Review: Tom Bihn Parental Unit Bag

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Tom Bihn’s bags. My everyday carry bag is the Tom Bihn Ristretto (reviewed on GeekDad here). And when I travel for 2-3 days trips I now almost exclusively use the Tom Bihn Tri-Star (also reviewed on GeekDad here).

The Parental Unit is a sharp-looking bag (Photo from Tom Bihn)

So with Father’s Day coming up, I figured it was a good time to review another Tom Bihn bag, but I wanted to do something a bit different. One common need among many dads is a bag for taking to the gym. I’ve been using an over the shoulder sling style bag for gym use for many years, but honestly it works just “okay” and it’s bigger than it needs to be. So I contacted Tom Bihn and they suggested a couple of bags that would work as a gym bag. The one that piqued my curiosity was the Parental Unit. I’ll just get this out the way right now, the Parental Unit is a diaper bag. Yes, I am using a diaper bag as my gym bag. But here is the interesting part: nobody has any idea that the bag I am carrying to and from the gym was primarily designed to be a diaper bag (except for my wife and kids, but they make fun of me no matter what, so I consider this as a feature… a source of comedy for them).

…you won’t look like a dork with some huge encumbrance slung over your shoulder, whacking nice people in the face as you navigate the narrow aisles of public transit or cozy restaurants. We particularly eschewed goofy printed fabrics: if you want a bag that screams “I’m a parent!”, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

—Tom Bihn

For me, a gym bag needs to be just big enough to hold my shoes, a change of clothes, a couple of small towels, headphones, weightlifting gloves and some small toiletry items. That means it needs to have quite a few small pockets and at least one main compartment for clothes and shoes. The Parental Unit has all of this and more. So here is exactly what Tom Bihn sent me for this review:

  • 1 Parental Unit bag in Coyote/Northwestern Sky colors
  • 1 Wheelchair or Stroller Strap Set
  • 1 Absolute Shoulder Strap
  • 2 Travel Stuff Sacks (Size 2)
  • 1 Travel Stuff Sack (Size 3)

The Parental Unit has one main large compartment in the center of the bag, but the main compartment can be split into two separate sections if you simply use the zipper that is built into the middle of the main compartment.

The main compartment can be configured as one big compartment or zippered up and made into two compartments (Photos from Tom Bihn)

I don’t tend to use the zipper to create two separate sections because my tennis shoes won’t fit in either half of the bag and give me enough room to zip the bag shut (although my smaller slip-on dress shoes will). So I leave the main compartment as a single compartment. That being said, if you wanted to separate your dirty/wet clothes in one side and your tennis shoes in the other side and don’t mind leaving the center section unzipped this would work really well (and it will keep your shoes from having to sit next to your wet/dirty clothes until you get home).

Vertical storage of shoes in the bag only works for smaller slip-on shoes (Photo by Skip Owens)

The front and back of the bag have identical zippered sections. Each of these sections has three partitioned sections, which are the perfect size to store weightlifting gloves and toiletries. Also, on both the front and the back, there are smaller zippered pockets, which are the perfect size to store things like your gym lock, your car keys, and your pocket knife… you know, the things that are small enough to lose but all things you REALLY need to have.

Deceptively large capacity once you open up the various sections of the bag (Photo by Skip Owens)

So, how well does the Parental Unit really work as a gym bag? I already explained what I keep in my gym bag, but what about the stuff I pack into it each day? It depends on when I am going to the gym. If I go to the gym first thing in the morning, I pack my work clothes and wear in my gym clothes. If I workout later in the day, I wear in my work clothes and pack my gym clothes. My work clothes are a lot bulkier than my gym clothes, but my work shoes are smaller. So either way, the total volume ends up being about the same. Below are the things I pack and unpack on a daily basis.

For packing my gym clothes:

  • Tank Top
  • Shorts
  • Socks
  • Undergarments
  • Tennis Shoes
  • Small towel for use while working out
  • Larger towel for showering

For packing my work clothes:

  • Shirt (typically short sleeves, I do live in Florida)
  • Dress pants or jeans (I’m an engineer not a lawyer)
  • Dress socks
  • Belt
  • Undergarments
  • Dress Shoes
  • Small towel for use while working out
  • Larger towel for showering

Believe it or not, I really don’t have any problems fitting all of this into the Parental Unit:

The things I pack when I go into work in my dress clothes (left) and when I wear in my workout clothes (right) (Photo by Skip Owens)
A fully backed bag with my work clothes. As you can see the bag is too full to totally zip the section with my two gym towels (Photo by Skip Owens)

As I mentioned earlier, one of the unique features of this bag is that the main compartment can be zipped up and converted into two sections as a way to separate wet/dirty clothes from other items. But there is another option. Tom Bihn sent me several of their Stuff Sacks. These small drawstring ballistic nylon sacks fold down into nothing when empty but are large enough to put your wet/dirty clothes into when you are done working out. I use a Stuff Sack for my workout shirt and towel (which are generally extremely wet) so I can keep them away from the other items in my bag. This reduces the potential for mildew and odor between the time you work out and when you get home to unload your bag. I then just toss the Stuff Sack along with my dirty clothes into the laundry and they all go into the washing machine… very handy.

If you live in a colder climate and/or wear more formal clothes to work, then the Parental Unit may not be big enough for you to use effectively as a gym bag. It is the perfect size for me, but I have pretty average size 10.5 shoes and dress business casual for work, so my volume needs are pretty modest. That being said, if you don’t fully zip the bag closed, you can certainly stuff a lot more into the bag.

The killer feature of the Parental Unit for me is that the bag can be easily tossed over your shoulder and carried while not adding a bunch of bulk to your person. I tend to carry my Tom Bihn Ristretto, the Parental Unit, and a soft-sided lunch box into work… all while carrying the absolutely essential Tervis tumbler of coffee. The other nice thing about the smaller size is that it fits nicely into those very small gym lockers, no pushing or turning it sideways to get it to fit.
So who is the Parental Unit for? Obviously if you need a diaper bag, this is a classy and stealthy way to go. It has a ton of places in the main compartment of the bag to stick bottles of formula, diapers, a change or two of clothes, lotions, and a changing pad. My kids are all well past the diaper stage, so I use it as a gym bag, but it would also work really nice as a kid’s overnight bag or a small everyday carry bag. So even if you don’t need a diaper bag per se, you might give the Parental Unit a look. And as long as you don’t tell anyone you are using a diaper bag they will never know…

A rocket-scientist, father of 3, amateur astronomer, piano/keyboard player and soon to be sci-fi author who wears his geek badge with pride.