One thing Tom Bihn bags are known for are their durability and longevity. However, over time, Mr. Bihn makes changes to the design to make them even better removable straps, O-rings, etc. What is someone like me with a circa 2004 infamous TB tag Brain Bag to do to get some of the benefits of those changes? Buying a new bag when you already have a perfectly good one is just a waste to the environment so, with some Tom Bihn parts sold on their website, I upgraded my bag to be as close as it can be to the current greatness and added some things not implemented in the current bag but were suggested in the forum posts to make the bag even better.
Over the years the Brain Bag has been available (since 2000 at least if I am not mistaken), I have found 10 upgrades - 6 of them, IMO, the DIY person can add retroactively. I think it is a testament to the original design of the Brain Bag that there have been so few changes in the more than a decade long production run and none foundational. Note - I did not include the O-Ring / Strap in the front top small pocket as an upgrade. In the older versions, there is the equivalent a sewn in strap so I did not feel I needed to update this - but you could add another O-Ring.
There are also 3 nice additions that other TB users on the forums have found useful.
Before doing any DIY, please remember three things:
Doing these upgrades will probably void the lifetime warranty. However, I look at it this way: If there was a warranty specific defect, it would have shown up already in the 8+ years since my bag was made. Also, the DIY additions will not impact the structure of the bag.
The TB crew could probably do some of the upgrades listed for you if you sent the bag back to them. For me, living in Canada, it would be prohibitively expense to do this (min $60 shipping there and back + cost of labour to do the upgrades).
The DIY work, while durable, is not as tough as if the TB crew did it as I did not want to remove the excellent original stitching.
The main things I found you could update on your older Brain Bag are:
1) Removable Sternum Strap
2) Whistle on Sternum Strap
3) Hydration Clip that attaches to shoulder strap (could also be used to hang earbuds or hook things)
4) 1 ½ inch Triangle Metal Hook at the front of the bag
5) O-Rings - 2 for the main compartments of bag. Add even more O-Rings if you want (I also added 2 for the vertical pockets something not currently on the new brain bags but something people on the forum wrote they wanted).
6) Tom Bihn logo patch with the airplane for pre 2002-3 bags (just estimating when the change in logo occurred)
All the parts are sold on the Tom Bihn website (look under accessories and parts) or you can contact the TB Crew to get the part. They are listed as:
1) Sternum Strap Assembly: to replace the sternum strap assembly on any of our backpacks and convertible travel bags; works with many other brands as well
2) Sternum Strap, Half w/ whistle: replaces the male half of the sternum strap - male buckle has a built-in safety whistle. You have choice of color orange or grey (no difference in functionality)
3) 1" Hydration Clip: as found on all of our backpacks
4) 1-1/2" Triangle Metal Hook: as used on the front of the Brain Bag
5) For the O-Rings, I called Tom Bihn customer service directly and they were able to sell me some O-Rings together with the items above. I actually asked for 4 O-Rings the extra 2 so I could add them to the vertical pockets something that is not yet in the latest version of the bag but was wanted by a few people in the forum.
6) If you need the logo, you could ask the TB crew for one too.
There are other things you could purchase at the TB Website (accessories section) that are good for maintenance or things people found to improve their bags even further:
Nikwax Tent & Gear SolarProof spray (Nikwax or something like that to waterproof the bag again)
Strapeez double sided self-adhering Velcro. I loop these loosely around the compression straps and shoulder strap bottom webbing to keep the excess webbing at bay.
Pack of cord zipper pulls (8 per pack). Nylon zipper pulls replacing or augmenting the metal zipper pull (this is something that helps keep the zippers from rattling)
For me, I did the first 5 upgrades. I did not need to do the 6th one as I already have the current logo. I also did the Nikwax waterproofing and the Strapeez. I am ok with the zipper pulls as they are - I did not want the nylon pulls.
Other items you will need to get from an outdoor shop or fabric shop (for the webbing, instead of buying, you could cut a unused shoulder strap or camera bag strap so long as the widths are as per below this is what I did):
1 length of 1 ½ wide webbing (get extra if you want to account for DIY mistakes!) for the Hook
4 length of ½ wide webbing (3/8 is ok too) for the O-Rings
If you wanted your upgrade to be All Tom Bihn, you could buy a simple shoulder strap and a 16 long key strap to use as your webbing. Also, if you asked TB customer service, they might cut you some pieces for a small cost.
Tools you will need:
An iron or other hot surface to melt the ends of the webbing so they do not fray
Heavy Duty Needle for sewing (strong enough to pierce the Cordura)
Black thread for sewing
Pliers to hold things if needed or push the needle through the fabric
Now to the actual upgrading
Upgrades #1 and #2 I just cut the horizontal webbing (not the vertical webbing) on the existing sternum strap and installed the new ones and the whistle. I actually left the plastic piece from the old strap still attached to the shoulder harness and I use it to clip things to.
Upgrade #3 this is just a straight install. While it is for routing a hydration tube, I use it to wrap my earbuds or quickly hang something.
Upgrade #4 and #5 These upgrades have generally the same installation instructions.
a) Take the webbing and cut it into 1 long strips (1 for the hook using the 1 ½ wide webbing and as many strips as you have O-Rings you want to attach.
b) For each strip, fold it over the hook or O-Ring that you are going to install.
c) BE EXTRA CAREFUL WITH THIS STEP HOT IRON. Match the ends of the webbing together and, using a hot iron (temp. high enough to melt nylon), melt both ends of the 1 long strips together. Just do enough to have the whole width of the ends melted and both ends melted to each other. The melting ensures the webbing does not fray and melting the 2 ends together makes it easier to sew it onto the bag.
d) For the Hook, use the needle and thread to pierce the webbing wrapped around your hook and poke it through the underside of the top pocket under the seam. Make sure the webbing end is under the seam overlap so it hides the end under the seam. Sew back and forth, in and out of the bag until the webbing feels solid enough to stay on the bag if it is pulled. I usually do about 20-30 stitches. Please note that this may compromise the water proofing so make sure you waterproof it again. I also put duct tape on the inside where the thread came through for extra safety.
e) For the O-Ring, use the need and thread to pierce the webbing wrapped around your O-Ring and poke it through the interior seam at the location you want the O-Ring. Note that you are not poking through the inside to the outside of the bag. The seam is all interior so you are just sewing back and forth through the two sides of the interior seam. Sew back and forth until the O-Ring is on solid enough to survive being pulled. I usually do about 20-30 stitches.
Upgrade #6 adding in the current Tom Bihn logo patch - you can either sew it on or do the magnetic thing (there is a forum post on how to do this How to: Attach patches to a bag without sewing).
Nikwax spray follow the instructions on the bottle.
Strapeez Velcro These just loosely looped around the webbing for each side compression strap and the the bottoms of the shoulder straps. I just snaked the excess webbing through the loop. This keeps the excess webbing out of the way and not snagging on anything (especially the side compression straps). It also makes the Bain Bag a lot neater in appearance. See the forum post - Round the World with a Synapse 25 where they do the same things with a Synapse backpack. I bought 2 packs (6 in each). I used 4 for the compression straps, 2 for the shoulder straps, 2 for the waist straps and 2 for the front center straps.
Cord Zipper Pulls - you can either attach the cord zipper pulls to the ends of the existing metal zipper pulls or cut off the zipper pulls completely and thread in the cord ones (more permanent change to the bag that you cannot go back from). There is a good forum post on how to do this too How to break off metal zipper pulls so I can replace with the nylon zipper pulls?. Also, there is a good post on different styles and ways to attach the cord zipper pulls on top of the existing metal pulls - How do you like to attach the cord on your zipper pulls? For those with circa 2000 Brain Bags and silver zipper pulls, the cord zipper pulls can hide the silver a bit.
Here are some pictures of the final results (I did upgrades #1 to #5):
There are only 4 things that IMO cannot be upgraded easily by the DIY person:
1) The handle older BBs have the 2 part handle that has a leather or fabric flap to keep them together. The latest version is one handle PORON filled. I actually like the 2 part handle separated, the back handle makes it easier to hang the Brain bag.
2) The snaps for the Brain Cell older BBs had metal snaps to hold the Brain Cells in. Since about 2004, they have used Annex Clips. I do not believe there is a workaround or adapter to upgrade the snaps in the bag to use clips see the forum post - Snap/Clip Adapters for Brain Cells and Bags?
3) Removable Waist Strap older BBs have a 2 sewn in strap. The latest version has a 1 ½ removable strap via gatekeeper clips. The TB Crew may be able to do this conversion for you if you sent the bag back to them see the comments at the bottom of the forum post Brain Bag Review. While you could DIY, it is more difficult to accommodate for the different strap sizes. Alternately, if too expensive to send back to the TB factory, a local tailor or dedicated Outdoor Store (like MEC or Europe Bound) could do this for you.
4) Silver Zipper Pulls early Brain Bags (at least pre 2004) had silver instead of the now black zipper pulls. While I do not think you can change this without changing the whole zipper, you can use the cord zipper pulls to either mask the silver or replace the silver zipper pulls with the cord zipper pulls (see above where it talks about this).
If I have missed something or have more DIY upgrade ideas, please let me know. Some of these upgrades could also apply to other older TB bags (e.g. Sternum Strap upgrade, O-Rings, etc) or if you just want to make life even better with you TB bag (e.g. Strapeez velcro, Nylon Pulls, extra O-Rings). I found a wealth of information on the forum posts so thanks TB crew for creating this forum and for having the parts available to purchase.
As Sheryl Crows song goes It's not having what you want, It's wanting what you've got. These upgrades and following all the forum posts ideas keep me wanting what I got!