I’m a bag hound and I mean it. Not just camera bags – any kind of bag, suitcase, satchel, purse – ANYTHING that makes carrying my stuff easier, more convenient, less painful, more fun and cooler… I’m in. Ask anyone who knows me… I’m a self-proclaimed professional when it comes to bags! It’s not just vanity, either; I’ve also got back, neck and shoulder issues that I can pretty much manage with good biomechanics… and ergonomically correct carrying gear. So it was no light decision to choose the right camera bag for my trip to New Zealand in February 2013. I went there to help coach Trey Ratcliff’s New Zealand Photo Adventure and needed a bigger bag than I owned. It had to haul alot, but be effortless to carry, fit me well, distribute weight perfectly, have zippers and options galore, fit under an airplane seat, in the overhead bin or on a bus easily – and provide ample options for whatever situation I put it in. No small task!
(And before you even ask; no, they’re not paying me to say any of this!)
I borrowed a friend’s Loka model F-stop for a week and loved it. For regular photo excursions, it would be purrfect. My only concern was space. I needed to carry a bit more than the Loka could do comfortably – and also wanted the option to throw my laptop inside. Enter the Tilopa BC. Both the Loka and the Tilopa BC are from F-stop’s Mountain Series of bags… suitable for camera gear with ICU’S, or for any kind of gear without. I’m so stoked about my Tilopa that I wanted to talk a bit about it here – and even explain a couple of the differences between it and the Loka, since I waffled between the two. Maybe you are too! Meeting F-stop and the Tilopa BC has been like the sun breaking through storm clouds! You can also see the video I made about the bag, complete with a special appearance by Trey Ratcliff.
Here’s the rundown:
This is the view from the back… it’s what people following you will see. Of note is the fact that you do NOT access your valuable camera gear from this side. I love that. It keeps light fingers from prying where they ought not!
Next, the right side view. Here, you’ve got super sturdy straps with quick-realease buckles that allow you to attach a tripod (if you choose to carry yours on the side), carry extra clothes, poles, skis, or anything you want to attach. You can also cinch these straps down tight if you want to flatten the profile of the bag, which is what I did here.
On the left side.. same idea. Attach water bottles with carabiners or even a low profile bed roll.
Regarding tripods; I prefer to either carry mine by hand or attach it to the back for ergonomic reasons, as you’ll see shortly.
Here’s F-stop’s description of the back panel: “Jersey laminate EVA-padded back panel with raised padding for ventilation and comfort control.”
Here’s mine: “Comfy, Comfy!” I’ll admit, it seemed a little stiff at first, but the more it broke in, the more this panel assumed my form like a fine Italian shoe. It has a chest strap too – which is adjustable up and down by a few inches. I honestly don’t use this very often, but wanted to show that it exists, for those that do.
As I mentioned, I mostly I carry my tripod by hand. But when I do want to attach it to the pack, this is how I do it. The two quick release buckle straps on the backside cinch it down nicely, so my sticks are solid and secure with no wiggling about. I prefer it centered on the back like this, since having it on the side pulls on my back and doesn’t feel great. This solves the issue!
This is a sneaky little zipper section at the bottom of the pack, where you can put small anythings, really – but it’s self contained and waterproof for trash or wet stuff you don’t want to mingle with your valuable gear or dry layers.
Right behind it is another, larger waterproof section. F-stop bags are highly water resistant, but you can also purchase a rather elegant rain cover as backup. Unfortunately, I waited too long to order, so I threw a few kitchen garbage bags in there just in case we got caught in a truly torrential downpour. Besides, I figured if we did hike in somewhere and needed to haul out garbage, I’d be set! I even included a couple of produce bags as rain protection for my camera, complete with rubber bands for handy customization. I’m just fancy that way. Ha!
Now we get into the heart of the matter. This is where you access your gear. When you carry the pack, this is against your back. But when you want to get to your rig, you just zip open up the whole thing. You can even leave the waistbelt buckled, spin it around the front and swap lenses without ever putting the bag down. I did this alot! The zipper is big, strong and slides easily. I love the way you don’t have to dig around, peering into the depths of a black hole to see what the heck is down there. It’s all sitting right there, snug in its awesome ICU, or Internal Camera Unit.
Flip that flap back and voila! Everything you need is at your fingertips. ICU’s comes in a variety of different sizes and depths. Here, I’m using the shallow large size for my Canon 5DIII 4 lenses and 2x converter. I can also fit my Sony NEX-7 and it’s 3 lenses if I’m super organized. My large ICU still leaves some room above it for smaller items like gloves, snacks and such. If you use a smaller ICU, then you’ve got even more room at the top. That’s when the Tilopa BC can serve as an overnight backpack.
Inside the flap, there are 2 large, flat zipper pockets. I put batteries, allen wrenches, manuals, etc. in there. There are also 2 small flap-top pockets with velcro closure at the top for small items like nail clippers. Nothing ever needs to get lost again!
Looking inside from the top of the bag, you can see the handle of the ICU. This is where you pull it out to swap out ICU’s for a quick change to a different camera set up.
Here’s my ICU pulled halfway out. As you can see, I fold the top of mine back underneath the unit…
… but you can also zip it closed first. If you have multiple camera set ups, you can have them ready to go in separate ICU’s, then swap them out when you need them. Some people even check their larger ICU’s when they fly, although probably with cables and such inside – not valuable cameras!
Unlike the Loka, the Tilopa BC has a laptop sleeve, which you access from the top, same as the ICU. Here, you can see that it sits right behind the ICU. The sleeve fits up to an 18” laptop – and this photo shows my 17” fitting nicely. If you don’t put a laptop in the pack, you can throw other stuff in there – or let it flatten down for a lower profile.
Here’s a look inside the “lid” as I call it… the main section at the top that zips open. On the underside is another zipper compartment, made of a sturdy netting material. I throw lens caps, carabiners, cable release and other small items in here. It keeps things tidy!
Above the “lid”at the very top of the bag is another zip compartment. That has yet more little compartments for things like memory cards, flashlight, protein bars, gloves – or whatever you want to round up and have handy. The zipper is completely water sealed.
I’m super picky about backpack fit. So I really appreciate the dual adjustments on the suspension straps on both shoulder harnesses. This shows the one at the top, which lets you fine tune the snugness up high and helps keep the upper portion of the pack stable. This is one of my favorite adjustments, since a sloppy fit up high fatigues my neck and shoulders like nobody’s business. This renders that mess a non-issue!
This strap adjusts the lower portion of the shoulder harness. When you get the upper and lower adjustments just right, even a heavily laden pack will feel like a featherweight!I’d like to add that it’s the dual adjustments you can make to the waist belt, combined with those of the shoulder straps that makes the F-stop backpack fit such a winner. When I was a kid, my dad custom-built an aluminum frame backpack just for me, since none of the conventional models of the day fit me. It was awesome. I haven’t felt anything like it until now!
The Tilopa has a decent sized separate zipper section on the back of the pack. The Loka has one too, but this one’s bigger. I used it to put my waterproof/windproof layers where I could grab them quick if the weather turns. It did… and I did!
If you like to carry water with a drinking tube, the H20 velcro opening provides handy access.
Between the Velcro and the flap, you can run the drinking hose from inside the pack without letting the weather in. I didn’t need this feature on this trip, but come summer in the Sierras where I live, I’m sure I will be!
So there you have it. My Tilopa BC provided a ton of options for me on my New Zealand trip! Lightweight, super sturdy, water resistant, with about a million pockets and places to put things, plus the flexibility of using the pack all by itself for regular backpacking – or with the brilliant ICU cases – all made it a winner for me!