After the popularity of my post on petite-friendly backpacks for travel, I had quite a few readers asking me to do a post on work-friendly laptop backpacks more geared to commuting or business travel.
I’ve been travelling with just a laptop backpack for quite a few years now, having swapped out my wheeled carry-on a long time ago. The advantages of a backpack are many: It’s lightweight, small enough to always fit in the overhead bin even in a tiny prop plane of the sort I typically take on my frequent business trips between Montreal and Toronto, no need to drag wheels through airports or public transit, and so on. But I grant you that finding a laptop backpack that is at once business-friendly enough to look appropriate in boardrooms, and small and narrow enough to fit on my petite back, was not easy.
As such, it took me a little while to get around to writing this, mostly because it’s actually a tricky topic. Finding a petite-friendly backpack that can also fit an average-sized laptop is really tough. But it’s finally up, just under the wire for 2019.
Laptop size vs petite torso length
Here’s the thing about being petite and finding a laptop backpack that fits: Most laptops are taller than our backs.
The first thing you need to do is to measure your torso (see this post if you’re not sure how). The second thing you need to do is to measure your laptop; remember that the size expressed (typically the diagonal of the screen size) isn’t necessarily the same as the longest dimension of the laptop, which is what you need to measure:
My torso is 14″ long. My work-issued laptop, a Lenovo Thinkpad, measures 14.25″ long, which makes it as long as my back. If you’re short like me, you probably can’t store your laptop lengthwise against your back and have it sit comfortably between your shoulders and high hip, regardless of the bag you choose. The laptop itself is just too big.
And even if you choose a smaller laptop, many laptop bags are made to fit even bigger computers, up to 17″ laptops, to fit the widest possible number of computer models.
The thing is, laptop bags are designed primarily by and for — you guessed it — men. Tall, broad-shouldered men, to be exact. And these men typically have a lot more back real estate than we women do. They never have to think about whether their backpack will sit too wide on the shoulders, or too long on the back. But we women do. Especially petite women, who may not have as long a back as our taller counterparts.
Take a peek at how the average backpack will fit on the back of a 5’4″ woman compared to a 5’9″ man:
The best business-friendly laptop backpacks are going to be in the 25L-30L range — large enough to carry a laptop and enough stuff for a short business trip, but small enough to easily take on a plane, train or into a conference room. And as you can see from the photo above, these bags just aren’t going to sit comfortably on a petite woman’s back.
We carry more than just a laptop
More than just the laptop, we women need a bag that can accommodate enough items for a 2-3 day business trip.
I’m fairly petite and so are my clothes, which is an advantage. But I also need a lot of stuff that most men simply don’t consider when designing a laptop backpack: Makeup, hair products, accessories, changes of clothes and shoes for different social situations. Many men who travel for work can get away with wearing their suit or sport jacket on the plane, packing a change of shirt and underwear, and a toothbrush, and they’re done. We women know that, like it or not, society’s standards don’t grant us the same courtesy.
So I need my bag to be both compact enough to fit my back, and generously sized enough for all that stuff I have to take in order to be presentable at my destination. That’s a tall (pun intended) order for a petite bag.
Petite-friendly features to look for
So, when searching for the ideal travel laptop backpack for petites, here are some features to keep an eye out for:
- Women’s-specific design: This isn’t about gender stereotypes, but simply about anatomy. Shorter, curvier women need narrowed shoulders, curved straps, shorter body length, and a less boxy style to accommodate a tapered, rather than squared-off, body frame.
- Sternum stability strap: Having a strap across the sternum can help prevent backpack straps from sliding off your shoulders, especially if you’re petite and narrow-shouldered. Look for a strap that is adjustable in height so that you can get it out of the way of your chest, especially if you’re larger in the bust.
- Shortest possible body length: To accommodate a shorter torso, look for the shortest possible bag that can still fit your laptop. Measure your work laptop to be sure; remember that the laptop “size” is actually a diagonal measure of the screen, and the actual width of your laptop might be even shorter.
- Curved back design: Most laptop backpacks have straight backs, since the padded laptop sleeve is generally in the rearmost pocket, and laptops are straight. But, while this might sit nicely against a taller man’s back, a straight backpack will sit funny against a curved woman’s back, especially if it is long enough to come down past the top of her hips. A design that has a curved back pocket, perhaps with space for clothing and other gear in the back, and a laptop sleeve more in the middle, might work better.
- Pockets for women’s business travel needs: While most male-specific designs focus on being as high tech as possible, we women tend to enjoy fewer bells and whistles, and more space for our essentials. Make sure your bag can fit at least two days’ worth of clothes, a change of shoes (’cause who wants to walk through the airport in heels?), a clear ziploc or toiletry kit for your makeup and skincare essentials, and an organizer pocket to keep your work stuff separate from your personal stuff (so when you’re looking for a pen or a notebook, you don’t accidentally pull out a pair of underwear in front of the whole boardroom). These things matter more than smart charging ports and cool logos.
- Some sleekness to the style. This one’s highly personal, but I prefer a sleeker fit and some nice choices in colours to the typical boxy design that most men seem to favour. I find it looks less ridiculous on my frame, and is a better fit to my personal style.
Laptop backpacks to consider
So which laptop backpacks are suitable for petite women who travel or commute for work? Here are a few to check out.
The bag I’ve owned now for nearly 3 years is this one: The Ogio Soho women’s laptop pack.
It’s a women-specific laptop bag, which is already hard enough to find in a world dominated by male-geared gear. I like the red colour, which is at once feminine and classy. It’s made from tough nylon that travels well. And, best of all, in addition to the padded laptop sleeve it has not one, not two, but THREE nicely sized pockets to store my clothes and accessories.
And the pockets are big, too. I can easily fit, besides my laptop and charger, enough clothes and accessories for up to a 3-4 day business trip, if I pack carefully. This despite the fact that the pack’s stated capacity is a mere 22 litres.
But this pack has some downsides. It’s made to hold up to a 17″ laptop, which makes it long on the body. From top to bottom, it’s 18″ long, which means that on my 14″ torso it actually goes down past the hip area and doesn’t sit properly on my back.
Its straps, despite being curved inwards at the top for a women’s-specific fit, are also still too wide for my shoulders. This is most obvious when the pack is fully loaded with all my stuff in it, and the straps have a tendency to try to slide off. The lack of a chest strap for stability compounds this problem.
It’s a good reminder that just because something is a women’s-specific style doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a good fit for petite women.
This pack has none of the bells and whistles that many people look for in a commuter laptop backpack. The laptop sleeve, while padded, isn’t TSA-compliant for ease of going through airport security. There’s no USB port pocket or other smart features. It’s basically just a decent-looking, not particularly well fitting, backpack that does the trick well enough but not brilliantly.
In short, this bag is fine. But you can probably do better.
American company Tom Bihn has long been a favourite among business travellers. With practical, modular designs that come in a range of colours in durable ballistic nylon, Tom Bihn bags are the accessories of choice for a certain type of road warrior who is, well, nearly always male.
But there are some options for women, and yes, even for us petite women. These bags may not be made for us, but they might work for us, in certain circumstances.
The Synapse 19 is one of the few bags on the market designed with a tapered top and a short enough body length for us petites. Available in a choice of 16 different colours, it’s specifically designed to fit people designed to fit people 5’0″ to 6’0 tall, which includes quite a number of us on the shorter end of the scale. It has multiple organization pockets, too.
The downside of this bag is that it’s really only designed to hold a 13″ laptop. It might work with some smaller 14″ models, but most business laptops are larger than that and probably won’t fit properly in this bag. It’s really designed for nothing bigger than a 13″ Macbook Air, which rules out most of us who use PCs.
It’s also only 19L big, which might make it too small to be a practical option for business trips that are longer than overnight. And while I haven’t tested it myself, reports on the Tom Bihn forum suggest that the shoulder straps are too wide to be comfortable on women with narrow shoulders. It does have a chest stability strap, though, which might help mitigate this problem somewhat.
Tom Bihn has several other bag options that might work for petites, including the Synik 22 or the convertible Western Flyer. None of them are specifically designed for women, let alone petite women, and all have serious limitations, but they’re worth checking out if you’re interested in a quality bag with a lot of customization options. Personally, while I’ve been somewhat intrigued by Tom Bihn bags for some time, I’ve never been convinced enough to order one, especially with the high costs associated with obtaining them in Canada. If you’re petite like me and you own one of these bags, feel free to share your experience.
I’ve been a fan of Timbuk2, a bag brand originally designed for bike messengers, ever since I bought my beloved Jessie travel purse nearly a decade ago. It’s been to over two dozen countries with me and hasn’t failed me yet.
So naturally, I looked to them when it came time to hunt for a laptop backpack to see what options they might have. And what they have is a bag called the Uptown, which is a 30L laptop backpack designed for the digital nomad.
The laptop compartment fits up to a 15″ laptop, and the bag has plenty of external organization pockets and travel-friendly features.
Unfortunately, at 19.5″ long, it’s by far one of the tallest laptop bags out there. It’s not a women’s-specific design, and it is designed for a very long torso. As such, it probably wouldn’t be a good fit on most petites, myself included.
Timbuk2 does have a smaller pack that is designed for women, the WMN Never Check Day Backpack. But it only fits a 13″ laptop, and is only 13.3L big, which is definitely insufficient for even overnight travel, let alone a 2-3 day business trip. Too bad.
Here’s a Canadian option, finally. Herschel, a small company that started in Vancouver, has become wildly popular among students and trendy hipsters the world over.
While Herschel doesn’t have any specific petite-friendly backpacks, the Settlement Backpack might work for many shorter women. Its style about as classic as they come. It’s available in 44 different colours. There’s a 15″ laptop sleeve, a front storage pocket, and a media pocket with headphone port. The pack is 23L, which is a reasonable size for a trip of up to a couple of days if you pack smart.
On the downside, the pack is “unisex”, which means the straps are wider-set. There’s no chest stability strap either. And at 17.75″ high, the bag isn’t going to be a great fit on us short-torsoed petites.
But on the bright side, it’s a budget-friendly option — some sale colours are under $40. And it will immediately make you look cool and trendy in business meetings. Okay, maybe not. But at least everyone will think you’re at least ten years younger than you are.
On the other end of the price scale is luggage company Tumi, well known for its high end, classic styles.
The Voyageur Carson Backpack isn’t cheap, starting at a whopping $475 retail. But for that price you get the cachet of a real investment piece that will make you look like a c-level executive in any boardroom you walk into. It comes in six different colours, and you can even customize it with a monogram. Yes, really.
But how is it for petites? Well, not bad, in theory. It’s way out of my budget, so I haven’t bought one to test. But it has an interior laptop compartment that can hold up to a 15″ laptop. The straps are narrow-set on the top of the shoulders. The exterior organization pockets are good for accessories. And while the 16.9″ long body might be a bit much on most petite backs, it’s shorter than most other bags in its class.
At 18L, this is a fairly small bag, good for perhaps an overnight business trip but unlikely to be roomy enough for a longer trip. The main compartment has a few interior zippered pockets for accessories, and the outer pockets can store other smaller items. But this definitely isn’t the biggest bag out there.
Overall, if you can afford it, the Tumi Carson might be a good option for petite business travellers who don’t need a ton of space in a laptop bag.
You probably recognize the Swissgear brand if only because you’ve seen so many male business travellers carrying their stuff in them. A perennial favourite among dudes, Swissgear doesn’t have female-specific designs. But they do have a helpful feature on their website: Photos of each backpack on models with adjustable heights. Yes, really! It’s pretty cool.
For instance, here’s their 15″ 2504 executive series backpack shown on the back of, respectively, a 5’1″ woman who is a size 4, a 5’5″ woman who is a size 8, and a 5’10” man who has a 34″ waist. You can adjust height and weight/size independently to get a model who most closely approximates your size:
Judging by this photo, the backpack in question would likely be a bit of an uncomfortable fit on me, with the straps being a bit too wide on my shoulders, and the height a bit too long on my torso. But it’s likely not much worse than other laptop bag options of a similar size.
And it does have a number of useful features, including media and organizer pockets, a USB port, padded adjustable shoulder straps, and a laptop sleeve that can fit up to a 15″ laptop. Unfortunately, again, most of these features were designed with men in mind.
Too bad, because Swissport’s adjustable model feature is really brilliant. I just wish they had more bags designed to fit those of us on the shorter end of that adjustment scale.
As you can see, there are some avenues to investigate here, but no perfect solution. Alas, the search continues for a petite-friendly laptop bag that can also fit a decent-sized laptop. It’s one of those catch-22 situations that I fear will never really have a perfect solution, though some companies do better than others in considering the needs of petite travellers.
Tote bags or satchels
Some women also prefer a large tote bag or shoulder bag instead of a backpack. Personally, I find it heavy to carry anything sizable on one shoulder for very long, and a tote isn’t very practical for business travel.
But if you travel with just a small laptop and few other items, or if you’re just looking for a day commuter bag that can transition easily to evening drinks, this option *might* work for you. Check out the Kate Spade Sylvia laptop bag, which has a sleeve that can fit either a 13″ or a 15″ laptop, and is as timeless as can be.
Before I bought my laptop backpack, I used to travel with a wheeled laptop suitcase. Essentially, it was a shorter, smaller version of a travel-on compliant piece of luggage. With four spinner wheels and a laptop sleeve, my Samsonite Xenon bag was reasonably large enough for overnight stuff and always looked appropriate in every boardroom. And, added bonus, a suitcase doesn’t need to be petite-friendly since torso and back length are non-issues with wheeled luggage.
Except it was pretty impractical, which is why I stopped travelling with it. A suitcase is large, heavy, clunky, difficult to navigate through crowded airports and on public transit and on icy, slushy winter streets. While technically carry-on compliant, the bag is just thick enough to not fit nicely in the overhead bins of the smaller prop planes that are commonly used on my business travel commuter routes, which meant I usually had to remove my laptop and gate-check the bag, thus negating its entire purpose (and forcing me to wait for my bag when I exited the plane, which I hate more than anything). The spinner wheels were cheap and broke after less than a year, just from lifting the bag up onto airport security belts and down stairs and such. Samsonite has a pretty decent warranty and replaced the bag for me. But I was fed up.
If you aren’t yet fed up with wheeled luggage, it’s an option. But if you’re reading this post, I suspect it’s because you, too, prefer the freedom of a backpack.
And finally, one option you may not have considered: The perennial traveller favourite bag, the Osprey Farpoint 40, now comes in a women’s version. At 40 litres, the Fairview 40 might seem like overkill for most daily commuting or overnight business trips.
But if you’re travelling for longer periods of time, say, consulting on a multi-week project, or going on longer multi-destination business trips, it could be a very practical alternative to a suitcase. It’s carry-on compliant on most airlines, boasts a padded laptop sleeve, and comes in a women’s XS/S to fit torso lengths of 13″-17″.
It’s ironic perhaps that only a bigger bag will fit a smaller body. But, life is like that sometimes. And the Fairview is about as good a bag as it gets. As an added bonus, while it’s certainly boardroom-friendly, it can also double as your personal travel pack when you’re ready to go on vacation.
Any petites out there have a favourite laptop backpack to recommend? Share your suggestions in the comments below.