Tom Bihn Shadow Guide 23

This is the best backpack released in 2020, and a really compelling offering for everyday, and travel.

Note: this bag was provided at no cost for review by Tom Bihn.

I first wrote about this bag here, in a preview and I have continued to test and play with the bag since then. The Shadow Guide 23 is a really good bag, and one which I think will excel for both the light travelers, weekend adventurers, and office going crowds. It is a strong contender for being one of the most versatile bags you can own.

Design and Looks

First, the looks. One of the issues I run into is that the bags I really like are either observed by others as: too tactical, or too ugly. Finding a bag that isn’t ugly and also isn’t tactical looking (meaning it has no MOLLE) is a really hard feat most of the time. But this Shadow Guide is the rare exception to that rule.

It’s not tactical. It’s not boring. And it is not ugly. Especially in the Ursa colorway — the entire bag really stands out in the right ways. This bag is sharp looking, and yet understated.

There’s nothing about this bag that yells that you spent money on it, that you shopped outside of Target for it — and yet the bag doesn’t look cheap and bland. It gives a subtle nod to hiking heritage, while being pretty simple.

Stellar looks all around.


Tom Bihn takes bag capacity measurements as seriously as I do. They’ve written about it, and criticized industry practices. It warms my heart. This is a 23L bag. It will feel bigger than other 23L bags because it was measured with accuracy. The thing about 23L is that it really is an ideal overall capacity. It offers a good size for everyday use, day hiking, and traveling (how long you can travel with it depends more on you than the bag).

There are two make or break things on most bags: the depth and the height. As for the height, this bag clocks in 19.3” tall, which is going to work for almost anyone. It’s plenty long for my taller frame (6’-3”), and yet short enough that most others can still wear it without issue. Between 18 – 20” is a true sweet spot for bag height.

The depth is the one gotcha with this bag, as it is a deep bag. At 9” deep, when packed out, this bag is going to bump into stuff when you wear it. I much prefer shallower depths which stay under 7”. But that said, the one trick this bag has is that you can cinch up the bottom with the straps, and cheat the size down a bit when the bag isn’t fully loaded.

Another helping factor is the base being rounded and not square. This gives you a bit of forgiveness when moving around crowded areas — or so I assume, the pandemic has prohibited any kind of testing. The only testing I could do is moving through partially opened doors, where the bag tended to push the door open, rather than knocking the door back into you.

The laptop compartment is rated for 13” laptops, and I will say that my work 13” MacBook Pro fits fine, and I think it is the limit on the size for that compartment as you do need to practice a bit with even that smaller laptop. This is probably the biggest trade off with this bag — but if you are an iPad Pro person (and you should be, this is the way) then you are good to go.


Ok, so this bag is based on a classic hiking backpack, it’s top loading with a simple cinch strap. That means that while there are five compartments, there is still a general lack of organization in this bag. Leaving aside the laptop compartment (which can be accessed from the outside of the bag) you only get the main black hole, two smaller pockets, and the top lid to store stuff.

That top lid is cavernous. It is best used for quick access to light stuff. In other words it is the perfect spot for your jacket, not for all the heavy things you want to store. Because it is large, it is really easily overpacked with weight. Too much weight impedes the ease with which you can get to the main compartment, and the two smaller pockets. Keep it light, and you’ll be much better off. In other words: puffer jackets are going to think this is the perfect apartment for them.

Those two smaller pockets on the underside of the lid are really nice. They can (with practice) be accessed without opening the lid of the bag. But are best used for things like a wallet, keys, phone, or other small flat items like that.

Being a top loader the main compartment is really a black hole. It has two small d-rings at either side to clip things to and nothing further. The bottom is nicely padded, so you can place water bottles in the bag without a constant clunk every time you set the bag on a table. That said you’ll need one of two mindsets to love this bag:

  1. You are totally fine with stuffing things into an abyss and sorting it out later when you need to. There are people like this, I am not one, but they exist. I hear they have junk drawers and often don’t fold their socks and underwear in happy little cubes like I am told I should by books.
  2. You will need organizers, and you’ll need to use them a bunch. Organizers can really make this black hole of a bag really neat and easy to use.

I do wish there was some top nylon webbing inside the bag so you could clip and attach more things to keep them in place and easy to grab, but I have yet to run into too many issues with dropping in various organizers and packing cube like things. The advantage to a top loader is that it makes distributing weight, and stuffing in more than you should, trivial. The downside of course is the eventuality that what you need is on the bottom of the stack. I avoid that by using long and skinny organizers — then again I happen to have a lot of those on hand.


This is the best backpack which was released in 2020 overall. It’s the strongest contender so far to dethrone the other bags I have and love. On the walks I have taken with this bag, it’s been a fantastic backpack. It’s comfortable, versatile, and easy to make use of.

I can see this bag being a great option for business and pleasure travel, whenever that does return for me. It would make for a discrete bag to walk around while exploring new cities, and yet be big enough to carry all I need for most travel or outdoor hikes.

I highly recommend this bag.

Buy one, $270.

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