It's been a while since I last reviewed a piece of gear that I really really liked. My main passions being outdoor sports I usually write reviews of rad climbing, skiing, speedflying and other outdoor sports gear and gadgets. But over time I started finding myself more and more on the other side of the lens, being photography or videography documenting my adventures around the globe. I am an avid adventure photographer/videographer, mainly using my gear for alpine climbing, ice climbing and freeride skiing. Meaning I have to carry all the gear along to far-away places and use it in awkward places such as hanging from ropes, standing on small ledges or alike.
As my cameras grew in size and weight from the smallest point and shoots to DSLRs, pockets were getting outgrown, over-the-shoulder bags became impractical and uncomfortable and following the natural evolution for carrying heavier loads was next - backpacks. I've previously owned and used many backpacks of different brands, but most extensively used were Clik Elite Contrejour 35 and the LowePro PhotoSport. Both had side access, which at the time I found crucial to reach for gear. However, the Contrejour's problem was that it was too big and when loaded, side access got "twisted" in a way I could not easily retract the camera. The LowePro PhotoSport suffered the same. Reading some really nice reviews I started thinking of the F-Stop Loka. Seeing the backpack in person during Samo Vidic Pro Photography Workshop, I made up my mind in an instant.
Loka of mine had since then been pretty much around the globe and in all kinds of environments: scorching sands of the West Sahara, humid Indonesia, Sailing in the Mediterranean, sharp Californian granite and spiky limestone of the Dolomites as well as infinite powder runs and loads of ski-moutaineering trips plus overnight sleep-under-the-stars adventures. And so, after roughly a year of use everywhere, I believe I have enough history with this pack to feel confident writting a proper review.
This is the single best photo backpack I have used so far, mainly due to flexibility, durability, wearing comfort and practical no-fuss design. If you care for more - keep on reading.
Leaving the obvious women's attributes aside, I like keeping things minimal and simple. Being a climber sooner or later gets you to the point when you figure out that all the bells and whistles usually catch on rocky outcrops, mean more weight is being carried (usually to no advantage) and more things get broken. Which is why it is best to omit it in the design from the beginning. Loka has a back access to the gear, which is absolutely perfect. Big strong and easy to slide zippers seem to be bombproof and after a year of use from -25ºC to +35ºC, they seem to be intact. I believe there is also a lifetime warranty on the zippers, so you should have a peace of mind. It is also the small little details that count, such as elastic bands that hold the free end of the straps in place. You'd think that it is not important, but only as long you're not climbig at 80 km/h+ winds when those "not to worry" straps start slamming your face ferociously. And it actually hurts, as it did on a frigid cold and ferociously windy day this February climbing above Chamonix.
What I don't like with the design of my 2013 model Loka, is the bottom part detail... two edges which protrude (from the bottom side of ICU) on the outer side, exactly where the nylon material meets the bottom super-sturdy and durable material. That is the exact point where the backpack sees most use - when being offloaded to the ground in order to take out gear or even leaving it stand. And as I often need to take gear out leaving my backpack on rocks in the mountains and elsewhere, that is where I see a potential for design improvement, as it only needs a tiny bit of shifting the sewing to either side. I have to note though that except visible signs of wear all is structurally and integrally perfect. The second thing I personally don't need and/or find no real use for is the vertical pocket that runs along the front of the backpack. If it were me, I would simply ditch that, get some weight saving and make backpack even simpler. I find it too shallow to actually stuff something useful there except lighter clothing, but then again that can easily be stored inside the main compartment. Having this pocket too stuffed with anyting hard would also mean that everytime you put your backpack down to take photo/video gear out, it would either be in way and could possibly tumble the backpack to the sides or crush the hard goods in the front pocket.
Though F-Stop produces other backpacks which have beefier padding, I find Loka extremely comfortable to carry, even with heavy loads. Moreover, I find the F-Stop Loka more comfortable to carry when heavy than many of my climbing/mountaineering backpacks, which was quite a surprise. I would however like to see Loka improve ice-axe attachments but as it seems from the pictures online, the new series keep improving and already have that taken care of. Great job updating so quickly!
As far as climbing comfort goes I can only praise how good it actually performs. Be it climbing or doing anything which includes rising your arms above shoulder level for that matter. Shoulder straps are wide enough to balance the heavy load comfortably, padded great and yet are soft enough to follow shoulder movement. Utilising side compression streps and having properly balanced backpack is of course of crucial importance when climbing, as it is with any backpack and goes without saying.
Loka uses the ICU or internal camera units and is therefore almost as good as the old saying one-bag-does-it-all. When on a mission when I carry all my gear for climbing and shooting without pre rigging (which is 95% of the time) I use the Medium Pro ICU, which fits my 5D3 with either 16-35 mm f2.8L or 24-70mm f2.8L attached and the other on the side, plus one additional lens and Zacuto Z-finder and miscellaneous, such as filters, extra batteries etc. And now out of apx. 37L total capacity I would estimate there is about 20L or even 25L left for other gear. That means i can have all my climbing gear plus clothing stored inside, ice-axes and ropes on the outside and still have some place left. I'd even managed to fit over-night bivy gear along the aforementioned, but I do have to note it was minimalist and superlight top of the range gear, without unnecessary bulk.
Should I go on a shooting where I drive my car to or close by, I simply pull out the medium ICU and put the Large one inside, which fits additional lenses, on-camera flash and other extras. That is ONE bag, multiple ICUs and you are covered for literally everything. And the one that is not in my backpack gets used as a gear organiser and fits under the couch. Perfect!
Mesh pockets on the sides provide quick access to drinks (which I usually have inside in the dedicated hydration bladder pocket) or - as it is my case - a safe and sound way to carry tripod on the outside. As I almost always have to either climb or at least hike with all the gear on my back, I try to minimise weight and use the Gitzo Series 1 carbon fiber tripod, which fits awesomely. On the other hand, the huge Sachtler tripod for videography does not fit in the bottom mesh on the side and is therefore a bit more of a nuisance to carry as it is harder to attach it in way that it does not shift. But with numerous straps available I always find a way of securely attaching it to the backpack.
Pros & Cons
- no-frills and unnecessary bells&whistles design
- build quality and durability
- load carrying and load distribution comfort
- bombproof zippers
- fits airline carry-on requirements
- the only backpack I've owned that stands upright when put on the floor
- contact between super-durable bottom fabric and ripstop nylon on both sides (edges from the ICU on the inside force the fabric to wear quickly)
- mini velcro that holds raincover on the top side above main zipper sometimes get snagged
- hip strap far to long except if you're really long, say like 150+ kg user
If you are investing in a long-lasting and flexible solution to carry around your gear in a form of backpack for the great outdoors - look no further! Yes, the Loka is a tad more expensive, but it's all in the details, well thought design and build quality. And to tell you honestly, you'll be saving loads going for the top of the class from the beginning instead of numerous iterations I had to make before ending (happily) with F-Stop Loka.