KOTIS SWAGLAB
The Best Commuter Laptop Backpack
December 17, 2019    |    By Jacob Hoogerwerf

Backpacks are an essential part of a commuter’s day. Not only do we transport important objects, they’re one of the only products that bridge personal and work life. Our days start and end with the backpack, developing a closer relationship with this singular product than most others.

We spent dozens of hours (and many commutes) testing a crowd favorite – the commuter laptop bag. For employees who take their laptop on the go, this is the ideal backpack category. Known for their style and function, these backpacks are simple in nature and designed for everyday use. You won’t find a plethora of pockets and features, but all of them sport a laptop sleeve and a large pouch for your lunch or other belongings.

When done right, backpacks will get used five days a week and can be seen on the bus, train, or walking to the office. However, the bar is high. Since we develop close relationships with our backpacks, it’ll take something special to convince the recipient of the bag to give up the old for the new.

After a lengthy testing spree of bags, we recommend the Timbuk2 Parkside Laptop Backpack for its reliability, sleek design, and usability during your commute. We also recommend the Herschel Heritage Laptop Bag for its functional and popular design.

The Timbuk2 Parkside Laptop Backpack Timbuk2 delivers on its promise of providing a laptop bag suitable for everyone. Functional, organized, and perfect in size, the Parkside Laptop Backpack passed our tests with flying colors and provides ample room for your laptop, lunch, jacket, and more.

Minimum Order: 25
Base Cost: As low as $66.90
Decoration: Embroidered

OUR PICK

The Timbuk2 Parkside Laptop Backpack
Timbuk2 delivers on its promise of providing a laptop bag suitable for everyone. Functional, organized, and perfect in size, the Parkside Laptop Backpack passed our tests with flying colors and provides ample room for your laptop, lunch, jacket, and more.

parkside

Many bags that we tested tried to do too much. Extra straps, funky pockets, you name it. This isn’t the case here. The Timbuk2 Parkside Laptop Backpack avoided those pitfalls and made a solid, functional backpack. Complete with a 15-inch laptop sleeve, large compartment, and external water bottle sleeve, it’s perfect for most commuters.

Like many backpacks today, the Parkside focuses on tech. Of course, there is a laptop sleeve, but the Parkside also provides an external pocket perfectly suited for an iPad, or even just to throw your phone and keys into as you go through TSA.

With a clean, modern aesthetic and available in three neutral colors, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t a fan of the Parkside backpack.

The Herschel Heritage Backpack
Hershel’s unmistakable style makes a statement in this bag without sacrificing utility. With its simple yet functional design, the Heritage bag is perfectly equipped for commuters who prefer the Herschel look.

Minimum Order: 50
Base Cost: As low as $69.98
Decoration: Heat Transfer Only

ALSO GREAT

The Herschel Heritage Backpack
Hershel’s unmistakable style makes a statement in this bag without sacrificing utility. With its simple yet functional design, the Heritage bag is perfectly equipped for commuters who prefer the Herschel look.

heritage

Only a decade old, Herschel has taken the world by storm. Popular around college campuses and tech companies, you’ll also find many commuters sporting Herschel backpacks on their way to work. At a similar price point, you can tap into the name recognition of the brand. For fans of Herschel, there is no going back to a generic bag.

The Heritage backpack offers a straightforward design, one large internal pocket with a 15-inch laptop pouch, and a smaller exterior pocket. While the internal pocket allows for plenty of items for your day, the exterior pocket is rather small, only suited for your phone and headphones. Additionally, there is no water bottle pocket, if that is important to you.

The Herschel Heritage backpack is durable, complete with a faux-leather bottom that comes in handy when you’re out adventuring. Its fabric is thicker than other options tested, which gives it a feeling the bag will last. Most importantly, the Heritage bag has the authentic Herschel look that your employees will love.

OTHER PRODUCTS WE TESTED
We tested a total of eight commuter backpacks – some branded options and some generics. These backpacks were selected as our top sellers and popular across retail channels. While all backpacks make for a great corporate gift, we think our picks are better suited for the general audience.

Heritage Supply Tanner

  • Highest-rated generic backpack
  • Great storage despite small footprint
  • Several external pockets including a water bottle holder

heritage

Timbuk2 Rogue Laptop Backpack

  • Tall design with tons of storage
  • Only bag we’d recommend for extended time in rain
  • Larger bag provides more design flexibility

rogue

Presidio Denim Backpack

  • Casual denim look, gives outdoors vibe
  • Bag fits tons of items, half a dozen pockets
  • Comfy to wear with ample padding on back

presidio

Heritage Supply Tanner

  • Highest-rated generic backpack
  • Great storage despite small footprint
  • Several external pockets including a water bottle holder

heritage

Timbuk2 Rogue Laptop Backpack

  • Tall design with tons of storage
  • Only bag we’d recommend for extended time in rain
  • Larger bag provides more design flexibility

rogue

Presidio Denim Backpack

  • Casual denim look, gives outdoors vibe
  • Bag fits tons of items, half a dozen pockets
  • Comfy to wear with ample padding on back

presidio

We also tested the Herschel Little America backpack as well as the Graphite Compu-Backpack. We don’t believe that the larger Herschel backpacks are well-suited for the average commuter, and there are better generic options than the Graphite backpack.


A NOTE ON BACKPACKS
Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere between 3 and 17 different categories of backpacks. Next time you’re on a bus or subway during rush hour, look around, you’ll be surprised at how many different types of bags people use for work. For ease, we’ve broken them down into several categories:

Commuter Bag – These are the focus of this post, bags designed for the daily commute. Built for laptops, lunch bags, and not too much more (Herschel, Timbuk2)

Messenger Bag – Another popular choice for commuters, excellent for laptops and slightly more portable; messenger bags are making a bit of a comeback (Timbuk2, Tumi)

Outdoor Backpack – Backpacks designed for hiking and the outdoors, but often used for daily commutes; very popular around college campuses and tech companies (The North Face, Patagonia)

Cinch Bag – Casual bags historically used for giveaways and workout gear; popular for those sans laptop and an easy commute, often accompanying another bag (Nike, Adidas)

Sling Bag – Newer option, more casual option for those with a light load; some sling bags have room for laptops (various brands)

Tote Bag – Popular option for light commutes and the farmers market, totes usually have plenty of space. Some manufacturers also make tote-backpack hybrids now (various brands)

We plan on having breakdowns for our favorite bags in each category, we wanted to start with the most popular category.

That being said…

WHY GIFT A COMMUTER BACKPACK?
We’ve said this before, but the best swag is “sticky”. This means that your recipients are going to use your item for years to come. Think of how many eyeballs will see your backpack if it gets used five times a week for over a year. ASI estimates that bags account for 3,300 impressions over their lifespan. We argue that with tasteful design and execution, commuter backpacks far exceed that estimate.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a promotional item with more utility than a bag, but what makes this type of bag so attractive? Simply put, they’re for everyone. Commuter backpacks tend to be stylish, gender neutral, and useful for all. If your company assigns laptops for the road, the bags make for a great insurance policy, keeping expensive laptops protected.

New Hire Kit – Backpacks also make for an excellent part in any new hire kits. Not only do new hires likely need the means to transport items to the office but giving new employees a physical item deepens the relationship they have with their employer. They’re now part of the club and will feel appreciated from the get-go. And of course, what better way to package a new hire kit, filled with drinkware and other items, than a great looking backpack?


bag overhead

OUR RESEARCH METHODS

Over the span of several months, two testers used all bags for dozens of commutes, around the house, on the bus, and even on four different flights to test their performance in several categories:

Aesthetics – The overall look and feel of the bag. Simply put, does it look like something you’d want to take to work or out and about?

While we cannot say with certainty that everyone will agree with this subjective category, we believe that our top two choices stand above the competition. When considering how a bag should look, our priority was to find bags that most people would want to take to work.

Most of these bags come in only a handful of colors (this is by design). Most colors are neutral dark tones and maybe a navy blue if you’re lucky. Manufacturers want to create bags that people won’t object to. While this does limit your creativity a bit, look around, you don’t see a whole lot of pink and yellow backpacks on the bus.

Bag Size: Another consideration within aesthetics is the size of the bag. While all bags fit similar sized laptops, (all accommodated a 15-inch screen) the height of the bag varied. We found that we could group most of the bags into two categories: normal-sized and over-sized. More on the utility of each size later, but consider the size preference of your employees before proceeding.

Construction – Does the bag feel like it’s well made? Is the material durable and functional? Do the zippers work well?

Not all bags are built the same, even if they look similar. For the most part, we found that it’s true you get what you pay for when it comes to backpacks. However, we were surprised by some of the generic options. Our top performing generic bag, the Heritage Supply Tanner, felt like it would be flimsy at first, but fared better in our tests than its more expensive, branded counterparts.

Apart from the Timbuk2 Rogue Laptop Backpack, we don’t recommend any of these bags for long walks to work when it’s raining. Most commuter backpacks utilize a fabric blend for their material, which is great to look at, but not water resistant.

Comfort: Is the bag comfortable to wear when loaded? Are the straps and padding sufficient?

Surprisingly, the comfort category is where many of our favorite bags faltered. Now, before we get into that, something to consider is how often you’ll actually wear your backpack. Most commutes go somewhat like this: pack your bag, wear it briefly to the car, place it on the passenger seat until you get to work, wear it as you walk to the office, put it under your desk for eight hours, then reverse that for the trip home. Even if you throw in a trip or two on the subway/bus, they still don’t spend that much time on your back.

This is all to say that even though they get a lot of use compared to other types of bags, you won’t be wearing them all that much. None of the bags were uncomfortable, and if your load consists mostly of a laptop, lunch and water bottle, you’ll be fine regardless of your choice.

In our tests, the Timbuk2 bags underperformed relative to their competition, with noticeably less supportive padding in the straps and back. The Herschel backpacks had more padding but provided rigid straps that we assume will be more comfortable the more its worn. Our generic options all had less padding than their branded counterparts, but most were surprisingly comfortable as they conformed to your shoulders and back.

Utility – Does the bag work well? Can it fit everything you would expect it to?

For our testing, each bag needed to hold our laptop, lunch, water bottle, headphones, snack, and other small items. All bags were able to hold those items, with the larger bags offering plenty of space for additional items including a change of clothes for an evening workout.

Both of our picks, the Timbuk2 Parkside and the Herschel Heritage bag, have very similar storage. The generic options tend to be a little smaller, but still enough for most. Our largest bags (the Presidio, Little America, and Rogue) are much larger. If you need an extra pair of shoes or are going on a weekend trip, you’ll need the extra space, but for most, lugging a huge bag to and from work every day is probably overkill.

Organization – Does the bag have enough pockets? Are you able to easily access your laptop and other items?

All bags tested included a built-in laptop pouch to keep your tech safe and protected. Most bags contain one large pouch where everything is stored, and then a secondary external pocket meant for quick access. As mentioned, the external Herschel pockets tend to be smaller, while the Timbuk2 options are built for iPads and more storage. It’s really a matter a preference.

The larger bags may offer too much storage, with deep cavities making it difficult to access items at the bottom of the bag.

Decoration: Does this bag allow for stylish branding?

See the section below on bag decorations for more tips, but here we will say that each bag offers different flexibility in terms of decoration. For most backpacks, you’re going to be best off with a nice embroidered logo on one of the larger front pockets. Some bags, notably the Presidio and Herschel bags, offer less flexibility, with a defined logo placement on the front.

Using the above metrics, each bag was graded on its performance by each tester, and the total scores were averaged accordingly. The Timbuk2 Parkside and Herschel Heritage bags had the highest combined score.

Peak Design Everyday Backpack V2
When premium isn’t nice enough, turn to Peak Design. If you’re looking for the ultimate backpack, you’ve found it. Weatherproof and over engineered in every way, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bag that does more.

Minimum Order: 25
Base Cost: As low as $269.00
Decoration: Embroidered

FOR AN ULTIMATE UPGRADE

Peak Design Everyday Backpack V2
When premium isn’t nice enough, you turn to Peak Design. If you’re looking for the ultimate backpack, you’ve found it. Weatherproof, overengineered in every way, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bag that does more.

peak design

For SwagLab, we try to compare apples to apples. That’s why we didn’t include the Peak Design backpack in our commuter backpack test, but still want to mention it. Priced around $250, it isn’t fair to compare them to the other bags in our test – and that’s okay.

For employee recognition, holiday gifts, or milestone anniversaries, a Peak Design product is a great option. Built especially for photography enthusiasts, this bag can fit all your equipment and more (and yes, it also has a spot for your laptop).

That being said, this bag isn’t for everyone. The Peak Design bag eclipses all others we tested in term of size. If you have a lot of gear for work or take to the mountains for photography trips on the weekend, you’ll love the Peak Design bag.


DECORATION TIPS
As we hinted at earlier, you have a few options in terms of decorating on backpacks. Most companies will opt for logo placement on the larger compartments of the bag.

Embroidery: For backpacks, the most common decoration is embroidery. Since bags are subjected to more wear and tear than a t-shirt, embroidery is a good option to ensure your design lasts and fits the look of a quality bag. Embroidery can often be decorated on several parts of the bag, but keep in mind the limitations each bag may bring. Since we run our own print shop, we know about these limitations firsthand. The main consideration is if the embroidery hoop and arm of the machine will fit within the pocket or location you want. If that sounds too technical, just know there may be some testing required to double check if a particular spot works for embroidery (or if the logo size needs adjusting).

Patches/Labels: Another great option with a very retail look is a patch or woven label. They come in all different types and materials from faux leather to PVC. Most labels and patches can also hold more detail than embroidery, so if you need to retain small text, this could the method for you. Again, the limitation here is how the sewing machine can get into and around the bag in order to sew on the label. Yes, we do this in-house too.

Limitations: Some bag brands limit what decoration type and locations are allowed. Herschel is quite specific about additional branding – only heat transfers are allowed and only within a specific imprint size and location. The Presidio stipulates the co-branding must be embossed on a specific leather patch. These rules do seem limiting, but the brand is simply trying to protect the overall look of their item.

limitations

Heat Transfers: As we just mentioned with the Herschel bag, heat transfers are another option. The benefits are a variety of transfer material options, but the fabric of the bag must be considered and even tested to see what works best. The heat press pallet will also need to fit within the bag for proper pressing.

As with most products, we encourage our clients to take a more creative approach to designing bags. Instead of massive logo placement, consider adding more subtle branding or using a sewn-on patch. Not only do these design choices look better, but it’s more likely that the recipient of the product will get more use out of the backpack.

Timbuk2 Authority Backpack – MongoDB

Presidio Backpack – Zillow Offers

Zoom Node Backpack – Google Cloud

OGIO Apex Rucksack – Twilio

Herschel Backpack – Alaska Airlines

WHY TRUST KOTIS
We’ve been decorating and shipping backpacks for over a decade. There have been plenty of transitions in trends and styles over the years, and after careful testing, we’ve created these recommendations.

Our goal has always been to create the best swag for our clients, and we’re happy to work with you in that endeavor. Our product editors included Tricia and Jacob who tested and reviewed all bags over the course of several months.

We have distributed thousands of backpacks. We utilize the feedback from our clients, combined with our testing to create these recommendations. These are not endorsed by any supplier; we simply want to help make your life easier when choosing merch. Let’s do swag together.

*Prices are current at time of publishing, please reach out for updated cost and styles

Minimum Order: 25
Base Cost: As low as $66.90
Colors:
Decoration: Embroidered
Minimum Order: 50
Base Cost: As low as $69.98
Colors:
Decoration: Heat Transfer
Minimum Order: 12
Base Cost: As low as $35.43
Colors:
Decoration: Embroidered
Minimum Order: 25
Base Cost: As low as $76.20
Colors:
Decoration: Embroidered
Minimum Order: No Minimum
Base Cost: As low as $88.33
Colors:
Decoration: Embossed