Loka UL Review
When I was planning a trip to Norway, the first thing that I realized was that I needed a new backpack. My old bag had served me well, but it was far too small to be a hiking bag, and it was fairly uncomfortable when I loaded it with all my equipment.
I realized that I didn't have many options, since most camera-specific backpacks are truly terrible at carrying weight, and they are quite heavy for their capacities (in the 5+ pound range). Ultimately, I found a solution: the F-Stop Gear Loka UL, a top-of-the-line hiking/camera backpack.
Why this bag and not a hiking-specific backpack? Because this is the F-Stop Gear Loka UL!
Dimensions: 22 inches tall, 12.5 inches wide, and 11 inches deep. However, all of these dimensions can be stretched.
Weight: 2.25 pounds
Volume: 37 liters
Compartments: A top pocket for smaller items, the huge internal compartment (accessible from the top, or from the rear), and a tall but flat compartment down the center of the bag's exterior (the "shovel pocket" according to F-Stop Gear)
Materials: Water resistant, feels like a thin canvas.
Suspension: Removable aluminum frame.
Laptop: F-Stop Gear says that it fits a 13-inch laptop, but my 15-inch MacBook Pro fits with some room to spare.
Drainage hole at the bottom of the "shovel pocket."
Internal water bladder/laptop pocket (there is no zipper, just a nylon divider inside the bag).
Holes and straps for a hydration system that I have never used.
A bunch of loops on the outside for attaching other straps.
Emergency whistle on the sternum strap.
Side pockets made of the world's strongest mesh.
Stabilizer straps above the shoulder pads.
Extra straps on the side for hiking pole attachment and general amusement (you get bored if you're sitting in a tent for hours).
Really comfortable hip strap that feels like it's made of neoprene even though it isn't.
Cat-proof (see image below)
Why This One?
As you can tell, the Loka UL is pretty well-specified. Considering its weight, it can hold quite a bit of camera gear. F-Stop Gear says that the Loka UL will fit on an airplane but only barely, which seems accurate. I've flown roughly ten times with this bag, and so far I haven't been stopped. That's with a tripod hanging off the back, too.
The main claim to fame of the Loka UL is that it is a camera backpack built like a hiking backpack. It weighs less than typical camera backpacks, and it is far more comfortable. Far more. Not even close. The hip belt actually works, and the shoulder straps are nice and soft.
The Loka UL can comfortably carry twenty pounds, and it can be pushed up to thirty pounds if you are trying to show off/ruin your shoulders. This is not a huge hiking bag. It carries weight very well for a camera bag, but a technical backpack is still a necessity if you're regularly going to be carrying 25+ pounds. Or, try one of the larger F-Stop Gear backpacks (disclaimer: I haven't).
The most weight that I've carried in this bag was thirty pounds for a one-mile scramble across slippery rocks in a stream, followed by two miles of moderate hills. It was doable, but I don't recommend it. On the other hand, a different camera backpack that I bought once (and soon returned) gave me a headache even when it was empty. So, the Loka UL is pretty darn good.
The Loka UL is also special because of its rear-access section. This makes it essentially impossible to steal something by unzipping the bag, so you can walk through a crowd with this bag and feel somewhat safe (although watch your top pocket and your shovel pocket). The rear access also means that you can open up your gear section even if you have the rain cover over your bag.
Also, the fabric, stitching, and zippers on this backpack are top notch. The Loka UL has seen more abuse than any other camera bag I've ever had, but it looks completely new (except it's dusty). This is one bag that won't fall apart, probably ever.
I have owned just one other bag of a similar load capacity: the LowePro Flipside 500. This is a terrible bag in every way. I'm shocked that it has 4.5 stars on B&H. Truly shocked. It's the bag that gave me a headache when it was empty, and it weighs 4.4 pounds despite having a smaller internal volume.
Aside from that bag, there's not much to compare. The regular Loka is similar, but with four key differences: it weighs an extra 1.25 pounds, for starters. It also has more padding across the back, and its hip strap buckles in the center rather than on the side. The most major difference is that the bottom of the Loka is rubber rather than the UL's canvas, making it more waterproof. Granted, I've never had a problem with water seeping into the bottom of the UL.
The only other bag that you may consider is a technical hiking backpack. These will carry weight better than the Loka UL, and they'll have better ventilation as well. Depending upon the bag, they may even cost less. The major downside is that they won't have access to your gear quite as easily, and it may be harder to attach a tripod to the outside. You'll need to do more research before you pick a good hiking bag.
Gura Gear is a potential competitor to F-Stop Gear, but they don't have a bag that carries more than 32 liters. Plus, even that bag (the Batflae 32L) weighs 4.2 pounds at its minimum configuration.
There are only a few issues with the Loka UL.
The first is that there are only three zippered sections, one of which is huge (the main section, of course) and two of which are fairly small (the top section and the shovel pocket). I would definitely like the bag better if it had one more section on top. As it is, I end up stuffing filters into the same compartment as my extra batteries and my remote release, which isn't ideal.
Another issue is with the ICU units that you add to the bag. First, they're heavy for their size. That's not too important, though; what bothers me is that they poke through to my back. The ICU units have semi-hard sides, and it is quite easy to feel the top of the unit pressing through the bag as it shifts around. I fixed this issue by cutting open the ICU and removing the hard backing from one of the four sides. A pretty drastic move, but at least it worked.
The final issue is inherent in the design of the bag: it isn't breathable whatsoever. If I hike with this bag for more than a mile or so, my back begins to get quite hot. I've mostly just ignored it, which means that I end up sweating far more than I would like. This happens because, instead of a mesh separator between the bag and the wearer, this bag has the rear access panel. Because the entire back of the bag flips off, it simply isn't possible for F-Stop Gear to make it super breathable (it's a neoprene-ish material across the entire back). That being said, I'm still a bit surprised at how non-breathable it is.
If you don't care about comfort because you just want to haul your gear short distances, consider a cheaper bag. But don't say I didn't warn you.
If you consistently need to carry more than twenty or twenty-five pounds of gear, you'd be better served with a larger bag. Consider a different F-Stop Gear bag (the Satori seems great, carrying 62 liters at just 4 pounds), or perhaps a traditional hiking backpack.
If you travel by airplane a lot, this is probably the largest bag that you can get away with for a carry-on.
If you do a lot of day hikes where most of your weight is camera equipment, the Loka UL is perhaps the best bag you could get.
I do recommend getting a some small Gatekeeper Straps to attach your tripod to the back of the bag. If you try to hang it off the side, the bag will be lopsided, although it could work in a pinch.
You don't necessarily need a rain cover for the Loka UL. I've carried it out for hours in a light/medium rain, and the bag is essentially waterproof (the inside of the top pocket gets damp, but the main compartment stays dry). Don't dunk it underwater, though.
The F-Stop Gear Loka UL could be the traveling photographer's dream backpack. It's certainly expensive, but it is also one of the most well-constructed bags I have ever seen. The real issue isn't the construction; the real issue is that this is a camera backpack, not a technical hiking backpack. It carries weight very well, but a dedicated hiking pack will still be better. Also, the back isn't very breathable.
However, if you will use this bag for medium-length photography hikes rather than multi-day camping trips (which, at 37 liters, is probably how you'd use it), this could be the best bag for you. I'm going to take it on a fifteen mile hike this summer, and I'll report back later on how comfortable it felt. A hike that long isn't this bag's forte, though. If you go on hikes like that all the time or you need to carry 30+ pounds, this probably isn't the bag for you.
For me, though, this bag is great. A few miles with twenty pounds on my back is no problem at all, and that's my most common hike. The bag isn't perfect, but it's about as close as you can get for what it is. F-Stop Gear made a true winner, and I'd probably get the 62-liter Satori if I ever needed a bigger bag.
If this review was helpful, feel free to click this link to my ongoing Kickstarter project. You don't need to buy any prints, of course, but the more people who visit the page, the higher the project goes on Kickstarter's front page. It's worth clicking the link just to see my first ever attempt at videography!
In return, I promise to write some more great reviews like this one. Then, in August, I'll be able to add beautiful landscape photos from Iceland to my galleries! Win-win-win.