26 Sep
2010

Tilopa Photo Pack Review

In July I was approached by F-Stop Gear, a manufacturer of photo packs, for a possible sponsorship deal. I said sure, provided that I got a chance to test and review their equipment first. I didn’t want to enter into a sponsorship relationship with a company that makes products I don’t like. I warned them ahead of time that I had never used a photo pack that I thought was worth a damn. Every one I’ve ever used has been too heavy, and not built for the demands of outdoor adventure. So good luck, I told them.

Mt. Rainier

The Tilopa helped me get here!

And then my Tilopa arrived. Right away I knew something was different about the Tilopa—it doesn’t look like a camera pack at all, rather it looks like a technical rock-climber’s or snowboarder’s pack.The Tilopa is F-Stop’s all-around medium-sized day pack. According to F-Stop, “this lightweight camera sport pack was designed with the traveling photographer in mind . . . to keep everything you need organized and safe.” Designed to be just small enough to meet major airline carry-on requirements, and just big enough to carry everything you would need for a day hike, the Tilopa packs a serious amount of punch into a relatively small package. 

The Tilopa by F-Stop

Most camera packs I have used in the past seem to have been designed by photographers, with plenty of padding, compartments, zippers, and all sorts of stuff designed for organizing and storing camera gear. The end result? Heavy, unbalanced packs that weigh on the shoulders. So, for years, I have been putting my camera and lenses into a small flexible cooler, which goes into my day pack made by Gregory—a company that knows how to make a hiking pack that feels like it is floating behind you, even on long hikes.

I got a chance to put the Tilopa through its paces when I spent two weeks photographing in Mt. Rainier National Park. Almost every day I went on five to ten mile hikes through rugged mountain terrain. The pack worked like a charm. The Tilopa was clearly designed by people who understand that, above all, a pack needs to successfully redistribute weight from your shoulders to your hips. This pack is what an adventure photo pack should be: built to travel long distances without any unnecessary stuff to weigh you down. The load lifter straps and the pack’s internal frame work perfectly to keep weight off your shoulders: not once in two weeks did I feel the pack weigh heavily on my back. Overall, I find the pack to be well designed, and well thought out.

The pack has some great features perfect for protecting your photo gear. There are plenty of small compartments that can be used to store filters and other odds and ends, as well as side compartments and straps for lashing tripods and storing water bottles. The heart of the Tilopa is the modular Internal Camera Unit (ICU), which provides protection and storage for your camera gear. The ICU can be removed from the pack and carried on its own if you desire. ICUs come in a variety of sizes so you can custom fit your Tilopa depending on how much camera gear you need to carry. The pack comes with a large ICU, which personally I find to be a little too much for me when I am in the field. I am going to see if I can get my hands on the small or medium ICU, which will be perfect for my needs, and will leave more space in the pack for other gear I bring with me, such as extra clothing, or fishing waders for when I get into deep water for shooting waterfalls.   

Carter Falls, Mt. Rainier

The Tilopa helped me get here too!

The Tilopa works great as a carry-on bag when flying, perfect for the adventurer on-the-go. It’s big enough to hold all of your expensive, breakable gear, yet small enough to stuff in an overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. And besides, you look cool carrying a dusty photo pack when strutting around the airport!

My favorite thing about the Tilopa? It’s unique rear entry access to the main compartment and the ICU. What’s great about it? With most packs, you need to lay the pack on the ground, backside down, to access gear from the front or the top. That means you are laying the part of the pack that rests against your back in dirt, mud, or worse. With the Tilopa, I can lay the part of the pack that never touches my back on the ground, and the mesh back of the pack (and therefore my back) stays clean (wow, too many backs and packs in that sentence—I must have been channeling Dr. Seuss when I wrote it). Frankly, I think this is one of the smartest designs around.

Tilpoa rear entry

The Tilopa's handy rear entry.

Bottom line? I love my Tilopa. This pack is smartly designed for adventure and travel. It’s the only camera bag I have ever owned that I actually use. Considering its rugged construction, I suspect I will be using it for quite some time. As a result, I’ve now entered into a sponsorship relationship with F-Stop, a partnership that I’m looking forward to. And by the way , it’s not like F-Stop is showering me with bling, so rest assured that my enthusiasm for this pack is genuine!

For more info or to order, visit F-Stop Gear online.

Price $295. Specifications, notes, and gear photos courtesy of F-Stop:

  • Comes with Large ICU (7.5” Deep x 11” Wide x 15” Tall).
  • Airline Carry-On Safe – Below the legal size limits for major airlines.
  • Multiple attachment points.
  • Internal padded Laptop Sleeve fits most 15” laptop.
  • Rip Stop nylon and high density foam make this backpack a workhorse that stands up to abuse.
  • Full sized hip belt, padded shoulder straps, and adjustable sternum strap allow you to carry heavy loads easier.
  • Numerous, large external pockets and straps fit tripod, snow shovel, snowboard, skis, and almost anything else you want to carry.
  • Volume: 50 Liter / 3,100 Cubic Inches
  • Weight: 2032 Grams – 4.47lbs (With Full ICU) / 1392 Grams – 3.07lbs (No ICU)
  • Dimensions: 12” x 24″ x 10″
  • Internal Compartment Dimensions: 12” x 22” x 10”
  • Internal Compartment Space Available with Large ICU: 7” tall ½” on each side, extra depth taken by laptop sleeve.
  • Torso Length: 18.5”
  • Metal internal frame for support carrying heavy loads.
  • Fabric Info: Ballistic Rip-stop Nylon, Abrasion Resistant Nylon Webbing, High Density foam, Heavy Gauge Zippers, YKK Waterproof Zippers, Waterproof Urethane coasted mesh.
  • You can pry my Tilopa out of my cold, dead hands!

    P.S. Since I first posted this review, I received the following note from F-stop Gear in response to some of the questions that came up in the comments: “The Tilopa packs are heavily water resistant but of course not waterproof. With the waterproof zippers and separate ICU, it is pretty impossible to get your gear wet, even in a heavy rain storm. We will also have a water bladder and rain cover available for all our packs with our next shipment at the start of November.”

    Ian PlantAbout Ian Plant (385 Posts)

    Ian Plant's photographs and instructional articles have appeared in a number of books, calendars, and magazines, including Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography. Ian writes a regular blog column for Outdoor Photographer online, and he is the author of numerous instructional eBooks and videos. Ian leads several photo tours each year.


    13 Comments

    • Just a minor comment: The rear-entry design is not unique. Lowepro’s Flipside backpacks have the same design, and it works very well. See e.g. http://products.lowepro.com/product/Flipside-400%20AW,2116.htm

    • Ian

      Thanks Dennis for letting us know! Perhaps “unique” was too strong of a word. I guess I meant it more casually, as in it is a design feature that you don’t commonly see. Just to be clear, my review is not meant to be a comprehensive comparison between the Tilopa and other models. I have not tested other camera packs, as I have not used any for many, many years. This is just my reaction to the Tilopa, which I like very much. I’m sure there are other good camera bags out there with many happy users!

    • It does indeed seem like everything you could want with a pack for photography. Is it reliably waterproof/water resistant as is or do you have to put on some sort of cover?

    • Ian

      Good question Reagan. I haven’t yet been rained on while using my Tilopa. I’ve used hiking packs like this before (that is, made of the same material), and they usually stay pretty dry. Also, the ICU that holds the equipment inside the bag adds an extra layer of protection. But I suspect that a heavy rain will eventually soak its way into the pack, so I would recommend (as with any pack) to have a waterproof cover handy if you think that a soaking rain will be heading your way. I guess an integrated pack cover would have been nice to have for this pack, something I might mention to the F-stop folks to consider as an updated feature. I’ve got upcoming trips to the Adirondacks, Maine coast, and the Outer Banks, so hopefully I’ll get some rain to test out the water resistance of the pack. I’ll post an update to this review when I’ve got more info. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

    • Sweet looking pack Ian. Notice a couple of you guys picking up the sponsorship and checked out the site. Good looking packs, I think I may have to order me one.

      BTW, when you heading to the dacks. I think I may be over there next weekend, weather dependent. The colors are really starting to pop up here!

    • Ian

      Hi Kurt! I am heading up on Sunday or Monday. If you are still around during the week, I’d love to meet up before my workshop starts.

    • can you use the laptop compartment to hold a water bladder?

    • Ian

      Good question – it is roomy enough I think to fit a water bladder. My recollection is that most water bladders are slimmer and shorter than laptops.

    • So where to you hang a tripod on this pack? Can it be carried on the center line by the two horizontal buckle straps or only off to one side? I find the weight distribution of side mounted tripods uncomfortable.

    • Ian

      Hi Avram, you can hang the tripod either on the side of the pack (either side), or on the center line using straps.

    • The one thing I find with every camera backpack is they have no way to carry water bladders. Hence thats why I still use a regular backpack and not a specific camera one. How long is going to take companies to realize that people need water when they hike???

    • Ian

      Jody, see the note above in the newly added post script of my review. F-Stop says they plan to add a water bladder option to their packs.

    • http://fstopgear.com/en/loka

      Note it has space for a bladder and also note the waterproof cover.