If I’m hiking or bike commuting (or carrying an infant through airports), two shoulder straps can’t be beat. But in town or at the shore, carrying a backpack makes me feel like a Girl Scout.
Totes, in these situations, are more versatile. You sacrifice some load-hauling capability in favor of a look that works well indoors and out. They also keep your stuff at the ready—just a quick-draw away. That’s handy when you’re presenting identification at airports or whipping out a wallet to buy street tacos.
Of course, some totes are better designed than others, so I put a pile of them to the test, carrying them to picnics, outdoor concerts, gyms, and Costa Rican beaches, and hauling them through airport security checkpoints. Here’s what rose to the top.
Dakine Party Cooler Tote 25L ($50)
Like a cooler but less blocky and thus easier to carry, this tote keeps your food and drink chilled. An insulated zip-top pouch built into one side holds an ice pack and snacks. There’s even an integrated sleeve to keep a wine bottle upright. I found the cooler capacity to be perfect for a two-person picnic, and the uninsulated portion held a blanket, sunscreen, book, and extra layers. The wide shoulder straps were comfortable enough for 15-minute commutes. My only unfulfilled wish was for a zipper closure at the top to keep stuff from tumbling out when the bag tips over. Otherwise, it’s the perfect beach tote or carryall for outdoor concerts.
Hedgren Perfection Tote ($110)
It looks like a city bag, but this tote is made from a light yet rugged polyester canvas that emerged unscuffed after Cessna hops and trips in dusty hatchbacks. At 15 ounces, it weighs less than most of the other totes I tested, so even when stuffed with bulky camera gear, it didn’t feel too heavy on my shoulder. The slightly padded straps helped with that, too.
There aren’t a ton of pockets cluttering the interior—just two open pouches and a zippered compartment—so there’s plenty of space for bulky stuff, like a neck pillow and noise-canceling earphones. It also has that all-important top zipper to keep everything inside. But this tote’s best feature is the styling: polished enough for cities yet not too much so for adventure travel.
Duluth Trading Co. Lifetime Leather Tote Bag ($170)
There’s a romance to leather. There’s also a weight penalty. I admit that this tote sometimes felt heavier than I’d like, especially when loaded with a laptop and water bottle. But I love it anyway, because not only is it beautiful, it’s also practical.
The leather is as bomber as a cowgirl’s chaps. And any scuffs it incurs only seem to make the bag look better. I also like the way it’s organized: Two exterior pouches fit a small water bottle. Inside, there’s one zippered pocket for my wallet. That’s it. Simple and classic.
Stio Basin XT Carryall ($89)
Most totes this big (18 by 9 by 13.5 inches) hold too much stuff to be carried comfortably. But this bag’s straps are thickly padded, so they didn’t bite into my shoulder or hand. I found the open-top design to be best for carrying bulky quilts and bags of produce. Although there’s no zippered top closure, the broad bottom panel kept the bag from tipping over when I set it down, and a strap of webbing clips over the top to tuck contents inside. I was also able to use the daisy chains on the outside to attach a yoga mat or camp chair.
My favorite feature is the waterproofing. The exterior fabric is made from 100 percent recycled polyester that’s supertough (600-denier ripstop Cordura). The bag’s bottom and edges are coated with a plastic-like layer, so I could set it in a puddle or on wet grass without soaking the bag or its contents.
Peak Design Everyday Tote Bag ($190)
Like the Summit Convertible Tote (above), this shoulder bag transforms into a backpack. It also has a luggage strap that slides over the handle of any rolling suitcase. And the interior organization is similarly customizable: Two internal dividers attach to the interior with Velcro strips, so you can move them around or remove them entirely.
Zippered openings on the ends let you access the bag’s interior without taking it off your shoulders, something that would come in handy for photographers who need fast access to their cameras. The tote’s rigid, padded structure protects electronics from bumps and shocks, and a padded interior laptop pocket has a zippered opening to the outside, so you can remove the computer and keep the top closed. (Instead of a zipper, the magnetized rim snaps shut and folds like a drybag for security.)
My only gripe is that this tote is bulky even when empty because of those stiff, structured sides.