The Dyneema Smart Alec

Tom Bihn is still iterating on the Smart Alec and their latest change is to the exterior fabric. They have added an option to the bag that has a 400d Dyneema exterior. This is the classic grid patterned nylon that Tom Bihn is known for on the interior of their bags, but a bit thicker […]

Tom Bihn is still iterating on the Smart Alec and their latest change is to the exterior fabric. They have added an option to the bag that has a 400d Dyneema exterior. This is the classic grid patterned nylon that Tom Bihn is known for on the interior of their bags, but a bit thicker now that it is used on the exterior.

The result is a strong material that is also much lighter. I’m told the bag is now 30% lighter, and I can verify that you can feel the difference when you compare the two side by side.

Tom Bihn sent me a review unit that I have been testing for a few weeks now and it’s still the fantastic Smart Alec that I love. In day to day use the weight savings aren’t felt, but if you load the two bags for hiking, or any other weight conscious activity, you can and will notice the difference.

However the difference you will notice everyday is the look of the material. What I’ve always liked about the Smart Alec is its understated look. Yes it’s a nylon backpack, but it still looked handsome and not as nylon-y as other bags. The Smart Alec Dyneema looks like a nylon bag — there’s no way around that.

At first I really didn’t like the look of the bag — just not my style. It’s less professional looking and a bit “louder”. My father, upon seeing it (he uses my original Smart Alec), loved how it looked and so have a few others that have seen the bag while I have been carrying it around.

After about a week I was liking the look too, but I still like the original all black better. The gray grid is neat looking and different, but it a bit more outspoken.

Overall this is yet another great Smart Alec that I’m sure many will love and that hikers should really give serious consideration when choosing a versatile daypack.

Extras

With the bag Tom Bihn has sent me some goodies that they just finished up:

New Tool Strap

  • Tool Strap: This is an all new accessory that has not been released yet, but it is sweet. Basically it is the same as the keyring strap, but has a little rectangular d-ring on one end that allows you to clip things to it. What kind of things? Knives for one — though I believe Tom Bihn mentioned Flashlights too. Either way, what a great little strap.
  • 3D Mesh Organizer Cube: This is actually a great little cube. I have the original 3D Organizer that has clear sides and use that for toiletries, but this one makes an excellent cable tote. Much more compact than the Snake Charmer and thus better for day-to-day use for me.
  • Dyneema Organizer Cube: Same as above, but without the mesh. I don’t like it nearly as much as the mesh version as it traps a bit of air when zipped so it doesn’t compress as easily, but this would be handy to keep prying eyes away. If in doubt, go with the mesh one.

‘Tom’s Smart Alec Design Update’

Tom Bihn has done a minor design change to the best backpack: the Smart Alec. That post I linked to lays out the nitty-gritty of the update, last week Tom Bihn was kind enough to send me a new version of the bag to test out — I’ve been using it everyday since. When I […]

Tom Bihn has done a minor design change to the best backpack: the Smart Alec. That post I linked to lays out the nitty-gritty of the update, last week Tom Bihn was kind enough to send me a new version of the bag to test out — I’ve been using it everyday since.

When I was first contacted about this, I had two thoughts:

  1. Nooo! Don’t change something that is great.
  2. Sweet! A mesh back!

So I was a bit torn. What I can tell you is that the bag I already thought was the best bag you could use, just got better.

The mesh back alone makes it an instant upgrade. When I took my Smart Alec to Macworld last year, my back was constantly warm. It felt like something was heating the bag internally, but it was just a lack of air circulation to my back. The new mesh back solves this, and does so wonderfully. It’s a minor change that makes the bag a lot better to carry for long periods of time.

Of the other changes, they all make a noticeable difference:

  • It is easier to zip the top closed — a one-handed affair at times now.
  • The bag does indeed pick up less cat hair, much to the dismay of my two cats.

I look forward to seeing the modular pockets for the bag, but overall this is a solid update. Oh, and if you were waiting to order, do so now because the price goes up next week — I am certainly going to upgrade.

The Best Diaper Bag

Back when my wife was registering for all of our “baby stuff” for showers she asked me which diaper bag we should get. I am pretty sure I said pick “whatever” because I was confident Target wouldn’t have what I wanted, and knew my wife wouldn’t put up with me spending months trying to find […]

Back when my wife was registering for all of our “baby stuff” for showers she asked me which diaper bag we should get. I am pretty sure I said pick “whatever” because I was confident Target wouldn’t have what I wanted, and knew my wife wouldn’t put up with me spending months trying to find the right bag.

So now we have this shoulder bag that claims to be a diaper bag, something parents will likely need to carry almost every time they exit their homes for quite a while. And the bag we have isn’t very good.

I could list out everything wrong with the bag, but it’s just easier to say that there isn’t a single thing I like about our diaper bag. It almost offends me.

So I started looking for a better diaper bag. Weeks later I still hadn’t found a single diaper bag that looked suitable. They either looked like a diaper bag, or looked like something I would laugh at if I saw someone else carrying it.

Then I had an idea1 . The best bag I have is my Tim Bihn Smart Alec, so what if I just used that bag. There’s a problem: I don’t want to own two, and I don’t want to have to go through the process of converting the bag into and back from a diaper bag every time.

Yet, after thinking about it more I realized that most everything I keep in the Smart Alec are things I would like to take anyways in a diaper bag outing, I just needed a quick way to add or subtract the diaper specific items and things like my MacBook Air.

Enter Tom Bihn’s packing cubes.

Since I can easily remove the padded laptop sleeve, and that being the only item I wouldn’t want when using the Smart Alec as a diaper bag, this looked like a simple fix.

The two packing cubes I ordered.

I ordered two of these packing cubes (Tri-Star small-all fabric and the same in the non-all-fabric option) and hoped they would be enough. Turns out they are perfect, but a third cube is needed for bottles, so I ordered this one.

Now I have one packing cube with diapers and wipes. Another with a change of clothes. A third with all the other miscellany that ends up in the diaper bag and bottles. It takes me less than two minutes to go from computer bag to diaper bag.

That’s acceptable because I get to use a bag that I love.

What’s also neat is that the packing cubes still fit in the ”real” diaper bag, so it is still always ready to go for my wife (I toss the packing cubes back in that bag when I change out my backpack). So now I have a diaper bag that I love at very little extra cost, and a system that is very flexible.

I only wish I had thought of this weeks ago.

Left: Smart Alec for work. Right: Smart Alec for diaper doody. They look shockingly the same.

I know most of you don’t use the Smart Alec, but the nice thing about this is that there are probably packing cubes that fit your setup very nicely — it’s worth playing with, because diaper bags suck.


  1. Which can be dangerous and is often expensive. 

Smart Alec Review: Part III

In part one I talked about my day-to-day usage of the Tom Bihn Smart Alec and how it felt to switch from a messenger bag to a backpack. In part II I talked about using the Smart Alec as my only bag for a short weekend away. In the third and final installment I am […]

In part one I talked about my day-to-day usage of the Tom Bihn Smart Alec and how it felt to switch from a messenger bag to a backpack. In part II I talked about using the Smart Alec as my only bag for a short weekend away. In the third and final installment I am going to talk about using the bag at Macworld and toting it around San Francisco and airports.

First, some more follow-up:

  • In the last installment I reported that I had some trouble getting the second strap on my shoulder. The tip provided from Tom Bihn was to loosen the strap that I put on last as I take the bag off.1 This is a cumbersome tip, but it does work. When in San Francisco I didn’t run into this issue given that I wasn’t wearing layers of clothing. So this may not be an issue for people that aren’t constantly layering clothes.
  • The zippers on the bag continue to get easier and easier to close one handed — this is great news.

I’ll keep this pretty short because I don’t have much to say, but did want to talk about two things: expandability and the airport.

Conference Mode

While at Macworld|iWorld I found the Smart Alec to be outstanding. It kept my hands free the entire time and at times carried quite the load of gear. The bag went from carrying just an iPad and battery chargers to carrying the goodies purchased at the Apple Company Store and a couple of jackets that Shawn and I carried with us.

I still preferred to not carry the bag around if possible (I would feel this way about any bag), but it never once became uncomfortable to carry with me. The only hinderance I ran into was when on the expo floor due to how crowded it was in spots.

Last I will note that while moving around SF with the pack on there were more than a few times when the back of the Smart Alec became very warm — it felt like my MacBook Air had woken up and was overheating in the bag. This is likely due to how tightly the pack sits against your back and the dense material, adding that extra layer to your body. It was never uncomfortable, but it was warm enough that I noticed when I took the backpack off.

TSA, Flying, and Airports

Had I not been carrying an additional shoulder strap type carry-on, the Smart Alec would have made for the best TSA line bag I have ever had. It was fast and easy to pull out my MacBook Air and to stuff away the various items in my pockets — all in secured areas of the bag. And I mean fast.

However trying to add another shoulder strap in lock step with a backpack is cumbersome at best and downright painful most of the time. I hate wheeled luggage because you can’t carry as much in them and you are at risk for them not fitting in overhead bins, but that would be a better option than carrying my Patagonia MLC with me on this trip.

The absolute best part of the bag is how the pockets open, because it’s very easy to stand the bag up on the ground and pull out my iPad from the main compartment. I don’t have to futz about with balancing the bag and trying to get my iPad out as I have had to with most shoulder bags. Set the backpack down, unzip, and pull the iPad out — all while the bag is standing upright on its own.

I can do that one handed.

Bottom Line

This is the best bag I have ever owned. It excels when you need it to go from medium to huge. But it doesn’t do small and compact well.

It is, however, lightweight.

The best feature of this bag, and I imagine of most backpacks, is just how freeing it is to have both hands free and not having to worry about balance. I don’t feel a desire to go back to a single strap bag of any kind.

The tradeoff is size.

A small backpack looks stupid, so you have to put up with a larger sized bag, but you don’t really feel the extra weight of the bag. Having a backpack always makes it look like you are carrying more than people with fancy minimalist shoulder bags, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you actually are carrying more.


  1. They have told me that they are working on a video to demonstrate what they mean. 

Smart Alec Review: Part II

In part one I talked about my day-to-day usage of the Tom Binh Smart Alec and how it felt to switch from a messenger bag to a backpack. In part II I am going to talk about using the Smart Alec as my only bag for a short weekend away. But first some follow-up on […]

In part one I talked about my day-to-day usage of the Tom Binh Smart Alec and how it felt to switch from a messenger bag to a backpack. In part II I am going to talk about using the Smart Alec as my only bag for a short weekend away.

But first some follow-up on part one:

  • I still very much like using a backpack over a messenger/should bag.
  • My only remaining frustration is the friction that is involved in putting on the second strap. Whether the bag gets caught by literal friction of the strap against my clothing, or is hung up on my watch face — I have yet to find it easy to don both straps. I don’t know if this is my inexperience here or if I am just doing it wrong, but it is annoying the crap out of me.
  • I have started advocating to people I know that carry heavy shoulder bags that they should switch to backpacks. I didn’t see that coming.
  • I am really loving the modular-ness of having smaller bags inside my Smart Alec to quickly add and remove a mass of things.
  • I have also posted some photos of the bag on my back, since many of you have asked for that.

Background on Travel

Before I dive into using this bag as a weekender I think it is important to give you an idea of the type of weekend I am talking about and my general travel style (as we all travel differently). For starters the trip I am basing this one on is one that I do 6-10 times a year.

It is a trip down to Portland, OR to visit with my wife’s family. We stay with in-laws and not in a hotel. I have done this trip well over 60 times in the last 4 years.1 That’s to say this is a trip I am very familiar with and thus know exactly what I will need every time.

With each passing year I also pare down what I need to bring with me as I travel. I don’t need a ton of clothes — I know what I can wear a couple of times and what I will need for different activities. I travel light — not as light as others — but I travel lighter than most.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I travel light because I don’t care if I have to go buy something I have at home to better enjoy my trip — I just care about traveling light. That is if I didn’t pack clothes to go do activity X, I would just go buy the clothes to do activity X while away and not worry about having failed to pack something.

I also stopped packing in rolling suitcases quite a while ago. I much prefer the MLC from Patagonia. It holds more, holds it better, and stows away in overhead bins much easier than other bags.

The Trip

I was bound and determined to pack everything for a three day and two night trip away in just the Smart Alec. I honestly had no idea if everything I needed/wanted to bring would fit in the bag, but I laid it all out without concern for what would and wouldn’t fit. It all fit with room to spare, here’s what I packed (in full):

  • One button down oxford shirt.
  • One thin sweater.
  • Four pairs of socks.
  • Two pairs of boxers.
  • Two undershirts.
  • One pair of jeans.
  • Toothpaste (full size tube).
  • Toothbrush.
  • Hair goop.
  • Deodorant (full size).
  • Allergy medicine.
  • Nasal spray (prescription).
  • Electric razor.
  • Finger nail clippers.
  • Comb.
  • Origami keyboard case and stand (with keyboard).
  • iPad 2.
  • Surefire 6PX Pro (why not?).
  • Glif+.
  • Joby Gorillapod Zoom.
  • iPad VGA adapter.
  • HDMI Cable.
  • Belkin 3-Port Surge.
  • iPad Charger.
  • iPhone Charger.
  • iPad HDMI Adapter.
  • 4 AA Batteries.
  • USB to Micro USB 6”.
  • Flask w/ Chivas Regal 12yo.
  • All the goodies listed in part 1.
  • ESEE 4 Knife2

All of that fit in the Smart Alec with room to spare. I did remove the Brain Cell since my MacBook Air wasn’t accompanying me on this trip to gain some extra space. (The clothing was strategically placed to pad my iPad 2.) That is pretty surprising to me, but it was only the beginning of my surprises.

What surprised me the most was just how much I loved the modular nature of my packing with the Smart Alec. Two small bags for my toiletries (one is TSA approved for liquids, too small for everything) one Snake Charmer for all my electronic goodies and my small pouch for the often used accessories. It was truly great to just pull out a little bag of items when I needed to get something instead of digging through large pockets filled with these items.

With all this in the bag it carried surprisingly well and allowed me to keep both hands free to carry gifts and my wife’s rolling luggage when we arrived places.

Smart Alec vs. MLC

As I mentioned above my go to bag for weekend to week long trips is the Patagonia MLC. It’s large, comes with a shoulder strap and backpack straps. I always thought it was a pretty nice and compact bag to carry, but I usually also carried a messenger bag in addition to it.

Do you know how difficult it is to carry a messenger bag and a suitcase type bag when each just have one strap to go across your body?

It’s very difficult and certainly not comfortable.

The most striking difference between these two bags though is how I had to fold my clothes. In order to maximize space I had to fold my clothes into much smaller bits in order to pack them in the Smart Alec well. This isn’t a problem for underwear, jeans, t-shirts and the like — but it is a problem if you have something you want to keep wrinkle free.

In the winter this is less of a problem since most of my shirts go under sweaters, but I can imagine this becoming quite frustrating in the summer months when button down shirts aren’t hidden under the warmth of a sweater. I am not sure of what the solution here is, perhaps some type of packing cube thing.

Beyond that I can see this bag being a far better bag for weekend trips than the MLC — it is just far more compact and controllable.

I felt quite nimble.

Weekender Bag Verdict

As you can tell by now I am smitten with this bag. I think it makes for a great weekend bag just given the surprising amount of stuff that it can hold. The bonus to using this bag as your day to day bag and as a weekend getaway bag is that you need not transfer around a bunch of little times as you would if you were using two different bags.

That in itself makes this a great choice.

I had enough room left over that I felt as though I could have packed tighter and squeezed in the Brain Cell with my MacBook Air, or just tossed my Canon 5D on top of everything else that I packed — that’s a nice option to have.

I never once was uncomfortable carrying all the weight in the bag and was glad on 4-5 occasions to have both hands totally free. I highly recommend this bag for day to day usage and weekend getaway usage.

Next Up:

In part three of this series I will be looking at using this bag as part of a larger kit for traveling to a conference. Look for that after Macworld.


  1. No I am not bad at math, I do the trip 6-10 times a year now. In previous years I was doing this trip every other week. 

  2. I actually didn’t realize this was at the bottom of the bag until I started writing this list. It has been at the bottom for a while I gather since I tossed it in there for a potential review after getting it.