Commuting 101: Carrying Your Laptop

I’ve often noticed that many of the people I see commuting by bike are technical or business folks, working in IT or other white-collar positions. I, like many of them, have to carry a laptop to and from work. This usually brings up questions. On my personal blog, the question was asked again: “[Do you] just shove it in your panniers and pray?

On days I can get away with not toting it around, I will. If you just need to move data between home and work, you can usually get by with storing your data on removable media such as a USB Flash Drive. While that’s a good idea, many companies have policies against it, so you should check first.

Assuming that you have no choice but to lug an expensive, fragile piece of equipment with you on a daily basis, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure your hardware makes the journey as safely as possible.

Most of the time, I use panniers and I ride about 29 miles round trip. In the winter, I switch to a backpack and I ride to a nearby bus stop. This reduces the bicycle part of my commute to less than 10 miles per day.

The key to keeping your laptop safe is padding. I use a form-fitting laptop sleeve since it’s barely larger than the laptop itself and fits well in my pannier. You may also opt to pack your clothes around the laptop.

Similarly, I use a laptop-specific backpack when I’m not using the panniers.

My MacBook has made the journey to and from work almost every day this way for about two years. Who else is a laptop-carrying member of the bike-commuting work force? What are you doing to keep yours safe and sound on your daily journey?

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53 thoughts on “Commuting 101: Carrying Your Laptop”

  1. John Mayson says:

    I make intelligent use of my employer’s Exchange server which allows me to work from home without having to lug my laptop to and fro. I keep any “active” emails on the server which includes any documents I might need while away from my office. I can simply use my web browser to log into the Exchange server and handle issues. This works about 98% of the time. I have had cases where while on a conference call had someone ask I go look at something on the network which of course I cannot do.

    I have carried my laptop in a well padded backpack but will do anything to avoid having the deal with that.

  2. I carry an old laptop in a folded bamboo carpet. The bamboo is a bit longer than the laptop, so it protects it in the round bag. I do that once per week and the laptop is very happy with it. No padding.

  3. nic says:

    just picked up an incase messenger bag:

    fits my macbook perfectly and has more hidden pockets than i know what to do with!

  4. Babau says:

    Eeepc 701, solid state so I just chuck it in my bag without worrying about it. Even if it does get destroyed, it’s cheap to replace.

    The most vulnerable part of your laptop is it’s hard drive. The best thing you can do to protect it is put it on your body rather than the bike. That way it’s insulated from the shocks and vibration of the road.

  5. Mary says:

    I don’t usually carry it to work, but when I’m headed to classes I do. I have a Timbuk2 messenger bag that I use to cart the MacBook and my books. It’s a little heavy, but it gets the job done.

  6. Sara B says:

    I hate carrying my new iBook. I have fallen a few times on my bike (mostly by winter commuting in Denver) and dread the day that this happens while carrying my laptop. I carry a Chrome messenger bag and have a neoprene sleeve for the computer. It works pretty well, but I NEVER put it in the panniers. I figure the chance of my back hitting the ground is much less than my saddle bags.

  7. I put my MacBook in a LArobe sleeve by be.ez. It’s made from a material like neoprene, but with memory shape properties – if you try to squeeze it fast, it’s tough, but it’ll yield to gentle pressure.

    This goes inside my 22 litre Ortlieb Office Bag, which clips onto the rack. The laptop goes on the rack side of the bag. A change of clothes, lunch, and assorted cables go in the bag too.

    I’ve been riding around like this for a couple of years, and no damage to the laptop. I’ve had one fall, going over at reasonable speed onto the side that didn’t have the laptop in. I got fairly sell skinned, and the bag containing my waterproofs that I had on the impact side took a pasting. But the laptop was just fine.

    Oh, I also had an incident with my previous Office Bag (the 13 litre model), where it fell off the bike (I’d used the handles as extra straps to hold my jacket in place. This released the fixings. D’Oh!). Again, the laptop was completely fine.

  8. I use a timbuktu laptop sleeve that I picked up in 2004 from REI. It fits my laptop like a glove and is nicely padded. I put it in my panniers and have for the last 4 years with no problems. I use the same sleeve for airline travel.

    My laptops that I carry are for work though and if the HD develops problems, work will take care of it. My laptops have all lasted longer than my co-workers average though so no one gives me grief. If I had to transport my own device I would look into solid state gear. For instance if I did a long tour and wanted a wireless laptop to keep in touch and post blog entries.

  9. Noah says:

    “The most vulnerable part of your laptop is it’s hard drive.”

    I’d say by proxy that the most vulnerable part of your laptop is actually the data it holds. While doing everything you can do make that datastore reliable (SSD is a great idea!), I’d say everyone should always make sure they have good backups!

  10. I’m an IT professional, and I bike 24 miles round-trip daily, rain or shine, all year, in the Northeast.

    I use a padded laptop sleeve, and usually put the laptop in panniers (try to keep that weight off of my back). Also, if you fall off the bike with a laptop on your back, it stands a much better chance of getting damaged than if it were lower to the ground in a pannier.

    The most important thing, laptop-wise, is to make sure the laptop is OFF, not in sleep mode. When the laptop is on, the hard drive needle still runs over the disk, so a bad bump could theoretically damage the drive. When it’s off, the needle is parked, so the risk is much lower.

  11. I used to carry my PowerBook 12″ around all the time, which I did by putting it in a sleeve and into my Cocotte messenger bag. A bit hacked up, but worked extremely well.

    My new workplace issued me a Macbook laptop, which is slightly bigger (and didn’t fit), but it came in a SwissGear backpack, which I found not too practical, so since I could have a company-branded Timbuk2 messenger-style laptop bag for half-price through them, I did that. It’s not so great, a vastly inferior bag compared to the Cocotte (no cross-strap, the shoulder padding and adjustable strap is not nearly as awesome as the Cocotte one, harder to fasten/unfasten buckles), but it’s better than a large backpack.

    I have a short commute, so I can bear the weight on my back, I would have to agree with those saying that isolating the laptop from the road vibrations using your body is a good idea, if you can manage it. I also try to avoid having to carry it, nowadays.

  12. Andrew says:

    I carry it every day but my commute is about 2 miles each way (if that). So I carry it in a laptop bag, I love this bag because it holds the computer vertically so it doesn’t slip around as much when I’m riding.

  13. LJ says:

    I use an Arkel Commuter which has a suspended laptop sleeve built in to carry my PC maybe twice a week. So far so good. If the weather looks especially bad I simply leave the PC at home/work.

  14. xcskimt (Robert) says:

    I carry my company laptop in a Osprey Transit Commuter bag. I can carry my laptop, running gear, work clothes, and lunch. Very comfortable and even protect my computer during a fall. Plus very very water resistant. Sweet bag.

  15. Jayme says:

    I’m a college student who doesn’t own a car so I wind up carting my laptop around quite a bit. I use a Timbuk2 Commuter Messenger Bag. Its got extra padding and a laptop area for my delicate electronics and some space for a little bit extra.

    It’s a tad heavy because of the extra padding but so far, so good (as for as the condition of my laptop goes).

  16. Jeremy Katz says:

    Another vote for the Arkel Commuter pannier and Timbuk2 messenger bag. I switch back and forth based on the weather and how I’m feeling.

  17. James Spahr says:

    I’ve used a sleeve case for years ( ) without problems, For the last year I’ve just kept it in a pannier, and have yet to have a problem

  18. John says:

    I’m a heretic–I commute 13 miles a day with my laptop in an ordinary backpack. The current one has a laptop pocket along the back, but just fabric, no padding. I always put the laptop on my back with my clothes between it and the world, and in ~5 years and 3 different laptops, so far no problems. I do always make sure to hibernate or deep sleep so the drive head is parked, but other than that, I don’t take any special precautions. I’m probably tempting fate by saying this…

  19. Garmon says:

    I use a Camelbak Alpine Explorer. It’s large enough for my laptop plus some clothes; I slip the laptop inside a padded envelope (the kind with the plastic bubbles). I also use the pack with the hydration bladder for non-cycling day hikes. Let’s hear it for multi-purpose!

  20. nsk says:

    My MacBook sits in the laptop sleeve of my Patagonia Half-Mass ( every day. Provided that I’m not carrying large casebooks, my 2.8-mile commute is easy and comfortable in Miami heat.

  21. BamaJim says:

    I put my thinkpad in a generic sleeve in my Banjo Brothers backpack when I need to carry it. IMO you’re going to get a lot less vibration carrying the system on your back than in panniers, but I’ll agree it isn’t very comfortable. When I plan my commute better I leave the laptop at the office and use VPN to connect from home if I need to.

  22. alex says:

    For several years I have used nothing more than a hoodie around a laptop, and it has been more than perfect. You’d be surprised what a beating most laptops can take just fine.

    I just make sure to backup my harddrive often.

  23. I came across the BUILT bags in Staples the other day, and they just screamed out “COMMUTER BAG!” to me. I have yet to pick one up, but here’s a website I came across that offers some info:

  24. Greg Cooper says:

    I use a commuter back from Inertia Designs:

    40 miles round trip 3 days a week for 2 years. So far so good. I use it as my briefcase as well. Built well.

    If money was no object I would use the Ortlieb bag:

    It would center the weight a bit better and look even better around the office.

    BTW: My laptop is a dell m90 – weighs more than 15 pounds with the power puck, mouse, cables, etc. Yikes! Someday I hope to get a lighter one.

  25. Darren says:

    Arkel Briefcase for my 12 inch Powerbook G4, putting it in a Incase sleeve inside the computer sleeve in the Arkel on the rear rack. Did this for the occasional commuting and to carry my laptop even when I drove. This year when I starting commuting most of the time (4 or 5 days a week), continued until I replaced the laptop. Now my Macbook goes in the same Arkel Briefcase with just the built in Arkel sleeve. I replaced the attachments for with the newest version from Arkel earlier this summer (should have done it when they came out). No problems. I have the rain cover, and though I’ve put it on a few times, it has only rained on it once. Everything stayed dry that was inside the bag.
    I’ll second that having a good backup is critical. The main expense of the laptop is not the laptop, but the data on the laptop. I’ve always had a backup linux server and user either rsync (fast even over the ssh over the internet from work), or rdiff-backup (better storage of extended attributes and more efficient incremental backups). If the worst happens, I’d just restore to a new laptop (or fall back to the an old powerbook).
    I only put the Macbook to sleep since most modern harddrives park the heads when spun down. Not only that but some newer harddrives will park the heads automatically when they are spinning if there is a g-shock greater than they can handle.

  26. I’ve used the Arkel Commuter for 6 months now and love it. I’m not worried to much about falling or bounce on my ride but water is my biggest concern. While the Arkel is “water proof” I still am not 100% certain I trust that. Not Arkel’s fault, I just can’t leave it to chance. I use to carry my laptop on my body but that sucked, love my pannier!!!!

  27. Bryan Larsen says:

    Recumbent bikers have it easy here. There are briefcases available that slip over the seat. If you get a black model, they’re incongruous in a work environment.

  28. Don Murphy says:

    I have a thinkpad and use the cheap route. Went down to the mailroom and picked up two bubble-wrap UPS envelopes. Put the laptop in the first envelope then put the eveloped laptop in a second envelope for safety. I also put the first one in open side in first into the second envelope.

    Then I put the laptop in my $15 Walmart backpack and ride.

    Save your $$s for other bike toys!

  29. redcliffs says:

    I only use a backpack, but my laptop case is made of memory foam (this time, it’s a brenthaven), which is, I’m guessing/hoping, more protective than neoprene, etc. I once dropped my laptop in the airport in my old memory foam case with no ill effect, though luck was undoubtedly an important factor there.

    btw, fritz, nice one. 😉

  30. Braxton says:

    I use a Timbuk2 laptop messenger on my motorcycle and my bicycle. Problem solved – at least for me.

  31. Andres says:

    I carry my work provided laptop everyday so that I am able to work from home if my son gets sick and can’t go to daycare or something comes up. I have been carrying back and forth in a Timbuk2 Commuter Messenger Bag for a year and a half. Just got an extra power supply so I don’t have to carry that back and forth as well, leave one at home and one at the office.

  32. Matt says:

    I can’t seem to understand how so many people can commute with a messenger bag. Do you have a very short commute?

    I used a Timbuk2 for a bit, then a backpack from REI with a laptop sleeve inside. With the clothes and computer and other crud, it crippled my back and was really uncomfortable.

    I went with a simple shopping pannier on one side of the bike and it works great. When it is wet, I put everything in a plastic bag first, then into the shopping pannier. It is cheap and incredibly light and convenient and it saves my back.

    My commute is 16 mi each way.

  33. Fritz says:

    @Matt, I strongly prefer pannier over anything on my back, BUT I have a multi modal commute and, for me, having something slung over my back is easier when I haul my bike on and off of a crowded train.

    If no lifting is involved, then I always recommend using panniers.

  34. BiggerDummy says:

    I use a Timbuk2 messenger bag inside my Xtracycle Freeloader, so it basically acts as a pannier. When it is inclement, I put the laptop in one of those vinyl courier envelopes or in a huge Ziplock (the blue heavy duty ones) before it goes into the messenger bag as it isn’t a rolltop.

  35. Fritz….

    Then what you need is the Arkel Commuter bag….

  36. Fritz says:

    @Kris — I’ve been thinking about getting a convertable pannier/bag something like the Arkel Commuter.

  37. Celos says:

    I’ve been commuting with a laptop for eight years, and honestly I think unless you have a really rough commute, you don’t have to baby the machine too much.

    When I first started commuting I put in a sleeve, then put the sleeve in my panniers. Eventually I decided that the panniers themselves (which are just cheapy Performance brand) provided a fair amount of protection. For the past three years I’ve taken my laptop to and from work more or less every day.

    I put it to sleep, then stick it in the panniers. That’s it. No sleeve, no bubble wrap, no extra padding. The roads I ride here in Silicon Valley are in fairly good shape, so perhaps I’ve got a unique situation. I might rethink if I were on washboard roads or rode through lots of potholes.

    Modern hard drives park the heads when sleeping as well as when powered down, so I don’t think there’s a significantly higher risk of damage when sleeping versus shut down.

  38. Ian says:

    My employer ponied up for a timbuk2 messenger BACKPACK. It’s the coolest.

  39. Yangmusa says:

    If I really must bring a laptop, I have an old (& tiny) Fujitsu Lifebook that I replaced the hard drive with a compact flash card. No moving parts to get rattled by the bike, but I still put some bubble wrap under the laptop sleeve in my bag.

    Most of the time, I don’t need to bring a laptop. I have a Psion which meets most of my mobile computing needs (yes, even in this day and age…)

  40. mb says:

    I slip my Macbook (shut it down, not sleep) into an IDEE laptop sleeve with memory padding. Then it goes into the Ortlieb Rear Roller Classic on my Dahon MU P24.

    So far so good.

  41. Franklin says:

    I keep my laptop in a jansport laptop bookbag, bungeed to my cetma 7 rail rack. Sometimes i put the bag in a milkccrate on top of my rear rack.

  42. Steven says:

    Short and sweet: I get all my bags and cases from Waterfield Designs. Best of the best.

  43. Jon says:

    I’m with you, Steven. Waterfield designs bags are hands-down the best out there.

    They make ’em in the USA and their customer service is unbelievable.

  44. Steve says:

    I started with the Arkel commuter, but then I started taking my work clothes in with me and that didn’t have the room. i also needed to have a place to dump bike layers when the ride home was warmer than the ride in to work. So I switched to the Arkel Utility Bag. Has a suspended sleeve to hold the laptop and PLENTY of room for the extra clothes.
    Take the laptop out and it’s a great utility basket for shopping and such. this is the bag for you. I also use the Arkel tailrider for the bike tools and power bars etc….

  45. matt says:

    I am still fishing for the right solution. I have a 14″ Thinkpad T400s with an SSD (so no worries about disk problems). I place it in a form-fitting sleeve whenever I take it somewhere.

    At first I put it in my laptop backpack, which had two problems. First, I got really sweaty (even in winter) where the shoulder straps rested on me. Second, one time I fell over at a stoplight and the laptop bag took a hard hit, putting a couple of cracks.

    So I switched to putting the laptop backpack in a basket mounted on a rear rack. This has been great so far (no sweat, literally) though I worry that it will still be damaged if I fell over again (yes it’s bunjeed down).

    I’ve thought about getting a trunk bag or pannier to put it in. I would worry though that if I fell over again, the entire weight of the bike would come crashing down on the laptop and potentially crush it. So I’ve held off buying one.

  46. Noah says:

    It’s not a big deal. I’ve fallen with my laptop in a pannier a few times, and it’s the same one shown in the photo at the beginning of this article. The handlebars, wheel, and other parts of the bike hit the ground first anyway, and if you pack your work clothes around the laptop, it’s got even more padding. I’m not saying there’s no risk of damage. I’m saying a few falls hasn’t hurt my laptop in more than 3 years of commuting with the same machine.

  47. rod says:

    I’ve fallen twice with my Dell laptop in an Arkel Commuter, and both of us are doing just fine.

  48. Teressa says:

    There is no way I would put my laptop in the panniers

  49. Jessica says:

    That’s a helpful tip!

  50. Brian Lewis says:

    I love my STM velo 2. Probably the most organized and safe bag to carry all your digital gear. Can’t recommend enough. A+ product.

  51. John says:

    Just pop it in a pannier. If the HDD is parked (I.e. hibernate or power off, don’t just sleep) and the laptop will take 50g shocks.

    If the pannier isn’t a bucket then it will give enough to be fine.
    If you’re really paranoid (or paying) then a wrap with a jumper will be fine.

  52. Carlos says:

    I use thethickest sleeve i could find. In Colombia you can’t get a pannier. I carry it in a laptop bag with more foam at the bottom where the laptop sits. The bag stands over the rear rack. 6 years and 3 laptos later still works. Laptop -cheap plastic- 1 was retired due to the need of a faster one -2 years-. The second laptop was stolen after 3 years in a bar. Te third one is 8 months, it’s also cheap plastic and is going strong.

    Sometimes i fell with the laptops, but the sleeves did thier job. One time i ran over a laptop due to a defective front basket. The laptop worked until the day it was stolen.

  53. Herman F. Ebeling, Jr. says:

    I made a pair of panniers out of a pair of empty Tidy Cat kitty litter buckets. And sadly my laptop dose not fit in either of them. So what I’ve done is to “shove” a couple of pieces of “egg crate” foam like they use in shipping. Into my already padded computer shoulder bag and using a bungee cord cargo net strap it to my pannier rack/buckets.

    That way it is both securely attached to my bike and it has some extra padding between it and the rack.

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