I recently added PALS straps to the sides of my Tom Bihn Paragon Guide’s Edition backpack, and I’m very happy with the results. It allows me to attach MOLLE accessories to either side (in my case, a Condor water bottle pouch, which holds my 800mL Kleen Kanteen perfectly, and a Condor gadget pouch, which holds my binoculars.
I thought about trying to sew this by hand, but I did enough research to deter me. I ended up asking a local shoe repair shop to do the work for me to my specifications. They did a wonderful job, and it made me feel good to support a great local business.
Why Mod my Bag?
Friends and family know that I have long been a Tom Bihn loyalist (although I’m still in wait-and-see mode with new ownership, who took over after Tom retired last year). They’re based in Seattle, and they’ve been making their rugged, high-quality bags in-house for decades. I bought my first bag there in 2008, and I bought my long-time everyday carry backpack — a Synapse 19 — in 2013. That bag is still my all-time favorite, and I will likely use it until it falls apart, which won’t happen in my lifetime. It’s a physically small bag, but it holds everything I need exactly where they should go, because it is so freaking thoughtfully designed.
That said, two years ago, the zipper broke. All good — Tom Bihn has a lifetime warranty on its bags and excellent customer service. I sent the bag in, and while they were repairing it, I bought a Synik 22 Guide’s Edition, just to check it out. You can think of it as an upgraded version of the Synapse 19. It has a built-in laptop sleeve, a clamshell opening, and a few extra liters of space. It also had straps where I could attach things to the outside of the bag.
During the first few years of COVID lockdown, I spent a lot of time outdoors, often taking my folding chair with me, and I found myself wishing for a way to strap my chair to my backpack. I also found myself wanting a bag that might be better suited for hiking / play, which was slightly different than my work-oriented everyday carry. I was getting into painting and birdwatching, and in addition to my camera (which had been a steady companion since 2013), I often found myself carrying binoculars, a long lens for my camera, and my watercolor kit.
I thought the Synik 22 Guide’s Edition, with its extra capacity and lash-on straps, would fit my needs, but it wasn’t quite right. It did more things, but it felt less elegant. When I got my original bag back, I promptly returned the Synik.
I resigned myself to buying another bag, one that was more of an open bucket as opposed to having a lot of built-in organization. I looked at other manufacturers, and I probably would have tried a Goruck bag, but they were having supply issues. I ended up buying the Paragon Guide’s Edition. The Paragon was a re-design of a bag Tom had designed in the 1970s. It was a simple boxy design, and the company was able to sew them more easily with their pandemic-limited capacity.
I didn’t love the bag, but it was more or less what I was looking for — an open, but still compact bag with lash straps. It was the usual high quality, and I thought it looked better than similar bags, fitting equally well in the city and in the woods. It mostly held everything I needed it to hold, although I found that it was often slightly overstuffed, and I had trouble getting stuff in and out. I also often had trouble finding what I needed — a common problem with this kind of bag, even with my various pouches and straps.
Last August, Jim Ador posted about his hacked Paragon Guide’s Edition on the Tom Bihn Facebook group. I had never considered modifying my own bag, but I thought his hack would perfectly solve my problem, and I thought his end product still looked nice. I did a little bit of research, and finally made it happen last month in time for a weekend trip to Portland.
I did a few things slightly differently than Jim. I could only fit two loops per strap, whereas Jim fit three. (I suspect he didn’t need his loops to conform exactly to the PALS spec because the accessories he’s using don’t require it). I also placed the straps a little bit higher, mainly because my water bottle accessory is so tall. Finally, I’m using large double-carabiner clips to attach my Side Hustle, whereas he used Gatekeeper Rail clips. I find the carabiner clips easier to attach and remove.
I love my modified bag. Moving the water bottle to the side frees up room inside the bag and also makes my water easily accessible when I’m walking. Similarly, carrying my binoculars on the outside of my bag takes them off my neck while still keeping them easily accessible.
My original plan was to strap my Tom Bihn Side Kick to the front, which I was already using to carry my watercolors and sketchbook. I like my Side Kick a lot, and even though it’s slightly smaller than the Side Hustle, it fit perfectly well strapped to the front. However, on my weekend trip (which I one-bagged), I found that it would have been useful to have a larger bag that could hold a few more things and that I could remove and use as a day bag. I hemmed and hawed over whether I really needed this, but I ended up buying a Side Hustle. I don’t love the bag by itself, but it fits this one specific use case perfectly, and since it’s this use case is not uncommon, it’s probably okay.
There are two downsides to the MOLLE attachments. First, they’re a pain to attach and remove. Second, if you fly a lot, and if you like to sit in the aisle, the attachments will make your bag too wide to place under the seat in front of you. For middle and window seats, your bag will still fit just fine.
If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have purchased a Tom Bihn Smart Alec instead of the Paragon. (It’s a design that’s since been retired, but many folks hope will make a return). It has about the same total volume as my hacked bag, with more built-in organization (including a water bottle pocket), elastic cord for attachments, and attachment loops to clip modular pockets, including bags such as the Side Kick. (I wish Tom Bihn would add these loops to more of their bags, including the Paragon.) It’s not as sleek as the Paragon, but I don’t think that’s too important.
Still, no regrets! My modified bag works great. Plus, who am kidding? It’s fun to hack a bag, and it’s even better when the hacks work!