Gear Review: F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC Backpack

When it comes to photo backpacks, photographers are probably worse than Celine Dion agonizing over a pair of shoes. You need one for every occasion and there is never a perfect pack for every occasion.

In my case, I have a lot of requirements that are seemingly incompatible. I hike a lot, sometime deep into the woods, meaning I need something light, comfortable and that can carry my gear, while allowing space for food, extra layers of clothing and other stuff like snowshoes. I Also travel a fair bit and need something that can fit in airplane compartments while carrying most of my gear, my travel documents and a laptop. I also do a fair amount of shooting in cities, where the same requirements hold but with the added element that I don’t want my bag to scream “EXPENSIVE PHOTO EQUIPMENT, PLEASE ROB ME”.

So far, the closest I had gotten was the ThinkTank ShapeShifter. This is a fantastic bag, super light and compact, pretty discrete, packs a laptop and takes a LOT of gear. However, it’s not really suitable for long hikes (little waist/back support and no real harness system) and it has no space for extra food or clothing.

When F-Stop Gear offered to let me test their new Tilopa BC backpack I was really excited as I had heard a lot of good things about them and had been contemplating the purchase of this bag in the very near future. I would also like to take the opportunity to announce that F-Stop Gear is now sponsoring me and my workshops. So keep on the lookout for goodies on this blog and on the workshop in the near future.

While I am indeed sponsored by F-Stop, I would definitely hold no information from my readers and hope to make as honest a review as I can. In fact, I have been holding on this announcement and review for some time. I have received the pack a while ago now, but felt like in order to endorse it and give it a fair and honest review, I had to test it enough to make an informed opinion. Now after a couple of months of carrying it around town and on long-ish hikes in nature, I am ready to spill the story :) .

So, how about this bag? If you don’t feel like reading until the end, the Tilopa BC gets a big thumbs up from me. Is it the bag that replaces all bags? Well I have to say that it gets very, very close. as this is a very strong and impressive product from F-Stop Gear.

F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC

The F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC in its "grey mist" look. If that's not slick design, I don't know what is :) .

The novelty of the F-Stop Gear bags, and the Tilopa in particular is that they are modular bags made up of two main parts: first, a real solid backpack that has been specially modified to accommodate the photographer; second, an independent and modular compartment, Internal Camera Unit (ICU), which holds your photo gear.

The Pack

First, let’s talk about the pack. Now, for the first time in my experience as a photographer, what I have here is a real backpack designed first and foremost to be a backpack. Not only does it have a super slick, great looking design, but it is solidly built and has a wonderful suspension system that balances the pack beautifully on your waist, such that you barely feel it when walking around. The waist belt is nicely padded and doesn’t rub the skin off your waist like so many packs have done before! The pack has no shortage of well thought-out straps and pockets that can accommodate just about every need you may ever have. Need to attach your tripod? Check. Have hiking poles too? Check? How about your snowboard/skis/snowshoes on top of that? Check. Yes. Really. And the pack remains superbly balanced through all of this (Never tried snowboard or skis, but check the snowshoe contraption in the photo below).

F-stop Gear Tilopa

Testing the Tilopa BC on a snowshoe hike. The extensive strap system allows me to keep the snowshoes secured and out of the way, while shooting.

One of the really cool features of the pack is its back panel access. Instead of accessing the pack from the front, the pack in fact opens up from the back. The beauty here is that, if like me you carry your gear into snowy, muddy, wet places, you no longer have to end up with wet, muddy, snowy back! As you lower your pack to the ground to pull out your gear, it is the front of the bag that is exposed, while the back panel remains untouched. This has the added benefit to keep your gear protected from thieves if you’re travelling in really busy places.

Here you can see the inside of the pack with a medium ICU holding my gear. Notice how much space is left for just about anything you may need.

Last but not least, if you’re traveling or just wandering around town, the pack has an internal pocket to accommodate a 15” laptop. The pack is large enough to accommodate all your gear and more, but is quite compact and is meant to be airport friendly.

In all honesty, the pack is near perfect and I have no real complaint other than the small pockets in the back panel. These pockets are designed to carry memory cards, documents or maps, but frankly, they are way too tight to have any real usefulness (for me at least). Other than that, it is a photographer’s dream allying great support system, practicality and more room than you can dream of.

The Internal Camera Unit (ICU)

F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC and Internal Camera Unit

The back panel opens to give you access to the ICU (the large model is shown here). The ICU is F-Stop's modular camera system that allows you to modify your pack according to your needs. It is hard to see here, but my Gore-Tex jacket is sitting above the ICU, with plenty of room to spare.

The ICU is really the heart of the camera aspect of the bag. And when you see it, your first thought is “why the heck did nobody think of it before?”. It is simply genius. It comes in several sizes from small to extra large to fit just about every possible need you have. Going for a long hike and need extra clothes and food but not a lot of gear? Get a small  ICU, which can hold a pro-body, a couple of lenses and accessories and use your Tilopa to carry the food and/clothes. The medium ICU holds just about every piece of gear I own without taking that much more space than the small ICU. Working not too far from your car, or need a lot of lenses? Put the large ICU in and don’t worry about a thing.

Here I have placed the Large, Medium and Small ICU side by side to give you an idea of their relative sizes.

I first really liked the size of the small ICU as it is small, light and leaves a lot of room in the bag. However, I have just tried the medium ICU and it wins hands down, in one word: perfect. It is barely larger than its smaller sister but fits my pro-body with a lens, 3 extra lenses and some room to spare, I think that if I try hard enough I may even fit a second body in there. The best part is that you have most of the pack left for just about anything, food, extra clothes, etc. Here it is no longer a compromise between gear or extras, you can have both at the same time. If I absolutely need more gear, I simply switch to the Large ICU, which is really the largest I’ll likely ever need as it has room for a pro-body with a telephoto attached, plus room for 4-5 more lenses, flash and accessories or a second body. While it is significantly larger than its siblings, it still leaves some room for food and/or clothing.

A close-up of my medium ICU with literally ALL my gear: 2 pro-bodies, 4 lenses, filters and accessories. This is my go-to ICU that I will likely have 90% of the time. I normally replace one of the bodies with a flash when I am not travelling.

Overall, the ICUs are really fantastically built with solid materials through and through, they are very well padded (the pads are thick enough for protection but thin enough to save weight), very modular (you can move the padding around), and interchangeable to fit your needs.

Conclusion

This is the large ICU open and closed, notice how much gear fits comfortably here.

I really had to think long and hard to identify real dislikes for this bag, and they are quite minor in fact

-  As I mentioned above, the small pockets in the rear panel are not very useful, but these are balanced by the fact there are many other more useful pockets available in the bag.

- Also, while quite compact, the bag may seem a bit bulky in an urban setting, where I prefer smaller bags.

My likes:

- The pack. Everything here just plain rocks: the suspension system, the looks,  the support, the build, the waist belt, the laptop pocket, the molle attachment system, the roominess. I have a very short back and always have trouble finding a pack that fits. Well, this one fits me just nicely.

- The strap system combined with the Molle system is very extensive and allows you to attach just about anything you can think of.

- The modularity. The ICU system is simply genius. Your pack can be adjusted to fit just about any application. More than that. You’re going on a multiday trip? Use your regular backpack (I own an Arc’Teryx Bora 65L) and throw in an ICU for good measure. The possibilities are endless.

- The laptop compartment.

- The rear panel: not only is it great to keep your back clean and your gear protected, it is actually designed to leave some breathing room between the pack and your back to try and prevent those uncomfortable sweaty backs.

Overall, as I said before, this is a pretty darn good bag that I would highly recommend to anyone who does adventure sports/nature/travel photography. It is in many, many ways a dream bag.

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10 Responses to Gear Review: F-Stop Gear Tilopa BC Backpack

  1. Agreed on all points Younes, I’ve had my Loka for about 6 months now and I use it to death. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it except today I took my cf card out of one of those little pockets you wrote about and you’re right, they’re not very usable haha. Maybe I’ll put the pixel pocket rocket in top pouch :) I use the medium icu by far the most as well, but there are times the small one is nice for strenuous hikes where weight is a concern. I use the large one when doing architectural shoots or when shooting out of the car, or just throw the extra stuff in the small one and leave the medium in…it’s insanely versatile. I can’t recommended this pack enough.

    • Younes says:

      Thanks David, I too use the Large ICU for architectural shots or when going around town. It has proven useful on several occasions. This is I think the beauty of the system, its modularity that just lets you tailor to your needs.

  2. Frank says:

    Hi Younes. I just got my Tilopa this week and while I haven’t used it yet, think it is terrific. The guy I talked to at F-Stop talked me into buying a medium and large ICU, but I can see where this was oversell. I thought I had researched it fairly well, but it is hard to really figure out some of this stuff. Your review is terrific as it pretty well spells out that the large one really isn’t necessary for most of us so I hope others benefit from it. If anything, the small one would have been the one to get in addition to the medium one. Oh, well.

    • Frank, If you want to swap out the Large ICU for a Small ICU, that is certainly something that we can do. If that sounds like something that you might be interested in, please email support@fstopgear.com or call 253.236.0070 ext 322 for Susan or ext 321 for David.

    • Younes says:

      Sorry to hear that Frank, I am sure the F-Stop team can work something out with you. Their service has been nothing short of stellar.
      Also, as I said above, the modularity of the system allows you to tailor it to your need. So while the large ICU is not my go-to unit, it still has its place in my gear as I take it along on architectural shoots where I often need extra strobes and so on.

  3. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the review, and I completely agree about the pockets (and everything else, for that matter!). My only other issue is that the Tilopa BC seems to be a bit smaller in volume than the specs would suggest. I have two other ‘identically-sized’ winter packs, and they just hold more. I realize there is little standardization among pack manufacturers, but the disparity is notable. That being said, the Tilopa BC is well designed and sized for that for which it was designed: backcountry outings where you need to be able to function while wearing the pack.

    One thing to note, I’m finding the (nearly ubiquitous among pro and amateur alike) 70-200/2.8 a tough fit for the ICUs, and noted that your images don’t show one. It certainly fits, but reduces the capacity if the ICU significantly. Not a knock on F-Stop in any way, its not a small piece of glass. I probably need to search out more creative divider configurations.

    • Younes says:

      That’s an interesting observation Jeff. I personally do not use a 70-200 2.8, I need something light and compact and rarely shoot wide-open. Therefore I opted for the more versatile 70-300VR and never had a problem fitting it in the bag.
      That said, I am sure there are many ways to configure the dividers to fit your needs. In fact I had a similar issue with the small ICU where the initial configuration didn’t allow me to keep a lens on the body when storing it in the bag. With a little creativity, it ended working out just great.

  4. Connor W. says:

    Great review. Thank you for sharing, I’ve been looking at these for a while now and finally just placed an order. One correction however: the icu design actually existed about 10 years ago in the Dakine sequence backpack however that pack did not have different sized ICUs, just one size that occupied the whole back compartment. I’ve shot with that, the burton f:stop, but think that this will beat both hands down! Thanks again!

  5. Thanks for the write-up Younes. Very useful info!

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