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Face off: Tote bags vs Backpacks

​​There are two kinds of people in St Andrews. One gets up at dawn, goes to the gym, wears hoodies, drinks black coffee, and lugs around a Nike backpack full of textbooks.

The other gets up at midday and rocks up at their lectures ten minutes late, immaculately dressed and accessorised, holding a Pret coffee and complaining about how early it is. This person carries a tote bag, a Chilly’s bottle, and an innate air of superiority. I am this person.

This year I finally bought a rucksack — two in fact (I got over excited on eBay) — to help with my commute from Dundee. Having had the rare opportunity to compare the two modes of book transportation in St Andrews, here are my conclusions.

Tote bags get a point for sheer capacity. This might sound off, but the joy of the tote is that it’s infinitely stuffable. You can stuff things into them until they’re bulging at the seams. Then you can pull out another tote bag (because they’re so small you can stuff them anywhere) and fill that one too. Tote bag 1, backpack 0.

They’re also very easy to get stuff out of. Unfortunately, that includes your water bottle falling out from the back row of Purdie lecture theatre A and rolling all the way to the front. Maybe that’s part of the tote bag’s appeal though — it screams “I’m rich enough I don’t care when my MacBook falls out” as you fling it effortlessly onto the desk with one hand and unwrap your scarf with the other. However, I prefer my stuff in one piece, so it’s a point each.

Carrying any bag on one shoulder will destroy your spine. My grandma still walks with a lilt thanks to her high school satchel. Tote bags give you no choice but to suffer (unless you have one tote on each shoulder which slightly damages the effortless cool factor). The backpack pulls ahead!

On the subject of practicality, the biggest revelation to me has been the backpack’s pockets. So much organisational potential! The issue, of course, is that all I ever use it for is carrying my laptop, a bottle, and some shopping. I have no use for the little stationery pockets because I am not a nine-year-old girl. I can appreciate their appeal though. Tote bag 2, backpack 2.

Unfortunately, with the ability to carry a lot comes the temptation to carry everything, crippling your back in the process. Plus, the dark interior of a rucksack means pens, receipts, apple cores, and partner’s jewellery quickly sink to the bottom, never to be seen again. I once left an unsealed sambuca bottle in my tote bag and the sticky liquid immediately seeped through to notify me. A convenient feature. A further point to the tote.

The final argument is aesthetics. No matter how beautifully designed my baby-blue Herschel bag is, the tote will always win here. A tote bag’s charm is in its cheapness, you can have a dozen — one to match every mood or outfit. Whichever you choose says something about your personality. For example, when a friend saw me with a CalSoc tote, they immediately exclaimed “I didn’t know you were a Tory”. The potential to offend is certainly higher with a printed tote bag but you can play this to your advantage. My little brother collects bags for just this purpose — turning up at school with bags from BAE Systems, Windscale nuclear power plant, and HM Prison service. Still, better than a backpack, that just says, “I’m a nerd”.

Final scores: Tote bag 4, backpack 2.

The winner seems clear. However, something more complex is going on here. A clear undertone has developed in my analysis, the tote bag/backpack debate is a microcosm of the divides that cut through St Andrews. Artists vs scientists. Men vs women. Rich vs poor. The tote bag is a status symbol, a marker of identity. The backpack is utilitarian, unassuming and democratic. Tote bags are stupid, cliquey, elitist, and value aesthetics over any practical application.

Should it surprise you then that I’d choose the tote every time? I am an art history student after all!

Illustration by Otto Heffer

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