Review: Urban messenger bags


The new messenger bag models from Kelty and Osprey — which are outdoors-industry brands — do not come close to competing with “true” messenger bags from cycling companies. Though they can do fine on a bike, the Kelty and Osprey bags are in a different category: Both seem clearly designed for the urban jungle via mass transit, meaning train or bus, not bike.

After a couple weeks of commuting to work via bike through the roads of Boulder, Colo., with these bags, I came to understand the type of person who Osprey and Kelty are targeting. Both bags are designed for style — and rightfully so, as they are in the “lifestyle” category. They have an adequate amount of functionality for roaming around town or a tame commute to work or school on a bike.

Kelty Saunter messenger bag

Weighing one pound, eight ounces, the Kelty Saunter, which first hit shelves in spring 2009, is made of 60 percent recycled polyester and uses vegetable-tanned leather. It has a large main compartment, a divided laptop area, and two small front pockets for a total of about 1,000 cubic inches of space. A Velcro strap to the left and right of center passes through separate aluminum buckles to secure the closure flap. The entire bag is water resistant.

But the main shoulder strap, instead of being attached perpendicular to the bag’s seam, is attached parallel to it, making the bag sit awkwardly on my back. And the loose end of the strap dangles free instead of doubling back or having another way to prevent it from flopping uncomfortably as you ride. Both these cons are pretty big when it comes to using the Saunter for bike commuting.

Osprey’s Flap Jack Courier, on the other hand, seems to be confused on whether it’s a commuter pack or a lifestyle pack. The triangulated support strap is designed to help hold loads tight to your body. But the strap is attached to a shoulder pad that slides the length of the main carrying strap. When the shoulder pad is resting on your shoulder, the support strap doesn’t cross your body to hold the load. Instead, it runs from a corner of the bag up to your shoulder, providing little support while commuting.

Osprey Flap Jack Courier messenger bag

The one-pound, 12-ounce bag has reflective strips and a spot to connect a blinker — crucial elements for any commuter pack. There are easy-to-access pockets and a padded laptop compartment.

But the Osprey also has features that bring it into the non-performance, lifestyle category. It has a top carrying strap, which would be more functional if you could remove the shoulder strap. There’s an easily-accessible organizational pocket. The company includes a host of webbing in multiple colors to customize the pack’s look.

Though reportedly bigger than Kelty’s Saunter (the Flap Jack is marketed at 1,200 cubic inches of capacity), I found it was difficult to fit clothes, shoes and a lunch in the pack while commuting to work via bike. Space wasn’t as big of an issue with the Kelty.

Traditional messenger bags from the likes of Chrome or Timbuk2 are simple, durable, and weatherproof. They have reflective detailing and a few pockets to stash a wallet, keys, mp3 player, some pens and random other necessities. These packs sit well on your back without moving — often with the help of a fully-functional support strap that may buckle around your waist. Neither bag in this review lived up to that exact formula.

While the Osprey and Kelty models are quite different, if you’re looking for basic commuter functionality, the Osprey wins hands down. But the Kelty, with its unique look and open design, is the choice when it comes to aesthetics and accessibility.

Kelty Saunter

  • Pros: Urban style looks good; Durable fabric; Very water resistant.

  • Cons: No triangular support strap; Loose end of strap flops when riding; No reflective exterior surfaces.

  • Bottom Line: Unless you want it solely for urban commuting via bus, train or car, the Saunter doesn’t cut it.

  • MSRP: $80

  • Contact:

Osprey Flap Jack Courier

  • Pros: Easy-to-access pockets; Reflective straps; Functional laptop sleeve.

  • Cons: Triangular support strap awkwardly attached to shoulder pad; Interior space seems small.

  • Bottom Line: The Flap Jack Courier is designed as a commuter bag in the lifestyle category. Bit it doesn’t fully nail form or function.

  • MSRP: $80

  • Contact:

—Contributor Ryan Dionne is based in Boulder, Colo. He writes a blog on the outdoors and gear at

Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.