As I prepared for my two week trip to Iceland I new I wanted to bring a good camera bag for hiking. I had a standard backpack style bag from Think Tank and it was OK for hauling my gear around town. When I did hiking based trips I just took my standard frame pack and wrapped the camera in a jacket or something.
But it for Iceland I was going to be hiking every day and wanted something more convenient and comfortable. The current bag was hard on my shoulders and really hated the front entry. Having to brush off dirt and remove cactus prickers before putting it back on gets old really quick.
After doing lots of research I decided on an F-Stop Tilopa BC Bag. With a 48 liter capacity it's big enough that I can pack a days or overnights worth of gear in, has back entry, internal frame, good waist straps, room for a hydration bladder, and I liked the internal camera unit (ICU) system.
Price. No doubt about it, these packs are not cheap. I felt the cost of the external pack was fair, but I'd really like the ICU's to be cheaper. For what you get they seem overpriced, perhaps it's a production volume issue.
Travel: I've now taken this pack on 8 different flights, both domestic and international, and had no trouble getting it onto the plane. Though some US carriers are now being quite stringent with carry on size no one gave the backpack a second look, even when they were stopping people with roller bags. I didn't have it completely full and no guarantees you can always slip it on-board though. Once on the plane it fit into the overhead bins no problem, and I was even able to stow it perpendicular to the aisle.
Packing for the flights I carried all my camera gear (D800, 4 lenses, NEX7), some books, laptop, and several spare hard drives with room to spare. I currently have the medium sloped ICU.
Waterproofness: So the F-Stop Tilopa BC is advertised as water resistant, and boy did I put it to the test. I had the bag out in 5 straight days of rain and it never leaked. This wasn't some delicate light drizzle by the way, but full blown drenching with horizontal blowing rain....for days on end. I'm sure like all waterproof coatings it will degrade over time, but compared to other outdoor gear I have used this really impressed me. On par with the best shell layers I've used.
Another inadvertent waterproof test was at the Jokulsarlon iceberg beach, a rather large wave surprised me and the pack which I thought was a safe distance up the beach actually was within the waves reach. It was hit hard enough to pick it up and move it a bit, didn't leak at all, much to my relief and the relief of all my camera gear.
Comfort: I wore this pack on numerous short hikes, and several 6+ hour hikes in technical conditions (glaciers). When maneuvering on the edge of a cliff, on a slippery trail, or walking next to a crevasse I really want my pack to move like its part of me and the Tilopa didn't let me down. I can tell it was designed by people who actually spend a lot of time in the outdoors. It ranked equal in comfort to my two standard mountaineering packs, 40 L and 65 L standard frame packs. The fact that the camera is down low really helps with the weight distribution and the straps help keep everything snug.
Easy to adjust all the straps, really comfortable waist belt, and easy hydration bladder access. My only nitpicks are that using the sloped ICU, my 24-70 lens while stored upright occasionally poked me in the back through the padding. This was only an issue when I had the ICU padded cover tucked back for faster gear access. Also the shoulder straps tend to flop in the way of opening the back sometimes and that was annoying when I had been up for 20 hours during those never ending sunsets.
Technical: So in addition to the standard hiking I took this pack on one solo mountaineering climb and 3 day long glacial hikes. I chose the smaller ICU so I would have room for all of the gear you need on a more technical trip, and the medium sized ICU was perfect for those day trips. The bag had enough space for the 10 essentials, extra layers, hydration bladder, food, all my gear, tripod, crampons, ice axe, etc. For an overnight trip I would get the smaller ICU to have room for a tent and sleeping bag.
The Tilopa handled itself well, held up in the snow, didn't mind being thrown around or dragged, certainly didn't mind the wet. Lots of straps for almost any configuration, and the only time I found myself lacking the strap I wanted was when I went to stow my ice axe. It didn't have the little loops at the bottom which most bags have which are perfect for looping the axe head through. I tried with the elastic straps the Tilopa has there instead but they kept pulling out and the plastic end stopper popped off 3 times that day.
On a professional level I spent one day shooting on assignment at the Vatnakojull glacier and I felt under a lot of pressure to deliver the high quality images the customer needed. On ice in a hazardous location where mis-steps could be fatal (or at least hurt a hell of a lot) I really hate it if I have to worry about my equipment. I didn't have to worry about the Tilopa at all and that's a testament to its quality. I'm very pleased with its performance.
Conclusion: 4.5 out of 5 stars. I really love this pack, its the best camera bag I've ever had the pleasure of owning and I'm thrilled with F-Stop for making it.
Want to read more about my trip and see additional photos? Check out the blog posts and the Fire & Ice Gallery linked below!