I first heard about Tom Bihn from John Gruber on an episode of The Talk Show. They were discussing good iPad bags and Tom Bihn’s Ristretto came up. I had just gotten an iPad like everyone else and was looking for a great bag for it. I planned on ordering it while on a visit back home to the US, but it was out of stock. It was something I wasn’t accustomed to. Tom Bihn is frequently out of stock of certain colors of bags. It’s partly because they’re great bags and just sell out, but also because these things are carefully made in just one shop in Washington. If you want to buy one in a store, you have to visit their shop in Seattle. They aren’t mass market bags. And because of that, there is more thought and care put into the design and manufacture of these bags than of any bag I’ve ever used.
I had a very cool bag that came for free with Grand Theft Auto 4. (Hold your laughter.) It was a big duffel bag and had a good looking Rockstar monogram on the inside liner. It was thin and felt slightly cheap, but it was a great size for the gym. I also took it to the grocery store on my bike. One day, I had an extra heavy load of food in the bag and the straps just snapped off like the Macho Man attacking a Slim Jim. Ever since that day, I’ve been obsessed with the bindings that bags use on straps and handles. All the Tom Bihn bags have reinforced bindings on their straps, and they look like it’d take even a Rottweiler gnawing on them for a few hours to rip them apart. Tom Bihn also uses ballistic nylon for their bags. They are tough bags, and throughout my travels through airports from Ohio to Japan, I never worried about the bags ever being damaged. It was also very important for the zippers on any bags I used to be YKK zippers. I’ve had nothing but trouble from cheap zippers, and more than once I’ve wound up throwing a bag in the bin because of the zippers breaking, and it was easier to just lose the bag than to replace the zipper. The people at Tom Bihn must also believe like I do, because on every product page they state that each product uses YKK zippers. Don’t accept anything but the best zippers.
The bag I was most interested in testing out was the Aeronaut. It’s touted as the largest size a bag can be and still be a carry-on. When compared to most duffel bags, the Aeronaut might seem a little strange. With most duffel bags, you sit the bag on its bottom and unzip open longways from end to end. Most of the time you end up with one gigantic compartment with a couple smaller pockets on the inside. With the Aeronaut, you lay the bag down on its backside (not the backside your grandma switched you on) and unzip a large U-shaped flap that flips back to reveal the Aeronaut’s main compartment. It’s a rather large one, that will fit close to a week’s worth of clothing (assuming you’re not wearing a fresh pair of jeans every day). If you’re using the bag for a business trip, you could get three days worth of clothes in their with multiple sets. I don’t think you’d wanna be cramming a suit into the Aeronaut, however. It’s far too cramped for that. If you’re not a suit-wearing traveler, you could definitely get away with just this bag for a long weekend. On my most recent trip back to Japan, I used the Aeronaut not as a bag for hauling clothing, but for all the electronics and fragile souvenirs I picked up while in the US. Anything that I didn’t trust the baggage handlers wouldn’t smash went into the Aeronaut. Even with a stack of 10 video games, an Airport Extreme, portable game systems, all the cables associated with said electronics, the Aeronaut had plenty of room left to even put my Co-Pilot (more on that in a few paragraphs) in the bag. Oh, I even got a neck pillow fully inside the bag at the same time. There’s even a mesh flap pocket on the inside of the main compartment that’s great for tucking away things you might need to find and get out quickly (think liquids).
The Aeronaut has two very large end compartments as well. I read on the Tom Bihn customer forums (they’re fans are so crazy about Tom Bihn that they chat with each other about the bags!) that the end compartments can fit a US size 12 pair of sneakers. I wear a size 12 so as soon as I got the bag from UPS I immediately tried stuffing my shoes in the end compartments. I’m pleased to report that they fit just fine, and even dressier shoes that are slightly wider fit without undue finagling. On the flight to Japan, I wound up using one of the ends for an extra set of clothes (in case my checked luggage was lost) and the other one for a bunch of cables. The ends make a great place for longer than average items that you couldn’t find room for in your main compartment. These compartments would also make a good spot for putting dirty clothes to keep them separate from your clean ones. There’s also one additional but smaller zipped pocket on one of the ends. I wound up using this as a place to stick a book I forgot until the last minute. It’s a bit shorter than the real end compartments and substantially less roomy too. On the other end, there’s on final pocket that has no zipper. I struggled to figure out what the purpose of this pocket was. I didn’t want to put anything in there for fearing of something falling out as I schlepped the bag around from airport to airport. I poked around on the Tom Bihn site and couldn’t find a stated purpose either. Lastly, the ends have handles attached so that you can grab onto the bag easily from not just the top usual handle, but from either end, making it easy to pull the bag up off the floor or out of overhead compartments onboard the plane.
There are three ways you can carry the Aeronaut. The first and by far the most useful way is using the built-in backpack straps. For me, the most useful feature of the Aeronaut is the backpack straps that you can hide away inside the back itself. There’s a zipper on the bottom of the bag that opens up to reveal very comfortable straps. You pull them out the top and snap them into place at the bottom of the bag. There’s a cross-chest belt attached as well. If you don’t need the straps, you can unclip them, tuck them back away, and no one but you would even know they’re there. The straps have their own space and never get in the way of the stuff you want to carry. Except for when I was stowing the bag overhead, I used the Aeronaut as a backpack. I was able to keep my hands free while walking around the airport and I didn’t wind up with aches in one shoulder from the over-the-shoulder bag I would’ve been using. Wearing the Aeronaut as a backpack also came in handy onboard the plane too, since I could keep it on my back during boarding and deplaning. When not using the bag as a backpack, there’s a sturdy handle that you can use as well. Adding to the backpack straps and the regular handle, there are also rings for a shoulder strap. I remembered hearing John Gruber on The Talk Show mentioning how nice the “Absolute Strap” was, so I made sure to add it to my order. The strap is an extra $30, but it’s very comfortable, with just a bit of stretch to it so that it will usually stay in place as you move around, even though you may be pulling at it.
If you couldn’t already tell, I love my Aeronaut. Yes, it’s my Aeronaut. Get your own. I have a couple small complaints about it though. First, the handle on the bag splits in two, but it’s not like it’s splitting the sides of the bag like normal duffel bags. There’s no zipper to be found on the side of the bag where the handle is, and yet it splits out. It even has one of those wrapping grips that snaps closed to keep the two parts of the handle together. Unless you’re splitting the handle so that two people could stand on either side and hold the bag up between the two of them, I don’t see any reason why the handle needs to be this way. Doesn’t affect my use of the Aeronaut in any way, but it seems odd.
Second, as I mentioned before, there’s a pocket on one of the ends that doesn’t zip shut. Maybe there’s some guy out there with a crazy long thing he wants to travel with, but for me, having a zipper on this pocket would prove much more useful, as I was afraid to put anything in there for fear of losing it.
My third and final gripe is that the bag doesn’t come with zipper pulls. The smaller and cheaper Co-Pilot came with zipper pull cords and tabs to make grabbing zippers easier. For some reason, the Aeronaut doesn’t come with any. I didn’t realize the bag didn’t come with them, or I would’ve bought a set for it. The pulls can be purchased separately on Tom Bihn’s site and only cost $3. I would’ve ordered another set but my flight was just a couple days after the bags arrived, and the flat rate shipping (while great for large orders) would’ve cost four times the cost of the product for even the slowest delivery method.
If you’re going to buy an Aeronaut, I have a few additions you’ll want to make to your order. The bag is already going to run you $240, but you might want to add on these things as well.
- Buy a set of zipper pulls. You’ll thank me later. The zippers aren’t hard to get a hold of, but the pulls are much nicer.
- Get some packing cubes. These zipped bags meant for separation aren’t necessary but I wish I had a couple. They would’ve helped keep the contents of my Aeronaut a little more organized after sliding around overhead. There’s also a Packing Cube Backpack ($40) that can be turned inside out and used as a packing cube inside the bag, and then turned right side out later to be used as a backpack. It could be quite useful as a secondary bag to take out of the hotel room during your trip.
- You might want to check out the Snake Charmer if you should happen to carry a lot of cables with you. The Snake Charmer was designed with computer backpacks in mind, but it would fit in an Aeronaut, no problem.
- Check out the 3D Clear Organizer Cube ($30) for all your liquids. Going through security and having to pull out your tiny soaps and shampoos can be a real pain, but it doesn’t have to be. While the 3D cube is pricier than a ziplock bag, it’s tougher, more secure and will last you a lot longer.
- Lastly, I might recommend getting one of Tom Bihn’s lights ($20). You can clip it on to the D-ring inside the Aeronaut, and might make it easier when digging around in the dark.
If the Aeronaut is the perfect carry-on bag, the Co-Pilot is the perfect personal bag, as long as you have a small computer. My traveling computer is an 11-inch MacBook Air. (I’m sitting on a train, writing this review on one!) Should you happen to happen to use a small-form notebook computer, the Co-Pilot can be used as a briefcase and still have room for a few other things you’ll need while onboard a plane. If you have a large laptop, the Co-Pilot may not be for you. But if the computer you’ll be pulling out while flying is a netbook or an iPad, you’ll be happy with the Co-Pilot.
The main compartment of the Co-Pilot is just wide enough to fit an 11-inch MacBook Air inside a Tom Bihn Cache sleeve, or an iPad with plenty of room to spare. While traveling to Japan last month, I was able to fit my 11-inch MBA, my iPad, and my Kindle all into the main compartment of the Co-Pilot. Inside the main part of the bag, there are two pockets for separating out documents and books. The pockets were great for keeping my passport and boarding passes together, and I’ve seen people fit Lonely Planet guides into the pockets too. On the back of the bag, there’s an open pocket that’s just the right size to fit a magazine or two into your bag. There’s also a zipper that opens up to allow you to slide the Co-Pilot down over the handle of wheeled luggage. Better yet, there’s a small lip even after unzipping the sleeve so that even if you put the bag onto the wheeled luggage’s handle, your magazines won’t fall out. It’s a brilliant little touch that blew my mind.
On the front of the bag, there are three pockets. In the right pocket (if you’re wearing the bag) is a pocket with padding for a phone. I didn’t see specific mention of the iPhone on the Tom Bihn web site, but it just so happens that it fit my iPhone 4 like a glove. After that, there was still plenty of room for my wallet and I affixed my keys with the included strap to a ring inside the pocket. Inside the left pocket, there are slots for pens and pencils, another ring, and enough room to fit a compact video camera. In my case, I popped my 3DS in there with no trouble. In the middle is maybe the coolest thing I’ve seen on a bag ever. There’s a pocket that zips straight up and down and is designed specifically for a bottle. There’s a small hole at the bottom of the pocket to allow condensation from the bottle to drip out of the bag and not pool up inside the bag. In order to keep my purchases at the airport to a minimum, I took a Bobble water bottle that filters the water as you drink it so that I could fill it up at drinking fountains and keep the bottle in my Co-Pilot. Saved myself a few bucks!
Even after my flights were over, the Co-Pilot quickly became my everyday bag when I knew I wouldn’t be carrying much stuff. It surely won’t replace a backpack when you need that much extra space, but for walking around town and keeping the essentials handy, the Co-Pilot is pretty great. If you’re thinking about getting the Co-Pilot, definitely get an Absolute Strap since unlike the Aeronaut, you will be putting the Co-Pilot over your shoulder. The bag comes with cord zipper pulls, so no need to buy an extra set for this bag. If you want to want to attach multiple items to the O-rings in the bag, you might want to pick up an extra clip strap when purchasing the bag. If you have a netbook, an iPad or a Kindle, definitely check out Tom Bihn’s line of sleeves. I use the MacBook Air Cache sleeve everyday and it’s been great. Most sleeves use velcro or zippers, but the Cache uses just a flap that tucks inside the the sleeve. I worried that if would be secure, but surprisingly, the Cache’s flap manages to hold in the Air even when turned upside down. Don’t test your luck with it too often though!
I’d like to thank Tom Bihn for building the best bags I’ve ever used. I’d also like to say that they’ve utterly ruined all other bags for me. Every time I use any other bags, they feel cheap and unworthy of use. I’m going to have to replace my backpack with a Tom Bihn Synapse backpack, I need to replace my iPad and Kindle sleeves, I’m going to have to buy a new awesome 3D Clear Organizer Cube to replace my flimsy liquids bag that I’d been using for security checks, and my messenger bag I’ve been using for work is going to have to be replaced by an Empire Builder If you’re a serious bag enthusiast (those people exist, right?) then you have to check out Tom Bihn’s offerings. They certainly cost more than a lot of the bags on the market, but they’re durable enough to last years and years, and the layouts of their bags are more forward-thinking and better suited for their tasks than any bags I’ve used before.