Tom Bihn, both the man and the brand named after him, have been around the proverbial softgoods block a good number of times. Iconic bags like the Synapse and Aeronaut are used around the world by everyone from aficionados of the brand and carry goods to just regular people looking for a quality bag that will last them a good long time. After a year of producing some of the best every day masks for front liner workers around the world, Tom Bihn is closing out 2020 with a brand new label: Tom Bihn Design Lab.
The first offering from Design Lab is a re-release of an old favorite, the Shadow Guide. The Shadow Guide was built around the idea of using the original Guide’s Pack as an every day or travel bag. Gone is the heritage look and feel, replaced with streamlined features and a more understated persona. At least, that’s the goal.
|Capacity||2000 cu. in.||33L|
Quality and Comfort
I’ve never once faulted Tom Bihn for quality construction, and that’s no different here. This bag will feel right at home if you’re a current Bihn fan. The one other thing that remains a constant among the new backpack releases are the edgeless shoulder straps. These straps are really wonderful, and feature a full wrap-around edge instead of bound edges. This leads to a much more comfortable feeling against the body, and I’ve even found it easier to throw the bag on and off with a jacket on, since they glide well.
This is also the one downside I’ve experienced with the edgeless straps. They’re a little too smooth. I didn’t find this to be a problem on Tom Bihn’s smaller packs, but it was slightly more difficult to get the bag to ride high and tight where I like it with the larger SG33.
The backpanel is an all around new experience. It’s certainly a more complex design and construction than what we see on the original Guide’s Pack, or any other pack in the lineup. I’m unfortunately not in love with it, and that’s not just because it’s different. While it certainly breathes well enough, the mesh is a standard pocket mesh, not spacer or air mesh. This is the kind of mesh you’d find on an internal zipper pocket. I’m not sure why this was used here – maybe to better accommodate the uniquely shaped foam padding? This all works fine, though the pocket mesh is slightly rougher than typical spacer or air mesh. It makes me believe that the time and materials put into designing this backpanel may not have paid off in the end, but this is also the type of thing that the Design Lab is here to experiment with, so I can’t really fault that.
The frame sheet used in the SG33 leaves something to be desired. That something is structure. With a pack of this size, of this height, the thin frame sheet just fails to do much of anything. You could make the argument that it hugs your back better because of the flexibility, but this bag was meant to carry a laptop behind the frame; I don’t want this bending or flexing. Ever. When you keep just about anything in the brain, this problem is even further exacerbated.
There is an aluminum stay in the frame, but it only comes up around eight inches, landing in the center of your back. The standard Guide’s Pack, on the other hand, has a very solid frame sheet, with a full length metal stay. I’m not sure why this difference exists as it does, other than possibly something to do with the bag’s fit when a laptop is inserted.
I can’t really say anything else other than these decisions were misguided. The bags I feel best about carrying a laptop in always have very solid, protective frame sheets, on top of the padding. The SG33 doesn’t offer enough here, and I believe the frame sheet should be revisited.
The organization setup, on the other hand, is very similar to the Guide’s Pack. The brain is wide open, with just a key leash inside. It’s also very large; almost too large for my liking. It’s somewhat difficult to store smaller items in here, because they kind of just bounce around. You almost need to add secondary storage that fits the entire height or width of the brain. I imagine something like the Sidekick or HLT2 would be a good option. Based on my estimate, you could almost fit 3 or 4 HLT2s up here – it’s that large.
These zips are YKK RC #8s, and that’s fine. However, I would have appreciated #10s here for what is essentially a main compartment. I have bags smaller than this compartment. The #8s are a little less smooth than #10s, and that is evident when you try and zip around the corners.
This is also a good time to talk about the zipper pulls. Many Tom Bihn customers have complained that the zippers jingle a little too much. It’s definitely common on packs with quite a few more zippers, like the Synik and Synapse series. This has lead to people cutting the metal pulls off and replacing them, or just running paracord through the existing hardware. The latter is my preference.
By removing the original pulls at the factory, Tom Bihn has taken away my choice on the matter. The metal pulls have also been replaced with a cheap feeling rubbery plastic alternative. It cheapens the overall look and feel of the big, especially when Tom Bihn otherwise offers their own paracord zipper pulls in a wide range of colors. There are plenty of other high quality aftermarket zipper pulls out there, I just don’t think these are it. I will definitely be swapping these out.
On the underside of the brain are two vertical slash pockets. I found these useful for fitting smaller quick-access items, like gloves, a hat, or 2020 essentials like a mask and hand sanitizer. These pockets don’t criss-cross over one another, and are just divided down the center. I found that this limited what I could keep here. One of the nice things about the way these are positioned is that you can still access them with relative ease even with the pack is cinched shut and the brain locked down.
Between the main brain and the slash pockets, there isn’t really a goldilocks size compartment on the SG33. I often found them either too large or too small respectively. And, this is where we start seeing some of the breakdown in usability as a tech focused EDC or travel pack, if that was your plan. What I would have loved to have seen here was some sort of sleeve or pocket that was able to accommodate a tablet or e-reader. As it stands now, the SG can’t accommodate them, and there is no way to properly add one of Tom Bihn’s Caches either. I was left with having to keep my Kindle Oasis in the brain, in a case of it’s own, just floating around. It didn’t feel very secure at all.
The brain is what secures the main compartment, held down by two straps with side release buckles. I wish these would have been upgraded to a magnetic buckle, as it would have been much easier to one-hand them open and closed. As it stands now, it requires two hands to undue and re-attach each buckle. I’ll probably replace these myself, as I know others have already.
The main compartment itself is a cinch top secured black hole. This style of bag is great for hiking and travel, where you’re not accessing the contents of your bag until at your destination. Without any sort of side access, I’d recommend you pack bottom up, with the things you don’t necessarily need to access going in first. I can’t deny that this bag would have benefitted from a side-access zipper.
The inside itself is bare, sans two small eyelets on either side near the top. It’s possible to rig up a HLT or some other pouch here, but bulkier items would get in the way of access, so I don’t necessarily recommend it. It would have been nice to see this whole compartment lined, which it isn’t, and I would have liked to have seen rails for some of Tom Bihn’s Cache sleeves. This would have alleviated some of my issues with not having any place for extra tech without encroaching on the vision of simplicity.
Lining may have also helped with some of the floppiness you’ll experience of the main compartment. I found it slightly difficult to start packing, though as it fills up the mouth stays open better. The very bottom of the compartment is lightly padded and structured, and sits on an angle. This means that you won’t be able to stand the bag on it’s own, but this is done in order to increase carry comfort by shifting some of the weight into your hips.
As mentioned, the Shadow Guide V2 is available in both 23L and 33L capacities. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, but you can see that the 33 makes up for most of it’s volume in height, and a tiny bit in the width.
Thanks to Krishna Satya for the reference photos. Krishna runs the popular Tom Bihn BST Facebook Group.
- Black-hole style bag lends itself well to one-bag travel, either for a weekend or for a few weeks
- Tom Bihn quality construction means it will last you for years, or perhaps a lifetime
- This is an exceptionally lightweight bag, given its construction, fit, and finish.
- Holds more than the advertised 33L; I would guess closer to 40L
- Despite its size, it cinches down relatively small if you want to take it around town
- The bag is very wide, with some awkward dimensions overall
- No place for ancillary tech, like tablets or e-readers
- No place for Tom Bihn’s signature Cache inserts to remedy the above
- Backpanel is very floppy, leaving me with some worry about laptop protection as well as comfort
- Due to the floppy backpanel, any weight in the brain will fold the bag over on itself
- Zippers feel too small, and could use a size upgrade
- Design Lab pieces should push that namesake a little bit further than this
- At $280, this is an expensive bag, though not outside the typical pricing of bags from Tom Bihn
Tom Bihn has said that the Shadow Guide 33 and 23 are based around the principles of simplicity, and that is definitely the case here. However, I think a little too much may have been sacrificed in the name of simplicity. To me, simplicity means designing to the mantra of less is more. I’m not sure the Shadow Guide hits the “more” part. I constantly found myself wishing for things that just weren’t there that should have been.
Will we see a V3? A 2.1? I’m not sure. I kind of hope so, but only if we see some sweeping changes. I really enjoyed this bag in its Guide’s Pack form, as you can read in my previous review. I’ve used it a ton, and the new edgeless straps fixed one of my biggest problems. Unfortunately, I’m not able to see the Shadow Guide in the same light. I guess this is part of the problem with using a mountain klettersack as the basis for your laptop or travel bag. If you’re into this style of bag, I still have to recommend the original Guide’s Pack over this, whether or not you carry a laptop.
Bonus Video Hands On
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Editor’s Note: The Shadow Guide was provided by Tom Bihn as a sample for review purposes. The content of this review was not shared with Tom Bihn before publishing. Our reviews are unbiased and never modified to keep a brand happy.