The Shadow Guide 23 is a top-loader backpack that’s available in two sizes — 23 liters (you’re here now) and 33 liters. There's a lot that's new in this pack, including a new back panel design that reduces weight and increases air flow. The included (yet removable) internal frame w/aluminum stay saves weight without sacrificing the integrity of the frame itself. The Shadow Guide utilizes our Edgeless Shoulder Straps, which first debuted in 2019 and have garnered a reputation for a new level of comfort.
The built-in laptop compartment with an exterior side access zipper fits an even wider range of laptops than the Synik 22/Synik 30 thanks to the Shadow Guide's rectangular back panel. It has three quick-access zipper pockets for small items and one spacious main compartment that cinches closed with a drawstring. Back to the zippers for a second — all of the zippers on this pack are reversed YKK Racquet Coil zippers with a C6 Durable Water Repellant (DWR) coating. You’ll find that these zippers offer good weather and abrasion resistance and zip open/shut like butter. We’ve snipped the metal zipper pulls off and replaced them with cord pulls so you don’t have to.
This is a pack for those who appreciate simplicity and spaciousness. There’s less going on to distract you from the bones of the pack — and the bones (shoulder straps, frame, back panel, materials, main compartment) are arguably what matters most.
Want to learn more? Read on for our Shadow Guide FAQ:
Is the Shadow Guide lined?
The bottom of the interior main compartment and the back panel of the bag are lined with our 210d ballistic nylon. The rest of the main compartment — the interior of the front of the bag — is not lined, as we felt it would add unnecessary weight without much benefit.
That new back panel looks interesting. Please explain.
The Shadow Guide is the first bag to feature this new back panel design; that’s part of the reason it has the Design Lab label (more on that below.)
The new back panel design is intended to save weight and improve airflow, and be very abrasion-resistant while not being abrasive itself. Abrasion-resistant is always good, but some folks don’t like how tough materials can abrade finer wool clothing and the like. We tested various meshes — and then we worked with our mesh supplier to spec a mesh that checked all the boxes. We also asked our supplier to skip one of the last “finishing” steps during which a mesh is stiffened.
We typically have our meshes stiffened a bit because it makes them easier to cut and sew. In this application, we wanted the mesh to be as soft as possible since it will rest against clothing or even bare skin. It’s a bit harder to work with in the factory, but we think it’s worth the trouble.
For a back panel mesh, it’s important to reduce the chance that the material will abrade your clothes and skipping the stiffening step did just that in our tests and trials.
We call it a skeleton panel because, instead of the back panel being a solid rectangular piece of foam, it’s cut in a spine-like shape so that it provides all of the usual comfort with less of the weight and improves airflow.
No, this new back panel won’t ensure you don’t experience any sweat whatsoever if you run through the airport or hike up hill in the summer; that’s just an aspect of wearing a backpack and, well, being human. (Just be glad we can sweat; it’s actually a very healthy thing!)
We’ve been testing this back panel on some prototype Shadow Guides for over a year now and are pleased with its durability and slightly increased air flow; we’re looking forward to hearing how it works for you.
Can you describe the internal frame further?
The Shadow Guide internal frame is made of die-cut .055” thick High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), with a nylon webbing sleeve sewn down the center that encases a 8-1/4" / 210mm tall and 1/2” / 13mm wide 6061 aluminum stay.
We’ve bent the stay to a generic spinal curve that is likely to work for most people. If you really want to, you can re-bend and/or adjust the curvature (see here for instructions). If you just want a frame sheet, the stay is removable, though it's worth noting that a frame sheet sans aluminum stay does just about nada when it comes to shifting the weight of the pack onto one's hips. (Read more about that here in our Guide To Backpack Frames.)
Why does the Shadow Guide have an aluminum half-stay instead of a full length stay?
When we walk, hike, ride a motorcycle or bike, our back and spine bend and curve with us. Many people find wearing a backpack that bends with them to be more comfortable. And many people also find that some measure of support and structure to a back panel also increases comfort — that structure could be provided by an internal frame with an aluminum stay or, if the bag in question doesn’t have an internal frame, a different kind of structure/support can be achieved by thoughtfully packing your items in the bag.
The transition in backpacking packs from external to internal frames in the decades of the 70’s - 90’s was partly fueled by this desire for a pack that moves with you, but also provides structure.
In our experience, an internal frame without a stay of some kind (simply a “frame sheet”) doesn’t offer a whole lot more than a careful packing job would. That’s why all of our internal frames feature aluminum stays.
Our Guide’s Pack features a full-length aluminum stay; the HDPE of the frame sheet itself is cut in a spine-like design that is intended to bend and flex with you, though the amount that can happen is somewhat mitigated by the full stay itself.
When designing the Synik, we decided to experiment with a half-stay — we wanted to determine if it would save weight (it did) and whether it offered the same stability we enjoyed from the full-stay (yes, for the majority of folks) and whether it helped the pack itself feel like it was moving more with us, more in-sync with our movements (yeah!)
There is one potential drawback (depending on how you pack your Shadow Guide) to the half-stay — if you pack the top pocket with heavy things and the rest of the pack isn’t packed very full, you set the bag down on the ground, and then you unclip the top pocket and flip it open, the back panel may end up bending. This potential drawback is unique to the Shadow Guide because of its top pocket.
All that considered, Nik ended up choosing to keep the half-stay internal frame design with the Shadow Guide 23 — he felt the increased comfort of the bag on the back (this was especially noticeable to him when riding his motorcycle to work) was most important. And, after all, this is a pack that very specifically has a canted bottom that tends to push the load closer to the wearer’s back — as opposed to having a flat bottom that would allow the pack to stand up on its own.
What works best for you is, of course, up to you. As always, we welcome your feedback.
There’s a new label design on the Shadow Guide 23/33. What’s the Design Lab? What are the three dots?
The Design Lab edition label is rectangular and slightly smaller than our original label. It has a black background with dark grey text in the foreground; the text is TOM BIHN followed by Design Lab. Next to Design Lab, there are three dots —the therefore sign.
The Shadow Guide is the first bag we’ve made with our new Design Lab label. Think of bags with the Design Lab label as our experimental side projects — sometimes they’ll be bags we just wanted to make for our own use (Nik designed the Shadow Guide largely for himself) and sometimes they’ll be variations of designs you've requested. Design Lab bags might be made out of limited edition or small batch fabrics or materials; they might be totally utilitarian or akin to a bag-version of some head-scratching experimental jazz.
Regardless of any of that, Design Lab offerings may or may not become regular offerings, and depending on the quantity we’re able to make, they may or may not sell out quickly. We're not trying to be coy; it's simply that we need to focus our production capacity on what people are most interested in.
Is the Shadow Guide limited edition?
Perhaps. Part of the idea behind Design Lab edition bags is that it gives us some flexibility around whether we offer a new bag for one production run or several. That flexibility is increasingly important for a few reasons. First, Tom and Nik are rather prolific bag designers; as we type this, they've already finished 2-5 new designs that are likely to debut in the next six months. Second, our production capacity is now split between bags and our efforts to design, make, and donate cloth face masks (we even got to play a small role in a study on cloth face mask materials.)
Can you describe the laptop compartment and what laptops fit?
The laptop compartment of the Shadow Guide is suspended off the bottom of the bag, and that means your laptop is suspended off the bottom of the bag, too. That suspension is much more effective if you don't remove the included Shadow Guide internal frame: a soft, frameless bag offers nothing from which to suspend the laptop. Worth noting: the bottom of the Shadow Guide is padded, so there's that extra peace of mind as well.
The laptop compartment itself is made with 2 layers of 1/8" 2lb closed-cell (CXL2) foam. The bottom and back panel, both of which also provide padding for your device, are made with 1/4" 2lb closed-cell (CXL2) foam.
Because the back panel shape of the Shadow Guide is rectangular, we can make the zipper access to the exterior laptop compartment longer, which means both sizes will fit a wider range of laptops/devices than the Synik 22 or Synik 30.
The Shadow Guide 23 liter easily fits 13” laptops and it may fit some thinner, smaller footprint 15” laptops, such as the last edition of the 15” MacBook Pro. It's worth noting that the Shadow Guide 23 does not comfortably fit the 16” MacBook Pro.
The Shadow Guide 33 liter fits all 15” laptops and many of the smaller 17” laptops such as the Dell XPS 17”.
Why is the bottom of the Shadow Guide slanted? Wouldn’t it make more sense to make it flat?
We think it’s important to design and engineer backpacks so that they’re comfortable to wear on your back. Designing a backpack so it can stand up on its own like a briefcase or tote bag is secondary to that; in other words, if designing a backpack so it stands up on its own would sacrifice comfort or your ability to wear it long-term, we won’t go that route.
The Guide’s Pack was designed by Tom as a tribute to the hiking packs that he used in the 1970’s — those packs often featured bottoms that are slanted to shift the weight of the backpack towards the user as opposed to pulling the weight of the backpack away from the user.
Some of you have written to us over the years disputing whether that’s really a difference that would make a difference. When we’re faced with a difference of opinion and we have the opportunity to reevaluate our opinion/answer, we like to take it — so, we made a version of the Shadow Guide with a flat bottom. The difference was immediately noticeable; the flat-bottom Shadow Guide pulled away from our backs and was much less comfortable to wear.
You might also ask why we didn't add load lifters to this pack; we answer this in the blog post; Our Thoughts On Load Lifters
You moved the zipper access to the top pocket from the front to the back. I either love that or don’t. Explain.
In brief — that top pocket zipper is placed on the front of the top pocket of The Guide’s Pack because the assumption is that you’re going to use that pack for day-hiking or even a minimal overnight trip. And if you’re doing either of those two things, The Guide’s Pack is going to be packed pretty full and you might even have stowed a sleeping pad or jacket between the top pocket and the main pocket — and when packed full, the top pocket will swing upwards and the same zipper opening that was previously at the bottom of the pocket is now at the top of the pocket. That’s a convenient place for it to be when you’re out hiking and stop on the trail to grab a snack or a hat from the top pocket. Read our blog post Design Beyond "Fortuitous Contrivings" for more on this topic.
While the Shadow Guide can certainly be used for hiking, it’s also got a laptop compartment — and we figure most of you won’t be packing theShadow Guide totally full or stowing a sleeping pad underneath the top pocket, so Nik moved the top pocket zipper to the back of the top pocket. That makes it easier to access when the bag isn’t packed full.
Some of you will prefer the top pocket zipper on the front and some of you will prefer it on the back. As always, feel free to let us know what works best for you and your individual use/experience.
Can you add more exterior pockets to the Shadow Guide?
If we did, it’d be more like the Brain Bag, Synapse 19 / 25 or Synik 22 / 30. We'd recommend taking a look at those packs instead.
Where would I pack my stuff in the Shadow Guide?
Laptop in the laptop compartment (of course.)
Small stuff — keys, wallet, phone, flashlight, first-aid kit, snacks, hat, gloves, or anything else you’d want to be able to access quickly — is stowed in the top pocket or one of its two smaller zippered organizational pockets. Tip: put your phone in one of the two zippered organizational pockets under the top pocket and you’ll be able to zip that pocket open/retrieve your phone without opening the bag.
The main compartment of the Shadow Guide is big and open — it’s ready for the largest of the large water bottles, a big lunch, groceries, a growler, mail/packages from the P.O. Box, or whatever else needs to be stowed. Put your jacket or sweater on top of that stuff and you’re good to go.
The big objects we mentioned above — water bottle, packages, etc. — can be more difficult to stuff in the main compartment of a pack if there’s edges of built-in pockets for them to catch on. For many folks, the quick-access top pockets of the Shadow Guide will offer plenty of space for smaller items that wouldn’t be stowed in the big main compartment. You can, of course, add your own additional organization to the pack — see the next question.
Can you make the Shadow Guide with a clamshell opening?
No. This is a top-loader pack. If you’re looking for a backpack with clamshell opening, we'd recommend the Synik 22 or Synik 30
Is the Shadow Guide suitable for hiking?
In our experience, it is. It has a built-in laptop compartment which of course isn’t necessary (promise us you won’t bring your laptop with you on a hike) but besides that, it’s a great pack for hiking; remember, the design of the Shadow Guide is based off of The Guide’s Pack. Though Nik has a Guide’s Pack and typically uses that for hikes, he’s hiked with the Shadow Guide over the past year to test the new back panel. It isn’t an ultralight pack, but not everyone wants/needs that — and, hey, it’s worth remembering that carrying a few extra ounces means you’re getting that much more of a workout.
Is it recommended for travel? How about for everyday use?
You bet. Nik takes his Shadow Guide to the factory whether he’s driving his car or riding his motorcycle — and on days when he’s working from home, he’ll sometimes pack his laptop and work stuff and go to an outdoor cafe or other outdoor space with Wi-Fi.
Its main compartment easily swallows a few sets of clothes and a pair of shoes for travel. Reducing the amount of build in the main compartment means you can fit more in it.
Which size of Shadow Guide should I get?
Like our Synapse 19 / Synapse 25 and Synik 22 / Synik 30, the Shadow Guide is available in two sizes: 23 liters and 33 liters.
In our experience, most people tend to choose their everyday carry/travel/day-hiking pack size based on the volume it can hold, which sizes of laptop the pack can fit, and/or whether they want to carry a bigger pack or a smaller pack -- and that’s what we would recommend you do.
Some folks choose to apply the advice for fitting larger multi-day backpacking packs to smaller packs like ours. That advice is to measure your torso length and compare it with the length of the backpack itself. This advice is based in part on the idea that you’re going to be utilizing a padded hip belt to shift some of the weight of the larger pack on to your hips — and that works better if the length of the pack is close to the length of your torso. (For more, see our blog post: A Brief History of Padded Hip Belts.)
We offer an optional Shadow Guide Padded Hip Belt for those of you who would like to use one; and if you do, you may want to follow the advice of measuring your torso and comparing it to the back panels of the Shadow Guide 23 (measures:) and Shadow Guide 33 (measures:)
Over the past 30 years or so, we’ve seen that many folks (including ourselves here at TB) can comfortably carry a everyday/day-hiking size pack that’s a bit longer or shorter than the length of their torso.
To determine the best size of Shadow Guide for you, we would recommend looking at the size of backpacks you currently own that you find comfortable, comparing them to the two Shadow Guide options and considering what you plan to carry.
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