If you are looking for a small, light backpack you can stop reading now. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a backpack that is large, flexible, comfortable to carry and tough enough to last and last keep reading.
Tom Bihn’s Brain Bag is a pricey backpack that is large and flexible enough to serve as a weekender, as a camera backpack or as a laptop backpack. On second thought, the Tom Bihn backpack is large and flexible enough to serve all of those functions at the very same time. The company was kind enough to send over a review sample of the Brain Bag, as well as a plethora of accessories to use with it. I did just that when I took a three-day trip to Detroit to spend time with Ford during NAIAS, and I came away a fan of the bag and grateful to have it for future use. Here’s a video look at the bag and the accessories followed by a rundown of the features and specific items mentioned in the video.
Make sure to check out the gallery as it includes a number of Tom Bihn’s product images. They’ll give you a good idea of what this backpack is all about.
When empty, the Brain Bag is a relatively free-form backpack. The shoulder straps are nicely padded and highly adjustable. The company also saw fit to include both chest and waist straps. You don’t have to use them, but when you are carrying a heavy load or moving quickly you’ll want to. The portion of the backpack that comes into contact with your back is nicely padded and is made from vented material that allows air to flow through it. That’s great, especially if you are using the Brain Bag for an extended period in a warm climate.
The Exterior of the Bag
The Brain Bag is a bit unusual in that it offers a good amount of storage that is accessible from the outside. A zippered pouch at the top is great for small items such as your smartphone and wallet. The zipper is protected by a narrow piece of extra material that hides the zipper and pull and the interior of the area includes an attachment point for use with Tom Bihn accessory pouches. (The accessory pouches are awesome and are worth getting and using on their own!) You can also clip your keys to this snap hook and always know where they are. As someone who has spent countless minutes fishing around in various bags for my keys this is a small but important feature!
Right above the small top pouch is a top handle made from 1/2″ foam wrapped in nylon fabric. It is permanently affixed and quite comfortable when you use it to carry a full pack like a briefcase.
The back of the Brain Bag is divided into two areas. The center area has two adjustable straps. This can be used for various items but works amazing well with one of the Tom Bihn Tripod/Lighting Quivers or a water bottle. A hook at the top is a nice touch that is quite handy for attaching a water bottle with a loop in the cap. The company also notes that this area is great for use with an umbrella or a rain coat, keeping them handy but out of the way until you need them. It is small touches like this that really stand out and make this a premium backpack.
The two sides of the outside back portion have zippered compartments. One also includes an open mesh area for stowing small items that need to be readily available. Both pouches zip open to reveal a spacious amount of storage. Each also has an organizer for small items like pens, stylus etc. At first I wasn’t sure I liked having this much obvious storage on the outside rear portion of the bag, but in actual usage I found it to be surprisingly convenient.
Because the backpack includes that middle-rear area for a water bottle, Tom Bihn didn’t see fit to add a water bottle pocket on either of the Brain Bag’s sides. I suspect the thinking was, “If you want to carry a water bottle use the space between the two rear pockets. It will work well, let the weight of the water bottle remain centered on your back rather than adding weight to one of the other side and, to top that off, it means the bag is only as wide as we designed it.” Having carried both water bottles and tripods on one or the other side of a backpack and, more than once, hitting someone because the pack was wider than I realized, I think this was a great decision.
What the company did do on the sides however was include two cinch straps, they refer to them as side compression straps, on either side. This is a great addition. Once the pack is fully loaded, you simply pull on each of the four straps to compress everything. This makes the pack a bit less bulky and secures everything inside. And there are other uses for these compression straps. For example, the company notes that you can keep a rain coat or yoga mat secured behind them. Again, it is small additions like this that make this a premium backpack and help justify the cost.
The Interior of the Brain Bag
Here’s the neat thing about the Brain Bag- we’ve already discussed a goodly amount of storage options and we haven’t even looked at the two main compartments of the backpack. Let’s turn our attention there now. As noted there are two separate compartments that make up the bulk of the Brain Bag’s storage. Both of them come as large, open areas that can be transformed by adding accessory items.
To help make that happen both of the main compartments are designed to accept the company’s “Annex Clips”. (Additional Annex Clip sets are $2.) In turn, these clips work with the $60 Tom Bihn Brain cell laptop case (they come in both vertical and horizontal models) and other items that we’ll discuss in a bit. The Annex Clips secure the Brain Cell inside the pack and keep it from moving. And because there are two main areas in the pack you can actually carry two laptops with each in a Brain Cell. It can even handle a 17″ laptop in the company’s Cache sleeve. (The Brain Cell doesn’t come in a size that works with a 17″ laptop.)
Recently Tom Bihn expanded the utility and function of bags like the Brain Bag by releasing specialized camera storage. For example, the company now offers a Camera I-O protection kit for $110. I-O stands for Insert-Outsert and refers to the fact that the Camera I-O not only includes slots for the Annex Clips and therefore can be secured inside the Brain Bag but also has handles and shoulder strap attachments so you can use it on its own when traveling light. I used the Camera I-O on my trip to Detroit and found that it transformed the Brain Cell into a fantastic camera backpack.
The company also released two different Tripod-Lighting Quivers. The smaller is $40 while the larger is $45. These are great it you plan to take your tripod on the road with you. The Quivers not only fit in the outside back area of the backpack but they too include Annex Clip attachments points. That means, for example, you can attach the Camera I-O and the Tripod-Lighting Quiver and carry them as a single unit.
Tom Bihn also sent some additional great accessories along. Among them was a vertical Freudian Slip. This insert is a great way to keep items such as pens, notepads and business cards organized. One side holds small items while the other will keep papers safe and secure. If you have ever put papers into a bag only to find that some later addition to the bag crushed or bent them you will understand just how useful the Freudian Slip is. And because it is removable you can easily pull it out when you need the items and then slip it back inside the bag when you are done. The Freudian Slip comes in both vertical and horizontal designs. Each is $45.
The $30 Snake Charmer is another way Tom Bihn can help you stay organized. This medium-sized organizational pouch has two sides separated by solid material. The external portion on each side is an open mesh that will hold even the smallest items inside while letting you see what is there. It is a great little organizer and a worthwhile addition to this or any other bag.
Finally, the company sent along their iPad Cache and iPad mini Cache. These $30 accessories are nicely padded sleeves that will keep your iPad or iPad mini protected from almost every bump along the way. A larger flap of extra material slips over the iPad and inside the Cache to keep the tablet safe a secure. Personally I find the flap of material a bit large and bulky but it does do the job.
Finally lets talk a bit about the materials and build quality that go into the Tom Bihn Brain Bag. The materials include, a 1000 denier Cordura exterior, a 500 denier Cordura lining, a Dri-Lex Aero-Spacer mesh back, EVAZOTE foam shoulder straps, PORON foam handle, Duraflex and Nexus buckles and YKK coil zippers.
Honestly I am not a bag-maker, so I really don’t know what any of that means. I do, however, know that this bag is made from premium materials and constructed to make the company’s lifetime warranty a safe bet on their part. In other words, buy the bag once, and you’ll be done buying backpacks forever — unless you want a different style.
I also know that the company coats the fabrics they use. The put urethane on the inside to help make it water resistant, and they add a water-repellent finish to the exterior. The bag isn’t waterproof, and the water-resistant quality will wear off over time and require refreshing but it is good to know the company has added this extra layer of protection.
I’ve always been a fan of Tom Bihn bags. The materials and construction are first-rate, and their products are designed by people who clearly know what they are doing. In fact, the company began making camera accessories only after they saw a demand from customers and Tom Bihn worked with his brother Dan, a photographer, when designing them. The result of this approach is a line of bags and accessories that look good and function well in the real world.
The Brain Bag is a bit bigger than what I have historically looked for in a backpack, but it works so well and is so flexible in its use that I really love this bag. My only real complaint is the price. With the Brain Bag starting at $160 and the Camera I-O adding $110, a fully tricked out backpack is expensive. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it will last and last.
MSRP: Brain Bag $160; Brain Cell Laptop Case $60; Camera I-O $110; Cache $30; Freudian Slip $45; Snake Charmer $30; Extra Annex Clips, $2 per set
What I Like: Amazing design and construction; Easy to pack and comfortable to wear; Can serve multiple functions including overnight pack, laptop backpack and camera backpack; Lifetime guarantee
What Needs Improvement: The bag is pricey, and the accessories add up quickly
Source: Manufacturer supplied review sample