When it comes to backpacks, it's always going to get a little subjective. After all, there are so many different brands, styles, materials, and price points — there is not a single "best" backpack for everyone. However, earlier this year, I had the chance to review Tom Bihn's Synik 22, which is not only my first Tom Bihn bag, but it's my favorite everyday backpack. While I haven't been leaving the house much these days, I use the Synik 22 whenever I need to take my MacBook Air with me to work.
Since the Synik 22 was my first Tom Bihn bag, I've grown to really enjoy the offerings from the company. The latest backpack from Tom Bihn is the new Shadow Guide V2 33, which is very different from the Synik 22. The Shadow Guide is a top-loading backpack, which I would associate more with hiking and day trips, rather than an everyday commuter backpack.
The original Shadow Guide came out a few years ago and it was a limited run, so you won't find it anymore. The new Shadow Guide V2 improves upon the original with a new design and features that make this bag even better.
Tom Bihn Shadow Guide V2 33
Bottom line: The Shadow Guide V2 33 is a comfy top-loading backpack that is spacious enough for all of your needs, and it closes securely with a drawstring and two plastic buckle clasps. The top pocket is large and opens up fully, making it great for keeping jackets or other quick-grab items. There is now a dedicated laptop compartment (fits up to 15-inch laptops), accessible only from the outside with a weatherproof zipper.
- Large capacity with a ton of space
- Spacious top pocket works great for quick-grab items
- Dedicated laptop compartment
- Vented mesh back panel is more breathable
- Edgeless shoulder straps are comfortable
- Main compartment doesn't have organizational pockets
- Not an everyday carry (EDC) backpack
This bag can carry anything you need
Tom Bihn Shadow Guide V2 33: What I like
The Shadow Guide V2 is a top-loading backpack, which means that overall, it's very minimalistic on the inside. It's also made with nylon all around, so it's pretty weather and water-resistant. The main compartment is tall, and is essentially just a big cavern for you to store your stuff. Because it's just a big, vertical space, the Shadow Guide V2 33 is great for storing bulkier, taller items that you may not be able to fit in a regular EDC bag, like the Synik 22. And since it uses a drawstring at the top to "close," you can slim the bag down a bit, even if you have a lot of stuff inside.
A large top pocket at the top also acts as the "flap" to keep the main compartment secure with two straps. This pocket is rather spacious, and can hold quite a bit, despite looking smaller on the outside. There is a keyring holder in this pocket, so you can have quick access to your keys when you need it. The pocket is great for those items that you will want to access quickly, like a jacket, and it helps keep the bag slimmed down, as it compresses the bag once strapped in.
One of the biggest differences with the Shadow Guide V2 and the original is that this new version has a dedicated laptop compartment. However, you can only access it from the outside with the zipper, but on the 33 size, it can hold laptops up to 15" in size, though it states on the website that even a Dell XPS 17" can fit. The laptop compartment is also suspended off the bottom of the bag, though this is more effective if you do not remove the internal frame of the Shadow Guide. But the bottom of the bag is also padded, so in case you do remove the frame, you still have that extra peace of mind. I am able to fit my 13-inch MacBook Air/Pro in the laptop compartment even with a sleeve on, so if you're using something smaller than 15-inches, you have extra space to work with.
Tom Bihn also went a step further with the Shadow Guide V2. This is the first bag to feature a new back panel design, which is why it has the new "Tom Bihn Design Lab" label, rather than the traditional Tom Bihn label. This new back panel has vented mesh set against dense but thin sculpted foam, with an integrated frame sheet that molds with your body. All of this means increased airflow and durability. It doesn't stop you from sweating while wearing the Shadow Guide, but it makes the overall experience much more comfortable.
Additionally, the Shadow Guide V2 comes with a sternum strap and hip belt attached by default. These would be great for those who plan to use the Shadow Guide V2 for a day hike, but otherwise it's a little overkill. Thankfully you can easily remove them if you don't need them. I found the bag to stay in place quite well with just the edgeless shoulder straps, which debuted in 2019 (they're even on the Synik 22) and are extremely comfortable. In fact, with the edgeless shoulder straps, I don't really notice the backpack at all.
It's not my go-to EDC backpack
Tom Bihn Shadow Guide V2 33: What I don't like
Because the Shadow Guide V2 is a top-loader backpack, it lacks organizational pockets in the main compartment, which is basically a tall cavern. This bag is not designed to work as your typical tech backpack, despite having a laptop compartment. It's more suited for hiking, day trips, overnight trips, when you want to go to the gym after work, etc. Since there's no way to organize your stuff in the main compartment, things can easily get lost. The top pocket is spacious, but it also lacks organizational pockets.
The 33 liter size is also just downright massive, and looks a bit awkward when I wear it, since I'm only around 5'2". I appreciate being able to store pretty much anything in the bag, but it just feels clunky on smaller bodies. The 23 liter size may be a better fit for those who want a smaller top-loading backpack.
Peak Designs offers some competition to Tom Bihn. In fact, if you aren't a fan of the full top-loading style, most Peak Design backpacks are partially top-loading, and they have inner dividers that can help you separate your stuff. You could also access everything easily with zippered panels.
Tom Bihn Shadow Guide V2 33: Should you buy
You should buy this if ...
You need a top-loading backpack. The Shadow Guide V2 is an excellent top-loading backpack that provides plenty of space for all of your necessities, and then some. It closes with a secure drawstring and straps, and the top pocket gives you quick access when you need it most.
You need a laptop compartment. Tom Bihn has added a dedicated laptop compartment to the Shadow Guide V2, allowing you to carry a laptop up to 15" (for the 33, the 23 liter size holds up to 13") wherever you need it. If your laptop is smaller than 15", then there is enough room for your favorite laptop sleeve too. The compartment is suspended above the bottom of the bag.
You care about comfort. Tom Bihn makes some seriously comfortable bags, and the Shadow Guide V2 is no exception. The vented mesh back panel with dense but thin sculpted foam is durable but provides even more airflow for your comfort. The edgeless shoulder straps that the bag uses are very lightweight and comfortable, alleviating some of the weight off of your shoulders.
You should not buy this if ...
You need organizational pockets. Since the Shadow Guide V2 is a top-loader, it's very simple and minimalistic — just a big space for your stuff. There are no pockets or compartments to help you organize your gear. It's also very deep, so small items can easily get lost. It's best suited for bigger, bulkier, and taller items.
You need a smaller bag. The Shadow Guide V2 33 is pretty huge in size. While this means you can store more stuff, it may also look awkward if you have a smaller body. If that's the case, then maybe the Shadow Guide V2 23 liter size is a better fit.
You are on a budget. Tom Bihn bags can be pricey, and the Shadow Guide V2 costs a nice chunk of change. If you are strapped on cash, then this may not be for you. But do consider the quality that you're paying for.
Top-loading backpacks aren't for everyone, but if you are in the market for one, then the Shadow Guide V2 33 is one of the best that you can get. It has a ton of space in the main compartment and top pocket, a dedicated laptop compartment, a vented mesh back panel that provides good airflow, and is just darn comfortable. But if you need organizational pockets and compartments for an EDC bag, then this is not it.
I personally do not prefer top-loading backpacks, so the Shadow Guide V2 is not what I will be using every day (that honor still applies to my Synik 22). However, I find this backpack is going to be great when I need a bag for a day trip or weekend getaway, or even a hike. The main compartment has a ton of space, though it's best for big and bulkier items since it's so deep with no organizational compartments, and the top pocket is spacious and quick to get to. The laptop compartment is a fantastic addition, and there's plenty of space to work with on the 33 liter size if you have a 13" computer. The edgeless straps are comfy, and the improved airflow from the vented mesh back panel make this a great backpack to use in situations like hiking or going to the beach.
But keep in mind that the 33 liter is quite big. If you're a smaller person who doesn't like how big backpacks look on you, but still want the Shadow Guide V2, then you should consider the 23 liter size, which will be available later in November. The price for the Shadow Guide V2 is also quite up there, but like other Tom Bihn bags, this will last you a very long time.