Not so long ago, back when people could go places and do things, I went to Sweden and the Netherlands for 10 days. It was late December, 2019 and I would be spending two days in Stockholm and the rest of the time in Utrecht, where my daughter had been doing a semester abroad. I was planning to travel light, with only one backpack — my Tom Bihn Synapse 25 — meaning whatever I wasn’t wearing on the plane would have to fit in my backpack.
If you’re not familiar with Tom Bihn and his bags, you’re missing out. Tom Bihn is a relatively small company in Seattle, Washington. They make all kinds of bags and accessories (more about those in a bit) for travel, work, shopping, and everyday carry. The company has a fanatical following, with an active online forum and Facebook group. Even rumors of new products or production runs are met with breathless anticipation and excitement, and its not uncommon for items to sell out as soon as they are released on the web site. I think some of the fans — Bihnatics, I call them — should probably switch to decaf, but there’s a reason people love the bags and accessories. They aren’t cheap, but the designs are genius, the bags are all made in Seattle, and everything is built to last. Buy once cry once, as the saying goes.
My Synapse is 25 liters (hence the “25” designation) and is made from a black halcyon fabric with a wasabi halcyon interior. You can buy the bags in other colors and fabrics, but I like how lightweight and durable the halcyon is, and the black, with its subtle checked pattern running through it, is understated, reasonably easy to keep clean and free of pet hair, and doesn’t scream “tourist.” The wasabi interior, which is a vibrant green/yellow, makes it easy for me to see whatever is in the bag. My Synapse weighs just under two pounds when empty, giving me more weight to play with when packing — an important factor when dealing with carryon weight limitations on certain international airlines. The 25-liter capacity is surprisingly spacious, holding much more than you might think. My guess is the spaciousness is due in large part to the exterior pockets — there are five of them — that expand outward and don’t eat into the interior space, no matter how full you stuff them. It really is a brilliant bag.
When traveling with only one bag, you have to be smart about what you bring and how you pack it. The trick is to pare down your items to the essentials, and then wear your heaviest items on the plane so that you have more room in your bag for everything else. Your clothes have to do double-duty and they should be made of fabrics that can be worn more than once without stinking and can be washed in a hotel sink and dry overnight. Merino wool is a great fabric for travel — wear it a few times, wash it in the sink, and dry it overnight. Shoes are usually a killer when it comes to one-bag travel because they eat up so much space and weight. I brought only one pair of shoes, my Alden 403 boots, and they were the perfect choice. They look great, are comfortable for walking all day, can be worn for casual and dressy occasions, and are sturdy enough to handle whatever weather I might encounter. (Harrison Ford wears a pair in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Talk about travel shoes!)
For my trip, I wore the one pair of jeans I was bringing, a t-shirt, a thin wool sweater, merino wool boxers and socks, and my boots. I wore/carried a thin down parka that packs into one of its pockets. Inside my Synapse I had two packing cubes that held three pair of merino wool boxers, two pair of wool socks, two t-shirts, a thin merino wool long-sleeve pullover shirt, a pair of khakis, a packable rain jacket, wool hat and gloves, a Gorilla Pod mini tripod, my Ricoh GR (an amazing camera I can carry in a pocket), my Kindle, a power bank, B&O headphones, a power adaptor, charging cords and brick, a journal and pen, collapsible water bottle, and my Tom Bihn toiletry kit. It all fit, easily, in my Synapse. I did wash my boxers, socks, and t-shirts in a hotel sink a few times during the trip, but never once did I wish I had brought anything more.
So why travel with only one bag? Why not just pack a large suitcase with several pairs of shoes, multiple pants and shirts, and whatever else I might possibly want on my trip? For me, the answer is — freedom. When I have just what I need in one bag I carry on my back, I never feel overburdened or weighed down. I can walk freely through airports and crowds, not worried about towing a suitcase behind me as I navigate my way to my destination. Both hands are free to grab my passport and ID as I pass through security, or to buy something to eat at a cafe, or to leaf through a book or magazine at a newsstand, or to walk around like a normal human being. My backpack becomes a part of me and I never have to give it a thought when traveling or exploring. I don’t waste time checking or collecting luggage, and my backpack will never be lost or damaged by the baggage handlers because I never even give them the opportunity.
When I arrived at my hotel in Stockholm, it wasn’t quite time to check in so I had a couple hours to kill. There wasn’t a typical reception desk like at most hotels. Instead, it was an unattended iPad on a counter where guests could check-in. There was probably someplace to leave my bag while killing time, but with all my things comfortably on my back, I didn’t really care. I just headed out and wandered around Stockholm, looking like a local with a backpack. Because my fully-loaded bag weighed under 15 pounds, it didn’t feel heavy or uncomfortable. And I didn’t have to worry about my things being lost or stolen at the hotel.
But for me, the best part about one-bag travel is at the airport. I never have to worry or stress about overhead bin space on the plane, because I know that my bag can easily fit under the seat in front of me if the bins are full. So while other passengers creep ever closer to the gate, jockeying for position, ready to bolt to get on the plane and secure that precious overhead bin space at the earliest opportunity, I sit and relax until my row is called and then stroll aboard without a care in the world. It’s very civilized, which is not a word generally associated with air travel these days.
Now, about those accessories I mentioned earlier. This is where Tom Bihn bags really get interesting. Sewn inside every bag, big or small, are several little black rings — O-rings, they call them. The O-rings are used for attaching pouches, wallets, and all kinds of organizers via clips or key straps — 8” or 16” pieces of nylon — that tether your pouches to the bag. It’s so simple and yet brilliant. When I first bought my Synapse I didn’t care about the O-rings, thinking they were only for the OCD types and that I would never go down that rabbit hole. I think I now own about 10 pouches/organizers and as many key straps. And I’m sure I’ll be buying more. My passport lives in one pouch that I clip to the inside of the Tom Bihn Sidekick I use as a sort of tech pouch. Because my passport is clipped inside my bag, I always know exactly where it is and I never worry about it falling out or being lost. The pouch helps protect it as well. I have several other smaller pouches for my ear buds, cables, foreign currency and coins, and pretty much anything else I can think to stuff inside. There’s nothing loose or untethered floating around inside my bag, and I can get at whatever I need whenever I need it. I absolutely love the organization and security! Trust me on the O-rings and accessory pouches — they’re brilliant. I don’t know why every travel bag manufacturer doesn’t do the same thing.
My Synapse 25 was perfect for 10 days in Europe. It held everything I needed and allowed me to be agile (well, as agile as I can be at this stage of life) while keeping my hands free for other things. The biggest thing for me was, I never had to think about my bag because it was a part of me.
If you haven’t traveled with just one-bag yet, you owe it to yourself to try it (when we can travel again). I promise, you don’t need to bring as much as you think you do, and everything you do need can probably fit in one well-designed, well-made bag such as a Tom Bihn Synapse. If 25 liters isn’t enough, they make other bags that have larger capacities, up to at least 45 liters, which for me is a bit much. or a Synik, which is 30 liters in capacity. And don’t forget, wherever you’re going, chances are they will have stores there that sell almost anything you might want or need. Those items you bring with you “just in case” can probably be purchased at your destination if you really do need them. My bet is you won’t.
With some smart planning and packing, you will be fine with one bag on your next trip. Dump the luggage; carry a bag. I did it for 10 days in Sweden and the Netherlands. You can do it, too.