Design tweaks ensure it remains the best shoulder strap available anywhere

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I was excited when I learned a few months ago that Tom Bihn was updating their Absolute Strap.  The winner of our “Shoulder Strap Comparo,” the Absolute Strap has to date offered the best combination of comfort, grip, and quality of any shoulder strap on the market; I was curious to see how Bihn would advance its design.

As you can see from the photos below, the design changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary.  Two of the most significant changes are in fact  impossible to discern in these photos; but as you’ll see in a few moments, there are actually several changes, some of which aren’t mentioned on the Bihn website.  For the record, the new strap is shown in the photo on the right:

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First:  What makes for a good shoulder strap?

When evaluating shoulder straps, there are really only a few critical requirements.

  • First, the strap must be comfortable when you’re standing and walking.  Generally, the wider the strap, the more comfortable it’ll be, as the load is distributed over a larger area on your shoulder.  When walking, the strap needs some flexibility or “give” – when it flexes under load, that load will seem a bit lighter.
  • A second critical requirement is that the strap must resist slipping off your shoulder – it needs to be sufficiently “grippy” so that it doesn’t slip around.  If not, you’ll constantly be readjusting its position on your shoulder, which can be a major distraction.
  • Finally, it needs to be durable.  What good is a comfortable strap with excellent grip if it won’t stand up to daily use?

Another way to appreciate these requirements is to imagine the worst possible strap - something like a 1″ wide, smooth plastic strip.  At only 1″, it would tend to dig into your shoulder as opposed to distributing the load across a wider area.  Made of a rigid material, it’d have absolutely no “give”, so your shoulder will bear all the stress of the up and down movement of your bag.  Finally, the smooth plastic wouldn’t have any grip – and would as a result tend to slide off your shoulder.

The original Absolute Strap had all three critical criteria covered; let’s see how the new strap differs from the old.

A comparison of the old and new versions of the Absolute Strap

New vs. Old Absolute Straps

The image to the left captures the most important differences between new (left) and old versions of the Absolute Strap.  The new strap has an “ergonomic curve” to its design to make it even a bit more comfortable; in addition, this shoulder pad section is longer than that on its predecessor.

This offers two benefits:  the longer section affords you a bit more leeway when putting the pad on your shoulder, and it gives the non-slip grippy material (backed with neoprene) a bit more “give” than the prior version had.  Using the method described in the Shoulder Strap Comparo, I suspended a 4.4 pound weight with the strap and measured the amount of deflection; I then switched to a 20 pound weight and then measured the increased amount of deflection:  with the heavier weight, the strap “gave” a full 1-3/8 inch.  The previous version, subjected to the same test, “gave” 1-1/4″ inch…   the new strap is a bit more flexible than the old strap.  This is a good thing.

One thing which you may be able to pick up on from the photo, but which is not mentioned on the Bihn site:  the new shoulder pad is 1/8″ wider (at 2-3/4″ wide) than the old.  Again, this will help distribute the load you’re carrying over a slightly wider area on your shoulder, another good thing.

The same thing is true of the webbing used on the strap; the new webbing is 1/8″ wider than the old, and it’s made from U.S.-made nylon, as opposed to the polypropylene which was used for the old webbing.  The greater width can only enhance the durability of this component:

Strap comparison

The non-slip material used on the underside of the shoulder pad appears unchanged, other than its shape.  Something you might have noticed in the photo at the top of this post:  the stitching is a bit finer in execution, and as a result there are more stitches used in assembling the pad, again offering a subtle enhancement to durability:

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Hardware is unchanged:   still double plated U.S.-made heavy gauge steel.  The snap hooks are compatible with the D rings you’ll find on most bags:

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Shoulder Strap Comparo II:  Is there any point?

As I’ve mentioned here a couple of times in the past few months, I’ve been preparing for a second shoulder strap comparison.  The likely candidates were the new Absolute Strap, the Briggs & Riley Flexible Shoulder Strap, perhaps the original Claw strap from Quake Industries, and possibly the Daymakers strap recently reviewed here.

Frankly, I see little point in going forward with that test.   The Claw strap is like the Red Oxx/Claw featured in the first comparo (came in 2nd to the old Absolute Strap), only with less substantial hardware and in any event, the Claw doesn’t flex worth a damn.  The Briggs & Riley strap is a fine strap, but its slightly shorter/narrower shoulder pad can’t quite match that of the new Absolute…

B&R vs new Absolute

…and in fact in a quick weight test, it flexes only about an inch when the 20 pound weight is added.   The Daymakers strap is a fine strap with an interesting emphasis on security, but it too lacks the flex of the Absolute.

Unless one of you can recommend another strap that you think can go head to head with the Absolute Strap, I don’t see any point in going forward with the additional comparison test.

As for the Absolute, it’s an apt nameThe best shoulder strap on the market just got better.  See it at the Tom Bihn website:  Absolute Strap by Tom Bihn.

Weight:  7.97 ounces / 226g.  Length: adjustable from 20″ to 52″  Origin: made in the U.S.  Price: $30

The Fine Print:  I have no connection with Tom Bihn; I was provided a sample of this product to assist in the writing of this post.

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18 Comments on Absolute Strap Update: the best shoulder strap gets better

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for the great review.

    I’ve been using the original version of the Absolute Strap for several months now and agree it’s the best strap I’ve ever had. I’ve also given one as a gift, and now rather selfishly wish I’d just kept it for myself to use without having to switch straps all of the time.

    They aren’t cheap, but mine has absolutely been worth it. I’ll probably pick up another one now.

    One other strap I’d be interested in seeing you review is Bihn’s Quick Adjust Messenger strap. That looks interesting, although my understanding is it’s designed to be used only with certain messenger bags.

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  2. Michael W. says:

    I’m glad you cut to the chase instead of pretending there wasn’t a clear winner so you could do a comparo article…some publishers actually hate it when one product is head and shoulders above another, because then there really isn’t too much to write about. Refreshing.

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  3. Till says:

    The BR strap having a lesser degree of flex is what I said/supposed in the comments of the original test.

    I’d like to know how the Absolute and the BR compare in comfort and grip. I suppose the BR might win in comfort because of its ingenious double convex shape but the Absolute will win on grip.

    I do like the loops of the BR. Good for hooking a carabiner or eye glasses to it.

    What I would like to see on all strap are plastic coated carabiners. This way they don’t make noise when they rub against the D-rings under load.

    Are the trapezoidal pieces on the Absolute leather or plastic? If leather, how is the quality? I think some nice full grain leather patches as on the BR would be really nice.

    I would also like to know if Optech (who is probably still the maker of this strap) will come out with their own improved version or whether this improved version is reserved for TB to finally justify the price difference of 50% more.

    In terms of shoulder pad, the Tenba strap is the best one I own but it has no flex at all.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Till,

    The trapezoidal pieces appear to be made of a ~3/32″ thick rubberesque material that looks like leather.

    In my experience the B&R’s neck cutout has no effect whatsoever in terms of comfort; it does look like a nice feature, I admit. That strap’s narrower width has a much greater (negative) effect on comfort. The Absolute – just my opinion – is better on both counts. I do like the little loops on the B&R strap.

    kc

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  4. Paul Z says:

    Personally, I hate straps with a convex (concave? OK, curved) pad. They just don’t work for me. I often pass a shoulder strap over my head onto the opposite shoulder, and then the curve is wrong way ’round. And if I reverse the strap to make it work that way, it’s wrong if I take it back over my head and have it on the “correct” shoulder. Too much trouble for me. Also, the curvy bit is always fixed in place, so it puts the bag out of position if I do wear it on the opposite shoulder.

    I’m sure this is a minority opinion, though.

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    Michael W. Reply:

    Agree with you.

    I have a problem shifting an assymetrical bag from left to right shoulder. The bag side that was out (where I wanted it) has to be reversed in to face my body, due to the curve of the strap.

    While the curved shoulder straps are more comfortable, they work best with bags that are flat on both sides so that you don’t have a preference as to which side faces your body.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Paul: check out this description from the Bihn Forum — http://is.gd/4GraX This is an attempt from Darcy Gray of Bihn to explain how the strap should be oriented if you’re using it on the shoulder or over your neck…

    [Reply]

  5. Till says:

    Paul, not sure why you think the pad is the wrong way around when you wear the strap cross body. Perhaps you have it on the wrong way to start with? The concave (hollow/inward) curve points outward when you wear it correctly and not across the torso. YOu kind if get the idea from Kevin’s photos. When you wear it across the chest, the hollow curve sits right around your neck like a collar. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Of course, if you inverse the direction it will be wrong in both ways.

    Kevin, I’ll simply take your word on the straps. :)

    On the greater curvature of the new strap, somehow I actually think that on the pics the old strap (on the left, correct?) fits better. It looks like the center of gravity is more towards the center of the body with the old strap. Might be just how you put it on the shoulder, though.

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  6. Kevin says:

    Michael and Paul,

    I don’t understand either of your comments. I think Till addressed Paul’s concern.

    MW: Let’s say I’ve got the bag on my right shoulder. The concave part of the shoulder pad faces outward. The lumpy/assymetrical side of the bag faces outward. I want to shift the bag to my left shoulder as my right shoulder is starting to get tired.

    I grasp the shoulder pad from the outside with my right hand, my thumb beneath the shoulder pad. I lift the bag off my shoulder, move it in front of my body and to my left side. My left hand meets my right hand, thumb also underneath the shoulder pad. (My thumbs are nearly touching at this point.) I remove my right hand, and place the pad on my left shoulder with my left hand. The concave part of the pad faces away from my body, as does the lumpy, assymetrical bag. What’s the problem part? Am I missing something?

    kc

    [Reply]

    Michael W. Reply:

    No, you are right – although I no longer have “re-curve” straps to play with (I put a piece of tape on the strap of a regular bag as an imaginary indicator for the curved side). The north-south orientation changed on my Gator but the expanding pockets remain “outward” oriented where I want them.

    So now I’m going to have to dig out a recurve strap and see why I stopped using them – it wasn’t due to the north-south reorientation I’m sure. Maybe it was because you have to “land” the correct side of the strap on the shoulder each time (or the recurve does end up in the wrong orientation)? But now I’m not only trying to resolve my confusion, I’m trying to exhume long-gone memories.

    BTW the “claw” style strap on the Gator (RedOxx) continues to satisfy since (1) it never slips, even on slippery nylon windbreakers) and (2) I never have to worry about reorienting the “top” surface of the strap so that I am using the grippy side – both sides are equally grippy, and the swivel hardware on the attachment points keeps the strap from getting tangled.

    You do have me interested in the Absolute strap now, though. The stock strap that comes with the MLC is actually VERY comfortable on my shoulder – but doesn’t have anti-slip on either side, and is always slipping off, hence useless to me for anything but cross-body carry. But at least the MLC strap made me realize that while there isn’t anything more SECURE than the RedOxx “claw” strap, there certainly are other alternatives that are more COMFORTABLE.

    (BTW there was a time in the ’90’s when I was buying silicone “rubberized” bathtub sealer and applying thin strips of it to my straps, just to add “grip” – ugly but effective.)

    Sorry for my goof-up on my earlier comment. I was working from memory and should have experimented before yapping.

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  7. Paul Z says:

    These straps don’t work *for me*, both for my reason that Till did not address above and for the reason that he *tried* to address above by assuming that I don’t know how these straps are supposed to work.

    Y’all’s mileage may vary. We’re not all the same, and what works for one person may not work for another. Like I said, minority opinion. Wasn’t meant as a criticism of anybody else.

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  8. Till says:

    Paul, no harm. Didn’t mean to criticize you, either. That’s why I said “it’s how they are SUPPOSED to work” not “MUST” work. By the way, when I first saw such a curved strap I also wondered how to use it. Tried it out with a loaded bag. The difference was pretty obvious to me and I then got the idea.

    You might want to check out the Tenba strap. It has the thickest cushion I’ve seen on a strap and is very wide, too. In addition to the special shape of the strap (it is more of a trapeze than a curve) the shoulder pad has a special profile, too. It is thinner toward the neck and thicker toward the outside. This means it balances out the natural slope of your shoulder.

    I also have no problem sliding the bag to a position where I like it with that strap, particularly if I wear it across the body. It was made for camera bags, perhaps that’s why.

    I don’t get your comment, either, Michael. Kevin’s explanation is exactly how I do it. Except that I could have never described that so well. Bravo!

    [Reply]

  9. Peter Ess says:

    Kevin, if you do decide to do another test, I would suggest that you look at the Tumi strap they use for their leather briefcases. The Tumi strap is similar to the new Absolute strap in that it has a curved shoulder piece that distributes weight well, a wide strap, and good hardware. I bought mine as a replacement for a briefcase strap but have also used it on an older Rick Steves bag with equal comfort.

    Thanks

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Peter:

    Thanks for your comment; I’ll definitely check it out.

    kc

    [Reply]

  10. ftucker says:

    To answer Till’s question: it looks like Op/Tech has come out with an OEM version of the curved strap.

    http://optechusa.com/product/d.....UCT_ID=41#

    However, I don’t see anyplace online with it listed for sale, so the pricing may or may not be that different from Tom Bihn.

    [Reply]

  11. Mike says:

    Looks like the Op/Tech Curve SOS is now available for sale from various places. B&H Photo sells it and it’s on Amazon via Adorama — but the best deal appears to be buying it directly from Adorama, where it’s $26.95 with free shipping.

    Is it certain that this is the same as the Bihn Absolute Strap?

    [Reply]

  12. […] about wanting the strap to be curved for a better fit to my shoulder was later adopted in the 2009 redesign of the Absolute Strap. (I wish I could link directly to the web site's own Blog post covering the event, but in any case, […]

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