My search for the ultimate backpack was not an easy one. I spent weeks looking at different bags online before making a decision. The biggest problems were my pickiness and wanting too much from a single bag. The bag I chose needed work as an everyday bag and be durable to last for years through all kinds of mistreatment. I wanted a bag designed to carry my camera and a couple extra lenses, but the backpack couldn’t look like camera bag, I wanted it to look like a regular backpack. The bag needed have room for a couple days’ worth of clothes and my MacBook Pro, but still not be very bulky. With a couple other minor must-haves in there, I had my work cut out for me.
Eventually, I stumbled across a small company called F-Stop that specializes in making photography bags for skiing and snowboarding. They have three different sized backpacks and after reading a ton of reviews across all the models, I decided to get the smallest one, the Loka. Even though the Loka is their smallest bag, it’s still plenty big at 37L. As far as the dimensions go, the bag is only a few inches taller than the Pakuma Akara K1 laptop bag that I’ve been carrying every day for the last few years. The Loka is actually not quite as wide and just two inches thicker. It’s taller than I was looking for, but still not bad.
The design of the bag is great both aesthetically and functionally. There are plenty of pockets and places to put things. The main compartment is very large and opens from both the top and the back of the pack. Inside the main compartment, you get to put your choice of an internal camera unit (ICU) (this where you actually put your photo gear). On top of the ICU, there is still plenty of room for a weekend’s worth of clothes or whatever else you want to carry. There is almost a standard Jansport backpack’s worth of room left there still.
A little more about the ICUs, they are removable and there are four different sizes available–depending on what sizes you have, you can even fit two in there, if you need to. I opted for the medium ICU which is more than big enough to fit my camera with any lens I have attached, two additional lenses (more, but that’s all I’ve got), a flash, and some other crap. The ICUs also make for a great way to store your equipment when it’s not in use, but I found that getting the ICU into the pack and strapped in on both sides was a little more troublesome than I thought it would be. It only takes about a minute to get the pack in and strapped, but it’s a slightly cumbersome procedure. Since I only bought a single ICU, I don’t see myself removing it too often.
As I mentioned above, the pack opens from the back and the top. When you open from the back, you get access to the contents of the ICU. While this means that access to your camera isn’t super quick (you have to take the bag off), it does mean that your camera is protected from thieves trying to pull a fast one while you’re in crowded areas. The design allows you to put your pack down in the snow and access the contents without having the part that goes against your back actually touching the snow. While this won’t matter for everyday use, this bag will be coming with me on the mountain every once in a while so this will be a nice feature.
The top flap to the bag has pockets on both sides. The outer pocket as a couple smaller pockets inside for putting things and the inner one is made of mesh. These make for a great place to put things like keys, cables, etc. The flap on the back of the bag has very tight pockets for spare batteries and memory cards, a great way to not waste space in the bag and provide extra organization. There is also padding to add comfort to your back. On either side of the pack there are mesh pockets which hold a Nalgene bottle pretty well and I usually throw my iPod in one of them for everyday use (won’t do this on the mountain). These mesh pockets can also be used with the side straps for holding a tripod. However, I’ve found that the pocket which I normally keep my Nalgene bottle in has stretched out very slightly. This may just be normal wear as the bag breaks in, but I’m going to keep an eye on it.
On the front, there’s a vertical zipper that opens up to another compartment. This one is much smaller than the main compartment, but could still be big enough to put a fair amount of stuff in, if you needed it. And finally, underneath the pack there is a pocket for storing the optional rain cover which seems to be rarely needed as the bag is pretty water resistant and designed to survive on the mountain even without the cover.
Because of some shipping problems that F-Stop has been having, it took close to a month to get my bag. This was a little disappointing as customer service kept providing what seemed to be hopeful ETAs instead of realistic ones. Still, I would not hold the shipping problems against the company as they are still very small and the time and money seems to have gone into the product instead of customer service and ironing out the kinks in their shipping process (the actual issue was in shipping from their overseas production site to their US warehouse, not in shipping to me).
So because of the shipping issues, I’ve only had the bag for about two weeks, but I’ve been using it every day. However, the bag does feel a tad big for everyday use for me since I’m not a bit guy. I like to bring a backpack to the office with me just to keep my headphones (a big pair of over the ear Sennheiser HD-280s), a handful of cables, and my camera. My fiancée makes fun of me for always bringing my camera to work, but I like having it with me in case there’s something that comes up to take photos of…like waffle day. I also sometimes bring my laptop if there are things I want to try to get done during lunch. The Loka holds all of this stuff very nicely and doesn’t feel too heavy on, even when I just wear it on one shoulder as I normally do from the car up to my cube.
One thing that I’d like to mention about carrying my laptop in the Loka is that this model does not feature a full sized laptop slot. F-Stop’s other two models, Tilopa and Satori, are designed to carry 15″-17″ notebooks in a padded slot, but this bag does not feature that. This was almost a dealbreaker for me, but there is a sleeve that fits my netbook or my Google Cr-48 (or a hydration sleeve if you want, there’s an opening for the tube). While I don’t like carrying any computer unprotected in a bag, I feel more than comfortable with either of these in the slot. The bag itself seems to provide enough protection for everyday use so as long as I don’t go throwing the thing around or have the computer in there while snowboarding. I think they’ll be fine. That being said, a 15″ laptop in its own padded sleeve will still fit in the bag. Since I don’t have a sleeve for my MacBook Pro, I haven’t gotten to try this, however, I did slip it in between the ICU and the back flap and this worked pretty well. The space there is just perfect for my MacBook Pro and because of the padding in the ICU and on the back flap, it’s pretty protected. This does block access to the ICU, but I can’t imagine any time in which the extra second it will take to pull my computer out will be much of an annoyance. I found that this was actually a pretty ideal way to carry my laptop in this bag the other day when I went home for Christmas. I wanted to bring my MacBook Pro with me so that I could work on photos as I took them, but I also wanted to bring my Cr-48 to show it to my dad. I was able to put the Cr-48 in the netbook sleeve and the MacBook Pro between the flap and the ICU. They fit wonderfully. And the straps held the weight too.
Something that’s very convenient about this bag is that it has a removable internal frame which helps the weight to be distributed properly to your hips when using the chest and waist straps. The frame also helps the bag stand up straight when you set it down. This makes it very easy to get things out of it and keeps the bag from getting dirty when you put it down.
As I mentioned, the bag is bigger than the bag I was using, but the side straps help it compress very nicely. With the ICU in, the bottom half of the bag doesn’t compress a lot, but the top can compress a ton. This helps the bag to not look monstrous when wearing with a light load.
Overall, I’m extremely happy with this bag. It’s made well and carries everything I need, whether it’s just my daily travel to and from the office or a weekend trip. I haven’t taken it out yet on the slopes, but that’s coming soon. I have nothing but high expectations for it. It’s also not too bulky and is comfortable to wear. Based on much of what I’ve read, this seems to be a lot better than 99% of camera bags out there. F-Stop bags are made by people who are both photographers and snowboarders/skiers. They are designed based on actual use by people that actually use the products and each revision takes into account user feedback. Rather than sewing straps to a padded camera case, F-Stop designed an extremely good backpack and then added a removable camera case.
The only complaint that I really have is the price, at $250 with 1 ICU included, this bag is just about the most expensive bag I looked at. However, the quality and the design make up for that a lot. One of my original most-haves for a bag was something with quick access to the camera, but after a while, I realized that I couldn’t get everything I wanted from just one bag. This was the feature that made the most sense to drop, but it also meant that I would need (okay, want) a second bag for those times when I’m out all day, but only need my camera and maybe a couple small things on me, like Disney (only one week away!) and photo scavenger hunts around NYC. For that, I decided a sling would be best. This hunt was much easier, but I’ll get into that in another post this week.