This summer I'm planning a two-week trip to Iceland. The goal is to avoid having to drag wheeled luggage through puddles, mud or snow, and in general to have a light and manageable bag - particularly important because I'll be circumnavigating the country by bus, with only a night or two spent in each place. Last time I went to Iceland I brought a small (about 25L), no-name convertible wheeled backpack, which I'm still rather fond of, but it's starting to wear out and really it's a tad too small for a week-plus trip. So I thought I would make the most of Icelandair's limited carry-on rules, and try Tom Bihn!
After hours and hours of poring over reviews, both here and everywhere else on the internet, I finally decided to order an Aeronaut and try it out. All the information was so interesting to me that I thought I'd try to give back a little by offering my own thoughts.
To start off with: everything everyone says about the quality and design of Tom Bihn bags is absolutely true and not exaggerated. The aubergine and wasabi fabric is even more gorgeous in person. The Aeronaut is impeccably made and a pleasure to handle. I spent quite a while when I first got the bag just turning it over and pondering all the design choices that went into it. Tom Bihn bags easily fulfill both halves of William Morris's famous credo: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
One of the difficult aspects of assessing a bag like the Aeronaut is (as others have said) its mysterious TARDIS-like size-shifting qualities. Look at it in the box, it looks small. Look at it next to a carry-on roller bag, it still looks small. Start packing it, OMG, it is epic. Try to pick it up, it is unwieldy. Put it on your back and walk around for a while, it's surprisingly comfortable. Look in the mirror while you're wearing it on your back, and there's a certain aspect of looking as if you're off to the Himalayas.
Though is it really that big? A couple of days ago I found myself in a bus station (without the Aeronaut) and spotted some duffles being toted that I thought were about the same size. When I got home I realised that the Aeronaut is actually about half the size I remembered it being. So oddly, even having it in front of me hasn't helped me to pin down how big it really is.
Obviously the only solution is to try test packing it. So I did, imagining that I was off on my trip to Iceland. Here's what I put in it...
18 oz water bottle
Jagbags silk sleep sack
Rough Guide to Iceland
4 polo necks (one wool, one cashmere, two Icebreaker merino)
2 pairs trousers (jeans and hiking pants)
Icebreaker long underwear
2 pairs hiking socks
1 pair long Smartwool socks
One packing cube:
7 pairs underwear
2 pairs short socks
Another packing cube:
(For reference, I'm a 5'8" woman and wear a size small in most things. Not petite but my clothes don't take up a huge amount of room either.)
It was a pleasure to pack. I love the depth and scope of the main compartment and the easy access to it. I love the shape of the end pockets, which are very useful, and not only for shoes. It was great fun putting everything in!
I should note (and this is important) that this is more than I had planned to bring with me. I wanted to give the bag a sensible test of what it could hold, and got it to the point of "mostly full," but still with significant wiggle room, and definitely not anywhere close to crammed. In particular there was still a good bit of room in both end pockets. And all of the clothes fit in without any special effort in terms of rolling, bundle packing, or use of packing cubes apart from the little ones.
Which is good, right? Yes and no.
Though some people are really dedicated one-baggers, I do like having a personal item with me on the plane, just for the things that I'll want when I'm in my seat. If I did this, the water bottle, notebook, guidebook and Kindle would come out of the end compartments, leaving them practically empty. I suppose that means that I could take a pair of sandals along, or transfer the little packing cubes into the end pockets and fit my raincoat into the main compartment, but I worry that this starts to creep into "excuses for overpacking" territory.
I picked up my packed Aeronaut and carried it around the house for a while. Once I hoisted it onto my back it really was fairly comfortable. I could take stairs at full speed, loiter around without longing to put it down, and generally do all the sorts of things that you want to be able to do when carrying your luggage. It holds its shape remarkably well despite the lack of rigid structure, which is something that had really worried me. Having said this, it did sag away from my back a bit, and I suspect that leaving it half-packed would exacerbate this.
Because of how long the Aeronaut is, I wanted to shorten the backpack straps quite a bit, in order to get the bottom of it to ride closer to the small of my back. This was only partially successful: it meant that the waist strap ended up somewhere around my lower ribcage, so I let them out again. The low-riding nature of the Aeronaut was something that I had noticed from pictures previously, and it's not as if I have a particularly short torso either.
I did order the Absolute Strap as well. It's a magnificent construction but honestly I can't contemplate carrying even a mostly-full Aeronaut on one shoulder for long. Nor would I really want to have to stash it away when I'm not using it - it's just so big, really a little unwieldy. So I think it's not for me.
So, what's the verdict on the Aeronaut? I'm torn. I'm already beginning to bond with the thing emotionally. I just want to sit it on my bed, fill it with my clothes, and admire it. But I'm not all that keen on the idea of wrestling it through the airport, onto buses, and so on, which may be the key activity I should be considering! It seems possibly just a bit too much bag for me.
There's an argument for keeping it and simply under-packing it. I do have the capacity to exercise restraint when packing, and it would always be nice to have extra room for souvenirs and suchlike. On the other hand, I've been moving towards a more lightweight style of travel, and it seems silly to have a bag with much more capacity than I want to be regularly using.
Therefore... I have just ordered a Tristar. I wasn't initially keen on it because of the three-compartment structure - arguably I should be waiting for the much-anticipated Aeronaut Junior - but it seems to be closer to the size that I want, and hopefully easier to handle. Also it seems as if it will have the rubber-side-in zippers, which I like the idea of.
For the moment I'm holding onto my Aeronaut. I'll report back when I get the Tristar (next Monday apparently) and see how the two stack up against one another!
[In the mean time, I do have some pictures of the Aeronaut and the clothes that I packed in it, which I'll share once I've got them off my camera.]