November 1, 2022

Portable Culture Portrait: Three Favorites with Eric Widuger

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Eric poses with his three favorite bags

Our Portable Culture Portrait blog series features TOM BIHN Forum members, the bags they carry, and the items they carry in their bags. It’s inspired by our Portable Culture tagline. This edition features Forum member Chicagoan. 

Eric poses with his Side Effect at the Lake of the Clouds in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. H

Let me first give you a small bit of background (work/live/play) about myself before I shift the focus to bags. 

Work: On weekdays I commute by car to an office where I work a seated, computer-based desk job as an architectural designer.

Live: I come home on weeknights to an apartment that requires me to park outside, walk across a lot, and up stairs to a unit on the second floor, shared with my wife and three cats.

Play: Weekends are often spent taking overnight road trips with my wife to stay in places that often don't have stairs (we hand-carry luggage), a television (we pack our own entertainment), or a kitchen (we also pack our own drinks and snacks).

When Maia asked me to write about my three favorite bags, I wanted to choose 1.) ones they still make/sell, that 2.) can be carried at the same time by one person, and 3.) are able to function both independently as well as part of a system.

So I made this exercise easy for myself, and decided to write about the three bags I always carry on weekend trips.

What types of bags do I carry?

1.) Cross Body (holds small items requiring quick and easy access, like a wallet, keys, phone, camera)

2.) Backpack or Duffel (stores larger items I don't need until the destination: clothes, shoes, toiletries, computer)

3.) Tote (consumable items like drinks, snacks, etc.) 

When needed, the crossbody and tote can fit inside the backpack for a "one bag" carry, and if both a personal item and carry-on are allowed, the tote can be deployed to hold not only the crossbody, but also any souvenirs picked up during the trip.

Altogether, the entire system of three bags holds a total of 53 liters - 8 liters more than the largest Aeronaut, but spread across three different sizes and styles of smaller bags.

Which bags specifically do I use?

1.) Side Kick (Deep Blue 525 Ballistic/Coyote 200 Halcyon)

This bag and I go way back.

The Side Kick is the very first bag I bought from TOM BIHN in 2017 and served as my EDC ("every day carry") for 5 years until 2022 when I replaced it with the Co-Pilot.

What fits inside the Side Kick:

House keys, a spare car key fob, two 4-color ballpoint pens, a mini organizer pouch that serves as my wallet (containing my car key fob, cash, cards, finger bandages, lens wipes and a spare pair of contact lenses), a camera (stored inside a case with a spare battery and spare memory card), sunglasses, smartphone, power bank, charging cords, wall plug charger, lip balm, pocket comb, contact lens rewetting drops, my vaccination card, sodium bicarbonate tablets, and a swiss army knife.

What I like best about the Side Kick:

It carries in front of your body and opens from the top, not only making the contents easy to see, but also keeps them from falling out, so you can wear the bag unzipped.

Conversely, the bag zips fully shut to protect the contents from weather and theft.

Keeps keys and wallet accessible without removing the bag.

Fits a camera vertically, where it can be quickly and easily removed without missing a shot.

Great "town bag" for the destination, larger than a camera bag, smaller than a briefcase, with both an open center compartment and built-in organizers (pockets).

Crossbody carry makes it perfect for storing small items on theme park trips, since the bag stays above the waist (unlike a fanny pack) and doesn't interfere with a lap bar restraint on thrill rides.

The small size is perfect for museums, sporting events, and concerts, since it qualifies as a "purse-sized" item and doesn't need to be left in the parking lot or at bag/coat check.

The unzipped main compartment is deep enough to hold a typical 16-ounce water bottle upright for day hikes.

Will fit in half the front or back compartment of the Tri-Star when needed. 

2.) Tri-Star (Coyote 1050 Ballistic/Moab 200 Halcyon)

If I can't fit a pair of shoes inside a bag, it's not big enough for travel.

For years, I used a Western Flyer, and while it fit a pair of shoes, it also meant sacrificing 25% of the bag's capacity to carry them. 

Recently, I bought a Tri-Star, which is a larger version of the Western Flyer that adds a second carrying handle, third front pocket, and third main compartment. 

The Tri-Star solves two of my biggest problems.

Tablet storage: the top front pocket is deep enough to fit my tablet (and doesn't require me to open any of the main compartments to access my computer).

And shoe storage: the middle compartment fits not one, but two pairs of shoes.

The only thing I don't like about this bag is the fact I didn't buy it sooner.

What fits inside the Tri-Star:

The front outside pockets are great for smaller items: the "water bottle" pocket is actually where I store my eyeglasses and snoring mouth guard. The three horizontal pockets hold power banks (bottom), the charger for my tablet (middle), and tablet computer (top).

While the Tri-Star doesn't have a dedicated laptop compartment, it does have an additional front pocket deep enough to store my tablet. When I used to carry a Western Flyer, I would sandwich the tablet between layers of folded clothes in the back compartment - not ideal for quick access when you find yourself passing through security, waiting at the gate, or sitting onboard the plane.

The first/front compartment holds stuff I set out upon arrival: a white noise machine inside a Size 3 Travel Stuff Sack, toiletries inside a Standard Spiff Kit, and various cords and chargers inside an All-Fabric 3D Organizer Cube. 

The second/middle compartment comfortably fits two pairs of men's size 12 shoes (wingtips and mocassins, on this trip), and is where I stash the shoulder strap when I want to carry the bag like a backpack.

The third/back compartment unfolds to set my folded clothes out flat, secured by the included tie-down straps.

What I like best about the Tri-Star:

Carrying the load across two cushioned straps on your back is much more comfortable than trying to carry it over one shoulder in a duffel.

The shoulder straps are thick, cushioned, and even feature a sternum strap - not the thin, flat ones you find on most convertible travel bags.

Backpack mode is super helpful when you have to stand in line for airport security, zip through crowds of people in the terminal, or squeeze into an airport bathroom stall, minimizing the amount of contact the bag has with the ground and the time spent picking up the bag and putting it back down again.

Neither the Tri-Star (18.9" x 13" x 8.1") nor the Western Flyer (17.9" x 12" x 7.1") qualify as small enough to be used as a "personal item" on United flights (the maximum size allowance is 17" x 10" x 9"). Both easily fit in an overhead bin, with dimensions within the 22" x 14" x 9" size allowance for carry on luggage. You can physically fit the TS under an airplane seat, but there's no guarantee a flight attendant won't ask you to: 1.) place the bag in their sizer bin, 2.) pay an additional fee to store it in the overhead bins, or if those are full, 3.) ask you to gate check the bag. TL;DR: don't risk using this as a "one bag" personal item on basic economy flights, but if you have overhead bin access included in your airfare, it will fit up top just fine.

Compatible with packing cubes (for plane travel when bags might be searched) but performs well using only built-in organization.

I also dig the fact it's basically a two-sided clamshell and instead of stuffing the contents into the bag, you zip the bag around the contents.

You can only unzip an Aeronaut when it's laid flat on the ground, but the TS can be unzipped flat on its back, laid on its side, or stood upright - the clamshell zips allow access to the contents without anything spilling out - super helpful if you need to grab a jacket packed into your bag that's already stashed in the overhead bin.

I use it primarily as a backpack, but if you want to carry it like a duffel, you can unclip the backpack straps, stow them inside the bag, and clip on a shoulder strap (sold separately). Duffel mode works best if you plan to carry the Tri-Star in addition to carrying a dedicated backpack.

Yes, there's a compartment you can use to tuck the shoulder straps away when you're not using them - but what that also means is, if you only plan to wear the bag like a backpack, you can fit some extra gear inside that compartment instead.

3.) Small Zip Top Shop Bag (Iberian 200 Halcyon)


We always like to take a tote bag to serve as a "catch all" for transporting consumables (food, drink, sunblock, insect repellent, etc.) to our destination, and helps us bring home souvenirs. It also has been used on multiple occasions to carry a small electric space heater along on some very cold weather winter season trips.


What fits inside the Small Zip Top Shop Bag:

2 bottles of water, 2 cans flavored water, 2 cans soda, 2 cans iced tea, 2 cans energy drinks, various snacks and candy, with plenty of room left over to easily zip the bag shut.

What I like best about the Small Zip Top Shop Bag:

The foam handles make it comfortable to carry even when it's loaded full of heavy soda cans.

Zips shut so contents don't roll around the car while driving, or spill out if the bag tips over.

Two built-in pockets on the left and right sides of the interior are great for storing tall, thin items you want to keep upright (like sunscreen, insect repellent, or resealed bottled beverages).

It folds flat, allowing you to carry it as a secondary, packable "souvenir bag" for some extra carrying capacity on the flight back from vacation.

The material sheds, dirt, sand, pet hair and water easily, and the bag can even be turned inside-out if you need to shake it clean.

When using it as a beach bag, you can use the included key strap for storing your car keys while you're in the water.

Those are the 3 bags I pack on every trip, and I hope the folks reading this might adopt one (or all three of them) into their own daily carry or travel.

So why all the enthusiasm over some bags?

For me, it's a simple answer.

These bags are what I use every day to keep the items I consider most important organized and safe, and that organization creates a comforting constant in my own life. In that way, TOM BIHN's bags become just as important to their owners as the items they hold.

Side Kick, Small Zip-Top Shop Bag, and Tri Star together

I'd like to thank Maia and <gesturing on a broad, company-wide level> TOM BIHN for being kind enough to ask me to write this blog.

If you'd like to send me a message or chat more, you can find me on the TOM BIHN Forums under the username "Chicagoan," where I'm an active member.


John J. - November 4, 2022

This is great! I love seeing how people use their bags.

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