Finding the Perfect Laptop Bag
If you're laptop user, there is a good chance that at some point in time, a laptop bag you’ve paid hard-earned money for has let you down. Perhaps it frayed quickly, or the lining shredded, or the strap ripped out, the zippers broke, or the snaps lost their snap. Regardless of the issue, we’ve all had a bag that either disappointed us or just didn’t suit our needs.
I make bags. I specialize in custom-made bags to suit the individual needs of the owner. So I know that every bag has a weak point. By learning where the weak points in bag manufacturing are, you’ll know what you’re getting for the time you spend shopping and your money. And if you know where your bags frequently wear out, the information below will help you recognize the bags that will best suit your needs.
The most common places where bags fall apart are the strap, the hardware, the lining, the bottom, and the pockets. Let's look at each of these in turn.
If you’re going to carry a bag that weighs more than 10 pounds (or if you’re going to be wearing the bag for long periods of time) you should have a strap that is at least 1.5" wide. If you’re carrying a bag that weighs more than 20 pounds, choose one with a strap that's 2" wide. The wider strap will last longer since there is more strap to distribute the weight where it is attached to the bag. The wider strap will also distribute the weight across your shoulder and make it feel less heavy than if the strap is thinner.
It's common to find bags with 1" wide shoulder straps. These may look more attractive and they’re cheaper to make, but they will make it harder to carry the bag comfortably for a long time. They’ll also wear out faster if you carry a heavier bag.
The weakest link on the bag is where the strap is connected to the body of the bag. This connector needs to bend and adapt to your body’s movements. If it doesn’t, the stitching will be stressed and break or the strap will begin to fray where it is connected to the bag. To give the strap the flexibility it needs, the strap should be attached to a facing or to a piece of hardware that is attached to the bag.
The facing on the image below right is sewn to the entire height of the bag and attached to the bottom. This means that the force of the weight will be distributed evenly across the height of the bag, instead of just at one seam and shown below left.
The hardware also can affect how the bag will wear. Rectangular strap connectors are commonly used and are quite attractive, but as the bag wears, you’ll see that the torque on the strap will force the hardware into a vertical position as shown below, instead of a horizontal position. The bunched strapping will cause stress and wear on the bag. Hardware that is circular (or at least rounded) is less likely to have this happen.
To combat this problem, purchase a bag that uses round, oval, or D-ring loops as shown below. These will permit the strap to swivel across the hardware without harming the shape of the strap. To combat this even more, many bag manufacturers are creating straps that swivel (as shown in the far-right image below). This can serve a great purpose and keep the strap from bunching and wearing. But if the hardware is not high quality (or is handled roughly) then the swivel can break resulting in your bag (with its precious cargo) falling off your body and hitting the hard pavement at your feet.
The lining of your bag is more likely to wear through before the exterior. This is because the lining is made of thinner, lighter material than the exterior. But it is also because you’re more likely to carry keys, pens, and other sharp and pokey items on the inside of your bag. The easiest way to ensure that your keys don’t damage your lining is to store them in a pocket that is just for keys, or in a separate pouch.
When shopping, I suggest you test the durability of the lining. Grasp the fabric on either side of a seam in the lining and tug lightly. You want to see if the fabric has some “spring” to it and will therefore last. If you can see the points of the stitches when you tug, but not see any strain on the lining when you release, then you have a bag with a quality lining. However, if you tug lightly and then see stress on the stitches, then this lining will be more likely to rip or tear. Most bag linings are made with acetate or polyester. These fabrics are durable against general wear and tear, but prone to fraying quickly after they’re pierced (usually with a pen or keys).
People who carry their bags with them everywhere are likely to place them on a seat next to them whenever possible. However, unless you live in Downton Abbey, you’re occasionally going to have to place your bag on the floor of a bus, airport, or coffee shop. There are a variety of ways that the bottom of a bag can be reinforced to reduce wear. There can be large rubber feet sewn on the bag bottom, smaller metallic feet positioned to distribute the weight of the bag contents, or there can be reinforcement or strips attached to the bottom of the bag. If the bag you’re looking at doesn’t have these, it may not be deal-breaker. But if you find that your bag bottoms often get wet or wear through quickly, you should look for these when shopping.
Unless you just want one large bag with no pockets, you should consider the types of things you want your bag to hold. I suggest taking your current bag stuffed with your typical belongings to the store with you. Then ask permission from a clerk to take a bag for a test-drive. Remove items from your bag and place them into existing pockets. See what is left over and if you have a lot of empty pockets, or a lot of items that don’t fit into a pocket, you should keep shopping. Make sure that items like your phone or wallet are snug in their pockets to prevent them from sliding out when your bag takes an inevitable spill. If you ride public transit frequently, make sure expensive items are securely attached in pockets that close. Make sure that you have a pocket for your keys and there enough pen slots. Not having keys and pens loose in your bag will extend the life and make it look better for longer. It is easier to get one small pocket that holds your keys replaced or mended than it is to have to replace the entire lining, or the entire bag.
If the pocket is kept closed with a zipper, can you see the zipper tape? Or is it securely tucked into the lining? Zippers that are visible on the inside of the bag won’t resist wear as long.
Interior pockets where you’ll be storing your phone, business cards, or your wallet are most likely to wear out on the top edge of the pocket. To combat this wear, some bag makers will use a reinforced edge often made from the material used on the outside of the bag. This can increase the life of your pocket and make it easier to slide your items into it since you can more easily feel where the edge is.
Exterior pockets are great for items that you want to access easily. If theft or loss is a concern, just make sure that the pocket has a flap or closure to prevent this. If you’re concerned about getting caught in bad weather, it is best to have a pocket with a zipper and a flap of fabric, or a welt, that covers the zipper. This will permit easy access for you but prevent water from seeping into your bag through the zipper.
Now you know the weak points to watch out for when purchasing a bag. You also need to consider how you use your bag to be sure you come home with a bag that will suit you best.
If you often carry your bag in inclement weather get a bag that is water-resistant if not water-proof. Bags made of leather or a synthetic vinyl-like fabric should keep your contents safe, but they are often heavy and very warm during summer months. You can look for waxed canvas or a canvas bag that has been treated with a water-resistance coating that will also be lightweight and breathable. In addition, look at the top of the bag. If there are any gaps between the flap and the strap, or if there are zippers that aren’t covered with a protective flap, this is where water will tend to enter the bag. And as we all know, water and laptops don't mix.
Most people either want a bag with a shoulder-strap, or a bag with a handle. You can occasionally find a bag that has both. Make sure the strap is long enough and adjustable. I highly suggest adjusting it to fit before you leave the store. Make sure that the handles are comfortable. Padding or thicker handles will make the bag more comfortable to carry for a long time. If you prefer a shoulder strap and carry your bag for long periods of time, look for an adjustable strap protector to help cushion and spread the weight.
If you have a padded laptop sleeve, then you may not need a bag with padding. But, if you don't have a sleeve, look for a bag with a padded exterior (or a padded interior pocket). Keep in mind that bags with padding tend to be heavier than those without. If you don’t always carry your laptop, you may want to make sure any padded interior parts are removable.
In addition to making sure that all of your small items fit into individual pockets as desired, I also suggest thinking about the other items you often carry with you. If you carry hardback editions of Stephen King novels with you, make sure they’ll fit, or your lunch sack, or the cardigan you need because conference rooms are always cold, or your running shoes.
If you’re someone with chronic back pain or other ailments that prevent you from carrying a bag on your shoulder or in your hand for long periods of time, you should be able to find a bag with wheels. Look for wheels that are taller instead of shorter. Taller wheels will permit you to go over curbs, gravel, or dense carpet easier. You’ll also want to make sure that the extendable handles are the right length for you. Even if you have a padded laptop sleeve, I’d suggest making sure that there is some padding on the bag to prevent bumps and spills to jar your sensitive hard drives.
All of these items are questions that a custom bag maker would ask you before creating a bag for you. There is often an extra cost for having a bag made just the way you like it, but if you truly live out of your bag, then having a bag that fits your specific needs and your individual style can make a difference in how comfortable and productive you are on a daily basis. Of course, not everyone needs a custom bag. Regardless of whether your next bag is a custom made or "off the rack", I hope the information here will help you choose a laptop bag that's perfect for you.
Cinnamon Cooper lives in Chicago with her creative husband and two cats. When she isn't designing custom-made bags, organizing The DIY Trunk Show with the Chicago Craft Mafia, or working her magic with InDesign for a textbook publisher, she's probably cooking something from The Everything Cast-Iron Cookbook. She's been writing online since before the medium was recognized as social and can be found on online at: Website: http://www.poise.cc; Twitter: @cinnachick; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.