Carl spent eight days studying the bears of Katmai, trusty Field Journal Notebook in tow. Should you ever be fortunate enough to do the same, he advises: “If you ever consider going there I highly recommend taking as much time at Brooks as you can, and doing a little homework beforehand on the individual bears. Getting to know the actors in the drama as individuals makes all the difference in the world, and makes you appreciate just how different bears can be from one another.”
On the Forum, member tpnl is well-known for his detailed and insightful posts and creative TB hacks. Today, he is turning the design spotlight on the Brain Cell. Read on . . .
Protection and Lightweight Minimalism – The Brain Cell
I quite often wonder, as I am sure many of you do as well, why I like Tom Bihn products so much—there are few companies that can engage people’s passion as much.
The conclusion I came to is that I resonate with what I believe is Tom Bihn’s underlying ethos—to create something the stands the test of time through the use of quality materials and innovative design combined with an intuitive understanding of how people could use his products.
I think one of the best examples of this is the Brain Cell, which is available in both Horizontal and Vertical orientations. First off, the Brain Cell is designed to provide significant amounts of protection for your laptop. However, with the choice of durable material, the multi-layered protection design, and flexible carrying options, it becomes more than just a protective laptop case—it really is a great minimalist Every Day Carry (EDC) for lightweight computing in its own right.
Laptop Protection – the Brain Cell’s primary role as designed
I wish to take some time to fully appreciate how effective the design is in providing superior protection for your laptop. The description on the website identifies the various protection techniques: Corrugated Plastic on the front, back and bottom; the Sling set-up; the thick Memory Foam; the Cross-Linked Closed-Cell foam on the side, etc.—even the Aplix strips that keep your laptop in the bag. But, what does it all mean? How does it make the Brain Cell stand out in the crowd of sleeves and cases also designed to hold and protect your laptop?
The answer—the devil is in the details:
Using Corrugated Polypropylene as opposed to a regular sheet of plastic enhances the stiffness of Brain Cell, similar to how a wood plank is made stronger in one direction because of the wood grain. By also making the sides and bottom out of Corrugated Polypropylene, it protects your laptop like a helmet protects your head. It serves to distribute the force from a drop onto a larger surface area and away from your laptop. It turns the Brain Cell into a lightweight version of hard-sided travel luggage.
What really separates the best laptop cases from just good ones is corner drop protection. Most people have experienced that if you drop something on its edge or corner, it will probably dent easily. This is because the impact force is concentrated in a small area or point, magnifying its effect. This is also why it is easy to hammer the pointed end of a nail into wood rather than the flat top. The Brain Cell’s hard Polypropylene helmet extends to its corners and like a frame, deflecting the force away from the corner of your laptop or absorbing it instead of transferring it to your laptop, causing damage.
Selecting Dense, Closed-cell and Cross-linked Polyethylene foam for side protection shows an attention to the details by picking the best choices for foam. How does this protect your laptop? The dense Closed-cell foam acts like bubble wrap packaging protecting fragile items. It provides increased compression resistance (does not squish as easily) on impact compared to open-cell regular foam (used in most other cases). The bubbles are closed (sealed) so air does not escape easily and there are many of them (dense) to ensure there is protection all the way through. The Cross-linking creates a lattice structure that acts like a net for your laptop by keeping the dense foam together.
The Sling Suspension System design and the thick Memory foam at the bottom provide a double layer of protection for the most likely way your laptop will be dropped—on the bottom. The design is like having a trampoline or bungee cord with a memory foam mattress below it. The main goal here is to make sure the laptop does not slow down too quickly, because if the laptop hits the ground directly, it goes from drop speed to zero in the blink of an eye and absorbs most of the drop energy in the process, causing damage. Memory foam has much slower compression and rebound than regular foam or neoprene and acts like a car shock absorber to slow down any impacts. Regular foam and neoprene are useless at this despite how they feel.
An interesting feature is that the Sling Suspension System is adjustable. This helps ensure your laptop does not “bang around inside the case” and get damaged. This helps to fit a variety of laptops and still have the protection afforded by the sling. There is even a helpful video on how to do this. Also, the Aplix strips on the opening flaps run the full length of the flap for a secure closure to further prevent accidental opening or movement of the laptop in the case.
Finally, the Annex Clips provide a fifth level of protection after the Sling Suspension, thick Memory Foam, Corrugated Polypropylene and 500d Cordura outer fabric (which also provides a level of abrasion resistance). These clips allow you to suspend your Brain Cell inside many Tom Bihn backpacks, briefcases and travel bags, further reducing the impact speed and potential for damage.
If you have taken the time to read all the above, I would be surprised if you are not impressed with all that goes into this simple looking product. It is unique in the industry and is how I first got introduced to Tom Bihn products. Arguably, the Brain Cell is the most protective soft-sided case, with only rigid hard-sided cases being more protective (but less flexible in use). There other cases with some of the Brain Cell’s features and design, but none with all of them. Being from an IT background, I found myself searching for the best protection for my laptop and found it … and as a bonus, I also found these amazing bags to hold it in.
I have actually tested this protection together with other companies’ products (using a piece of drywall to simulate a laptop—do not try with a real laptop!) and the Brain Cell was the most protective of them all, with no damage to the drywall when dropped from 4 feet on all 6 sides and 4 corners. It was very impressive and what cemented my appreciation for the design of this product.
Lightweight Minimalist Carry – the outstanding secondary role
Now, for the person who wants to be a Minimalist (or even just someone who wants a lighter Every Day Carry) but still wants maximum laptop protection, the Brain Cell presents itself as one of the best options with the most flexibility and features:
- 500d Cordura exterior – This material is extremely abrasion-resistant and durable so the Brain Cell will not be damaged easily when carried on its own and it has a very natural fiber look.
- Web pockets – Built-in organization options to put a power supply, cables, cellphone, etc.
- Though the pockets mean the Brain Cell does not technically meet all the Checkpoint Friendly recommendations, the fact that the pockets are webbing / see-through have never caused an issue for me when going through the security check.
- Multiple carry options:
- Webbing handles.
- D-Rings and a shoulder strap—custom-made plastic D-Rings for strength and arguably the most comfortable shoulder strap, the Tom Bihn Absolute Shoulder Strap.
- Annex Clip loops to attach the Brain Cell securely to a Tom Bihn bag.
To make this the ultimate lightweight minimalist bag without sacrificing things, Tom Bihn has many accessories and options that can be used. Another excellent highlight is the company’s full support of a web forum and blog that allows people to exercise their creativity and post customized options that go beyond the original design and personalize their customers’ bags. To that end, for the Brain Cell, there are a few additional carry options that go beyond the original design and may add more flexibility through the use of the Annex Clip loops and D-Ring attachment points. Thanks to all the forum members that have posted innovative additional design innovations and given me so many ideas, including sewing on webbing strips into the Brain Cell so it will work with the current Tom Bihn Checkpoint Friendly Gatekeeper Clip system (see here for a description of how I did it).
Below are a few pictures to showcase this and help start your own design creation – enjoy!
In summary, the Brain Cell is the faithful companion for those who are serious about wanting to protect their laptop and believe in buying once and using for life—the reason IMHO all TB products stand out in a world of disposable, poorly designed products. The surprise is its designed versatility, making it a boon for minimalists or for people looking to lighten their daily carry.
A few weeks ago, several members of the TOM BIHN Forum began cleaning up: their homes, their closets, their wardrobes—all in an effort to live less cluttered, simpler lives. A popular thread that emerged from this discussion was a wardrobe-streamlining method outlined on Project 333 by Courtney Carver, a writer and photographer whose work focuses on voluntary simplicity.
The bare-bones rules of the Project 333 challenge are simple: practitioners live for three months with a 33-item wardrobe, including shoes and outerwear. (For a more detailed explanation, see here.) Courtney challenged herself to do this back in 2010, and now, four years later, thousands of people from all over the world have joined her, some permanently changing their relationship to buying and wearing their clothes.
Courtney leads a busy life as a public speaker and author of books and three websites. She took some time out to talk with us about Project 333 and her thoughts on simplicity.
TOM BIHN Crew: What inspired Project 333?
COURTNEY CARVER: I started this minimalist fashion challenge because I knew that my closet was a major source of clutter in my life. There were so many items that I never wore, but felt compelled to hold on to. I thought that if I could simplify my closet, I’d really begin to understand my relationship with stuff and better identify what “enough” meant to me. I announced the challenge on bemorewithless.com for some accountability and was thrilled when almost one hundred people joined me. Almost four years later now, there are thousands of people from around the world dressing with 33 items or less.
TBC: There are a lot of simplicity/minimalist bloggers/writers/personalities out there, some of whom are notorious for dictating imperatives to the reader, such as the total number of items s/he should own. Conversely, your approach allows readers to exercise a lot of free will; for example, although the “rules” of Project 333 say that shoes count towards the 33 items, you invite participants to change the rules to suit their own situations and preferences. What has made you develop this flexible approach to minimalism?
CC: As I discovered the benefits of dressing with less, with 33 items or less, I wanted to make it as accessible as possible. I also realize that 33 may seem out of reach for some people, and instead of giving up or discounting the challenge as too extreme, I wanted to make room for people to discover the benefits by starting where they were. If that means not counting shoes in the 33 or dressing with 50 items instead of 33, there are are still valuable lessons to be learned. The number is just a number. That said, this is as temporary as you want it to be, so there isn’t really any risk to jumping all in.
TBC: On the flip side, are there benefits to occasionally exercising a large amount of restraint, living in a radically austere way, or being rigid in one’s practices? Can you think of situations where this might be the best course of action?
CC: I love a good challenge, so for me that kind of approach works, but it isn’t for everyone. This is life we are talking about, so if something like this makes someone completely unhappy, it has no benefit. In my experience though, people who take on Project 333 usually start out thinking that it’s crazy and extreme, and then find out that it makes everything easier.
TBC: How do you decide which non-consumable items (clothes or otherwise) come into your home?
CC: Anything I purchase or bring into my home/life has to add value in some way. I don’t shop to make myself feel better, or to fill a void. I think the majority of my purchases, especially with clothing, was an effort to feel more beautiful, powerful, loved, or something like that, and after parting with the majority of my stuff, I realized that you’ll never find something to wear that makes you feel beautiful, smart, or loved if you don’t believe that you already are. What I really wanted wasn’t at the store.
TBC: What is your philosophy about objects/possessions/materiality (noting that these are distinct but slippery categories)?
CC: I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately to determine what the shift has been since I started simplifying my life. I still own things, but my things don’t own me anymore. I appreciate the things I have, but I’m not attached to them. It’s just stuff. I’m ok with the fact that it will come and go and really doesn’t define who I am or what I’m about.
That said, I know during the initial decluttering and letting go, stuff has a big hold for most people. It comes with so much attachment and emotions, and not just the sentimental stuff. We feel bad for the money we spent. We feel like if we let it go we are throwing money out the window. The reality though is that we’ve already paid enough and if we keep that tight grip, we’ll keep paying. We will pay with our dollars by taking care of the item. We will pay with our time and we will continue to feel the guilt and regret. The best thing to do is to let go all the way. Let go of all of it: the thing, the attachment, and most of all the guilt. You’ve paid enough.
TBC: A few years ago on the website Becoming Minimalist, you described yourself as “a sap and a sentimental fool”, meaning that you had some difficulty pruning down the number of purely sentimental objects in your life. Where would you say you are today? Has your perspective on sentimental objects changed?
CC: I’m still sap and sentimental fool, but now I am moved more by moments and memories and I know that I don’t need stuff to trigger that. There were some sentimental items that were hard for me to go of, but less because I wanted to keep them, and more because I didn’t want to hurt anyone in the process. To avoid that, I was very open about things and I took pictures of a few of the items. And I kept a few things. Less is not nothing.
TBC: On your own website, you wrote a post called “Less is Not Nothing,” which addresses the assumption or misconception that minimalism is the same as self-denial or self-imposed suffering. Are there other assumptions about minimalism that you have heard, and wish to correct?
CC: You don’t have to live out of a backpack, burn all of your stuff or live a certain way. There are so many versions of this lifestyle that labeling it is almost a disservice. My version isn’t about suffering at all. In fact, if it isn’t contributing to a happier, healthier life, I’m out.
TBC: A follow-up question: one assumption floating around is that minimalism is actually a luxurious way of living. In other words, to practice minimalism a person must have achieved a certain level of economic and social security, and that poor people do not have the luxury. What are your thoughts on that?
CC: There is a reason they call it voluntary simplicity and it’s likely much harder to find the upside when you don’t choose to live with less. I can’t comment on every situation, but I do think that if we are in a position to help people who don’t have what they need, we should. I also believe that living with less can contribute to the security many desire but find impossible to achieve. So many of us (including me) thought we were working to have it all, but on closer inspection, I had less before than I have now. The bank owned my house and between car notes, credit card debt and student loans, I really didn’t own anything. Now I rent my home and live with things that are paid for. There is great security and freedom in not owing anyone anything.
TBC: A lot of simplicity/life enhancement bloggers work in “location-independent professions” that are also very elastic in terms of time investment. In fact, this sort of work situation is often touted as one of the major goals or benefits of adopting a minimalist lifestyle. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think that this emphasis on personal freedom and rejection of typical middle-class responsibilities might alienate people; for example, those who have 40-hour work weeks, or a mortgage, or are tied to a given place for one reason or another?
CC: It shouldn’t alienate, it should inspire. I know it inspired me. Living with less, paying off our debt, and reducing monthly expenses all contributed to me leaving an almost 20 year career in sales and marketing. For the longest time I thought I’d never leave because I couldn’t find another job to replace my income, but by changing my lifestyle, I didn’t need to. I think it’s also important to note that you said “personal” freedom. That means something different to everyone. If you enjoy a 40-hour work week or living in a certain neighborhood, that’s great. For me, being creative in my work, and not reporting to a certain person or place is my personal freedom.
TBC: Do you have any rituals or routines in your day-to-day work and personal life?
CC: I do have a morning routine that I practice five or six days a week when I’m home, and if I’m traveling, I practice at least a slice of it as often as possible. My morning routine changes during the year but usually involves some combination of exercise, meditation and writing. I also have become much more verbal about what I’m grateful for. I either journal about it, or make quick notes throughout the day withThe Random Gratitude App. It’s great, because after you record what you’re grateful for, the app shows you what you were grateful for this time last year or at another time.
TBC: You’ve recently downsized a lot, from a house to an apartment, and have written a bit about that. One of your readers said that her love for her pets was posing an obstacle to achieving her minimalist goals. But you have a dog (and also a child, which some minimalists consider an impediment to the freedom and location-independence I mentioned above). What mindset or thinking has permitted you to say kids and dogs are not just tolerable, but welcome in your life?
CC: Minimalism may help location-independence, but they are different things. Minimalism looks different for everyone. For me it made more time and space for me to engage in my daughter’s life and spend more time with her as she was growing up. She is currently in Australia on a working-holiday. Coincidentally, she introduced me to Tom Bihn. She was determined to leave for a year with only a backpack.
While I didn’t start simplifying until my daughter was a pre-teen, I can’t help but think that this shift in lifestyle contributed to her desire to travel the world and experience people and places over stuff.
And about the pets, I’ve joked that if I had simplified my life earlier, we wouldn’t have a dog, but if that’s true, I’m so glad I waited. Guinness is part of the family and brings me so much joy. I wouldn’t trade joy or connection for any amount of simplicity.
Minimalism will change your lifestyle, but it really impacts is your mindset. It makes you think differently about everything and helps you value relationships, health, love and purpose over money, stuff and busyness. At least that’s what it did for me.
TBC: What are some items that you consider essential to your work and personal life?
CC: A computer, a camera, and a journal. While I have my favorites, I could make any of them work.
And after having ordered both Synapses and made his choice, Ineffable was kind enough to post a thorough comparison of the two sizes (with photos, just a couple of which are below). See Ineffable’s full post here.
One. Dogs show us the breadth and limitations of our humanity.
Two. It’s always hard to say goodbye to a friend.
When members of the Forum learned that Riley, Tom’s stalwart companion for over a decade, had passed away this spring, they created a tribute to Riley to express their sympathies. What follows are pictures of Forum dogs, in this life or the next, along with memories and anecdotes from their people. We hope you will honor Riley with us by honoring the animals in your life.
“Sophie and Callie enjoying a New Hampshire winter.” — jodel, New Hampshire
“Here’s our buddy, Chaos.” — GriffCouch, New Orelans, Louisiana
“Faith is a rescue dog so we don’t know for sure, but were told she is a Shepherd/Saint Bernard mix.” — Shanisol, Denver, Colorado
“Tom, I feel for the loss of your dear, hairy friend and I just know that you will cherish all the great memories that you had together. As a tribute to Reilly, here’s three of his Retriever friends from Scotland—for once they are clean and presentable—from the left: Mulloch, Brodie and Dileas (pronounced Jeelus). I was probably eating a biscuit at the time—that’s why they look so attentive.” — davys, Scotland
“Here is my dog Whitney, a.k.a. Booda, who just recently joined Riley. She spent her life being loved by my family in Virginia, and made our lives better each day she was here.” — luvdabags, Virginia
“Best wishes and happy memories from my dog buddies, Zero and Daisy.” — Missy, West Virginia
“Kuiken was adopted from Ohio and Tedu from New Hampshire.”— kkintea, Miami, Florida
“Tom, I’m so sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing Riley’s life with us.” — Susan M (and Lizzie), Denver, Colorado
“This is Maggie, an 11 month old German Shepherd cross.” — Wendyk, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada
“Sweet Jane.” — BHappy, western Washington
“Boudreaux, our Bouvier des Flanders. We miss her. And Zepper, who loves the Thing! He sends condolences to Tom.” — Gulfcoast, the gulf of Texas
“This is Oliver. He lives in Maine and loves the snow; good thing, too.” — Moose, Maine
“This is the dog trio currently living at my house. The black dogs are Hank and Stella and belong to my son; the blonde dog is named Ariel and is mine. They are all mixed breeds. Hank and Ariel are shelter dogs.” — bunchgrass
“K (our Samoyed) hereby respectfully reporting for the 21-wag salute in honor of Riley!” — haraya
“Titus is looking and feeling naked without his collar. RIP, Riley, and our condolences to his friends and loved ones.” — The Badgers, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“This is my late family dog, Licorice. We lost her to cancer in January 2011, shortly before she would have turned 13. She was the best labrabeagle in all of Missouri. She was an expert in napping, looking extremely guilty when she knew she’d done something dastardly, and photobombing all outdoor family photos by pooping in the background. However, her true calling was snack theft. Not even a counter more than three times her height could protect pies, bread, or any other delectable treats she wanted to get her paws on. She’d find a way to snag them all with not a single crumb left behind, no broken dishes, no ripped packaging.” — capncat
“We can’t have a dog of our own so we sponsor a dog via the Dogs Trust organisation. This is Cuillen. He lives in the rehoming centre in Glasgow but, hopefully, someone will give him a forever home soon.” — CeePee, England
“Tucker, RIP 10/27/12, now with Riley at the Rainbow Bridge, waiting for us; and Tucker and Daisy.” — Karen, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
“This is Sweet Dee on the left and Rickety Cricket on the right. I had just woken up last Tuesday morning to find my car stolen from the driveway. These two bark at EVERYTHING except that. I was asking them ‘why???’ in this photo and you can clearly see they couldn’t care less. RIP, Riley!!!” — Chiro75
“Tom, as dogs are more intelligent than humans in all the ways that count, Ede KNOWS there is a special place in heaven reserved for as good and true a friend as Riley has been to you. He hopes that you can find the place where remembering Riley is more joy than pain soon.” — Ilkyway, Germany
Allison Levine is a web developer, traveler, and writer. Last year, she demonstrated in this video how she packs her Synapse 19 for trips of indefinite length. On her blog, Off the Blueprint, she writes about the symbiotic relationship between travel, minimalism, and living lightly on the earth. We wanted to find out more, and here’s what she had to say.
TOM BIHN Crew: Tell us a little bit about your website. What relationship do you see between traveling and minimalism?
ALLISON LEVINE: Minimalism completely changed the way I travel. The less you’re clinging to, both mentally and physically, the easier it is to immerse yourself in a new culture. I realized how incredible that freedom to experience was when I took my first trip with my Synapse 19, to China. I got lost. I shared wonderful meals and conversations with people I’d just met. I questioned my world view. And I never had to say “Hold on, I need to go take care of my suitcase.” Traveling with only one small bag gave me the confidence to explore, and alone. I couldn’t wait to share that when I got back, so I created Off the Blueprint.
TBC: You’ve been traveling for a while with your Synapse 19. Are you still in love with it? What features do you appreciate the most?
AL: Yes! I love the size, of course—the fact that it fits everywhere, including inside a hostel locker. It can also hold so much for its size, thanks to the genius shape and pocket design. When I first took it out of the box I thought, no way am I going to fit everything in there. Then I started packing it and realized how huge the water bottle and bottom pockets are. I also really like that the main compartment only zips halfway down. That allows me to pack or unpack it while it’s standing, which is much easier than trying to get things organized while they slip out sideways.
TBC: How did you generate your 12-item list of packing essentials?
AL: I read a lot of packing lists to see what worked for people. That helped me nail down the basics: light and efficient outerwear, quick-drying clothes, multi-use items, and tiny cosmetics. Then I experimented. I found that I could downsize some things further, like shirts, sweaters, and flip-flops, but that I’d left other things out, like a netbook or notebook to record my experiences. My list evolves with every trip.
TBC: It’s pretty amazing that you can fit everything you need into a 19-liter backpack. It seems like part of minimalist travel is bringing only what you need, keeping in mind that what works for others won’t necessarily work for you; so, it’s as much a mindset as it is a strategy for packing.
AL: Very true. I’m a small, not-so-strong person, so packing a 19-liter bag works to my advantage. I can fit everything in because my clothes are smaller, and because my bag is small, I can actually carry it! My list works for me, but I wouldn’t expect others to follow it exactly. Even I adapt it as needed. Now that I’m a vegetarian I carry a lot more snacks with me because I know I need to keep nibbling throughout the day to stay full.
TBC: Recently, your blog has focused quite a bit on vegetarian cooking and eating. How does vegetarianism/veganism function within a minimalist lifestyle, to your mind?
AL: I think of it as eating light, both for me and the environment. Traveling light has made me question everything about the way I live, and whether there’s a better (albeit probably more challenging) way to do things. I really enjoy subverting norms because it forces me to get creative. And that’s something that inspires me about Tom Bihn—that they always think outside the box.
TBC: What is a travel-related item you thought would be really helpful but actually wasn’t?
AL: I thought a sarong would be an awesome, multi-use item to take. It can be a dress, a cover-up, a sleep sheet, a towel, etc. But I ended up only using it as a not-that-great towel, and ditching it after my first trip. It’s probably great to take if you’re hitting up a lot of beaches, but not so much if you’re mostly visiting urban areas.
TBC: Do you allow yourself any luxuries when you travel? How, in your eyes, does the idea of creature comforts interact with minimalist traveling?
AL: I try not to start out with any luxuries, but I tend to buy them as I go, especially when I inevitably catch a travel cold. I had to start carrying my day bag separately during my train trip around the States because I picked up bottles of nighttime cold medicine, agave nectar, and lemon juice when I got sick. I don’t feel better until I’ve had my hot water with honey / agave and lemon.
To travel you only really need your wallet, passport, and maybe a spare shirt and underwear. Everything else is probably a luxury that we could live without. But we’re human, and as long as the creature comforts are manageable and don’t detract from your travel experience, I don’t think they’re harmful. Plus purchasing those comforts en route can be interesting, since even the most mundane transactions are exciting in a new place.
TBC: Speaking of that train trip—it was three months long. What inspired you to do this? Had you traveled much by train before? What did you hope to learn or discover on this trip?
AL: I’d traveled by long-distance train before in China and Europe, but never in the US. I wanted to see what American sleeper trains were like, and also take a trip that didn’t involve flying. I think I’ve got flyer-fatigue, because trying to get somewhere far away without taking a plane sounds so much more exciting to me lately. It slows you down and forces you to disconnect for a while, which is a rare pleasure in this digital age. So I was hoping both to experience a slower, historic form of travel and to learn more about my own country. I enjoyed meeting people from all over and learning about the history of places like New Orleans, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas on my way west. And of course the scenery was stunning, especially when pulling into Tucson, exploring California’s central coastal area, and riding the rails through the Pacific Northwest.
TBC: There are a couple of cool book reviews on your site, not of recent books but rather of guides or memoirs that were published anywhere from 50-75 years ago. Do you often look to writers and thinkers from the past as part of your research on travel and/or as inspiration for your travel philosophy? How do you see these texts from the past influencing the way you travel now?
AL: I really enjoy reading old travel books. Travel like that just doesn’t exist anymore. In The Importance of Living, Lin Yutang recounts the story of a wealthy man in ancient China who leaves his job, family, and home to wander the countryside with only a gourd and the clothes on his back. That story reminds me that the best travel is light and aimless. Some of my most rewarding travel experiences have been when I let my expectations go, or just gotten lost somewhere new. I like reading Dervla Murphy’s books because she inspires me to be fearless. And Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat reminds me to laugh in spite of travel mishaps.
TBC: What are your travel goals for the next few years?
AL: I’d like to continue traveling without flying, maybe to South America next. I definitely want to take the Trans-Siberian Railway sometime in the next couple years. More generally, I want to work towards leaving my trips more open-ended. Wandering isn’t really wandering if you know when you’re heading home. The idea of not knowing where I’m going next terrifies me, and that’s something I’d like to overcome.
The last day of June marked the arrival of a long-awaited event: the unveiling of five new TOM BIHN designs. Forum members had been aware of (and eagerly anticipating) one item, the Aeronaut 30, which was originally requested back in 2008 and which, this April, Darcy said would become a summer reality. However, the Crew was tight-lipped about the other four designs, leading to much speculation.
As May became June, forum members began searching for ways to pass the time until the new products were released, making wish lists of hypothetical items, auditioning self-distraction techniques, or planning vacations to Seattle. In the days leading up to the big reveal, the forum was abuzz with high levels of excitement, which very well may have bordered on the obsessive: there were reports of members endlessly hitting the “Refresh” button on the product pages and the blog to see if an announcement had been made; others tried to wheedle, cajole, bribe, threaten, or otherwise persuade Darcy to spill the beans, but to no avail. Three days out, trailhiker set up a countdown to June 30, and, with one day to go, eWalker began posting countdown updates (down to the millisecond). It didn’t help that a few forum members knew about some of the new items because they were testing or reviewing them, and their teasing only fanned the fires of impatience and anticipation.
At long last the announcement was made, to a round of virtual hosannas, cheers, and joyful weeping. Within 30 minutes of the reveal, the first review of the Aeronaut 30 was posted on One Bag, One World, and within an hour, a thread emerged detailing the items that forum members had already ordered (at last count, that thread was 9 pages and 129 posts long).
And then the pictures began appearing! taminca, who has achieved great forum fame for her photo essays on the multiple uses for various TOM BIHN items, posted a series of uses she had devised for the Q-Kit. Darcy posted a picture of the Night Flight Travel Duffle being stitched together, highlighting the appearance of Coyote 1050D Ballistic Nylon fabric (which so far had been used only in sister company Skookum Dog designs). NWHikergal, who lives in Seattle, posted a number of pictures of her new 1000D French Blue Cordura Daylight Backpack (see here, here, here, and here for all of them), inciting much admiration and covetousness. See here for taminca’s photo essay of her French Blue Daylight Backpack, and here for Hawaii’s 400D Black Dyneema Daylight Backpack, which she kindly bought for her husband to use as his personal carry-on item when they fly (click here to see what he can pack in it, with room to spare).
It’s been an exhilarating (and exhausting!) week on the forum! We hope you’ll stop by to look at the pictures, read some of the threads, and post something yourself as well!
“First time poster here, people. I’ve been lurking for months in the shadows of all you professional Bihners, in awe of your collections and your adventures. My own collection has been building while we prepared to leave the US to live in Asia, knowing how much harder it is to get something shipped to me outside the US. I fell in love with TB bags as soon as I put on my Synapse 19 the first time… then I was addicted! But that’s for a later time…
Recently, my family and I moved to Indonesia. Just this last week, I was sent from Bandung to Medan, which is about a two hour flight. I was going for three days, by myself. I was terribly nervous, not knowing the language yet, and flying a new airline in Asia, where they’re very often completely picky about weight of bags. I knew I needed to pack light, and not check any luggage….”
While people join the Forum to discuss or learn about Tom Bihn Bags, many members have found kindred spirits who share their other passions. The dedicated space for these discussions is the Not About Bags Forum, where almost anything is fair game for discussion. There have been a number of interesting threads popping up as of late, so here are some tidbits of What We Talk About When We Aren’t Talking About Bags.
One perennial favorite topic: cute and fuzzy animals. Take a peek at the 6 page long thread on Forum members’ pets for tons of photos and anecdotes (though arachnophobes might want to steer clear of post #35, which features Miking’s buddy Renton). Click here for an older thread on companion animals.
Other threads are resurrected periodically because they focus on items that inspire the same brand loyalty that forum members devote to Tom Bihn Bags. One such thread is about Moleskine notebooks, started by KarlJ in 2009. Way back then everyone probably thought that in 2014 we would be writing with the power of our minds (wink), but jump to the end of the thread to read scribe and eWalker’s discussion about writing longhand and the romance of putting pen to paper. (Speaking of pens and paper, click here for an earlier thread on writing tools, and here for a discussion of notebooks in general.)
Recently, some members have turned their attention to clothing. Check out this thread that explores the notion that people look better if they dress according the most flattering color palette for them, a topic explored in Carole Jackson’s Color Me Beautiful. This thread raises the subject of the “capsule wardrobe,” which is considered here, on streamlining one’s wardrobe using techniques outlined on the Project 333 website. For a thoughtful thread on decluttering and living more simply, click here.
Some of these topics appear in a thread begun just yesterday by kkintea, who recounted what she learned from other forum members in the past year. What might you learn (or teach others) about this year?
Perhaps you’ve read stories that go something like this: a person begins to question the seemingly endless American pursuit of material things. He decides that he doesn’t need all those things to be happy so he sells most of his stuff, pays off any of his debts, and hits the road. As a perennial traveler, he finds opportunities to connect deeply with people he meets along the way, and learns about what he really values.
Such a story describes what Mike Boyink of Holland, Michigan, did nearly four years ago. What makes Mike’s story a little different is that he undertook this adventure with his wife Crissa, and his teenage children, Harrison and Miranda. The Boyinks downsized and began a year-long odyssey traveling the country, towing a fifth wheel. Within that first year, they decided to sell their house and make the road their home for the foreseeable future. The family has chronicled their path to full-time travel on their blog, which they author collaboratively.
Recently, Mike tweeted that he was the happy owner of two Tom Bihn bags. He was nice enough to sit down (virtually) with us and tell us more about life on the road and the complicated nature of the Stuff that fills our lives.
TOM BIHN Crew: What are the bags you use, and the items you typically carry in them?
MIKE BOYINK: We have two of the Ristretto 13″ bags. One carries a Macbook Air (mine), the other a Macbook Pro (family). In my bag I also have a Grid-it for the various bits and connectors, a small headphones case, and one of the TB zippered pouches for meds and change. The family bag carries roughly the same—we’re pretty minimalist. The bags live under our living room chairs when we are in place or go into the truck if we’re on the go.
TBC: How did you find out about Tom Bihn bags, and what convinced you to buy them?
MB: I asked on Twitter and had multiple recommendations. I bought my bag first, and mainly what I liked was that the bag seemed designed to fit—I bought an Air to be as portable as possible and wanted no slop in the bag.
TBC: On your travels, how do you decide where to go?
MB: Sometimes there are specific destinations—like Crystal River, Florida, to swim with manatees or Silver Springs, Florida to look for the wild monkeys. Sometimes it’s people— family or friends that we want to connect with. Other times it’s “I’m done driving; where can we stop?” or “Where is the weather nice?”
TBC: What kind of planning goes into a lifestyle like yours? If the extremes are “completely spontaneous” and “meticulously planned out,” where do you fall?
MB: We started out more towards the latter and realized just how insanely stressful that was. We are more the former now, except for times when we can’t be—like being in Florida in the wintertime, you can’t just show up at a state park on the weekend. In those cases we will book ahead a week to two weeks out of necessity.
And then there are times like now, where we are coming off a couple months of travel and heading back to Michigan where we will purchase a seasonal lot in one campground and be there for the summer. We are doing this for a few reasons—the kids want jobs, summer in the midwest is hard because it’s camping season everywhere, and I have some business projects I need to focus on.
TBC: Do you have advice for people who wish they could travel more?
MB: It’s funny how often we hear that, then after saying it there comes a “but.” We wish we could travel full time but…
…we can’t afford it.
…our kids are in soccer/little league/drama.
…we really need to be in community.
From our perspective, it’s what comes after the “but” that’s really more important to you currently. And that may not be a bad thing. However—whatever your “but” is, there’s probably a way to enjoy it or overcome it and travel too. Challenge those buts and see if they are really roadblocks after all!
TBC: What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned from this experience?
MB: How easy it is to get in a rut.
That there are no laws dictating a traditional work week or lifestyle.
How we can have more friends and closer friends than living stationary.
How little stuff we need.
How awesome it is to always be “home” yet have changing views and experiences.
How our world isn’t really designed for being location independent.
TBC: Can you say more about what you mean by “our world isn’t really designed for being location independent”? How do you work around some of the challenges that reality presents?
MB: Just in general our government and society expect you to have a physical address.
We have three of them: one for invoice payments, one for other mail (there are mail services that scan your mail for you and send PDFs), and a “legal residence”—which in our case is our in-laws’.
Another example: trash. If we aren’t staying in a campground, but instead are “boon docking” (just in parking lots, etc.), then trash is an issue. Where you do you legally get rid of trash if you don’t have an address? Either [dumpsters] are privately owned, so dumping our stuff there isn’t fair to the owner, or they are in public places but most often have “no household waste” signs on them. We don’t want to just throw [trash away] randomly; we want to do the right thing, but there often isn’t a great solution. While we don’t buy much other than consumables, we do try to ditch whatever packaging we can while in the store. Otherwise we have held on to trash until we are in a campground again.
TBC: I imagine that would make you ask yourself if you really need X or if it can wait?
MB: Oh we do that anyway. Limited onboard room for storage, plus RVs have inherent weight limitations.
TBC: That makes perfect sense. It’s easy to ignore when you have a house-house.
MB: Sticks and bricks we call them . It’s a good constraint. … Minimalism really. I’ve seen a fair amount of interest in it even outside the RV world. Do you know the Fight Club quote about stuff?
“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.”
It’s a huge paradigm shift. We are so ingrained in a consumer culture that when you try to remove that goal of stuff ownership people don’t know what to do.
TBC: Did you have to sell the idea of less is more to your kids, or were they somewhat predisposed to agreeing with it?
MB: I not only had to sell it, I had to model it.
For years I was into old Jeeps. I owned several at different times. Garage full of tools.
Spare parts everywhere. I was in the middle of telling the kids they’d have to make some sacrifices for the trip, and realized I couldn’t ask them to do what I didn’t do. So [I] put a “for sale” sign on a Jeep I had worked on for five years and everything else. It was a huge part of my identity. I had put so much of myself into that Jeep. But it occurred to me that there will always be Jeep projects. But the opportunity to see the country as a family wouldn’t happen again. I can get all the stuff back at some point if I really want to. Not so much the time.
TBC: Since you’ve been traveling, have your children ever expressed a desire or longing for the things that accompany a stationary lifestyle?
MB: Yes. Some of those are why we just booked a seasonal spot for five months. They are excited to have library cards, maybe get involved with some summer sports, etc.
TBC: How do you establish a sense of community in the places where you stop, especially when you know that you won’t be putting down permanent roots in any one location?
MB: Community doesn’t happen at every stop. Sometimes we purposely go somewhere where we know friends are so that we can be part of that community. Other times we have worked for campgrounds or ranches for a few months and built community that way. We are all part of different online communities and those can also lead to offline meetings.
TBC: How did you prepare your family for the changes they would be making? This doesn’t seem like something you can even comprehend until you’re in the thick of it yourself.
MB: It’s hard—we didn’t really know what it would be like. We did put a printed map on the wall and start pinpointing places that sounded interesting. We also didn’t replace a broken dishwasher because the RV wouldn’t have one. But otherwise we talked about the unknown really being the adventure.
TBC: Final words?
MB: If I paint this lifestyle as all sun and roses that’s not accurate. We have family conflict like any family. The upside is that our house is too small to hide in—we have to deal with things. But it’s the flexibility we enjoy—we can park for five months if that’s what will benefit the family most. And we don’t have to move into a new house to do so.
Mike Boyink is an author, teacher, web developer, and the owner of Train-ee.com. Read more about his family’s story and their day-to-day travels on their blog, Boyinks4Adventure, or follow Mike on Twitter.