F-Stop Gear seems to pride itself on creating bags that are tough and meant to be used and abused. They have a number of photographers that are extreme mountaineers and skiers. They have a number of different types of bags and when it came to it, I wanted a large bag, but one that could also handle equipment for herping and for collecting data. I came down to the Tilopa BC or Satori. The Satori is 4" taller (which would have been nice!), but otherwise the same dimensions. I opted for the Tilopa mainly because the dimensions are designed such that it can be a carry on to an airplane, and since I travel so much, that is important! I've been told that, most of the time, the Satori is okay, but occasionally, they have had customers who have been hassled by attendants that their bag was too big, and they were only able to talk themselves out of checking their bags because they claimed being professional photographers. I would just go with the shorter, and not have to worry about the hassle.
I will add this caveat that the pictures I am posting are of my bag, and it does look new because it is (I've had it all of 3 days), but I used my roommate's (asnyder here) bag over winter when I was in Costa Rica, and while there have been a couple of design improvements (which I will note) since he got his, I feel that I can give a good review on this backpack.
There are two big things that make the Tilopa awesome. It is designed as a backpack (I will clarify) and uses F-Stop's ICUs (Internal Camera Units; again, I will clarify).
Tilopa BC Shell
On first glance, the Tilopa looks like a backpacking backpack, which I'd say it is designed after, and why other camera backpack makers haven't done this, I do not know. Once of my biggest gripes with my old backpacks is that they were basically like school backpacks: not designed to carry the weight in them (like the weight of multiple lenses, multiple flashes, camera bodies, etc.) or best distribute it for the wearer. The Tilopa does. It has padded hip straps, a chest strap (with a whistle on the buckle, which is a nice safety measure!), and shoulder connection points so that you can pull the backpack nice and tight against your back. It makes it feel as part of you, and instantaneously, the weight of your camera gear seemingly is lessened. While I would ache after a few hour hike with my Lowepro bag, I can do the same, with more weight, with the Tilopa with minimal/no ache.
The Tilopa has a number of connection points on the outside so that you can attach tripods, skis, snowboards, snake hooks, etc. to the backpack. It has two large pockets the make up the front (one is deep for things like rain gear and the other is very shallow that I use for flash diffusers and ziploc bags and/or snake bags). These and all of the pockets have water resistant zippers. On the top of these pockets is a rubber mat, which I will mention momentarily.
The bottom of the bag is rubber which is nice since herping takes you to dirty spots, and I was always particular about finding a dry spot to put my bag, but I can now put it down in mud or whatever and will be able to clean it up. On the front side, it has a small pocket which has been designated by F-Stop as a trash pocket, pack it in, pack it out. On the back side of the bottom, there is a large pocket that you can put a rain cover in. F-Stop offers a rain cover as an accessory which fits the backpack snugly, but does not allow enough room to include extras under it, like a tripod (a bit of an oversight, in my opinion), so I use a small or medium Osprey rain cover with works fantastically.
There is a top pocket that has a few interior pockets for things like cleaning cloths, cleaning pens, memory cards, whatever. The interior of the backpack is accessed by what I guess I'll call the Access pockets. It, like the top pocket, has a mesh pocket on the interior that you can put stuff in. The interior is where you put the ICUs. It also has a sleeve for a laptop and sleeve for a water bladder. The bag does not come with bladder, and because water and electronics make me nervous, I got a 100oz CamelBak UnBottle for the bladder just to afford a little extra protection against any possibly leaks. Unfortunately, the pocket for the bladder is not waterproof or anything (again, an oversight by F-Stop, in my opinion). Using the Pro ICUs makes putting a laptop and/or a bladder in these pockets rather tight, but they also offer shallow ICUs that should give plenty of space (and they have redesigned their medium Pro ICU, which should allow for more space).
I will note that the bucket straps on the top are Gate Keepers (another accessory from F-Stop) so that you can attach a tripod or sleeping bag/mat/tent/hammock to it. These are not included, but you can also attach these to the bottom of the bag. These attachment points are an improvement from the one that I used for Costa Rica, and very nice. I feel as though I could do a weekend trip with just this bag.
Both sides have a pocket on the bottom to catch a tripod leg or something else. Some people don't like to attach a tripod to the side because it may off balance the bag, but I don't really have that issue. You can also put snake hooks (or skis) here. They have molle attachment points at the bottom of each side that you can add a number of their accessories to or some third party accessories. I personally attached my GPS case to these, which works nicely! I just wish they had these along the full side like they do in the Satori. When in CR, I carried a collapsible insect net which came in a bunch of small 2 foot sections. They fit in the attachment points, but there is none towards the top of the bag, so they wiggled around a little bit, but seemed to be fine. I would have liked that added support up top.
You can also see that there is the entrance for a water bladder tube at the top. This has velcro along it so you can reasonably seal the interior of the bag. This is only on the right side.
The right shoulder strap has attachments to keep the hydration tube in control. The hip strap has more of the molle attachment points for accessories.
The coolest thing, and one of the things I really love about these backpacks is that you can open then from the back. So you can lay it down on that rubber mat on the front (no fear of mud!), and quickly access your camera from the back of the bag, rather than putting your back down, flipping it over (thus getting the back dirty), getting your camera, and then putting the now soiled back of the backpack on your back. F-Stop says no way, never again!
The back is pretty stiff (and presumably waterproof for those that sweat a lot!), and on the interior, there are yet more pockets for memory cards, wires, batteries, whatever. And from here, you can access your ICUs and your camera gear (or any stuff you stored in the interior compartmnet of the bag).
Internal Camera Units (ICUs)
I've spoken about the ICUs a bit, so here is what they are. They are little (or large) removable compartments that are compatible with most of the Mountain Series F-Stop backpacks (which includes the Tilopa). They have shallow and pro series (the only difference is the depth, with the pro being deeper to accommodate an SLR camera body with a battery grip; shallows will fit a regular SLR camera body without a grip). Among these series, they have multiple different sizes (small, medium, large, extra large, and monster; all of which will fit in the Tilopa). I personally got the small and medium Pro ICUs (which is the equivalent of an Extra large). Basically, what this allows me to do is set up ICUs for particular situations (for example, if I was going on a camping trip, and only planned on macro work, I could put all of my stuff in for that in my medium ICU and leave the small ICU at home, thus freeing up space in the interior compartment for camping stuff). The ICUs allow the backpack to be completely customizable to the user's desires.
For example, when I was in CR, I would carry all of my camera gear on hikes because I wasn't sure if I'd come across opportunities for macro or telephoto or wide angle or what have you. So what I did was put the gear I use most often (in this case, macro stuff) in the medium ICU and the less used stuff in the small (e.g., telephoto). When I did a night hike, I wouldn't need to use the telephoto, so I'd just pull out the small ICU and not bring it. Not only did it free up 10 pounds and space, put it provided a nice, safe, padded container for my camera gear so that I don't have to be paranoid about something happening to my gear while I am away.
The ICUs are the real power for the F-Stop bags, and no other mainstream camera bag company (that I know) offers such customizability in it's bags.
The F-Stop backpack system offers a great amount of satisfaction for those who look to get out and get dirty and try to get photos while they are at it. This backpack survived the tropical rainforest with all of my gear working normally for it (and for those who have been there, know that it is probably one of the, if not the, harshest environment you can put camera gear through). While I imagine similar praises could be said for any of the Mountain Series F-Stop bags, I am very happy with the Tilopa.
- Backpack designed like a backpacking backpack for better weight distribution of heavy camera gear
- Many pockets for storage
- Rubber on points that might get dirtiest, for easy cleaning
- Use of Internal Camera Units for complete customization
- Lots of attachment points for additional accessories
- Reasonably waterproof without a rain cover (I would still recommend one just in case!)
- Allows for use of backpack for more than just a camera backpack
- Molle attachments not along whole side like in Satori
- Water bladder pocket not waterproof
- Accessory rain cover only big enough for bag, not for bag + attachments
- Tight fit for water bladder and/or laptop with Pro ICUs