The Highs: .Impeccable quality, thoughtful features, distinctive good looks, surprising capacity

The Lows.Sticker shock

The Verdict: .An interesting entry into a field with a lot of alternatives

Consider the “personal carry-on item.” Airlines typically define your personal item as a “purse, briefcase, camera bag, or laptop computer,” and note that it must fit beneath the seat in front of you or the overhead bin.  When dimensions are provided for personal items, the allowable length+width+height total typically can’t exceed ~36″ to ~37″ (these dimensions vary by airline).

These guidelines provide a great deal of latitude when it comes time to select your personal carry-on:  messenger bags, purses, backpacks, laptop bags, book bags, smallish overnight bags, simple canvas totes, even shopping bags – all qualify.   For our recent trip to Europe, my wife used a large purse as her personal item, and I used a small Pacsafe backpack:  both worked well.

Wading into this crowded field is Tom Bihn, with the aptly named Co-Pilot.  Measuring  a mere 12″ x 10″ x 5″ (300 x 255 x 125mm), it boasts typical Bihn high quality materials, and the seamstresses at the Bihn factory have once again done their thing:  I defy anyone to find a missing stitch or crooked seam on a Tom Bihn bag – every one I’ve seen and used has been perfect.

But with so many options available to travelers, does the Co-Pilot make sense?  Is it a reasonable value? Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s take a quick look at the bag’s specs and a photo tour of its features.

Specifications:

  • Exterior made of U.S. 1050 denier Ballistic nylon or Japanese Dyneema/nylon ripstop fabric
  • Lined with ultra-lightweight yet tough Dyneema/nylon ripstop fabric
  • #8 YKK Uretek “splash-proof” zippers
  • Meets domestic and international airlines’ personal carry-on item size standard; easily fits in overhead compartment of CRJ commuter planes
  • Overall dimensions: 12″ x 10″ x 5″ / 300 x 255 x 125mm
  • Volume: 10 liters / 600 cu.in.
  • Pass-through sleeve for slipping the bag over a wheelie’s handle; doubles as a magazine or book pocket
  • Weight:  Ballistic nylon: 17.2 ounces / 485 grams; Dyneema/nylon: 11.2 ounces / 315 grams
  • One “o-ring” in each of the three front compartments; one “o-ring” in main compartment
  • Main compartment can accommodate a netbook or iPad
  • Carry by comfortable, Poron foam padded handle
  • Included Standard Shoulder Strap; upgrade to an “Absolute Strap” for $20
  • Comes with a package of Cord Zipper Pulls — you can remove the metal zipper pulls and replace them with cord pulls if you desire
  • Made in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

A photo tour

The Co-Pilot features 4 compartments: 3 on the front of the bag, and one main compartment in the rear.  (This sample is done in the “Steel” ballistic nylon / “Solar” (yellow) Dyneema color combo.)

All compartments sport an “O” ring for attaching key straps to retain your keys or any of the myriad of pouches and organizer cubes offered by Bihn.  The front left compartment features an Ultraseude-lined pocket for your digital camera, iPhone, or music player.  I wish it had more than one such pocket, as I typically travel with a several gadgets that require a degree of protection.

The middle compartment is perfect for a water bottle or collapsible umbrella; it features a grommet in its floor to prevent condensation or spills from pooling in the bottom of the compartment; clever.

The right front compartment has 4 pen slots and is otherwise wide open.  Perhaps this reaction is unique to me, but I’d give up two of the pen slots in favor of a few compartments for airline / rental car / hotel membership cards.  Yes, I use CardStar on my iPod Touch, but sometimes it’s handier to just grab a card.  Also of note is how the “solar” interior helps making finding objects easier.

The next couple of photos show two different views of the rear, main compartment, specifically designed to accommodate the iPad and/or a netbook.  There are two pockets on the rear wall that are handy for paperbacks and similarly sized items.  The balance of the compartment will accommodate an iPad, netbook, and 8½” x 11″ papers or pamphlets.  Note that this compartment is not padded – so you’ll need to use a protective case of some sort on your netbook or iPad.

You’ll also notice a small paperback in a pocket on the very back of the bag – more about that in a moment.

In the image below, I’ve added a manila folder; with a bit of coaxing, the zippers can be closed around it.

On the back of the bag is a pass-through sleeve for mounting the bag on the handle of a wheelie; zipping the zipper at its bottom (below) converts it into a shallow pocket for magazines, thin volumes, or perhaps a folded newspaper.

The padded handle is comfortable, and is mounted in the center of the bag for efficient weight distribution:

#8 YKK Uretek “splash proof” zippers are used on all four compartments; I would prefer that the twin zippers on the main compartment were of the locking variety, for those situations where I’ve stowed the bag in the overhead, and/or have dozed off; the cost differential would be minimal.

This last point may be moot, however:  it should be noted that the zippers used on the Co-Pilot – even if the pulls are locked – can easily be spread, as shown in this sequence (click for close-ups):

A final comment on this point – casual thieves may be foiled by locking zipper pulls, and perhaps that’s enough.  But someone who’s determined enough to spread the zippers as shown above, would probably just swipe the entire bag.  If you may fall asleep during your flight, hook your shoulder strap through the seat frame, and put the bag where someone would have to jostle you to get to it.  I”ll offer a couple of additional thoughts on this subject a bit later in this post.

The shoulder strap D rings on the Co-Pilot are molded polymer, unlike the plated steel used on Bihn’s larger bags, likely a weight saving measure.  Bihn’s standard strap is included; the wonderful Absolute Strap is a $20 upgrade.

Below, the water resistance of the ballistic nylon and splash-proof zippers in full display:

A few thoughts about the Co-Pilot…

When we went to Italy a couple of months ago, I used a Pacsafe Metrosafe 350 as my personal item.  During the trip, it contained:

  • Canon S90 digital camera
  • Trip Planner booklet
  • Excerpts of two Italy travel guides
  • A copy of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar
  • iPod Touch, earbuds
  • Frequent flyer cards
  • My iGo universal charger kit – for use with our netbook, iPod, and my BlackBerry
  • Sunglasses case and sunglasses
  • Reading glasses in a hard case
  • Asus netbook in its neoprene cover
  • “Regular wallet” with backup credit card, driver’s license, etc. (removed at security checkpoints, by the way)
  • Little notebooks, pens, magnifier, etc.

An obvious test was whether all of these items would fit in the Co-Pilot.  Everything did, although there was no convenient way to store my ff/membership cards.  The Co-Pilot’s four compartments were a plus from the standpoint of finding things quickly, although things were rather tight in the main compartment.   The Pacsafe bag offered an extra water bottle compartment even with the bag fully loaded with these items; but with the Co-Pilot, I ended up using its center front compartment for my sunglasses case, so, no water for me!

The comparison to the Pacsafe backpack raises another point.  By definition, the Co-Pilot is a bag intended for carrying (among other items) electronic gadgets; its total lack of security features is a disappointment.  You could easily have $1000+ worth of electronics in this bag, and I’m surprised that Tom hasn’t come up with a clever solution to security.

(A final note on security and the Co-Pilot:  if you lock the two pulls on the main compartment to the pull on the center front compartment, both compartments are secure – you can’t spread the zipper far enough to get anything of substance out of the main compartment.  Similarly, if you lock the zipper pull tab on either of the front “end” compartments to the pull tab on the center front compartment, they’re basically impenetrable.  You just need to own a couple of small TSA – or other – padlocks.)  I’d prefer a more elegant solution, of course, and hope Tom will consider this for the future.

In a similar vein, I would prefer that the pass-through had a zipper on the top as well, converting it into a more secure pocket.  This is the approach Red Oxx uses on the PR series, and it works well.

Although I haven’t highlighted this aspect thus far, this bag is light.  With a heavy duty strap and all the items listed above inside, it weighed 9.6 lbs. (4.4 kg).  The bag itself weighs just over a pound in ballistic nylon, and about 11 oz. in Dyneema.

Does it work?

As a personal carry-on item, the Co-Pilot certainly works.  I was a bit afraid that it’d be a bit too purse-like, but once I saw it in the flesh, my concerns disappeared.  It’s a good looking, capable little bag, and I’d be comfortable traveling with it anywhere.  Bihn seems to achieved the impossible:  designing a bag that’s manly enough for most guys, but not to a degree where it’d be objectionable to many women:  incredible.

If your packing needs didn’t include much in the way of books or paperwork, you could certainly carry a lightweight shirt and a change of underwear in the bag for a quick overnight trip.  And I imagine the design is scalable, should Bihn wish to come out with a slightly larger, laptop capable version.

My enthusiasm for the Co-Pilot is tempered, however, by the fact that there are so many other alternatives out there, some of them less expensive and just as capable, if not more so.

  • The Pacsafe backpack I took on our trip is $80, for instance, has numerous security features, as well as greater capacity (if needed, I can squeeze my ThinkPad T42 in it).
  • The Red Oxx Gator is $5 less than the Co-Pilot, but comes with the heavy duty Claw strap, and features closed cell foam padding (the Co-Pilot has none).
  • Bihn’s own mid-sized Synapse backpack is only $10 more, but boasts 19 liters of capacity, nearly double that of the Co-Pilot.

Yes, these are all different bags with different feature sets, but they all have one thing in common:  they meet the airlines’ “personal item” requirements, and as such, I believe these comparisons are fair.

No doubt the Co-Pilot will resonate with some travelers who will fall immediately in love with it, much as I did with the Tri-Star.   It’s a great bag, is impeccably made, and is distinguished by both neat features and remarkable capacity, but I keep finding myself wishing that the price was somewhere south of a Benjamin.  In fairness, I should note that as with all Tom Bihn bags, the Co-Pilot’s abundance of features equates to a hefty labor content, no doubt driving cost – and price – upward.  Ultimately, whether it works for you will depend upon the nature and frequency of your travel.

See it here:  Tom Bihn Co-Pilot$110, made in the U.S., available in several colors

Exterior made of U.S. 1050 denier Ballistic nylon (twice the abrasion resistance of 1680 denier fabric) or Japanese Dyneema/nylon ripstop fabric
Lined with ultra-lightweight yet tough Dyneema/nylon ripstop fabric, made for us in Japan
#8 YKK Uretek “splash-proof” zippers
Meets domestic and international airlines’ personal carry-on item size standard; easily fits in overhead compartment of CRJ commuter planes.
Overall dimensions: 12″ x 10″ x 5″ / 300 x 255 x 125mm
Volume: 10 liters / 600 cu.in.
Weight:
Ballistic nylon: 17.2 ounces / 485 grams
Dyneema/nylon: 11.2 ounces / 315 grams
One “o-ring” in each of the three front compartments; one “o-ring” in main compartment
Main compartment can fit a Netbook or Apple iPad inside of our Cache sleeve
Carry by comfortable, Poron foam padded handle, included Standard Shoulder Strap, or attach the optional Absolute Shoulder Strap
Comes with a package of Cord Zipper Pulls — you can remove the metal zipper pulls and replace them with cord pulls if you desire
Made in the TOM BIHN Factory in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

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14 Comments on Review: Tom Bihn Co-Pilot “personal carry-on bag”

  1. David says:

    Another great review. With Tom Bihn the customer must be willing to pay something for having the product made in the USA. I really don’t know where Pacsafe makes its bags. The Red Oxx bag (also made in the USA) is nice but does not look as refined to me as the Co-Pilot. The Co-Pilot is a nice looking bag as well as functional. I own both the Synapse and the Co-Pilot. The Synpase is a great small backpack and holds a lot more than the Co-Pilot. But if you don’t need that much space, when you’re on the aircraft it will be much easier to get things in and out of the Co-Pilot. But my main point is that Tom Bihn really doesn’t compete on price.

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  2. Michael W. says:

    Ditto on the great review.

    The Gator, which you mentioned, has “self-locking” zippers that can’t be pulled apart. You will still need to lock them, but once locked they can’t be manipulated open in the way you describe. The downfall of the Gator is that it is pretty heavy. I’d be interested on your thoughts comparing organization features in the Gator vs. the Co Pilot. I own the Gator and find its pockets and compartments very handy, although it hasn’t quite made it into the iPhone/iPod era in terms of padding and sueding some internal or external pockets for these little devices. I work around the lack of iPod padding by carrying my Touch in a neoprene eyeglass case then stuffing the case into the external pouch.

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  3. As you might guess, with us, it’s not an issue of cost – YKK doesn’t make lockable (i.e. – designed to receive a luggage lock) sliders for the Uretech zippers yet. We had a choice to make – lockable sliders or Uretech zippers – and our choice reflects our opinion that the water-resistence and splash-proof qualities of the Uretech zipper are more of a consistent value to the traveler than the lockable slider.

    We choose not to use the *locking* sliders that other manufacturers use because the locking mechanism can damage the teeth of the zipper. In our experience, those zippers are more prone to jamming as well.

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  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kevin, TOM BIHN. TOM BIHN said: RT @PracticalHacks: Review – Tom Bihn Co-Pilot carry-on http://wp.me/piqSx-2zt #travel #travelgear [...]

  5. Andy Mesa says:

    The only thing that amazes me about this bag is that TB thinks they can charge $110 for it.

    I simply don’t buy their “craftsmanship costs money” argument. I get custom-made stuff from MEI in Fresno, CA and their stuff isn’t anywhere near as expensive.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Andy:

    Are you referring to the MEI folks who make the Voyageur?

    [Reply]

    Andy Mesa Reply:

    Yes.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    I’m always a bit nonplussed when I see a smallish bag that’s more than $100, but I think the MEI / Bihn comparison is to a degree, an apples and oranges deal.

    Bihn supports a full factory – equipment and employees – and a broad product line, while (to my knowledge) MEI offers one product with a 4 week lead time.

    You may not care one bit about these things, but Bihn’s higher overhead and commitment to inventory and support certainly enter into the equation.

    Just my $ .02

    Andy Mesa Reply:

    Genuine Gear (the makers of MEI packs) offer a wide array of products.

    http://www.meipacks.com/TravelPacks01.html

    They are also happy to make custom enhancements per your specs, as I have done in the past. I’ve had nothing but outstanding support from them.

    Kevin Reply:

    OK, got it, I was confusing them with this guy:

    http://www.meivoyageur.com/

    Mark Reply:

    Those are both the same packs. I have no personal experience with MEI, but from all of my research on bags I have seen much discussion of the MEI packs. I certainly got the impression that it was basically a one-man shop (Ahmed is his name). It also appears that his responsiveness is hit-or-miss, and lead-time can be extensive. However, his packs are almost universally praised.

    There may be some additional manpower involved, but I don’t believe he has anywhere near the overhead of Bihn.

  6. David says:

    Tom Bihn is a small firm that makes bags in the US. It really can’t compete on price. I realize it’s not for everyone but I’m glad it is around. I love the bags. They come from a company with 18 employees and $1.5 m in sales. This is not a get rich quick scheme. See http://www.seattlepi.com/busin.....ihn14.html

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  7. Dillon says:

    I really like the looks of the Co-Pilot, but I often carry an SLR. It’s a Canon T1i and since it is entry level it’s not a pro size SLR. Still I’m not sure it would fit in the Co-Pilot if you were also carrying a water bottle and an iPad.

    I may need something slightly larger. Any thoughts?

    Thanks

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Dillon:

    I just put my Nikon D80 in the Co-Pilot, laying it on its side, and it fits just fine. In fact, there was room for an additional lens.

    For more ideas, I’d go to the Travel Products area at FlyerTalk, and search for “camera bags” or “compact camera bags,” and see what results you get.

    Good luck!

    [Reply]

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