Tom Bihn Synapse: An Ultralight Carry-On Challenge

As you can imagine, it’s a very rare trip where I need to check any luggage in. For the last few years, I’ve been using a Tri-Star or Western Flyer convertible travelpack from Seattle-based bag maker Tom Bihn.

With my upcoming nine-day vacation to Japan, I assumed I’d use one of those bags. However a month ago, a saw a forum post over at Tom Bihn’s that I found intriguing. Although many of the forum members share their packing lists or photos of their Tom Bihn bags, the thread started by member LauraA, who proudly proclaimed on the thread title, “My beautiful new SYNAPSE arrived today! I ‘practice packed’ it for a two week trip!

A red Dyneema nylon Synapse. Photo courtesy of

While traveling with just a carryon for a two-week trip is nothing new, her thread title exuded excitement, and piqued my interest. In her post, she shared a detailed packing list, as well as several photos showing exactly how she was planning on packing such a small backpack.

All of a sudden, her excitement rubbed off on me, and I decided I’d challenge myself by going “ultralight” for the Japan trip myself.

As with a previous trip (when we went to Europe) when we were challenged to travel extra-lightly, I knew I had to be extremely efficient with the space I had. It took a bit of debating in my own head, I believe I’ve been able to pack my steel Dyneema nylon Synapse backpack for my trip, as well!

My Synapse backpack (at the top of the photo) next to the various things that I will carry in it. Photo by Lani Teshima.

The contents of the Synapse, as shown in the photo, are:

  • Synapse
  • iPad (1st gen), in Apple case
  • Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Cube containing the bulk of my clothes, which contains:
    • 2 short-sleeve T-shirts
    • 1 pair lightweight capri denim pants
    • 1 pair lightweight black capris
    • 2 crinkle-fabric travel shirts
    • 1 Salux wash cloth
  • Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Half Cube, which contains a pair of MBT open-toed sandals
  • Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Quarter Cube, which contains my underwear (2 pairs of panties, 1 bra)
  • My 3-1-1 kit
  • Eagle Creek Packable Tote bag (in case I buy some stuff in Japan that can’t fit*
  • Tom Bihn Solar Travel Tray
  • Tom Bihn Small Clear Organizer Pouch as my make-up kit
  • Inflatable foot rest
  • Tom Bihn Small Solar Organizer Pouch for my Sennheiser noise cancelling folding headphones
  • Adventure Medic first aid kit

As I mentioned in my post in LauraA’s thread, some notes:

You don’t see any chargers for the iPad because I’m carrying that in my “purse,” which for this trip will be a matching steel Dyneema Packing Cube Shoulder Bag.

Took a bit of work to get all my makeup to fit in a small organizer rather than the Kit or even a clear pouch. The trick was to move my eyeshadow from its big clunky case into a contact lens case (I found instructions online). It snaps shut and is waterproof, which makes it perfect for preventing any eyeshadow from flaking out.

I tested the Eagle Creek Tote Bag, and it will easily fit my PCSB in it. But it’s really only as big as one of those ladies’ tote bag purses, so if I need, I can carry that with my Synapse on my flight home.

The inflatable foot rest is a real splurge. I also have a small folding plastic one I got from Magellan’s a while go and I may choose to take that instead (it slides into the front pocket of the PCSB real easily), but the inflatable one is so much more comfortable. I typically am ok with just compression socks, but we’re flying direct to Japan and I’d really like to be able to sit comfortably on the flight.

This packing light cuts a few corners, and was easier to put together because I don’t plan on doing anything fancy (like formal dinners) or extreme sports. I’m not even taking a bathing suit, or any sort of towel.

Product details:

  • Synapse backpack, available in either 1000 denire Cordura with Dyneema nylon lining, or all-Dyneema.
  • Dimensions are 16″ x 11.5″ x 7.9″; 410 x 290 x 200mm . Volume: 19 liters (1160
  • Weight: 1 pound 9 ounces (Cordura)
  • Price: $130.00
  • Typically available in several colors; check the product web page for color availability.


  1. Are you able to publish a fully packed photo of the Synapse? I have one in navy and I am impressed with what you were able to pack. I am going to try just taking the Synapse on my next trip. Thank you.

  2. While you’re there, check out Muji – they have some interesting travel gear including packing cubes that collapse into a ery small pocket.

  3. I’d like to know how this all turned out. Were you happy with packing this light? Was there anything you wish you could have brought? Hope your trip went well. 🙂

  4. Hi Lisa. The trip did indeed work out well. I even planned for the need to carry home more stuff (souvenirs!) with an expanding tote bag from REI. One thing that was a bit of a pain was that I’d packed everything up so tightly, and I didn’t really take into account the extra time I would need in the morning when packing everything back up. We wound up moving through four different hotels so that was a lot of extra packing! I’m happy I got to meet the challenge, but I think I might have been OK carrying something like a Tom Bihn Smart Alec backpack. That bag has a little more room so it would’ve been a little easy packing up in the mornings.

  5. Next time I take a trip with a fully packed Synapse, I’ll try to remember to take a photo. I thought about doing it for my Japan trip, but to be honest, the picture isn’t very helpful because all you see are edges of things inside the bag.

  6. When I read your blog and realized you were going ultralight with a 19L bag, my first thought was “That’s small, even for ultralight”. And it seems you have realized the same. You need a bag with a bit extra room, so that it will be easier to pack, and have enough room for those times when you temporarily need extra space (eg, when you want to fit a big bottle of water or some food while moving in-between hotels). The name of the game is ultralight, not ultrasmall.

    Nevertheless, I’m impressed you did it with such a tiny bag. Kudos.

  7. Thanks Chriszzz. My intention was to try it as an experiment… but in that particular trip, I actually *was* also looking to go ultrasmall and not just ultralight. I think the trick in the future, if I decide to go with just a Synapse again, is to take a really good/lightweight expandable tote. The one I took could’ve been lighter and easier to shoulder.

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