Adding PALS / MOLLE Straps to my Tom Bihn Paragon Backpack

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 can also strap a day bag (in my case, a Tom Bihn Side Hustle) to the front using carabiner clips.

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!

The Special Quality of Crafts

Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the mingei (folk craft) movement in Japan, on craft:

The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge or the lofty as the beauty of the familiar. People hang art high up on the walls, but they place objects for everyday use close to them, and take them into their hands.

Via the Tom Bihn blog.

My Top Blog Posts in 2013

Here are my top 10 blog posts from 2013 (unique visits in parentheses, bolded items explained below):

  1. Aaron Swartz (3,105)
  2. Tom Bihn Bags for Micro Four Thirds Cameras (1,732)
  3. Seeking Google Alerts Replacement (699)
  4. Balance, Impact, and Next Steps (333)
  5. Three Simple Hacks for Making Delightful Virtual Spaces (300)
  6. Survey on Changemaker Challenges (255)
  7. Five Tips for Facilitating Power Dynamics (235)
  8. WikiWednesday in San Francisco: State of the Wiki Ecosystem (199)
  9. Balance Bikes for Changemakers (199)
  10. Lessons on Mentors and Mentorship (158)

I found this breakdown curious, and it speaks to why I started my new website, Faster Than 20. The purpose of this blog is not to build an audience. It’s a place to record my thoughts. If others find my posts useful, great. If my posts catalyze interesting interactions and lead to new connections and learning, even better.

My site statistics reflect my lack of intentionality as well as the vagaries of attention on the Internet. The top post by far was a memory I shared about Aaron Swartz, someone I barely knew. Obviously, his suicide was big news, and rightfully so. But my tribute to Doug Engelbart — someone whom I knew well and who was more famous than Aaron — didn’t even crack my top 25 most visited posts. (It was 27.)

My second most visited post was about camera bags. I’ve written over 650 posts, and none of them have been even remotely similar to that piece. Why the popularity? Mostly because it was reshared by Tom Bihn, the manufacturer I mentioned in the post, but also because there’s not a lot of good information on the Internet about bags for micro-four-thirds cameras, which was why I wrote the post in the first place. From that perspective, I’m glad that it’s been a popular post.

On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed that the knowledge nuggets I shared about collaboration (by rough count, about 75 percent of my posts this past year) were not more prominently represented in the top 10. (The ones that were are bolded.) I think that several have been useful and important, but they have not been widely accessed. This could either mean that I’m overstating their importance in my head, or that I haven’t been intentional enough about building the audience.

Both are probably true, which is why I started Faster Than 20. I’m happy about keeping this space as is, but I want more people to read what I have to share about collaboration. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference intention makes next year.

Tom Bihn Bags for Micro Four Thirds Cameras

Tom Bihn Side Effect and Camera Lenses

Choosing a good camera bag is hard. It’s a very personal endeavor on two levels: style and functionality. How people use their cameras and what they decide to carry differ significantly for different people.

When I decided to step up my photography game earlier this year, I decided to go with a Micro Four Thirds system — specifically, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 — rather than a DSLR. The reason largely boiled down to size and quality. There are awesome lenses available for Micro Four Thirds, and the equipment as a whole is significantly smaller and lighter than the equivalent DSLR camera and lenses. When I see my  friends lugging around giant packs of equipment, I just shake my head. In this day and age, it’s just not necessary.

Once I had acquired my new equipment, I needed to figure out how I was going to carry it all around. Specifically, I wanted something:

  • Small. What’s the point otherwise of smaller equipment?
  • Ergonomic. Again, what’s the point of small and light if your bag is not designed to feel comfortable?
  • High quality. My equipment is expensive. I didn’t need to be putting at risk in a cheap bag.
  • Accessible. Compact isn’t helpful if you have to dig around to get your equipment.
  • Stylish. I’m not exactly a fashionista, but I like things that look good.
  • Flexible. I didn’t necessarily need a single system to work for all occasions. If it made sense to have different bags for different occasions, I was willing to do that… within reason. I didn’t want to have a bunch of unitasking bags floating around either.

Given the flexibility requirement, the first question I asked was, “How can I use my carry this equipment in my existing bags?”

I’m brand loyal to very few companies, but one of them is Tom Bihn, a Seattle-based company that makes beautiful, functional bags. I bought my first Tom Bihn bag in 2008, and I have consistently bought new bags (for different purposes — these things are designed to last forever) approximately every two years. I also have a boatload of accessories. They are not cheap, but they are high-quality, they look great, and they are superbly functional. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

I first bought a Brain Bag as a travel backpack that could hold a whole bunch of stuff efficiently and ergonomically. That bag was so comfortable, I replaced my messenger bag with it and started using it as my every day work bag. However, there were certain situations — walking around the city for the day, for example — when a big bag was overkill, and all I needed was something that would carry my water bottle, a pocket camera, and a book. I eventually bought a Medium Cafe Bag to fulfill that role.

This past year, I bought a Synapse 19, which has become my primary day and work bag. There is a larger version of the Synapse (the Synapse 25), but the smaller one is more comfortable, it fits quite a bit for its size, and it forces you to be smart about what you carry. I realized that most of the stuff I had been carrying around in my Brain Bag were “just in case” items. I was better off focusing on what I actually needed. It’s a shift in my philosophy about bags, one that colored my choice in photography bags.

So the first question was, could I carry my equipment around in my existing bags? The second question was, did I need to get another bag to fulfill different needs? The answer to both questions was yes.

Tom Bihn makes a camera insert for the Brain Bag called the Camera I-O. However, it’s designed for a DSLR system and was overkill for my camera. It also only fits in the Brain Bag. I wanted something that worked with my smaller bags.

I ended up buying this $20 insert from It’s holds my camera and two additional lenses easily, and it fits perfectly into my Medium Cafe Bag, as you can see from the video below:

It fits easily into my Brain Bag, of course, but it’s a tight fit in my Synapse, and I can’t fit my laptop sleeve at the same time. My Synapse is good for carrying additional gear — lenses in lens pouches or the Side Effect (as described below), a flash, etc. — but it really doesn’t work well as a camera bag. And frankly, I don’t want to be using a backpack as a camera bag. It’s too hard to get my gear in and out.

The Medium Cafe Bag with insert works fine for most cases, but it’s not big or functional enough to carry additional gear. It’s also not functional enough for volume shooting — for example, if I’m shooting an event. In the latter case, I don’t want my camera in a bag. I use a BlackRapid Metro shoulder strap to hold my camera, but I needed something to hold my lenses. The Medium Cafe Bag or any other camera bag would have been overkill.

As it turned out, Tom Bihn had a great solution: the Side Effect, which can be used as a waist pack or a tiny shoulder pack. It can easily hold three lenses or two in heavily padded pouches. It can also fit in the bottom pocket of my Synapse 19, which gives me a modular, padded system for carrying my lenses in my backpack.

I wear the Side Effect with my lenses around my waist, as I describe in the video below. The original Side Effect had built-in, tuckaway waist straps, but it seems that most customers didn’t want that, so they replaced them with removable waist straps. I’m probably the only person in the world who wishes that they had kept the old waist straps, but it’s not a big deal. This system works fine.

The above bag combinations covers a good percentage of my needs. However, there are times when I don’t want to be carrying my camera on my shoulder (if I’m walking through a sketchy neighborhood, for example), I still want to have easy access to my camera (meaning a shoulder bag rather than a backup), and I need to carry more than my Medium Cafe Bag can easily accommodate (a flash, for example).

I thought about getting a Co-Pilot to fulfill this need, but the lack of built-in padding and my concerns about how efficient the space would be for this specific needs were deterrents. I decided I wanted a dedicated shoulder camera bag for this, and unfortunately, Tom Bihn does not make one. (Please consider it!)

I investigated a ton of camera-specific brands, and I ended up getting a Billingham-Hadley Small. These are gorgeous, high-quality bags, and it turned out to be the most functional as well as the perfect size. My only gripe is that it does not have a handle on the top (larger versions of the bag do). It’s perfect for keeping what I need most accessible, and if I need to carry additional items “just in case,” I wear my Synapse 19 as well.

I ended up choosing expensive bags, but it’s all well worth it in my opinion. Often, people buy cheaper bags, find that they don’t quite work, and then buy additional bags. It ends up adding up, both in expense and also in space and mindshare. Better to pay the money up-front for the right bag. If you do your research and especially if you’re willing to buy used, you can also find some good deals on the above bags.

I also can’t help reiterating how awesome the form factor of these systems are. I can carry quite a bit of equipment around very discreetly, and I don’t feel the effects of the weight, even if I’m on my feet all day.

I invested a ton of time into thinking about how I wanted to use my equipment and finding the bags that fit my needs, but it was worth it, and I hope others find the fruit of my research useful as well.