Guides & How To

How to Choose a Bag to Give as a Gift

How To Choose A Bag As A Gift | Made in USA Gifts | Made in Seattle Gifts
Watercolor by Dan Bransfield. And the bag in the watercolor? That’s the Shop Bag, one of our go-to bags to give as a gift.

For the longest time, when folks asked us for advice on which bag to get a friend or family member, our response was: “You can’t go wrong with a Gift Certificate!” Since then, we’ve expanded our range of designs to include bags that will be useful to just about everyone — see this list of our favorite bags to give as gifts. And you’ve shared with us your stories of choosing a particular bag to give as a gift and having it be a hit. And we’ve given countless bags as gifts ourselves. So, here’s our guide to choosing a bag to give as a gift.

Our first recommendation remains the trusty Gift Certificate. That way, the lucky recipient will get to choose the exact bag and color they’d like to have. You can choose to have the Gift Certificate emailed to you so you can deliver it yourself, or delivered immediately to the recipient via email.

Our second recommendation: ask us for advice! Send a note to emailus@tombihn.com and or give us a call to talk with Mike, Kat, Matthew or Cody. We’re experts in helping people find the right bag for them and would be delighted at the chance to help you figure out the perfect gift! You can also crowd-source a winning gift by asking the kind and knowledgable folks in our Forums.

If you’re going the route of choosing the bag for your friend or family member, here are some things to consider:

Who is the bag for?
Think about your friend, loved one, work colleague or whoever you’re buying this bag for. What do they carry now? Do they pack their current bag to the brim, or do they have a lot of extra space? Do they currently carry a messenger bag or briefcase, or a backpack? Are they ultra-organized, do they wish they were organized, or are they happy with their joyful chaos of objects? Spend some time really thinking about the person for whom you’re buying the gift, and, if this isn’t a last minute thing, make a mental note to watch how they carry their stuff. Paying attention is how you can turn the good intention of a great gift into a “How did you know I needed this?! I didn’t even know I needed this!” kind of gift.

Do some sleuthing!
Ask the recipient of your generosity questions about their current bag and what they like and don’t like, and be sure to use a smokescreen so they don’t get the hint. Example: “Hey, Jennifer—I’m thinking of getting a new bag. Just curious… what would you look for in a new bag?”

What is the recipient’s organizational style?
Some people just throw their stuff in their bag, zip it up, and go. Others may prefer a lot of built-in organization, or modular organizers. How a person packs provides another clue about what bag style might suit them best.

Very generally, bags with larger and more open main compartments are great for people who like to cram or toss in their stuff, or for travelers who use the bundle packing method. Bags with multiple compartments can provide more structure, but may require more precise packing in order to look good and distribute weight evenly. Bags with lots of pockets, pen slots, and the like can keep small items organized. Bags of all types can be further customized and personalized with accessories.

Just sharing the love
If you’re still not sure what to get, or if all you really want is to be able to share TOM BIHN craftsmanship and design, we suggest choosing something that’s simple and widely useful.

The following bags and accessories are cited frequently as ones that Forum members reach for again and again. They’re designs we think many people will find useful and enjoy.

The zip-top Pop Tote is the new tote on the block. 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, and he came up with the Pop Tote, which, if we may say so ourselves, is the best zip-top tote in the world. Many people agreed and the first production run of Pop Totes sold out; more are being made and are estimated to ship by or on December 14th.

We designed the Travel Cubelet to serve as the perfect travel purse, and according to the early feedback and reviews, we just might’ve nailed it. (Shhh: our plan is to pack the Travel Cubelets we plan to give as gifts with our favorite travel-sized toiletries and necessities to create mini-amenities-kits.)

Because it folds up so teeny tiny, Pocket Travel Pillow is a great stocking-stuffer (or tuck it in a Travel Cubelet amenities kit — see above) for anyone who travels or commutes by bus, ferry, or train. The idea is this: take your down jacket or sweater and stuff it into the Pocket Travel Pillow. Voila!

Aeronaut 45 Convertible Travel Bag
Whether they travel by plane, train, or as part of a camel caravan, any astute adventurer will appreciate the durability of our three-compartment Aeronaut, which can be carried as a backpack, shoulder bag, or with the handles as the situation dictates. The 45 can hold a surprising amount of clothing and gear; if your recipient is a bit smaller in stature or wants to travel super light, we recommend the scaled-down Aeronaut 30.

Yeoman Duffel (sizes Mini, Small, Medium, and Large)
Hardworking and good-looking, the Yeoman Duffel is available in four sizes. You’ll be sure to find the perfect size to use for the gym, car or boat, or any time you need to haul gear. Made from 1050d Ballistic nylon, the Yeoman is prepared to survive almost anything, including the cargo hold of a plane.

Buying a gift for a person in your life who is outdoorsy, has dogs, and loves good quality gear? We recommend considering the Skookum Dog Camp Mat, Skookum Dog Citizen Canine and the Skookum Dog Road Duffel. Fun, functional, and Made in USA, these items are loved by canines and the human company they keep.

Cafe Shoulder Bags (sizes Small and Medium)
A quintessential “grab it and go” kind of bag, the Cafe Bag holds all of life’s little essentials. Comfortable to wear over the shoulder or cross-body, the Cafe Bag is available in a pleasing array of colors.

The Sprout Kid’s Backpack
Sized especially for kids between 4–8, the Sprout has all the thoughtful craftsmanship you’ll find in our adult-sized backpacks. It’s just smaller. And very cute.

Shop Bags
Made of bright and cheery Halcyon fabric, Shop Bags come in two sizes and are equipped with handy side pockets and comfortable padded handles. Not only for shopping, they make great toy organizers, car totes, and beach bags. (If you think they’d appreciate a beefier bag, check out the sturdy wonder that is the Moveable Feast Reusable Grocery Bag, made of 1050d Ballistic nylon.)

For the hiker on your list, you can’t go wrong with The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 or The Guide’s Pack. Both are classics and will stand the tests of time in both looks and form. Choose The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 for the person who you think will also use it as their EDC or The Guide’s Pack for a pack totally dedicated to the trail.

Travel Tray
The humble Travel Tray is a favorite of the TOM BIHN Forums: it holds all manner of little things you need when you travel; it’s flexible, squishable, and capacious, making it easy to tuck into your bag; and it’s brightly colored, so you won’t leave it behind on the hotel nightstand. It works well as a catch-all and organizer at home, too. And it’s now available in two sizes: Small and Large.

Travel Stuff Sacks
Available in four sizes, these stuff sacks can be used in any bag or around the house. They’re useful for color-coding different items, and are especially handy for holding things that don’t fit into flat or cube-shaped pouches. Great for stocking stuffers—or even serving as a stocking themselves!

Q-Kit
A good friend to anyone who’s got lots of little things to organize, the Q-Kit comes in two sizes to fit any bag. The Q-Kit is good for stuff like earbuds, change, phone chargers, laundromat tokens, kid treasures, and even dog (or human) treats.

Daylight Backpack 
A lightweight backpack that fits bigger kids and most adults, the endlessly-customizable Daylight Backpack is great for day trips, overnights, and daily carry.

Side Effect
A small bag that can be carried over the shoulder, worn around the waist, or carried by an optional loop strap. Loaded with pockets, it can be used as a purse or an organizer inside another bag. It’s also great for holding in-flight essentials.

RFID Passport Pouch
Carry up to three passports in this handy pouch, which blocks RFID chips from being scanned or read without your knowledge. You can wear it around your neck or waist, or clip it into your bag.

Still can’t decide? Crowd-source a winner by asking our Forums, send a note to our bag experts Mike, Matthew, Kat, and Cody at emailus@tombihn.com, or give us a call at 1-800-729-9607 (U.S. & Canada) or +1-206-652-4123 (other countries).

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.

trager-pack
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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