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  1. #1
    Registered User Melissa's Avatar
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    Question Backpack or messenger bag for college student

    My son will be graduating high school soon and leaving California to go to college. He has been attending a "model" high school called High Tech High. One of their technologies advancements is that the students don't carry around any text books. All curriculum is Internet/intranet based. Going to college, however, I think he may have to get used to carrying a load of text books. He's majoring in biochemistry-I don't know if that means more books or less. He will also be taking a lap top with him. I wanted to ask any college students what your recommendations are as far as which backpack/messenger bag you prefer. And if you prefer a backpack or a messenger bag, and why. I would like to send him off to school with Tom Bihn to help him along,

  2. #2
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    Great thinking, Melissa! While I'm not a college student anymore, I work in academics and I see students struggling with their baggage practically every hour of my workday. Textbooks or not, college students typically carry heavier/bulkier loads than working-types do, their requirements change more frequently, and they often do a lot more walking too. For these reasons I think a backpack is a much better primary bag than a messenger. The Synapse 25 would be my top pick, no question. The Smart Alec would be a close second. For laptop protection I'd recommend a Cache over a Brain Cell, since packing space is at a premium, and young people often change computer preferences a few times before finding what works best for them. Seldom does a laptop last a college student long enough to warrant investing in a Brain Cell, and BC's are bulky anyway.

    A few well-chosen accessories can really maximize a TB bag's usefulness. A Dyneema Organizer Pouch in size Large is great for papers, and one or two pen-sized ones are ideal for flash drives, cables, etc.

    I'd encourage him to miniaturize his computer cables & phone charger too. The Griffin USB Mini-Cable Kit is a good example, and only $15. Too many students lug their bulky, tangled chargers and cables around with them all day - not great for the cables or their backs, and makes those items all the more prone to loss or theft.

    Anyway, best of luck to him! The college experience seems more demanding now than ever, so being prepared for the day-to-day issues can make all the difference.

  3. #3
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    I remember visiting HTH its 1st year as part of a promotional piece we were doing at FOX6. Glad to hear it's still around!

    As for bag, it very well depends if he'll be living on or off campus, the clustering of classes, mode of transportation, personal preference, etc. All these determine how many books he'll be carrying around and for how long a period of time. Personal preference is most important though, I think. For instance, as much as I adore messenger-style bags, I find them incredibly uncomfortable even lightly loaded with an absolute strap. The weight distribution does not make my shoulders happy. Backpacks work so much better for me (choice of one-shoulder or two, better weight distribution), and are much easier in general when you're hauling a bunch of books to/from class/the library. Granted, while I'm in grad school right now and do the library haul regularly (aren't dissertations fun!), I don't remember hauling that many textbooks around as an undergrad. Heck, most of the time textbooks were never even cracked opened in undergrad because the prof went over in class what was needed for the exams! (One good way to save money in college is determining whether you actually need the book or not, and whether you can just get it from the library before everyone else does). Books stayed at home and you had a spiral notebook or laptop in class (now tablets too). Books came with you for open-book exams or study sessions. While biochem has advanced since I took classes it in, I'm sure the size of the textbooks remains the same. Picture your chemistry, biology, or calculus textbook when you were in high school. It would be about the same. Quite frankly, I carried more books around in high school than I ever did in far too many years of college. As an aside, many textbooks can now be found in digital format. If your son's comfortable with online books, that is definitely a possibility depending on the class and book.

    As for bag recommendations, I'll stick with the backpacks and assume physical books. The Synapse 19 will be too small if 1) the laptop is bigger than a 13" MBP (without cache. With cache it doesn't fit well) and/or 2) you need to fit more than a textbook or 2 (depending on thickness of said books. Around 3 smaller textbooks or 1 Calc textbooks + smaller book with a laptop). The Smart Alec would easily hold what he needs (and, quite frankly, then some), and would work well with a Freudian Slip. Personally I find the SA too big volume-wise, but the load balances much better on me (at 5'5" no less) and feels lighter than the same gear in a S19. Plus I have more options about what to carry around with the volume (as air weighs nothing *grin*). The Synapse 25 might work well too (I haven't seen that one so will default to more knowledgeable members). Also, dyneema is a wonderful thing!

    That said, I have used my Synapse 19 for grad school just fine with a naked MBP and fit in several library books for taking home. It fits a 5-subject notebook and a textbook for regular undergrad use. If he wants to go more minimal and light, it could work. BUT, if he's riding a bike around or wants to protect his laptop with a Brain Cell, S19 is back out.

    Hrm, now I'm not sure all my explanations helped any at all or not! So, I force myself to make a single recommendation between S19 and SA, I pick the SA because of 1) the greater versatility it will provide, both for school and as travel luggage, 2) better load distribution when worn, and 3) more comfortable should strap placement (S19 shoulder straps buckles just rub wrong below the armpit area on my arms).

  4. #4
    Registered User dnarud13's Avatar
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    I totally agree w/ earth and camp. I used a BrainBag for my laptops and books for years and only switched to a messinger style this year because i only carry a tablet now. Over the next 3-5 years, tablets will totally replace books and laptops, but for the time being - backpacks are still needed. My basic ergonomic rule is messenger<10lbs<backpack. The Synapse 25 is probably just the thing, unless you want serious protection/capacity then go BB with a BrainCell.
    [2003] Brain Bag (w/Snake Charmer & 3 Monolith/Brain Cells)
    - [2010] Aeronaut (w/Absolute, 1lg/2sm Packing Cubes, Travel Tray & 3D clear cube)
    - - [2013] Co-Pilot (w/ Cache, Clear Org wallet, S.O.S., 3D Clear & mesh cubes, Passport pouch)
    - - - Small dyneema Shopbag
    - - - - Various TB stuff (organizers, straps, whistles, etc.)

  5. #5
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    I have been taking college classes for the last several years and I have found that my bag needs tend to change from semester to semester depending upon the classes I'm taking. The backpack vs messenger bag is really a matter of personal preference. I tend to prefer a backpack for heavy loads (large text books &/or carrying my laptop - a 15' non-retina Macbook Pro) solely for wieght distribution purposes, but otherwise prefer a messenger bag. I find the landscape design easier to work with getting things into and out of the bag. I also find them easier to use with heavy coats in the winter and the shawl like wrap I like to wear in the spring/fall. I use public transporation and then walk across campus to get to class, so I end up lugging whatever I'm carrying a fair distance. My sister went back to school this semester too and she insists on using a messenger bag even though she takes her laptop and her giant Microbiology or Pathophysiology book with her to class. If you go with a messenger bag, I highly recommend getting the Absolute strap to go with it.

    I've been using my Imago this semester and have been really happy with it. I'm constantly surprised that it accomodates everything I need it to carry - which, right now, is 4 folders (about 2 inches thick altogether), a large Norton Anthology book, an average sized novel, a water bottle, my small handbag, ipod/earphones, lotion, lip balm, glasses or sunglasses, pens, an energy bar, and my scarf, hat and gloves when it is cold. This bag would not work with a large laptop and large text books, but the ID or Ego would. I wouldn't go with something bigger than that unless your son ends up needing to carry stuff for 5 classes at the same time. Don't underestimate the secret tardis technology of Bihn bags!

    On a side note, if your son is not one to write in his text books and isn't likely to want to keep them, renting them works out really well. It's much less expensive and easier than dealing with selling them back for next to nothing. I've had good experiences with Amazon and Valore Books.

  6. #6
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    I agree with the above posters that a backpack is best. As far as capacity, you'd have to determine where he will live and what his class-load looks like. When I was attending university, I frequently had a full day of classes with no opportunity to return home or to my car. Consequently, I had to pack all of my notebooks, study materials, text books, research material, lunch, etc, and carry them around with me. Depending how this works out for your son, and how much weight he is comfortable carrying, you can determine how much backpack you need.

    I have a Brain Bag that I use for work. I travel frequently, usually with two laptops, so this was a good choice for me as I can carry both of them in their own Brain Cells in the Brain Bag and still have room for more stuff. With a bag this size, weight is more of a limiting factor than volume.


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