An Interview with Courtney Carver

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.

Courtney models two outfits drawn from her collection of clothing items.

Courtney Carver models two outfits drawn from her collection of clothing items.

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 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.

Courtney Carver's wardrobe.

Courtney Carver’s wardrobe.

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.

You can read more of Courtney’s writing at Be More With Less, or follow her on Twitter.

An Interview with Allison Levine

Allison Levine at Big Sur.

Allison Levine at Big Sur.

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.

Allison's Synapse 19, ready for travel.

Allison’s Synapse 19, ready for travel.

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.

Allison's view from the train, somewhere in Arizona.

Allison’s view from the train, somewhere in Arizona.

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.

In China.

In China.

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.

What the Trend in Reduced Carry-on Sizes Means if You Own a TOM BIHN Bag

Earlier this year, we reported that United Airlines had changed its baggage policy so that carry-on bags could not exceed maximum dimensions of 9” x 14” x 22”, and personal items could not exceed 9” x 10” x 17”.  If a bag was too large in any dimension, its owner ran the risk of being required to check the bag through.

Very recently, George Hobica, the founder of, discovered that American Airlines had also adopted this policy, which reduced the maximum carry-on width from 15” to 14”.  Hobica’s bag was 15” wide and he was sent back to the ticket counter to check it in.  Delta passengers’ bags must also conform to the slimmer 14” width.

What does this reduced width mean for those of you with TOM BIHN bags?  Carry on as usual.  As we mentioned back in March, most TOM BIHN bags already fit within the new standards—even your Aeronaut is still safe.

TOM BIHN | Western Flyer fits United's personal item sizer

Forum Roundup: Sweating the Small Stuff

There’s little doubt that everyone on the forum loves TB accessories, so this week’s roundup is dedicated to those little things that blow our collective hair back.

Forum member Moose kicked off a very popular thread this week when she asked, “What do you keep in your Side Effect?”  Read on for over a dozen answers and some terrific photos by ncb4, tizi and Ilkyway.  chautime wanted to know what would happen if shampoo or some other liquid toiletry were to leak inside the 3D Clear Organizer Cube.  Would the cube contain the spill? Read on for forum member testimonials.  In other 3D happenings, icebeng discovered some pretty cool things happen if you turn your 3D Clear Organizer Cube inside out.  Be sure to also check out the 3D hacks courtesy of sturbridge and SusanM.

PaulT00 rejoiced over the brand-spanking new Travel Trays that wended their way to England to live with and him and the Travel Trays already in residence.  On the newest accessory front, K9TB wrote in to announce that the Small Double Organizer Pouchmakes a great wallet, especially if you’re traveling to a bunch of different countries and need to carry multiple currencies.  Keep reading to see more pics of the SDOP in the wild.

Finally this week, dorayme made the compelling case that bags and accessories can be works of artkkintea‘s little friend seems to agree, wouldn’t you say?

So many Shop Bags!

So many Shop Bags!


Forum Roundup: Ask the Forum Hive Mind

A theme emerged on the Forum this week: several members were looking to buy a bag or accessory, but weren’t sure which one.  They all turned to fellow forum members for advice about not just what to get, but why they should get it.  Member haraya thought she might need a Synapse for an upcoming trip, but which model, the 19 or the 25?—And was the Synapse actually the best choice?  Click here to see what she needed to carry, and read on for the advice.  Perseffect wanted to know if a Small Cafe Bag would be a good “My First Bihn” bag for her five-year-old daughter, and forum members responded with anecdotes and some insanely cute pictures.  And new member DubbySmurf asked for opinions about the ideal accessories for a college student’s Brain Bag. Read on for suggestions about the accessories forum members recommend most.

Just for fun, dwright17 asked people what they keep in their Stuff Sacks.  Answers so far?  Everything from cables and chargers to first aid kits to knitting projects.  Sometimes, members take it upon themselves to demonstrate potential uses for accessories.  Check out taminca’s photo essay on uses for the new Small Double Organizer Pouch (and stay tuned for her ideas on the soon-to-be-released Medium Double Organizer Pouch).  Finally, Volunteer Moderator maverick wondered if multiple sizes exist for the Synapse and now the Aeronaut, could there be room in the Tom Bihn Bags lineup for a smaller Smart Alec?  Read on for Volunteer Moderator moriond’s historically contextualized reply—and to see pictures of Smart Alec colors from the past!

And now here’s our Pic of the Week:


Proctor’s Field Journal Notebook and a jaunty daffodil.

Guest Post: Dan Weedin, Business Traveler

Guest Post: Dan Weedin, Business Traveler

Avid business traveler Dan (and spouse of  our very own HR/Office Manager, Barb) recently wrote-up this piece for us, offering some insightful tips for headache-free, enjoyable professional travel. Check out what he has to say about our bags, along with some other tidbits of travel advice, below…

Business travel can be viewed in two ways. It can be considered a necessary evil, or a desired experience. I prefer the latter. While it often might seem tedious and grueling, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun if you know what you’re doing and open yourself up to challenge and big-time return on investment! Even in a highly technological age where we can literally transport ourselves all over the world via our iPad or mobile phone, business travel still is a requirement for many of us. You might as well have fun!

I do a fair amount of travel throughout a given year. As a crisis & risk management consultant, executive, coach, professional speaker, and author, I find myself on a plane and traveling around the country (and sometimes the world) in search of new client relationships and new adventures. Living in Seattle makes most of those trips longer. To add to it, many of the cities I fly into don’t have direct flights, so I go up and down a lot!

I’ve recently started using Tom Bihn bags to travel and to say I’m thrilled is an understatement. Look, business travel is about three things, speed, nimbleness, and experience. Carting around a bunch of luggage and waiting and praying that it comes through the baggage carousel puts a big dent in those three things. My favorite bag (by far) is the Tri-Star. The first time I used it was for a 6-day excursion to New Jersey and Rhode Island for business with a weekend in New York with my daughter for fun thrown in right in the middle. I wasn’t at all sure that packing all I would need in one bag was going to fly. I’m a pretty thrifty packer by nature, but I was skeptical.

Turns out, it was awesome. Not only did I get everything in it, I actually overpacked! I didn’t even use all I brought (unfortunately I’m talking about my workout gear…but I did walk a lot). My wife taught me how to pack efficiently and smartly. I was even able to replicate it myself coming home! Here’s the coolest thing, though. I was able to pull out the backpack straps and carry it that way rather than rolling it. Oh my gosh, what a difference in walking through the airport AND Manhattan! I’ll never go back to the old way. If it has to be rolled, it ain’t going! Note: In the case of my golf clubs, I will just have to send them on ahead. We can’t get silly here…

For my fellow business travelers that need to upgrade to fast, nimble, and fun, allow me to offer a few best practices…

1. Use mobile devices for your boarding pass. Almost every airline has their own app that allows this. It’s simple and you don’t have to worry about keeping paper. If you’re smart and carrying on, it’s a straight shot to the security gate.

2. If you are going to have to wear a sports jacket or suit coat later for business, wear it on the plane. You avoid needing to take up space in your bags, plus you actually get treated better by staff. I kid you not. I usually take my black suit coat as it goes with most everything. Then I only need my black shoes (which I also wear to fly). I put on a pear of comfy jeans and not only am I more nimble; I look pretty good, too!

3. Always charge your phones and iPad in advance. I crank them up to 100% the night before, yet I still will recharge whenever possible. I’ve been in too many situations where the battery starts draining and I have no outlet for the foreseeable future. Mobile phones are too important for more than calling. This is crisis management at it’s finest!

4. Speaking of that, become handy with your maps on your phone. I constantly stick my headphones in and map out my destination. I find myself hoofing it through New York, San Francisco, and other ports of call more than I drive. Make sure the “walk” mode is on, not drive. If you wear your ear buds and kind of bounce around like you’re listening to AC/DC, you won’t look like a tourist.

5. Buy Tom Bihn travel bags. Really. They allow you the ability to pack what you really need in a manner to still be efficient. We all tend to over pack if given the alternative. These bags give you latitude to maximize what you must bring. Getting rid of roller bags allows you to dart in and out of crowds, avoid spilling someone that tripped over your wheels, AND keeps you from hurting your back stuffing them into an upper holding area. You never have to check these bags at the gate like all the other suckers. In and out has its advantages!

BONUS: When you travel for business, include pleasure. I always make time to have fun and experience the food, frivolity, and culture of where I travel. Don’t get stuck in your hotel room. Go make pleasure part of your business.

A large part of my work involves helping to keep people out of crisis, and mitigating the bad stuff that does happen. Travel is always potentially fraught with risk and crisis as relates to baggage, lost time, and frustration. If you keep a positive outlook on your experience, keep a few tricks up your sleeve, and tote around your Tom Bihn bags, you’re likely to be smiling all the way to your destination and back!

Dan Weedin is a strategist, speaker, author and executive coach. Visit his website at See also: the Tri-Star.

Forum Round-up: Travels Far and Near

We’re lucky to have an active and enthusiastically informative forum, where members help new and long-time customers get answers to their questions about TOM BIHN bags and accessories, travel, and packing for any and all situations.  It’s also a place where people can speculate about new products on the horizon, obsess over Organizer Pouches, and deliberate over what color bag they should order.

Our members, who live all over the world and come from all walks of life, contribute dozens of bag reviews, pictures, questions, and useful suggestions, and are quick and generous with their willingness to help.  There’s no way to distill the wealth of their collective knowledge into a tidy package, but, starting this week, we will provide an occasional round-up of just a few threads from the previous week.  While not exhaustive, the round-up will clue in readers of this blog about some of the goings-on in our online community.

This week’s theme: Travels Far and Near

Spring is usually when travel season starts heating up, but our forum members travel all the time to locales both far and near, for business and pleasure, with others or solo.  We were stoked to receive a mention as one of The Wirecutter’s picks for traveling well (see here for the forum reaction), and forum members have had a lot to say about putting their bags through the paces of their travels.

Recently, dwright17 returned from her two-week trip to Israel flush with knowledge about the Holy Land and some good advice for those hoping to pack light for their next trip abroad (see here to see how her packing list started and then evolved).  New member JoeM logged on to tell us that his new Aeronaut was about to accompany him to sea for a 6-to-8 week period of work in southeast Asia.  Read on for a glimpse into life aboard a ship.  Closer to home, Janine reported that her two-night work trip to D.C. with her Synapse 25 and Pilot was a feat of light packing, and heparker let us know that his Pilot performed admirably as an everyday carry (EDC) bag (he’s also our Pic of the Week!).

People who use our bags put lots of thought into how and what to pack.  Some forum members wanted help finding solutions to traveling with their families: Travelmom4 wondered about the best accessory to carry passports for six people, and Jwalker was looking for the best in-flight bag to use with her children on their long-haul flight from the U.S. to New Zealand.  Forum members saikyo and jannilee asked for and received advice about products TOM BIHN doesn’t make: travel toiletry bottles and lightweight Bluetooth speakers.

Finally, the biggest news of the week: after much wailing and lamentation, the fires of forum members’ fantasies of travels far, near, and within carry-on regulations were fanned when Darcy announced that the new, scaled-down Aeronaut 30 is on the pre-order horizon.

And now for our Pic of the Week!
TOM BIHN | Forum Photo of the Week by herpacker
heparker’s brand new Pilot (Navy/Solar), Horizontal Cache, 3D Fabric Organizer Cube (Wasabi), Dyneema Organizer Pouches (Small Ultraviolet and Mini Iberian), and Ultraviolet Key Strap.

Jeremiah’s Around The World Packing List

“In a week I’m leaving the United States and I have no idea when I’m coming back. The deal with myself is that I’ll be gone for at least six months and up to two years. Maybe I’ll come home for Christmas but in general my plan is to travel until I run out of money.”

Read on over at Jeremiah Takes Pictures for his full packing list (and what he’s already learned about travel and packing ultralight).

Jeremiah's Around The World Packing List | TOM BIHN

Max’s Traveling Minimalist (with the Side Effect) List

Max is heading out for a 10-day trip to NYC and Las Vegas and one of his bags is the Side Effect. Check out his full packing list.

TOM BIHN | 10 Day Trip with Just the Side Effect - Traveling Ultralight

United Airlines’ Carry-on Baggage Sizer: Which TOM BIHN Bags Fit?

If you’ve traveled on United Airlines lately, or just happened to walk by a UA gate, you may have seen them: stiff-sided compartments into which travelers can place their carry-on and personal items to see if they fit.  These baggage sizers, as United calls them, are part of the airline’s efforts to more strictly enforce the size and number of bags passengers bring on board. Beginning on March 1, carry-ons can be no larger than 9” x 14” x 22” and personal items no larger than 9” x 10” x 17”. If your bag can’t fit in the baggage sizer, you’ll have to check it gate-side and pay the checked baggage fee.

This announcement has been the subject of some discussion on the Tom Bihn Forums (although we have nothing on the multiple threads on Flyertalk, some of which are running 60+ pages).  We’ve gathered information and rounded up the dimensions of all of our most popular travel bags to hopefully shed some light on United’s policy, which TOM BIHN bags make the cut, and give you some packing tips to ensure your bag fits.

TOM BIHN | United Airlines Carry-On Luggage Restrictions

(Synapse 19 and Tri-Star in the new bag sizer with room to spare. Thanks to @tadbell for the photo.)

The Real Dimensions of the Baggage Sizer 

Do the math quickly and you’ll see that the dimensions given by United add up to the current FAA standards, which state that carry-on luggage must not exceed 45 linear inches.  What makes United’s policy different than the standard is that they are giving precise dimensions for both carry-on and personal items, which are not specified by the FAA.  This might seem draconian and unfair, but what United isn’t telling you is that the baggage sizers are actually a bit bigger than the published requirements:

Published carry-on limit: 9″ x 14″ x 22″

Actual sizer dimensions: 10″ x 15″ x 23″

Published personal item limit: 9″ x 10″ x 17″

Actual sizer dimensions: 9″ x11″ x 18″

(Source: Flyertalk)

This is good news for those traveling with TOM BIHN bags, since many of them fit or can be made to fit these dimensions; more challenging is determining what combination of bags to use for the carry-on and personal item.  The list below will tell you which bags fit easily and which exceed the published and/or actual baggage sizer dimensions.  It sort of goes without saying that a traveler with, say, a sensibly packed Aeronaut and Cadet or Tri-Star and  Synapse 19 will likely draw less attention than one struggling with an over-stuffed Aeronaut and a bulging Super Ego, even though all three combinations fit within the size parameters.

Carry-on Safe:



Western Flyer

Guide’s Pack (without the Side or Lead’s “Admin” pockets)

Brain Bag

Smart Alec

Synapse 25 / Synapse 19


Empire Builder / ID / Zephyr


Founder’s Briefcase

Brain Cell (all sizes)

Pilot / Co-Pilot

Swift / Little Swift

Upper Limit Carry-ons:

Super Ego (.5” taller than the published limit but fits within the actual limit)

Personal Item Safe:

Pilot / Co-Pilot

Swift / Little Swift

Small Cafe Bag

Medium Cafe Bag

Ristretto (all sizes)

Upper Limit Personal Items:

Smart Alec  (1.5” wider and 1.75” taller than the published limits)

Synapse 25 (3” too wide and 3.4” too tall)

Synapse 19 (1.4” taller than the published limit but fits within the actual limit)

Super Ego (4.5” taller than the published limit)

Ego (3.3” taller than the published limits)

Empire Builder (1.25” wider and 2.75” taller than the published limits)

ID (2” taller than the published limit)

Zephyr (2.2” taller than the published limit)

Cadet (2” taller than the published limit)

Founder’s Briefcase (.7” wider and 2.4” taller than the published limits)

Brain Cell (Sizes 1-6Z are all between 1.4”–2” taller than the published limit; the 13” MacBook Pro Retina size is .4” taller than the published limit but fits within the actual limit)

Large Cafe Bag (2.9” taller than the published limit)

Packing Your Bag so it Fits the Sizer

You’ll notice that many of the personal item-sized bags are a bit taller than the sizer’s published or actual dimensions, but in general there is no need to worry, for a few reasons.  First, gate agents will not likely be examining all bags, but will rather be on the lookout for items that grossly exceed the dimensions (so don’t try to pass off your Aeronaut as your personal item).  Second, gate agents typically look to gate check rolling luggage first since those types of baggage are generally the most onerous to fit in the overhead bins.  Finally, the soft sides of our bags make it easy to stuff them into the sizer, so you may be able to use a TOM BIHN bag that is technically too large to be a personal item (for example, one FlyerTalk member reported that his Super Ego fits easily into the Personal Item sizer; another member recommends the Western Flyer).

The important thing to keep in mind is not to overpack.  These bags’ wonderful squishability, which allows you to cram them into otherwise unusable nooks and crannies of overhead bins, also allows them to expand.  If you pack your bag to the gills, it is quite possible that it won’t fit into the sizer, even if its published dimensions are within the safe zone.

To avoid overstuffing your bag, you might try employing packing cubes and making sure that they are filled evenly to the edges, since extra volume in the middle of the bag often causes it to develop a barrel-like shape.  The slimmer your bag looks, the less likely you’ll be subjected to the sizer.

When you’re carrying a backpack, try to utilize as much of the horizontal space as possible so that everything doesn’t migrate to the bottom (once again, the goal here is to reduce bulk).  Some forum members have found success using their Side Effects as internal backpack pouches, which can then double as handy in-flight compartments using S-Biners.

If you’re new to TOM BIHN bags, read our Forum to discover what (and how) people pack, and tips for streamlining your travel wardrobe and your toiletries while retaining some of your creature comforts.  Finally, if you have questions about what will or won’t fit in the Baggage Sizer, or what will or won’t fit in a specific bag, don’t hesitate to email or call us.