F-Stop Tilopa Camera Backpack Review

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F-Stop Tilopa Camera Pack Experience
F-Stop Tilopa In The WildI had the Tilopa for a few months this winter and took it skiing at the resorts as well as for a bit of ski touring. The pack skied very well with a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV body, 70-200mm f/4L IS and 16-35mm f/2.8L lenses, along with flash and cable. I also carried extra clothes, food, water, and avalanche gear (shovel and probe). I only used it on the skis, but it would also be great for a variety of outdoor activities where you need to carry extra clothes and food along with your camera equipment.

The Tilopa is definitely on the large side for resort skiing. Unless you’ve got a full-blown photo shoot set up, you just don’t need to pack as much gear as it can hold. There’s also no way you can wear it on the lift – you’re going to have to carry it on your lap for the ride up. On the skis, I found it balanced very well. Even though the extra weight of all the gear I was carrying punished my legs and back, I was able to ski everything I normally would – steeps, bumps, powder, trees – I skied it all and never felt like the Tilopa got in my way or threw me off balance. The pack really shines for ski touring, providing plenty of room for whatever camera gear you need as well as shovel, probe, extra gloves, an extra jacket, water bottles, food, sunglasses, etc. All of my non-camera gear went in through the top opening, with my shovel and probe stowed behind the ICU. Everything was easy to get to and organized well. I especially liked how my avalanche gear slid behind the ICU like it was meant to be there. I didn’t do any hiking with my skis on the pack but I did try fastening them on the Tilopa A-frame style and they mounted fine. It doesn’t look like the pack comes set up for diagonal ski carrying but there are a couple of sets of MOLLE loops (Molle system info) on the back you could use to attach skis if you wanted.

The Tilopa pack is designed around F-Stop’s ICU “Internal Camera Units” (see photos, below). The ICU is a removable, padded, zippered camera compartment – it’s sort of like a strapless pack that goes inside your actual backpack. The purpose of the ICU is to allow you to easily customize your pack for the amount of gear you need to carry. You can easily remove the ICU to store your gear, switch packs or even pack the ICU in a hard travel case. F-Stop makes two ICU sizes and the Tilopa comes with the large ICU (7.5″ Deep x 11″ Wide x 15″ Tall). Camera access is through the back of the pack, behind the shoulder straps. This is especially important for ski photographers because it helps keep ice and snow off your back. But backpackers will also appreciate it because it will keep dirt and mud off the shoulder straps and your back. The main camera access zipper is quick to open and close but the ICU zipper was difficult so I left it open most of the time. That made me worry that the ICU would shift and dump my camera gear out into the main pack compartment. That never did happen, though.

F-Stop Tilopa camera pack with ICU "Internal Camera Unit"

F-Stop Tilopa camera pack rear with camera compartment closed. F-Stop Tilopa camera pack with ICU camera compartment open.

For the most part using the Tilopa was a pleasure. But I did have a couple of problems. My biggest issue with the Tilopa was the internal frame. Although it the internal frame provides structure for that pack and contributes to the fit and ride, it also gets in the way of the ICU zipper and can even interfere with removing and replacing camera gear in the side pockets of the ICU. I talked to the pack designers and they were very clear that they designed the pack opening and frame that way for a reason and have no intention of changing it. The frame interference isn’t a deal killer but it is a real annoyance that I encountered every time I used the pack.

Overall, the fit and feel of the pack is excellent with well-built, supportive shoulder and waist straps. Extra tall or short people might have trouble though, as the pack has no height adjustment to accommodate different torso lengths. That wasn’t an issue for me, though. At 5′ 8 inches I’m about as average as you can get. My problem was the shoulder straps felt like they were pulling out, away from my chest and off my shoulders. The result was the pack always felt a little loose on the shoulders and I was constantly tightening the chest and shoulder straps. It never bothered me when I was actually skiing, though. Maybe the pack was designed around someone with larger shoulders or a bigger chest than me – this is something I’ve experienced before with other one-size-fits-all packs. However, I did talk to another photographer who experienced the same thing with the Tilopa – and he has a bigger chest and shoulders than I do.

I also had mixed feelings about the ICU. True – it does make the Tilopa more versatile – you can remove it and you’ve got a larger, non-camera pack; or you can use the smaller ICU to make room for more clothes, food or other outdoor gear. The ICU is also good for transporting and storing your gear when it’s not in the pack. However, the ICU adds an extra layer of complication when accessing camera gear. Getting in and out of the pack quickly is often critical for action sports photography and opening and closing the ICU adds an extra step. But the biggest issue, which I mentioned in the “Experience” section of the review – the Tilopa’s internal frame and the ICU don’t play together well. At first I thought maybe the internal frame was bent and getting in the way of the ICU zipper. That’s not the case, though. The frame just plain gets in the way of the zipper and makes if difficult to zip completely. The frame also gets in the way of lenses that are stored on the side of the ICU. I realize that the frame is a critical component of the pack. But if it really gets in the way of using the pack, maybe it should be redesigned.

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next pageF-Stop Tilopa Camera Pack Conclusion >>


About the author: Photo-John

Photo-John, a.k.a. John Shafer, is the managing editor of PhotographyREVIEW.com and has been since the site launched back in 1999. He's an avid outdoor enthusiast and spends as much time as possible on his mountain bike, hiking or skiing in the mountains. He's been taking pictures for ever and ever, and never goes anywhere without a camera.

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  • Druid @ F-Stop says:

    Just a couple of quick comments:

    On Availability – in the past we had some issue with manufacturing, although since resolving that last summer, and upgrading to a new warehouse last fall we get orders processed and shipped in less than 24hours (usually in less than 6 hours). You can see our full shipping policy here – http://fstopgear.com/shipping

    We also offer a 45 day no questions asked satisfaction guarantee and free shipping (worldwide). So while your local retailer does not carry our bags, you can easily get them, and then return them for a full refund (you just need to pay return shipping).

    On the Internal Camera Unit (ICU) access – we actually designed the pack to be used with the lid of the ICU unzipped when it is in the pack. We only left the lid on the ICU so it could be used as storage when not being used in the pack. So putting the ICU a little behind the opening on each side helps to keep your gear secure when you have the panel open. Most of our photographers are definitely run and gun, and I think our system actually provides one of the fastest and easiest ways to get to your kit while keeping gear safe.

    There are also some inherent limitations when it comes to designing a pack without a rigid pack panel (since our system uses a fast access through the back of the pack) – having said that, we love customer feedback, so if you have a suggestion for how to improve something (such as the carry system) get in contact with us and let us know – http://fstopgear.com/contact-us


  • Photo-John says:

    Thanks for the comment, Druid. I think it’s helpful for readers to have your point of view as well as mine. And if you look at the end of the review you’ll see I added a note about availability. Thanks for letting me use the pack and thanks for helping me make this a better, more accurate review.

    Aside – the Captcha code I had to approve for this comment was “stuffy but” :-D

  • Josh says:

    I’ve had my Tilopa since this last December and I absolutely love it. Versatility has been the key for me. I can pack it to the gills with a ton of gear (5d w/grip, 400 5.6, 24-70 2.8, 15-30 sigma, 135 f2, Rode video mic, 580exii,420ex, 1.4 and 2.0 extenders, cables, laptop, chargers, tripod on the side, filters, cleaning kits, blower, etc) and put it in the overhead compartment on planes. When I get where I’m going I can pare down if I need to or carry my whole arsenal. I took the icu out on a recent trip to Chamonix to slim it down and throw in my mountaineering gear, extra clothes, food, etc. You can strap your skis on the back. It’s the best all-around adventure sports pack and general camera bag for me. I take it everywhere.

    As for the frame getting in the way as mentioned in this review, I also ran into that problem when first using the pack. I did learn after the first couple days there is no need to zip the icu when it is in the pack. Also, I got used to pulling the frame out of the way and or shifting the icu inside the pack (only talking an inch or so) and haven’t thought twice about it since my first week with the pack.

    My one and only gripe is that I wish the waist buckle was much bigger. Constantly clipping and unclipping it while skiing at a resort with gloves on is very tricky! Other than that, thanks for making a great pack f-stop!

  • Photo-John says:

    Thanks for the comment, Josh – especially about the ICU and frame. That may just be something that bugs me more than anyone else. I’ve been worried that my review emphasized that issue too much and distracted from the overall quality and performance of the pack.

    Please also write a review for your pack! Comments here are great. But the user review section has ratings and everyones’ reviews in one place.

    F-Stop Tilopa User Reviews >>

  • Chris Burkard says:

    Just a quick note about the Tilopa. I have used this bag for the past 6-9 months and I think that unlike any other bag I have used it has held up to the harsh conditions of being lugged around the world. The internal frame is a true rarity in camera packs. I personally have used the tilopa with and without the ICU, sometimes i will tote a larger lens like a 600mm or smaller inside the pack and it has enough support to make the pack seem like its not trying to tear your shoulders off at the end of the day. The support system has seemed really to hold up really well IMO. I think that the price of the pack might be a deterrent for some people to buy it, but after you see the quality and customer satisfaction FStop provides it completely makes it worth it. I am glad to pay $295 for a pack that will hold up to any conditions you throw at it.. in fact its better built than some of my North Face hiking packs i own in terms of material and support.

  • Guy Mancuso GetDPI workshop co -owner says:

    Just wanted to point out we did get a chance to also do a review on the F-Stop gear as well and thought folks may want to read what Jack Flesher and I thought on it as well. Check it out http://forum.getdpi.com/forum/showthread.php?t=15444

    On the ICU issue i can see that maybe a issue on zipping it up but really I found no need anyway since everything is very secure without it zipped up. To me I would rather tuck that cover away anyway. Horse for courses of course

  • Ben Jacobsen says:

    I’ll add my $.02 on the ICU and frame as well. As mentioned by the f-stop guys above, you’re not meant to zip the ICU shut with it’s flap while it’s in the bag. I just flip my flap under the ICU (or is it over?) when in place and have no issues. The ICU is designed to be removable for at least 2 reasons I can see. The first is so you can use the pack w/o it, or use the ICU to just store camera gear outside of the pack. Nice, but not anything I’d do. The second is so they can offer different sized ICUs… This is BRILLIANT. I have the large, but I’m also looking at the small (not available yet I don’t think) for those days when I want my body and 2~3 lenses and more non photo gear… This gives me a lot more options with this bag as the Large DOES take a lot of the usable space. I’m looking forward to the loka (a smaller version) that’s coming out soon and I’ll get it with the small ICU to give me 4 size combinations…

    I’ll also add that their quality is great, I’m a gear snob and was impressed when I got the pack. I also like the internal frame a lot more than I thought I would. It makes a load much more comfortable over a long day.


  • Photo-John says:

    Thanks for the comments, Ben and Chris! I hope you’ll both post real reviews for your packs, too. Green “Write a Review” button at the bottom of my review a user review.

  • lavapix.com says:

    I’ve been using the Tilopa for 5 months now in some of the harshest conditions on earth and it still looks new. Plenty of storage for my camera gear and extras. Personally I don’t want an h2o compartment inside. I can attach one on the side very easily. Recently I did a very long 16 hr 24 mile hike with mine. The side pockets held 2.5 liters each. Along with more in the front pocket. Everything is easy to get to and the zippers work great. I did have problems with it fitting in the beginning (5’9″) but, it just needed to break in. I’ve had the same with most backpacks I’ve owned. Once the shoulder straps broke in it fits great. I leave the icu open. No need to close it. Tripod attaches as easily as one could ever hope for. I used my website address for my name so you can see what I do and how its used. Personally I have all of my camera gear in zip lock bags or dry bags with in any pack for extra water protection. So far the Tilopa has been great for water protection too. Limits are multi day hikes. Then I use my big Cabela’s 5500 ci full sized backpack.

  • Brian says:

    I have been using the Tilopa for 9 months and agree with the pros and cons. It carries nicely in many circumstances that my old Dakine packs let me down. I have skied, snowboarded, mountain biked and even Noboarded with it and it gets a 9.5 / 10 from me on that front. I also agree that the ICU frustrates me and would prefer that the zips lined up for easier access as having the ICU unzipped is dodgy when shooting in sand and snow storms when keeping foreign substances out of the pack is a concern.

    One aspect not mentioned yet is the fact that it doesn’t look like a camera bag which is nice when carrying it through suspect high crime areas. It looks much more like a backpacker’s bag than a photographer’s and that has kept my gear safe while other people look like big targets with Lowepro bags.

    Keep in mind that this is a small company and filling orders can take a while. I pre-ordered mine and it took six months to actually get it. F-Stop gave me an option to bow out and didn’t charge me for the bag until delivery but if you are in a rush this might not be the bag to order for next day shipping.

    I would buy another size bag from F-Stop if they made a mini version for stealth missions or a climbing specific pack that let you carry one body and spare lens. The only bag I have seen that appears to be better (after tons of research) is a one-off custom job I saw from Arcteryx, but good luck trying to get your hands on that bad boy.

  • Keith says:

    I have a Tilopa for just a short while but I have taken it to Amsterdam and East Africa. I’m from B.C. Canada so I know pack I already have too many! I wanted a Pack that would really work with camera gear. I hunted for a while and looked at every pack. Unfortunately I took to much time and realized my trip to Africa was going to be with out a pack if did not quickly order one. So I decided on The Tilopa It had least that 8 days to land at my door step. Now for my neighbors in the US there are a few things that we don’t get in Canada one is quick shipping from the US and two is Free shipping!! Well I order the pack on Tuesday or Wednesday and it landed the next Monday and Shipping was free! WOW!!!

    Ok, so got the bag loaded with my gear, Canon Body with extra battery grip 10-20mm, 55-250mm, 18,55mm, Speedlite 580EX Flash, Charger Extra batteries, cleaning kit, polarizing filter and my 50-500mm sigma lens. Now all of that is in the ICU. I add my Macbook Pro in the sleeve and 2 portable hard drives. Now remember I’m heading for the airport at this point. So I put in my I pod a jacket, a change of clothes (just t-shirt and light weight river pants) at bag with some personals in it for the air ports a few magazines for the trip a book to read and some other small bits!

    That’s a heavy bag but the pack does its job it handles it right and was comfortable. But I was worried about it actually going in to the plane over head compartment, again no worries. All was good! So I packed the bag around Amsterdam for about a week just doing casual shots out and about and then went off to Africa. Same thing the back was great to have on the trip no hassles. I did leave the cover to the ICU open just for ease bust really I did not have any issues taking the gear in or out. I used the straps for a mono pod and side pockets for water bottles.

    At the End of my trip after getting back to B.C. I really started to put the pack though its paces. I have gone hiking
    and mountain biking with it I have found it to be very comfortable. (I’m 6″3) I have used the H2o pocket and it works great! The extra loop and external straps have made it easy to add other gear if needed. I really like the fact that the zippers are sealed on the backpack so I don’t have to worry about light rain. I would be happy if it had a rain cover. I have take the bag out back a few times and hosed it off and dried it up so in that way alone it is really nice to have the removable ICU.

    Well in conclusion I would say the bag is well build and well thought out. For me the shipping was a dream! They even sent me some free stickers!! I like the style of the internal frame and I have not had any issues taking my gear out or putting it back in the bag. I really like the fact that it does not look like a camera bag. Going from airport to air port on my trip I did not have a big target on the back to get mugged! Try walking though Nairobi with a camera bag on your back. The construction of the bag and materials used is excellent, and it can handle the punishing load I put in it. Over all I really don’t have anything bad to say about the bag. So thanks for effort F-stop and its team put in to the design and construction of the bag! Oh and the price! You get what you pay for its worth it!!

  • Joan Vendrell (Naturpixel) says:


    I am a freelance Photograpraher from Barcelona, Spain.
    I usually use a Tilopa in my nature workshops,I am very happy with it, the materials are good, the ICU system it’s wonderful and the space for my laptop essential. It’s feel good on my back.

    However I am thinking to get a Satori for the extra space….

    They sent the Tilopa’s to Spain very quick, nice service.


  • Shaun Mazurek says:

    These packs are really nice and there is not much on the market that really competes in the same space. Sadly, F-Stop is perpetually out of stock and their customer service leaves a great deal to be desired.

  • Dirk P says:

    I’ve really wanted to buy one of these myself, but will be passing on F-Stop as well as it’s now a year later than the previous post and they are out of stock again/still for at least 4 months…
    Nice idea, customer service is still lacking unfortunately

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