F-stop loka review
I have been using the F-stop Loka for nearly 2 years and have enough experience with it now to provide some comments on it. F-stop products are mainly geared toward the outdoor/adventure photography market, but obviously, one can use these packs for other uses. If you are reading this you are probably familiar with F-stop, and the Loka in particular. If not, please see F-stop’s web site (http://fstopgear.com) for current technical specifications.
As a brief overview, the Loka is in the F-stop mountain series of backpacks and is the largest pack that meets the international size requirements for an airline carry on. The backpack comes in three colors, green, blue and black and externally does not look like a camera backpack. This is not an insignificant feature, especially traveling, when you do not want to draw attention.
A strong feature of F-stop bags is the internal camera units (ICUs) that allow for customization of the internal storage of the backpack. ICUs are relatively easily removed allowing for multiple configurations depending on the needed use (e.g. landscape vs. outdoor sports shoots). Additionally, camera gear that is not in current use can be kept in dedicated ICUs that protect the gear in storage and facilitate rapid turnaround. For example, a Canon 300mm F2.8 II is a perfect fit in the small pro series and, when removed from the backpack, the ICU can be closed via a zipper providing protection for the lens in storage. In my outdoor sports configuration, I carry a Canon 300mm F2.8 II at the bottom of the backpack and on top of it I have a medium slope series that holds two full size bodies and three additional lenses. The slope series allows for a bit of space between the ICU and the outside of the backpack. In this space I can fit a camera rain cover (http://www.thinktankphoto.com). With this set up, the backpack is nearly full but there is still space in the bag for extra clothing. The ICU system has an added benefit in regards to cleaning. When dirt, leaves, etc. finds its way into the pack, it is simple to remove the ICU units, vacuum the backpack and reassemble.
The outside of the Loka is highly customizable. The built in front and side compression straps have a wide adjustment range and can accommodate larger gear. I find that the front compression straps work especially well with the F-stop tripod bag. Threading the compression straps through the built in loops of the tripod bag ensures that the tripod bag will not move. On the loka, 10 gatekeeper mounting points are available to tie additional gear to the outside of the backpack. This can be accomplished using the F-stop gatekeeper straps, which are convenient and secure. I have also used para cord to tie down items using a transport knot and series of half hitches. I prefer the straps since if my hands are cold my transport knots always seem to end up turning into hatchet knots. On the sides of the backpack and on the sides of the belts are modular lightweight load carrying equipment (MOLLE) attachments. This attachment system is widely used and, based on your needs, it is likely that someone makes a bag or pouch that will fit. Finally, there are two mesh pouches on the bottom sides of the backpack. These are not well designed for water bottles, being too shallow to securely hold them. The pack has an internal bladder system that is a much better option. While a cliff bar will fit into the mesh pouches, I do not put anything in the pouches that I am not willing to loose, which means that they stay empty.
The backpack is of high quality and has worn well. Like most users of this backpack, I have been in pouring rain, scorching heat and below (well below) freezing cold. The pack has also been dragged on concrete, tarmac, granite and ice. It shows wear from this use, however, the fabric is remarkably tough and has not torn, nor has the stitching pulled apart. The fabric is also water resistant, but I think it is a good idea to invest in a rain cover. The zippers and pulls are all in good shape. Overall, I find the Loka to be a good balance of durability vs. weight. I look forward trying to wear this backpack out.
The Loka is a comfortable backpack. Adjustments are easy to make and are wide ranging enough to work well with both summer and winter clothing. There really is not much to say, I just put the pack on and forget about it.
Like all gear, after some time with it, one tends to modify it to meet their needs. The F-stop Loka is no exception. I found that I never used the sternum strap and it would only get in the way. Since the sternum strap does not have a non-destructive way to remove it, out came the wire cutters and 30 seconds later it was off the pack. I have not missed it. Likewise in the top zippered compartment, F-stop has thoughtfully included a sewn in strap with a plastic clip to retain items in the compartment. I found that the plastic clip was not entirely reliable. Again, 30 seconds with the wire cutters resulted in the removal of the plastic clip and replacing it will a small carabineer. At least for me, this provides a more secure attachment of gear to the strap. The last modification, to date, is addition of a Maxpedition T ring (http://www.maxpedition.com/store/pc/Tactical-T-Ring-63p1677.htm) to the MOLLE of the pack belt and a small carabineer to the rain cover connection loop at the bottom of the pack. This allows for securing the belts to the pack to keep them from flopping around. I find this to be a useful feature when flying. When moving around in the tight confines of an airplane, having the belt secured reduces the chance of inadvertently hitting a passenger with a swinging buckle. I find keeping the belt secure is also of benefit in storage and when carrying the pack for short distances were use of the pack belt is not needed. The downside of this system is that the belt must be released from the carabineer to access the gear via the back panel.
Pack belt modification Overall, the Loka suites my needs. This pack is well designed and is of high quality. The modular design is its strong point and if you regularly use substantially different kits, this is appealing. Based on this, I find myself using the Loka as my primary carry on when I travel for work. Using the small ICU to carry a minimal photography kit, I use the remaining space in the backpack for clothing, dopp, computer, etc. for work travel. This is the best photography backpack I have used and have subsequently sold my other packs. The cost of the Loka, while not inexpensive, for me is a good value since I am finished spending time and money in search of a backpack.