The Highs: .Typical Tom Bihn quality, surprising capacity, innovative design
The Lows: .Mystifying briefcase handle design
The Verdict: .A bag with a unique design that will challenge your preconceptions about bags and packing
About six weeks ago I contacted the folks at Tom Bihn and asked for a PR sample of their Aeronaut – Bihn’s version of the one bag / maximum legal carry-on theme. When it arrived a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that they’d sent along not only the Aeronaut, but a Western Flyer and several packing cubes as well.
Although my original interest was in the Aeronaut, I opted to review the Western Flyer first. Why? It wasn’t because I was fascinated by the Western Flyer; I was simply confused by the Aeronaut.
A totally unique design
The Aeronaut is Tom Bihn’s take on a soft-sided, “maximum legal carry-on” bag. There’s a plethora of such bags on the market, but most of them – the Red Oxx Air Boss, Patagonia MLC, the Easy Going Carry-On Bag, the MEI Executive Overnighter, and the Tough Traveler Tri-Zip, for instance – follow the same basic convention: a rectangular bag segmented into two or three compartments defined by lightweight internal walls and zippers which typically run lengthwise and cover three sides of the bag.
The Aeronaut throws convention out the window. There are three primary compartments, but their configuration is unlike virtually all the conventional “one bag” designs out there: Bihn has taken a completely different approach to one bag travel… with surprising results. Before we take a closer look at just how Tom Bihn has accomplished this, let’s look at the bag’s specs and details...
- Overall dimensions: 22″ x 14″ x 9″
- Weight: 2.71 lbs. / 1230 grams excluding shoulder strap
- One main compartment; two secondary compartments
- Two additional pockets on bag ends; zippered mesh compartment on backside of main compartment flap
- Key retainer tab included
- The back of the bag features a zippered compartment which houses curved backpack straps
- Capacity: 2,700 cubic inches
- Grab handles for retrieving from overhead compartments on both ends of bag
- Made in Seattle, Washington, USA
A photo tour…
Instead, there’s a large main / center compartment access to which is through a trap-door type flap. This compartment measures appx. 17″ long x 14″ wide x 9″ deep. This large center compartment is flanked by two smaller ones which measure approximately 14″ x 9″ x 2½”. .
Additionally, there are two document or magazine pockets on the outside of each of these “bookend” compartments. In the photo above (this is the bag in the “Steel” color, by the way) you can see a magazine peeking out of one of these pockets. This pocket (on the rear of the bag if you’re right handed) is open, i.e., no zipper; its counterpart on the other end of the bag is zippered. NOTE: click on any of these images for a close-up view.
Here’s a photo of the main compartment along with the two “bookend” compartments zipped wide open. The zippers on the end compartments cover almost three sides, so they open quite wide for packing. The main compartment is quite large, and it can be made larger. You’ll note four snap tabs on both sides of the floor of that compartment. Dyneema® walls separate the main compartment from the other two. At the very bottom of those divider walls, Bihn has built in a two inch expansion panel. Leave the snaps snapped, and the bookend compartments gain about 2″ worth of capacity at their bottoms; unsnap them, and the main compartment grows by about 2″ on each side. Clever.
The zippers are all YKK splash proof types and are equipped with metal pulls; the zippers operate smoothly and are easy to operate. I was a bit surprised that the Aeronaut zipper pulls aren’t equipped with cord zipper pulls as is the Western Flyer; the zippers operate easily however, so corded pulls aren’t an absolute necessity. In any event, to the right is a close up of the document pocket at the other end of the bag; these pockets are great for boarding passes, travel guides, newspapers, and the like.
The end compartments are fairly large. They’ll easily accommodate a pair of shoes, or your toiletry items & 3-1-1 bag and numerous odds and ends, and I’m happy to report my Asus Eee PC 1000HA (10″ screen) netbook – in its neoprene case – fits in this pocket very nicely. (If you’re into the whole Imelda Marcos thing, you could even bring two extra pair of shoes in these “bookend” compartments.) They also are handy for keeping dirty clothes/underwear separate from clean.
In the photo below I’ve put a pair of Bose noise canceling headphones in one side of a Bihn “Clear Quarter Packing Cube” along with an iPod; in the other side, a paperback. Once on board, unzip the end compartment halfway, take out the packing cube containing your onboard “stuff,” rezip and you’re set for the flight:
As with the Western Flyer, there are three options for carrying this bag. The bag is equipped with D rings for securing a (1) shoulder 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 Red Oxx hardware – is $20. Finally, there’s a basic strap that’s only $10.
The second option is a (2) conventional briefcase-type handle which is located directly above the bag’s center of gravity and is reasonably comfortable.
This is exactly the type of configuration used on the Air Boss and other bags which feature zippers which run longitudinally on the bag. On those bags you must be able to separate the two straps which come together to help form the handle so you can fully unzip the bag.
On the Aeronaut, however, there are no such zippers running beneath this handle. Why then are there snaps on the handle? There is no reason to unsnap the handle and separate the straps – doing so has no effect on ease of packing. Instead of a snap closure handle, I’d rather Bihn opted for something inherently more comfortable like the large diameter flexible PVC* used on the Red Oxx Sky Train, or the comfy padded handle used on the budget-minded Rick Steves Classic Backdoor bag. This feature is perplexing. The good news is that the handle is fairly comfortable.
*(Bihn uses no PVC on any of their bags, as that material isn’t consistent with their environmental policy; my only point is that there are better options out there for this particular feature; it’s the sole discordant note on an otherwise superbly conceived and executed bag.)
Finally, the bag’s rear compartment houses (3) backpack straps which can be deployed in a matter of seconds.
(One of the things which might not be immediately apparent when you look at a “beauty shot” of the bag is the amount of thought that’s been invested in getting even the smallest of details just right: the clips that secure the bottoms of the backpack straps are hidden in small pockets in the side seams; curved lines give the bag a more stylish look; and the alternate color trim on the grab handles perfectly matches the gaskets on the zippers — Tom’s put a lot of thought and care into this bag!)
The backpack straps, the same as those used on the overnight Western Flyer 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.
As mentioned in my WF review, the sternum strap seemed a bit superfluous at first glance, but if you had the bag on your back and had to hump it down a concourse, you’d appreciate the added security and comfort. After using the sternum strap once with the Western Flyer, I decided to leave it on the bag – it works quite well, weighs practically nothing and would be great for romps through longer concourses.
So far, so good. But how does the main compartment work if you bundle pack??
This was the big, “elephant in the room” question I had since I originally saw the bag. With bundle packing, the bundle ends up as wide as your shirts (or jackets) which is to say, fairly wide. At first glance I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fit a 4-5 day sized bundle in through the trap door opening on the Aeronaut.
And let’s be frank: I’ve completely drunk the Kool Aid when it comes to the benefits of bundle packing (as opposed to conventionally folding clothes or using cubes) and at this point there is no way I’m going to change how I pack to accommodate a bag’s design. So for me, this was a potential deal-breaker with the Aeronaut.
In actual practice, it turned out to be easy. The bundle naturally has a bit of “structural integrity” as your clothing is interwoven in the bundle. All I had to do was slide one end of the bundle into one side of the bag…
…pull the front and other side of the bag out a bit…
…and the entire bundle fit in just fine:
Smooth things out a bit, and you’re all set. This bundle, by the way, consisted of 5 long sleeve shirts, a pair of dressy chinos, and 2 golf shirts as the core. If all this talk of bundle packing is confusing or foreign to you, check out: How to Bundle Pack Clothing @ OneBag.com
If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll note that there was still quite a bit of room available above the bundle; the Aeronaut’s main compartment is quite large. You could pack for a week on the road with the Aeronaut quite easily.
As with other Tom Bihn bags, the quality of materials is superb. #10 YKK Uretek splash proof zippers are used throughout; as mentioned earlier, they feature large metal pulls, but no cord pulls. All of the key pockets feature double zippers:
These are coil zippers mounted upside down to accommodate the splash proof gasketing; in this shot I’ve purposely flipped over one side of the zipper so you can see the zipper’s underside:
Another neat feature is a large mesh pocket on the backside of the main compartment’s flap. You can see that I’d transferred the key retainer to an O ring in this pocket; this pocket would be great for underwear and socks, or perhaps undershirts:
One other neat feature that’s illustrative of the real-world user experience that’s reflected in Tom’s designs:
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 (complementing this feature: the 1050 ballistic nylon used in Tom Bihn bags is incredibly tough & abrasian resistant, yet has a smooth surface that slides out of overheads and from beneath seats more easily than does 1000 denier Cordura).
As you can see in all of these pictures, the quality of the materials & stitching is superb; this is a bag that will last for decades. All metal hardware is heavy gauge steel that’s been double plated; the body of the bag is constructed of
How large is the Aeronaut?
The Aeronaut is very similar to the Red Oxx Air Boss in size; both are good for packing enough clothing for a 5-6 day business trip, and longer if you’re just going casual:
My impressions of the Aeronaut:
A few observations:
- Does this configuration work? YES. When I travel with the Air Boss, my bundle goes in one of the 3 compartments and fits great – but the other two compartments usually have stuff “floating” around inside with wasted space. The beauty of the Aeronaut is that it gives you one huge compartment and two other compartments that are actually better suited (and sized) to (at least in my case) the assortment of other things we typically bring along on trips
- Those “bookend” compartments are great for an extra pair of shoes; that my Asus fits in one is a huge plus from my viewpoint. Personally, I’d equip these pockets with corded pulls in order to ease opening them at TSA checkpoints
- The bag is light at 2.7 pounds, but keep in mind this is minus a shoulder strap; with the “Absolute Strap” its weight is ~3.4 lbs. – still more than a half a pound under the weight of the Air Boss
- That strap, as mentioned in my Western Flyer review, is fantastic and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it on other bags – it’s that good
- Not mentioned on the Tom Bihn site, but hard to miss in person: the bag is actually trapezoidal in shape. The back is wider than the front. This has the effect of making it easier to pack larger items (shirts, jackets) in the bottom of the main compartment, with smaller items on top. In addition, when used in the backpack mode, it means that the bag looks less like a huge “box” on your back, as is the case with some competitive bags. Click on the image to the right in order to see this a bit more easily.
- 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 comfort
- What if you need to carry folders, papers or presentations? Put them in the bottom of the main compartment, or if your printed materials are fairly thin, slide them into the backpack strap pocket (if you deploy the straps this pocket will of course be unzipped)
- Which leads me to a suggestion: the backpack straps connect at the bottom of the bag with quick release plastic buckles – this is the convention on all such bags. What if I don’t care to use backpack straps? Why couldn’t the top of backpack straps – instead of being sewn to the top of the bag – connect in the same way with larger polymer quick release buckles? That way a user could detach the straps and lose a little (bag) weight in the process – and create – in effect – another fairly large pocket for folders and papers. Just a thought…
- The bag is stylish enough to be used by women, but not to a degree that it’d be a problem for most guys; if in doubt, men, opt for black!
- Overall I’m quite impressed by the Aeronaut. Its materials and craftsmanship are top notch, and the unusual configuration which concerned me at the outset has challenged my thinking about what’s really needed in a business travel bag. Viewed in the context of the other “one bag/maximum legal carry-on” bags in the marketplace, the Aeronaut stands apart: this is an innovative, well made, great bag.
Coming attraction: road testing the Aeronaut
In the coming weeks I’ll give the Aeronaut a road test and see if my initial take holds up to actual miles in airports and hotels.
Until then, you can check out the Aeronaut for yourself at the Tom Bihn website: Tom Bihn Aeronaut
Please comment if you’ve used the Aeronaut or if you’d like to add to the conversation!
The fine print: I have no connection with Tom Bihn; this post contains an affiliate link to Amazon.com (Asus netbook)
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