View Full Version : Yet another bag advice thread (EDC/travel backpack for a short person)

07-20-2015, 05:26 PM
Been lurking for the last few weeks but only recently got around to creating an account. Forgive me if this is in the wrong section!

I'm very new to Tom Bihn. I just got a Large Cafe Bag for days where I can get away with just bringing in lunch, a Kindle or book, a water bottle, and an umbrella to work, and for wandering around on weekends with just those items. I love it and want to get another bag, which has gotten me here.

I'm looking for a backpack that can serve as both my EDC and travel bag. I'm on the short side--5'3"--and would rather not look like a turtle with my bag on my back (my 10 year old LL Bean Turbo Transit already does this exceptionally well!). I also walk about 1.5 miles to work every day since I don't have a car. So far, the Synapse 25, Smart Alec, and Brain Bag have caught my eye.

My standard EDC:

iPad 3
18 oz Hydro Flask
Ms. Bento lunch jar (since I couldn't find much mention of this in terms of how they fit upright in bags, here are the dimensions according to Amazon: 8.13 inches x 4.38 inches x 4.97 inches)
16 oz Zojirushi tea thermos
Umbrella or packable raincoat
Various bits and bobs
On days where I need extra caffeine, I add another 16 oz thermos for coffee to the mix.
A few thin notebooks and folders

Sometimes carried: Gym clothes/shoes, groceries

I also travel a bit by plane, train, and bus. I don't think I'd be considered an 'ultralight' traveller, but I managed to pack everything I needed into a rolling carry on and a messenger bag (which mostly housed my electronics: iPad and keyboard, Kindle, chargers and cables) on my most recent trips (both 1-2 weeks in length). I'd like to be able to replace the rolling bag with the backpack.

I have a few questions for owners of any of the bags I mentioned above. I'm open to other suggestions, but my budget is admittedly rather limited at the moment so I'm unable to get more than one bag.

Synapse 25 questions:

Would the Ms. Bento jar fit? My impression is that the Synapse is more geared towards rectangular/flat objects, rather than cylindrical ones.

How much space would be left for other things?
Is it possible to fit two water bottles in the water bottle compartment?

Smart Alec questions:

What do you use to organise the interior for everyday/travel use?
Is it difficult to fish items out from the bottom of the bag? Looking at the pictures on the store site, it doesn't seem like it opens as much as the Synapse, but I could be mistaken.

Brain Bag questions:

How small/thin can it get when compressed?
Has anyone travelled with this or used it as their daypack? I'm a little concerned that it looks on the 'touristy' side with all the straps and clips.

All three bags:

How padded is the back?
Does it fit under plane seats?

I was leaning towards the Synapse for a while until I wondered whether the bento jar and water bottles would be able to fit comfortably in there with everything else. Then I started drifting towards the Smart Alec but worried that my budget wouldn't allow for much customisation beyond getting the bag and possibly an upper modular pocket. I also liked the idea of having a dedicated spot for water bottles. My biggest concern with the Brain Bag is that it would be too big/overkill for EDC.

Thanks in advance for any insight!

07-20-2015, 05:48 PM
Welcome to the forums, @defi,

To get you started, here are a few threads to check:

• Who says short people can't carry big bags? (http://forums.tombihn.com/photos-videos-and-reviews/6246-who-says-short-people-cant-carry-big-bags.html)
• Photo Request: Smart Alec on a 5'3" person (http://forums.tombihn.com/photos-videos-and-reviews/7567-photo-request-smart-alec-53-person.html)

There are a couple of threads where people have posted pictures of a Zojurushi tea thermos in the water bottle pockets of Synapses, and there was also mention of the Bento lunch jars by @NWHikergal in the Lunchbox for Synapse 19? (http://forums.tombihn.com/general-bag-discussion/9513-lunchbox-synapse-19-a-2.html) thread. I'll try to pull up a few more references, but others will probably jump in with comments, since there have also been some recent posts similar to your request.



07-20-2015, 07:21 PM
I will offer my own, very biased opinion. I'm a 5'2" woman, if that helps.

I love, love, love the Smart Alec. Specifically for travels, when I use it as a carryon. The large main compartment, without any internal organization, makes it easier to fit all my stuff inside. On my last flight overseas it carried a few changes of clothes and my toiletries, in case my checked suitcase got lost. (Which it did, but that's another story.) Last week I wore it to work because I was visiting a toy store in the evening. It fit my complete haul (a board game, two stuffed animals, kids' binoculars and a toy truck) with no problem. For me, it always feels like a large backpack, but the bungee cords in the front will let you shrink it down a bit if you are not carrying a lot inside. What I personally do NOT use it for, though, is an every-day carry bag. I find it annoying to have to swing it off my back to get at stuff, and, perhaps due to my height, can not pull things out of the main compartment without first setting it down, which I sometimes find awkward. In fact, I now prefer shoulder bags for this reason, or if needed, a small backpack.

I have owned a Synapse 25 in the past, and thinks that it might work better as a commuting bag because it has a lot of smaller compartments to make it easier to grab something you need. Like a water, coffee, or wallet. I gave mine up, though, because I wasn't using it enough for travel, and as mentioned, prefer shoulder bags for commuting. And due to my height, the Synapse 25 always felt a little too long to wear comfortably.

By contrast, the Smart Alec seems to be sized a bit better for shorter people in terms of the length. It really is one big cavernous space, with the exception of items that you place in the side pockets, or on the top if you have the upper modular pocket. It does unzip completely -- maybe you can see the U-shaped zipper in photos -- to allow complete access to the interior. There is a really good discussion here on how to organize the interior. (http://forums.tombihn.com/questions-about-bags/9958-slicing-dicing-smart-alec-internals.html?highlight=smart+alec) The reality for me is that I will fill it with stuff and generally not expect to access most of the items until I arrive at my destination. Anything I think I will need on my flight or whatever gets placed in the top, or in one of the pockets. I keep my super-important items, such as my wallet, phone and passport, in a Side Effect which generally remains separate.

I can't speak to the Brain Bag because I have never owned one.

Both the Smart Alec and the Synapse 25 should fit under an airline seat. A normal seat, anyway. Sometimes there is an AV box or bar or something that prevents the space from being available. Both bags are well-padded. Both are, in my mind, pretty streamlined and low-key for tourists, depending on the color you choose. (Though at the risk of sounding like a broken record, when I need a day bag for touring I tend to use a smaller backpack or a shoulder bag.)

07-20-2015, 07:36 PM
My Smart Alec, (in a retired color), with a bunch of toys inside. Unzipped for the photo. I was able to easily fit everything in with the top closed.


07-20-2015, 07:59 PM
I'm also a 5'2" female and I carry an Synapse 25 when I need a big backpack. I prefer the Synapse 19, which could also likely handle your EDC (probably including the shoes but not the groceries) but maybe not travel unless you're willing to commit pretty hard to going ultralight. However, there are days when I need the extra capacity of the S25, and that works pretty well even if I am short. I can't comment on either the Smart Alec or the Brain Bag as I've never used them.

Synapse 25 questions:

Would the Ms. Bento jar fit? My impression is that the Synapse is more geared towards rectangular/flat objects, rather than cylindrical ones.

Yes. The S25 has a pretty cavernous main compartment and can easily handle items with depth. You might have to put a bit of thought into how you pack a round item in there to avoid having it dig into your back, but that's not hard - probably putting the notebooks and folders behind the jar would do it.

(ETA this photo)
Here's a photos from my 16-oz Zojirushi thermos standing up in the main compartment (the bag is otherwise empty). I hope this gives a better sense of the size of this bag.


How much space would be left for other things?

A lot, though it depends how big the raincoat and "bits and bobs" are. This bag really is bigger on the inside.

Is it possible to fit two water bottles in the water bottle compartment?

My 16-oz Zojirushi thermos is quite tall and narrow. I could fit two of them into the water bottle pocket easily as long as the pockets on either side weren't too full. This photo is extra crappy, but I put my thermos off to the right side and you can still see that there's quite a bit of "floor" of this compartment left over - definitely enough for another of the same thermos. This wouldn't fly as well in the S19.


All three bags:
How padded is the back?

The S25 has a very nicely padded back. I'm not sure how thick the padding is but I generally don't feel things in the bag against my back as long as I take a little bit of care to pack things nicely.

Does it fit under plane seats?

The S25 will fit pretty easily under a seat though it might take up a lot of the foot room especially if there's also an AV box.

07-20-2015, 09:34 PM
I only have a Smart Alec and a Synapse 19, so I can't speak exactly to all your candidate bags (though I've seen the BB and S25 in person). Off the top of my head: I would say the SA is the most versatile, in that its shape allows you to put many different types of items inside (groceries, clothing, subwoofers (http://forums.tombihn.com/just-for-registered-members/8665-whats-most-unusual-thing-youve-put-your-tb-bag.html#post83744) :)); but it's not so big that it would overwhelm your EDC. Also, I am 5' tall and a fully-stuffed SA is about as much weight as I want to carry for a 1.5 mile walk. I would not be happy with a full BB on my shoulders. :)

Since you have a Large Cafe Bag: If you are a committed minimalist traveler, I'd say for a quick trip (up to a week), the LCB can be your EDC and the SA could carry all your clothes and toiletries up to your destination, after which you'd unload and then could use the SA for day trips if you wanted a backpack. You could still use the same setup for a two-week trip, you'd just have to do laundry. I do know from experience that the SA fits nicely under airplane seats.

In terms of organization: Ideally you have at least one packing cube that is roughly the same height as the SA, so as to maximize space. I wouldn't start out with the Upper Modular Pocket, that's more of the 'cherry on top' in my opinion and adds to the weight. Instead, I'd use large or extra-large Ziplocs to organize your travel gear while in transit. (Later you can upgrade the Ziplocs with Organizer Pouches and matching key straps.) For papers, you could use sturdy poly pocket folders to group things. Mostly, I try to make sure that everything I put into my SA is tall and skinny, so that I can see an edge from the top and don't have to unpack everything to get at what's on the bottom.

Hope you find the Tom Bihn bag you love!!

07-20-2015, 09:51 PM
You may find this helpful :

Sent from my SM-N910V using Tapatalk

07-20-2015, 10:42 PM
In my Synapse 25, I have a Mr. Bento, which is a bit bigger than the Ms. Bento, and it fits in the main compartment just fine. In the picture, I have a size 3 stuff sack to the right of it to kind of counter-balance things. Also in the photo, you can't see it, but there's a change of clothes underneath the Mr. Bento and the stuff sack - definitely room for gym clothes or a jacket.

In this photo, I have two 16oz Zojirushi travel mugs in the water bottle pocket. It's not a tight squeeze, but as terayon mentioned, the side pockets can't be jammed with stuff.

As long as everything is evenly distributed, it's pretty comfy :) I'm 5' 4" if that helps anything!

07-20-2015, 11:10 PM
For fun, I tried to simulate putting some of your bulky items in my Synapse 25 (S25)

A 22oz Lifefactory Glass bottle will fit in the middle pocket AND 2 Zojirushi 16 oz steel mugs in the side pockets with some room to spare for a pouch (long and thinnish, YMMV). The Steel mugs need to be pushed a bit (not a problem IMHO) to clear the top of the side pocket zippers but you should have no problem with your tea version which is a 1/2" shorter if I am looking at the right version.

Additionally, I took a Whey powder bottle (9.25" x 5" diameter) to simulate your Ms. Bento and was able to put it sideways into the bottom pocket - given you are ok to put the food container sideways. Otherwise, @altruisticRobot's picture shows it fits in the main compartment well (great shots). If you put your Ms. Bento in the bottom pocket and the Hydroflask / thermoses up top, this leaves your main compartment free for your other items (though you could probably fit some beside the bentobox or thermoses as well and there is the front top pocket).

The Smart Alec (SA) would hold all your stuff easily and using the builtin zippered flap pockets, packing cubes, Guide's Pack Lead Pocket (GPLP), Side Effect (SE) or even some pouches hooked to the O-Rings would help keep things organized in it. I am 5'11" and male so I cannot comment on how "big" it will look on you but the links from @moriond are excellent to see how it fits. The only thing I can say is that if you pack vertically (ie do not push everything unstructured and into the bottom), it can have a very narrow and clean side profile:


For the Brain Bag (BB), I would say that it can be made to be "unturtle" like. However, it is a wide backpack (14" vs 11.75" for the SA and 13.4" for the S25 which is teardrop shaped) and square. IMHO, it works best with wide shouldered frames.


As far as comfort, I have found the SA to be the most comfortable for me.

Hope this helps


Edit: I forgot to mention - when my "fake Ms.Bento" was in the bottom S25 pocket, it fit easily but that is because the pocket will allow "bulging out" as well as dipping into the main compartment. It created a bit of a "roll" at the bottom - It reminded me of what some people get when they get older (ie - the tummy roll I currently have :) and trying to reduce - btw, it is sometimes called a Molson muscle in Canada - Molson being a popular brand of beer!). It was in no way bad looking but just FYI.

07-21-2015, 03:30 PM
I'm 4"11" and have traveled with the Brain Bag. It was my everyday carry for a quite awhile until I got the ID messenger bag (I like them better for everyday).

The Brain Bag can hold everything you mentioned and then some, will fit under the seats of most airlines, even when full. It will pack down pretty well if you can get things spread out vertically (they tend to want to fall to the bottom of the bag. I have no idea if I looked like a turtle though.

As tpnl mentioned, it is a better bag for wider frames. The shoulder straps will slip off unless I use the sternum strap. The bottom sits below my hips, so if there's something hard and boxy, it will slap my tail bone. (ETA: I don't use the waist strap, which would probably manage things like that better)

It travels really well and I prefer it for occasional use rather than everyday. Without heavy electronics, it is a breeze to carry and compresses really well. I've used daypacks before and hated all the straps and such. I don't find the Brain Bag has that issue and isn't very touristy. Let me edit this again: What I like most about the Brain Bag is the profile. It doesn't look like most backpacks. It's symmetrical, rather than asymmetrical - if that makes sense. So, I don't think it looks like a tourist bag at all.

I think I should point out, though, that it has two compartments, rather than a single open compartment; so there are things it won't do well that perhaps an SA or Synapse is better tailored to.

07-21-2015, 03:54 PM
(as an aside - love how sparkly your NW Sky stuff sack looks in your pic! :))

07-21-2015, 05:59 PM
(as an aside - love how sparkly your NW Sky stuff sack looks in your pic! :))

I second that! Please make more stuff in NW Sky and Island!

07-21-2015, 09:36 PM
Thank you all so much for your responses! I really appreciate the photos, simulations, and comments-- I hadn't realised the Synapse 25 had such a large main compartment, nor did I know that the Brain Bag was so wide! I don't have a very wide frame, so that's very helpful to know. Looks like I'll be deciding between the Synapse and the Smart Alec-- the built-in organisation of the Synapse is definitely appealing but the increased customizability of the Smart Alec also seems great (and the slightly shorter height seems like it would be more comfortable). I'll probably pay more careful attention as to how I pack things (and maybe check what I usually pack for travel) to help me decide which one would best fit my needs.
Thanks again to everyone for your help!

07-21-2015, 09:40 PM

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07-21-2015, 10:14 PM
You might find the photos on this thread useful - post #18 (http://forums.tombihn.com/general-bag-discussion/9691-help-choosing-bag-middle-schooler-2.html#post100865) (grey S25 on 5-ft 12yo) and post # 22 (http://forums.tombihn.com/general-bag-discussion/9691-help-choosing-bag-middle-schooler-2.html#post100873) (aubergine Smart Alec on my almost 5-ft 11 yo).

07-23-2015, 08:05 AM
Thank you all so much for your responses! I really appreciate the photos, simulations, and comments-- I hadn't realised the Synapse 25 had such a large main compartment, nor did I know that the Brain Bag was so wide! I don't have a very wide frame, so that's very helpful to know. Looks like I'll be deciding between the Synapse and the Smart Alec-- the built-in organisation of the Synapse is definitely appealing but the increased customizability of the Smart Alec also seems great (and the slightly shorter height seems like it would be more comfortable). I'll probably pay more careful attention as to how I pack things (and maybe check what I usually pack for travel) to help me decide which one would best fit my needs.
Thanks again to everyone for your help!

Any particular reason you are not considering Synapse 19?

07-24-2015, 10:30 PM
Oops, apologies for my belated response.

The Synapse 19 seems too small for how I travel (carry-on only with trips usually ranging anywhere from 4-12 days). I'm not an ultralight traveller-- perhaps somewhat-light at best. It certainly seems like it would be sufficient for my EDC, but I'm looking for a bag that can fulfil both my EDC and travel capacity needs.

08-16-2015, 07:13 PM
Just a quick update:

I wound up ordering the Smart Alec, partly due to comments about its comfort for shorter people vs the Synapse 25 and partly for its versatility. It came in last week and wow, it certainly is one giant cavern! (I may have stuck my head in there on a whim, haha.) The lack of much preset internal organisation is a little intimidating and might take a little longer to get used to than I expected (I admit to sometimes wishing I'd gone for the Synapse instead because I'm more familiar with more built-in organising things but I can see already that the Smart Alec is easily packable for travel-- I'll be going abroad for 2 weeks next month and can't wait to travel with it). I've been reading the "Slicing and Dicing Smart Alec Internals" thread bchaplin linked and am planning on picking up some pouches eventually as well.

I have one more confession to make: I have a Field Journal Notebook on the way now as well. I was going to pick up a Side Effect and possibly a Lower Modular Pocket (to hang on the inside) or Freudian Slip since I'd overestimated some costs in my budget but the notebook looked perfect for my weekend wanderings. I'm beginning to understand why this company has such a loyal following!

Anyway, thanks for all your help, everyone!

08-16-2015, 10:22 PM
Can we ask which color combinations you got for the Smart Alec and the Field Journal Notebook? (Pictures would be even more appreciated, since we like to experience your choices vicariously). I'd actually recommend the Upper Modular Pocket(UMP) for the Smart Alec before the Lower Modular Pocket, since this is one of the improved features over the previous version of the Smart Alec (you can easily access items in the UMP without opening up the rest of your bag; also, if you're traveling and stash the bag under the seat in front of you, adding the UMP doesn't affect the ability to store your bag there, whereas the lower modular pocket might have to be unhooked before you can store it).

Hope this helps (HTH)


08-19-2015, 02:47 PM
I got the Black/Steel/Iberian since at the time of my order, it looked like Black/Black/Iberian (or was it Black/Black/Steel) was sold out and I wasn't sure whether it would be back in time for my trip. Grey was the only colour left for the Field Journal Notebook, which is fine with me since I tend to prefer neutral/muted/dark colours anyway. I'm liking Steel a lot more than I expected! The pictures on my monitor show it as a very light bluish-grey but it's much darker in person.

I'll see if I can take and attach pictures, but my phone camera has been very fickle these last few months and isn't usually cooperative.

Thanks for the tip moriond! I'll keep that in mind for planning my next order. There are so many customisation options available-- it's both exciting and intimidating!

10-10-2015, 08:56 AM
Final update!

The Smart Alec was great for my 2-week trip. I used a Sea to Summit compression sack for my clothes, stuffed that into my Large Cafe Bag (Black/Steel), and then put that into my Smart Alec. I packed my underclothes in a plastic bag and used it to fill extra space in the SA. I slid my iPad 3 along the back of the SA and kept charging cords, converters, and a small power strip in one of the top pouches under the "lid" of the SA. The other pouch held some toiletries and 3-1-1 bag. Side pockets held a large-ish Anker portable battery on one side and solid shampoo and conditioner and a rolled-up Platypus bottle on the other. Upon arrival at the airport, I clipped my keys to one of the o-rings in the SA and just left them there for the duration of the trip. I also had some miscellaneous bits (chapstick, granola bars, flashlight tethered to a keystrap) jammed here and there and in a small (Navy) organizer pouch (clipped to another o-ring-- I love o-rings!) I picked up before I left. I also managed to get a Side Effect (Black/Steel-- I'm very boring when it comes to colours) to accompany me as my personal item. The SA was a little stuffed but fit comfortably under the seat in front of me.

On the way back, I picked up a lot of snacks/souvenirs and wound up having the SA as my personal item and partially filled a hastily-purchased cheap rolling carryon with aforementioned snacks/souvenirs and some dirty laundry I was too lazy to wash before returning. I stopped by my relatives' place in NYC and saw a few Broadway shows (Fun Home in particular stood out to me-- its Best Musical/Book/Score/Direction Tony wins are well-deserved, and over half the cast received Tony nominations (with one Lead Actor win) for excellent reason-- everything about the production is phenomenal and so moving). I have a peculiar habit of getting souvenir mugs for musicals/plays/events that I find particularly meaningful to me. To my utter surprise, two mugs wound up in my SA (I'm amazed there was still space for them, though at that point I did have the LCB out of the SA and carried some snacks/souvenirs with it). I'm so glad I did that because my rollaboard seems to have disappeared enroute when I took a Greyhound bus home.

Anyway, the Smart Alec is an incredible bag for travel.

It's also almost perfect for my every day use. It took a little while for me to get used to but after picking up a Freudian Slip, a few extra organising pouches, and a few stuff sacks (size 3 in Steel which fits my Ms. Bento Jar and a size 4 in Northwest Sky which is absolutely gorgeous and has more than enough space to store my gym clothes), I love it. I can bring my tablet, keyboard, Kindle, notebooks, pens/pencils/fountain pens, a few heavy books (new addition from my original post), light jacket, and cylindrical bento jar in to the main compartment of the Smart Alec and still have room for more stuff. My umbrella is kept on the outside of the bag with the bungees, and I keep my water bottle and tea tumbler next to each other in a side pocket and my portable battery is in the other side pocket. Since it gets dark earlier now, I just placed an order for an Aqua Glowire and Guardian Light when I'll be walking home after dark (there are a few awful intersections on my path where visibility is quite obstructed for motorists and pedestrians alike). I plan on purchasing an Upper Modular Pocket when it becomes available in Steel and am also considering getting a small Shop Bag as well since it seems like it could come in handy for grocery days.

These bags are amazing. And addicting. I never knew bags could be addicting.