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Product Review: Tom Bihn Western Flyer in 400d Dyneema Nylon

Seattle-based bag manufacturer Tom Bihn has been selling his popular Western Flyer carry-on bag (in the classic hideaway backpack straps version as well as the more recent rolling luggage handle version) for several years now. The medium-sized bag, a smaller sibling to the larger Tri-Star, has been popular with light travelers as a main carry-on bag, with those looking for a hefty laptop/briefcase overnighter, and with those looking for a generously sized carry-on to complement their check-in luggage.

The Tom Bihn Western Flyer in Nordic blue Dyneema. Photo by Lani Teshima.

The birth of a thicker fabric

Tom Bihn worked extensively with his fabric manufacturer in Japan to come up with a heftier version of the lightweight, slash-proof Dyneema nylon fabric he used as a liner for his travel bags. Wanting to offer a heavier version of the fabric that he could use as an exterior fabric on his carry-on bags, the result is a 400-denier weight version that is twice as thick as the 200-denier weight Dyneema (which Tom Bihn uses as a liner fabric and for lighter-weight items like the shopping bags).

The front pocket can it an iPad or small magazine. Photo by Lani Teshima.

The new fabric was announced through the website earlier this fall and was offered in two colors—the familiar dark gray “steel” and a new “Nordic” blue—Tom Bihn, for the first time, introduced 400d Dyneema nylon carry-on bags in his three main models: The Aeronaut, the Tri-Star, and the Western Flyer (as well as in some of his smaller products, incuding the Synapse backpack and Small Cafe Bag shoulder bag).

The main selling point on the Dyneema version of these bags is lighter weight. Most of the 400d Dyneema models are roughly 20 percent lighter than their ballistic nylon counterparts. This may not seem like a big deal for some, but those on the Tom Bihn forums needing to minimize their carry-on weight in order to meet the more stringent requirements of European air carriers welcomed this announcement with great cheer.

The Western Flyer

Of the three main carry-on bags Tom Bihn sells, the Western Flyer is the smallest. Shaped like the Tri-Star, the Western Flyer is smaller. Only 18″ by 12″ by 7″, it is substantially smaller than the maximum allowable carry-on size for most airlines (which is typically 21″ x 14″ x 7″), and when not fully packed, can easily pass as a larger laptop case.

The backpack version of the Western Flyer has hideaway backpack straps that zip up into a compartment in the back of the bag. Photo by Lani Teshima.

The hideaway backpack straps are nothing to sneeze at. They’re sturdy, padded, and contoured so you can wear the bag comfortably. Photo by Lani Teshima.

The Western Flyer has two main compartments, as well as smaller pockets in the front. The main compartments open completely, allowing you to pack clothes in one compartment and electronic gear in the second, for example. When I pack my Western Flyer, I typically pack clothes in the back compartment, and use the front compartment to pack extra shoes, toiletry bag, makeup bag, and other extras in organizer pouches. This leaves the front zippered pockets for stashing smaller items I might need for the flight, like iPod, earphones, boarding passes, and wallet.

The main compartment unzips completely and lies flat, making packing much easier. Photo by Lani Teshima.

A look at the Dyneema version of the Western Flyer

I’ve been traveling regularly with a Western Flyer for a number of years. I consider it my go-to carry-on, and although I turn to the bigger Tri-Star for dual-purpose trips (two different climates, two different types of trips rolled into one, and so on—my next one will be a week-long cruise in February followed by a half-marathon, on the same trip) and have traveled with smaller bags, I am most familiar with the Western Flyer. I’m familiar with the size of the compartments. I know what I can fit into them. I know what I typically pack into the segments.

The front compartment also opens up fully, however it has a center divider that lets you separate the space into two segments. To open the compartment completely or to not use the divider, simply unzip it. Photo by Lani Teshima.

So when I got my hands on the Dyneema version of the Western Flyer, there weren’t a lot of surprises. For Western Flyer fans, you can rest assured knowing that the Dyneema version is identical to the ballistic nylon version. All the zippers work the same way, the insides are still lined with (the lighter 200d) Dyneema, all the internal seams are covered. The bag is lighter, but there’s nothing here that feels cheaper about the new fabric.

Small touches, like a key strap in one of the front pockets, and little plastic rings on which to clip your keys, are hallmarks of a well-made bag from Tom Bihn. Photo by Lani Teshima.

While I knew the Dyneema version of the bag would be lighter, I was pleasantly surprised by some additional things I noticed during a recent test run on a Thanksgiving weekend trip:

  • Lighter – it’s one thing to read that the Dyneema version weighs 20 percent less, and another to actually walk around with a packed bag. I’m short (5-feet 3 inches in thick socks), and the lighter weight of the bag was quite noticeable when I was walking around carrying the bag with the backpack straps.
  • Far more forgivingwhen packing – I hadn’t really considered this, but it made sense once I gave it some thought. You can really cram stuff into the internal organizer cubes Tom Bihn sells, and they’re made from Dyneema, as well. Dyneema is thinner and very flexible—so it’s easy to squish it down when you zip it up. A good comparison is the front pockets on the Western Flyer. I’ve typically stored my iPad in one of them, but it’s always been a very tight fit, and with the ballistic nylon version, I’ve had to shimmy the iPad in and tug and pull at the corners of the pocket to get things to seat right. No such hassle with the Dyneema version; the fabric “stretches” and has more give, making stashing the iPad much easier.

    The bottle pocket is a good example to test out the fabric’s give. Try to fit a wide bottle in the pocket and zip it up. It feels much easier with the Dyneema version. Photo by Lani Teshima.

  • Folds down flat– this was a  factor I didn’t even think about. But when I got to the hotel, I unpacked everything into the closet and dresser. I usually keep my bag on the valet stand because I don’t want to just sit it down, empty, on the floor. But I discovered that when I emptied the bag, it lay as flat as a pancake. So I wound up putting the emptied Western Flyer in a dresser drawer and stashed it out the way. This would come in really handy when you’re staying in a tiny hotel room where real estate is at a premium, or when you’re on a cruise ship. Since it’s so light when empty, you could even zip everything back up and hang it up on a hanger in the closet.

    The Dyneema Western Flyer folds down very flat when empty. Photo by Lani Teshima.

  • Super smooth surface– if you’re a fan of Dyneema like I am, you know that the fabric is super-smooth. Nothing snags on this fabric. And if you get any dirt on it, you can just wipe it off and it comes off right away, and smaller bits of dirt won’t get caught in the weave of the fabric. The Dyneema feels slicker than the ballistic nylon, and even though the Western Flyer is the same size regardless of which fabric you get, the Dyneema version seems much easier to slide in and out from the underseat area on the plane. I found it really easy to pull the Dyneema Western Flyer out from the area with the side handle during the flight as well.

    The padded side handle makes it very easy to pull the bag out from under the seat in front of you on a plane. Photo by Lani Teshima.

  • Fashionable – I didn’t think I’d hear myself say this because I’m more into the practical, but the Nordic Dyneema is quite stylish. It’s a great color; a deeper indigo hue that leans a little towards violet. It’s a great unisex color, and a real standout against the sea of bland, boring black bags everybody carries.

Drawbacks of Dyneema

Although a lighter bag is generally a good thing, the new Dyneema version may not be for everyone. If you’re not trying to shave ounces off of your carry-on or you plan to do some traveling through rough conditions, the traditional ballistic nylon is still a better option for you. In fact, the Tom Bihn website even offers this warning:

“It must be noted that while our new 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop is a very durable fabric, there is a compromise in choosing it over 1050 ballistic or Cordura® nylon: your bag will be lighter, but it won’t stand up to the all-out abuse these heavier fabrics can handle. You will need to exercise care and not drag or otherwise mistreat a bag made from 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop. It’s a compromise many will feel worthwhile, but it’s a compromise to consider.”

Also, those using a Western Flyer as their briefcase may not want to use a bag with checkered fabric, instead sticking with the more traditional black ballistic nylon.

Lani’s recommendation

As a big fan of Dyneema as a fabric, I think the Dyneema version of the Western Flyer is a wonderful addition to the Tom Bihn line-up. But if you already own a Western Flyer in ballistic nylon, should you buy the Dyneema version? The answer depends. If you use the Western Flyer for mostly car travel or you fly domestically on airlines that don’t have strict weight limits on carry-ons, or if you already really like your ballistic nylon Western Flyer and you’re happy with the color you already have, I don’t know that you necessarily have to swap out bags. The Dyneema version might be lighter, but it’s not lighter on your pocketbook; it still costs $210—which is still a ding on most people’s wallets.

If you’re a fan of Dyneema or really like the Nordic blue, you can recover a lot of the cost if you sell your ballistic nylon Western Flyer (say on eBay), especially if your bag uses a retired color (for example, with the yellow Solar interior), since there always seems to be people eyeing the market for such items. Or maybe you don’t need a second Western Flyer, but you have a close friend or family member who’d appreciate your ballistic nylon Western Flyer. You might even be able to use it as an excuse to help convince someone to try carry-on-only travel.

If you don’t yet have a Western Flyer, consider getting the Dyneema over the ballistic nylon if you want a lighter bag that uses a smoother fabric, and stands out a bit more.

If you’re a big fan of Dyneema already and you don’t own a Western Flyer yet, what are you waiting for? Get your bag now!

One additional note: If you like your purse (or “personal item” or ECD/”everyday carry”) to match your carry-on, consider getting the Dyneema Western Flyer and combine it with the Small Cafe Bag. Tom Bihn has introduced the popular unisex ECD bag in 400d Dyneema as well.

Product at a glance

  • Product name: Western Flyer
  • Manufacturer: Tom Bihn (made in the USA in his factory in Seattle)
  • Available Dyneema nylon colors: Nordic Dyneema (blue) exterior with Steel (grey) interior; Steel 400d Dyneema with Steel interior. Also available in traditional ballistic nylon colors.
  • Styles: Backpack style available in Nordic and Steel; rolling upright handle style available in Steel
  • Volume: 1600 cubic inches
  • Price: $210 plus shipping
  • Where to buy: TomBihn.com website or at their factory store in Seattle.
  • Additional notes: The bag does not come with a shoulder strap; the website offers an optional $30 padded “Absolute Strap” but if you want a plain strap you need to purchase the “Simple Shoulder Strap” ($12) from their Accessories page (hint: the Absolute Strap is much more comfortable).