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My history of cameras and backpacks goes back a couple of decades to my first year out of high school. It was then that I fell in love with hiking and camping outdoors and the obvious choice to bring along a camera to capture some of that beauty on film. In the following years I always struggled with the desire to bring along camera gear (sometimes with many lenses, tripod, flash, etc…) and camping gear. It always seemed to be one or the other as no bag could carry them both well. I had camera bag I’d sometimes strap onto the outside of my overnight pack and sometimes carry inside. It was never an ideal situation.
Fast forward to last summer. I was hiking in the hills outside of Boulder, Colorado with fellow photographer Ben Fullerton and while we were both testing the same pack from LowePro, we started up a conversation about what we’d like to see in a larger backcountry pack. Something that could hold all our gear (and we both differed on what we wanted to carry on a shoot) as well as camping equipment. He wanted a spot of a water bladder, I wanted a spot of a water bottle. He would carry two bodies, five lenses and a couple of strobes. I only wished to carry one body, a couple of lenses and a single strobe. But I also would bring my laptop. And plenty of Very Cherry Jelly Bellies.
Somehow this whole time f-stop had been off my radar. f-stop makes serious packs specifically for photographers who take their gear far from the comforts of a studio. They have a number of pros in the business as advisers and they listen to customers about what they would like improved. They build packs for adventure photographers and I requested a review copy of the Satori EXP, their largest bag designed for extended trips abroad or in the backcountry.
What arrived at my house was a bag perfect for scratching my gear-loving itch. I love versatility and this bag is all about expandability and expansion. At 62 liters it is big, but still sized to fit in most airline overhead compartments, meaning your gear stays close and out of the maul of the checked baggage system. Let me dive right into the modular features that make this bag a must-have for any photographer serious about carrying their gear in comfort while bringing along camping or travel gear. It has four main systems to help carry gear inside and out.
Inside is where this bag starts to handle your gear. The integrated pockets of this pack are not too numerous not too few. The main compartment is accessed two different directions; from on top and from the front panel. The front panel flap, which sits against a wearer’s back, opens fully to reveal four pockets lining its inside. The bottom two are ideal for a filter or two and there are two memory card pockets at the top to keep your storage available. The nice thing about the lower pockets is they can be used as a means of adjusting lumbar support in the bag. if you like more lower back support, just load that second with two filters in storage cases and you’re set (l prefer wearing my pack this way). If you want support higher up, just load that pocket. It is also comfortable without anything in the pockets.
The top flap has an outer pocket and an inner pocket and they can devour a large amount of odds and ends. I won’t list it all out, but the inside pocket can easily hold two 77mm filters side by side, two hard-case memory holders and a card reader. The outer pocket is designed for easy access and a small first aid kit works here, plus it has pockets for business card (when in town or working tradeshows), cell phone and a key chain so your keys don’t go missing. A mesh pocket in here further divides the space for small items.
Inside the main compartment is a spot for a laptop (a padded sleeve which does not extend all the way to the bottom, helping ensure the laptop is not excessively bumped when setting the bag down on hard surfaces) as well as a sleeve for important documents or a water bladder, complete with Velcro loops to route the bladder hose.
On the back of the back are four more zippered compartments integral to the bag design. Two are on the very back and one has a grommet at the bottom to allow for water to escape, making it ideal for wet items such as a bathing suit or ski skins. On the bottom is a trash compartment to keep your wrappers and peels away from the rest of your gear. On the bottom is a pouch for a rain cover (not included, but available as an option if you don’t have your own). While traveling I have been able fit flip flops in the back compartment while additionally shoving in a book, paperwork, my glasses case and snacks.
The Internal Camera Unit (ICU) takes the standard camera bag practice of padded Velcro space and lets you decide how much bag space is taken up by your camera in lenses. Where other packs are built around the camera storage, f-stop takes a different approach and has created five different sizes of ICUs to let you decide how to configure your bag. From the smallest size, built to hold a single camera and a couple of lenses, the largest which can muster enough space to tote a 500mm prime lens and more, the ICU approach will ensure no space is wasted when you want to carry more or less equipment.
The units Velcro into the main compartment with two or four attachment points and will leave as much as 2/3rd of the internal 62L of space available for camping equipment or other gear. The largest ICU will fill the entire space. In between are bags perfect for one or two cameras and a variety of lenses. In the medium version, I was able to fit a Canon 7D with 28-500mm L lens (equivalent to most 70-200mm lenses) attached, as well as the battery grip. Around this was placed another five lenses. There is also a thin version of the ICU to save more space if you are not carrying thick gear.
Lastly, the ICUs are designed to work in a number of the f-stop packs in their Mountain series, such as the popular Loka. It takes about four minutes to move an ICU from one bag to another (assuming both are empty bags) and the Velcro loops are a bit stuffed behind the pack frame stays, necessarily so. The ICUs also have a handle to make them easy to stuff into any other bag you may be bringing and helps keep dust and rain off your gear while in transport.
The MOLLE system is an industry standard used by the military and police units to allow for easy attachment of any number of devices via, you guessed it, Velcro. There are loops for expanding your bag’s carrying capacity on the sides and waist belt. f-stop makes a number of accessory pouches to hold items you want close at hand and not buried inside your bag, such as cable releases or remote triggers and units for flashes. Further, they also have single unit bags for smaller cameras (the Navin version can hold a Nikon D7000 and 28-300mm lens attached) that will fit on the belt loops to keep a camera always at hand.
Because of their positioning on the side of the pack, other brands of pack accessories can be used as well, such as the Outdoor Research crampon bags or the Dana Design side pouches, one of which can easily carry a small stove, water purifier and first aid kit on the outside of the Satori.
GateKeeper is f-stop’s system for adding attachment straps all over the top, back and bottom of the bag. There are 14 of these points on the outside of the pack and the straps come in a variety of lengths. This system is superior to the typical daisy chain method as it keeps the straps tight against the pack. The back section can be used to carry a snowboard or rails for a dolly setup. The top and bottom sections can hold a sleeping bag, sleeping pad or additional gear pouches.
The GateKeeper system also allows for attachment of the Navin camera bag on the front of the pack while the wearer hikes, keeping a camera always at the ready. Additionally the straps can all be removed to insure smooth travel if the pack does need to be sent as checked baggage.
The bag also sports side compression straps which will hold your tripod firmly, ice axe or trekking pole loops sewn into back of the bag and a few extra attachment points on the back for spare straps. On the shoulder straps are D-rings, a sleeve to help route a water bladder hose and two other loops on the left shoulder strap to hold fast a two way radio, GPS, knife or cell phone.
A full list of stats and sizes can be found at f-stop’s website.
I know this post is long and I was not attempting to explain every aspect of the Satori, but there is a lot of cover in this bag and the effort f-stop has put into making it the best it can be, while realizing they never stop trying to improve their equipment so it meets the needs of the photographers who rely on solid gear to help them capture the beauty of the outdoors. The MOLLE system, the GateKeeper system and the ICU system exist in a number of f-stop’s packs and worth a look, no matter what your torso size or the amount of gear you wish to carry.
More information specific to the Satori can be found here.
Disclaimer: The author was provided with a complimentary bag for the purpose of this review.