The Highs: Good looks & typical Bihn quality in a compact package

The Lows: Only contortionists will love the central water bottle pocket

The Verdict: Great backpack for around town, hiking, and “seatside”

How does a bag manufacturer stand out in a field that’s cluttered with players and wannabe players?

With Tom Bihn, the recipe is simple: load your products with thoughtful features grounded in real-world experience; hand sew them in the U.S., using tough, high quality materials that reek of quality; and in a nod to (home) Seattle’s weather, equip them with YKK splashproof zippers so everything stays dry.

In the case of the Synapse, there’s another ingredient: eschew the ‘bigger is better’ mentality in favor of a bag that’s as perfect for an afternoon hike as it is for touring art galleries, or stowing beneath the seat on a regional jet or commuter.

The Synapse’s relatively modest dimensions, however, belie its remarkable capacity.  I’ve recently been using a full size backpack as a work “daily bag,” and was able to put everything I’d been carrying in it into the Synapse. The only difference is that the smaller bag can’t accommodate my (jumbo sized) ThinkPad.

Before going any further, let’s take a look at the Synapse’s specs.


  • Exterior of 1000 denier U.S. Cordura, lined with ultra-lightweight yet abrasion-resistant Dyneema/nylon rip-stop fabric made in Japan
  • Back panel with exterior of Dri-Lex Aero-Spacer mesh and U.S. 1050 denier ballistic nylon; padded with 1/4″ (6mm), high quality, closed-cell foam
  • 16″ x 11.5″ x 7.9″ (410 x 290 x 200mm); Volume: 19 liters (1160
  • Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz. / 710g
  • #8 YKK® Uretech® splash-proof zippers
  • 3/8″ (10mm) thick padded and contoured shoulder straps with removable sternum strap; removable waist belt
  • Internal front pouch helps organize main compartment – sized to fit an iPad (or netbook)
  • Made in the U.S.A.
  • Available in 9 color combinations

A photo tour…

The front of the bag features five zippered pockets.  The pocket at the top front (single zipper pull) measures approximately 6½” x 10″, and can accommodate a 1 liter water bottle; the pocket immediately beneath it measures appx. 6″ wide by 5″ deep (note that it’s trapezoidal shaped, and is about 4″ wide at its base); there are two side pockets, each of which is about 9″ deep and ~4″ wide; finally, at the base of the bag is a pocket which is ~11″ wide by 5″ high.

Bihn touts the top pocket as perfect for a water bottle. While it’s true that this location keeps the weight of the bottle centered, and prevents it from banging into your back, removing it while the bag’s on your back is impossible unless you’re Irina Vashchenko.  Even if the bag’s on one shoulder, I defy anyone to remove a bottle in that pocket without dislocating a shoulder. The bag must be slung around in front of you in order to get the bottle out.  All is not lost; as you’ll see in a moment, smaller water bottles will fit in the side pockets.

In actual practice, I’ve used the top pocket for my reading glasses case, and sunglass case, plus a few odds and ends.

Here’s a view of the left side pocket (this bag’s color is “Indigo” and the interior panels are “Solar” Dyneema):


Note that a 16.9 oz. water bottle fits neatly in either this pocket or its counterpart on the right side of the bag. The left pocket includes a few pen slots; the right, an Ultrasuede-lined pocket that’s ideal for a smartphone or iPod Touch.

The right pocket comes equipped with a key retainer.  Finally, the two side pockets and the bottom pocket are equipped with O rings for accommodating any of Bihn’s numerous storage organizers.

Below, my Canon S90 in the smaller of the two “top” pockets.

In daily use, I’ve been using the bottom front pocket for items which don’t logically belong in other pockets: energy bars, a small aspirin/med bottle, lip balm, nail clipper, small notebook, in-ear headphones, and the like. In this shot, I put my 3-1-1 liquids bag in the pocket in order to illustrate its capacity:

A view of the back of the bag; the shoulder straps are comfortable, particularly when the sternum strap is utilized:

Typical of packs in this price/quality range, the back panel features closed cell foam for comfort. I should note that the sternum strap and waist belt are easily detached, should you prefer to not use them. A nice touch: when they’re removed, there’s no trace of hardware; you’d never suspect that anything had been removed from the bag.

Finally, the bag’s main compartment, which opens with a pair of the #8 YKK splashproof zippers which are used throughout the bag:

As you can see on the right side of this image, this compartment features an open-top pocket that holds a book, a netbook, or as shown here, a Bihn Vertical Cache which holds my iPad. Note that the Gen 1 iPad fits in this Cache nicely, but when the iPad is in its case, it’s a very snug fit. I assume that the Gen 2 iPad with Smart Cover will fit more easily. Also in the photo above are a thick paperback book (partly obscured) and a Mountain Hardwear shell.  This compartment easily accommodates file folders, 8½ x 11 tablets and spiral bound notebooks; my Asus netbook fits nicely, even in its neoprene sleeve.

Which brings me to a comparison which ought to help frame how large the Synapse is. Here it is alongside my full sized, generic backpack:

The Synapse is about 65-70% as large as the pack on the left. If you’re a woman, smaller in stature, or just don’t desire to adopt the “everything I own is in this pack on my back” look while out and about in the city, airport, or hiking trails, the Synapse ought to fit the bill. Here’s an illustration which captures the bag’s basic dimensions:

A few detail shots…

I don’t know who is in charge of Quality Control at the Bihn shop (although I suspect every employee has a hand in it) but it’s virtually impossible to find flaws in any Tom Bihn bag: the stitching, and every seam, for example,  is perfect.

High quality polymer hardware is used throughout; below, the removable sternum strap.  Note the reinforced stitching on the strap loop (to the immediate left of the TB logo tag) —

The splashproof zippers (equipped with ‘quiet’ cord pulls, below) really work. I’ve been caught in rainstorms a couple of times with Bihn bags, and the contents stayed dry!


Wrapping up

If you need a full size backpack capable of carrying a full size laptop, cross the Synapse off your list. But if you’re looking for a smart looking smaller pack that’s capable of carrying a surprising amount of gear including an iPad or netbook, definitely check it out. I recently used the Synapse as my “seatside” bag on several flights, and it held everything I needed, including an iPad, book, magazines, padfolio, digital camera, ear buds, snacks, — well, the list goes on and on. At a trade show, I slung it over one shoulder so I could quickly grab my S90 when needed.

As with everything, there’s a price to be paid for all this goodness. The Synapse is $120, and is worth every cent in my estimation. It’s a bag I’d be proud to use almost anywhere.

Covered by the Tom Bihn Lifetime Warranty; see the Synapse here: Tom Bihn Synapse Backpack

The Fine Print:  I have no connection with Tom Bihn, but I was provided a sample bag to assist in the writing of this review

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16 Comments on Review: Tom Bihn Synapse backpack

  1. Michael W. says:

    I like the fact that the sternum strap appears to be removable.

    The pockets provide great organization.

    Why not in black? Aren’t you worried about smudges?

    Amazing they can keep the weight down while “lining” the pack; most packs are of course unlined. I think the contrasting yellow Dyneema on the inside is terrific for making contents visually “pop out”. And it’s gotta add to the water resistance.

    Don’t you worry about pickpockets opening the zippers? I kind of prefer top load packs; the Timbuk2 Slacker (discontinued, unfortunately) was a toploader with a noisy Velcro flap closure. The REI Flash 18 is a top loader with draw string. The RedOxx Roadster Mini Ruck and C Ruck are interesting approaches as well.

    I’m glad you’ve reviewed this and the PacSafe. These particular bags are definitely not the run of the mill athtletic store/Target/LLBean packs we are used to seeing.


    Kevin Reply:


    As for color, I usually don’t ask for a specific color unless I feel really strongly about it.

    Regarding pickpockets, I guess it depends upon where you’ll be traveling; if you wanted to slow someone down, you could use a TSA lock. Or… if on a crowded tourist bus, for instance, swing the bag around so it’s in front of you.

    As for top loaders, just not my preference.


  2. David says:

    I own a Synapse and like it. This is a good review. I agree that the water bottle holder is inconvenient and will only hold small water bottles. To me that is the only meaningful negative. The Synapse will comfortably hold a laptop. I put a 13″ MacBook Pro in the Synapse in a protective sleeve and there is a reasonable amount of room for other things. The user is not limited to an iPad.


    Kevin Reply:

    David, thanks for pointing that out. My current laptop is a beast – WAY too large – but is my only point of reference. Thx for adding to the review!


  3. Ronald Pottol says:

    If you want to know if your laptop will fit, they have a fit guide on their website, and very nice, very tough, laptop carriers that clip into their bags. The system works well.

    Your photos make me wish I had ordered Indigo for my Brain Bag (their large backpack)!


    Kevin Reply:

    Thanks for the tip – and for your kind words.


  4. Michael W. says:

    A couple of comments after re-reading:

    1. Your photos (angles, coverage, content) are superb. Why can’t the professionals who do this for Bihn and other websites provide as much useful visual information.

    2. Darn the organization (layout and utility of pockets) is well-thought out.

    It’s always difficult to balance bag weight against organization. I have a Black Diamond Bullet peak bag that only weighs 16 oz and is 16L or slightly under 1,000 c.i., somewhat comparable in volume to the Bihn. But, has almost no organization, just a big main compartment and a front slash zipper. So I always spent a lot of time searching for stuff. For 9 extra ounces, I think I’d prefer the Bihn. Of course the price gap between the two is $60….


    Kevin Reply:


    Thanks. With a blog, I can devote as much space and bandwidth to photos, which isn’t necessarily the case with online retailers. Of course, that’s no excuse for those which do a horrible job (B&R comes to mind).

    One of the things that Tom gets right is the number and layout of pockets – this bag, for instance, or the TriStar, which I continue to think is a wonderful bag. The downside is a bit of added weight, as you point out, but for me, it represents a great trade-off. I always have all manner of small things that need to be stowed away.

    I love the simple aesthetic of the Diamond Bullet, but fear I’d be disappointed if I bought one. Top loaders are just too inconvenient when it comes to finding the item you’re looking for… just my $ .02


    Michael W. Reply:

    The Black Diamond Bullet Pack is a panel loader; the zippers are slightly to easy to operate and are the “spill” variety. The original one with patterned fabric for the haul strap are the nicest; the current one feels “cheapened down.” I agree that top loaders are a PITA. However the REI Flash 18 is quite light, due in part to its lack of zippers and thin (flimsy) shoulder straps and makes a useful place to stow dirty laundry on the flight home and a very light, very handy, destination carry pack. At $29 it is a bargain.

    Still don’t know why online retailers can’t match your level of detail. Patagonia has bricks and mortar stores, and distributes to REI and other non-Patagonia stores as well. But Bihn and RedOxx are completely dependent (aren’t they?) on online sales so you think they’d try harder. Actually, RedOxx did recently update their website…Bihn’s website is messy, imho.


    Michael W. Reply:

    BTW the better half got an iPad2 and actually authorized me to get her the Bihn Vertical Cache after I showed it to her on the Bihn website. It’s a shame you didn’t give the Vertical Cache a little side-bar in the Synapse review. It looks nice, and handy, and I like the lack of Velcro – Velcro is prone to snagging the less robust fabrics women wear. At $30 with $6 UPS shipping it seems a relative bargain.

  5. Maria says:

    Kevin – your photos of the Tom Bihn Co-Pilot bag, plus the review of course, convinced me to get it. I am a fan of Tom Bihn quality, but wouldn’t mind seeing updated / larger / clearer product photos on their website. It’s a shame that you have to look through their “forum” to find customer photos to get a better idea of what a product may actually look like in reality, to see the interior etc. Plus they have an annoying habit of continuing to show pictures of items in colours that are no longer available, or not keeping track of the information for the item. For example – the print beside the product may state a particular colour is available, which can differ from the colour samples pictured underneath the product. Frustrating.

    For Red Oxx, the new website is certainly crisper. Even the typeface is cleaner. Yet I miss the small shadow image of a person holding the bag in question – to give you a better idea of the proportions.

    Great review of the Synapse. You highlight points far better than the TB website itself. At least they have a link to your site for reviews too.


    Kevin Reply:


    Thanks for your kind words – I think you’ll love the Synapse!!


  6. Hello Kevin, thanks for the review , very informative, question for you? I’m an avid triathlon event participant and my biggest complaint with backpacks for my transition is the size of the zippers…generally they use small ( 5-8 mm ) zippers that always seem to fail when you are in a hurry..they bind , get caught on the fabric and are very frustrating…doesn’t anyone manufacture a decent backpack with large ( 10 + mm ) zippers for easy entry and exit…your generic backpack pictured above appears to have good sized zippers…and thoughts…thanks.


    Kevin Reply:


    You might want to check out the Red Oxx Rock Hopper:


    Michael W. Reply:

    @ David you didn’t specify your size requirements, whether you need a waist strap, etc.

    But an alternative to a zippered pack (which would avoid the problem of zipper size and snagging altogether) would be a top-loading pack.

    If your needs are similar to ultralight hikers (and I suspect weight is a concern when you are doing a triathlon) you might want to check out the draw-string closure, top-loading, Flash 18 from REI which is very inexpensive:

    The straps on that pack are a little thin, though.

    Other packs to check out are the Golite line, they have several made specifically for adventure running, I believe, and of course CamelBak which has improved their line considerably in the last year or two, and I believe some of their designs have thicker zippers.

    Sort of curious what you settle on and what you are using now ….


  7. […] because this bag is so well designed. Here are a couple of the reviews that call this out: Review at Practical Hacks with side-by-side comparison of a more standard sized backpack Review at the WireCutter — click on […]

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