Written in Jakarta, Indonesia with pictures from Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Mumbai, India.
Disclaimer: I have an affiliate relationship with Tom Bihn now. For each purchase you make I get a small percentage of sales. I think this is great because their gear is fantastic and they are a great company. I try to remain as unbiased as possible but it is likely to have a minor effect on my recommendations.
I’ve been on the road in Asia for five months living out of a small carry-on sized backpack. My first bag was a Tom Bihn Smart Alec. At 26 liters it was basically perfect, but was just big enough that I didn’t like carrying it around all day.
A few months later I picked up an 18 liter ultralight back pack made by Boreas, immediately fell in love, and used it as my only bag for several weeks. It was small enough that I could carry it all day without discomfort.
Having my main bag with me all day was a game changer for travel: instead of packing a separate day bag every morning I just isolated the rarely used stuff from the frequently used stuff and dropped those "archive" bags in the hostel. I could then immediately hit the road and wander.
The bag was so small that it comfortably fit under my seat on the airplane. For short flights I keep it right there under the seat so I can grab stuff out of it.
Unfortunately the bag wasn't perfect for long. After several weeks of use the 18 liter Boreas Larkin started to pull apart at the seams. It wasn’t made for the kind of abuse my life on the road dishes out. It didn’t like being thrown around, scraped, and pulled hard at the seams. The final straw was when the bag leaked in a sudden rainstorm: my laptop came out of my bag damp. I was resigned to researching again to find one backpack that was good both for carryon and everyday use.
I spent some time in Hong Kong digging through outdoor stores looking at all their bags but didn’t find anything that felt as rugged as my previous Tom Bihn Smart Alec. Since I had to fly back to New York anyway for a wedding I ordered three bags for testing: two Tom Bihn Synapses — I’d tried them before in January — and one Go Ruck GR0 military inspired pack that looked like it could stand up to any abuse found on the road.
The Tom Bihn Synapse 19, Synapse 25, and GoRuck GR0 are all phenomenal bags. You probably won’t go wrong with any of them. I packed each up several times with my gear and even carried them around for a bit to see how they felt. If you read on you'll find out the I ended up chosing the Synapse 19 for my personal use. I've also written up some thoughts on the excellent GR0 below as well — but it's just not the bag for me.
Evaluating the GoRuck GR0
The GoRuck GR0 looks really cool. It’s designed for carrying heavy shit around in the woods and it shows. The fabric is Cordura 1000, and I don’t know exactly what that means, but it seems strong enough if you wore it as a shirt I don’t think anyone would be able to stab you. The bag feels like it could be dragged behind your car on a dirt road and come out unscathed.
It’s GR0 is also really easy to pack: it unzips 270 degrees around so that you can open the main compartment flat, stuff it with what you need, and then zip it back up.
The best features of the GR0:
- It has just one big main compartment that would be very easy to lock.
- The bag is only about 6 inches deep, making moving around while wearing it very easy. Good for subways and getting in and out of cars.
- Insanely rugged.
Negatives of the GR0:
- Everything packs flat. This is the best and worst feature. Best because the bag stays low profile, bad because the internal and external organization pockets aren’t good at holding anything that isn’t flat.
- It’s really hard to get anything out of the bag without taking it all the way off and placing it on the ground.
- This bag could be awkward for international travel. I ordered mine in a limited edition brown color, but the other colors for the GoRuck look very much like something a solider would wear. GoRuck is made to be stylized with your country's flag, but the velcro where you attach the flag carries a relief impression of a backwards flying American flag — it's a symbol of American soldiers carrying the flag into battle with the flag blowing behind them in the wind. This was close to a dealbreaker: I keep my hair short and speak with an American accent, I don't need to give anyone more ideas that I'm here to invade their country.
- Since there is only one big main compartment, things must be placed carefully so that they don’t move around. In a top loader I can place my camera between soft objects so that it won’t get squashed in transit. In the flat-loading GR0 everything moves once the bag is on my back — so a camera needs extra protection, which adds extra volume to the bag.
Those negatives overpowered the positives for me.
Why I chose the Synapse
It took me a long period of travel to appreciate the Tom Bihn Synapse. When I first tried the Synapse 19 in January I thought the pockets were too many and preferred a single large compartment in my bag. I liked the single compartment so that I could properly balance the weight of my carry by moving heavy objects closer to my back. I also wanted the ability to carry single big things.
My style changed: after four months on the road what I most appreciate is the top compartment of a bag: the place where you put keys, a notebook, a kindle, a passport, extra cash, chargers and cables. Both of my previous bags only had one small top compartment and it easily became overloaded. This is dangerous: the top compartment is usually where the bag closes and gets torqued and squeezed in an overloaded bag. Leaving for the day was a always a stress to reload that top compartment with what I thought would be needed for a day.
My new bag, the Synapse 19, has five small pockets and they lead to a perfect style of packing. I put all of my most frequently used items in those five small pockets: a hoodie, a rain jacket, headphones, camera gear, chargers, pens, ear plugs, a sleeping mask. I keep those things separated from what I rarely use: toiletries, extra medication, and changes of clothes. Unpacking in a hostel is now a simple process of cutting weight and volume: I remove two or three stuff sacks of archive from my bag and place them in safe.
There is no packing or carrying a separate day bag: in two minutes the unnecessary weight comes out of the Synapse and it converts into my everyday carry bag. I walk back out the door with the Synapse still on my back and explore the city with everything I might need for the day still easily organized and available.
Of course what goes in each of the five pockets will vary based on your purpose, but here’s how I pack:
- The bottom compartment holds my rain jacket, hoodie, and lock and chain for securing the bag so I can sleep anywhere that the bag can be locked. When I’m flying through an airport I move things around and keep my toiletries there for easy access at security.
- The top middle compartment is about the size of a passport. I keep my passport there when I’m going through airports but at other times it holds camera filters, camera cleaning supplies, and tiny cables.
- The center water bottle compartment is a good catch all. Since it’s right above the middle of the pack it’s a good place to hold heavy objects. I keep a spare lens, external USB battery and Macbook charger in there.
- The side compartments are good for small stuff. One holds things that go on my head: sunglasses, headphones, sleeping mask, and my wool hat. The other holds things that go in my mouth: chewing gum, ibuprofen and snacks. It also has a pen pocket where I always keep a pen for customs forms and scribbling notes.
The best features of the Synapse 19:
- If you have lots of little things to carry you will love the five organizational pockets.
- The bag is small and comfortable enough to carry around all day long.
- The cache sleeves are amazing, they feel like the exact right amount of protection for a laptop. I also like that even when my bag is crammed to the max my laptop slides easily in and out of the cache.
The negatives of a Synapse:
- The Synapse works best when things are place directly in its pockets. This means that if you really want to strip your bag down to make it light you'll have to go into the pockets and remove everything one by one.
- Placing heavy items in the top pockets means that they are further away from your back. This makes the bag feel slightly heavier than it should. Some of this can be mitigated by placing the heaviest items in the center "water bottle" pocket: that pocket tends to drop through the bag closer to my center of gravity.
Not the Synapse 25?
I also tried the Synapse 25. It’s a great bag and other than being proportionally 30% larger than the Synapse 19 it’s identical. In the end the 25 is a bit too big for me to want to carry every day. I knew that if I bought one I’d end up finding a need for some sort of man purse or smaller backpack for every day use. A separate bag means more volume, which means that the bag is no longer 6 liters larger — it’s only maybe 5 liters larger. That 5 liter tradeoff wasn’t worth the extra hassle and size so I kept the 19. The few things I had do ditch to fit everything into this bag aren't really missed -- and if I miss them I can buy them again on the road.
What would make the Synapse better?
The Synapse is damn near perfect. Here is how to make it better:
- I'd like to have compression straps to lower the profile of the bag when it's main compartment is empty. This would also make the bag feel lighter by moving weight from the external pockets closer to my body.
- The bag has limited external attachment points. Most bags in this price range include better ways to lash things (wet shoes or clothes for example) to the outside of the pack. I solve it by tying wet things around the top grab handle, but it's not perfect.
- The zippers are not as easy to lock as other bags. Zipper pulls exist which allow you to thread a cable directly through them. Tom Bihn uses cloth zipper pulls which are easy to cut, to partially get around this I've added tiny keychain rings but it really isn't much more secure (Those pulls are about 25 cents each at a hardware store, even in New York).
To be fair, Boreas doesn't bill this as a travel bag and it clearly isn't designed for abuse. That's not their fault: their job is to make very light comfortable bags, not to make things that withstand heavy abuse. ↩︎
For sticklers: the bottom compartment of the Synapse 25 holds a lot more stuff. It’s maybe 2-3 times as big as the one on the Synapse 19. It also has slightly different dimensions. ↩︎
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