Note: Tom Bihn sent me this bag for the purposes of this review.
Some time ago Tom Bihn released the Guide’s Pack, which looked like an old school hiking backpack, but with some modern treatments. The limiting factor with that pack, is that despite being quite good, it is far more at home in the woods than in the airport or city. That’s where this Shadow Guide comes in, the same basic design, but rethought to work better as a city and travel backpack.
What It Is
What was changed is not just the coloring of the bag, but the removal of many of the external lash points on the bag. This gives the bag a very clean look and makes it look far more simple than it really is. The backpack still maintains the internal frame and the top loading design of the original.
At 31 liters, this bag is going to be pushing the bounds of what most people will want to carry everyday, but fits in at the right size for traveling with, or for those who need to store jackets, gym clothes, or commuting clothes (bicyclists).
Top Loading Consternation
This is a top loading design, and the top closes with a simple cord to cinch it shut. Think of this entire bag like a stuff sack. There’s a religious debate to be had here about top loading versus clam shell. I am firmly a believer that clam shell backpacks are a more versatile design overall.
However, top loading backpacks have their place, typically out hiking. There are fewer components to fail on this bag design, and far lessened chances of stuff falling out if the bag is not properly secured every-time. Tom Bihn has posted an article all about this.
My take on this is simple: top loaders tend to pack faster, but offer less organization and more difficult access to the items at the bottom of the bag. Counterintuitively, top loaders require far more organizational skill than clamshell bags.
What drew me to this bag was the aesthetics, as this backpack is fantastic looking. It comes with optional red hardware for the bag allowing you to add some accents. I swapped the main drawstring cord to red, as well as a couple zipper pulls. This little hint of red that is not totally visible when the bag is packed, gives a nice nod to this bag being something more than your run of the mill bag.
I cannot say enough good things about the look of this bag, I love it.
Wear and Size
At 31 liters the bag is far bigger than anything I typically carry, but worked out perfectly for a weekend trip to the beach. The size of the bag is great, and the design even better. The top flap has three pockets in it, with the largest seeming to have infinite space. The main compartment worked really well to hold all my gear, with a hat on top — while also keeping that hat from being crushed thanks to the top loading design. (Basically if you leave room for a baseball cap, you can cinch the bag top around the hat, and it has a little cocoon in which to reside. It still could be smashed, but it’s the best I’ve ever managed in a backpack.)
Wearing the bag was very pleasant, as the bag itself is light. The internal frame balances the load well and keeps any lumps from driving you insane. The straps are classic Tom Bihn straps which are immediately comfortable and mold to your body. On my back the bag felt like a smaller backpack, but on the ground it looks huge. The depth of this bag is such that the footprint can remain small while still offering tons of space.
Amazingly an Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody will fit in the top flap pocket. It’s a huge pocket.
There’s two grab handles at the top of the bag, one for when the top flap is open, and one for when it is closed. I found both to be excellent additions and they make moving the bag around trivial.
I struggle with bags this size because they are often larger than what I need. Given that it is winter though, a bag of this size can be a boon when packing for a weekend as it afford space for your bulkier winter layers. The most deceptive thing about this bag is the size itself. It is large, and it packs large, but it doesn’t feel overly large on your back, and I am not sure why that is. Most 30+ liter bags feel like I am heading to the woods for a week when I put them on, but not that one. And that’s magical.
Attachment points for the waist belt options.
This pack offers plenty of optional extras, from the red hardware, to chest straps, waist belts, and padded waist belts. A plethora of laptop sleeves which will fit even the largest gaming laptops out there. The bag holds and impressive amount.
Packed for the weekend, with plenty of room to spare.
Also, because of the way the bag is designed, when it is less than full some of the depth can be sucked in, and the overall size of the bag made to look and carry smaller by cinching down the two straps on the front. That is really a winning feature for me. I don’t think you will get away with fitting this bag at your feet on a plane, but it should be no issue in the overhead compartment. My only one wish was that the top flap could be removed from the pack to slim the whole package down as a small tote backpack when out and about. But that is a rather minor complaint for what is otherwise an epically good backpack.
I cannot recommend this backpack enough, its fantastic. At $220, it’s priced right. Go get it.