When the good folks at Tom Bihn heard I was planning a trek to Alaska this summer, they were kind enough to send me some gear to test out during my travels. I was scheduled to make a stop at the Tom Bihn store and factory in Seattle but unfortunately a missed flight meant we lost a day in Seattle and thus missed the tour of Tom Bihn. However, I can tell you about some of the awesome gear I got to test out.
I'm a sucker for a good bag. Over the years I've collected a number of bags from different companies but more often than not after a trip or two they end up being handed down to family members or taken to Goodwill because they either don't last or just don't fit my needs. I've had a couple of Tom Bihn bags over the years and they're all still in use. Perhaps what sets Tom Bihn bags apart from most is their attention to detail and high quality standards. These truly are bags you can use for years and after you dust them off they'll look as good as the day you bought them.
My goal for the Alaska trip was to travel as minimally as possible, preferably without checking any luggage. That's no easy task because I had to pack formal attire for the cruise ship (if you ask me is ridiculous - who goes on vacation to dress up?), traditional summer clothes and cool weather attire for higher elevations. Fortunately, we had access to laundry facilities and although we were gone for 16 days I could pack less and do laundry in the middle.
Darcy at Tom Bihn recommended the Aeronaut with some packing cubes. The Aeronaut is one of the largest bags Tom Bihn sells but is still carry-on friendly. With careful packing, I found you can fit about a 7 days worth of clothes in the Aeronaut. There are no wheels, it's designed for grab and go. You can either sling it over your shoulder, carry it by the handle like a briefcase or convert it into a backpack. Wheels are nice for large luggage, but they can bog you down if you just want to pick up and dart through a crowd. A full Aeronaut can get heavy so I'd recommend adding on the Absolute shoulder strap for a little more cushion and give. I've upgraded to the Absolute strap on almost all my Tom Bihn bags and I've found it makes a huge difference in fatigue, even when just carrying a MacBook Air around a convention center all day long.
The Aeronaut has a couple of compartments. One main compartment with two large pockets on each end. I organized my clothes using two large packing cubes in the main compartment (hat tip to Alex Lindsay for recommending packing cubes on our MPU Travel Show) and still had room for accessories and toiletries. In one end compartment I fit a pair of dress shoes and a pair of water shoes and in the other I organized undergarments and accessories in a smaller packing cube. The packing cube method worked well because the first couple days of our trip we were traveling and I was able to quickly grab items and put the cubes back without unpacking the entire bag.
If you've been through airport security lately you know you have to keep liquids separate. I used a 3D Clear Organizer Cube as a 3-1-1 bag. I've always used Ziploc bags before but the clear organizer cube worked great because it would hold more, was reusable and significantly more durable. I'll never use another plastic bag again.
The other bag I took on my trip was the Synapse 19, which is a mid-size backpack. When traveling with backpacks my previous strategy had always been the bigger, the better. But in reality, I was just carrying around a lot of extra bulk and weight I didn't need and the larger bag made it more difficult to fit under airplane seats and other tight quarters. (For those who want a bigger bag, the Synapse 25 is a larger version without being overwhelming). Inside the Synapse 19 I carried "everything else." On this trip that included my iPad, travel keyboard, all my power bricks, cords and accessories, sunglasses, camera, wallet, travel documents, magazine, snacks, water, a jacket and anything else I picked up throughout the day. The Synapse 19 was large enough to handle all this and more.
Perhaps my unexpected favorite feature of the Synapse 19 is that the front center pocket is just the right size to fit a 1-liter water bottle. I've tried to be more diligent about regularly carrying a water bottle and water is very expensive when traveling so having my own bottle helped. The pocket is in the front center of the backpack so the weight of the water bottle is evenly distributed and you're not being poked in the back by the bottle. If you don't carry a water bottle, I'm sure you'll find a dozen different uses for the pocket.
The Synapse has five zippered pockets which I found is enough to organize your things, but not too many that it's overwhelming. One main compartment, one compartment I used for my water bottle, a smaller compartment at top for quick-access items, two side pockets which are the perfect size for cell phones, cameras or sunglasses, and one large pocket across the bottom that will either fit an organizer pouch or a rolled up jacket. Most of the time I used a 3D Mesh Organizer Cube in the bottom pocket where I carried all my cables, AC adapters, spare batteries and other electronic accessories. The Synapse 19 is chalked full of organization features so it can be customized for your needs including pen/pencil slots, a business card holder, and O-rings that you can use to attach a number of accessories.
The main compartment of the Synapse will accommodate a laptop. If you're going to regularly travel with your laptop you may want to pickup a Cache or Cache with Rails to protect your notebook. If you opt for the Cache with Rails you can secure the laptop to the O-rings at the top of the backpack and make the bag checkpoint friendly. There's also a open-top pocket that will easily accommodate an iPad, books or any other items you don't want commingled in the main compartment.
Now that I'm home, I find the Synapse 19 is my "go bag" for everyday use. I keep a couple of accessories like AC chargers and cables in the 3D Mesh organizer in the bottom pocket and a Cache notebook sleeve permanently in the bag. Depending on what I have going on I can load up my MacBook Air, my iPad, a water bottle, and a change of clothes, gym shoes and a snack with room to spare. The Synapse 19 was so popular on vacation, my mom has decided she needs one too but is having a little trouble deciding on the color (there are about a dozen to choose from.)
My thanks to Darcy and the kind folks at Tom Bihn for gearing me up for my trip. I'm so sorry I wasn't able to make it out to the factory, but I plan to be back one day.