Nirvana is defined on Wikipedia as, “A central concept in Indian religions. In sramanic thought, it is the state of being free from suffering.” That whole “free from suffering” part is what I’d like to address. If you’ve ever worn an ill-fitting or poorly designed backpack for any length of time you surely recall the suffering. I found my nirvana in the form of an F-Stop Tilopa.
Until recently, camera backpacks just weren’t designed for people like you and me. My old Lowepro Nature Trekker AW was great when working from the truck. Throw it on your back and walk more than a mile and it’s deficiencies were unbearably evident. Bad suspension, no Camelbak pouch or water bottle holders, no room for non-camera gear. It and all the others I’ve tried over the years simply are not designed for hikers, skiers, mountain bikers, climbers and canyoneers. You know…us.
Then one day I’m contacted by this little company called F-Stop Gear. They ask if I’m interested in a sponsorship and I fire off a dozen questions about their product. I spend some time on their website and run a Google search. I’m impressed. I call them back and ask a few more questions. They tell me their products are designed as true backcountry backpacks and offer to send me a sample. I bite, they send, I fall in love.
Full disclosure – yes, I am sponsored by F-Stop Gear. However, that has no bearing on the review you’re about to read. This is my honest to goodness, totally unbiased assessment of the Tilopa backpack. So, let’s dig in.
And Now, The Review
F-Stop products don’t look like camera packs. They look like backpacks – the kind you’d strap on, hit the trail and hike for 20 miles. Some of you may think it’s silly I’m even mentioning this next bit, but they’re good lookin’ packs. There, I said it. I don’t like to wear ugly crap and F-Stop packs are anything but ugly. Because they don’t look like camera packs they don’t come with a big sign reading “STEAL ME – I’M FILLED WITH EXPENSIVE CAMERA STUFF”.
What good is a backpack if the suspension sucks? Absolutely none. Thankfully, the F-Stop Tilopa features a well designed, functional suspension system that a) fits me, and b) transfers the weight to my hips. I have a long torso and finding daypacks that fit is a nightmare. Usually, the hipbelt rides somewhere in the neighborhood of mid-belly. On the Tilopa, the hipbelt sits exactly where it should – centered over the iliac crest. This, combined with load lifters and straps that suck the bottom of the pack into your lower back, results in a pack that carries comfortably during long days on the trail. The shoulder straps and hipbelt could be a little bit beefier, as they are on the new Tilopa BC, but even as-is they get the job done.
One of the coolest features of the entire F-Stop line is the modularity built into every pack. Some times you carry a lot of camera gear and other times very little. With that in mind, F-Stop’s packs are designed around a “shell” and an “ICU, or internal camera unit“. The “shell” is the pack bag and harness. The “ICU” is the padded compartment where your camera gear lives and they are available in four sizes. The Tilopa has a rear zipper compartment that provides access to the ICU and your camera gear inside the pack (see photos). The ICU’s swap out quickly, making it easy to carry an extra large ICU one day and a small ICU the next. This system has the added benefit of keeping dirt and debris off the back panel when you take off the pack to access your camera gear. Very nice touch!
Let’s move on to a few smaller details. Even with a large ICU that’s filled with gear, I’ve got enough room to carry my 15 essentials (more on that in another post), a down coat, a 5 in 1 reflector, snacks, two Nalgene bottles, a SPOT and GPS, and I’ve still got a bit of room left over. Yeah, you guessed it, I don’t travel light. The Tilopa has several pockets on the top, sides and front of the pack bag that make it easy to organize all that extra stuff. You’ve got a total of 3,100 cubic inches in which to cram all your gear.
There are straps on the side of the pack and on one side of the hipbelt that accepts all pouches that use the MOLLE attachment system. Speaking of the hipbelt, it’s got a little pocket on one side that provides on-the-go access to small items like snacks or lip balm.
Tripods can be securely mounted on either side of the pack or right down the center. The water bottle pockets hold a 32 oz. Nalgene bottle snug enough to keep it from falling out at the wrong time during a scramble, and if you’re even moderately limber you can reach them without having to remove the pack. I don’t use it, but the Tilopa also has an internal padded laptop sleeve. Kinda cool.
Some camera packs are built with little or no regard to weight. Not so with the Tilopa. Weighing in at a reasonable 4 1/2 pounds, including ICU, the Tilopa manages to hit that sweet spot where light weight and durablity co-exist nicely with full support and a comfortable carry.
Now you know what I love about the Tilopa. Here’s what I’d change: As mentioned, the shoulder straps and hip belt could be a little beefier – especially the hip belt. An integrated rainfly would be a nice touch, and there’s even a pocket at the bottom of the pack that would fit one perfectly. A good friend who has the Tilopa says his back gets too hot and sweaty because there aren’t any air channels. I don’t have an issue with it, though. Finally, and this is being really nitpicky, but adding a built-in whistle to the sternum strap wouldn’t suck. Hey, I get lost a lot and may need to whistle for help some time.
02/01 – Update from F-Stop Gear: The good folks at F-Stop read my review and sent me an email to say that all of my “dislikes” have been addressed on the curent model Tilopa BC and future models of the Tilopa. There’s a sternum strap whistle, much beefier shoulder straps and hipbelt and a new, vented back panel. Also, a rainfly is available for both models that fits perfectly into the pocket mentioned above, although I couldn’t find it listed on their website. So, there you have it. Sounds to me like the perfect photo backpack just got more perfect-er.
What Do I Carry in the Large ICU?
I don’t travel light. As I see it, every time I go hiking I’m getting a killer workout. Here’s the list: A 15mm fisheye lens, a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, a 100-400mm lens with attached tripod collar, 2 Pocket Wizards, a 550EX flash and small soft box, extra batteries, 1 large GND filter and a few other small gadgets. See the photo below to get an idea of the size and quantity of gear it will hold.
The Tilopa is a rock solid, feature filled backpack that will work well for virtually all outdoor photographers. It isn’t cheap ($295 for the shell and one ICU) but you’ll get several seasons of comfortable use before retiring it to the very back of your gear garage because you just can’t bear to part with it.
Here are a few photos of my Tilopa. I’m including one that shows all of my gear in the large ICU inside the pack, one of the backside of the pack and one of the front, with my tripod in it’s usual carry position on the side of the pack. You can see more and better photos of the Tilopa and it’s burlier brother, the Tilopa BC, on the F-Stop Gear website.