Gear Review: F-Stop Gear Tilopa Photo Backpack
By Sean Bagshaw
The Photo Cascadia Team was very proud to announce our collaboration with F-Stop Gear recently. F-Stop Gear makes camera bags and accessories for active outdoor photographers and is now sponsoring the Photo Cascadia photographers and our workshops. In the field the equipment we use needs to be of the highest quality, be versatile and function well in demanding outdoor situations. We wouldn’t use gear that didn’t meet our needs. In that respect, F-Stop is a great partnership for us.
F-Stop Gear began making camera bags and backpacks to meet the needs of extreme sports photographers like Christian Pondella and Mattias Fredriksson, guys who hang it out there to photograph big mountain skiers and climbers. Many camera bag companies seem to have focused largely on the camera compartment features of their packs, leaving how the pack fits and what else it can carry as a bit of an afterthought. F-Stop Gear did it’s engineering in the opposite direction. They started by creating a backpack that was designed to ride well in active situations, such as hiking and skiing, and then engineered it so it could carry and protect camera equipment. The result is camera packs that have the comfort, mobility and features of a good backpack instead of a suitcase with straps attached to it.
One of the big innovations F-Stop gear has introduced is the interchangeable Internal Camera Units (ICUs) that come in a variety of sizes. You can get an ICU that will carry the amount of camera gear you have and you can select a pack size. They currently have three sizes of packs, the Loka, Tilopa and Satori. The ability to mix and match ICU and pack size means that you can custom design a system to match both your camera equipment and other gear you want to carry.
The Photo Cascadia Team is currently outfitted with the Tilopa, the medium size pack, matched with the large ICU. I thought a quick review of the Tilopa would be helpful for people wanting to get more information about F-Stop Gear’s products from someone who uses them. Photo Cascadia will post additional reviews and stories from the field as we have a chance to use some of the other pack and ICU combinations in the future.
All the stats for size and construction for the Tilopa can be found on the F-Stop Gear site, so I’ll focus mostly on function and features. The Tilopa has roughly the same dimensions as the common LowePro Photo Trekker AW II and meets the carry on size limits for major airlines.
One of the design elements I like about F-Stop’s packs is how streamlined they are. They have lots of pocket storage, well placed straps for attaching and compression and all the necessary shoulder and waist belt adjustments, but everything can be secured or tucked away in a manner that doesn’t leave straps and cords dangling. With other packs I find I’m constantly getting tangled up in cords and straps and getting them caught in car doors and on tree branches. The Tilopa’s low profile and simple functionality means that I’m no longer in a constant wrestling match with my pack.
The pockets and internal storage on the Tilopa are well thought out. The lid has both an external and internal pocket for small items that need to be reached quickly. There are two roomy pockets on the back of the pack and wand pockets on each side. F-Stop Gear has also incorporated numerous attachment points for accessories that use the Molle attachment system. Inside there is a padded compartment for holding a laptop or hydration bag (if you trust putting one inside your pack with your camera gear).
One of the best features of the F-Stop packs is that you access the camera compartment through a zippered door in between the shoulder straps instead of through a lid on the back of the pack. This solves multiple problems inherent in most camera backpacks. First, it means that when you set your pack down on the ground to access your gear the straps and back panel are facing up instead of resting on the ground. Packs that have access from the rear require you to place the straps and back panel ground side down. I frequently end up with the straps and back pad of such packs becoming wet, muddy, or otherwise covered in forest floor debris from setting it down. Second, the fact that you access gear through the front means that strapping your tripod or other gear to the back and sides of the Tilopa doesn’t interfere with getting into the camera compartment. On other packs I would often need to unstrap my tripod, jacket or trekking poles in order to get to my camera. This feature also allows for much more functional pockets and compression straps to be placed on the sides and back of the pack since there isn’t a zippered lid back there to get in the way.
There are a variety of ways that you can attach your tripod and other items such as snow shoes, skis, trekking poles or a sleeping pad to the back of the Tilopa. Even with a bunch of stuff lashed on you can still easily access the camera compartment.
Depending on the size of the Internal Camera Unit (ICU) and the pack size, there can be considerable space for stuff like a jacket, water, food and various other essentials. Even with the large ICU, the Tilopa can easily accommodate quite a bit of gear in the main compartment. Smaller ICUs would allow you to carry less camera gear and more other stuff, depending on the situation. Apparently all the ICU sizes will fit into any of the F-Stop packs. The big Satori fitted with a small ICU would carry a minimal camera rig while perhaps leaving enough room for gear and food for a light overnight back country trip. Placing the extra-large ICU inside the smaller Loka pack would probably leave room for little else in the inside compartment besides camera gear.
An added value bonus is that when the ICU is removed the Tilopa becomes a regular medium small backpack that would function very well for climbing, skiing and day hiking when you don’t need your camera gear. The Tilopa’s outer suspension harness is very comfortable and adjustable and is integrated with an internal frame that helps carry and distribute the load.
The ICU itself is pretty cool. It has all its own padding, including a padded lid, so it is a great place to store camera gear, even when it isn’t inside the pack. It also makes it a snap to transfer your gear from one pack to another. Just slide the ICU out and slide it into another pack. On a recent multi-day backpacking trip I put the ICU right into my large Dana Designs backpack right along with my tent, stove, sleeping bag and food. The ICU has rings for attaching your own shoulder strap, but I would like to see F-Stop integrate a simple one or two shoulder strap system so that it is easier to carry when it is being used separate from a backpack.
I often carry my camera pack for 8 to 10 hours a day over rugged terrain navigating rock, snow and water. I take it on and off countless times during a day of photographing and hiking. Other packs I have owned have always been limiting in one or more ways. I have often imagined what a pack would look like that blended the comfort, access, simplicity, function and versatility I need. I think that the folks at F-Stop Gear have gone a long way toward coming up with the right solutions.