Tom Bihn v. Red Oxx: May the best bag win!


As you know, I am a huge fan of Tom Bihn Bags.  Tom and his business partner Darcy make simply outstanding bags and luggage in their facility in south Seattle.  I am featuring Tom Bihn in my upcoming book, Simply American.  Tom and Darcy have been incredibly supportive of both my book and this blog.  And I have had the privilege of meeting Tom’s dog Riley.

A friend of mine at my office, Andy, is a big bike guy.  I was talking to him about Tom Bihn the other day and he told me about a bag company I had never heard of: Red Oxx.  I was intrigued.

Jim Markel of Red Oxx

I discovered that Red Oxx is the labor of love of Jim Markel Sr.  After a 20 year career in the military, Jim “retired” to Montana where, drawing on his skills as a parachute jumper and rigger, he decided to create workout accessories in his basement.  As his business grew, Jim needed help.  So in the great American tradition, he shanghaied his son Jim Jr. into the business!  Eventually the Markels made the decision to move from the workout accessory business to the bag and luggage market.  They sell most of their bags on the internet and have an incredibly loyal following.  They source a few things for their bags from a small village in Guatemala.  They also carry out some other cool support efforts in the third world.  The Markels sound like really great fellows and I hope to meet them someday.

Tom Bihn is very Seattle.  Tom is a very thoughtful, soft-spoken fellow who seems to be thinking about his business, his employees and all sorts of other things all the time.  Tom and Darcy seem to really love what they are doing here in Seattle.  They have donated their time, their funds and their bags to a huge number of people and organizations.  Given the great love of dogs of all kinds in Seattle, Tom cleverly designed a very cool dog walking bag, the Citizen Canine.

Red Oxx not surprisingly has a very Montana feel to it.  As an example, Red Oxx offers a Varmint Master Rifle Case and a Sporting Clays pouch.

I would not hold your breath waiting for the debut of the Tom Bihn hunting collection.  Both firms offer outstanding carry on bags, luggage, duffel type bags and backpacks and day packs.  In my opinion, you couldn’t go wrong buying from either firm, since both firms’ products are made by members of our extended American family.  But I am somewhat biased for all things made in Seattle.  But now is your chance.  I want to hear why you are a Tom Bihn believer or a Red Oxx supporter.  Tell me what it is about either Tom Bihn or Red Oxx that has won you over.  Is it the quality of the product?  Outstanding customer service?  Specialized product that is right up your alley?  I want to know!!!  Leave a comment to this post, and I will summarize the comments next week.  So, may the best bag win!

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About tapirking

I live in Seattle and love telling stories about Americans, the places where they work and the things that they make.
This entry was posted in american made, Luggage, Made in America, made in usa and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Tom Bihn v. Red Oxx: May the best bag win!

  1. Andy says:

    I bought my husband a Red Oxx several years ago after it got top billing in a Wall Street Journal article about business luggage. He is able to carry it on and it holds a lot.I also have gotten our daughter one,she lives in a foreign country so also travels a good deal. My husband loves the bag and it looks brand new even though it gets used quite a lot.I have wondered why I haven’t seen this brand on the American Made websites. We recommend it.There is also a company in Minneapolis -I think it is Hulme or something similar and it also has American Made luggage,guncases and purses. I believe they are at a similar price point.

  2. Charlie says:

    Hi tapirking, I like your blog!

  3. Dacia says:

    I am going to have to go with Tom Bihn, and here’s why: Bihn created the yarn bag – and seriously, it makes all of us crochet/knitter folks out there under the age of 60 just a notch up on the coolness scale (that is VERY hard to do!). The bag is called the “Swift”, and for those who work with yarn on the go, we are a little bit impressed with anything ‘swift’ in that world (even a bag name). This bag features all the goodies one would want in a yarn bag – a place to put yarn that HOLDS it and streams it out in an organized manner, a spot for water/book/blah blah, little pockets for needles and accessories. PLUS, this sucker looks COOL! No ugly fabric that doesn’t hold up, no tiny places for yarn, nothing that gets in the way of organization.

  4. Danny says:

    Hello,
    Ran across this page by accident and have to say that I have a friend who does a lot of hiking, and has couple of the Bihn Bags/ backpacks. They seem very well made, are durable, and can handle the seasons very well. I might just pick one up here in the near future to see how well it performs on the railroad.
    One thing I can say though, is that the reputation of Red Oxx is proven in the railroad industry. My engineer has purchased one several years ago and it’s still handles all climates and conditions with ease. There’s no rips or tears in the heavy duty nylon material.
    The zippers are extremely durable, and still work smoothly to this day. Red Oxx has products that are tailored fit to specific industries, and this is a big plus to me since I do have essential gear that must be in my possession on the road ( their Rail King Rucksack is a beast).
    I’ll keep you posted once I get Bihn bag and Red Oxx backpack, and do a side by side comparison.

  5. Nick says:

    I have a Red Oxx Air Boss and my brother has the Tom Bihn Tri-Star (which I’ve borrowed once). Both bags are meant to be mid-size, carry-on “one bag” approaches to travel. I think the Air Boss might be a bit bigger in volume, but you can pack about the same mount of stuff in each.

    My first impression of the Red Oxx Air Boss was that I loved the minimalism of the design, the rugged look and the actual ruggedness. My first impression of the Tom Bihn Tri-Star was that it seemed a little over-designed and geeky, although the quality was obvious.

    Then I actually used then, and Tom Bihn wins. Here’s a side by side functionality comparison of how I deal with each category of things that I normally pack.
    (“AB”= Red Oxx Air Boss, “TS” = Tom Bihn Tri-Star)

    // Clothing (very similar approaches)
    [AB & TS] – I use the two outer main compartments for clothing. I usually have a rectangular packing “cube” filled with my socks, underwear, and ties if needed (mine is from Samsonite, but Eagle Creek, Tom Bihn and others sell them). I first wrap pants around this packing cube, then lay all shirts flat on the bed, put the pack cube on top of them lined up with the bottom of the collars, and I fold the shirts around the rectangular cube. The result ends up being a folded set of clothing that fits right into either of the bags’ side clothing compartments. You can stuff a lot of things in here. You can even fit shoes on the sides (put them in shoe bags so you don’t get stuff dirty

    …winner: TIE

    // Main Compartment (this is where Tom Bihn starts to get better)
    [AB] – main compartment is just a big space. I usually put a pair of shoes, plus a slim messenger bag with my laptop in here, plus a glasses case.

    [TS] – Tom Bihn equips this with clips for their “brain cell” laptop sleeve solution, and it’s awesome. The brain cell on it’s own can be a minimalist laptop bag… it has side pockets for power supplies and other things, and it has rings for a shoulder strap. But you don’t have to use it, so it’s really flexible
    (of course, you could just buy a brain cell or another good quality, protective laptop case and put it in the Air Boss)

    …winner: Tom Bihn for the thoughtful, flexible design

    //Accessories
    [AB] – the Air Boss just has one big, wide front zipper pocket. You can stuff a lot of junk in there, but it gets messy quickly unless you have some other pouches for organizing.

    [TS] – 3 horizontally zipped pouches for organizing different accessories. The top zipper is the largest compartment, running from the top to the bottom of the bag, and I put an iPad in here. In the lower ones, power supply, headphones, phone, cables, etc…

    …winner: Tom Bihn

    //Construction
    Both are tough as nails. Both have great zippers. Tom Bihn wins because of the sealed, water-resistant zippers, plus it looks sleek when the zipper are hidden. However I do like the meaty look of the Red Oxx zippers

    //Carrying
    [AB] – Red Oxx brags about their “claw” strap. At first it seems and looks really cool. But carry the bag from the international terminal to the domestic terminal for a transfer, and then examine your shoulder. There’s a good chance the claw ripped some skin in the process. So I usually partially pull up on the handles of the bag to spare my shoulder some pain. Also, the handles are a bit of a pin to snap together and not very comfortable (compared to Tom Bihn’s)

    [TS] – the “Absolute Shoulder Strap”… there’s no way there is a better one. It makes bags feel lighter than they are. The Tri-Star also has backpack straps and really comfortable handles to carry by hand.
    ***I should be fair and mention the Red Oxx “Sky Train” is actually a little closer in design to the tristar because it has backpack straps… but otherwise it’s the same idea as the Air Boss

    Conclusion:
    So for travel where organization is needed, I’d choose Tom Bihn. I’m still a little annoyed with the almost over-design of their products to the point where it’s hard to commit to a choice, because it’s expensive. But any one of their travel bags plus one of their laptop sleeves is a good choice.

    Red Oxx makes great stuff, but the uncomfortable “claw” strap has sent me running back to my carry on roller bag. The best solution is to buy a bag from either company, but then replace the Red Oxx strap with an “Absolute” strap from Tom Bihn

    • tapirking says:

      Nick:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have met Tom Bihn and toured his facility here in Seattle and both are great. Tom is an amazingly thoughful person and has been very supportive of the book I am writing on Made in America titled, Simply American, Putting our Extended Family Back to Work. Please consider subscribing to my blog if buying American is a subject that interests you.

      All the best,

      John Briggs

  6. Neil says:

    I own the RO Air Boss, the TB Tristar and Western Flyer. Because the Air Boss has no backpack option, I am forced pack lighter. Believe me, with the Air Boss loaded to the gills walking across Heathrow or any long trek (missed bus, no taxis, etc) the Air Boss causes you pain, even with the TB Absolute shoulder strap instead of the RO Claw strap. So, I use it for domestic uses. It fits in the overhead bins with the width end just fine. This is crucial, because those wheeled luggage that most people use many times can only fit length wise, which chews up available bin space really fast.

    For Asian travel, the TB Tristar is more useful, because of the backpack option. I’ve been to many a city, where I’ve had to trek for a myriad of reasons, so the backpack option is a necessity.

    For European travel it depends on your destination. Because of the mass transit of many of the larger European cities, no backpack option is really needed. You hop on a train from CDG airport and you are in Paris in a blink, so the Air Boss would be fine. But, once you get away from these cities, you will have to trek more, so the trip to the Greek isles would be better served with the Tristar.

    If I plan to use the underseat option for flying, I use the TB Western Flyer. It has fit every flying configuration I’ve encountered even fully loaded. It would be a gamble, to get the RO Air Boss and TB Tristar to fit under the seat, when fully loaded.

    There is one more darn good American luggage manufacturer that is not mentioned, MEI-legacy. I own their Executive Overnighter and their Convertible. Both are outstanding luggage also. For long business trips to Asia, I use the Executive Overnighter. For just plain vacations, I use the Convertible. It is cavernous and inexpensive.

  7. Greg Miller says:

    I have never used a Bihn, but I can tell you the that Red Oxx products are darn near indestructible. I Live in Billings, MT so I do have the advantage of being able to walk right into the facility/main store and pick out products in person. I have been buying products from Red Oxx from almost day one when Jim was making weight lifting equipment. I still have a weight belt and some pull down bar straps that work well from the late 80’s or early 90’s!

    When Jim starting making back packs, bags and other things, I went in and took a look. I ended up buying several items and still use the heck out of them. A lot of the products have been around the world on various trips, back in the mountains of Montana getting knocked around on the front of my ATV’s for fly fishing trips and packed in on horses for hunting trips. They still perform flawlessly and look great. I don’t go light on equipment in fact to be perfectly honest, I abuse it and expect it to fail. Before Red Oxx, I was going through bags about every other trip and they would fail from the pounding.

    Bottom line, if you’re looking for something that will last a lifetime and you will be able to pass onto the next generation, Red Oxx is a safe bet and well worth the investment.

    • tapirking says:

      Thanks for the comment Greg. I spoke with Jim a few weeks back and he seems to be a great guy. Jim’s bags and Tom Bihn bags are a bit different. Tom’s bags are for more urban uses and for traveling by plane and perhaps kicking around Europe. Check them out if you are ever in the market for a messenger bag or something similar.

      All the best,

      John Briggs

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