Last spring I finally decided to start looking for the perfect photography backpack. Up until this time I had been using a couple of old backpacks that were truly backpacks and not camera packs. I would put my camera in a soft case and dump it into the pack or wrap it up in some clothing or towels. This worked but I decided it wasn’t a good way to treat my camera gear. I also ended up moving gear from one pack to another on a frequent basis. In addition one of the packs did not allow me to carry my tripod on the pack.
In a previous life I was involved in purchasing large amounts of equipment for the state and was familiar with documenting needs. So I decided to write an request for Information (RFI) in which I documented what I needed in a pack. Since I’m involved in a wide range of photography from landscape to birding to macro I carry different equipment depending upon the type of photography I’m doing. I also have a quirk that I don’t like to change lenses in the field if I can help it. In the RFI I documented what type of equipment I would typically carry for each type of photography and what I would normally carry regardless of what type of photography I was involved in. I then sent the RFI to a number of companies that looked like they might have packs that would meet my needs.
One of the companies that responded was F-Stop. This is a relatively new company that has really taken off in the market place. To get started they sent sample packs to a number of adventure photographers to have them evaluate the equipment under field conditions and hopefully write reviews. They advertise themselves as an adventure pack company. I wouldn’t put myself into that category since I typically only do day trips and usually the most I would hike would be ten miles in a day. However, I’m out doing photography probably 250 days per year.
After reviewing a number of responses I decided to go with the F-Stop Tilopa BC pack . However, when I went to order the pack I discovered that business was so good that they had almost no packs in stock. I called them and they were able to find what I needed in-spite of the low stock numbers. Within a week the pack arrived. I’ve been using it now for over 6 months and love it.
Before I start I want to make sure you understand the terms front and back. It’s important because of the design of the pack. The back of the pack is where the shoulder straps are located and the front of the pack faces away from you.
Large ICU Unit
F-Stop uses a different approach for their packs. The pack comes in two parts. The backpack (shown above) which can be used as a regular backpack and the Internal Camera Unit or ICU which comes in four different sizes ranging from small to extra large. This allows you to adjust your bag configuration to meet your needs as they change between trips or over time without purchasing a new bag. I chose the large size because it allowed me to carry the equipment I typically use when I’m doing photography. The small and medium ICU can be combined to form the equivalent of an extra large ICU.
A second difference is that access to the camera gear is through the back of the of the pack. I really like this feature because I can lay my pack on the wet ground or snow and have easy access to my camera gear. It also means that the pack straps don’t get dirty and wet while I’m trying to get at my camera gear. This is really a great feature. It’s easy to remove the pack and lay it on the ground and it is also easy to pick it up and put it on with little effort. It has a Thermoplastic Polyurethane coating (TPU) on the front of the pack to protect it from water and abrasion. At the same time you can also stand the pack on the ground. The bottom is flat and also has a TPU coating so you can stand it on wet ground or snow and the gear will not get wet. The down side of this configuration occurred one day when I was too lazy to take the pack off and asked my wife to get my camera out. She kept unzipping zippers looking for the camera and only then did I realized she didn’t have access to my camera gear from the front of the pack.
I won’t bore you with the technical details which you can find on the F-Stop web site. I should add that they do an excellent job of describing the their products on their website. Instead I’ll describe some of the major features of the pack along with my comments.
Starting from the top the pack has a small compartment with a seam sealed zipper. There is enough room to carry most of the ten essentials and a few odds and ends. I usually end up putting my wallet, car keys and cell phone in this compartment along with some snacks etc. You could also store extra memory cards and batteries etc.
The next top zipper provides access to the pack itself and makes it a top loading pack. This is where you insert and remove the ICU from the pack. This is also where you access other items you want to carry in your pack. Depending upon the size of the ICU you also have enough space for clothing etc. I usually put my extra clothing in this compartment or use it to store clothing that I remove while hiking.
On the front of the pack there is another large, but shallow, compartment that you can use it to store a wind breaker or other light clothing. It is also large enough to store an Avalanche shovel. There is a drainage hole so snow melt will drain from the bag.
The bottom of the pack has two storage areas with seam sealed zippers. One is accessed from the front of the pack and is a small storage area. I’ve never used this one. F-Stop calls it “Pack it in, Pack it out” trash compartment. The other is access from the back of the pack and is fairly large. I use this one to store the pack rain fly (sold separately) and the rain cover for my camera. Both are things I rarely use so they are out of the way of day to day activities.
The pack also has a pocket for the water bladder with a slot for the tube to exit the bladder compartment. The exit point has a Velcro closure so it can be closed when not in use. Because most of my trips are in the Midwest and are day trips I’ve not used this feature. However, it is great to have it for my trips to the Southwest where I need all the water I can carry F-stop also sells a hydration sleeve that fits over your water bladder to offer extra protection in case of a leak.
There is also a padded sleeve large enough to hold a 15″ laptop. The sleeve is accessible from the top of the pack.
Mounted on Pack
The tripod can be carried on either side of the pack or attached to the back of the pack. I typically carry on the side. The side pockets and straps are well designed for carrying the tripod. The bottom side catch sleeve for the tripod feet can be attached to the pack with Velcro strips when not in use. The fact that the camera gear is accessed from the back of the pack means that you can attach your tripod to the front or sides and not interfere with access to the camera gear.
Skis can also be carried on either side or the front of the pack. Again the fact that the camera gear is accessed from the back of the pack means that you have access to it without removing the skis.
The pack incorporates the MOLLE attachment system and meets international standards. It can be used with F-stop attachments or third party add-ons. Again I have not used this feature but it is handy to have for future use. I do use the many straps and bungee cords on the pack to attach water bottles, ice crampons etc.
I typically carry my water on the side pockets. The side pockets are designed for carrying skis and don’t seem to be well configured for carrying standard water bottles. I ended up purchasing a water bottle with a slimmer design which fits a little better. This is one of the features of the pack that could use some redesign work. On the other hand, it is my choice to carry my water bottle here rather than use a water bladder.
The straps have good padding and are easily adjustable. I’m small 5’4″ but find the pack has a comfortable fit and makes it easy to carry heavy camera gear for long distances.
The second part of the f-stop pack configuration is the Internal Camera Unit (ICU). As I mentioned this comes in four different sizes ranging from small to extra large and allows you to easily change configurations depending upon what you want to carry on any given day. If you want to carry less camera gear and more other gear you can use the smaller ICU. If you want to carry more camera gear you can swap out the smaller ICU for a larger one. The ICU’s come with a protective sack with a drawstring top.
The ICU unit is a basically a padded box with lots of straps and dividers that can attached in a variety of configurations to meet your specific needs. I really like the fact that I can easily change the configuration of the ICU depending upon the type of photography I will be doing. I typically carry a couple of cameras with the lenses attached. The ICU has a cover that can be zippered closed. For the most part I don’t zipper it shut because it is a little inconvenient to unzip and zip the cover and then have to unzip and zip the back of the pack as well. I usually just fold the ICU cover in and zipper the pack shut.
One issue is the top of the ICU is soft so when you store additional gear to the top of the pack it tends to compress the top of the ICU up against your camera gear. This can make it a little difficult to get your gear in and out of the ICU.
The ICU unit can be easily removed from the pack and has its own handle at the top so it can be carried separately. This might be useful if you have several ICU’s that you are bringing on a trip. You can also easily use the ICU’s as storage for camera gear around the house.
As I said I really like the pack. It fits well and is a big improvement over the three packs that I was using for photography. I don’t have to constantly move my gear from one pack to another depending upon the type of hiking or skiing I am going to be doing.
If I had to change anything I would probably redesign the side pockets to make it a little easier to carry the larger water bottles. I would consider a hard top to the ICU so that it doesn’t compress when gear is loaded in the top of the pack. I also might change the zippered opening on the ICU so that it can be zippered off and removed. This would make it a little easier to get at equipment and at the same time allow you to reattach it for longer trips where you would not be accessing the camera gear as frequently.