptop + papers, it works fine.

  7. I have the KNOMO in stain finish. It is a sleek backpack but I find it a tad small. I carry my 13 inch laptop, cable, wallet, phone, notepad a small case file and a few pieces of makeup. Can barely get the thing to zip.

    • Unrelated: my nailpolish (clear one) leaked into my work bag. Never again. So be careful what you carry next to your laptop and phone. If it’s non liquid makeup it’s safer.

    • I know I’m a few months late, but I had the same reaction to the Knomo backpack. It’s so incredibly slim. Once I put my Macbook and notebooks in, there was no room to even get into the large front pocket, since it’s flat and not gusseted.

  8. I have two timbuk2 backpacks, one for ipad days and one for laptop days. Paired with my commuting sneakers (converse), I might be mistaken for a large primary schooler but you only get one back (and two feet). However, I’m comfortable and if weather permits, able to walk to and from work. I just can’t imagine judging anyone for their computing attire.

  9. Perfect post for me, I was just thinking about buying a backpack. My office is moving to new space closer to my house (about 5 miles, and an easy bike ride) and I’m going to start cycling to work as often as possible. I can easily and cheaply Uber home in the event of a downpour.

    Any other bike commuters who have tips, either about bags or commuting via bike in general? I cycle a lot and my only other concern is about wardrobe, but my office is on the very casual side of biz casual, so I can make it work.

    • Meg Murry :

      I try to bike around my small town for weekend errands, but I don’t do it often enough to be great at it. Therefore, adding a backpack that has more than a tiny bit of weight in it throws off my balance enough to make my non-graceful biking even more wobbly, ungraceful, and likely to land me on the ground when the unexpected rough patch gets in my way. Plus if its even a little bit humid my back gets sweaty under the backpack. Maybe you are more graceful and have better balance than me and this isn’t a problem for you, but I’d definitely want to do a couple of test rides with my work stuff on my back before I chanced wipeout on my way to work.

      If you have the option, I’d strongly suggest considering some type of pannier/saddlebag/bag you can strap to a rear rack.

      • +1

        I bike commute 4.5 miles when the weather is nice, and I have double waterproof saddlebags over the back wheel of my bike. Each is about the size of a standard reusable grocery bag, and they work great. I just leave them on my bike and stuff whatever I want to carry in them. Much better than trying to carry a backpack or purse on your body.

        I also work in a business casual office, and I make it work with work clothes. I will say I have been looking at replacing a couple of skirts with higher end golf skorts as potentially more comfortable for biking without having to change, but haven’t bought any yet.

        • Glad I can reciprocate some knowledge: I’m a golfer, and I love Tail skorts. I own at least 5. My favorite style is the Horizon, and I also own a couple Mulligans. They’re very comfortable and slightly longer than most other golf skorts (18-19″ outseam), which is a blessing because I’m 5’10”. Most of their shorts have an inseam of at least 5″. I wear them frequently when working in the summer (logo polo + skort) On the casual side of business casual, while they’re definitely not knee length, there’s no chance of anything showing that I’m uncomfortable with. I’ve worn them on my bike (not my favorite situation as I have a road bike but not terrible) but they would be work great with a cruiser. I also really love the polo dress + “bike shorts” combo, that’s another of my summer go-to outfits. Great polo dresses have been found at Land’s End and the Ralph Lauren polo outlet.

    • I bike to work most days and I happily wear my regular work clothes. I do have a short commute (less than 2 miles), an old cruiser bike, and can ride in heels and skirts. I’ve been carrying my work bag cross body but I’m really thinking it’s time for a backpack as I ride for several months a year. I like the Coolbell a lot as it can easily be disguised as a regular work bag and it looks fantastic for work travel

      • Hints from the bike country :) If you want to commute in skirts and dresses, then get a city bike with the low frame. 7 gears are great, but 3 is enough. Bike bags are great, you just put your bag/backpack/shopping in them and don’t have to bother about them (having bag on one’s arm is doable, but not the most comfortable thing ever. As mentioned above, you can sweat under the backpack). Special elastics work basically in the same way (you put the bag(s) under them). Biking in high heels is definitely more comfortable than walking in them, but you can be damaging the soles (pedals can leave an ugly mark on the soles that is impossible to get rid of). When it comes to sweating – it’s a commute, not a race. Bike in the comfortable tempo that doesn’t make you burst in sweat (unless it’s really warm. But then you’ll sweat anyway). I also try to have a foldable rain cape and rain trousers with me, but I always bike. If you plan to Uber in case of rain, then it isn’t necessary. Most of all, it’s fun – you are outdoors,you get some exercise, it’s easy to stop on your way to drop by to the post office/for the groceries, etc.

  10. Ekaterin Nile :

    I bought the Tumi Larkin Portola backpack a couple of months ago as a replacement for my tote and laptop bag. Love it. Get tons of compliments on it. Can cram an amazing amount of stuff in it. Link to follow.

    • Ekaterin Nile :

      Here it is:

    • That was my top choice bag style-wise and I know Tumi to be amazingly durable. The one drawback is that it doesn’t look like it has a sleeve on the back that slips over a rolling bag? Can you confirm? Like I said above, mostly looking for a bag for a short bike commute but I fly about once a month and want something that’s easy travel with as well.

      • Ekaterin Nile :

        It has a strap (not really a sleeve) on the back that slips over a rolling bag. If you look at the photo of the back on that link I posted, you can see an inch-high piece of leather extending horizontally across the backpack. I fly regularly for work and it works just fine.

        • Thank you for the info!! I was looking at that and couldn’t tell if it was sewed down or not. That’s perfect, I’m sold!

    • I love my Tumi backpack. I carry a laptop back and forth from work everyday and it is so much better than my old tote and before that, wheelie bag. It’s not quite a feminine as a purse, but it is cute enough, and so practical. I save my cute purses for the weekend. :)

  11. MZ Wallace made a more practical, larger version of the Marlena called the CeCe, I would recommend that over the Marlena. The back straps are much more padded and substantial and there is a dedicated laptop pocket. You can’t fit anything in the Marlena.

  12. I’ve been using this backpack for my walking commute. I walk to work in my workout clothes, then change into work clothes in the gym that’s on the ground floor of my office building. Same goes for walking home. This backpack easily fits my work clothes, lunch, makeup, and a wristlet that holds whatever else would normally go in my purse.

    I’m definitely on Team Functional Backpack. I work in asset management with a business dress code, and no one would think twice about seeing me with a backpack in the elevator.

  13. Killer Kitten Heels :

    My H carries an Everlane backpack, and I would probably have gotten one for myself by now if I was still a walking commuter – it’s spacious, pretty sleek looking, and he says it’s comfortable even when relatively full. Also, it’s structured enough to look good even when relatively empty, which is something I find helps to make any bag look more professional. It’s also a lot less expensive than a lot of Kat’s options (around $80ish, depending on the model).

  14. Meredith Grey :

    I want to love the backpack trend, but where in the actual h3ll am I supposed to put my cell phone when this is on my back??? I have logged HOURS online shopping looking for a professional/cute/not-overly-sporty looking backpack with a pouch on the strap so I can text in a flash. If anyone has spotted this unicorn, please let me know!!

    • Coach Laura :

      I’ve had backpacks with pouches but have never used them. Perhaps try a specialty luggage store?

    • Buy the bag you like, along with this to put on the strap:

      I have it on my messenger bag strap. Keeps the phone close.

  15. Got this bag from gilt recently after an extensive search for a professional looking bookbag that was less $$ than a Tumi.

  16. Matt and Nat make some great backpacks. I have the Fabi and get compliments on it all the time. It easily carries a laptop and a decent stack of letter paper.

  17. Marshmallow :

    I have this one and LOVE it. Large enough to fit a computer or tablet along with gym clothes, sneakers. etc. And the straps are wide enough to be actually comfortable.|BA%26slotId%3D6%26kws%3Dcalvin%20klein%20dressy%20backpack%26searchPass%3DallMultiMatchWithSpelling

  18. elizabeth cheung :

    I never comment on this site, but I have a Henri Bendel Jetsetter convertible backpack that’s super useful. It converts from a backpack to a cross-body and is big enough for me to get my small laptop and files in. The only thing I would change is to make the top straps slightly longer so I could get them over my shoulder like a satchel. I’m not sure it will work if you’re carrying a stack of files a foot tall, but in that case I’d probably drive or cab it.

  19. Anonymous :

    I have this Levenger convertible backpack and love it for commuting. It’s on the small side, but can hold a few letter-size file folders and a tablet. (A small laptop would probably also fit.) The strap can be reconfigured into a shoulder strap, or removed completely.

  20. Anonymous :

    Old post, but since Cat just posted it on facebook, I have to add, I love my Sherpani Soleil backpack. It converts to a tote, a crossbody, or a regular shoulder bag. I love it and get compliments on it all the time.

    However, I don’t think they’re making them anymore. However, Sherpani has several other backpacks.

  21. Charmed Girl :

    Good post to revive! For those of you on Team Functional Backpack, how tall are you? I’m 5’2″ and 42 and feel like I’m playing grown up when wearing one. Can’t do it. Even the nice looking Tumi ones.

  22. Anonymous :

    I really like the Bendel’s Jetter Backpack but I’m sad no mention was made of the Liberty Women’s Leather Backpack from Von Baer Bags. It is comfortable although it is leather and can hold a 16″ laptop as well as other items like books, etc.

  23. I love my Lo and Sons O.G but it hurts my shoulders and is beginning to fall apart. Does anyone know of a professional backpack that can hold just as much as this bag?

  24. Threadjack! I’m a disillusioned BigLaw paralegal in my mid-thirties. Anyone have ideas for exit strategies? I’m intuitive, love yoga, the mountains, and the ocean, and have never fit in at fancy law firms despite spending 10+ years working at them. Feeling lost.

  25. Anonymous :

    I love LeSportsac backpacks. They are lightweight and come in a variety of fabric options. Since I work in a semi casual environment it works for my purposes and commute. I use a Lo & Sons bag for dressier days and client meetings.

  26. I found this Kipling convertible tote/backpack at Macy’s. The backpack is great when I have a shift at the hospital. But the tote looks professional when I have meetings or interviews.

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