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Backpacks vs. briefcases: Which style is better for work?

If you're struggling to choose between backpacks vs briefcases, this will help you pick a side

A businessman with backpack and briefcase.
Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock

We all loved working from home the last few years, taking meetings from our home offices (read: couch) and wearing dress shirts on top of sweatpants. But whether you’ve been summoned to return to the office or switched jobs, the time’s come to get dressed and head to work outside of your living room. And you’re going to be faced with a choice: backpacks vs. briefcases. That is, do you lug your stuff to work in a briefcase? Or do you pack it all in a backpack when you need to commute?

People have strong opinions when it comes to the backpack vs. briefcase debate. Those on the side of the backpack tout the fact it’s a hands-free option — straps shoulder the burden for you, leaving your grip available to hold on to a subway pole or grab a cup of coffee on your walk to work. Briefcase lovers have reasons of their own. Like the fact carrying a briefcase won’t wrinkle the back of your shirt or suit jacket. Before you buy either, see which would be the most practical for your job and lifestyle.

A man on his commute wearing a backpack.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Pick the one that fits your lifestyle, not the most stylish

Backpacks for those on the go

If handling a briefcase makes you feel you’re aging yourself, if you have to carry other items, take phone calls on your commute, or go over meeting notes on the way, a briefcase isn’t going to fit into your life. You won’t get fired from a job because you picked a backpack to carry your items.

In the last 10 years or so, backpacks have become more and more popular for workers to wear, so don’t feel like you have to be Team Briefcase because you work in an office. You might get some side-eye thrown your way.

Briefcases for the office show

If your appearance matters when you get to work, then a briefcase to ensure your look is perfect when you walk in the door.

Pick the case for your job

  • Roller bag (yes, like the airport luggage style)
  • Laptop-style bag or messenger bag
  • Simple portfolio bag

If you get to work and see you are the only one with a backpack, it might be time to buy a briefcase and let the bag carry your gym gear.

A man holding a briefcase and a newspaper.
Adeolu Eletu/Unsplash

When you should rock a backpack

When choosing between a backpack vs. a briefcase, take into account the type of office you’re commuting to. If it’s a more laid-back environment, like a creative or startup setting where people wear jeans every day of the week (not just Friday), then don’t think twice. Your backpack will fit right in.

That being said, we wouldn’t wear any old backpack. Opt for something clean and professional, in a neutral color, and in a material like leather or canvas. Because backpacks, while perhaps the more practical choice from a functionality standpoint, do tend to read as youthful. What can we say? The association with school is a hard one to shake. And if you wear something too loud or outdoorsy, it gives people the wrong impression about whether you take your workplace seriously.

A black Rains waterproof rucksack
Courtesy of Rains

The best backpacks for work

Rains Waterproof Rucksack

Coming at you from the masters of waterproof style, this low-profile backpack will keep your laptop and essentials safe and dry — no matter what weather strikes.

A black Tumi Harrison Bradner backpack.
Courtesy of Tumi

Tumi Harrison Bradner Backpack

Tumi designed this nylon backpack full of compartments to help you stay organized and secure whether you’re headed to work or to catch a flight at the airport.

A black Saint Laurent City leather backpack
Courtesy of Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent City Leather Backpack

Leather is always a safe bet when you’re looking for an office-appropriate backpack. And Saint Laurent’s take on a classic design features some of the supplest, most premium leather we’ve ever felt.

A man in business attire carrying a briefcase to work.

When you should carry a briefcase

Look, no one’s going to outright tell you not to wear a backpack to work, if that’s what you prefer. But if your office is more of a suit-and-tie kind of joint, you might just want to reconsider that backpack and swap it out for something more formal, like a briefcase. And that’s not because briefcases read as more professional — though that is a factor.

There are also real, tangible factors that make a briefcase the smarter choice. The first is something we mentioned earlier: You won’t wrinkle your clothes by carrying a briefcase. This is especially true of suits. Unless you have a steamer at the office, wearing a backpack will fill the back of your jacket with creases for the whole day. Briefcases, by nature of being handheld (or, at most, having a single shoulder strap), take wrinkles out of the equation.

If you’re transporting important documents, say a resume or contract, briefcases tend to do a better job of keeping them pristine. Multiple compartments, as opposed to the backpack’s single main storage, allow for easier organization of your laptop and everyday needs, as well as being able to secure things in place. Basically, briefcases are intended for the office, whereas backpacks work but are more multipurpose.

A tan Filson Rugged Twill Original Briefcase.
Courtesy of Filson

The best briefcases for work

Filson Rugged Twill Original Briefcase

This might be Filson’s most iconic bag, and for good reason. The tough, water-resistant waxed canvas keeps everything inside safe, while the bridle leather will mold to you the more you use it.

A black Shinola The Slim Traveler Leather Briefcase.
Courtesy of Shinola

Shinola The Slim Traveler Leather Briefcase

Only need to carry a laptop and a couple of essentials? Look to a slim briefcase like this Shinola option, which cuts out all the extra mass for a more streamlined look.

A professional-looking Frye Men’s Logan Briefcase.
Courtesy of Frye

Frye Men’s Logan Briefcase

Frye has always been known for their leatherwork, and this workwear-inspired briefcase puts that leather front and center. It’s a little less formal than sleeker options, but still office-ready.

Suffice it to say, you’ll find pros and cons on both sides. In the end, deciding between a backpack vs. briefcase is a matter of personal choice — so long as you invest in something professional and high quality, either one will do. That said, certain situations do favor one style over the other. Know the culture at your office, ask if you don’t, and find the fit that’s right for what you do for work.

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