The Highs: Well made, feature rich, lightweight, versatile carrying options
The Lows: Not a lot to complain about. No pen slots?
The Verdict: Hard to imagine a better overnight bag
If your travel calls for one or two nights away from home, you actually have a lot of options when it comes to luggage. There are smaller wheelies, duffel bags, foldable garment bags, and even backpacks. Sailing smack into the middle of this cluttered landscape is the Tom Bihn Western Flyer, a bag designed expressly with the overnight (or two night) traveler in mind. The Western Flyer distinguishes itself from the crowd, however, through several clever, quintessential Tom Bihn features.
First: a few basics
The Western Flyer is a soft-sided, non-wheelie bag targeted at overnight travelers. Featuring two primary compartments, one of which is slightly wider than the other, the Western Flyer also sports two zippered compartments on its front panel. An additional pocket with a scalloped opening on that panel accommodates boarding passes, travel guides, maps and the like. The bag can be carried with an optional shoulder strap, conventional briefcase-style carry handles, or with built-in backpack straps.
- 18″ x 12″ x 7″
- Weight: 2.53 lbs.
- One main compartment and one secondary compartment
- Main compartment’s zipper covers 3 sides: bag folds flat for packing
- Secondary compartment features a vertical divider that zips out of the way if needed, as well as a zipper that also covers 3 sides
- Two zippered compartments on front of bag for 3/1/1 TSA liquids bag, paperback book, odds & ends; one features a removable key tab/retainer
- One open pocket on bag front panel for boarding passes, brochures or perhaps a water bottle
- The back of the bag features a zippered compartment which houses curved backpack straps
- YKK #10 Aquaguard (waterproof) zippers close all pockets and compartments
- Made in Seattle, Washington, USA
A photo tour
A quick shot of the front of the bag. Although it appears that the two zippered compartments on the left side of the front panel are identical in size and perhaps 4″ deep, the one on top actually runs behind the lower pocket; as a result it’s a full 9½” deep. So the bottom pocket must be about 4″ deep, right? Wrong again. Its zipper is actually located near the middle of the pocket. Keep in mind that the pocket whose zipper is on top runs behind the lower pocket – and in turn, the lower pocket occupies the space in front of the other pocket – its available space includes the 3″ or so above its zipper.
Have I confused you?
Then check out this shot of the case and outer box from the Cream 2005 Reunion DVD inside the lower pocket (left photo); my index finger is pointing to the top corner of the box; in the right photo the same DVD is in the top compartment (click either photo to enlarge) –
Stated succinctly: both front pockets are larger than they appear at first glance. Clever. The bottom pocket came equipped with a removable key tab. ALL compartments feature O ring tabs for mounting key tabs or any of the myriad of pouches that Tom Bihn offers. The top compartment is handy for your TSA 3-1-1 liquids bag; either could easily hold a paperback book, snacks, and the like.
The other pocket on the front of the bag features a scalloped opening and is handy for boarding passes and the like. It can accommodate a water bottle, but if you are going to carry the bag with its backpack straps, the bottle may very well fall out. (Personally I wouldn’t leave my boarding pass in this pocket if using the bag in the backpack mode for the same reason.) You can see the scalloped opening of this pocket plus the key tab in this picture:
The zippers are all YKK waterproof types and are equipped with robust pulls; the zippers operate smoothly and for some odd reason are considerably easier to operate than are the similar zippers on the Patagonia MLC. This might stem from the heavier ballistic nylon material used on the Western Flyer; it naturally provides a bit more resistance than the lighter material of the MLC when you pull on the zipper tabs.
The hardware – e.g., the D ring pictured below – is what one would expect from Tom Bihn: high quality (heavy gauge steel) and flawless in both installation and finish (double-plated):
Speaking of the D rings: there are three options for carrying this bag. The D rings are for securing a strap – Tom Bihn offers three including the superb “Absolute Strap,” available for $30. The Terragrip strap – essentially the same strap as that which comes with the Red Oxx Air Boss but without the overkill Red Oxx hardware – is $20. Finally, there’s a basic strap that’s only $10.
The “Absolute Strap” features a grippy material on the side of the strap that contacts your shoulder; I used it while wearing a synthetic wind shirt and it uh, er, absolutely would not slip or slide off my shoulder! Here’s a close up of its hardware,- again, heavy duty double plated steel:
The second option is a conventional briefcase-type handle which is located directly above the bag’s center of gravity and is quite comfortable. Finally, the bag’s rear compartment houses backpack straps which can be deployed in a matter of seconds (by the way, you can see the briefcase-style handle on the right in this pic):
When I first looked at the straps I wondered if they were adequately padded, but they are quite comfortable in use, even with the bag fully loaded; a removable sternum strap also comes with the backpack straps and helps secure the bag for added comfort:
The sternum strap may seem a bit superfluous but if you had the bag on your back and had to hump it through an airport, you’d really appreciate the added security and comfort. Although I wouldn’t normally opt for using this strap, after using it once I decided to leave it on the bag – it works quite well, weighs practically nothing and would be great for romps through longer concourses.
A plus for any bag like this is that it fold completely flat for easy packing, and that’s the case with the Western Flyer’s two main compartments – their zippers cover 3 full sides of the bag. In this photo I’ve bundle packed a couple of button down long sleeve shirts along with a pair of chinos, and they fit easily (note the small zippered Bihn pouch with my airline & hotel elite cards attached to an O ring):
Another unique feature of the bag is the fact that the other compartment is divided by a zippable partition. Tom Bihn personally designs all of the Bihn bags and one of his requirements is that each travel bag be able to accommodate an extra pair of shoes – and that said shoes shouldn’t “mess up” your other stuff. With the Western Flyer, this partition is the solution. Here it is with the compartments empty:
And here, loaded up with running shoes and shorts on the right, and my Asus Eee PC 1000HA in its neoprene case on the left. There’s still room in the left compartment for a book or perhaps some travel socks and underwear (click for close-up view):
With the Western Flyer you aren’t locked into this configuration, however. With the partition unzipped you’re afforded a second compartment that is reasonably commodius:
One other neat feature that’s illustrative of the real-world user experience & clever thinking that have gone into the bag: on each end there’s a padded “grab handle” that’s perfect for retrieving the bag from overhead compartments or from beneath the seat in front of you:
Speaking of which, in a recent conversation with the Tom Bihn, he pointed out that the 1050 ballistic fabric used on the Western Flyer is a smooth finish nylon which means the bag will slide more easily when you’re retrieving it from beneath the seat or from an overhead compartment than would be the case with 1000 denier Cordura. In addition, lab testing has shown the 1050 ballistic nylon that’s used in the Western Flyer and other Tom Bihn bags is twice as abrasion resistant as the 1680 ballistic that’s used in many competitive bags. And when you think about it, abrasion is the ultimate enemy of bags like this, as they’re constantly shoved into and out of trunks and storage & overhead compartments. This bag’s clearly up to the test.
One thing I haven’t touched upon at length is the wide array of packing cubes, zippered pouches and laptop cases that complement this bag and which are available from Tom Bihn. There are even removable plastic “annex clips” in the main compartment which can secure one of the Tom Bihn “Brain Cell” laptop cases in the Western Flyer. You can check out all the Bihn accessories at their website (see below).
How large – or small – is the Western Flyer?
Check out this comparison photo. On the left is of course the Red Oxx Air Boss; in the middle the Patagonia MLC, and on the right the Western Flyer. The Air Boss is perfect for 5-6 day or weeklong trips; the MLC taps out when asked to go for more than 3 or perhaps if you travel really light, 4 days; the Western Flyer perfectly fits the 1 or 2 night niche. The bag weighs a mere 2½ pounds (click for close-up):
My impressions of the Western Flyer
I can’t imagine a better overnight (or 2 night) bag. A few observations:
- With the wide variety of pouches and packing cubes available at Tom Bihn, you can customize the bag so it exactly fits your needs
- It may seem odd that the bag doesn’t come with a shoulder strap. Frankly the Western Flyer is small and light enough that you don’t absolutely need it – between the briefcase-type handle and the backpack straps you have a couple of solid carrying options and if they work for you, you’ve saved $10-$30. If you must have a strap, use one from another bag or order one
- The “Absolute Strap,” is a fantastic shoulder strap and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it on other bags – it’s that good
- The backpack straps, although not quite as well padded as those on the MLC or even the Steves Classic bag, were perfectly comfortable. The rear panel of the backpack strap storage compartment is of course padded for maximum comfort. The backpack straps were added to the bag about a year ago, replacing a sling strap. Although I haven’t tried the bag equipped with a sling strap, I can’t imagine it’d be more comfortable than this configuration
- The location of the zipper on the bottom front pocket: from a functional standpoint, this zipper could be located a bit higher to make it easier to put larger objects in this pocket. Aesthetically it wouldn’t look quite as good as the current design, however
- Let’s face it: the bag has limitations, given its size. If you absolutely must bring a full size laptop, its power brick and a couple of three ring binders plus some clothing, the Western Flyer will not quite fit your needs; but for quick overnighters with minimal gear, it’s just about perfect
- There are no pen slots, by the way; Bihn offers a variety of zippered pouches for as little as $6 and as mentioned previously, each compartment has an O ring for securing such accessories
- It’s obvious a good deal of thought has gone into this bag; I’ve given it the full OCD exam and struggled to find much of anything that I’d change
- How does the Western Flyer stack up from a Quality Price Ratio standpoint? Awfully well, in my estimation. The quality of the materials is right up there with Red Oxx, the bag is loaded with clever and thoughtful details, is manufactured in Seattle, and its price is a very reasonable $160. (NOTE: current price is $210. May, 2012.) Compared to the $175 made in Vietnam MLC which features plastic D rings and inadequate zipper pulls, the Western Flyer simply blows the Patagonia bag out of the water
Coming attraction: road testing the Western Flyer
I don’t have plans for any overnight or 2 night trips in the near future, but I should have an opportunity to give the Western Flyer a more vigorous workout sometime in the next 60 days or so; when I do I’ll add some additional impressions to this review.
You can check out the Western Flyer for yourself at the Tom Bihn website: Tom Bihn Western Flyer
Please comment if you’ve used the Western Flyer or if you’d like to add to the conversation!
3/23/09 Edit: In response to Michael’s question about the backpack straps on the Western Flyer, I thought I’d post this photo:
3/25/09 Edit: Here’s another photo in response to a comment (#20 below) from John. In this picture the bag is fully loaded, including the two front pockets; John inquired about whether these pockets impinge upon one another and whether they bulge when loaded…