Back in December of 2016 I purchased a Tom Bihn Synapse 25 and, after a couple of weeks of ownership I wrote up an initial review.
I've now been using this backpack for over six months, and that time allows for a few additional observations on it. When I first ordered it, it was in part because I was traveling more, and wanted the ability to carry more things in a single case. My primary concern, then as now, was things like workout clothes, and it has worked nicely for this. But I also bravely predicted:
The central compartment swallows a lot of stuff. I can easily fit a martial arts uniform and basic gear (belt, ankle brace, mouth guard) or winter biking gear along with a bag of trail mix or a lunch bag. In fact, if you aren't a heavy packer I suspect this bag could easily be used as a carry-on for flights.
I've had the opportunity to use the Synapse for multiple overnight trips, and the central compartment readily manages everything that is needed for such a trip. What's more, having the single bag to keep track of simplifies the travel quite nicely.
And the carry-on question? That turned out to be more interesting than I expected.
In my relatively limited air-travel experience, it seems that most airlines will allow you both a carry-on item - generally a small luggage item - and a "personal item" in the cabin. The dimensions of the carry-on luggage are pretty well established - there's usually a metal frame at the gates you can stick your carry-on bag into in order to see if it fits, and several luggage companies make specific pieces designed to fit within that size window. The size of the "personal item" is less well defined, but as a general rule seems to involve being able to fit under the seat in front of you. In the past I've used my Ristretto as my personal item, it being able to carry my iPad, iPhone, wallet, etc, nicely enough.
For our recent trip to Detroit - a five day adventure - I decided to put my previous prediction, as well as my minimalist packing skills, to the test, and use the Synapse as my carry-on luggage. I also brought along my Ristretto, figuring I would pack my iPad and such in it after I arrived at the airport and use it as my personal item.
The Synapse worked quite nicely as a carry-on item. In most respects this is not surprising - it's measurements are just below the standard size requirements for such an item. What was more surprising was this: it actually appears to work as a personal item.
Which is to say that, tightly packed with clothing and hygiene supplies sufficient for five days of stay in The Motor City, as well as my iPad, and all of my usual supplies (minus my Swiss Army knife and nail clippers, of course) the Synapse fit under the seat in front of me. While I packed the Synapse in the overhead and used the Ristretto on the way to Detroit, I set aside the Ristretto for the way back and simply slid the Synapse under the seat in front of me at the required intervals.
Your mileage may vary, of course - this one example may not be indicative of what other airlines, or other circumstances, might allow. But it did mean that I had access to all my stuff while in my seat, and did not have to experience the relative risk of my bag being in a compartment which may or may not have been near me.
This trip also allowed some additional comparison. LB and I were flying together for this trip, and we used similar backpack packing strategies. One of the things I noted, however, particularly on the way home, was that LB kept taking their backpack off and carrying by the handle strap, or simply setting it down. When I asked why, LB said that the pack was making their shoulders sore. I suggested we swap bags for a bit.
LB was using the backpack that they also use for school. It's a standard, big-box store bag that one might typically see as a part of a wall-o-backpacks. It's approximately the same size as the Synapse, and LB has been using it for the better part of the past year to cart books and such back and forth.
About five minutes into wearing it, it started to make my shoulders sore.
Whether it was the angle of the straps, or the amount of padding, or how they were designed with respect to the weight distribution of the bag, I can't say. What I can say is that the bag provided a cutting sensation into my upper shoulders that I've never experienced when carrying the Synapse, and it took virtually no time at all for the discomfort to present. At the same time LB pronounced that the Synapse was significantly more comfortable to carry than their backpack. I suspect I may have to keep a vigil to prevent its disappearance...
As for the rest at six months - the bag shows virtually no wear and tear at this point. The central water bottle holder still works very nicely, and I've only managed to spill my coffee in it once (so far). The only complaint I might have in that regard is that the bottle pocket is not water- (or coffee-) proof, so this event (which involved me carelessly setting the bag down and walking away, not realizing that it had fallen over with the travel mug inside) resulted in coffee filtering down into the adjacent pockets.
This may have, possibly, been more my fault than that of the bag. Maybe.
I can say that it cleaned up quite nicely with a little stain spray and then wiping down with a wet cloth, and no longer bears the signs of this unfortunate event. I do have a fair amount of practice dealing with coffee stains, but I was surprise at how completely they came out of the material. Going into it I was resigned to going from having an orange backpack to now having a backpack best described as "orange with coffee highlights"...
As with all of the Tom Bihn products, the Synapse is not inexpensive. However, as is often the the case, where the extra cost reflects thoughtful, careful design, it readily turns out to be worth the difference in price.