If you’ve been an avid follower of this site last year, you probably noticed my recent absence. The reason? I’ve been on a very long trip to Central America and the Caribbean and the stimuli was just too high for me to sit, focus and write.
Amongst the highlights – I was hunting food in the green lush jungles of Belize for four days, had my horse slide down a steep hill in the mountains of Panama, and even shoved a fire-hot habanero pepper in some drunk Nicaraguan gangster’s ass, for $50. Yes, Nicaragua is the mother of awesome.
Having read my popular travel gear post, you won’t be surprised to hear that I went on this half-year trip with a tiny 19l backpack. So why am I putting up this review? because that tiny 19-litter backpack is that fabulous. Whether you are an experienced minimalist traveler or a newbie facing his first trip soon – I think you should seriously take a look at the tiny Tom Bihn Synapse.
Tom Bihn Synapse Review
If you had a chance to read my Art of No-Bag Travel, It might actually surprise you that I chose to go with a bag at all. Your concern is valid, but this time I actually took a laptop with me so I can make money online and work on my business.
I will go full-bagless on occasions where I’m going for a week or two of complete-vacation where I don’t want to be productive at all. Other than that, I need a bag to carry your laptop – and for that the Tom Bihn Synapse is perfect.
I could have written this review a few months ago but I wanted to spend some more time with the bag to be sure that what i’m writing is valid for long-term use. I can’t say I intentionally abused it like some reviewers do – but my review definitely reflects the daily lifestyle of an hardcore adventurer.
This bag stood situations of extreme mud, heat, rain, altitude and humidity. I can honestly say I never gave it any thought and treated it as I would treat a $15 cheap Walmart bag. Am I impressed? VERY. As my cousin told me last month when I paid her a visit in Myrtle Beach – “Reg, this bag looks new! It doesn’t look as if it’s been through all those jungles of yours”.
Intelligence Structure: Your Whole Life In a Tiny Package
One thing that makes this bag stands out is its magnificently brilliant design. It is engineered so slickly and so intelligently that you can pack a hell lot more than other, much-larger backpacks. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it a work of art. Take a look at this video:
The Synapse comes in two sizes: 19l and 25l. I chose the 19l – and it was well more than enough to carry all my stuff including a 13″ laptop. It is engineered so perfectly that I could easily use a 10l version of this bag with my current travel gear. Though I believe for most people, the 19l would be just perfect.
Notice that the Synapse got a dedicated vertical pocket for a water bottle. This is genius. Whereas in regular bags you’d have to find a place for the bottle somewhere in your bag and make sure it doesn’t dig into your back and doesn’t shift the weight of the bag – Tom Bihn managed to make sure those two problems are solved right from the factory. The bottle pocket is upfront and exactly in the center.
And in every pocket you’ll also find an o-ring, which you can use to attach many of Tom Bihn’s small travel sacks or whatever key strap or anything you’d like to secure for airport’s security or for whatever reason. By the way, the zippers are all water-repellent and coated with a fabric flap to keep water out as much as possible.
One thing you can’t see through the photos is the way the pockets are connected to each other. There’s some stretch material separating between the two vertical side pockets to the main big upper pocket. Why is it any good, you’re asking? Imagine you want to put a lot of stuff in one pocket and a little bit less on another. With a regular bag, you might have to split it equally so your stuff fit your pockets. But the Synapse.. the Synapse fits its pockets to your stuff!
Photos taken from Tom Bihn’s website
And I must also say something about its visuals.
You know that we here at Casa-del-Regev admire simplicity and elegance. This backpack is in perfect line with this view. Tom sculptured the Synapse with the simplicity and elegance that you learned to expect from somebody like Steve Jobs. There are no ugly mesh pockets and nothing unnecessary.
You’ll be very surprised to see how much stuff you can shove inside this tiny little backpack you’ll almost feel like a magician pulling rabbits and pigeons and colourful fabrics from a hat.
Extra bonus points for the Synapse for keeping its elegant clam-like shape even when fully packed:
Durability of a Military Bag
There are three exterior materials for the Synapse: 420d Classic Parapack, 400d Dyneema and the 1000d Cordura. I ordered the 420d because I liked the olive colour and the fact that it’s a material originally developed for the military parachuting backpacks. Oh, and it also doesn’t attract dust, pet hair and stuff like that.
I immediately compared the backpack to the bag I used in the Israeli army:
And it’s not just a gimmick.
I have worn this bag almost every single day for the last six months and it never failed to serve well. It survived jungles, forests, mountains and violent river crossings. I tossed it away and dragged it many times, and not only is there not even a single tiny hole in it – but there’s not any noticeable sign of wear at all.
Take a look at this YouTube video showing Tom Bihn’s material testing. These guys are a perfect example of how a high-standard small boutique business should be operating.
And here’s another one explaining the differences between the materials used:
I asked the guys at Tom Bihn to send me samples of their different materials to be testing for this review. They sent me 3-4 colours of each type (the Dyneema, the Paraback and the Cordura). I used my spectacular Kershaw Ken Orion Leek folding knife to stab and cut the samples. This knife is so sharp you could fight mammoths with it.
I made a cut in each material and tried to tear the rest with my hands. IMPOSSIBLE. Even when I cut 90% of the sample and left a tiny ‘connective spot’ to tear with my hands – it was still impossible. I challenged some kids to try and split them in two while I’m doing the rest of the review – none of them could.
Next I tried to stab them with the knife. Though I could easily penetrate them if I tried hard enough, weak stabs didn’t do much. That’s impressive, knowing how sharp this knife is.
As you probably understand from the videos, all their bags are proudly handmade and sewn in their workshop in Seattle.
Very Comfortable and Easy to Carry
Because of the vertical nature of the Synapse’s pockets – the weight is perfectly evenly distributed. If you have had back problems or issues before with other bags that load unevenly – this bag is gonna make you want to send a bag of chocolates to Tom Bihn.
If it gets tiring after a while, and it will – if you’re doing a 15km hike with it – you can easily adjust or switch the straps from chest to waist level, or just keep both to secure the bag and avoid it bouncing if you’re going fast. And they’re very solid – I use them frequently to remove the load from exhausted muscles.
Tip: you could also use the lower straps to lock and hang a pair of wet shoes or clothes to dry up while you’re walking and also keep the inside of your backpack dry.
IT FITS SPIRIT AIRLINES BARE-FARE
This is huge. If you’re traveling between the U.S.A and South or Central America (I paid $100 for a flight from Panama City to Miami) – you’re gonna use Spirit Airlines a lot. Now, Spirit’s tickets are dirt-cheap but you’ll have to pay for any moderately sized luggage, even carry on.
BUT… fortunately for you – the Synapse 19 fits JUST the advertised bare-fare rates. Right from Spirit’s website:
“One personal item is included with a Bare Fare. This is something like a small backpack or purse that fits entirely in the smaller sizer box (16”x14”x12”). You need to pay for any additional/larger bags.”
For any carry-on backpack that exceeds this size you’ll have to pay between $25 (when ordering online) to $100 (at gate). The Synapse 19 saves you money with its tiny 16″ x 11.4″ x 7.9″ dimensions. This alone is my opinion is worth going for the 19 instead of the 25 that is 20″ x 13.4″ x 9″. Here’s how they stack next to each other:
Tom Bihn Synapse 25 and 19
All in all, the Tom Bihn Synapse 19 is an elegant and simple backpack that I HIGHLY recommend for anyone in need of a small sturdy bag with an unrivalled build quality. Though small in size, it can pack a LOT more than expected and is extremely easy to carry around and deal with the loads thanks to Tom Bihn’s great evenly distributed design and straps mechanism.
If you need a bigger backpack – you can also go for the 25l version. Though I believe the 19l is way more than enough for the minimalist traveler and also fits the bare-fare criteria of Spirit airlines if you’re a frequent flyer with them.
Forget the big alienating NASA-rocket-like “backpacks” you see on young backpackers everywhere. I have traveled for many years – and this is by far the best travel bag a minimalist traveler can have. While they’ll look for a cheap hostel to store their backpack, you’ll be running around with your bag jumping from one adventure to another.
The only thing that might stop you is the price. We’re talking about $170 for the Synapse 19. Is it worth it? If you have the budget for it – no doubt. This is a great investment that will accompany you for plenty of years to come.
Buy the Synapse 19 from TomBihn.com
I also use Tom Bihn’s attachable ‘Cache’ to store my laptop in. It adds a nice layer of protection and with its ‘rails’ allows you to go through airport security with a little bit less of an hassle. It does eat a considerable amount of space though. I recommend buying a cache only if your laptop is expensive and if 19l is already a lot for you.