Now that I travel more frequently for both work and dance, I have started caring more about the luggage and bags I use. This year I discovered Tom Bihn, a small US company based in Seattle. I have been regularly using one of their backpacks (the Synapse 19), and a briefcase/messenger bag (the Pilot). I love these bags and highly recommend them. I have also started testing one of their larger bags, the Aeronaut 30, but I’m not yet ready to do a full review of it.

Synapse 19

I love my Synapse 19. I use it everyday, and it can fit far more things than I expected for a bag so small. The main compartment can hold a fair bit (my 15” Macbook Pro fits in without a problem with a pair of dress/dance shoes and an iPad Pro). The front part of the bag contains four smaller compartments. The genius of the bag design is that when you stuff the main compartment, it doesn’t rob space from these front compartments. Having a dedicated water bottle compartment in the centre of the bag also helps keep the bag from feeling off balanced. I didn’t realise just how important this feature is for making a backpack feel more comfortable. Scattered throughout the bag are tiny o-rings for attaching smaller organisation pouches or keys. These o-rings have changed the way I pack and use my bag. Finally, Tom Bihn has just introduced an optional internal frame to help the bag keeps its shape better. I’m looking forward to trying this out when mine arrives. 

There has been much digital ink spilled writing praises about the Synapse 19 (and it’s bigger sibling the Synapse 25). I don’t have much else to add, other than this is the best bag I’ve ever owned. Khalil Gibran once said “Work is love made visible.” Every time I use this bag the love and care that went into it is palpable. I’ll never design a bag, but wearing the Synapse reminds me of the level of mastery, excellence, and craftmanship that I aspire to in my professional and personal life.

Pilot

While the Synapse 19 can be unassuming, it isn’t the most professional bag. For the past month I’ve been trying out the Tom Bihn Pilot–a kind of briefcase/messenger bag better suited for more professional settings. What I like about this bag is that, like the Synapse 19, it qualifies as a personal item on airlines. I tested the bag in both a ballistic material and in a lighter Halycon material. There isn’t much difference between the two of them, and I decided to keep the ballistic version as I liked the look of it a bit better. Normally, I don’t like shoulder bags, or carrying bags cross-body, but the Tom Bihn Absolute strap helps make things much more comfortable. The Pilot also comes in a smaller version, the Co-Pilot, for those looking for an even more compact bag.

The Tom Bihn Pilot fits easily under the seat of a United aircraft with room for my legs. Pictured above in the seat pocket is the Tom Bihn small Snake Charmer that I use to hold all my cables, earphones, batter backup, and snacks. The Snake Charmer fits perfectly in either front pocket of the Pilot.

The Tom Bihn Pilot fits easily under the seat of a United aircraft with room for my legs. Pictured above in the seat pocket is the Tom Bihn small Snake Charmer that I use to hold all my cables, earphones, batter backup, and snacks. The Snake Charmer fits perfectly in either front pocket of the Pilot.

Something I had been looking for online, but hadn’t found was how much the Pilot could hold in comparison to the roller bag I typically use as a carry on. As shown in the video, I can use the Pilot as a super packing cube, allowing me to pack roughly half of what I would normally fit into my TravelPro wheeled suitcase. The front pockets are great for fitting in smaller packing cubes (Tom Bihn sells packing cubes for the Pilot, but I’ve found the Eagle Creek packing cubes to work as well). The problem I have with the front pockets, though, is that they are so tall that it is easy to lose loose items in them. I think having one of the front pockets be split into two stacked pockets would make it easier to organise my things. Having these be each half the height of the current pocket, or a 1/3 and 2/3 height split would allow me to use them like I do the side pockets of my Synapse 19. I also wish that these pockets had two o-rings per front pocket instead of just one. Right now I have to reach further into the pocket to find my key strap than I’d like. 

Using the Tom Bihn Pilot as a "super packing cube" that fills up half of my TravelPro carry on suitcase. Inside the Pilot are two small Eagle Creek packing cubes and a medium packing cube along with an umbrella. The Pilot only takes up a bit more room than the packing cubes by themselves.

Using the Tom Bihn Pilot as a "super packing cube" that fills up half of my TravelPro carry on suitcase. Inside the Pilot are two small Eagle Creek packing cubes and a medium packing cube along with an umbrella. The Pilot only takes up a bit more room than the packing cubes by themselves.

One thing that has surprised me is that, after a month of use, I prefer the Pilot to the Synapse 19 as a dance bag. I can fit two pairs of mens size 11 dress shoes into the main compartment of the Pilot along with an iPad, something I can’t do with the Synapse. The front pockets can then still carry a water bottle, cables, and all sort of other miscellaneous things. I’m finding myself using this in briefcase mode (no shoulder strap) for carting around my dance things. Overall, this is a high quality bag with lots of clever features that has been a delight to use.  

Aeronaut 30

After I made this video, my Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30 bag arrived. This is a larger backpack/duffle bag that can replace a wheeled suitcase. I can fit the same amount of stuff in my Aeronaut 30 as I can my TravelPro suitcase carryon, but it weighs significantly less and can more easily fit in overhead bins of aircrafts. I’ve only taken it on one trip, but have been impressed by efficient it is to pack and use. I want to take it on a few more trips before passing judgement on it, but so far I love it. The only negative is that, when fully loaded, it can get quite heavy to carry around for long periods of time as a backpack or shoulder bag. Still it is simpler to navigate and move about with compared to my TravelPro suitcase. There are so many clever, thoughtful, touches. I can’t wait to travel with this bag again.

The Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30 and Pilot packed and ready to go at the Austin airport.

The Tom Bihn Aeronaut 30 and Pilot packed and ready to go at the Austin airport.

Caveats

Tom Bihn bags are expensive (though not Briggs and Riley or Luis Vutton expensive). They make premium quality products and charge accordingly. Tom Bihn also sells lots of accessories for each bag. These aren’t strictly necessary but are often nice to have, and adding these in can drive the price up. If you can swing it, these bags are worth it. Tom Bihn also has a generous return policy, and a killer warranty. Finally, Tom Bihn bags sell for shockingly high prices on eBay. It is common to see bags that are years old sell for 75% of their original value, meaning that you can recover a good deal of your initial investment should you choose to sell it after some time. Good luck getting me to sell my Synapse 19, though. I’m not sure I’ll ever give it up.

I paid for all the products in this review. I make no money off any of the links included in this article.