For those of you unfamiliar with TOM BIHN, you are up for a treat to learn more about this remarkable company that has been designing and making thoughtful, quality backpacks and bags for everyday carry, travel, work, and more in Seattle, WA for years. It also just so happens to be one of our esteemed brand partners!
The story all began when Tom, founder of TOM BIHN, asked his parents for help in getting the hiking and camping equipment he wanted when he was just 10 years old. They suggested two options: get an after-school job to earn money to buy it or figure out how to make it himself. Tom chose option two. Using his grandmother’s fixed-up home sewing machine, his Mom taught him how to sew, and his Dad provided the foundations of the necessary engineering. The rest is history…
Today, TOM BIHN’s design, manufacturing, fulfillment, customer service, and marketing departments all work together in the same 16,000-square-foot location in Seattle where they collaborate, problem-solve, and innovate in ways made only possible by sharing the same space. The company believes this work philosophy results in a better bag for you while making it more
fun for them too.
Creativity is TOM BIHN’s passion – working on new designs, developing new materials, improving existing internal procedures, updating the website, and taking new photos, which it does internally. The company has been designing and making bags for 30 years, which has given them time-tested learning over the years to know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to bag design and fabrication. This tried-and-true experience allows TOM BIHN to make bags that will better serve its dedicated community of devoted customers.
Mike VanReken (Mike V), operations and product manager at TOM BIHN, who has been with the company for over seven years, was kind to sit down with us and answer a few questions as to how the company has evolved over the years and created such a loyal following. We hope you enjoy!
Tom was a one-person operation for a really long time. He made custom bags for folks, first for friends, and eventually in a small storefront in Santa Cruz, CA during the 80s and 90s. He also repaired other brands of bags for folks during those years and he often speaks about how much he learned about designing high-quality bags through the process of repairing bags. There are actually a few bag designs from those days that are still around like the Cafe Bags, and a couple of others from that period that have been revisited and tweaked to slightly more modern standards like the Le Petite Derriere and the Old School Carry All.
I’ve personally been working with outdoor bags and packs since about 2000 and was an active hiker and outdoors person before that. One thing I think is noteworthy is that just those 20-some years ago a lot of the larger backpack companies still made things in the US. Materials have definitely improved over the last couple decades, specifically fabrics.
Materials like Cordura and Parapack were about the highest quality fabric that were commonly used back then and now those materials, while still great, are a little antiquated. Designs have changed a lot too, of course, but not as much as you might think. Or maybe it’s better to say that some ideas have come and gone but the basics of backpacks and luggage aren’t all that different.
We actually try to not target a typical customer. While our bags are considered higher-end, we want to design and make bags that anyone would or could use. And we’re transparent about what goes into our bags so folks can understand what they’re paying for. Our bags have a great reputation for lasting a long time, so I think people are willing to save and invest a little because of that.
A couple of memorable comments are from people who have a bag from Tom’s Santa Cruz days that they still use. What a story those 30+-year-old bags have to tell! We are well-known for our open and honest style of customer service and communication also and when folks call that out, it always feels really good – we’re proud to have that kind of relationship with customers.
It was just at the end of 2022, lined up with the launch of a new backpack, the Addax. We’ve been using a really great, lightweight ripstop for several years that we call 400d Halcyon and the mill that makes it for us stopped producing it. That opened an opportunity to explore new high-end material options to offer alongside our tried-and-true ballistic nylon and after trying a number of the fabrics on the market, we were really drawn to work with the X-Pac® RX30 material.
X-Pac® has a following of its own so it’s been fun to get to know some people who are looking for that material specifically. And for our regular customers, it’s been great to show them why we think this is a great fabric. We’re a certified B-Corp company and we’re always working towards more sustainable business practices. The RX30, made with all recycled content and a PFC-free DWR coating, is right in line with what we’re trying to offer.
My very favorite is the Synapse 19, which we just recently started offering in X-Pac®. I still use
an older one I’ve had around for a while, but the new material is calling my name.
For travel, I really love our Techonaut 30 on my back and one of our smaller shoulder carry bags for the airplane seat- usually either a Co-Pilot or one of our newest bags, the Side Hustle.
We’re not a huge company but we’ve made bags for a long time, so you see them around in airports a fair bit. It’s always a trip to see them, and there’s a little bit of that motorcycle culture where you nod to other TOM BIHN bag folks you see. I had someone comment on my travel bags once (an Aeronaut 30 and Co-Pilot) and they nearly lost it when I explained that I work for the company and what I do. I’d have missed my flight if I’d talked to them as long as they wanted to, and I think they may have missed theirs!
We’ve got a very exciting project in the works that I won’t say much about but it’s going to be a fantastic addition to our lineup. Our designer, Jose, is mid-way into prototypes, and we’ll likely start wearing and testing samples in the coming weeks. We also have more accessory ideas than we could possibly make but that is such a fun and large part of our business. The beauty of being the size company we are, and having our own factory is that we can turn things around in design and development REALLY quickly. It’s so fun to see an idea go from conception to being sold in just a few weeks’ time. It usually takes longer than that, but it’s not unheard of!
I’ve got some family travel to the east coast that is tentatively planned, and my wife, and I have been working to get a COVID-postponed trip to Europe back on the books. Hopefully this Fall!
I love seeing new US cities I don’t know well, picking a spot in the middle of things, and then walking everywhere. Some of my favorite trips are when we don’t have any connections to a place, and we walk for miles and miles just exploring shops and restaurants – getting to see what the city has to offer. I get to live in one of the prettiest cities in the US, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to see other places.
Thanks so much for taking the time to learn more about TOM BIHN! If you would like more information about the company and its fabulous collection of bags, please visit https://www.tombihn.com/.