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Apr 01 2011

Tom Bihn Tristar Review

NOTE: Click on any of the pictures to see them at a higher resolution.

So, I have a trip to Europe coming up in early April. 8 days, 5 planes, 4 hotels, 2 train trips and a partridge in a pear tree. Also, one massive trade show and one whole day of being a tourist tagged on to the very end of the trip.

The last time I did this trip, I pulled the typical cloddish traveler stunt and drug a roll aboard suitcase roughly the size of Cleveland onto the ICE train from Frankfurt to Hanover. My business companion did the same. Of course our giant American suitcases are unable to go anywhere out of the way and blocked most of the aisle.

The German couple that sat across from us rather pointedly said nothing to us. They were too polite to say what they SHOULD have said to us. Stupid Americans.

In the midst of doing a bunch of research to buy a new laptop bag I came across Tom Bihn bags. This Seattle area company makes bags and cases in the US from primarily US made materials (I believe the only exception is the Japanese Dyneema used in some of the bags and for linings). I stumbled into a very vibrant community on the forum on their website and immediately was drawn to how PASSIONATE these people were about bags. According to the FAQ on the website, Bihn rhymes with fin.

One of the people on the website forum (thanks, Frank!) clued me in to some of the concepts of “One Bag” travel on the Tom Bihn forum and on the Blog he contributes to at 1bag1world.com. I decided there was no way I could possibly do that.

End of article.

Kidding…mostly. One bag for 8 days? Really? I mean, I live with a wife and 3 daughters and they can’t take 1 bag for an overnight trip. Kidding…mostly!

However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought how much fun it would be to get off a plane in Frankfurt, meet my business partner and walk out the front door. Oh, the really fun part would be him asking where the rest of my luggage was! So, throw a challenge at me and I am sold. Sort of a double-dog dare, if you will!

I quickly realized that I did not have a bag that was up to the task, so I went into research mode. For commentary on how stupid I get on this front, read the first paragraph in this review: SpireUSA Torq .

I looked at a pile of maximum carry ons. I read 1Bag1world, I pored over the original Onebag.com site, looked about a million Youtube videos. At the end of the day, I convinced my wife that a Crimson Tristar would be the perfect birthday present. Of course, she told me I was getting a ferret…but that is different story. She even claims that ferrets eat packing cubes!

When my ferret (sorry…my Tristar) arrived, my initial impression was fear. It looked a lot bigger on the website, perhaps the Aeronaut would have been a better choice. But it was just so beautiful…I decided to load it up and see what I could get inside it. My fears settled a bit, and so my adventure began.

The Tristar is a bag based on the rule of three. Three main compartments, three zippered compartments for organization, three ways to to carry it and three handles. This symmetry is only broken on the bag in a couple of places.

The bag is 2000 cubic inches in storage volume, and unlike a roller bag, every inch of that is available as packing space. The construction material is 1050 denier ballistic nylon, which is a bit smoother than its cousin 1680, but every bit as tough.

(Edit: I made a poor assumption in this statement. As is shown by this test the 1050 is smoother AND tougher, being twice as abrasion resistant!)

The Tristar has sort of an understated elegance with very clean lines and enough structural integrity that it will stand up empty, and not look like a puffer fish when stuffed to the gills. The fabrics used are colors that Tom Bihn has specially developed for his bags and they are vibrant. All of them beg to have multi-sylabbic names but are delightfully understated with names like Crimson, Indigo and Steel. Even the Tom Bihn black would look at home on the Batmobile.
Empty the bag is shy of four pounds even with the Absolute strap.

The external zippers are #10 YKK with gaskets so that they are “splash proof”. That does not equate to waterproof, but it will keep you safe in even fairly torrential rain. One of the pockets comes with a baggie full of nylon zipper pulls that make the zippers easier for me to open. There was something a bit visceral about attaching these myself that made me take a bit of pride in the construction. Almost as if I had participated in making the bag.

The top of the bag has a split handle that is comfortable to use even when the bag is very loaded. Between those handles is also a convenient place to stash a light jacket or scarf if you don’t want to stuff it inside the bag. There are additionally single handles on each end of the bag, which makes extracting the Tristar from an overhead or under seat much easier.

There are a pair of steel D rings for attaching a shoulder strap to the bag. The D rings are on opposite sides of the bag which makes the bag balance really nicely when used with a shoulder strap. Although it is not included, my sweet wife chose to add the Absolute Shoulder strap to my present as well (this is the second way to carry the bag if you are counting).

What makes a shoulder strap “absolute”? It must mean it is woven out of novacaine and helium, because it makes the bag feel lighter and hurt less. The large shoulder pad is made of something that has some spring and give to it that makes the bag much more comfortable to carry. The “give” to the strap takes some of the shock of the bag’s weight if you are walking. It also could be pressed into use as an industrial slingshot if you were stranded on a desert island…but I digress.

The final carrying method are the hideaway back pack straps. They attach to the bag at recessed squeeze latches that seem to disappear when the straps are not hooked up. The straps also feature an adjustable sternum strap for just a touch more security when dashing through the airport. These straps look a bit small but but have been very comfortable and secure in my limited testing so far. After my dash through airports in Europe next month I expect to have bit more input on this front.

The front face of the Tristar has three horizontally zippered pockets that are configured one above each other on the left side of the bag as it is facing you. They stretch roughly two thirds of the way across the bag, making them about 12 inches wide. These pockets all stretch a bit above the zipper so the lower pocket is roughly 12 x5 inches, the middle one is 12 x9 inches and the top pocket stretches the entire height of the bag so about 12 x 13 inside. These are relatively flat pockets that are best suited to things with out much depth. If the Tristar is tightly packed it can be challenging to get things in and out of these pockets as they don’t really have dedicated space, but share it with the inside of one of the two main compartments.

For me those pockets hold a notebook or literature in the tall pocket and the middle pocket holds my 3-1-1 toiletries. I guess that leaves the bottom pocket for the included key strap…and my keys!

Each one of these pockets has a steel O ring on the right hand side to allow you to attach a key strap to the inside of the pocket. You can use these to secure keys or one of the variety of Tom Bihn organizer bags that are available.

The right side of the front has a lovely semicircular zippered compartment with a snap secured collar inside of it. This is intended for a water bottle, but TSA has given all travelers some challenges on that front. The website also shows a picture of this pocket partially zipped up with a boarding pass hanging out of it, but this seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

This brings us to the inside of the bag. The two outside compartments are identical except for one little touch in each. The front compartment has a zippered divider that divides the section one third/ two thirds. The smaller section is well sized for a pair of shoes and keeps them from rubbing up against your clothes. If you prefer not to use this feature the zippered tabs fold flat and it becomes a large open section.

Front section of the Tristar with the divider zipped and a pair of my size nines. Note this section will not fully open until you unzip that divider. that

The back side of the Tristar is another big open section that has two tie down compression straps. I tend to use these for a couple of pairs of pants. These can be removed if you don’t choose to use them.

Both of these large sections zip fully around three sides of the bag so they can open fully and lay flat. This makes packing in the bag a dream. Again, both of these sections have a couple of O rings (2 in the divided and 3 in the tie down section) to allow you to secure more key straps. I use mine to secure a couple of the small organizer pouches to give me some more organization in these sections.

Tiedown section folded open flat for easy packing.

Small pouch attached to the O ring in the tie down section of the bag.

The center section is aimed at being a laptop section. This section does not zip all the way around but rather the zips stop about 2 inches down each side. There are two annex clips along one side of the wall that are used to secure a TB Brain Cell or Cache to add additional protection to a laptop in this section. These are easy to remove and I have actually pulled them as I am using someone else’s case to go around my laptop in this section. If you are keeping a computer in here with accessories it is nice to be able to carry the Tristar into an office setting and not have to air your dirty laundry (pun intended) to access your laptop.

Keep in mind, that unlike a regular laptop bag there are no pockets or organizational touches at all in this section. Other than one O ring and the aforementioned annex clips this is a big, open section.
If you need some pockets and additional organization and the Tristar is going to play the role of computer case for you a lot, you may want to take a look at the TB Horizontal Freudian Slip. While it looks like it would cover the bases on that front admirably, I have not used one personally so I can’t comment further than that.

[edit: A forum member on the Tom Bihn web site pointed out to me that you can actually attach several of the key straps to an O ring so that this is not really a limiting factor.]

This is the center "briefcase" section of the Tristar.

I would not recommend an unprotected computer in this section. The bottom of the the section is not padded. Clothes in the side section protect from each side but you will need something wrapped around the computer to keep your blood pressure down should you drop the Tristar to the floor.

I added a couple of small accessories after the fact. First, an Indigo Side Effect, which is sort of a combination shoulder bag/fanny pack which I use as a toiletries kit. I can’t believe I own another fanny pack. The 80′s are on the phone. At least you can tuck the waist strap away behind a hidden section on the Side Effect until you’re in a city where no one knows you!

Secondly, I added two medium packing cubes and a small packing cube. A small and medium cube fit perfectly in the large open section and the second medium cube goes in the section next to where my shoes go in the divided section. While Tom Bihn also sells a large packing cube that fills this whole section but I like being able to keep my types of clothing separated. The smaller cubes seem like they keep things from shifting around as much. I do admit though, that I have my eye on the large packing cube/backpack as I am a fiend for multipurpose products.

Tristar with Olive and Wasabi pouches in small, packing cubes in medium and small and a Side Effect in Indigo.

I had never packed in packing cubes before but I am TOTALLY converted. They help keep things organized, compress the clothes and keep them from moving around as much, which minimizes wrinkling. They also make unpacking at a location far more organized for me.

Thirdly, I added two of the small cordura organizer pouches and a long and short key strap to lock them down. Do you like the lottery? You may like the organizer pouch system. You get to choose what size but the crew at Tom Bihn gets to pick the colors. The funny thing is that I got exactly the colors that I would have chosen. My initial thought was that they had psychic powers or some strange harnessed abilities relating to reading the bumps on Mr Bihn’s clean shaven noggin!

The "ferret" and its friends.

After some thought it hit me though. They took the time to see that I had picked Olive and Wasabi key straps and picked out the pouches to match. That kind of attention to detail runs throughout the whole Tom Bihn organization. It is a marker to me just how good their customer service is that they don’t have to tell you it is good. Their customers do that job for them.

OK, that covers all the descriptives, so what about the usage stuff?

Trip one:The Beach Diffifculty Level: Easy

4 day trip to the beach with my family with a little bit of a need for technology. Macbook Air in a cordura slip case in the center section along with the Side Effect. Four cotton t shirts and a polo rolled in a medium packing cube. Socks and underwear in the small packing cube. Cargo shorts and a button down shirt in the compartment next to a decent pair of shoes.

I actually would have been disappointed if the Tristar had not performed well in this application. No worries here. Easy as pie. Blueberry, I think.

The only downside here was since I only had one bag myself, I had lots of arms and shoulders left to carry all the extra bags my family had brought.

Trip Two:Chicago Difficulty Level: Medium

This was a bit more of a challenge. On the road on a Sunday afternoon and not back home until Friday evening but all car travel. Business casual with four days of meetings and a day of travel back. Three pairs of pants, 2 golf and 3 dress shirts, 4 T shirts, socks and underwear, work out clothes, spare pair of shoes, light jacket. 15 inch Mac Book Pro, power supply and various accessories.

Again this was a car trip so not as stressful as it could it have been but the larger computer did not stress the system like I feared it might. I ironed one shirt and it may have needed it when I put it in the bag because there rest of the shirts looked fine.

Trip Three:Europe Difficulty Level: Hard

This is the previously referred to planes, trains and automobiles trip that spurred the purchase of the Tristar. It is looming like a 300 pound linebacker but my confidence is high enough I am going to pull the trigger. I will post a detailed report on this when I get back.

OK, now comes the challenging part: I am going to try really hard not to gush. I am going to point out the couple of little issues I do have with bag to keep from sounding like a PR campaign.

The water bottle pocket is fairly useless for me since you can only get a bottle after security now. This pocket is in front of the shoe section so it is the least flexible section of the bag unless ballet slippers are your spare shoes. You need to have the pocket open to allow storage of the water bottle and any open zipper on a travel bag makes me nervous. Since I only carry a water bottle when I am using it in more of a briefcase mode this works out alright for me.

The fact that there is only one O ring in the middle section, where I would most want organizational subdividing is a bit of a disappointment. I would love to be able to secure 2 or 3 of the organizer pouches in here for the way I normally use the bag.

Lastly is the cost. With the accessories I have added to the Tristar’s already stiff price tag ($250) I have over $300 invested in this bag. Would I buy it again? In a heartbeat. I suspect that the real cost for me will not be in the money I have spent on this bag, but on the fact that all of my daughters will soon be nagging me for their own. Also, given the construction quality of this bag it may get passed on to my children, and my grandchildren.

Final thoughts on the Tristar? It is insanely well made, attractive and has a sort of bete noir charm that makes me feel a bit like a 40′s film star when I carry it around. There are a thousand little touches of organization and forethought that have gone into details as small as handle placement on this bag. This almost guarantees that you will love this bag as much as those that made it obviously do.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of owning a Tom Bihn bag is that as soon as one arrives, you are already figuring out which one you need next!

www.tombihn.com
Tel: 1-800-729-9607 / +1-206-652-4123
4750 A Ohio Ave S, Seattle, WA 98134

25 comments

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  1. Eric Holford

    Great review, if I could justify another TB bag at the moment, this might be the one. Maybe I might get one for my wife for her birthday?

    Eric
    AKA Fat Crip

  2. Jeff Mac

    Thanks Eric! Now if I could only take a decent picture…

    Enabling your wife to have a TB addiction would definitely get my vote.

  3. Edel

    Interesting review of the TriStar. It really is the perfect bag for active travel, especially when trains and buses are involved. You know that curved front pocket — well, if you’re not carrying a water bottle, it’s a great spot for a travel umbrella and a pair of gloves. The full length packing cube works perfectly in the back section and really does a good job compressing clothes and keeping them somewhat wrinkle free. I’ve had my TriStar about a year and it’s been everwhere but still looks new. Made in the USA, too.

  4. Jeff Mac

    Thanks Edel, good suggestion on the travel umbrella!

    I like the idea of the large travel cube but breaking stuff into smaller packs seems to make more sense for me. Packing is personal!

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  6. Jeff Mac

    Glad to have helped. You cannot go wrong with a Tom Bihn bag!

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  8. asd

    please link to the aforementioned tristar trip updates

  9. Jeff Mac

    Hmmm…I did a packing list and pics of the bag packed for Europe here..

    http://restlesstech.com/on-the-road-again-tom-bihn-style/

    But as I re-read my review I notice that the “detailed, post trip report” was not directly addressed.

    Is there a specific question you have that I can try to address?

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    Thank you very much. There is a link to follow me at the bottom of the article.

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  24. Dave M

    Hi Jeff! Absolutely awesome review of the TB TriStar! In fact, this might have tipped the scales for me… I’ve been totally waffling between the Aeronaut and TriStar for a long time and can’t seem to pull the trigger on one vs the other. My wife is about to strangle me.

    Your use case scenarios are perfect, and convinced my I really can carry all the stuff I need in the TriStar. That’s a good thing because I like that the TriStar is more professional and business-like as compared to the Aeronaut.

    So…. Since you wrote this review, is the TriStar STILL your go-to bag for travel??

  25. Jeff Mac

    Absolutely! It is the best luggage I have ever owned and I am actually on an 8 day trip through Europe with it right now. I have added one of the packing cube backpacks that I use as a large packing cube in the center section when I am not putting any electronics it. This helps a lot and gives me a day pack when I get there if I need it.

    Most normal trips though work well with just the Tristar. It does get a wee bit boxy when I pack it this full…

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