Luminary Pre-Production Batch (PPB) Notes

Note: for details on the Luminary 12, 15, and 210 ballistic bags pre-order, see this post. Pre-order opens 02/26 and closes 03/05.

Tom, Nik, Mike and Velia (not pictured) at the final Luminary 12 and 15 Pre-Production Batch meeting.

Ever since we first mentioned our pre-production batch (PPB) system in our Pre-Order FAQ — I placed a pre-order and it shipped earlier than expected! Nice. How’d that happen?

You received one of the few PPB bags available — congratulations.

What, you may be asking, is the pre-production batch (PPB)?

A pre-production batch (PPB) of any new design is ordered and completed by our production department prior to the new design being offered for pre-order.

The PPB is intended to:

  • Serve as the first large-scale test of the efficiency of manufacturing the new design.
  • Provide photo, review and employee loaner sample bags.
  • Ship a small quantity of bags to a randomized selection of customers who place orders for the first pre-order batch. This will allow folks to post reviews and first thoughts and photos of a new design, which in turn may help other people decide whether a bag is right for them or not.

Please note that the design itself is tested and every detail finalized and approved by Tom, Nik, Lisa, and Fong long before the PPB is ordered. PPB bags are in no way “beta” or incomplete.

— several of you asked for us to share more about the PPB process and we decided the Luminary 12 and 15 PPBs would be the perfect opportunity to do so.

List of New Features and Updates To the Luminary 12 and Luminary 15
Note: the detailed why and how behind these features and updates are shared over here in the pre-order announcement for the Luminaries. We’re listing the features below as they are referenced multiple times in the PPB notes.

  • Zipper sliders for the side pockets now close to the top rather than to the bottom.
  • Side pockets are deeper (wider) so they can accommodate a wider variety of phones and phablets, notably the larger varieties. One of the side pockets is a bit taller than the other, so even some pretty gigantic phones will now fit. Matthew’s HTC U Ultra fits in the taller zippered side pocket of the Luminary 12 and in both zippered side pockets of the Luminary 15.
  • The piping (the trim that sits in the seam between the front panel and the top/sides of the pack) is now color-matched.
  • Small zippered pocket added to the inside upper front.
  • New size — Luminary 15 — is approximately 15% taller and 10% wider than the original Luminary 12, while its thickness (or depth, as it projects away from your back) remains pretty much the same with both sizes. Padded back pocket fits laptops up to the size of a 13″ MacBook Pro.

Notes From Our Luminary 12 and Luminary 15 Pre-Production Meetings

PPB Launch Meeting

Fabric laid up, marker clamped, ready to be cut by Irma.

Victor and Irma double check the ply count. Well three times, really.

Irma cuts: perfect as always.

Meeting Questions:

  • Any questions or issues with Bill of Materials?
  • Open discussion with Lisa/Fong
  • Insights or instructions from designer + production engineer (Tom, Nik)

Action Item(s):

  • Nik, Mike, and Fong ask Irma if the marker needs any adjustments.

Mike’s notes from the actual Luminary 12 and Luminary 15 PPB Launch Meeting. Includes feedback from Irma, Tom, Lisa, Fong, Mike, and Nik:

  • Overview of the changes from this version of the Luminary from the original: new interior pocket, matching piping, revised zipper stop/garage on side zippers.
  • Noted that on current piping foot for the sewing machine, it scrapes the zipper end piece and rubs the paint off. Possible solutions to look into: modify or get a different piping foot or cut the zippers ourselves and sew on a stopper. Nik is investigating new feet and Fong made a sample of the pocket by cutting our own zipper for us to evaluate. Resolution: we will cut the zippers ourselves and sew on a stopper.
  • Discussed seam inside laptop sleeve. Tom determined it would be easy to topstitch that seam and the seam would then lay flat inside that pocket. Sew by samples were marked with that change.
  • Tom discussed the notches and importance of lining them up properly, He noted that one of the notches that should have been a slant was done straight instead (on the marker). Marker will be adjusted. Lisa and Fong will discuss notches at follow up PPB meetings.
  • Happy mistake: the wings were on the marker so they will match the exterior of the bag. Original sample had black wings.
  • Tom talked briefly about the new garage zipper stoppers. These will be die cut and have not been done yet.
  • Noted that the pre-cut zipper we order for the Luminary 15 needs to be 1/5″ shorter next time we order. I will note that on the Luminary 15 PPB notes. This of course depends on our not deciding to go forward with cutting our own zippers.


Interim PPB Check-In

Cut parts arrive on the sewing floor, last minute questions answered.

Lisa makes a suggestion for an edit to a notch placement; Nik takes note.

Fong explains to Tom a detail about the interior pocket zipper.

Meeting Questions:

  • Notches: any to add, subtract, or move?
  • Any issues with materials?
  • Adjustments or corrections to BOM needed?
  • Any problems with machines or tools?
  • Any issues with ergonomics/ease of assembly?
  • Any problems overall?
  • Any feedback from the crew?

Action Item:

  • Tom, Nik, Mike, and Lisa take one bag to QA and go over particular points of importance in the QA process of the design. Answer any questions QA have.
  • Mike confirms with Irma that marker works; if not, posts to-do for Nik in our project management software.

Notes from the Luminary 12 and Luminary 15 PPB Check-In:
Shoulder strap construction:

  • Victor contributed an important improvement as to how the shoulder straps are assembled. He experimented on his own and found that using a small paint roller on the finished strap allowed him to more firmly adhere the foam to the fabric. Victor suggested we build something like an old-fashioned clothes wringer that he could run the strap through when it was done. Turned out that somebody already makes a simple but strong clothes ringer for use on boats: we got one, made some minor modifications and Victor’s literally cranking out new straps.
  • Victor noted that the small guide pegs in the registration/assembly boards are having a tendency to pop out — we’re working on fixing that. Resolution: glue!
  • We discussed yield and layout of die cutting process with Ben (who will be doing the die cutting).
  • Direction of the stretch material is critical for proper construction — Tom created a schematic as a guide:

  • Lisa requested an additional registration/assembly board so we can have two people working on the process if needed.
  • The notches for the tricky spot on each side is going together well– no problems reported in the process and the bags look like they’re well lined up.
  • The change to the cut-to-length zipper on the inside pocket is going fine.
  • No problem to top-stitch the seam inside the laptop compartment to make it smoother entry/exit of the end user’s device.


PPB Final Review

We’re feeling pretty confident 🙂

Velia explains the nuances of QA-ing the Luminary.

Meeting Questions:

  • How did the bags go through QA?
  • What questions did we ask and answer?
  • Any final thoughts?

Action Items:

  • Mike checks in on issues or opportunities for improvement identified in previous meetings: was action taken / were improvements made?
  • Mike + designer (Tom or Nik) spot check bags that went through QA; anything missed?
  • Mike types up a summary of the three meetings for the PPB and posts it in our project management software.

Luminary 12 and Luminary 15 Final PPB Review Notes

  • Watch closely the bartack on the zipper garage. The bartack should be lined up on both the inside and the outside.
  • Include Key Strap and Cord Zipper Pulls in outside right pocket.
  • Tom’s magic power is to find the one bag with a flaw when he spot-check QAs a batch of bags. He found a skipped stitch on the mesh interior pockets in one Luminary; all Luminaries were checked to see if any others had this flaw and they did not.


Top-Loader Backpacks: a Blast From the Past

Any sort of bag or backpack that needs to get closed up tight requires, well . . . a closure. It’s likely that the very earliest closure used was a draw cord threaded through holes punched in the top edge of the bag’s material (which was likely animal skin), then pulled tight by the user and tied shut. If Ötzi had carried a backpack, it likely would have utilized a drawcord closure. Things bumped along this way for thousands of years; somewhere along the line some clever person added a flap over the opening to keep the contents of the bag from being exposed to weather – making this flap into a pocket was an obvious next step.

Fast forward to the late the 19th / early 20th centuries, and zippers are invented (finally). Zippers have made their way onto bags and backpacks in the decades since, and mostly we’re all pretty happy about that: zippers provide a secure and convenient closure, and it’s hard to imagine a backpack entirely without them. (We use the very best quality YKK zippers out there, and that means that with appropriate use and care they’ll last a long time. Don’t use a zipper to compress the load, and if something gets jammed in the slider, don’t just yank it harder. Many of the packs I made back in the 1970’s still have functioning zippers, though some are stiff and cranky . . . a bit like me.)

When we set off to design The Guide’s Pack, we were inspired by the simplicity and elegance of backpacks that were made in the mid-20th century; most of these utilized zippers only for their pockets, and relied upon the (even then) very old school technology of a drawcord closure for their main compartment. I started making backpacks long before drawcord closures were “retro”, and appreciate from experience how completely bombproof the system is: not only is it almost impossible to break a drawcord closure, the very act of loading the bag and cinching the cord can be a great way to compress the bulkiness of your load. Packing one of our top loading backpack feels less finicky too: you can stuff away to your heart’s content without fear of buggering a zipper; since it’s not humanly possible to blow out the side seams, have at it.

Now we’ve added a second drawcord closure, top-loader pack to our line-up: the Shadow Guide. It’s a further riff on the simplicity of the drawcord design, plus it’s the only pack in our line-up with Cache loops to accommodate even the largest 17” laptops.

Top loaders aren’t for everyone. Some folks will always prefer the greater access that a well-designed zippered closure can give. It’s sort of like choosing to drive manual over automatic. For those who do appreciate top loaders, here’s some tips on packing a top loader like The Guide’s Pack or the Shadow Guide:

— Stuff the stuff that you may not need access to in the bottom main compartment of the pack. (Perhaps your rain shell or warm extra layer, depending on where you live.)

— Above or on top of that, your lunch and water bottle.

— Laptop (if carrying) against the back of the pack.

— Quick access items in the mesh pockets on the underside of the top hatch: keys, phone, wallet, etc.

— And in the top hatch pocket itself: first aid kit, flashlight, other EDC items, pouch of cords and dongles.

Update on the New Luminary Backpacks

Victor, Fong, Lisa, and Nik discuss the shoulder straps on the Luminary 14.

As we shared back in May, Tom has been working on new versions of the original Luminary 10 and the new size Luminary 14. An update on the progress of the Luminary was included in our recent blog post on the design process. After we posted that update, Tom took additional feedback into account and added yet another feature and another design update to the bag, which added to the bag’s development timeline.

As of today, both the Luminary 10 and Luminary 14 designs are complete. Yay! But not so fast: while the designs have been completed, Tom, Nik, Lisa, and Fong are currently working together to make sure the packs are manufacturable as efficiently and accurately as possible. Given our limited production capacity, ensuring we can make large production runs of this small but complex backpack is essential.

Part of our process of adding a new design to our offerings is to make a PPB (Pre-Production Batch) of the bag prior to making them available for pre-order. The PPB is primarily intended to serve as the first large-scale test of the efficiency of manufacturing the new design. Taking into consideration the time needed to produce two PPBs (one for each Luminary) and looking at our already full production schedule, we estimate that it won’t be until early next year until both the Luminary 10 and Luminary 14 are available for pre-order. Yes, that’s right: 2019. We know that this is going to be a disappointment for those of you who have already been waiting for the Luminary. We never want to disappoint people if we can help it. We find it’s sometimes a fine line between keeping everyone in the loop — so informed decisions can be made — and sharing too much in the way of the progress of a design, providing an estimated timeline (later edited/updated) as we did in this post. This time we were on the wrong side of that fine line and for that we’re sorry. And if you’ll forgive us this: we’re admittedly darn stubborn when it comes to delaying stuff to get the details as perfect as they can be. We want to present to you the best version of a bag we can make.

With the production capacity this decision frees up, more existing designs will remain in-stock, we’ll be able to surprise you with the couple of things long since planned for around the holidays, and when we do offer the Luminaries for pre-order, we will be able to offer a second pre-order soon after just in case they are so popular they fly right out the door.

We’ll share another update once we’re ready to offer the Luminary 10 and Luminary 14 for pre-order. If you’d like, you can sign up on the Luminary 10 page to be notified via email as soon as both the Luminary 10 and Luminary 14 are made available for pre-order. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to post ’em in response here or

On The Design Process: Inspiration, Timeline, Testing

Both Tom and Nik are designing various new bags and smaller items—everything from new backpacks to new travel bags to new organizer pouches. And that, of course, prompts questions: When will they be released? Will all the designs turn into real bags that will debut someday?

There’s an easy answer: we don’t know. But why do we not know? And further, how can we be comfortable with—and actually admit to—not knowing?

First, we might identify the various impetuses behind the new designs, as the origin of their inspiration does impact the design process and timeline of development.

The inspiration for Tom and Nik’s new designs is influenced by:

  • Taking and using bags (current designs or prototypes of new designs) on trips.
  • Observing other people traveling, hiking, or commuting with bags.
  • Feedback from people who use our bags.
  • The intervention of inspiration from an unknown, unidentifiable source. (Sounds lofty, but we’ve all experienced that in our work, haven’t we?)
  • A design problem or challenge that would be exquisite to solve.
  • An aesthetic drive: to first start with building something that looks good.
  • Life events. Best friend having a baby? We’ll make a diaper bag!
  • Recalling an incomplete design that was put aside years ago, and applying newfound knowledge and skills to complete the design.

The development timeline of new designs is influenced by:

  • How busy we are running our small business. Internal projects can sidetrack design. For example: over the past few years, we’ve designed and programmed our own inventory and production management software, implemented our new inventory scanning/tracking system, rebuilt nearly our entire website on a new platform, and reviewed, documented, and improved all customer service and shipping-related procedures.
  • How inspiration waxes and wanes. It may be there for a week and gone the next three weeks—or three years. We don’t push it or force it; in our experience, design driven by inspiration is far superior to design forced to meet a timeline.
  • Research into and development of new materials that’ll make the new design truly sing.
  • Engineering the manufacturing of the design so that it is … manufacturable.
  • Configuring a new sewing machine set-up, folder*, or ordering dies* to make the design efficiently manufacturable.
  • Staff time to either make the bag or make the debut happen. We have decided we’re happy with the size of our company more-or-less—with 47 people, we’re big enough to do stuff like develop custom fabrics and small enough that we’re all still working here together under one roof in Seattle. Having a smaller company/crew means there’s less redundancy—if someone takes family leave because they’re having a baby or someone else has major surgery (these two things have happened recently/are happening right now FYI), we rally to cover their work or make do so they can take time without worrying about it. That can mean that new releases or debuts or other projects get delayed because we don’t have our full crew on deck. With the rare exception around the holiday season, our crew doesn’t work overtime. Tom, Nik, and I often work in excess of forty hours each week, but that’s because we want to.
  • The fact that many design ideas don’t make their way to fruition. This excerpt from Tom’s most recent newsletter update sums it up well: At the same time, we’re experimenting with and developing new fabrics (my Taber testing machine is getting a workout!), new webbing, and new zippers. And I realize (once again), that more often than not, these forays start off with high hopes but yield nothing new that we can actually use—they’re good ideas that turn out to be not-so-good realities. Indeed, life would be much different (though far less interesting, IMHO) if one knew in advance which was going to be a gold mine and which a rabbit hole. But the few fabrics that work well, and the few designs that rise above the others, make it all worthwhile.

Updates on Just a Few of the Designs We’re Working On Right Now

Last month, Tom sewed a prototype of a new backpack/briefcase design so he could use it on a weekend trip. In line at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the guy standing behind Tom told him that it was a great looking bag and asked him who made it. Tom replied that he, in fact, had made it, and that while he appreciated the feedback, he’d already redesigned the bag over the course of that short trip, and it would end up looking a lot different. Tom made something like five design changes to the bag after using it on trips—that’s how his design process works. Even when that process results in a longer development timeline, we think it’s worth it. We’d rather take our time and meet our own standards of perfection.

Or, take the Luminary backpack: we were 100% sure its design update was done when several different people testing the bag told us an additional interior pocket against its front face would be useful. And, upon first consideration, Tom thought that could be a good idea too. But by that time, he had shifted his focus to working on other new designs, such as the aforementioned briefcase/backpack, which are now nearly done. His plan is to complete those designs and then work on samples of the Luminary with the new pocket so we can see if it’s a good idea in reality.

The same process can apply to materials—and it’s not uncommon that we have to wait on the development of a new material that’s necessary to make a new bag design. Tom’s currently developing a new fabric and a sample of it arrived from our mill. It looked exactly as we had envisioned it, but it didn’t Taber test as well as we had hoped. We expect to spend weeks investigating those Taber results in an effort to identify and solve the problem.

To Sum it All Up…

As usual ’round here, there’s a lot in the works. And when a design is really, really done—and its debut it scheduled—we’ll let you know about it.

Until then, we remain grateful for your feedback, support, and interest in our little company and what we make. The more work we put into what we do, the more we get out of it, and the more you share with us (whether a review of your bag, photos from a trip, or constructive feedback), the more we’re inspired to take on new projects and make things even better than they are. Thanks!

*Dies and die cutting
A die is, most simply put, a sharpened steel edge bent into a specific shape: think of an industrial strength cookie-cutter. We use dies to cut small fabric parts like pouches, as well as foam and plastic parts. Dies allow you cut out parts with a very high degree of accuracy and speed. We use a 20 ton press (called a “clicker”) to push the dies through whatever material we’re cutting. All of our dies are custom fabricated to our specifications.

A folder (also sometimes called a binder) is an attachment to a sewing machine, typically made of stainless steel or chrome-plated steel, which sits in front of the needle and feed-dogs (mechanisms that pull the fabric through the machine). The folder/binder effectively mimics the hands and fingers of a sewing machine operator, locating or placing various parts in very specific and consistent orientations relative to one another. Folders allow many of our sewing operations to take place with near-perfect consistency, and at high speeds. We have folders that keep the edge of zipper tape in the same relative placement to the sewing operation, at the same time folding the cut edge of the fabric and holding that folded edge consistent to the seam and zipper as well. We use several folders that fold the various narrow widths and types of fabric tape (effectively light weight webbing) that we use to cover the cut edges of fabric inside our bags, preventing those cut edges from fraying apart. Many of our padded handles are created by using folders. All of our folders are custom fabricated to our specifications.

The Aeronaut Travel Bag: Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of questions (and answers) that we’re asked — or anticipate we will be asked — about the Aeronaut 30 and Aeronaut 45 travel bags. If you have a question that wasn’t answered here, feel free to

  1. How did Tom come up with the design of the Aeronaut?
  2. What does Tom consider to be some of the more unique features and aspects of the Aeronaut design?
  3. How many design updates have been made to the Aeronaut over the years?
  4. Tom designed the Aeronaut so that the end user could carry it via three different methods. In what particular scenarios did Tom imagine one might carry the Aeronaut by hand, via a shoulder strap, or as a backpack?
  5. Does the Aeronaut meet with all airline carry-on standards?
  6. Will the Aeronaut fit under the seat in front of me on the airplane?
  7. Is the Aeronaut a good bag for road trips or train trips too?
  8. Can I use the Aeronaut as a hiking backpack once I reach my destination?
  9. What if I’m traveling to a conference and I want to “one bag” it—will it work to carry my Aeronaut as my Everyday Carry (EDC) bag?
  10. How much of a difference do the optional Aeronaut Internal Frame and Padded Hip Belt make? Do I need them?
  11. Can I use just the Internal Frame or just the Padded Hip Belt, or are both necessary?
  12. Why not just include the Internal Frame and sew in the Padded Hip Belt?
  13. I’m trying to choose between between the Aeronaut and the Synapse 25. Help me out here: what are the advantages of each?
  14. Is a shoulder strap included with the Aeronaut?
  15. How can I pack my Aeronaut so as to maximize comfort for sustained carrying?
  16. Are Packing Cubes necessary for packing the Aeronaut efficiently?
  17. What are the benefits of using Packing Cubes?
  18. How do people use the o-rings in the Aeronaut?
  19. What’s the maximum weight that the Aeronaut can hold?
  20. I use wheeled roll-aboard luggage now. Will the Aeronaut work better than that for me?
  21. Does the Aeronaut have a compartment for my laptop?
  22. Have you considered adding a laptop compartment to the Aeronaut?
  23. What causes the zippers on the Aeronaut to be a little stiff?
  24. Can I lock the zippers of my Aeronaut?
  25. I’m 5’2″ and not so big. Which size of Aeronaut is right for me?
  26. I’m 6’2” and pretty big. Is the Aeronaut for me?
How did Tom come up with the design of the Aeronaut?

The Aeronaut was born from Tom’s desire to make a soft travel bag that would be a significant improvement over a simple duffle. Tom was fond of the Road Buddy series of duffles that he designed and made in the 1990’s, but wanted compartmentalization more tailored to what he carried, which was typically clothing, and somehow always seemed to include at least one pair of shoes. He wanted this new bag to carry comfortably handsfree (as a backpack) when needed for getting across Heathrow or across town. Though Tom sized it to take full advantage of the recommended FAA maximum carryon size (basically a box measuring 9″ x 14″ x 22” / 22 x 35 x 56 cm), he incorporated as many curves as possible – hoping the resulting aesthetic would be a bit more sports car and a bit less ice cream truck.

What does Tom consider to be some of the more unique features and aspects of the Aeronaut design?

Though not originally one of the design criteria, it turns out that a cool thing about the Aeronaut’s division of space is that many folks find they can live out of it and never actually unpack it. Once you set it down on a luggage rack/desk/bureau/bed/floor, it’s sort of like a chest of drawers, providing easy access to its contents. This can be particularly sweet when you’re only staying a night or two somewhere, or when your accommodation lacks a closet. We even added two simple webbing loop handles just inside the main hatch opening so you can easily pick up your Aeronaut and move it around your room without needing to zip it shut; these grab loops can also come in handy if, for example, your bag is inspected at an airport security checkpoint, or any time you might want to move an open Aeronaut with some alacrity.

How many design updates have been made to the Aeronaut over the years?

Whew—too many to count! Since its inception circa 2003, we’ve added features and nudged things around a bit, but its basic layout and size remains the same. Of particular note are the Late-2014 and 2017 design updates.

Tom designed the Aeronaut so that the end user could carry it via three different methods. In what particular scenarios did Tom imagine one might carry the Aeronaut by hand, via a shoulder strap, or as a backpack?

Tom wanted to have all three options, and to be able to choose which mode was most appropriate at any given moment. Having the backpack straps zip away is great: when stowing the Aeronaut in the overhead bin, it’ll slide in and out without getting caught; if you need to check it, there’s less reason to worry about what baggage handlers and conveyor belts might do to it; the Aeronaut looks relatively tidy and presentable with straps stowed and carried by hand (or with a shoulder strap attached), so that when you’re making an appearance at a four star hotel you’d perhaps be less likely to be given the bum’s rush. Carried as a backpack, the Aeronaut can make navigating a crowded plane, bus, or subway easy-breezy; a short hike through town to the hostel or pension is no biggie.

Does the Aeronaut meet with all airline carry-on standards?

The Aeronaut 45—with exterior dimensions of 21.9” (w) x 14” (h) x 9.1” (d)—qualifies as a maximum carry-on main bag on most U.S. airlines. Technically speaking, the Aeronaut 45 exceeds the stated dimensions for carry-on requirements for some European and smaller airlines. That said, the Aeronaut 45 is soft luggage, which means that if it’s underpacked, it can compress to meet those requirements. Many people successfully underpack the Aeronaut 45 and use it on European or smaller airlines, but we can’t guarantee this will work for you.

The smaller Aeronaut 30—with exterior dimensions of 19.7” (w) x 12.6” (h) x 7.9” (d)—qualifies as a main carry-on bag for U.S. as well as European airlines, small airlines, or regional jets.

It’s always a good idea to look up the luggage requirements of the particular airlines with whom you’ll be flying. We’d be glad to help, too:

Will the Aeronaut fit under the seat in front of me on the airplane?

The Aeronaut 30 will fit under the seat of many airlines. The Aeronaut 45 probably won’t—you’ll need to store it in the overheard compartment.

Is the Aeronaut a good bag for road trips or train trips too?

You bet. Darcy went on a two week road trip and basically lived out of her Aeronaut–she never had to unpack.

Can I use the Aeronaut as a hiking backpack once I reach my destination?

We suppose you could, and some people have and do. We’ve even tried it ourselves and it worked… OK. In short, it works in a pinch, and with the Padded Hip Belt and Internal Frame the Aeronaut is more comfortable as a hiking pack—but most people probably won’t be happy using the Aeronaut as a day hiking pack, so it’s not something we recommend.

Instead, we’d recommend packing an Aeronaut 30 Packing Cube Backpack or an Aeronaut 45 Packing Cube Backpack, or even a rolled-up Daylight Backpack. All three can be easily deployed to serve as great lightweight day hiking packs.

Or, if you’re going on a trip that will, in part, be focused on longer day hikes—for example, a trip to Alaska with three days visiting people and working in Anchorage and 4 days hiking in Denali National Park—you may want to take a Synapse 19 or Synapse 25.

What if I’m traveling to a conference and I want to “one bag” it—will it work to carry my Aeronaut as my Everyday Carry (EDC) bag?

Probably not. Instead, we’d recommend one of these two options:

1. Pack a Daylight Briefcase or Daylight Backpack in your Aeronaut. The Daylight Backpack can fit up to a 15” laptop in a Cache sleeve; the Daylight Briefcase can fit up to a 13” laptop in a Cache. Both are excellent minimalist and light-in-weight EDC options—and they don’t take up much room when rolled up or stowed in the Aeronaut.

2. Take a second bag. The Aeronaut will serve as your main carry-on bag and the second bag—perhaps a Pilot, Co-Pilot, Stowaway, Synapse 19, or Synapse 25—will be your personal item. Of course, at this point, you’re not “one bagging” it — but this method does have some advantages. Namely, once your Aeronaut is stowed in the overhead compartment, you’ll still have a personal item bag that you can stow under the seat in front of you that gives you easy access to your tablet or laptop, phone, books, and other amenities during your flight. Plus, you can use the second bag as your EDC at your destination.

How much of a difference do the optional Aeronaut Internal Frame and Padded Hip Belt make? Do I need them?

That depends on what you carry, the weight you’re used to carrying on a regular basis, and your own personal idea of comfort.

Some people won’t feel they need the internal frame and padded hip belt.

Some people–especially those who appreciate these two features on other packs, like outdoor backpacking packs–will likely enjoy the internal frame and padded hip belt.

Can I use just the Internal Frame or just the Padded Hip Belt, or are both necessary?

You can use one or the other, or both. Using both will likely give you the greatest sensation of reducing the amount of weight you’re carrying; however, using either the Internal Frame and Padded Hip Belt will shift some of the weight of a pack onto your hips.

Some folks just like the way an internal frame feels against their back—it’s less about a perceived reduction in the amount of weight they are carrying and more about the tactile experience of the frame. It’s worth noting that an internal frame can be an especially potent way to increase comfort in bags that beer-barrel out when overpacked/overstuffed; however, the Aeronaut’s design ensures that it hardly beer-barrels at all.

Others may find the additional weight or stiffness of the internal frame unnecessary, but the comfort of the Padded Hip Belt to be essential.

Why not just include the Internal Frame and sew in the Padded Hip Belt?

Not everyone wants to use an internal frame, and it would add both weight and cost to the Aeronaut if a non-removable frame was incorporated into the design. Additionally, the internal frame’s rigidity might make it more difficult to underpack your Aeronaut in order to squeeze it into an airline baggage sizer or get it into a nearly-full overhead compartment.

It’s the same thing with the Padded Hip Belt. And, perhaps worse, if you didn’t want or need to use the padded hip belt, it’d either be flopping about on your left and right, potentially knocking into other people or objects, or you’d have to buckle it behind your back to get it out of the way, which can make for an awkward carrying experience.

By design, the Internal Frame and Padded Hip Belt are optional and removable, allowing you to customize your carrying experience.

I’m trying to choose between between the Aeronaut and the Synapse 25. Help me out here: what are the advantages of each?

The Aeronaut 30 or the Aeronaut 45 offers the flexibility of three carrying options: by hand as a duffle, over the shoulder or cross-body with a shoulder strap, or as a backpack. In various travel contexts, these options can prove beneficial (we talked more about that in Aeronaut FAQ #4). The Aeronaut’s design basically allows you to live out of it as if it were a dresser drawer of sorts, meaning there’s no need to unpack, and you’re much less likely to have to pull out some stuff to access other stuff. It gives you wide, unfettered access to your stuff similar to a clamshell opening (but, perhaps, without what some folks find irritating about clamshell openings—namely, that if you open them all the way, your stuff burps out).

The Synapse 25 is a backpack. It has a comfortable handle at the top, but it’s intended to be a grab handle (say, picking up the bag to move it from one room to another) as opposed to a carrying handle. If you want a travel backpack—and you’re either a current or aspiring minimalist traveler—we’d recommend the Synapse 25. Part of what makes carrying and traveling with the Synapse 25 so great is that its fairly narrow main compartment means you can’t pack too much stuff. This gives you more of a sense of the bag being conformed to you—and perhaps even an extension of you.

Feel free to with your unique packing list and travel plans. We’d be glad to give you additional advice more tailored to your unique needs. You’re also welcome to share the same information in our Forums and get a wider variety of feedback.

Is a shoulder strap included with the Aeronaut?

No. Here’s our thinking on that one: as we’ve discussed elsewhere, inherent in the design of the Aeronaut are three carrying options — by its handle as a duffel/valise, worn as a backpack with its hide-away backpack straps, or carried over one shoulder with a single strap (such as our Absolute Shoulder Strap). A good percentage of people will choose to carry their Aeronaut via the first two methods only, and including a shoulder strap with the bag means they’d pay for — and have — something they wouldn’t use. Additionally, we offer several options for shoulder straps, and if we did choose to include one with the Aeronaut we’d be sure to disappoint some folks. Also, many folks already have a shoulder strap from some other bag that they’ll want to use. So, we chose to make the shoulder strap optional.

How can I pack my Aeronaut so as to maximize comfort for sustained carrying? ?

In our experience, we have found the best ways to improve your comfort carrying a bag to be:

1. Take less stuff. Do you really need five pairs of pants? Maybe—or maybe not.

2. Replace some items with lighter weight versions. Five pairs of jeans weigh a lot more than five pairs of lightweight travel pants.

3. Take care to pack your bag so that its load is balanced. See our blog post Packing for Ideal Weight Distribution.

4. Adjust the pack so that it fits you. Make micro-adjustments to the sternum strap and shoulder straps (and Padded Hip Belt, if using one) over the course of the time you’re wearing the pack.

5. Shift your perspective. We can at least tell ourselves that carrying a reasonable amount of weight in a backpack can prove to be a good bone-and-muscle-building workout. 🙂

6. Add an Internal Frame + Padded Hip Belt to shift some of the weight of the pack onto your hips.

Are Packing Cubes necessary for packing the Aeronaut efficiently?

No. Tom designed our travel bags to make Packing Cubes optional; that’s why he added tie-down straps (useful for cinching down / keeping flat folded pants, shirts, or even a blazer) to our Aeronaut 30, Aeronaut 45 (and Tri-Star) travel bags.

The Aeronaut is designed to be a bag you could basically live out of and never have to unpack. Its end pockets do a great job of keeping rolled clothes neat and you’ll find that folded clothes don’t shift around too much in the main compartment. Unlike bags with clamshell openings, you can set the Aeronaut on the bed/chair, zip it open, and have full and entirely visible access to your stuff—without worrying about it unfurling or falling out. In short, we think the design of the Aeronaut especially lends itself to packing sans Packing Cubes.

What are the benefits of using Packing Cubes?

See our post Packing Cubes: Frequently Asked Questions.

How do people use the o-rings in the Aeronaut?

Wait, let’s back up for a second for those not in the know: o-rings small, round, plastic rings sewn inside many of the compartments and pockets of our bags to which one can clip and tether additional pouches and organization — such as Organizer Pouches and Key Straps. O-rings are so unobtrusive that it’s totally optional whether you utilize them or not.

Included with the Aeronaut (and most of our other larger bags) is one 8″ Key Strap attached to an o-ring — we figure most folks will clip their keys to this Key Strap.

Here’s an idea of what could be clipped to the o-rings in the Aeronaut:

Left to right: included 8″ Key Strap, Double Organizer Pouch w/16″ Key Strap, 3D Clear Organizer Cube w/16″ Key Strap, Passport Pouch w/16″ Key Strap.

What’s the maximum weight that the Aeronaut can hold?

The Aeronaut is durable and strong enough to hold way, way more weight than you’d ever want to—or should—carry. So, the answer to this question is: how much weight is it comfortable for you to carry? We recommend practice packing and using one of those inexpensive nifty little luggage scales you can get all day long on Amazon. Does 30lbs feel like too much? Remove some items, or replace them with lighter weight versions, and see how much weight you’ve saved and how different that feels.

I use wheeled roll-aboard luggage now. Will the Aeronaut work better than that for me?

Maybe, maybe not. It’s important to acknowledge that carrying one’s one luggage as opposed to wheeling it isn’t possible for every person and every body. And some folks may just prefer traveling with rolling luggage.

That said, we hear quite often from folks who have made the switch from rolling luggage to carrying their own bags and find it liberating. More easily navigating cobblestone streets, saving weight and space, and not risking the impoliteness of taking up double the physical space around you—these are just a few of the benefits people have shared with us.

Does the Aeronaut have a compartment for my laptop?

It does not: the Aeronaut is not intended to carry a laptop. Most people who use the Aeronaut use it as one bag of a two bag system. Clothing and toiletries are packed in the Aeronaut, which is then stored in the overhead compartment on the plane. A laptop/tablet, snacks, phone, glasses, etc. are stored in a personal carry-on bag that fits under the seat in front of you and kept easily accessible in flight. For a true “one bag” travel solution, please see our Tri-Star, Western Flyer, or Synapse 25.

That said, some people choose to work around this and carry their devices in the Aeronaut. Smaller tablets can fit in the mesh zippered pocket in the inside flap of the Aeronaut or the side exterior zippered pockets. If you unzip one or both interior main compartment zippers in the Aeronaut 45, you can fit a 15″ laptop in a Cache in the bottom of the bag. And, if you unzip one or both interior main compartment zippers in the Aeronaut 30, you can fit up to a 13” laptop in a Cache in the bottom of the bag.

13″ MacBook Pro in an Aeronaut 30. Note that underneath the laptop is its appropriately sized Cache. We don’t recommend putting a laptop without a protective sleeve in any bag — we’re just showing the laptop on top of the Cache in this photo so you can see the laptop itself.

Have you considered adding a laptop compartment to the Aeronaut?

We have, and we’ve come up with some options as to how we’d incorporate room for a laptop in the Aeronaut, but we don’t like any of them (so far).

What causes the zippers on the Aeronaut to be a little stiff?

We use YKK AquaGuard water-repellant coil zippers on the Aeronaut because we wanted it to have the greatest possible weather resistance; however, these zippers can be a bit harder to open and close than standard coil zippers. We feel it’s a reasonable tradeoff.

Can I lock the zippers of my Aeronaut?

Yes, the zippers on the main (center) compartment as well as both end compartments feature lockable sliders. Zip any of these compartments entirely shut and butt the two sliders together so the small eyelets overlap, then slip a small luggage lock (or zip-tie) through the eyelets to secure that compartment. If you choose to lock all three compartments you’ll need three luggage locks. Also remember that the TSA requires access to your luggage “without the passenger being present” so even if you’re not checking your bag, you should consider using TSA-approved locks. Keep in mind that any time your bag is not in your sight someone could potentially cut the bag open or otherwise access its contents, locked or not, and that the idea behind locking your luggage is A: to “keep honest people honest,” as they say, and B: so that if your bag is opened you’ll know about it. There’s plenty of on-line discussions about the pros and cons of locking your bag—we provide the lockable sliders so you can choose.

I’m 5’2″ and not so big. Which size of Aeronaut is right for me?

We’d recommend the Aeronaut 30. That said, if you’re used to carrying a bag as big as the Aeronaut 45, that should work just fine too.

I’m 6’2” and pretty big. Is the Aeronaut for me?

You bet. However, if you’re that tall or taller and have a long torso, you may find that the optional Padded Hip Belt rides too high to be comfortable.

Here’s a video we made that shows more people of various heights and sizes wearing both the Aeronaut 30 and Aeronaut 45:

And here’s some photos of various people wearing both sizes of Aeronaut….

Aeronaut 30

How the Aeronaut 30 fits various people

Aeronaut 45

How the Aeronaut 45 fits various people

Still have more questions? and Kat, Matthew, or Cody will be glad to help.

New Luminary Backpacks Are In The Works

Tom sews one of the new Luminary prototypes in his design studio.

Tom has made a couple of design updates to the original Luminary. Most notably, he’s made the right side pocket large enough to fit phablets such as the iPhone Plus and the HTC U Ultra; the left side pocket is a bit bigger too (wider actually) than the first iteration of the Luminary. The asymmetrical height of the pockets makes the main compartment zipper extend further down one side than the other, which we think looks kinda cool. Yet Tom was able to nudge things around so that the new Luminary’s main compartment zipper still opens just as wide as the older version – about 44 cm or 17.4”.

Concurrent with the redesign of the Luminary was the development of a new, larger Luminary—the Luminary 14. Its shoulder straps and over-all height are intended to better fit taller and/or broader folks, and its padded back compartment can fit up to a 13” laptop. The Luminary 14 can hold noticeably more than the original Luminary (henceforth to be known as the Luminary 10), yet is still quite a modest sized pack. (For those paying close attention: we re-measured the volume of the original Luminary when we were measuring this new size, and the original came in at a perfect 10 liters. Both were measured using our new volume measurement protocol, so we feel very confident abut these numbers — more on that some other time….).

Both the Luminary 10 and Luminary 14 are in the final stages of their creation: pattern adjustments are being made and Tom is working with Lisa, Fong, and Nik to ensure both bags are efficiently manufacturable. We expect the new Luminaries will be available for order sometime soon-ish (emphasis on the ish).

To sign up to be notified when the new Luminary 10 is available, visit the Luminary 10 page.

To be notified when the Luminary 14 is available for order, subscribe to our general mailing list or to our blog posts (that sign-up box is on the right). 

Various Luminary prototypes on Tom’s drafting table.

Some Thoughts for the Prospective Bag Designer

Tom Bihn in the Dave Meeks Bee Barn, Santa Cruz
In my garage, Santa Cruz, circa 1983.

The other day, someone stopped by the factory just as I was leaving – they are learning to design and make bags, and were hoping to look around. I was glad to give them a brief tour and answer some questions. Surprisingly, this request is not that uncommon: we’ve recently had more and more inquiries from people who’d like to start their own bag businesses or become bag designers, and are hoping I might give them some advice or wisdom to help them down their path. Of course, the thing about any map is that, while it can show you where someone else has been, it cannot show you where you’re going to go.

I’ve been very fortunate myself to have had some great mentors along the way, folks who were willing to share their time and their opinions – not so much about the specifics of design or running a bag business, but about business in general, and even more broadly, this bigger thing we call life. Dave Meeks was a big influence, as were many friends, family members and early customers (such as my math teachers Gary Rominger and Randy Smith!)

Tom Bihn Custom Down Jackets
The business card from my days as a student at Aptos Junior High, circa 1972.

Doing my best to be helpful, I first try to dissuade those who want to “follow in my footsteps”: there’s nothing easy about what we do here, and there’s got to be about ten million easier ways to earn a living than by making bags. All that said, if you’re still interested, what follows are a few words of advice, such as they are . . .

Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Similarly, the best way to find out how to make bags is to make bags.

I’ve been making outdoor equipment since about 1972. I was 11 or 12 years old and I just wanted to spend more time outdoors. I thought all that fancy gear coming out of Berkeley, Boulder, and Seattle was pretty neat, but I was just a kid and all that stuff was a bit expensive. Somewhere in there my parents suggested I try making my own gear. My mom taught me the basics of using a sewing machine, and after that I was just winging it. I started off more or less just copying traditional styles, over time adding my own touches until ultimately I was truly “designing” my own products. I never went to design school; engineering was a bit inherited from my dad and otherwise self-taught, and the aesthetics were largely my own.

Read this book: Light Weight Camping Equipment and How to Make It by Gerry Cunningham

It now seems quaint and somewhat out of date, but it’s a great way to get some basic information about, as the title suggests, how to make your own gear. Gerry Cunningham was the “Gerry” behind the company of that same name, and he had figured out a bunch of stuff already.

Tom in Yosemite
Solo backpacking trip in the back country of Yosemite, 1977. I built the pack hiding behind me; it’s mounted on a classic Kelty external frame.

Learn to sew
Take a class or just get a machine and start tinkering around. Nik (COO/Designer here at TOM BIHN) more or less taught himself to sew over the course of a few months, mentored a bit by Lisa, Fong and myself. It’ll make a world of difference in your designs if you can actually sew them yourself: the cycle of sketch/prototype/test, sketch/prototype/test is so much faster and easier than if you need someone else to make your ideas real. Plus, you might invent a whole new way of making a bag if you do it yourself.

What type of machine, you may ask? I made everything on a walking foot Consew 206RB for years. If you can get one with a servo motor instead of the old clutch drive, you’ll be ahead of the curve as you learn (it’s sort of the difference between an automatic and a stick shift in a car: especially in the learning phase, you’ve got enough other things to distract you).

My Consew 206RB is still in use in our Seattle factory.

Start small. Don’t quit your day job. Not yet, anyway.
Times have changed and this advice may not be as relevant, but here goes: I attribute part of the success of this business to the fact that I had modest expectations and never planned to make a lot of money making bags. For years I held down other jobs and made bags on the side, renting a loft above my friend’s garage for almost a decade while I developed my designs and learned to run my own business.

Tom's letter of recommendation
A letter of recommendation from the Frick winery. I had over 30 jobs before I officially started my own business.

Listen to everyone’s advice, but take little of it.
Everyone will give you their opinion about what you make. It’s important to pay attention to this feedback: after all, the idea is not to just make bags for yourself. But it’s also good to develop a filter that helps you sort through all the opinions before they confuse and sidetrack your own vision.

Remember as well that your designs and skills will evolve: there’s always more to learn from yourself, your critics, your supporters, and often by just watching people use their bags.

I (most of the time) welcomed the feedback of friends and family who used my packs on their hikes and travels. Here, Brooke wears the Sack of Spuds backpack.

And perhaps most importantly…
Though it might just remain an avocation rather than a full-time career, if you love making things, don’t give up. Had Etsy been around when I was starting off, you can bet I would have had an Etsy store. What cooler way to to see what people like and don’t like than to offer your ideas for sale to the whole world?

While living in a loft above a friend’s garage is perhaps a bit glamorous at age 20 or 30 (as opposed to age 50), there were plenty of times I thought about getting a “real job”. I’m glad I didn’t. And frankly, I’d rather still be living in that loft than doing something for work I didn’t really enjoy.

Look at us now: we’re a company of 47 people all working together under one roof here in Seattle. We made it. And you might, too.

Farewell to the Field Journal Notebook

TOM BIHN | The Field Journal Notebook Returns

Back in 2015 we made the decision to retire a number of designs including the Field Journal Notebook. And then, in 2016, we announced its return. Now, in 2018, we are once again retiring the Field Journal Notebook. This decision was made partly because of two materials supply related reasons: first, the Field Journal Notebook’s three-ring binder mechanism is no longer available, and second, the cost of the specially-produced-just-for-us FJN paper inserts/refills have gone up by a substantial amount that we’d rather not pass on to you.

And so here we find ourselves once again: the Field Journal Notebook is retiring and this time it’s for good. The currently available Field Journal Notebooks, accessories, and paper refills are the last of their kind. No more final batches will be made. (Go here to see the Field Journal Notebook and its accoutrements all in one place.)

Those of you who already own or plan to purchase a Field Journal Notebook may be wondering where you can find paper refills from here on out. The Field Journal Notebook accepts paper that is 5.5 x 8.5” which isn’t a terribly common size but not too rare. Here’s some paper refill options that can be obtained through Amazon:

Avery Mini Filler Paper, 5.5 x 8.5 Inches
Bright White 24lb Bond 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ Sheets
Ampad Graph-Ruled Refill Sheets

In addition, unpunched Half Letter or A5 (different but fairly similar sizes) paper can be acquired and an industrious person could make their own custom pages (or find one that works for them on sites like Etsy) and use a Mini 3-hole punch such as this one by Staples or an adjustable punch such as this one by Swingline to print and punch their own replacement pages.

Finally, there have been some helpful discussions about this on the forums, such as the Where to Buy FJN Insides, Field Journal Notebook Hole Spacing, and Field Journal Notebook threads, all of which are worth a look if you’re interested in more information about planners and hole punching for the Field Journal Notebook.

Many thanks goes out to our volunteer Forum Moderators moriond and Ilkyway for the links / information / tips referenced in this blog post.

And, as always… if you have questions about any of this, or give us a call at 1-800-729-9607 or 1+206-652-4123.

New: Guide’s Edition Synapse 25, Pop Tote, and Synapse Internal Frames

Meet our three latest designs…

The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25

The Pop Tote

Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 Internal Frame

Click the above links to go directly to the pages for the new designs to see all the details: photos, videos, specifications, full descriptions and more. Or, read on below for a summary of each of the new designs.

All three new designs are in production at our Seattle, Washington, USA factory. They will be available for order on Monday, November 27th at 8:00am PT and will ship the same day if ordered before 12:30pm PT (as long as they’re still in stock).

The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25

In Production in Seattle, Washington, USA

Ready To Order / Ships On…
Monday, November 27th at 8:00am Pacific Time

Mars Red, Deep Blue, or Black (all with coyote trim and lining)

Sign Up To Be Notified When The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 Ships
Go to the Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 page, click on any In Production color combination, and add your email address to the input field that appears below.

The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 takes all of the same clever features, bountiful organization, and top-shelf build of the original Synapse 25 and walks it all a bit further up into the mountains, a bit deeper into the woods.

Rather than the all-too-common black zippers, hardware and webbing, the Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 has gone terrestrial: it’s trimmed and lined in Coyote brown. The resulting aesthetic might be taken as an homage to another time, but to our sensibilities, bags trimmed in Coyote seem to be a little more at home in the great outdoors. Brown blends in more readily with natural surroundings and doesn’t show dirt as much. When it does get a bit dusty or dirty, it looks like it’s supposed to. You might also find that the Guide’s Edition S25’s rugged good looks solicit more than a few smiles of appreciation when you’re back wandering the canyons of Gotham.

And it’s not just about the practical and handsome coyote trim–we’ve added several features to the Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 that allow you to carry gear specific to slightly more adventurous outdoor adventures:

— Included Removable/Adjustable Internal Frame with Pre-Bent Aluminum Stay

— Ice Axe Loop

— Accessory Strap Holders

See the Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 for more on these new features.

The Pop Tote

In Production in Seattle, Washington, USA

Ready To Order / Ships On…
Monday, November 27th at 8:00am Pacific Time

Mars Red, Black, Olive, Cloud, Deep Blue, or Alphaviolet

Sign Up To Be Notified When The Pop Tote Ships
Go to the Pop Tote page, click on any In Production color combination, and add your email address to the input field that appears below.

People have been requesting that Tom design a zip-top tote bag since, well, since before the turn of the century. He always thought it was a good idea, but none of his prototypes were substantially better than all the other zip totes out there—there were plenty of those, and if folks wanted them, there they were.

But in the spring of 2017, Tom again applied himself to the task. The challenge of making a open-top bag that can zip securely shut is not perhaps self-evident, as Tom explains:

“The zipper and surrounding fabric—that is, all the material that allows the thing to shut up, also gets in the way when you desire a bag with a big, wide opening. Somewhat of a Catch-22. But sitting at my sewing machine with some scrap fabric and scissors, and finally a bit of time on my hands, I was able to create what I think is a successful compromise.”

By the end of summer Tom was satisfied. More than satisfied, he was stoked. Pop!

Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 Internal Frame

In Production in Seattle, Washington, USA

Ready To Order / Ships On…
Monday, November 27th at 8:00am Pacific Time

Sign Up To Be Notified When The Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 Internal Frame Ships
Go to the Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 Internal Frame page, choose the Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 Internal Frame in the drop-down selection menu, and add your email address to the input field that appears below.

We present for your use these optional, removable internal frames with aluminum stays for the Synapse 19 and Synapse 25 backpacks. They’re designed to work with any generation of Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 that has rail loops.

The frames are made of die-cut .055” thick High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), with a nylon webbing sleeve sewn down the center that encases a 1” / 25mm wide 6061 aluminum stay that’s pre-bent to a generic spinal curve.

See also: our Guide To Backpack Frames.

Our Guide To Backpack Frames

Tom and Nik in the Seattle Factory

As with many things in life, deciding whether to use an internal frame—or if you even need one—is subjective: it’s based on how you plan to carry your backpack, what you plan to carry in it, and how carefully you’re willing to pack it. A lot of folks will find an internal frame useful, but not everyone will, and certainly not everyone needs one, especially those who carry smaller/lighter packs or less gear.

Our Hero’s Journey, Guide’s Pack, and Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 backpacks all come with internal frames included. Versions of the same internal frame are optional for our Synapse 19 and Synapse 25 backpacks. But just because we offer internal frames doesn’t mean they’re required; our goal with this guide is to give you the facts as we know them (experientially, theoretically, and historically) so you can make the decision as to what’s best for you and your carrying comfort.

Before we really dive into this, let’s start off making sure we’re all on the same page with the definitions:

External Frame
Many of the first “modern” outdoor packs (starting in the 1960s) utilized an external frame made of tubular aircraft aluminum – basically a lighter version of the old Trapper Nelson wood frame. The innovative addition of a padded hip belt allowed the user to transfer most of the load to their hips. The bag was generally packed with the heavy stuff up high, so the center of gravity could more easily shift to be over the hips. The rigidity of the frame allowed a fabric or mesh back panel to be stretched across it, creating air circulation between the pack and the user’s back. These packs were, and still are, very good for carrying heavy loads on relatively even trails. Off trail or cross-country travel was less fun, as that same high center of gravity became unwieldy with any sort of athletic jumping or clambering around.

Internal Frame
In the early 1970’s, manufacturers began introducing internal frame packs, hoping they could make something that performed better for high mountain and off-trail travel than rigid external frame packs. Many folks found these new packs to be a happy medium between clunky external frames and completely soft frameless packs. There have been numerous variations of internal frames developed over the years, some made of fiberglass, some plastic, some consisting only of one or two aluminum stays. Our version basically takes a frame sheet (see below) and adds a single bendable aluminum stay. Properly bent and shaped to conform to one’s spine, an internal frame (in this case, internal frame = frame sheet + aluminum stay) provides a degree of vertical stability that a simple frame sheet won’t, allowing one to lift some of a pack’s weight off the shoulders and onto the hips (even with just a 1″ webbing waist belt or a padded hip belt). This is in addition to the two benefits offered by a frame sheet: prevention of an overstuffed bag barreling out and a created barrier between pointy objects and the user’s back. Some users also like the way the stiffness of a pack with an internal frame can make it easier to load, as the pack won’t schlump over when it’s not on your back.

Frame Sheet
A “frame sheet” is a piece of thin plastic (something along the lines of what a milk jug is made from) that rides inside the backpack, against the back, separated from the user typically by some foam padding. The idea is that with a frame sheet, you needn’t be so concerned about hard or pointy objects in your pack poking through the foam padding and causing discomfort, plus your bag will be less likely to round off and become a beer barrel when over stuffed. Because a frame sheet doesn’t add significant vertical stability or rigidity, whether used with a hip belt or not, a frame sheet won’t do much to transfer the weight of the pack onto the user’s hips.

Frameless Pack
A pack without a frame sheet or internal frame. A frameless pack might even lack padding on the back panel (ala our Daylight Backpack) or it could have back padding and mesh (like our Brain Bag backpack). Some people choose to carry a large volume backpacking pack that entirely lacks any internal frame or frame sheet – see the Jensen Pack. Carefully and mindfully packing a frameless pack is an opportunity to save weight: the gear you carry serves as the support and maybe even the padding too.

Backpack Frame History
Plate from Light Weight Camping Equipment and How to Make It by Gerry Cunningham and Margaret Hansson.

Original Trapper Nelson wood pack frame, circa 1950s.

Early 1960’s Gerry aluminum pack frame — note the unpadded webbing hip belt.

Early internal frame — this one on an Alp Sport climbing rucksack.

Corduroy back panel of a frameless Jensen Pack.

Tom and Nik work on the internal frame for the Synapse: the evolution continues.

Synapse internal frame with our unique T-bar attachment.

Benefits of an Internal Frame

• On bags with a webbing or padded hip belt, the vertical stability facilitated by an internal frame with an aluminum stay can help to lift some of the pack’s weight on to one’s hips.

• It creates a hard back panel that prevents less-than-carefully packed objects like a thermos or DSLR from poking one in the back.

• It can prevent an overstuffed bag from barreling out against one’s back.

• To some folks, a rigid frame against their back (with padding between the frame and their pack) just feels right.

Why You Might Not Want to Use a Frame

• A frame adds weight to a bag. Our Synapse 25 internal frame weighs 9.6 oz / 272 grams and our Synapse 19 internal frame weighs 6.9 oz / 195 grams. In many cases, you can save the weight of a frame with careful and thoughtful packing.

• The rigidity offered by the internal frame becomes a liability when you’re squeezing your pack into the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you, or when you’re packing your backpack inside other luggage. (This is one of the reasons we design our internal frames to be removable.)

• Some folks simply prefer the feeling of a frameless or soft-back pack.

The TOM BIHN Approach to Internal Frames
Make them true internal frames with an aluminum stay, and make them optional.

In case you’ve just tuned into this station, we here at TOM BIHN have always advocated for exercising thoughtfulness when packing, taking care to pad some objects by wrapping them in clothing, and positioning others inside your pack just so for optimal carrying comfort. While this somewhat monastic approach to packing certainly has some acolytes, there are as always apostates as well, and thus we’ve had more than a few requests to offer a frame sheet option with our backpacks. Each of us pack differently, and paying attention to those differences helps us design options to meet the needs of the user, whether they’re a careful packer (like Tom) or more of a throw-it-in-and-go packer (like Darcy).

With this in mind, we designed a light and simple internal frame, originally for The Guide’s Pack, and then modified for the Hero’s Journey. So far so good. However, some of our customers, who, like us, seem never able to leave well enough alone, requested some sort of similar frame for our other packs. So there you have it: we’ve gone ahead and done it, and are now offering internal frames for the Synapse 19 and the Synapse 25 (as well as the Guide’s Edition Synapse 25).

They all feature the same basic materials and construction as the internal frames we’ve been making since 2015: die-cut .055” thick High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), with a nylon webbing sleeve sewn down the center, encasing a 1” /25mm wide 6061 aluminum stay. In all cases we’ve bent the stay to a generic spinal curve: we recommend you re-bend and/or adjust the curvature to best fit your own back. The stay is removable, in the unlikely case you are still an unbeliever and just want a frame sheet.

Both The Guide’s Pack and the Hero’s Journey are designed specifically to accept their purpose-built internal frames, with “pockets” in the lining to accept the lobes of their respective frames. Because the Synapses were not originally intended to accommodate an internal frame, they lack any particular allowance for the attachment of such a frame, and some modifications to the frame design were required. We took advantage of the loops for the Cache rails system to allow for retaining the internal frame inside the tops of those packs: a clever “T” bar holds the frame in place relative to the loops. (Watch this video to see how it works.)The lower edge of the internal frame floats free in the Synapses—we’ve found this isn’t much of an issue as the contents of the bag tend to hold this lower extreme in place.

These TOM BIHN bags include (come with) a removable internal frame with aluminum stay:
The Guide’s Pack
Guide’s Edition Synapse 25
Hero’s Journey

These TOM BIHN bags can be (optionally) purchased with a removable internal frame with aluminum stay:
Synapse 19
Synapse 25
(See also: the Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 Internal Frame page, where those frames can be purchased separately.)

So, do you need an internal frame for your backpack?

Our goal is to provide options in order to do our best to include everyone and help them carry a bag comfortably. In the end of course, it’s your call. We’d recommend considering the information we’ve outlined above and using your own discernment: figure out what’s best for you as opposed to whatever might be the current dogma in the world of outdoor gear. That might be carrying the heavier, classic external frame pack you’ve always loved, or going totally frameless and minimalist. You might mix it up depending on the load, the season, or length of trip. The Synapse’s internal frames are pretty easy to install and remove, so you may find yourself adding the frame for a long hike and removing it for a short weekend getaway.

We’ve made an effort to offer internal frames that provide all of the benefits without requiring a firm commitment: it’s totally optional whether you use one of our included or add-on internal frames. A bunch of us here at TOM BIHN are avid hikers and sometimes backpackers, and we choose to carry frame or frameless packs depending on where we’re going and what we’re carrying.

Perhaps the most important thing of all: going out into the world. The gear we take with us is continually evolving; our experience dictates what we carry.

News Briefs

We’re retiring our Road Buddy Duffel 36 and Road Buddy Duffel 60 to make way for new designs. If you’ve been thinking about a Road Buddy, you may want to order soon, as we won’t be making further production runs.

We’ve updated our Planet page with additional efforts: we’re operationally carbon neutral, members of 1% For The Planet, we offer a vegetarian company lunch, and over 80% of our materials are bluesign® and/or OEKO-TEX® certified.

Mark your calendars! Our Seattle Factory Showroom will be open the following Saturdays: Dec. 14th 2019 and, in 2020, March 21st, June 20th, and September 19th.

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