I should have known that Tom Bihn bags were addictive. It might seem an odd thing to say about a bag, but my Synapse rucksack gives brings me joy every day that I use it (which is every day). So when I started looking around for a larger travel bag for longer trips, I turned to the Tom Bihn website again. What I was after was a versatile bag that could accommodate my travel needs for everything from a weekend trip to a week or two away. In recent years, I’ve used a soft Quicksilver shoulder bag for weekend travel and a very cheap and nasty wheelie suitcase (which is too big to use as a carry-on) for everything else. The Quicksilver bag is annoying because while it looks big and bulky and is consequently awkward to carry, it doesn’t actually hold all that much stuff. The wheeled suitcase is annoying because they are all annoying: heavy and difficult to handle unless you are on perfectly smooth airport floors. Even then, you are — like an old-school Dalek — stymied when you get to a flight of stairs.
I wanted something that was carry-on sized, but also that I could pack with a fair amount of gear if necessary. I don’t fly quite so much as I used to, but I often travel by train and have to haul a bag to and from train stations by foot, so it needed to be comfortable to carry, even when fully loaded. I really liked the look and the size of the Tom Bihn Tristar, but I put off making a purchase for ages. I was cautious for two reasons. First, it’s certainly not a cheap bag, and I wanted to make sure that I was making the right decision, not to mention needing to save up some money. Second, I knew from the Synapse that these bags are genuinely made to last a lifetime, so that while it would be a really good investment, I would be living with the bag for a long time and needed to be sure that it would be right for me.
I also looked around at other luggage in local department stores, but was amazed to find that bags that seemed equivalent cost almost as much as the Tristar but were really poorly made, awkwardly laid out or had other annoyances. Eventually, I summoned my courage and ordered the Tristar, together with the Absolute Shoulder Strap and some packing cubes to fit the bag. I certainly wasn’t disappointed — the Tristar is superb.
I got the Black/Iberian colour combination, which is stunning. It reminds me a bit of those Ozwald Boateng suits which are a sober black on the outside, but are lined with silk in a rich colour so that you get a flash of red or magenta as the coat opens. The red interior colour also helps you to see the contents of the bag or pockets much more easily. The Tristar has — as the name suggests — three main compartments from the front to the back of the bag, each of approximately the same dimensions. The front and rear compartments unzip fully on three sides, so that you can open the bag flat for packing. The front one has a zip which you can use to divide it vertically (roughly two thirds/one third), but if you want one open compartment, you can just open the zip. The rear compartment has two tie-down straps to help to compress your clothes, but these are removable if you don’t want to use them. The centre compartment only unzips about half way down, and is intended to be used for a laptop. There are ‘gatekeeper clips’ which can be used to attach one of the Brain Cell laptop bags, but since they don’t yet make one that is sized for the 11" MacBook Air, I just put my laptop in there in its own padded sleeve. Actually, since the MacBook Air is so tiny, it fits to one side of the compartment in a vertical orientation, leaving at least half of the middle compartment for chargers and other bits and bobs. I like having the laptop in the middle though, as it benefits from the padding afforded by all your clothes in the front and back compartments.
On the front of the bag, there are three more slimline pockets orientated horizontally, that are handy for a wallet, tickets, toiletries or a Kindle or book. On the right, there’s a water bottle pocket with a curved zip. I carry a 500 ml Sigg water bottle, and it fits the pocket perfectly, even with the zip fully closed. However, if you don’t want to carry a water bottle, you could put other odds and ends in there, particularly those ridiculously long boarding passes that some airlines still insist on issuing.
Another reason that I love the Tristar is that there are multiple ways of carrying it. The main briefcase-like handles are nicely padded and very comfortable for short distances, and make it easy to hoist the bag into luggage racks or overhead bins, as do the two additional handles on each end of the bag. The shoulder strap is also surprisingly comfortable. People rave about the Absolute Shoulder Strap, and I can see why, having used it a lot on a recent trip. The pad is made from slightly stretchy neoprene, with a very grippy inner surface. This means that it stays in position on your shoulder, but also that it stretches a bit as you walk, making the load seem much lighter. Once you’ve got the strap adjusted to the right length so that you don’t set up an irritating bounce as you walk, it’s incredibly comfortable. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also very comfortable rucksack straps which tuck away when not needed behind a zipped panel at the back. As with all Tom Bihn bags, these are very carefully thought out, so that the clips which secure the bottom of the straps are inset into a fold in the corner of the bag, and effectively invisible when not in use. The whole bag is very sleek.
You don’t need to use the packing cubes, but I thought that as I was spending a fortune to import the bag, I might as well get a set of those while I was at it. I haven’t used them to capacity yet, but they are very useful for segregating and organising your gear and also making sure that you don’t over-pack. Since the packing cubes are sized carefully, you know that if your stuff fits in the packing cube, it will fit in the bag. This sounds trivial, but is actually quite reassuring for someone like me who has had some stressful moments in the morning before a flight anxiously sitting on a suitcase lid to wrestle the thing closed.
I’ve used it for a trip lasting a couple of days so far, and I had acres of excess space. This surprised me, because the external dimensions of my Quicksilver bag are not that different from the Tristar, and yet that bag would have been full to bursting for the same trip, and that’s without the laptop and associated paraphernalia. When I’ve gone on similar trips before, I’ve had to take the Synapse for my computer gear plus the Quicksilver bag for my clothes. Travelling with only one bag is so much easier. I’m sure I could easily pack enough for a two week trip in this bag, which is superb for something that is carry-on sized. I like having all the compartments and pockets to keep things organised, and I also find the ‘o-rings’ inside the bag handy. They allow you to attach the various pouches that Tom Bihn makes (I’ve accumulated a little collection of them), so that your small items don’t get lost in the bag.
The Tristar is extremely well-constructed. I couldn’t find a single misplaced stitch, which is impressive in such a complex bag. The materials are very high quality, and the zips are sturdy. My Synapse is made from Cordura, but the Tristar uses ballistic nylon. This has a slightly more shiny surface which turns out to be much more cat hair resistant than the Cordura, or indeed any other surface in our house. I’m actually wondering whether it would be possible to replace all our carpets and upholstery with ballistic nylon. In short, I am extremely happy with the bag and looking forward to it being my travelling companion for the rest of my life. Between it and the Synapse, I really don’t need any other bags, and I never thought I would be able to say that.