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Quick Review - Tom Bihn Empire Builder

Discussion in 'Gear Reviews' started by Euthymic, Feb 20, 2013.

    Euthymic Loaded Pockets

    Quick and dirty review of the Tom Bihn “Empire Builder” bag.

    Since Tom Bihn has been making quite a positive splash here in the forums recently, I figured I would give a quick review of my Empire Builder (EB), that I picked up about 4 years ago and was used daily for 3 of those years (It’s been taking some time off since I downsized my daily carry and started using my Defy First Class). As you can see from the pics, other than some of the paint rubbing off the zippers it looks as good now as when I purchased it so I have no fears over its longevity.

    Use case for me was transporting a LOT of books, tons of files, and a 15” macbook pro to and from my office as well as shlepping around a large college campus/teaching hospital while lecturing. At 6’5, 240 lb, most bags/packs look like kids toys on me but this is a substantial bag that, if abused, can carry enough to weigh down even the strongest man :) When I ordered I purchased both the EB and the smaller Zephyr and the Zephyer is quite a bit smaller in person (17.5 liters vs 22.5) as the EB best fit my needs at the time. However, with my current load, the Zephyr would be more than enough.

    Importantly, my experience with Tom Bihn really makes me much more critical of other bags design and manufacturing (see my Defy Review) as everything really is just wonderfully thought out. When I used the bag I routinely filled it to capacity and never had any concern about it reaching it’s breaking point. I also had really good luck with the “absolute shoulder strap” when carrying super heavy loads although you sometimes notice a little bounce in the bag as the neoprene/rubber of the strap returns some energy. However, if I throw on an unpadded strap with the same load...sore shoulder city so it really does work. The bag is also somewhat unusual in that it is well structured (1/4” padding on the base, sides, and ends) so if packed well, it will stand up nicely (which is a really nice feature). Also, the bag has a ingenious file divider system (see pics below) that allows you to quickly and effortlessly add or subtract dividers, helping to organize your work if you carry a lot of files. It also has handles that are sewn in such a way as to always land together, so whenever you reach down to grab the handles, both of them are always sitting upright together waiting for you. It’s tough to describe without using but a super unique and elegant solution to fumbling with handles when a zipper runs between them. Finally the brain cell was great for the time (when I carried my 15” laptop) but might be a bit overkill for todays ultrabook class laptops. It takes up a fair amount of room (with excellent protection) although this hard cased hammock style laptop carrier was one of the features that originally drew me to the company. (Quick sidenote, I’m not sure when TomBihn started using this system but it reminded me of what I had in a brenthaven bag I picked up in the late 1990’s). Also as a sidenote, I’ve thought about making a velcro insert that either attaches to one of the file inserts or to the clips that would normally hold the brain cell so that I could have it carry my current load (macbook air and ipad mini) more conveniently with some additional pouches as well.

    Bag vitals:

    Name: Empire Builder
    Size: 18.25” wide x 12.75” tall by 7” deep
    Current Price: $190 with basic strap and no computer insert (Brain Cell)


    Front of bag with iphone 5 to show scale of front pocket (which is perfect for phones or boarding passes)

    Front flap open

    Side Zipped (notice those handles)

    Side Open (see the structured interior and deep zippers)

    Bag open (with one file divider and some misc. files)

    Detail of the retaining mechanism for the file dividers

    File Divider (potential hook and loop velcro candidate?)

    -Large size if you need it (but can be abused)
    -Well structured and will sit up on end if packed evenly
    -Wonderful and practical design with lots of pockets and loops (o-rings) in the departments to clip small bags on so they don’t collect in the bottom of pouches
    -Great handles that use “the force” to always be where you need them
    -Stands up to punishment (looks as good after 3 years of use as when new)
    -”Absolute” strap great if carrying heavy loads
    -Great construction and attention to detail

    -I wish some of it’s pockets were more appropriately sized for my current carry (in particular I wish there was a convenient place for my ipad mini such as a larger pouch in the admin area)*
    -Might be nice to have the cell phone/boarding pass pouch lined with soft material for glasses, etc.
    -Really, thats about it

    *I’m finding that as gear has changed, many great bags from a few years ago have pockets ill suited to modern tablets, smart phones, and thinner laptops so this criticism is pretty common in many bags

    I loved this bag when I got it and still love it today. If it wasn’t for my desire to downsize what I take back and forth to my office I would still be using it everyday. Now, I typically use it if lecturing on campus (as a adjunct or 2nd bag) or when traveling (as a large “personal item”). Oh, and I’ve seriously thought about retrofitting the main buckle with a “cobra” if I knew someone who stitched :)

    For reference/comparison, other bags I own include:
    Defy “first class”
    Ghukha N0 718 (Weathered Messenger)
    Timbuk 2 D-Lux Messenger (Medium)
    Chrome Citizen (waiting to arrive)
    5.11 Rush 24
    A bunch of 20 year old USA Manufactured Dana Design/ Mountainsmith/ North Face packs
    BrianEDC and maasan like this.

    yakuzaboss Loaded Pockets

    Great review! I was actually quite close to pulling the trigger on the Empire Builder sometime last year before buying my current bag.Tom Bihn bags are definitely in a class of their own.

    Valerian Tea-powered admin

    I like the internal structure on this one, that looks very useful for some applications. Thanks for pointing it out, I'm more of a backpack person generally, so I hadn't even looked at this pack before.

    PsychRN Loaded Pockets

    I have a Empire Builder, and I find that the absolute strap is quite an upgrade.

    jcap11 Loaded Pockets

    I also have an Empire Builder that I've used for 3-4 years, with the absolute strap and "brain cell" laptop bag. I carry it everyday and have traveled extensively with it - it's a great bag that carries more than you would think.
    Also, the laptop insert has a front pocket that is the perfect size for my ipad.

    Euthymic Loaded Pockets

    I'm going to pursue making an insert that connects to the annex clips that would allow either a sheet of hook and loop velcro or PALS webbing on a reinforced panel so that I could individualize my interior space a bit more. Should be a fun project (or I could just get a Freudian Slip and call it good).
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    TOM BIHN Crew Loaded Pockets

    Quick? This is a great review -- very thorough and detailed. Be sure to share photos of your insert if you end up making it.
    • In Omnia Paratus

    TARFU EDC!!!!! Junkie

    We've set a certain standard here Darcy. ;)
    TOM BIHN Crew likes this.