The Guide’s Pack

A tall saguaro leans over and appears to be asking for a hug from another saguaro, as my Tom Bihn Guide's Pack sits underneath

I bought my backpack, the Tom Bihn Guide’s Pack, four years ago and put it to use right away on a trip to Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park in Washington. We spent our first years together hiking around the Pacific Northwest, not only Rainier and the Olympics but the Columbia River Gorge, the redwoods in California, the Oregon coast, and of course at Ridgefield. Designed and manufactured in nearby Seattle, it was right at home in its home.

Then we moved to the desert.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack at Sunrise Peak in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

My first thought after moving here, unsure how I would handle hiking in the hotter weather, was to take a lighter pack on some short hikes, so for the first couple of hikes I took an old REI daypack I’ve had for over twenty years. I quickly switched to the Guide’s Pack as I realized it was better suited to carry the water I’d need on longer hikes courtesy of its internal frame and hip belt.

Since some of the trails are narrow my first thought was to take off the two removable pockets on the sides and store them in the bag. One of the pockets has an organizer for little things but the other is open, and it turns out it is perfectly sized to carry two 27oz Klean Kanteen water bottles. I carry one 27oz bottle attached to my camera bag, two in the side pocket, and a spare in the bottom of the backpack. But I quickly realized my mistake once I started putting my telephoto lens and camera into the bag when the light started getting harsh, as to get to the water bottles I had to pull out the camera and lens. You have to constantly drink water while hiking here, so easy access to water is critical. I put the pockets back on the sides where they have stayed ever since, and after looking in the mirror I realized they weren’t sticking out as I had imagined anyway.

A dusty Tom Bihn Guide's pack at Brown's Ranch in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The bag is getting more and more dusty and that’s a good thing because it means I’ve been hiking more and more. I’ve been out almost 20 times in the two months we’ve been here and can’t wait for the next hike. One of the things I’ve loved about this pack is its looks, the navy parapack material is both durable and gorgeous and is well-matched against the coyote brown bottom and straps. It’s a rucksack design, the top compartment is where I keep my snacks, you can open the zipper and get inside without opening up the pack. Pull back the top and there’s a cavernous compartment inside where I store my hiking poles, my fourth water bottle, a first aid kit, and extra clothing (if needed), and various other things. There are some o-rings inside for attaching stuff sacks, adding some nice organizational capability to the large space.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack next to one of the many rock formations in Brown's Ranch in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

My last adaptation in the desert was to start putting the big lens and camera away when the sunlight starts to get harsh, swapping the lens for trekking poles which make hiking in the desert more enjoyable. How I wish I had four arms so I could carry my tripod and trekking poles too! The tripod I cinch under the bag with some lash straps, that has worked a treat. This is the configuration in the picture below, with the backpack and attached tripod holding up Balanced Rock.

There are lots of nice touches in the bag, such as the loop handle that makes it easier to load the bag into the car or move it about the house. There’s a nice mesh on the back – your back does get sweaty in the desert, for summer hiking I might look for a back with a gap between your back and the backpack. Or maybe a lightweight pack if it proves too hot in the summer for any hike over an hour or two.

I absolutely adore the Guide’s Pack. I love that its beautiful, I love that its well-made and made well, and I love that it’s a great backpack too. It broke my heart to leave the Northwest but getting to know the Sonoran Desert has been an absolute joy. My thanks to the folks at Tom Bihn for making the backpack that let me explore my home in the Northwest, and my new home in the Southwest.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack sits underneath Balanced Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Goodbye Portland, I Love You

The Tom Bihn ID messenger bag on a MAX train in Portland, Oregon

Leaving Portland means leaving a way of life. In our old neighborhood of Irvington I can walk to shops and restaurants. For most of our years here I’ve slung my Tom Bihn laptop bag over my shoulder and walked to the light rail station to take the train to work. I only drive about 1000 to 3000 miles a year, depending on how many long hiking trips I take, so I’ll drive as many miles on our way to Arizona as I might do in a year. It was obvious on my interview trip that life in Arizona will be centered around the car, so I’m going to have to get used to driving to work again. One of the things I’ll figure out during the year we’re renting is how long of a commute I can tolerate, which will dictate what neighborhoods we will consider when it is time to buy.

There is more about Portland I’ve loved, from its progressive ideals (if not always progressive policies) to its eccentricities, such as the day I met someone walking a pig at the dog park. Not a little pot-belled pig, a full-grown pig. People practicing Shakespeare in the park, even our little Irving park. The old neighborhoods. The light rail. The downtown. The city parks. The duck ponds with not just mallards and Canada geese but wood ducks, bufflehead, wigeon, scaup. On and on.

The ever-worsening traffic I won’t miss but we are heading to a much larger city so perhaps we will trade one type of traffic for another. Neither will I miss the ice storms, we’ll see if the misery of desert summers are a fair trade for wonder of desert winters.

It was the lure of Portland that led me to interview with the company where I worked for two decades, the loss of that job is forcing me to leave. I will always treasure our time in Portland, it’s been a wonderful place to call home. Goodbye, I love you.

Take Me With You

To prepare for my trip to Arizona, I started laying out on the guest bed everything I wanted to take with me and stepped away for a moment. I came back to find an extra item that I couldn’t bring with me, much as I would have loved to, but which will come along to wherever we end up.

The Aubergine Duo Ride Again

A side-by-side view of the Tom Bihn ID laptop bag and Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 travel bag, both in aubergine

A quick shot of my travel bags after I got back from my trip to Arizona. I meant to photograph them together while on either my trip to California or Arizona but I kept forgetting, they were stressful trips as both travels were for job interviews. The bags worked a charm, as they always have, and were both easy to carry around the airport and easy to live out of during my stay. For the photo I didn’t take out all of the little accessory bags that kept me organized. On the left is the Tom Bihn ID laptop bag that I used as my personal item, carrying my MacBook Pro and iPad, and on the right is the Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 which I used as my carry-on. I love not only that it has backpack straps that can pull out to make carrying the bag easy, and be put away when you don’t need them, but that the whole process can be done so quickly and easily. Both of these bags were clearly designed and manufactured with a lot of care, which is why I love my Tom Bihn bags.

Also, love that aubergine!

A Cute Couple

My Tom Bihn ID messenger bag and Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 travel bag

In early August I started an 11-day trip, the longest I’ve ever taken, that included three cross-country flights (thankfully all non-stop) and a two-day drive. I started off flying to Baltimore to visit my brother’s family and help sort through my dad’s papers, then flew to Texas to help my mom finish packing for her move to Georgia where she’ll be near my sister, drove with my mom from Austin to Atlanta, then flew back home from Atlanta to Portland. I was going to constantly be on the move and didn’t want to risk lost luggage, and I also didn’t want to take up much room in the car, and I was going to be walking home from the train at the end of the trip, so I took just two bags, my Tom Bihn ID messenger bag that went under the plane seat, and my Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 travel bag that went in the overhead bin.

Inside the two bags were an array of smaller bags that kept me organized, most also from Tom Bihn. The big bags have o-rings inside for attaching key straps so my keys, a small flashlight, and a USB drive were easily found. I used one of my mesh organizer bags in the ID for cables, medicine, and food that I wanted on the flight, while the other in the Aeronaut held cables and other items I wouldn’t need until I landed. Travel stuff sacks held a raincoat (which didn’t get used) and my camera and lens (which did). My daily pills went in a clear organizer and smaller items went into the flat organizer pouches. The organizers worked well in the side pockets of the Aeronaut, making it easy to get to my 3-1-1 bag at the airport, and also provide easy access to food or medicine or cables without having to open the main compartment.

The Aeronaut I’ve used before, both while flying and driving, but it really shone on this trip. I used the backpack straps while moving through the airport, then neatly tucked them away for the plane rides and at my destination, but they were most handy when walking home from the train station. Rolling bags have their uses, but since the Aeronaut wasn’t heavy it was much nicer to just slip it onto my back. I’ve been surprised at how using the mesh packing cubes for clothes and the organizer bags for other items makes living out of a suitcase so much more enjoyable, everything stays organized and it was always easy to find what I wanted. Despite staying somewhere new about every other night, by the end of the trip everything was still in its place, which is not normal for me but will be from now on. The Aeronaut is well-built and I could have checked it if I needed to, but it was easy to carry and so easily fit in the overhead bins that it was never an issue.

The trip didn’t get off to the best start as I had a miserable headache the first morning, one of the worst in recent memory, but by evening medicine was keeping it at bay and it was never that severe again. It was a tiring but productive trip and I enjoyed getting to see most of my family, even a cousin and his son I hadn’t seen in years. Coming home I even got a cheap upgrade to first class, a welcome treat as I despise flying. While I’m never going to enjoy flying I am thankful that all the flights went off without issue, as did our drive, and I’m thankful for the little company that designs and makes the bags that I love so much (all a bit to my north in Seattle).

My Tom Bihn ID messenger bag and Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 travel bag along with all the other smaller Tom Bihn bags that went inside them

Commuting Gear

Commuting Gear

Continuing on the yellow theme, I recently had to shift my beloved orange New Balance running shoes to dog park status as the fabric was starting to tear. I like having bright shoes to make me more visible as I walk to and from the train so I replaced them straightaway with a pair of bright yellow sneakers, as this seems to be their current bright color of choice. Sitting between my feet is my Tom Bihn ID messenger bag with its lovely aubergine front, keeping my MacBook and iPad safe and secure as I ride the MAX to work.

The ID is Retired. Long Live the ID!

My Tom Bihn ID messenger bag in Aubergine

I bought my beloved Tom Bihn ID messenger bag (which I reviewed first after eleven years and updated at twelve years) over thirteen years ago and finally decided to retire it as the strap pad was getting worn and the zipper compartment was coming apart in one section. It was my daily companion nearly every day during those thirteen years and one of the best products I’ve ever owned, in any category.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy to replace (Tom Bihn no longer makes the ID) but I couldn’t find anything I liked quite as much until I saw this lovely ID in aubergine on eBay. I had never used eBay before but it all went smoothly and I’m thrilled with my new bag, new but also familiar. This ID is a newer revision than mine, it has a different strap (which I’m already familiar with since I use the same type on my Aeronaut travel bag and my tripod bag) and different pockets, but the overall design is still very similar to mine.

I used the old bag for a week after the new one arrived, partially because I hadn’t unclipped the laptop bag that fits inside and moved it to the new one, and partially because it was nice to spend one last week with the old one. But it didn’t take long to move everything to the new bag and I put it to work to get me to work last week, and I put it to work at home on Friday as I moved from my office to the guest bedroom while I kept our cat Boo company as he recuperated from getting teeth pulled.

The ID at Work at Home

The ID is a great fit for my 15″ laptop and can be expanded to carry bulkier items but can be cinched down into a flat profile while lightly loaded (my normal configuration), which I greatly appreciated while standing on crowded trains during the week. I’ve thought about getting a backpack to use at times, and might yet, but there’s no question that a thin over-the-shoulder bag is more convenient on crowded trains. I almost bought a briefcase style bag for times when I don’t need to carry bulkier items, typically the winter and summer, and if I move to a smaller laptop I’d probably also move to a smaller bag, but for now I’m all set. And happy. Thanks Tom Bihn!

Aubergine & Black

The Rain Adjacent Forest

For my trip to the Olympic peninsula this spring, more than anything I wanted to visit the Hoh Rain Forest when it was raining, which you wouldn’t think would be too hard given that it is an actual rain forest. But for me the Hoh has always been the Hoh Rain Adjacent Forest, as I’ve gotten drenched in many parts of the park but the rain always stopped before I reached the Hoh. This time I waited until rain was predicted for the weekend, made my reservations, loaded up the Subaru and set off.

There was no rain as I drove into Washington but not long after I pointed the car towards the peninsula the heavens opened and it poured. By the time I reached the Quinault Rain Forest the rain had lessened but I was pleased to see I would get rain in this rain forest at the very least. As I put on my rain pants and walked to the trailhead, the rain stopped literally as I stepped onto the trail. Did Mother Nature think I was amused? In truth I was, wondering if I’d get rain the next day or if the Hoh was to be my Wet Whale.

I had been drenched in the Quinault before so the suddenly dry skies weren’t too much of a disappointment and I started up the Maple Glade Loop Trail and the Kestner Homestead Trail, stopping at the homestead to photograph this dilapidated old moving van with trees growing inside, an old favorite from a previous visit. They keep the area around the truck mowed but are letting nature reclaim the truck. Ashes to ashes, dust to rust.

A dilapidated old moving truck has trees growing inside it at the Kestner Homestead in Olympic National Park

As I photographed the truck I was caught off guard when the rain began pounding down once more. I took a few more pictures before retreating to a covered picnic area. The large drops made a racket as they pelted the corrugated metal roof and then somehow it rained even harder. As I admired the rain I realized I was laughing out loud, not with a chuckle, but a good loud belly laugh. I immediately stopped and looked self-consciously around but there was no one else around, apparently not everyone loves the rain.

I ventured out for a few more pictures but suddenly realized my biggest mistake in my desire to pack lightly, as I hadn’t brought a backup camera or lens. The camera is weather sealed but the lens isn’t and makes them both vulnerable where they connect. So mostly I just stood there and reveled in the rain, soaking it in in case tomorrow dawned dry.

The next morning I drove to the Hoh, knowing the weather was going to improve throughout the weekend, if improve means more and more sun, so I wasn’t sure if I’d finally get my rain. As I drove towards the park in a heavy overcast, the sun suddenly appeared and I said out loud, “You are not welcome here!” It quickly disappeared behind the clouds and, a bit surprised and a little terrified at my sudden powers, I continued on to the trailhead as a gentle rain began to fall.

At long last, rain in the Hoh.

My camera and lens inside a Tom Bihn Stuff Sack to keep them dry during a rainy hike in the Hoh Rain Forest

I used one of my Tom Bihn Stuff Sacks to cover the camera and lens while hiking, and when taking pictures the material is pliant enough that I could lay the bag over the top of the camera and keep rain from hitting the lens. The outside of the bag was damp from the rain, but it was drops of rain I was worried about. That worked fine and kept the gear dry both days it rained.

One of the Hoh trails was closed, a bit of a shame as it was one where I wanted to photograph moss, so instead I spent the afternoon hiking to Sol Duc Falls in the rain. The next morning the sun rose and never yielded, but I had fun visiting a few beaches, two of which I had never been to before, and headed back to Portland. I got home in time to take Ellie for her walk, always one of my favorite parts of the day. As I walked to the train station the next morning to go back to work, still reveling in three days of hiking in such a beautiful place, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many blessings in my life.

My camera and lens covered by a Tom Bihn Stuff Sack to keep them dry during a rainy hike in the Hoh Rain Forest

To the Olympics

My Subaru Crosstrek loaded up with bags for my trip to Olympic National Park

I ordered my Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 in December 2014 to use as my main travel bag but it had been sitting idle for a year and a half. Not because I didn’t like the bag, but because I wasn’t taking trips. Understandable at first, as Emma died soon after and left me broken-hearted, then we adopted Trixie and there was much work to be done getting her introduced and accepted by the others. And late in 2015 and early in 2016 my project at work left me too tired to want to drive anywhere.

But mostly I was just not dealing with the daily stresses of life as well as I should have. So after my project finished up I decided it was time to put things to right. Since the commute to work had gotten more and more stressful the past few years, the last thing I wanted to do on weekends was get back in the car, so I quit driving to work and went back to taking the light rail. It takes longer but (most days) is less stressful and I added a few things that make the train time more enjoyable than it used to be. My goal was not just to reduce the daily stress but also to make me more willing to get in the car to go hiking.

I’ve long wanted is to have a handful of places within a day’s drive that I visit frequently enough that I can schedule a trip without much planning at any time of the year, so the next step was to start taking some short trips. In April I chose the easiest such place, the lower elevations of Olympic National Park, a place I had been to a handful of times. I deliberately chose a weekend where rain was expected as I wanted it to rain while I was in the rain forests, so I made my plans on a promising weekend, loaded up the Subaru, and I was off to the Olympics.

A closer view of the bags in the hatch of my Subaru Crosstrek

The Aeronaut (the Aubergine bag in the middle) was joined on its inaugural trip by my beloved Tom Bihn ID carrying my computer, as it has every day for 13 years. Joining them were my Tom Bihn Guide’s Pack as my backpack (I’ve had the bag for a while but this was my first chance to test its new padded hip belts), the Tom Bihn Tripod Quiver carrying my tripod, plus a variety of smaller Tom Bihn bags like organizers and stuff sacks. And even a few non-Bihn bags, a couple of which I’ve had for decades. Most notably my Tamrac camera bag holding my camera gear as it has for every hike for the past couple of decades, but which may finally be approaching the end of its active use. Also a Nike duffel that carried extra clothes since it was hard to tell how warm or cold or wet or dry the weekend was going to be. This one is also decades old but it’s led an easy life, mostly either storing extra gear on trips like this from spring to fall, and during the winter storing a small army of old towels that I use when photographing at Ridgefield on rainy days. Rounding out the crew of bags was my Domke F-5XB camera bag, a small bag that normally I use for short little trips like when walking our dog Ellie, and while I don’t take it hiking it is handy for storing overflow camera gear on trips like this.

The bags worked well and took some of the friction out of packing and traveling and a couple of months later I packed them up again for my second hiking trip, with more to come soon. The Aeronaut got its first real test when it joined the ID and Domke bags on a trip to visit family, my first flight in years and my first time with all carry-on, the backpack straps and grab handles on the Aeronaut really showed their worth on that trip. I fell in love with it on the first trip, it’s not an inexpensive bag but like all my Tom Bihn bags it’s thoughtfully designed and manufactured and I expect it will join the ranks of bags I use happily for many years.

And I love that color.

The ID at Twelve (and a Half)

[Update February 10, 2017: I retired this ID after thirteen years and replaced it with a newer one.]

My Tom Bihn ID messenger bag with some of its accessories

My Tom Bihn ID messenger bag has been in daily use for twelve (and a half) years now. I first wrote about it in my eleven year review and it is still the bag I use every day. I’ve added a few accessories, most importantly a 16″ Tom Bihn key strap with a Fenix E12 flashlight attached at the end. It’s not so much for me to see as for me to be seen as I’m walking on my commute, either to or from the train when I take the MAX or in a dark parking lot on days I drive. The red color of the strap makes it easy to see in the bag, which is not true for the flashlight which sadly only comes in black. Because the strap is near the side of the bag, while walking I can reach behind me and under the flap and grab the strap without breaking my stride, enabling me to pull the flashlight out without stopping or even moving the bag around to my front. It’s also nice that the light can hang from the strap if I need to adjust my gloves or use the phone.

I also added a new Brain Cell that is perfectly sized for my 15″ MacBook Pro and an Aubergine Side Effect (with a safety whistle attached in the picture) which fits in the front of the ID and adds more organization. I’m still deciding exactly what to keep in the smaller bag, or if I’d rather leave it in my backpack instead. I put a USB stick on another key strap, I don’t need one very often, but this way I always know I have one and can get to it quickly. I also have an iPad now which makes taking the train much more pleasant, and it can go in several different places. I usually place it beside the Brain Cell in the laptop compartment where it’s pretty secure, but it can also go more loosely in the front compartment or in the magazine pocket on the back of the bag (it can be stowed very quickly there, a convenience if I’m a little late in realizing my stop is coming up).

I have gone back to riding the train most days which puts a lot more stress on the bag than when I drive, as it is under load during the time I’m walking to and from the train and when I’m standing because there isn’t a seat available. But the train commute really highlights why I’ve so loved this bag. It’s wide enough for my 15″ laptop and deep enough to carry the things I take everyday with room left over for the occasional bulky items, but not so large as to get in the way on the train or encourage over-stuffing (I don’t like backpacks on the train but in my opinion they are the only good solution for heavy loads). The front strap keeps the bag cinched down in a narrow profile but can be expanded so I can stuff a hoody or jacket in the bag during the spring and fall days when the temperature is changing drastically during the day.

After all these years the ID is gently preparing me for the day that our time together draws to a close. The back zippered compartment where the laptop goes in particular is having issues as some of the stitching is coming out or fraying from the velcro of the Brain Cell when it’s left open. Then one day while in a hurry I tried to zip the compartment closed too quickly (the new Brain Cell sits a little differently that the old one) and one of the zippers popped off one of the tracks. The other zipper still works fine but it keeps me from just zipping both ends a bit, a little trick to quickly force both ends to tuck in well below the flap for extra protection in a heavy rain. The pad on the shoulder strap is also showing wear from heavy use. In general though the bag is in great shape so it will hopefully last me for a while yet.

I don’t know what I’ll do when it’s time to retire the bag from every day use, as the ID has been discontinued and Tom Bihn hasn’t announced a replacement. And even when they do, since the ID has been such a perfect fit for me, no matter how nice the new design is I doubt it could delight me quite as much as the ID.

Trixie Demonstrates the Use of a Flashlight

I’ve been meaning to post this update for a while but resisted for one simple reason — when I’d set up to photograph an item before, our cat Emma (who hated to be photographed) would come over and photobomb the pictures (she’s the black cat in the pictures in the eleven year review). She died a few months after that review and for a while it was too painful a reminder to set up the bag for a picture and know that Emma wasn’t going to come running over to sit nearby.

So it delighted me to no end when I set up the ID for a quick picture and Trixie came over and started chewing on the key strap that holds the flashlight. Professor Boo then came over and showed his young charge how you can retrieve the flashlight by pulling on the strap, while gently telling her not to be embarrassed, we all have to learn not to eat flashlights. I don’t know what triggered them to come over as they’re both very familiar with the bag — in fact it was one of the first things they each saw when we adopted them, Boo in 2013 and Trixie in 2015, as I brought it with me when I sat with them while they were in isolation — but it was a nice little homage to our dear departed Em.

Professor Boo Demonstrates the Proper Use of a Flashlight

The ID is within arms reach of nearly every picture I post unless I’m out hiking or taking Ellie on a walk. It’s at my feet when I’m on the couch taking pictures of the pets sleeping on me and I bring it with me when we need to keep one of the pets in isolation (as with Sam below when he was recuperating after getting teeth pulled). At Ridgefield it’s tucked in behind the driver’s seat as I photograph the animals on the auto tour. It’s gone with me on all my hiking expeditions to Yellowstone and Mount Rainier and the like, but it stays in the hotel room while I hike. It goes with me to work every day and is sitting beside me now on the train.

I’m a little shy of fifty so I’ve been using the ID for over one out of every four days I’ve walked the earth. It’s one of the best products I’ve ever purchased, in any category, so its replacement will have big shoes to fill. Many, many thanks to the team at Tom Bihn for both designing and manufacturing such a great bag.

Me & Samwise