This is another review that has been looming on the back burner. Unlike the last review, the delayed publication of this review has a good reason. I wanted to actually use the bag for a while before writing a formal review. Using the bag for a 6 month period has provided the opportunity to take it out and put it through typical workflow cycles. Doing this allows for a more complete review than if I’d simply strapped it on once, never broke a sweat in it, or had to find a place to balance it while taking a shot. In the 6 month span the bag has been taken on 50+ photo outings and had 40+ hiking miles put under it.
This bag was purchased with “Christmas Bonus” money from the day job. Which is nice because for once nothing had to be sold off to acquire a new piece of gear [side note: all photography gear is paid for by (1) selling off something I already own, (2) money that comes in directly from photography, or (3) money earned as a work bonus]. After selling off a Jeep and motorcycle the changes of large sums of “play” money coming in is few and far between.
The bonus and this bag came at a wonderful time because the existing bag was pushed to its limits. The previous bag was a standard Canon backpack bag that one gets when a kit is purchased from a big box chain. The bag served diligently for 4+ years and was only retired because it lacked capacity. It was given away to a co-worker and is still being to be used.
Full disclosure: I know one person who worked (works?) for F-stop and one person who is sponsored by them. Neither had any part in the research, purchase, or review of the bag.
Back to the F-stop bag. The one acquired is the Malibu Blue Tilopa BC bag. F-stop was running a deal where a free medium slope ICU (Internal Camera Unit) was included with a bag purchase. This saved $75 on the final purchase price. Additionally, a second ICU, the small pro ICU, was purchased.
After much debate and research the combination of the medium slope and small pro was decided upon over a standalone large pro ICU or x-large pro ICU. The two ICUs allow for packing versatility while also providing the same internal storage capacity.
(1) Quick release tension straps
(3) Bold color
(4) Breathing expander strap
(5) Firm/Secure construction when packing
(6) Vertical tripod storage
(7) Integrated whistle
(8) Can’t connect ICUs to each other
(9) Velcro straps at edge of ICU
(10) Padding for slope ICU must fold over
(11) Long straps (bottom) on shoulder straps
(12) Less top space than advertised
(13) Tension creep
The good – detailed:
(1) Tightened straps are able to be quickly loosed by the quick release design. If one has overtightened or needs to remove the bag quickly then doing so will not be a problem. Coupled with the buckling latches this allows for easy adjustments and fast removal of the bag.
(2) The padding is nice and thick. The straps and center entrance flap are both padded for comfort. Additionally the bottom of the pack has a heavy duty material to help prevent wear and tear. The back and strap padding has proven itself worthy through the testing.
(3) The bold blue color helps the bag stand out from the natural environment [The wife refers to the color as “Safety Blue”]. This isn’t helpful if one is trying to be super stealthy, but there is a black offering if stealthy is what one desires. Along with running shirts, a bright red jacket, and this blue bag it is easy to always wear a combination of clothes that will stand out from the background if I need to stand in on a shot. While the bag usually is left behind near the tripod on such occasions, it has made it into some shots and helped differentiate the human form from the background. The vibrance of the color has also garnered many compliments from fellow hikers.
(4) Not knowing the technical term item #4 is the breathing expander strap. This is the top strap that runs across the chest. It crosses the chest over the lungs. The expanding design of the strap allows for the wearer to still breathe in deeply and fully while hiking. Even after having securely tightened the bag to their form.
(5) The internal form of the bag allows it to keep its shape while one is loading/unloading the bag. If this internal form didn’t exist then the bag would merely flop down around the ICUs. Obviously this isn’t the case. The bag keeping its form is nice particularly when swapping out gear.
(6) The ability to vertically store the tripod on the backside of the bag is a welcomed feature. After the previous bag only offered a horizontal storage option at the bottom, the vertical storage was a revolution. The horizontal storage method means the wearer has their arm movement limited. This becomes an irritating item as one is hiking. Additionally the horizontal storage method required rotating to the side as opposing hikers passed by. This was worsened when hiking with the ballhead still attached to the tripod. Lastly the horizontal attachment method found the tripod catching on many items as you passed by. The vertical will still catch on items when the wearer is ducking under items, but that occurs much less than passing by items. This feature isn’t unique to the F-Stop bags but it’s one of my favorite. Keeping the weight of an aluminum tripod up high saves ones back as well.
(7) There is an integrated whistle built into the top chest strap. Easily overlooked at first, but would definitely be helpful in an emergency. It also helps eliminate a stand-alone piece of gear that a safety minded individual would take on their hikes.
The bad – detailed:
(8) The ICU’s do not come from the factory with a way to connect them to one another. The ICUs have been advertised as a way to carry your photo gear with you on an airplane, as your personal item. The problem arises if you go with two smaller ICUs instead of one large one, as I did. The desire was to have a “single” piece of luggage to keep close on airplanes. This challenge was overcome with some velcro straps that allowed the two smaller units to connect and appear as one. A separate blog post will detail this hack. They attached items allow for the two pieces to be held securely together, appear as one, and still fit under the airline seats.
(9) The factory velcro straps at the edge of the ICU don’t seem to match up with the internal frame when two smaller ICUs are stacked. They velcro doesn’t pass through the plastic pass-thru loops. There was an exposed piece of the internal frame for the velcro strap to attach too. Not sure if by design, but utilized none-the-less. Attaching the velcro to the loops is difficult enough so finding a secondary location was just a bit more challenging. Another owner I spoke to said he didn’t even bother attaching the velcro. He simply slid the ICU into the bag and left it at that.
(10) The padding for the medium slope ICU doesn’t have a fold built into the front door that allows it to seamlessly be folded under the bottom when being put into the bag cavity. To overcome this the padding was pulled from the front door flap and is stored behind the ICUs in the internal cavity.
(11) The tensions traps for the shoulder straps could have been ½ of the provided length. The additional length means there is additional material that must be dealt with. The extra material was wrapped around the bottom of the shoulder straps. Doing so gets the material out of the way but it’s only a temporary fix. The material comes undone every so often and must be dealt with. A possible permanent fix is to trim down the length and heat the ends. A solution that’s not immediately desirable considering the price of the bag.
(12) As mentioned several times before, two ICUs were chosen over a single one. A chart (see below, middle and just right of center) was used to help determine the appropriate ICU’s. After receiving the bag and ICU’s though I feel as if the chart wasn’t drawn to scale. The internal capacity of the bag, outside of the ICUs, is much less than as drawn on the chart. The belief was enough room would remain on top of the ICUs to be able to store a spare piece of camping gear. The actual amount of room that remains is only enough to hold a compacted rain jacket and a compacted rain cover for the bag. This is an item that remains in the back of my mind even though the bag hasn’t been used for any true backpacking trips. On such a trip only a single ICU would be taken, but the concern still lingers.
(13) After securely fitting the straps it was discovered upon use that the straps have a bit of creep during hikes. Not a huge deal if one is going on a two mile hike. The problem would arise if the user were to wear it on a 14-mile hike. Time would need to be spent in the middle of the excursion to re-adjust. This was a new issue as the old bag had very limited adjustments. This is probably a problem that applies to similar bags as well.
Overall the bag is extremely well constructed. The padding helps carrying a heavy load and not take a large tole on the body. The main drawback is simply the price. It’s not cheap. I’m not sure at this time if the bag truly justifies the cost, but I will say that I’m very pleased with the bag. Maybe future endeavors will allow opportunities to try other bags and provide educated insight in how this bag compares to others.