The Tom Bihn Brain Bag is designed to be a workhorse of a backpack usable for almost any scenario. It’s built such that you can easily use it for a day at the office, a trip across the country, or a weekend away.
Tom Bihn has been designing and sewing bags in the Seattle area for decades. Their packs aren’t the flashiest but they are sewn incredibly well and have stood the test of time. Because they have been around for so long they’ve had plenty of time to make updates and modifications to their packs so that the user is left with the best possible product. Fans of Tom Bihn remind me of the fans that Triple Aught Design has (dubbed TADjunkies) where they eagerly await “drop days” when new gear or color combinations are released. It’s not uncommon for popular color-ways of Tom Bihn products to sell out within an hour of being released.
I only made two modifications to this pack during the time of my review. The first was to add a Velcro rectangle so that I could attach some of my favorite patches… and it turned out pretty good. When no patches are attached it blends in nicely and looks like it has been there the whole time.
The second modification was to replace the metal zipper pulls with ones made of paracord. They match the pack nicely and are silent so that there’s no jingling when walking around. The metal zippers that came with the pack made me feel like a golden retriever was always following me.
As with most reviews on this site the review will contain four sections: Quality, Design, Usability, and Value. At the end of the review each section will be scored and the bag will be given a overall score which is averaged from the four sections. I try to be as objective as possible in my reviews and have no loyalty to Tom Bihn so hopefully you feel that you can trust this.
This is an every day carry (EDC) review which means I used this pack throughout my day-to-day life. I did not train with it or attempt any GORUCK events with it which is why you won’t see any mention of that in here. As someone who has spent a lot of time with bags and receives tons of questions about them I thought it might be useful to share my opinion on this one.
The quality on these packs is impeccable and easily on par with that of Triple Aught Design and GORUCK. The pack came with no loose strings, frays, or anything else that I’ve seen with some other packs. The materials used don’t scream ruggedness, even when felt, but they’re on par with the competition. the Brain Bag has both 1000 denier Cordura and 420 HT nylon Classic Parapack. The bottom of the pack is made from 1050 high tenacity ballistic nylon so you can be sure it will stand the test of time and all your adventures.
I love that the packs are sewn in the USA which is something I’m always proud to see. Even the YKK zippers on this pack are made in the USA, which is something a number of companies have stopped doing. I’ve been down to the old Tom Bihn storefront (which was undergoing a remodel during the writing of this) and have seen the sew shop. It’s a very fun place and the staff is always eager to help you with suggestions or ideas for laying out your perfect pack.
The bag has two main compartments of equal size and three outer pockets. The main compartments have no internal pockets however they do have the “rails” system, two webbing loops, and a few O-rings. The O-rings are meant to connect other Tom Bihn accessories which will provide more organization. Without any of those pieces, however, the two main compartments are essentially cavernous holes.
Since we’re discussing the main compartments we should touch on the Rails and Annex Clip systems. Tom Bihn makes two different types of laptop holders dubbed the cache and the Brain Cell which fit this pack perfectly. The Cache attaches to the Rails and the Brain Cell attaches to the Annex Clips creating a laptop area, albeit one you have to buy separately. The usefulness of these pieces will be discussed in detail in the Usability section so don’t forget about them.
Moving to the outside the top outer pocket is great for small things that you need to get at quickly such as a pen, headphones, or notebooks. This pocket is very reminiscent of the top pocket in the GORUCK bags that always eventually turns into a catch-all for receipts and other miscellaneous items. There are two O-ring attachment points for accessories and the bag comes with one Key Strap attached already.
The two lower side pockets are nearly identical and feature skinny areas for pens and pencils as well as a larger internal pocket for other items, like notebooks or bandage kits. Both pockets contain an O-ring and one comes with a Key Strap attached already. Generally my setup will contain writing instruments on one side with a USB cord or two and a USB outlet for charging phone/camera/etc. The other side usually holds a couple pieces of food and whatever else I may need with me that day. I try and keep these pockets fairly empty so that if I pick anything up while out I can quickly put them in there. In addition, if these pockets are stuffed they create noticeable bulge which is something I always try to avoid.
The outer area between the two pockets is a jacket/umbrella/water bottle holder which rarely sees any use. I generally carry a large Nalgene water bottle which doesn’t fit too well there. I’m guessing if I had a water bottle more like the one my wife owns there would probably be a better chance of me using it. That being said I’ve used ITW Web Dominators to prevent it from getting in the way when not in use.
The shoulder straps are comfortable and feature a sternum strap and hose router for a water bladder. Apparently enough people hike with this pack that they felt the need to include the hose router which definitely surprised me. I’m a huge fan of packs that have a vertical line of webbing on the shoulder strap as it’s perfect for my Peak Design Capture Clip Pro.
In addition, the pack comes with a removable waist strap which is great for stabilizing the load. If you want something more load bearing then Tom Bihn sells an upgraded Padded Hip Belt which might be up your alley.
The Brain Bag has two compression straps on each side (four total) which allow you to cinch up the bag when you are carrying a lighter load. Those four straps really do a great job taking this massive 36L bag down to a more manageable size.
The top grab handle is nicely padded and is in a unique location. Unlike most packs which feature it closer to the wearer’s back this one is directly between the two compartments. It appears that this method puts less stress on the pack when it’s full as the weight is distributed on both sides of the handle. I don’t know if that’s truth or not (I’m no pack designer) but it definitely feels like they put it in the proper location.
The area of the pack that sits against your back is made from Dri-Lex Aero-Spacer mesh which I know nothing about. I do know that the back sweat from this pack is very low which is a welcome sign for those of us who are required to dress business casual or fancier.
One of my favorite aspects of this bag is how is doesn’t look fancy or stand out. When I travel I usually have two laptops, a camera, maybe an extra lens or two, and who knows what else. This all adds up to a lot of money worth of stuff in my backpack at any one time… which is insane. I spent a lot of time thinking about that and made the conscious decision that I when I carried that much gear I wanted to do so in something that would not draw a thief’s eye. Although I have no proof this pack gets stolen less often than others it wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case.. That being said it’s one of those designs you will either love,tolerate, or hate.
When testing the Brain Bag I used it for several trips, vacations, days at the office, and time spent out and about. One of my favorite ways to test the usability of bags is during trips to the airport and on flights. If it can handle the stress of an airport then it’s usually a pretty good pack. Plus, anything that I use needs to fit under an airplane seat… and thankfully this one does.
The main purpose of this pack is to carry laptops around so I was very excited that it did that well. When testing this pack I used a Tom Bihn Cache with the rails system which is both the cheaper and smaller method for storing a laptop.
It’s really easy to attach the clips in and once in the laptop cache is secure. One interesting thing the Cache can do with the Rails System is slide in and out with ease while not unclipping anything. This is especially useful when dealing with TSA at the airport. When using the Cache I traveled through 13 airport security checkpoints and at each one slid the Cache out without removing the laptop. Once you’re through security you slide it back in and you’re set!
As mentioned before the Brain Bag has two main compartments and neither of them have a dedicated laptop area built into it. There are two advantages and one disadvantage I can think of to this model. The first advantage is that if you aren’t planning on using a laptop with the Brain Bag then you won’t be stuck with a near-useless pocket and the second being you’ll end up with the perfect fit for your laptop. The disadvantage is clearly that the price tag of the bag went up if you want to use their bag + laptop system. You’ll notice that there are rails on both main compartments which is because this bag was built to handle two laptops. Most people don’t have a need for something like this (although they may use the second area for a tablet) but this is amazing for those with both work and home laptops.
Moving from the inside of the bag to the outside it’s good to note that the side straps are multi-purpose as well. In addition to compressing the bag a good deal they can be used to hold jackets or sweatshirt when traveling. On a recent trip I took just the Brain Bag and small suitcase without any issue. When I wasn’t wearing my sweatshirt I would strap it to the side of the pack so that I would have one hand free while I wheeled the luggage.
Another surprise with the pack was the side pockets which are deceptively large. In the above picture you can see my Kindle fitting easily into one of the internal pockets.
The O-rings are found throughout the bag in literally every pocket… with most having two or more. They’re incredibly handy and not just because of the plethora of Tom Bihn accessories that are sold but because literally anything with a small clip can be attached to them. In this case I’ve got some spare paracord with a small Photon Freedom LED flashlight.
Seattle is full of rain so any pack that’s going to be used here needs to at least be a little water resistant. It was a great test run when the sky opened up and dumped buckets on me. I was soaked, the pack was soaked, but everything inside was safe and dry.
One thing I didn’t test, but is completely possible, is that the Rails System can also be used to attach the Triple Aught Design Control Panel 1. If you’re a fan of MOLLE this is a great way to add some of that or some extra zipper pockets. The above picture is of a Tom Bihn Smart Alec but the same idea can easily be applied to the Brain Bag due to the nature of the clip system. To attach them you’ll either need the Gatekeeper Rail Clips from Tom Bihn or other clips from the hardware store.
At $200 the pack is a bit cheaper than comparable 36L packs that are also made in the USA. However, the price difference can easily be eaten away when factoring in accessories… but isn’t that the case with most packs? The one accessory I picked up with this was the cache ($30 as of writing this) for the laptop and I’ve been using only that for this review. However, after using the pack for months I do have some ideas on which accessories would be useful in my day-to-day life.
The tricky part with additional accessories is usually that less is more so you might not want to go all out when you don’t know what would be useful for you. In my case I believe that a Snake Charmer is in my future with the potential for a Freudian Slip or Brain Cell as well… but we will see.
The Brain Bag, like most Tom Bihn products, comes with a Lifetime Guarantee from manufacturer defects and workmanship. If the issue with the product is their fault then it will be fixed for free… if it’s not covered under the guarantee then they’re more than willing to give you a quote on the repair. Although I’ve never had to act on their guarantee if it’s anything like dealing with the company now I’m sure it will be a painless process.
If you can handle how it looks then this could be a great option for you. It’s incredibly versatile, perfectly sewn, and relatively inexpensive for the size. As someone who is 6’2″ this pack looks perfect on me: not too big and definitely not too small. However, if you’re a shorter individual I’d recommend looking for some pictures of shorter people wearing the pack to make sure it works for you. I’ve used this pack for months, have been very happy with my purchase, and would definitely make it again.
The Tom Bihn Brain Bag can be purchased off of their website in a wide variety of colors.
- Spot on sewing and stitching
- Size can change depending on situation
- Made in the USA
- Not the most beautiful
Used For: Every Day Carry (EDC)
Tested For: Six Months
Conclusion: Great pack. Just be sure you like how it looks because looks don’t change.
Jorin Hood says
Thanks for this review! Can you confirm that the material around your paracord zipper pull modification is shrink wrap? Did you heat it at all? Thanks again!
Thanks for the detailed, impartial review!
Could I ask how you attached the velcro patch to the bag? Did you stitch it yourself? If so, do you have a guide you’d recommend?
Brian Lohr says
The patch was attached by using an adhesive Velcro strip. I hope that helps!