If you’re serious about getting good photos beyond the trailhead, you’ve historically had two ways to travel with your camera gear. The first is with a dedicated camera backpack. They offer great organization, quick access and reliable protection. But, with Spartan suspension systems and lacking room for anything but camera gear and a granola bar, they’re a no-go for anything but simple day trips in fair weather. On the other end of the spectrum is your favorite backcountry pack. It features all the room you need for multiple days’ worth of backcountry gear, carries it all with ease and comfort, but lacks horribly in all the places where dedicated camera packs excel.
The Mountain Series packs I’ve used. (L to R) the Satori EXP (62L), Tilopa (48L), Loka (37L) and Guru (28L).
Enter f-stop’s Mountain-series camera bags. Essentially, they’ve tried to take all the performance of your favorite backcountry pack and mash it up with the features of the best camera bags out there. The goal is to get you, your backcountry gear and your camera gear wherever you’re headed–be it deep in the backcountry, to the crag, or even getting around town on location.
On the outside, f-stop packs are absolutely bomber. They’re built with burly, waterproof-coated fabrics for optimal weather resistance and stout YKK zippers for excellent, long-term reliability. A beefy and smooth #10-sized zipper graces the busy place on the pack and that’s not to be overlooked. For me, blown zippers and (a lack of motivation to replace them) have been the number one killer of my camera bags.
Of course, nice, seam-taped and pack-specific rain covers are available separately, but I prefer the lighter silnylon ones from Sea to Summit to help shave some weight and a lot of space.
Profile of Satori with Molle webbing attachments on side and waistbelt.
For external organization, they feature MOLLE-standard attachments and plenty of them. I always felt these were a bit overkill, but they securely accept most lens cases, and you’ll never worry about these things pulling out as you traverse an exposed ridge with a 70-200mm lens hanging from your pack.
In addition to stock compression straps, you can also add their optional GateKeeper straps to pre-sewn attachment points around the Mountain Series packs. With carabiner-like gates on each end and a side-release buckle in the middle, you can attach them to numerous places in variable configurations to carry skis, light stands, tripods, etc., or just use them to further compress and secure your load. Each pack also features a straight-forward suspension system that delivers excellent comfort with EVA-padding, wicking next-to-skin surfaces and an internal, aluminum frame that supports and distributes big loads really well.
Hydration ports and reservoir pockets/laptop sleeves are standard, but being rear-access packs, that presents two problems in hydration mode. Leaking or sweaty reservoirs are addressed with taped, waterproof hydration over bags (available separately) but there is a slight weight distribution issue when you need to hang 3 liters of water a foot away from your back or squeezed to one side of your pack. Admittedly, I rarely carry a hydration reservoir with these packs though. I often opt to free-up space inside for camera gear or another layer, and a bottle on the outside (they fit easily in the mesh side pockets) is just more efficient.
That all sounds heavy, right? Honestly, they even feel a little heavy, but I compared a number of high-end packs from Arc’Teryx and Black Diamond, and the specs tell us that they’re actually a bit lighter. I attribute that to the fact that these packs are really pretty stripped-down when you get into the details. Essentially, they’re just really fancy carry systems for the thing that makes f-stop bags stand out above all the rest – the Internal Camera Unit system.
It’s what’s inside that counts.
Behind a horseshoe-zippered back panel (that burly #10 YKK zipper I mentioned) is where you will place f-stop’s proprietary Internal Camera Unit (ICU) of your choice, like the key to Brigadoon. It’s so simple it’s brilliant.
f-stop Internal Camera Unit – Large
Available in eleven sizes, these are essentially what you get on the inside of a traditional camera bag – a padded, fabric-lined cube with moveable padded dividers. The difference is that you choose the ICU based on the balance of camera gear and the rest of the stuff you need to fit into your pack. With an XL ICU in my Satori, I can carry a portable studio on my back, complete with a pro body, 2-3 lenses, and two Elinchrom Ranger Quadras with room to spare. If I’m heading out on a minimalist overnight, I can get away with up to a Medium or Small ICU (with a chest pack), and have enough room for a small tent, stove and the rest of the stuff I need to get by under the stars. And of course, should you really need more room, you always have the option of using external lens cases to free-up additional space by using an even smaller ICU.
Now take that example and extrapolate it to all the different pack and ICU sizes and you begin to see the utility of the f-stop system. And beyond utility, you get value as well, because with 2-3 ICU’s and a pack or two, you might not ever need another camera bag.
And for some icing on the cake, should you not want to bring any camera gear or very little, you don’t need an ICU at all. These packs carry fine as regular backcountry packs by just taking out the ICU. Can you think of another camera bag that does that?
What’s not to like?
Despite how great this system is, don’t be fooled thinking you’re going to bring a serious assignment-worthy level of gear and still have a ton of room for backpacking stuff. With 62 liters being the largest current pack, you’ll be hard-pressed to fit all that inside with your other gear. You’d likely need a 75-80-liter pack for that, but being able to keep a lot of stuff on the outside gives you options. Ultimately, that’s defeats the design intention, but still beats most other options.
With the versatility of the ICU system, every pack is really like getting at least a three-for-one deal. As it turns out, that’s extra good because getting your hands on one of these babies can be pretty challenging. But keep trying. F-stop encourages you to be patient and order yourself a pack in advance. You’ll get first dibs on new inventory and, if possible, they’ll shift inventory around from their global distribution points to accommodate outages, and won’t charge you until your pack ships. That doesn’t make waiting any easier though.
Odds and Ends
Of course, if you’re human, you’ll find little details here and there that don’t work for you. For me, the extra memory card pockets are a waste (doesn’t everyone use the ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rockets by now?) and the pockets on the inside of the back panel are too slim to be very useful for much but a few model releases. Even if they were bigger, I’m not sure that being between my back and my camera body is a good place for much but paper or more padding. And the key fabs – great and essential to have; don’t get me wrong–but to use them, you need to keep one of the ends on your key chain. I have enough crap on there already. Please just give me my old clip back.
That’s really about it on the negative side though. And if that’s all I have to say bad about these packs, then the only thing that should really bug you is the availability and maybe the price. But keep trying. If you’re looking for the most versatile and well-built adventure photo pack out there, they’re worth every penny.
I always have my camera with me and I use the Guru every-single-day. No joke. With a medium Slope ICU, it fits a Nikon D700 with a grip (barely) and 24-70mm attached, a 70-200 with a foot, and a 14-24mm, or 2 SB-900 speedlights. And that leaves enough room for a jacket, a 15” Mac Book Pro, batteries, filters, grub an SU-800, and more. With a tripod on the outside, you’re ready for almost anything.
The Loka and/or Satori
It’s no surprise that the mid-sized Loka sees the most action, just like my mid-sized alpine packs, and it is rightly one of their more popular bags. The Satori EXP, to me, is just a bigger Loka, so I refer to them in the same breath, separated only by the amount of gear I need to bring on any given trip. As I mentioned earlier, the Satori has also been surprisingly convenient around town for location shoots, allowing me to use it with an XL ICU and a wheeled hard case to easily move around a ton of gear.