(Psst, this post contains affiliate links, which means if you purchase something through one of my links, I get a commission at no extra cost to you. You should also know that Forbes & Lewis sent me these two bags for review for free. I did not promise a positive review, and all opinions here are my own.)
If you know me, you already know that staying stylish while living out of a bag is a priority for me. I travel mostly in Europe and mostly in places where shabby purses and cheap t-shirts stand out like a sore thumb.
What you might not know is that I’ve gone through a lot of travel purses over the years, never quite able to settle on a single brand or style.
Part of the reason for this is that when you live out of a bag and travel full-time, your stuff gets a lot of use and wears out quicker than it does when you’re staying put.
Another part of the reason is that I had trouble finding things that met all of my needs as a long-term traveler.
I wanted a travel purse that was:
:: Stylish/beautiful – something I could wear with nice jeans or a dress
:: Big enough to trek my computer, camera, and other necessities to a coffee shop or around town if needed
:: Sturdy enough to last without starting to look shabby
And recently I realized that maybe what I’m looking for isn’t a purse at all. Maybe the best travel purse is actually a travel backpack made with high quality materials and in a classic style that goes with everything.
This spring, I put that theory to the test, taking two Forbes & Lewis backpacks – one made from recycled leather and the second a canvas bag with leather details – out for the day in cities like Bern, Switzerland; Paris, France; Colmar, France; and Tallinn, Estonia.
The bags have taken train journeys and plane rides. They’ve trekked through major cities to cool coffee shops and colorful farmers markets and through forested pathways in Swiss farmland. They’ve been packed into larger bags and carried as carry-ons. And I’ve done my best to test them out in a variety of common travel scenarios so that I could give a thorough answer to the question: Is the best travel purse really a backpack?
So, three months in, how am I feeling about my Forbes & Lewis bags?
The short answer is pretty damn good, and if they look good to you, you can buy one here.
The long answer, for those who want more details, is below…
Littlehampton canvas backpack: my pick for avid travelers
The Littlehampton Backpack in canvas comes in several colors. I have the racing green, but the black also looks very sleek. The pack is mostly made out of a sturdy, water-resistant canvas with touches of real leather.
The interior features a padded laptop pocket (made to fit a 13-inch computer), plus two smaller pockets on the outside of said pocket and several loops for pens (which I actually also use to carry utensils since I often eat at farmers markets or grab yogurt from the grocery store while I’m out and about).
The interior also has a zippered pocket and two mesh pockets.
On the exterior, you’ll find a small pocket cleverly sewn into one of the straps so that you can easily store and access things you need often, like tram tickets or passes (and, indeed, I used this pocket often when riding the metro through Paris and when taking the trams in Tallinn).
Another clever pocket zips along the exterior where the backpack sits against your back. If you’re concerned about pick-pockets in a city you’re visiting, this hidden pocket is probably a good place to store something like a passport or other important travel documents.
So, why is this my top pick for travelers?
Firstly, because it’s light and while it does have structure (which I appreciate), it’s also flexible enough to pack compactly into another bag for air or train travel if you so desire.
Secondly, the flexible nature of the fabric means I can fit a little bit more into this bag vs. my leather Littlehampton. I have used this bag to carry – at one time – my laptop, my computer cord, a notebook, my iPad, my camera (the size of a small DSLR), a large water bottle, a poncho, dog treats, and the usual suspects of wallet, change purse, pens, sunscreen, lip balm, and a small first-aid kit.
As you can see from the photos, this isn’t a huge hiking pack and it still looks really good even though it fits so much stuff if you need it to.
How does the Littlehampton backpack match up with my criteria?
Stylish: Yes. I like how it looks and I feel like the core colors go with everything. I’ve worn it with jeans and skirts and felt good about it both ways.
Spacious: Yes. There are times that I need to carry a lot of stuff (as noted above) and so far I’ve been able to fit everything I need into the canvas pack.
Sturdy: So far, yes. I’ve only been using the pack for three months and usually if my purses fail it takes at least six, so I’ll keep this updated as time goes on. But so far I’m very happy with the overall quality.
The only construction issue we’ve run into is that the leather end-piece fell off one of the drawstrings. We put it right back on with no problem, but possibly worth mentioning that they do not appear to be sewn or glued onto the drawstrings, so if you tug on them enough one might pop off.
Any downsides to the canvas Littlehampton backpack?
It’s worth noting that the leather strap closure is extremely tight when it arrives. It took us awhile to wear it in and the first month or so of use I had a hard time closing and opening the closure. This is not a long-term problem, as the closure is already a lot easier to open after three months and I expect it’ll wear in even more over time, but be prepared for a holy-moly-this-is-tight moment when your bag arrives.
The second thing worth noting is that as a petite person, the place where the backpack straps meet with a piece of metal (meant to adjust strap length) sometime rubs against my inner arms. I don’t notice it anymore now that I’ve moved on to long-sleeve shirts, but I did notice it mid summer in shorter sleeves.
Littlehampton leather backpack: my pick for style
The Littlehampton leather backpack is similar to the canvas, but made from sturdy buffalo leather. The leather means that, at least at first, it’s less flexible than the canvas option and heavier. But it also makes it look really good.
The exterior has a wax finish that’s water repellent (very good for our time here in rainy Estonia since I don’t want to wreck the leather). And the interior features a padded laptop pocket (made to fit a 13-inch computer), plus two smaller pockets on the outside of said pocket and several loops for pens. There’s also a zippered pocket on the other side of the interior.
So, why is this my top pick for style?
Well, the style kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? It’s simple, but thoughtfully designed. I like the metal accents and the closure on this one is much easier to open than the canvas version. Leather also gets more beautiful over time, so I’m looking forward to the beauty of the aging process.
How does the Littlehampton leather backpack match up with my criteria?
Stylish: Yes. I love the leather and am looking forward to how it’ll age.
Spacious: Mostly, yes. This pack is actually the same size as the canvas pack, but the flexibility of the canvas pack means I can pack in a few more things with that version.
Sturdy: Absolutely. This feels incredibly well made.
Any downsides to the leather Littlehampton backpack?
Yet again, being petite came with some challenges with this bag. The straps actually have these wide leather add-ons meant to create extra padding. But because they were so wide, they actually rubbed against my arms in a not-so-comfortable way.
The good news is that they’re removable. I took them off (which was very easy to do) and have been using the pack without them for a week or so now. So far, it’s more comfortable and it still looks great.
But wait…isn’t Forbes & Lewis for men?
When I did some research on what people search for when they’re looking for a Forbes & Lewis bag, I was surprised to see that most of the searches had the word “men” in them. People were searching for stylish bags, leather backpacks, canvas packs…for men.
And don’t get me wrong, these sturdy, handsome bags would look good on someone with a scruffy jawline and some rolled up shirtsleeves (I know because Chad keeps asking to borrow my bags). But are they made for men? Certainly not.
The designs are very gender neutral, which is something I particularly like about them. I can pair them with something traditionally feminine or traditionally masculine and feel equally good about the match-up.
People ask me often what’s in my bag. When you’re a digital nomad living on the road, when every pound, every bit of space is precious, what do you choose to carry?
So here’s part of the answer this summer and fall. I tossed my old purse in the donation bin the moment these arrived and I’m looking forward to seeing how they hold up over time.
If the styles resonate with you, too, you can pick yours up here.