Update September 2016: While I still love the Aeronaut, I now use and recommend the Timbuk2 Aviator backpack, which I took on a 5-week trip to Paris in fall 2015. It’s got a hip belt, so now my shoulders are no longer aching! For more details, check out my Timbuk2 Aviator Review.
Back in April I wrote about my search for the best carry-on bag for a long-term trip to South America. It was my attempt at one bag travel, a movement towards minimalism during travel. After researching and testing different bags (including the Eagle Creek Adventure Weekender, a review of which I’ll post next), the one I decided to bring to South America is the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. The Seattle-based company sent me a product sample of the Aeronaut for the purpose of reviewing it on my blog. Rest assured, my Tom Bihn Aeronaut review will still be brutally honest (would you expect anything less from me?).
After toting the Aeronaut around South America for five months, I’m ready to tell you how it held up. The Aeronaut has accompanied me to Machu Picchu (twice), been thrown into many a crowded colectivo, bus, and train, sat beside me in restaurants while I ate, and even served as my pillow on a bench in the Lima airport and on the floor of the Miami airport. In fact, the Aeronaut has been my most constant and reliable companion during my time in South America.
Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you come home to find a box from Tom Bihn on your doorstep.
Dimensions: 22″ x 14″ x 9″ / 555 x 355 x 230 mm
Weight: 1050d high tenacity ballistic nylon: 3 lb 1 oz / 1395 grams 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop: 2 lb 7 oz / 1095 grams
Volume: 2700 cubic in / 45 liters (ASTM Standard Measure)
Price: $250 (Tom Bihn is currently making some minor updates to the Aeronaut 45; to get this updated version, you would pay $280)
What I Love
- Water resistant, easy-to-clean material
The Aeronaut is made with 1050 denier high tenacity ballistic nylon, a sturdy, ripstop, water-resistant material. This bag has been rained on, thrown onto the ground in the streets of Cusco, stuffed into tiny overhead bins, and slept upon at airports. It’s earned a few tiny scars, but they’re hardly noticeable scuffs in the fabric. It’s still in great shape. I’ve spilled water on it before, and watched as the water beads rolled off the fabric, kind of like on duck feathers.
- Sturdy YKK zippers
What’s YKK? Basically top-of-the-line, reliable zippers. This is an essential feature. Zipper failure happens on almost every bag, and I have stuffed the Aeronaut really full at times–but the zippers have never broken. On top of that, the YKK Coil Aquaguard zippers Tom Bihn employs for the Aeronaut form a sort of water-repellent seal, so you don’t have to worry about your things getting wet should it rain.
- Ability to convert from backpack to duffel
This was a major criteria for my “perfect carry-on.” I refused to look at anything that couldn’t be carried as a backpack and duffel. But what has surprised me is that I rarely ever carry it as a duffel. When the Aeronaut is fully packed, because of its size, it becomes very clunky and uncomfortable to carry as a duffel.
- Sternum strap
This is helpful, but could be better. While it does help to relieve some stress off my shoulders, after a few minutes, I’m still resorting to hooking my thumbs underneath the straps, leaning forward, and hoisting them off my shoulders to find relief.
- Packing cubes
To be honest, I was very skeptical about these. I’d never used them before, and I just didn’t see how it would make a difference–but they do! I am now a packing cube convert, and I highly, highly recommend using them when packing. Not only do they compress things once you zip them up, they also keep you organized and prevent the contents of your bag from slipping and sliding around. They definitely make it easier to pack more things into a small space.
- End compartments
These are perfect for storing shoes and things you need quick access to.
No offense backpackers, but I wanted to travel with a backpack without looking like a backpacker. The Aeronaut is sleek, minimal, and, dare I say, sexy?
- Can be carried onto (almost) ALL flights
I was worried the Aeronaut was going to be a bit too hefty to be considered carry-on on some flights, but I’m happy to report that’s not the case. I’ve taken it on eight flights so far, and among them, only ONE made me valet check the bag (and most people’s bags) because it was too large for the small regional jet. Other than that, the Aeronaut fits snugly into every airline box carry-on size checker I’ve come across. Take a look at the pictures below for proof.
What I Don’t Like
- Backpack straps can be uncomfortable
This is not a dedicated backpack, so it’s not as comfortable as one would be.
- No support for top of backpack straps
This is a common flaw in many backpack/duffel bags: poor support. Since the top of the backpack strap is located a few inches below the top of the bag, what happens is, when packed full, the excess bag at the top will sag, which is why you find yourself hooking your thumbs along the straps on your chest and pulling forward. A simple, small strap connecting the top of the backpack strap to the top of the bag itself would solve this problem.
- Waist strap costs extra and also is not padded
I was going to purchase a waist strap for extra support until I realized it’s just a simple belt–no padding. I’m not sure it would help much.
- Just a tad bigger than what I actually need
At first I was annoyed by this, but now I really like it. I can fit everything I need into it, and still have room to carry extras. **Update: I just found out Tom Bihn recently released the Aeronaut 30, a smaller bag. I have yet to try it though.**
What I Packed in My Tom Bihn Aeronaut for 5 Months in South America
You’d be surprised how much you can fit in this bag. Check it out below:
- 7 shirts
- 1 cardigan
- 1 jacket
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 dress
- 2 pants
- 1 pair of leggings
- 1 pair of ballet flats
- 1 pair of sandals
- 1 pair of zip-up hiking shoes
- 1 MacBook
- 1 Kindle
- 1 small phrasebook
- 1 small notebook
These items that are pictured above I ended up not bringing: 1 towel, 1 hairbrush, 1 pair of running shoes. These things pictured above are what I wore on the plane: shirt, tank top, jacket, pair of jeans, pair of boots, leggings, wool socks, and a scarf.
Would I Recommend it?
Yes! Though it could use some added support in the backpack carrying option, I think it hits the mark everywhere else. From its YKK zippers, to its 1050 denier fabric, this bag screams high-quality in every tiny detail. After toting it around for five months in South America, I can honestly say the Tom Bihn Aeronaut is one sturdy, well-designed, and beautiful bag. This is definitely the one to get if you want flexibility and want to be able to carry everything you need in one bag–but don’t want to look like a typical backpacker.
For more details or to purchase a bag, visit the Tom Bihn website.
*Disclosure: Tom Bihn provided me with a complimentary Aeronaut and packing cubes in exchange for an honest review.