Note: Tom Bihn sent me these bags to gather early feedback, and allow me time to review them fully.
For almost a decade, Tom Bihn’s Synapse lineup of backpacks have found themselves among the top performers for true backpack nerds. I had my father review it last year and I posted my review a while later, but despite the fact that those are all recent posts — it’s been around.
The chief request of Tom Bihn over all those years of success with the Synapse has been: to make it a clam shell opening. You see with backpacks there’s three camps of people: those whose prefer top-loading backpacks (roughly what the Synapse is, but more Shadow Guide), those who prefer a full opening clam shell like the GORUCK GR1, and of course there are those with no preference who don’t actually qualify as backpack nerds. The Synapse always sat a bit in the middle, never quite satisfying any one group, but roughly working for every group. In that way it was clever.
But now we have the Synik, which is (to overly simplify things) the Synapse with a clam shell style opening. And oh my, is it something worth writing about.
What it is
The new Synik bags are clam shell style (they unzip fully so you can open the entire bag) bags which come in 30L and 22L variants. They are based on the Synapse, so at first glance they look the same. The footprints remain the same as their sister Synapse bags, however they are both deeper — which is where the extra volume comes in.
Some of this depth is because the bags now have an integrated laptop compartment at the rear of the bag which can be accessed both from inside the bag in a top loaded opening, or from the side of the bag.
Crucially, these bags utilize a completely new shoulder strap system. Whereas the standard Tom Bihn shoulder straps for backpacks are minimal, but durable and comfortable, these new straps add a touch more bulk and a massive amount of comfort. In short, these new straps are a significant upgrade and are generally stellar.
The 30L Synik I tested and am reviewing is basically a bag which was not quite full on prototype, and not quite pre-production ready. Somewhere in the middle. Because of that ignore any fit and finish issues in the pictures, as those have no basis in reality. The production version is close enough that I will steer clear of any points which changed.
The 22L variant is a production ready version, so we are good to go there.
Thoughts on the Design in General
The big thing with this backpack is the full clamshell style opening, and for good reason — it’s the reason people will be drawn to these bags. I am an advocate for full clamshells because they have none of the down sides of top-loaders and all of the benefits. The Synik is no exception, the clamshell design is fantastic, enough said.
The one issue I ran into was the inner pocket is a pouch and is on the flap portion of the backpack. This pouch can launch your items out of the bag if you haphazardly fling the top of the bag open when you are unpacking your stuff in your office. Not that I would know that first hand or anything.
Inside the bag, there are now two straps which run horizontally for securing the items in the bag (both are removable). These are fantastic when packing clothing for travel, and equally great for packing a light jacket when going to and from work. I’ve also used them to secure extra devices in the bag. I didn’t think much of these straps when I first got the bags, but I quickly found them to be very useful — now I want them in other bags.
Previously, Tom Bihn bags required you to buy an additional padded sleeve for device protection — selling their own variant “the Cache”, the Synik forgoes this and instead offers a dedicated laptop compartment. On the 30, it is ample in size, on the 22, I found it snug to get my 12.9” iPad Pro (old style) in, and ideal for a 13” MacBook Pro (current generation). What’s more is that this pocket is accessible from both inside the bag, as well as from the side of the bag on the outside. And that outside pocket is a huge usability gain for this bag.
I never actually used the inner access to the laptop compartment after the first test, instead preferring the external access. It’s been a long time coming, and I am glad it is there. (Another note is that if you find it hard to get something in the pocket from the side access, then it will be easier from the inner access. That’s not ideal, but understandable when you see how the bag is laid out.) Overall I think this is bigger change for the bag than the clamshell opening.
Prior to this bag, Tom Bihn always utilized a very thin, flexible, and relatively comfortable shoulder strap. I never found them to be poor, but I did find that they didn’t do well with tons of weight on them. Typically, these are great shoulder straps that don’t add a lot of bulk. But these new shoulder straps are simply fantastic. They are slightly thicker, and much more comfortable. And, even at that, I don’t think they come with any downsides.
I’m sure it is not easy for a backpack company to change their shoulder strap formula, but I hope Tom Bihn changes everything out to this type of shoulder strap. It is by far, a better setup. They are comfortable, even with weight, and they still stay out of the way when you are not wearing the bag. Most excellent. All the benefit of the old, with none of the caveats.
In the Synik they a;so now include the frame sheet, which is part of a pass through back section. I love that this isn’t in the main compartment any more, it now feels like a first class citizen in the bag.
If I had to sum this bag up in a one liner, here it is:
Deceivingly large, and the ultimate one bag travel bag.
My first comment back to Tom Bihn on this was that it was too wide. Then I found out it was the same footprint as the Synapse 25 — therefore it is the added depth, which when the bag is empty, causes it to puff out at the sides making it feel wider. That said, this is truly a large bag.
For me, it was too large to everyday carry. I carried it to the office a few times, and many commented asking why I had such a large bag with me. And to be fair, it felt large, and looked large. It is a big bag.
But that’s perfect for travel when you are actually packing goods, and I wouldn’t be too worried about emptying it out when I get to the destination to use as a daypack. It’s well laid out, and holds a ton. It doesn’t look like a hiking bag and likely will be fine outside an office setting.
The functionality of the bag is fantastic. With so much space and organization you are never left wanting more. The only downside will be fit, and weight. With the added depth, loading up the external pockets with anything heavy can cause the bag to pull you backwards a touch. I’d love some compression straps on it.
Of all the ‘one bag’ travel bags I have tested, and seen, this is hands down the best of them all. If I were still traveling a ton for work, this bag would be a constant companion of mine. Durable, light, comfortable, and large without being too large. 30L is an ideal size for travel, and Tom Bihn hit on the nose here.
Like the 30, the Synik 22 is based on the Synapse 19’s footprint. I’ve never worn a Synapse 19, as I worried it would look too small. While I think the Synik 22 looks a little small on my back, I need to also mention that I received a few compliments on the bag in the form of “wait, what bag is that you have today, that’s nice.” Which is high praise.
If the 30 is the best travel backpack out there, then the 22 is making the play for the everyday carry lot. It is a very good everyday carry backpack as evidence by the fact that I really enjoyed carrying it to and from work. The 22L size is fantastic, if a little tight on some days.
The big miss for me is on the height, if this bag were 1.5” taller, it would be my favorite backpack to carry to and from work, but as it is, I can readily say it is the second best backpack for everyday carry. Only the lack of height, holds it back.
And the reason for needing a bit more height is twofold:
- I don’t love that this cannot fit a 15” laptop, when it really should be able to. I think a little taller and that wouldn’t be an issue. This also comes into play with some of the taller water bottles I tried carrying in the water bottle pocket, they can fit, but it is really snug. Too snug.
- Aesthetically I think the backpack, when completely stuffed full, can look a little small and a bit turtle shell like on my back. Added height would remove that concern.
The last thing I want to talk about on the 22 is the material. Typically, I get Tom Bihn bags in their standard ballistic nylon, or the Dyneema grid fabric they sell. For the 22 I was encouraged to get it in Parapack, which basically is a nylon I am told was developed for parachute backpacks. To be strong, but slick. I had no clue what to expect.
It is very neat. It has a sheen, but almost like a dull sheen. It is smooth and reminds me a lot of 500D Cordura Nylon. I also took it through a rain storm and stuff inside was mostly still dry so that was very nice to see. But more than any of that, I think it is by far the best looking fabric Tom Bihn sells, so I would encourage you that no matter what size you are getting, make it Parapack.
The thing about the 22l is it is basically all you need, is stealth in size and looks. And yet is still organized and highly usable. Very impressive bag.
Thumbs up to both, if they made the exact 22 bag with a couple inches more of height, I think it would be the best Everyday Backpack I have ever tested. Until then, because of how tall I am, it remains in second place.
The 22 inside the massive 30.
I thought this review would be simple, talk a lot about the 30, but I am surprised by just how much I like the 22. I can see both of these bags getting a lot of use in my rotation. They are smartly designed, well made, and top performers.
If you are a one bag traveller, there is no better bag to use than the 30L Synik. Hands down. If you want a sleek backpack and have 13” laptop, the 22l is great for everyday use.