When it comes to adventure-oriented photography bags, it doesn’t get much tougher than f-stop, a bag manufacturing company that has put a great deal of effort into its growing Mountain Series lineup.
One of the largest bags in their Mountain Series lineup is the Sukha. Today I’m going to break down every intricate detail of the bag to explain my experience with it over the course of a two month review.
Before diving into the details of the bag, it’s important to understand the situations in which the bag was used, to better get perspective on how I personally used it. In my two months with the bag, I took it on two backpacking adventures, each of which brought its own set of environmental challenges. Also, in a much less intense environment, the backpack joined me at a handful of football games, a demanding environment in its own way.
These are important details, as each location and genre of photography brought about its own challenges, testing the various components, compartments and overall design of the backpack.
Another important factor to recognize is that unlike many dedicated camera bags, the f-stop Mountain Series is designed around a modular insert system that they call Internal Camera Units (ICUs).
These are individual inserts that come in various shapes and sizes for storing your camera gear. They are designed hand-in-hand with each of the bags in their Mountain Series lineup and they allow you to more effectively pack and protect what you want, without taking up unwanted space. Additionally, they act as great storage units outside the bag, making it easy to compartmentalize specific gear and have it packed, ready to go at a moments notice.
For this review, I tested the Large Pro ICU unit inside the Sukha. This particular ICU is at the smaller end of their largest options and is capable of carrying two gripped camera bodies, half a dozen lenses and accessories with ease.
Now, it’s onto the bag itself. The Sukha is the second-largest backpack f-stop currently offers in its Mountain Series lineup. It contains up 70 liters of internal storage, comes in four specially-chosen colors (as do all the Mountain Series backpacks) and is designed to be taken through hell and back, all while keeping your gear safe and sound inside.
As you might’ve realized by now, this isn’t your everyday carry backpack. This thing is meant for long hauls and extreme backcountry adventures. At 70 liters, it’s capable of packing almost anything you can imagine, but as any backpacker would know, it comes at the cost of weight.
If you plan on taking this out on backcountry adventures, expect the total weight to come in at well over 40 lbs, especially with camera gear inside. Add that to its internal frame design and it’s not easy to carry for anyone less than six feet tall. I’m 6’3” and in considerably good shape and with the bag fully loaded with camera and camping gear, it wasn’t exactly easy to lug around day after day. That said, when I wasn’t worrying about the weight, the incredible amount of space was a lifesaver for making sure I had anything and everything I needed when out in the field.
All of that to say that this is a fairly specialized bag. It’s not for everyone. But that should go without saying, as there are plenty of other, smaller bags to choose in f-stop’s lineup.
Something I’ve always appreciated in backpacks of any kind is the design and layout of the various compartments. Too often backpack manufacturers toss on unnecessary pockets or straps without thinking through the actual uses they’ll have. That isn’t the case with the f-stop Sukha. Every compartment felt incredibly thought out, from the underneath pad for storing the waterproof cover to the internal laptop pocket, which is perfectly placed for weight balance and maximum protection against bumps and drops.
Speaking of waterproof, the Sukha is designed to take a beating on the outside with its clever combination of materials, each of which is placed for maximum protection and efficiency. The majority of the outside of the backpack is made up of oxford-weave ripstop nylon — the same material used in parachutes and hot air balloons — and coated in Advanta’s thermoplastic polyurethane film designed to shed water off the outside of the pack while letting the inside of the bag ‘breathe’.
Together, these materials, in addition to the perfectly placed YKK® zippers, the Sukha is one of the most weather-resistant bags I’ve ever tested. While I did have a rain cover, I purposely tested hauling it through the trails while it was pouring rain. After an hour of absolute downpour, I didn’t notice a drop of water on the inside of the bag.
Now for the compartments themselves. Everyone likes to pack differently, so take all of this with a grain of salt.
When backpacking, a critical component is to make sure you properly distribute weight inside your backpack, as properly aligning weight ratios with your back will make the load much lighter when trekking through rough terrain.
This balance is easily achieved thanks to f-stop’s clever placement of the ICU components and auxiliary pockets. I’ll spare the details of what I packed where and keep it simple by saying that so long as you know the basics of packing for hiking, the Sukha makes it easy to get the job done right while putting minimal strain on your body.
While on the topic of strain, I’ll speak on the various compression and support features built into the Sukha.
The most important part of any backpack is the shoulder straps. On the Sukha, f-stop didn’t make any sacrifices, putting very padded shoulder straps on the bag, with multiple cinching locations for fine-tuning where the weight balances on your body. It takes some time to adjust properly and it will vary depending on how the bag is packed, but with the multiple-point suspension system, it was easy to adjust from environment to environment.
Another key component is the waist strap. Much like the shoulder straps, the waist strap is heavily padded and adjustable, making it easy to adjust on the fly and literally take a load of your back. One of my favorite parts of the waist belt is the built-in MOLLE webbing, which is about as universal as it gets for attaching accessories. While you can use f-stop’s own MOLLE attachments, there are plenty of third party options out there. I ended up attaching a Maxpedition Fatty Pocket Organizer, which held my first aid kit and Leatherman Wave multitool.
In terms of auxiliary pockets, the Sukha offers up a great variation of sizes and locations to store things. On the weather-sealed topmost compartment, you’re given a large, open area to store things, as well as a zippered compartment for keeping things from bouncing around. This is where I ended up storing most of my snacks, notebook, pens, and other items I needed quick access to. The only downside of storing a lot in this pocket though is that if the bag isn’t completely filled, the top compartment sinks into the bag and is extremely floppy and top-heavy when opening it. Multiple times I made the mistake of opening the bag up while the top compartment wasn’t entirely zipped and all of the contents went sliding across the ground. I’ll go ahead and chalk that up to user error though.
The front compartment ended up being my least used, but most favorite. Unlike other bags that make the front pockets stick out of the bag, f-stop has made it so the pocket sinks into the bag. This not only minimizes areas for water and dirt to enter through seams, it also keeps the items more protected from bumps. More times than I care to admit I knocked the bag against trees or even laid it down on the front while in the mud. None of the notebooks or materials I carried inside ever got wet or damaged to any capacity.
Now, onto the side pockets. Like almost every other bag in f-stop’s Mountain Series lineup, the Sukha features full-length zippered side pockets that can expand to store more. While these pockets are extremely nice for carrying dirty clothes or other gear in, the main problem I have with them is the means in which the expansion system works. Hook and loop, more commonly known as Velcro.
Velcro is a wonderful material and great in many environments. But when you’re in the backcountry, the hook and loop material catches every burr, leaf and piece of dirt in its path. If the pocket is completely expanded, both sides of the material are exposed, making it easy to gunk them up with outside debris. Sure, it’ll wash off with a little water, but considering how much thought was put into every other component of the bag, this seems to be a slight oversight.
That said, the pockets do make for wonderful storage space and the ability to adjust the size is wonderful when day after day you end up with more dirty clothes or food packaging that you need to pack out.
All in all, the Sukha proved to far surpass what my hopes and expectations were. It wasn’t my first rodeo with f-stop gear, but it was absolutely my favorite.
The Sukha is a big backpack. And it’s not something I would want to carry around every day. But for those times when you need a lot of space, protection and the peace of mind to know it’ll be comfortable in adversity, the Sukha hits the sweet spot. Unfortunately I had to send to review unit back in, but there’s a good chance I’ll have one in my lineup sooner or later. If anything, I’ll have to start coming up with excuses to get out in the backcountry a bit more. Better yet, I’d love to pick up a snowboard and strap it to the Sukha for a little Northern Michigan fun.
If you have any particular questions about the bag, feel free to leave it in the comments below. I’ll respond as soon as possible with a thorough response of my answers or thoughts on the matter.