The once typical view of a missionary knocking on a door with a backpack in tow is no longer a reality. Missionaries are no longer allowed to use backpacks, and some BYU returned missionaries believe the transition to shoulder bags was for safety and style reasons.
The LDS missionary website is clear on the matter: “Backpacks are not allowed. If you need to carry additional items, you are encouraged to choose shoulder bags that are durable, professional and business-like.”
The change came in 2013 when missionaries received new standards of dress and grooming. Backpacks were banned, along with big belt buckles, skinny ties and fishnets.
Stores selling mission-approved clothes and supplies had to change their approach to carrying cases.
Mr. Mac sales consultant Neil Evans said the rule to ban backpacks helped increase sales for shoulder bags.
“The change in policy actually prompted someone to invent a new brand of shoulder bag,” Evans said. “The Zion Bag has been one of our more popular items in place of backpacks.”
The change had the biggest effect on missionaries in the field at the time.
The new policy came in the middle of BYU alumna Katie Pike’s mission in New Orleans. She believes one reason for the change was to avoid safety concerns for missionaries in certain areas.
“They told us backpacks looked unprofessional. That was the main reason,” Pike said. “But some elders brought up that they were more likely to get robbed with a backpack.”
Backpacks could invite attacks and theft.
“There was one set of elders in my mission who were robbed for their backpacks,” Pike said. “They were serving in the inner city part of the area. We were told to be careful and to keep our eyes open after that.”
BYU student Tommy Tautkus said the new bags keep technology and books safer while missionaries travel in public places.
“In crowded places it was easy for people to unzip the pocket of your backpack, because you had your back turned,” Tautkus said. “With a side bag, you could pull it in front and keep a hand on it.”
BYU student Zac Pritchett had a hard time adjusting to the new standard in the middle of his mission.
“The change was a pain in the butt,” Pritchett said. “Backpacks were definitely more convenient. But shoulder bags looked better. Some elders would wear their backpacks over their suit coats. It looked bad.”
Pike said the new policy could also change the way investigators perceive missionaries and the church.
“The church tries to put out an image that’s professional and mature, but modest,” Pike said. “The shoulder bags do that well.”