Like Wile E. Coyote pursuing the Road Runner, every photographer is constantly chasing after that perfect camera bag. The story usually goes like this: a new bag is found, purchased, and then tried out…only to find at least one (if not several) downfalls that you simply can’t forget, and thus the cycle repeats…that is until I got my hands on the F-Stop Tilopa BC, which is hands down the best photo pack I’ve ever owned.
I had already tried the most common and highest recommended backpacks, including Lowepro’s Nature Trekker, Kata’s Ultralight Bumblebee, and too many others to count. I’d have to check my Craigslist account history to get a list of all those I’ve sold after being disappointed. I’m not trying to say these were bad bags, but each left me wondering why the company would overlook such an important design flaw.
About a month ago I stumbled across a forum thread over on naturephotographers.net talking about a company called F-Stop. Actually that thread was advertising a group discount F-Stop was providing to Nature Photographers Network members on the Tilopa BackCountry (BC) backpack. I browsed F-Stop’s website and found their bags to be very intriguing. They seemed to provide that perfect combination of a comfortable and functional hiking pack that also happens to store as much (or as little) camera gear as you’d like. I read Dan Carr’s review of the Tilopa BC pack – impressive, but hey…this guy gets his packs for free from F-Stop as part of their faction team. I decided to call up F-Stop and give them the 30 questions treatment. I was very quickly connected with Colby Brown who was instrumental in making me realize that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t give this pack a try! He talked with me about F-Stop’s removable and changeable Internal Camera Unit (ICU) system (more on this later), their commitment to constant improvement, the 45 day return guarantee and 20 year warranty. I was starting to loose my skepticism, so I clicked the buy button.
Two days later my Tilopa BC arrived. The packaging reminded me of opening my first iPod. Inside the box my pack was contained within an F-Stop branded bag which, while I’m sure 99% of customers toss it in the trash as “packing material,” is actually nicer than the carrying bag my $600 Gitzo tripod came with! Same story with the ICUs…they were each contained within this same type of bag.
Speaking of the ICUs, this was a bit of a foreign concept for me so it was the first thing I started playing with after unpacking. F-Stop certainly isn’t the first company to utilize a removable camera compartment within their backpack, but it was the first time I had used something like this so I was intrigued. I originally wanted both a small and a medium ICU, but it just so happened that the medium was sold out. Amazingly, the F-Stop sales rep (Colby) offered me a “loaner” large until the medium’s get back in stock – all I have to do is ship back the large to him in a few weeks and do a swap. That was a wise decision on F-Stop’s part because I love the ICU system so much that I’ve decided to get all three sizes (Small, Medium and Large). It also made a great impression on how they truly are committed to their customer’s satisfaction and enjoyment.
As you can see by the picture above, the small ICU (the “3rd Generation” model shown above) certainly isn’t tiny – it will still hold a pro sized body with lens attached, a second lens, and some accessories…basically what most photographers would want to carry on a multi-day backpacking trip. I’m not suggesting that the Tilopa BC would be the pack you’d take on such a trip since it’s a little small at 48 liters volume. But my intention with the small ICU is to use it for storing my camera gear within my larger 80 liter backpack or in conjunction with the Tilopa BC when I don’t need to carry a full load of tent, food, sleeping bag, etc. but do want to take more personal gear than camera equipment.
The large is just that – large (shown above is the “2nd Generation” loaner from F-Stop)! Holds a ton of gear – shown here with a Canon pro body and 24-70 lens attached (hood reversed), a couple additional lenses, three flashes (580EX II’s stacked on top of each other at the top), and plenty of accessories (shown on the side holding my B+W CPL filter, wallet of GNDs, rocket blower, shutter release cable, batteries, etc).
Each ICU has velcro straps that can optionally fasten the ICU to the pack (near the aluminum frame), keeping it from moving around any inside too much.
The ICU can also be used without the pack for general storage and even as a bag on it’s own (utilizing the handle on the ICU itself).
When placing the ICU your pack, simply tuck the ICU’s zipped back cover under itself.
One thing I noticed between the F-Stop ICU and my last couple packs (Kata Bumblebee Ultralight and Lowepro Nature Trekker) is that the ICU is a little tight when trying to keep the hoods on your lenses (even in reverse position). Basically the width of the ICU isn’t quite large enough to support three columns of lenses with hoods. As you can see below, I’m managing this just fine, but it’s a little tight. F-Stop also sells an Extra Large ICU which fits the Tilopa and Satori (but not the Loka).
Once I had my ICU loaded up with gear, it was time to put on the pack and see how it felt on the old back. I’ve found more and more camera packs including load lifter straps, but rarely do I see one with stabilizer straps (on the hip belt). The Tilopa BC has both (I don’t believe the Loka, the Tilopa’s smaller sibling, has the stabilizer straps). I always refer people to REI’s article on adjusting your backpack fit when recommending a pack. It’s easy to forget how to properly adjust your pack but it makes a world of difference once it’s done right.
The above picture shows how the load lifter straps were adjusted out of the box from F-Stop. Putting the pack on in this position felt quite uncomfortable for me, but following proper pack fit techniques, I was able to adjust it so the bag sat closer to my back for better weight positioning and comfort, as shown below.
What I ended up doing on the load lifters is move the buckle part down the strap to give me plenty of room to tighten the strap itself.
Not to many camera packs have stabilizer straps on the hipbelt – but the Tilopa BC does!
This bag is light! Weighing in at 3.95 lbs (without an ICU)…it leaves plenty of pounds left over for your gear before you even notice the weight on your hips and back. I originally purchased the Loka (since F-Stop told me it held its weight slightly closer to the body than the Tilopa), but after later trying the Tilopa, I felt the difference was negligible, so since the Tilopa gives me a bit more room and better padding on the straps, I returned the Loka. That said, the Loka may be better for you. Dan Carr does a great job of comparing the Loka to the Tilopa (about half way down his blog entry), so I won’t repeat that topic here.
My Lowepro Nature Trekker was one of the few bags I’ve ever seen with good support for a water bladder. The Tilopa holds my 3L Osprey Hydraform and will surely hold your Camelback or Platypus just fine as well.
Just in case my water bladder ever leaks (it never has), I purchased the optional hydration sleeve (F-Stop Item Code “m801″, shown above with the Hydraform sticking out of it to show how easily it slides in). For only $9.00, it gives me additional peace of mind. I even filled the sleeve up with water and let it sit overnight with absolutely no H20 making it’s way through – quite impressive!
There is an exit on the corner of the bag for your water tube. It velcros shut to keep any dirt or other elements from entering the bag.
The shoulder strap also contains a velcro strap (shown above on the right) to secure the tube. Another reason I love the Hydraform water bladders is the little plastic piece which attaches to your shoulder strap (shown above on the left) and is magnetically attracted to the mouthpiece of the Hydraform to keep it from dangling around – awesome on bike rides, skiing, or other activities where you’re swiveling your body around frequently).
I also purchased the rain cover (F-Stop Item Code “m920″) just in case I ever need it. The pack itself is plenty water resistant, but the rain cover fits nicely in the little pouch on the bottom of the pack (shown above with a couple Op/Tech rainsleeves for my camera riding alongside the rain cover). It weighs virtually nothing and only costs a few bucks extra, so why not have it, right?
The bottom of the pack is made from waterproof TPU plastic for added protection when sitting it down on the base.
I hesitated going to a pack which opens from the front. Most of my previous packs sat on my back and had their openings on the other (back) side so a friend could open them for me. If I sat the pack down, I turned it over (on it’s front) and rested the back/strap side on the ground to access my gear. Now that I think about it, neither of those situations was ideal – a “non friend” (ie. a thief) could easily open the compartment while the pack was on my back (which is why I never like carrying a pack that screams “camera equipment inside”) and whenever I needed to get my equipment out, the straps and front got dirty and later transferred that to my clothing when putting it on my body. Hindsight is 20/20 I suppose, but I really like the configuration of taking the bag off, sitting it down on it’s back (without flipping it over), and being able to easily access my equipment from the front and keep my clothes clean in the process of putting the pack back on. Since the bag carries a tripod on either the back or side, this provides ultimate flexibility for quickly getting at my camera gear and support tripod.
The inside of the back flap contains several small zippered compartments, which I’ve overexposed in the picture above so you can see them better. I carry small items like an allen wrench for my L Bracket and GitzoGT2531 tripod, some lens cleaner, and other items here.
There are three convenient ways to attach a tripod to the pack – either on the back or either side. I prefer the side so I can set the pack down on it’s back and still get to both my camera gear and tripod. Shown above is a Gitzo GT2531 (3 section) with Arcatech GV2 ball head. Shorter, four section legs would ride a little shorter on the pack.
Two other items which are almost always strapped to whatever pack I’m using is my Spot GPS Messenger (look for an upcoming review on this gadget) and a small ball compass (just in case).
There’s also plenty of room inside the pack, even with the large ICU installed as shown above. I can carry my water bladder on the back (I place it in the laptop compartment sleeve) and plenty of extra clothes, food, and other essentials. Inside the top flap is the black mesh pocket you see above.
There’s also a second small compartment on the top of the back that’s accessed from the outside. I store items like the small flashlight shown above that I need quick access to.
In conclusion, I think F-Stop has a great product line with their Mountain Series packs and the Tilopa BC perfectly fits my needs. Surprisingly I’ve found myself using the ICUs separately from the pack and plan to order several more for that purpose. I’ve also frequently used the pack without any camera gear simply because it is a great hiking pack – not large enough for a multi-day hike, but certainly useful for a long day hike or even an overnight’er (if you pack light like me). After years of searching, I’ve found the perfect combination for a backcountry photography pack in the Tilopa BC with optional hydration sleeve and Osprey 3L Hydraform bladder (sold separately through Osprey, check your local outfitter). If I missed anything you’re interested in or concerned about, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.
Technical Specs: (from fstopgear.com)
- Available colors: Black/Black, Foliage Green, Grey Mist/Grey
- Volume: 48 Liter / 3,100 Cubic Inches
- Weight: 1795 Grams – 3.95lbs (No ICU)
- Dimensions: 12” x 24″ x 10″
- Internal Compartment Dimensions: 12” x 22” x 10”
- Internal Compartment Space Available with Large ICU: 7” tall ½” on each side, extra depth taken by laptop sleeve.
- Torso Length: 18.5”
- Metal internal Frame for support carrying heavy loads.
- Fabric Info: Ballistic Rip-stop Nylon, Abrasion Resistant Nylon Webbing, High Density foam, Heavy Gauge Zippers, YKK Waterproof Zippers, Waterproof Urethane coasted mesh