From the canvas grocery bags you may have gotten as thank-you gifts from the charity of your choice to IKEA’s big blue bags, totes come in all shapes and sizes, and you can find one to fit almost any type of load. Backpacks, shoulder bags, and briefcases all have their ideal uses, but the tote’s unique combination of simplicity, elegance, and versatility suits it for any occasion.
We had four Wirecutter staffers test more than 20 promising candidates, and selected the tote bags we would suggest to our own family and friends. Concentrating on bags that could handle everyday loads, such as groceries, office supplies, and tools, we evaluated each bag for utility, comfort, quality of construction, value, and, of course, looks. Since the bag you choose to carry is a form of personal expression, we’ve tried to present a variety of styles for readers to choose from. If you have a favorite tote bag that we didn’t mention, let us know in the comments and we’ll try our best to take a look at it when we update this guide.
Who it’s for: If you’re looking for a good-looking, all-purpose canvas bag, I recommend the Baggu Duck Bag. It has a deeper body than the average tote, which means it will accommodate long or awkwardly shaped objects. It’s durable and stain-resistant, and its hardy canvas wears over time to become soft and pliable without looking shabby. Baggu bags also come in a number of tasteful prints and colors.
Why it’s great: This bag can stand up to lots of abuse. Lesley Stockton, our food stylist and kitchen writer, has owned a Duck Bag for nearly six years and has used it for everything from lugging knife rolls and heavy clogs to hauling a giant food processor across New York City. But besides the expected amount of wear and tear, as well as some fading, the bag has remained intact without developing any major rips or thin spots. It’s still capable of hauling many pounds of root vegetables across Manhattan, for instance. The same can’t be said for thinner, cheaper canvas totes of the sort you can usually buy at a bookstore or stores like American Apparel.
I particularly like the depth and circumference of the Duck Bag. Unlike narrower, shallower bags like the Herschel Auden Tote, the 3.8-gallon capacity Duck Bag has more flexible seams on its sides and a bucket bottom, meaning it can stretch to accommodate your stuff: I like using my Duck Bag for awkward items like my yoga mat or canned items at the supermarket.
One of my main gripes with canvas totes is that they usually have fixed, thin straps that cut into my shoulder when carrying a heavy load. The Duck Bag sidesteps this problem with a long adjustable single strap that’s thick enough to keep your shoulders happy, even when hauling a lot of stuff. At its longest, the Duck Bag’s strap stretches out to near-messenger bag length, meaning you can carry it on your back when biking or carrying another bag. In addition to a longer carrying strap, it has two short handles that make it easy to pick up off the ground or carry like a briefcase.
If you’re like me, a canvas tote functions as a purse/grocery bag/gym bag hybrid. I love the Duck Bag not only for its durability but also for the fact that it’s also a cute bag. Baggu bags come in a wide array of simple but elegant prints and colors, and the company regularly collaborates with brands like West Elm and Urban Outfitters to produce stylish editions of its classic line.
Pockets and organization: Like most basic totes, the Duck Bag doesn’t have much in the way of organization. Besides its large main compartment, it does have a handy interior zipped pouch sewn into its side to accommodate keys, sunglasses, and other miscellany.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Since the Duck Bag doesn’t have much organization or padding, it’s not an ideal bag for work, school, or carrying fragile gear. Besides color and pattern choice, there are no customization options and it doesn’t have a zip closure or any external pockets. The lack of padding on the Duck Bag also means that items with corners can jab you through the fabric, especially if you’re carrying it slung over your back.
While an unconstructed side seam and bucket bottom allow the Duck Bag to carry more, it also tends to make the bag look a little floppy when empty. This makes loading the bag a little trickier, as it can’t stand on its own unless it’s filled with stuff.
Baggu has a one-year limited warranty, which isn’t as long as the lifetime coverage you’ll get with the L.L.Bean Boat and Tote. That said, Baggu will completely replace any damaged bag within the warranty period, even if the damage is through no fault of the manufacturer.
As a ridiculously sturdy alternative to the Duck Bag, our best beach bag is a worthy choice, even off of the sand. The L.L.Bean Boat and Tote Bag is a classic bag that’ll hold up in tough conditions. It’s made of heavyweight canvas that is water- and wear-resistant, and its reinforced bottom makes loading the bag a snap, even when empty. Its seams are protected by double stitching, which prevents the fraying and holes that you find in more lightweight bags. The bag is also subject to L.L.Bean’s famed lifetime warranty, which means you’ll get a free replacement if you do somehow manage to damage it.
The Boat and Tote is also highly customizable. The options include four sizes (small, medium, large, and extra-large) and two handle lengths. The standard 8-inch handles allow for better control and weight distribution, while the 11-inch handles are long enough to accommodate carrying larger objects. For $10 more, a zip-top closure can be added, which is ideal if you use the bag to haul more valuable cargo. Unlike with the Duck Bag, in this case you have the option of adding an easily accessible external pocket, and it costs just $5 more.
This bag is extremely rugged, and it’s heavy construction makes it difficult to fold up and put away like more pliable canvas bags. That might be a drawback for people who like to store their totes in a closet or under the kitchen counter when not in use. Another potential downside is its appearance: While I personally like the look of the Boat and Tote, some folks at The Sweethome Test Kitchen were put off by its contrast stitching and two-tone coloring. —Thais Wilson-Soler, operations assistant
Who it’s for: Cuyana’s leather tote is a quality bag with clean lines that’s a perfect carryall whether you’re running weekend errands, to the office, or to a night out. If you’re a traditionalist, it comes in black and brown. If you’re a little more adventurous, there are seven other colors to pick from.
Why it’s great: The Cuyana Classic Leather Tote is a beautiful leather bag that retails for less than $200 and looks great with a wide variety of looks. The soft, pebbled textured of the imported Italian leather gives it a refined look, but it’s not so fancy that you’d hesitate to use it every day.
A good leather tote in this price category shouldn’t be so stiff that it stands up on its own like Fossil’s Emma Tote, but it should have enough structure that it doesn’t collapse in on itself. The Cuyana manages to hit this balance just right. Its cow leather construction is soft to the touch, yet doesn’t flop over and block your view of the interior. This makes it easier to open one-handed for fishing out your keys or wallet. Yes it’s $200, but the $100 American Apparel bag I bought previously had much thinner leather that failed to stay open when upright. According to the leather experts I consulted at Sunset Shoe Repair in San Francisco, it’s likely made of sheepskin instead of cow hide.
Measuring 13 by 18 by 5 inches, the Cuyana Classic is a little wider than the similar Transport Tote from Madewell I tested. The Transport is more of a square shape at 14 by 14 by 6 inches and is also plenty roomy. But the extra 2 inches on each side of the Classic are welcome: I was able to easily fit a 12-inch laptop in a sleeve, plus typical purse items and a light jacket inside without any overflow or unsightly bulging. The Cuyana’s soft leather straps are broad enough that they don’t dig into your shoulder should you overload the bag.
My favorite tiny but valuable detail is the 9-inch strap drop, which allowed me to transition from holding the bag’s two straps to pulling it over my shoulder easily with just one hand, despite my longer than average arms. This comes in handy if your hands are full, if you’re on the phone, or if you’re shopping. When I tried this same move with the Transport, which has a 8.25-inch drop, my elbow kept catching on the lip of the bag. If you have shorter arms, this will be less of an issue.
We tested the basic black model, but the Cuyana Classic is the most customizable of leather totes I looked at, coming in nine colors with the option of adding monogrammed initials or a heart, star, or clover stamp for $10 extra. Fossil’s Emma Tote, which also comes in a variety of colors, offers monogramming for free and you can pick from font size options, but the bag costs a bit more to begin with.
We feel good about recommending the Cuyana knowing its high-quality material comes from Italy and that the bag is made here in the US.
Pockets and organization: The appeal of a big tote is the ability to throw a lot of stuff in it and carry it with you everywhere—it’s not a bag for someone who wants to be hyper-organized. The Cuyana does have one small pocket sewn into the interior with a zippered section and an exterior slip, which I found a perfect fit for my iPhone 6 and my public transit card. If your phone won’t fit, the pocket is also a handy place for keys and lip balm.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: Cuyana has only three stores, so it’s not as convenient for most people to check out this bag in person as the more widely distributed Madewell or Fossil bags I tested. But the company’s website does offer free shipping and returns (on non-monogrammed items) after 30 days for credit. There’s no warranty policy listed on its website, however.
If you’d rather walk into a store and buy the bag in person, or just feel better ordering from a more well-known and established brand (the Madewell label is owned by J.Crew), then go ahead and get the Transport Tote. Other than the slight reduction in capacity and a slightly shorter drop height, it’s hard to tell it apart from the Cuyana. It’s also ever-so-slightly cheaper than the Cuyana. However, it’s available in only two colors, brown and black with brown straps, which makes for a more casual look.
One thing we’re concerned about is the recent spate of poor reviews from customers who suspect Madewell has swapped out previously great (and well-reviewed) leather for subpar material in bags sold in the past year. The model we tested seemed fine, but we used it for just a few weeks. Madewell didn’t respond to our request for information about where the leather is sourced from.
To get to the bottom of this, I took both the Transport and the Cuyana to the leather experts at Sunset Shoe Repair here in San Francisco, but they couldn’t point out any noticeable differences in the leather and stitching quality. Also, Wirecutter editor of social media strategy Sasha VanHoven has had one for three years and says that it’s only gotten better over time as it has softened up and acquired a tasteful patina. —Erica Ogg, editor
Who it’s for: The Filson Tote Without Zipper is a higher-end alternative to the more casual canvas totes in this guide. It’s a great option if you’ve been searching for a lightweight, well-constructed tote that can fit in equally well at the office or a weekend brunch. I have the black version, which has unfortunately been phased out, but you can still choose from navy, otter green, and tan to suit your personal style.
Why it’s great: Inexpensive canvas totes are great to have kicking around for a quick grocery trip or yoga class. I have four or five tucked away in my closet, and they’ve taken a lot of abuse in stride. But the Filson is the bag I turn to when I want the catch-all qualities of a canvas tote, but need to look a little more put together. It’s able to suit any occasion, whether I’m going out to dinner or a work session at a local cafe.
As you would expect from a Filson product, it’s exceptionally well-constructed. The canvas is stiff enough that the bag can stand up on its own, and it looks basically brand new after a few months of semi-regular use. There’s no lining, but the inner seams are bound to protect them from fraying. The straps are made from bridle leather, which is elegant and durable (thought it does need to be broken in before it’s entirely comfortable). It’s also supported by Filson’s excellent lifetime warranty that covers any defects or issues from normal wear and tear with a free repair or replacement. Plus, as we mentioned in our briefcase guide, many people have reported fantastic experiences with Filson’s customer service.
Pockets and organization: There’s a main compartment with four side pockets; two are about the same width as the bag and the other two are about the size of a S’well water bottle. The larger side pockets fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro, but since they don’t close, it felt more secure in the main section. There’s also a key clip attached to the seam on one of the larger pockets. It was easy to clip my keys in place and remove them when I needed them, and because the clip is attached by a strap I could easily slip them out of the pocket to get into my apartment building.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The handles on the Filson Tote were uncomfortably stiff in the beginning, enough that I avoided using it with heavy loads. But they softened eventually, just be prepared for some discomfort as you break it in. I also had trouble keeping the straps hiked up on my shoulder, and found one strap sliding off fairly regularly. It required just a quick adjustment, but it can be annoying. I don’t have the broadest shoulders either, so your mileage may vary. —Andrew Kalinchuk, associate managing editor
The Wood & Faulk Tool Tote was a close runner-up to the Filson, for those looking for a softer, more casual canvas bag. Despite a few usability issues, it’s an absolutely gorgeous bag that looks even better after a few months of use. It’s my personal favorite when it comes to aesthetics, and other than the Filson Tote, it’s the bag I end up carrying the most.
The body is made from a water-repellent canvas that develops a handsome patina of scuffs and scratches as you use it. It looks much more expensive than its sub-$185 price would suggest and has netted me a ton of compliments. The Tool Tote is a bit softer than the Filson and takes on a casual, rumpled look that adds to its charm. Like all Wood & Faulk products, it’s built in the USA and manufactured in the company’s own Portland-based workshop. I tested the North Coast Grey variant and prefer the contrasting colors to the more matching medium brown or tan options.
Every color has the same brown leather handles from the SB Foot Tanning Company, owned by Red Wing Shoes. These were comfortable from the beginning (unlike the Filson’s). It helps that the Tool Tote’s handles are sewn together so they have rounder edges than the Filson’s flat straps that can dig into your hands. Like the Timbuk2 Bourbon Tote, the handles of the Tool Tote are too short to slide over your shoulder. It does come with a shoulder strap, though unlike the Bourbon, I preferred to carry the Tool Tote in my hand. That said, it’s easy to have the strap at the ready, too, as you can leave it attached but completely hide it by tucking it into the main compartment. I didn’t, however, like the way the bag hung open when slung over my shoulder—there’s no zipper or magnetic clasps to hold it closed, but it would have been nice to have the option.
Tool Tote is sized similarly to the Filson. I had no trouble filling it with my work essentials and topping it off with a bit of shopping on the way home. Besides the main compartment, there is one pocket on each end of the bag that can accommodate water-bottle–sized items. There are also two pockets on each side of the main compartment, which I used mostly for smaller items like my wallet or keys, though they could fit a Moleskine notebook if needed. The bag is symmetrical, and the older model I tested lacked a way of determining front from back, but Wood & Faulk has since added a small leather label to one side of the bag, so you can easily remember which side you’ve put your keys in.
Who it’s for: Totes are great for lighter loads, but heavier ones place a lot of strain onto a single shoulder. If you’re the type who leaves the house intending to do work at a cafe, but returns with a bag full of groceries, your shoulders will thank you for getting a tote that converts into a backpack.
Why it’s great: A lot of bags that convert from totes to backpacks make sacrifices in backpack performance in order to get things working right as a tote. The Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote does not. It is a fully featured daypack complete with ventilated shoulder straps and stowable waist and chest straps for heavier loads. It also has a full array of pockets you’d expect on a backpack, yet fits into a permanently attached zippered stuff pouch the size of a 99¢ chip bag. That’s why it’s our pick for best packable daypack as well in our guide to the best travel gear.
Most ultralight packs forgo padding and features in the name of lightness, which is fair. But the Patagonia shows that a bit of compromise goes a long way. The back and bottom are lightly padded to keep your back comfortable and the bag’s contents safe. The compression straps on the sides keep everything inside from shifting around when it’s not filled to capacity and can also serve to secure a jacket in a pinch.
I also liked that the shoulder straps can fully stow away by unclipping them at the point of adjustment. The bag looks cleaner in tote mode as a result. This seems less elegant than designs that use the tote handles themselves as the shoulder straps, such as the Marmot Urban Hauler. But in practice, that concept is more clever than comfortable when compared with the Patagonia’s dedicated strap approach.
While the Patagonia has a distinctly outdoorsy aesthetic, it embodies the more fun and whimsical aspect of being outdoors as opposed to the more aggressive, performance-oriented bags from most outdoorsy brands. It’s more “let’s go tidepooling and play Frisbee” than “I’m training for my next summit attempt.” But if the two-toned color schemes are a bit much for you, the all-black version fades readily into the background.
Build quality is excellent. The whole bag is made of water-resistant, ripstop nylon but the top uses a lighter 70D material to save weight while the bottom consists of a more durable, 210D double ripstop material. Both top and bottom are treated with polyurethane, and the top gets an additional silicone coating. As a result, the bag easily sheds light showers, although the merely weather-resistant zipper at the top won’t stand up to a downpour for very long. I’ve had mine for more than two years now and it’s still going strong. But it’s covered by a lifetime warranty should anything happen.
Pockets and organization: The Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote’s 22L capacity refers exclusively to its cavernous main compartment. It’s big enough to fit a laptop, rain jacket, extra layer, and just about anything else you’d need for a day on the town or a hike through the wilderness. The only internal pocket is the pouch it stuffs into, which dangles from the top of the bag. It’s a good size and location for things like earbuds, lip balm, or a USB battery pack. On the front, there’s another zippered flat pocket that’s just barely big enough to fit an iPad Air in its case, but it’s better suited to a Kindle, paperback, or a travel-size first aid kit. On the back, you’ll find a slip pocket (which is where the shoulder straps stow when not in use). It is the perfect size for magazines. Alternatively, you can fit a MacBook (12-inch) or an 11-inch Air, but any computer 13 inches or bigger is a tight squeeze. Finally, you’ll find a deep, elastic water bottle pocket on either side. Both are large enough to accommodate a wide-mouthed Nalgene with no issues.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: While the Patagonia has all the pockets you’d expect from a backpack, it doesn’t have all the organizational features you’d want. There’s no laptop sleeve in the main compartment and no organizer in the front pocket.
We’d prefer if the ventilation from the shoulder straps extended a bit onto the back panel, but it’s unclear if the slight gains in breathability would make up for the increase in bulk.
As for other minor annoyances, while the shoulder straps stow easily when not in use, the tote straps do not. They just dangle when not in use. They’re not super long so it’s not the biggest issue, but that’s an issue in and of itself.
The tote straps are a good length for most people, but can look a little short on taller people. It’s not comical (I hope), but it does look a touch weird.
The Marmot Urban Hauler has the most elegant tote-to-backpack conversion mechanism out of any bag we tested. To go from tote to backpack, you simply yank the straps through the loops and they turn from tote straps to backpack straps that also keep the top closed. It’s a very clever design borrowed from Japanese fishermen’s bags.
Unlike the Patagonia, it has a basic organizer for pens and such in the deep front pocket and a laptop sleeve in the main. There’s also a water bottle pocket on the side (though my bottle did fall out several times during testing due to the lack of elastic at the top) and some light padding on the back panel. The drawstring closure on top easily accommodates a baguette should the need arise. But at 17 inches tall (3 inches more than the Patagonia) the main compartment itself is deep enough to swallow anything shorter. There’s also something charming about its monochromatic, utilitarian appearance. It’s like the bag equivalent of vintage coveralls. Overall, the Urban Hauler is a compelling minimalist backpack. However, the same features that make it a good backpack inhibit its performance as a tote.
The Urban Hauler’s straps and laptop sleeve are stitched perpendicular to each other so that the laptop rests flat against your body in backpack mode, which is how it should be. But in tote mode, the straps and the sleeve need to be parallel in order for your computer to rest flat against your side. The Patagonia solves this issue by having separate straps for tote and backpack use. But the Urban Hauler has only one set of straps that can’t change orientation as you shift between backpack and tote, so you’re still stuck with the perpendicular computer digging into your rib cage. You could ditch the sleeve when carrying it as a tote, but this doesn’t change the fact that in this mode the front pocket is bent in half and on the side, the water bottle pocket is on the front, and the formerly beneficial back padding awkwardly disfiguring one side. Basically, it doesn’t look or feel like it was designed to be used this way. The problems aren’t as pronounced if there’s not a laptop or large book on the inside, but it still feels weird if you like to wear your totes over your shoulder as opposed to carrying them in your hand.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Urban Hauler usually sells for about 30 percent less than the Patagonia. If you like the idea of a minimalist backpack that you’d only sometimes use as a tote, it’s a great buy. —Michael Zhao, associate editor
Who it’s for: If you’re looking for a bag with more storage options than the traditional one-pocket-fits-all approach that zips shut to keep your stuff in and prying eyes out, I’d suggest the WaterField Outback Canvas Travel Tote. It’s both appropriately sized to be a commuter bag and adaptable enough to play double-duty as an overnight bag. It also comes in a larger, “weekender” size if you don’t pack light.
Why it’s great: While I’ve always appreciated the tote form factor, its lack of organization was a big turn off. In order to truly replace a backpack or shoulder bag, I set out to find something with individual pockets to stash my wallet, keys, and maybe a tablet or notebook. Unfortunately, most totes that met these requirements happen to look like diaper bags. The Patagonia Headway Tote is an example of what I wanted to avoid. It’s a quality tote with an abundance of storage options, including a padded laptop sleeve, smartphone holster, and a docking sleeve for attaching to rolling luggage. But even though it may be great for travel or camping use, I’d never wear it as an everyday bag. The Outback is one of the few bags I came across that paired the organizational features I needed with the elegant design I wanted. It’s both simple and attractive.
The Outback’s hardy waxed canvas body and full-grain leather trim and handles picked up some scrapes and scuffs along the way, but the added character only added to the rugged aesthetic. The full-grain leather handles are comfortable and felt secure on my shoulder. The same leather covers the bottom of the Outback, which both reinforces the bag and makes it easy to keep clean. The waxed canvas isn’t waterproof, but it does repel water. I tested it with a spray bottle of water, soaking the sides and zipper closure of the Outback for one minute after filling it with towels. There was some minor leakage around the zipper, but otherwise they stayed dry. While I wouldn’t toss it in a lake, it should protect your gear well enough if you’re caught in a sudden downpour.
I recently spent a month living out of the Outback, and it easily fit all of my electronics and doodads and then some. Among them, a 13-inch MacBook (and charger), iPad Air 2, water bottle, notebook, pens, keys, wallet, battery pack, a few charging cables and wall warts, two pairs of headphones (in-ear and over-ear), and a portable Bluetooth speaker. Plus, there was room left over to shove in a few shirts, a change of pants, and some socks and underwear. The main compartment sports a YKK zipper that helps contain the mess when it’s overstuffed. This comes in handy for sliding it under an airplane seat (it fits, by the way). Packing is a breeze since it’s sturdy enough to stand upright, and large enough to swallow whatever you toss into it. I also appreciated the bright gold, reflective lining in the main compartment that brightened the interior, making it easier to find items that tumbled to the bottom.
Pockets and organization: Aside from the Outback’s huge main compartment, there are four main internal pockets. Two of them could fit a Moleskine notebook, one is the perfect size for a 9.7-inch iPad, and the last is a zippered compartment (with a YKK zipper) that has two smaller pockets great for tucking away your wallet, keys, or even a pair of in-ear headphones. Since they’re enclosed by the zipper, it’s also a good place to store things you wouldn’t want bouncing around with the rest of your stuff like charging cables, a passport, or gaming system.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: I travel a lot with my MacBook so the lack of a laptop compartment isn’t ideal, especially with a bag of this size. It’s less of an issue if you’re okay leaving your computer naked or using a separate laptop sleeve, but not everyone wants to do that. —Andrew Kalinchuk, associate managing editor
If the Outback’s utilitarian style doesn’t suit your tastes, the Timbuk2 Bourbon Tote has a more refined, office-friendly look that’s very similar to our favorite briefcase. It’s taller and slimmer than the Outback, and wouldn’t make a good overnight bag, but it was still able to accommodate an unplanned late-night grocery shop. The waxed canvas is practical and sturdy like the Outback’s, but the leather used to accent it is smoother, more refined. One particularly slick feature is its magnetic closure mechanism. Instead of a zipper, it has four built-in magnets at the base of each handle that hold the main compartment together. I have the gray canvas/black leather version, but it also comes in black/black or a tan/brown option. All in all, it’s much sleeker than the Outback.
The Bourbon has a padded laptop sleeve with a magnetic flap, which made it easy to slip my MacBook in and out; no button or clasp to wrangle. There are smaller pockets to hold your keys, headphones, pens, wallet, or phone (depending on its size). My iPhone 7 Plus with Apple’s silicone case wouldn’t fit, though it slid in perfectly without the case. A non-Plus iPhone or similarly sized device would fit fine. There are also two roomier pockets on the front. They’re covered by a leather flap, but I found the closures were easy enough to open and close one-handed once I got used to them.
The Bourbon’s handles are wrapped in a soft leather that’s comfortable to hold once you’ve worked them in a bit. But they are too short to slide over your shoulder. Thankfully, it comes with a detachable shoulder strap that’s very comfortable to wear. It’s soft, woven, and wider than most straps I’ve used, which helps distribute the weight on your shoulder and keeps it from sliding off. Unlike with the similarly styled Wood & Faulk Tool Tote, I actually preferred using the Timbuk2’s shoulder strap over its handles. It makes the Bourbon feel like it’s part tote and part messenger bag.