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Tom Bihn Smart Alec Backpack Review: Part One

I have a soft spot for products that are truly multipurpose.  It means there was at least an attempt on the designers’ part to think about how someone would use the product in their daily life and incorporate enough features to add flexibility.  The redesigned Tom Bihn Smart Alec on paper is one of those products.  ”Commute to Work. Escape to the Mountains.”  Can the Smart Alec truly make a seamless transition between the trail and the office?  We’ll attempt to answer that question in this two-part review.

Mountains are hard to come by in the Chicago area.  But, we do have nature preserves and that provided me the backdrop to spend a little quality time on the trail with this pack.  Temperatures have hovered in the high twenties to mid thirties and we’ve had a little snow.  The colder temperatures thin out the crowds.

The Tom Bihn Smart Alec is 1,600 cubic inches/26 liters in volume, which in my opinion is a good size for a day pack.  It measures 18.5″ L x 11.75″ W x 7.75″ D.  As I discussed in an earlier Gear Diary post the abrasion resistant 1050D and 1000D Condura nylon shell is also water-repellent and all the zippers are YKK Aquaguard.  The most recent version of the bag adds additional loops on the front that can be used to secure items via bungee or glow wire.  There will also be accessories that can attach to the loops using Gatekeeper Clips including Modular Pockets and the Wide Webbing Accessory Straps.  Here I’m using the straps to secure my MSR Snowshoe Flotation Tails.  I was a little worried about them coming loose and getting lost.  They didn’t budge despite being bounced around.

IMG_20121227_105908_207

Even when using the Accessory Straps, the upper loops and bungee cord can still be used to hold other items for quick access.

Tom Bihn Upper Loops

Our review bag was in Tom Bihn’s Black/Black/Wasabi Green color combination.  The high vis interior is stunning and really aided with finding items quickly in the top loaded main compartment.  The material used is 200 Denier Riptstop Nylon reinforced with Dyneema – a UHMW (ultra high molecular weight) fiber developed by a Dutch company DMS.  Anthony Sculimbrene over at Every Day Commentary wrote an outstanding article on the benefits of Dyneema for his review of the Tom Bihn Dyneema Synapse so I won’t cover it again here.

The main compartment has two rows of webbing sewn in with two loops each.  These can be used to mount Tom Bihn’s Vertical Brain Cell or Horizontal Brain Cell via Annex Clips (shown) for laptop carry.  More on that later in Part Two of this review.Tom Bihn Smart Alec Main Compartment

There are also “O-Rings” to attach Key Straps of various lengths to a huge assortment of pouches and accessories.  I used one to hang my Camelbak Low Profile 3L Omega Water Beast hydration reservoir.

Camelbak 3L Water Beast in the Smart Alec

I used another to tether a 3D Mesh Organizer Cube with some essentials that fit perfectly in the slip pocket in the bottom of the bag.  3D Mesh Organizer Cube

I also attached my carry EDC blade…  Tom Bihn Accessory Strap

There are two zippered pouches that are readily accessible when the top panel is opened.  I used these to store my headlamp, 550 paracord, and some snacks.  In general, the Tom Bihn Smart Alec main compartment can be configured to suit a variety of load outs and is only limited to the wearers’ need, imagination, and budget.

Adding to the pack’s storage are two long outer zippered pockets.  One is designed to securely hold a 1-1.5 liter water bottle.  Since I carried the hydration reservoir, I used it instead to hold my First Aid Kit with room to spare.

The other pocket has a small admin panel with two pen slots and a pocket-sized for a wallet or smartphone.  I stored my survival kit, Rite in the Rain Notepad, pen, and a small Tripod there.

One change that was done in the latest redesign of the Tom Bihn Smart Alec was the addition of a padded mesh back panel.  This helped my back stay reasonably dry although I believe the inclusion of some raised cells on the back panel would have been more effective.  The EVAZOTE® foam shoulder straps were comfortable and more than adequate to carry a typical day hike loadout.  There isn’t a port for a reservoir hose, but Tom Bihn does include a clip that can be switched to either shoulder strap to keep the hose secure.

Here are some shots of me wearing the Smart Alec.  I’m a large guy at 6’4″, 250 lbs and I usually prefer a longer pack for my torso length.  However, I found the fully loaded Smart Alec to be exceptionally balanced and it distributed the weight evenly to the point that I favor it now over some of my packs that are specifically designed for trail use.  It’s also light weight for a 1000D pack at 1 lb, 13 oz empty.

The Smart Alec does include a waist strap, but I detached it because for me it becomes more of a torso strap and I generally prefer not to use waist straps on packs this size.    Your mileage may vary.  The strap is connected via Gatekeeper Clips so it doesn’t leave any hardware behind when removed.  The same is true for the detachable sternum strap.

Strap management could have been better.  Tom should include some keepers – especially with the Wide Webbing Accessory Straps.

CONCLUSION

Overall, I found the Tom Bihn Smart Alec to be a perfectly viable alternative to a dedicated hiking pack that would be used for short excursions in the backcountry.  It doesn’t have all the built-in bell and whistles but I like that an investment in this bag could be leveraged for something other than the daily commute to the office.  In Part Two of this review, I will be looking at how the Smart Alec performs in an EDC (Every Day Carry) role.  Stay Tuned.

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9 Responses so far.

  1. [...] “Here are some shots of me wearing the Smart Alec. I’m a large guy at 6’4″, 250 lbs and I usually prefer a longer pack for my torso length. However, I found the fully loaded Smart Alec to be exceptionally balanced and it distributed the weight evenly to the point that I favor it now over some of my packs that are specifically designed for trail use. It’s also light weight for a 1000D pack at 1 lb, 13 oz empty.” [...]

  2. Saver says:

    excellent review…

  3. Arnie says:

    Very good write-up. I look forward to the next chapter. This reinforces my decision to purchase the same pack.

  4. Brian Isikoff says:

    Great review and photos. I look forward to Part 2.

  5. David King,R.N. says:

    Nice review, as always, and great pix.
    Really like the light color interior.
    Like the Gatekeeper & Annex Clips.
    A versatile pack, IMO.

    • admin says:

      Thanks David. You’re right about the Gatekeeper and Annex Clips. They do make the Smart Alec more versatile and that will be a major theme in Part Two of this review. ;-)

  6. [...] Part One of this review, I took the Smart Alec into the wild on a day hike.  I will now focus on Every Day [...]

  7. [...] I mentioned in Part One and Part Two of my Tom Bihn Smart Alec review, one of the great aspects of the pack are the [...]

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