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The best work and travel bags for everyone

Amidst a sea of new luggage and bag startups, there are plenty of gems to be found that aren’t marketed to one gender in particular. We tried four of the best.

The best work and travel bags for everyone
[Photo: Chelon]

Over the last five years, dozens of bag startups have popped up, selling totes, duffles, and suitcases for the way modern consumers live today. For many people, a typical day involves rushing from the gym to work to a business trip to taking care of children, without enough time to move our belongings between bags. A fleet of brands that I have featured in my annual bag review—like Senreve, Dagne Dover, Cuyana, and Caraa—focus on creating bags that are both beautiful and functional, carefully incorporating pockets, built-in laptop cases, and sleeves to stick your bag onto your rolling luggage.

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Many of these startups cater primarily to women, creating silhouettes and colors that are traditionally feminine. But not everybody is drawn to snakeskin-wrapped satchels or blush-colored totes. While there’s less innovation happening in the realm of gender-neutral or masculine bags, there are gems to be found if you look carefully. I’ve surveyed the market and found bags that look great, but also perform well in the midst of full, busy lives. Each of these bags has also been been tested for several weeks to ensure it stands up to daily use.

[Photo: Solgaard]

Solgaard: A Solar-Powered Phone Charger And Boombox

Price: $165 with solar phone charger, and $195 for added boombox functionality

Adrian Solgaard launched his eponymous company in 2016 to create a backpack that was fully equipped with tech features, but that also made it hard for thieves to steal from. Over the last few years, this same bag, known as the Lifepack, has been continuously improved.

We tested the Lifepack Solar 2.0, which comes in black and gray with a minimal design that makes it easy to blend in with both formal and relaxed outfits. The bag is equipped with a solar powerbank, which charges throughout the day when you are in the sun. For $165, you can get a powerbank that charges your phone via USB, but for $195, you can upgrade to one that also works as a Bluetooth speaker. Our tester found the boombox remarkably useful, particularly in the summer when he was out with friends. But he also pointed out that when he needed to charge his phone, the device had to be inside his bag, which was sometimes inconvenient.

[Photo: Solgaard]
On the interior, the bag comes equipped with pockets for absolutely everything. In the brand’s parlance, there are two separate sections, the “workzone” and the “lifezone.” In the workzone on the back, there’s a laptop compartment. In the lifezone in the front, there are pockets for everything from sunglasses to cords to pens. But there are also secret passport and card pockets for when you take this bag on the road. And importantly, the backpack comes with a patented anti-theft coil lock, so you don’t need to worry about your electronics getting stolen. And the bag has a luggage strap that allows it to sit on top of a suitcase on longer trips.

This is perhaps the most versatile bag of the bunch and would work well for someone who travels frequently for both work and pleasure. It is thoughtfully designed to keep your things organized when moving between different spheres of your life.

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[Photo: Chelon]

Chelon: Taking Your Backpack Up A Notch

Price: $328

If you love carrying around a backpack, but sometimes worry that it may not always be appropriate in a professional setting, a startup called Chelon has your back. The brand was founded by Shane Roach, who previously worked with companies like Nordstrom, Everlane, and Lyft. His goal was to create a sleek, minimal leather backpack, made from the best materials on the market without breaking the bank.

[Photo: Chelon]

Roach’s new brand only has a single product, the backpack of his dreams, which costs $328. The brand says it is designed to last a lifetime. It comes in black or brown full-grain leather. It is full of small details, like four metal feet on the base to protect the bottom, matching buckles, and a Japanese zipper. All of this gives the otherwise simple bag a bit of shine. It also contains two external slip pockets, perfectly sized for your phone.

[Photo: Chelon]

Our tester found that the bag was spacious and could carry quite a lot of weight, including plenty of electronic devices. The straps appeared to be ergonomically designed because they were set apart in such a way that it never felt like the weight was digging into his flesh or pulling him back. He liked how solidly the bag was constructed, and found that the leather would look even more beautiful over time, as it breaks in.

If you’re used to more casual backpacks, this particular one may feel a little formal for more relaxed outfits, since the bag is very structured. But if you’re in the market for a single bag that you can carry all week and then into the weekend, whether you’re headed into a board meeting or a long walk, this may be the right fit for you.

[Photo: MZ Wallace]

The MZ Wallace Jim Bag: An NFL Favorite

Price: $295

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MZ Wallace has made a name for itself for creating versatile and lightweight bags that are designed to get you through busy days thanks to lots of thoughtful little features. The brand says it tends to attract more female customers, but since many of its styles are gender-neutral, it has its share of devoted male customers as well.

[Photo: MZ Wallace]

One of the brand’s most popular styles among both men and women is the $295 Travel Jim bag, a play on the gym bag. The bag is incredibly lightweight at just over a pound, but it is very spacious. Our tester took it on a long weekend trip, and it fit enough for a four-day trip. MZ Wallace has found that many men love using this as a regular gym bag. Based on Instagram alone, the Jim seems to be a favorite among NFL players and boxing coaches, who can stuff it with their helmets, gloves, and other gear.

The bag has many features that make it very functional. It has two exterior pockets, one that is perfectly sized for your phone. It also has six interior pockets, including a secret one, so your items feel safe. It has a key ring strap, so your keys don’t get lost in its cavernous body. And it also has protective leather feet on the bottom. Another useful aspect? It can be carried in many ways. It has a strap so it can be carried like a crossbody. And importantly it has a luggage sleeve so it sits comfortably on top of a suitcase. This is particularly valuable when it is full and heavy. All of this functionality means that you can carry the same bag to work, the gym, and then on a trip.

[Photo: Tortuga]

Tortuga: Leave The Suitcase At Home

Price: $179

As more airlines add hurdles to what you can carry on board—with some making you pay to bring a rolling suitcase—many consumers are looking for a backpack that can carry enough for an entire business trip or weekend away. The $179 Setout Divide Backpack by Tortuga does the trick. It’s an expandable backpack that holds up to 34 liters in volume. That’s enough for a light packer to bring enough clothes for a week, and a heavier packer to bring what they need for a weekend.

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[Photo: Tortuga]

When you unzip the backpack, it looks much like the inside of a suitcase, with two separate sections. Our tester sometimes separated clean clothes from dirty. On another trip, he put larger objects like shoes in one compartment, the put smaller, easy-to-lose objects in the other. The backpack has a section for your laptop and exterior pockets for your water bottle and phone. There’s also another small panel in the front with pockets galore, so you have easy access to your keys, pens, and passport, without needing to open up the main compartment.

[Photo: Tortuga]

The backpack is engineered to be easy to bring on trips. It has a padded belt that transfers 80% of the weight away from your shoulders. It has a luggage sleeve so you can stick it on top of your suitcase (with a special feature that tucks the straps away so they’re not dangling). Plus, it has buckles on the sides to keep it compact enough to fit under the seats of an aircraft.

Our tester loved not having to bring a suitcase to the airport. He had everything he needed for his trip and yet the backpack didn’t seem bulky or awkward, like the kind of enormous bags backpackers use. The sleek gray waterproof fabric looks chic and modern—appropriate with both casual and more formal outfits.

[Photo: Paravel]

Paravel’s Weekender: Old-fashioned charm

Price: $295

Maybe you’re not a fan of new-fangled bags chock full of high-tech features. In that case, Paravel may be the brand you’re looking for. The startup creates simple luggage inspired by the romance of old-fashioned travel: Think, traveling across Asia on the Orient Express, or flying on the first transatlantic flights in the 1960s. All the bags have classic silhouettes, like duffles and small rectangular travel cases. And the brand incorporates technical materials, like canvas that is treated to be water- and stain-resistant, or lightweight nylon.

[Photo: Paravel]

We tested the $295 Weekender, one of the newest pieces in Paravel’s canvas collection. The bag has a vintage flair that looks like little that is currently on the market right now: It has a top handle, with leather straps that create a pattern throughout. It comes in a white canvas that contrasts with either tan or black leather. (There’s also a black on black option.) As its name implies, it is designed to be taken on short trips: It is enough for about two days’ worth of clothes, with space for an extra pair of shoes. And one of the side straps is designed to slip over a rolling suitcase.

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But our tester found that it looked good as an everyday work or gym bag as well. It is not the most spacious bag on this list, but it is perfectly sized to hold a laptop along with an extra set of clothes should you decide to stop for a workout before or after you head to the office. The bag also comes with a matching shoulder strap to make it easier for you to tote around town. Like the Travel Jim, it’s the ideal bag if you want to use it everyday, then easily bring it as your personal item when you go on a trip.

Was there a particularly innovative, well-designed bag that I missed? Feel free to send me an email here.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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