For years, my friend Matt Bruggmann has been answering my complaints about travel bags with a single recommendation: "Get a Tom Bihn. Matt would know, too: He's a photographer whose work often takes him around the world to places where he has to bring all his gear with him.
Matt's a fan of the Aeronaut, which manages to be just the maximum size a carry-on bag can be, but it seemed just a tad too large for my needs. At worst, I tend to bring along a 15-inch MacBook Pro, a couple of cameras, and a few changes of clothes. (For trips shorter than a week, I just bring clean underwear and socks and a couple of shirts, washing them out to wear with a single pair of pants.) The Aeronaut could probably hold me for over a week, but I rarely make trips for longer than three or four days anymore that aren't road trips.
So six months ago I asked Tom Bihn if they'd loan me a Western Flyer, a smaller version of the Aeronaut that shares its bigger brother's most nifty trick: converting from an over-the-shoulder bag to a backpack using integrated straps.
It's a hell of a bag.
Because it's soft-sided, it lets me overstuff it to its absolute maximum capacity, while the plastic zippers are strong enough to let me close it all up, even when it's about to burst. The ballistic nylon has enough give to allow for a little expansion, but never so much that it can't be closed again. And the nylon is tough—I've skidded it on concrete a couple of times and while the fabric has been gummed up, it's never actually opened up a hole. (I consider battle scars a feature, besides.)
The backpack straps fit in a pocket on the backside of the bag. They're thick enough that they take up a little of the room inside the back, laptop-sized pocket of the Western Flyer, but not so much that it's really a factor unless you've got the thing crammed full. You can even fold up a magazine or newspaper and slip it in the backpack pocket if you must, although the open, swooped pocket in the front is actually design for just such a purpose.
Handles on the top and the side (or the top and the side if you're wearing it as a backpack) are sewn in as sturdily as you'd expect a company that makes each bag by hand.
Surprisingly, with the addition of the $30 "Absolute Shoulder Strap", I rarely have used the bag as a backpack at all—it's plenty comfortable for hauling around airports. But it's been nice to know I have the option if a short stroll turns into a walk. (And while I may not be a war photographer, I tend to take all my stuff with me wherever I go when I'm traveling, too.)
It's about as fine of a bag as I've ever used, and I understand now why Matt recommended Tom Bihn unflinchingly.
But I've got at least one little flinch: the bag costs $200.
Now, I'm happy to say that the Western Flyer feels like a bag that cost two bills, but if you kit the whole thing out with accessories—say the shoulder strap, a detachable "Brain Cell" laptop caddy, and some packing cubes—you're easily looking at a upwards of three hundred dollars for a bag. For some of you that will seem like a reasonable price for a smartly designed American-made bag that I suspect will last you for years; but you can also pick up extremely nice backpacks from the likes of Swissgear and Gravis for just $50 or less. Even if they're not as well crafted, that's a big difference in price.
When I moved into the house I'm renting here in Eugene, it felt small. Not too small for me—I just moved from Brooklyn—but definitely not a typical spacious McMansion sort of thing, but a quirky unique floor plan designed by the man as the last house he wanted to live in. (It was too bad I had to murder him to get it, but I like to think we all ended up with what we wanted, in a way.)
It wasn't until I lived in the house for a few weeks that I realized that the house wasn't small so much as it was built just big enough to be lived in. The bathroom was pretty big, but there was no bathtub. But next to the shower, below the stairs leading to the tiny bedroom, were hooks for robes. It took me a while, but once I started emulating the way the designer thought I should use the house, I was able to appreciate and even anticipate all the choices he'd made.
The Western Flyer is a lot like that. There's not a single part of the bag that feels superfluous once you start using it, no little pockets for the sake of having them, but something that feels like it was designed to be used the way Tom Bihn thinks a bag should be used.
(You might also consider the new "Checkpoint Flyer" bag instead of the Western Flyer if you carry a laptop with you through airports often. It has a TSA-approved flap that will let them screen your bag without actually taking the laptop all the way out. It's $20 more.)