F-Stop Gear Sukha Review | The Gold Standard Of Adventure Travel Camera Backpacks
Sometimes a big project in the outdoors calls for an immense amount of camera gear. If you’ve ever tried cramming multiple bodies, lenses, and flashes into a backpack (and then strapping two or three tripods to the outside), then you’re in the right place: you need to read this camera backpack review!
The F-Stop Sukha is a behemoth, ready to literally carry your kitchen sink if you should need it. Furthermore, it is nearly indestructible, built top-to-bottom with extremely durable materials and rugged workmanship.
When reviewing something as subjective and varied as a camera backpack it is difficult to quantify performance. For me, comfort and utility are what make up the performance of a camera bag.
The F-Stop Sukha does a good job of being comfortable, considering that you can easily get it up to 40 lbs worth of gear even when you’re just packing for an “average” sized photo shoot, or trip.
It also does a great job of being useful overall, or I should say, versatile. Utility and versatility are sometimes at odds with each other, and that is ever-so-slightly the case with the F-Stop Sukha. But, I’ll get to that in the Features and Design aspects of this review.
Suffice it to say, as far as comfort, utility, and overall performance are concerned, the Sukha is impressive. Oh, and it’s also heavy enough to double as a sand bag for your on-location lighting setups.
GEAR LIST (SAMPLE):
- Three hot-shoe flashes
- Two Compact light stands, one umbrella
- One mid-size tripod
- 4-5 DSLR lenses
- 2 DSLR bodies
- Tons of batteries and other accessories.
- Jacket, snacks, and water
The F-Stop Sukha is rather feature-rich, in a wilderness / alpine adventure sort of way. It is also unabashedly utilitarian, although in the eyes of any adventurous types I’d say it’s very good-looking! (It comes in blaze orange, light blue, drab green/brown, and black.)
Basically, it’s ready to help you tote around everything from ice axes to fully rigged video setups.
Integral to its design, one of the biggest features of the F-Stop line of backpacks is the ICU (Internal Camera Unit) system. Without any ICU’s inside, the backpack can actually be squished down a whole lot despite also having a rigid internal frame. This allows you to stash the backpack in an airplane’s overhead compartment or a similar luggage situation, yet still have most or all of the expensive gear with you, under your seat or in your lap. I even used this trick on smaller “puddle jumper” aircraft, with total success.
If you own so much gear that you actually need multiple ICU’s, then you can rapidly repurpose your Sukha backpack by simply pulling out one ICU and putting in the other. (Note: The ICUs are a bit pricey, though)
You could keep a smaller ICU in the backpack at all times, for various accessories or key items that you always need, while swapping out whatever specialty gear the job calls for.
The ICU system is indeed one of the main reasons to purchase most any F-Stop gear, and this design feature allows it to be extremely versatile.
However, this versatile functionality comes at a price. In my experience, the combination of a rigid wire frame backpack (with un-padded outer walls) and padded camera ICU’s made for a bit of difficulty in opening and closing everything. The zippers on the larger ICU frequently slip behind the rigid wire frame. If the ICU were any smaller, or more snugly fit within the backpack, I might just leave the ICU un-zipped and settle for zipping the main backpack compartment itself. However with the large size ICU I’d be afraid that gear might start to leak out into the rest of the pack, so I’m forced to zip open and closed two heavy-duty zipper compartments each time I want to access my gear.
This is fine for situations where you’re just hiking to one location and then shooting for a while, but rather frustrating if you’re on the go and stopping periodically. Therefore I strongly recommend getting an additional external pouch or two, and mounting them to the waist belt of the Sukha. This will at least allow you to access another lens or two while you’re hiking.
Next, I feel like the extremely durable exterior also comes at a price. The sides of the backpack are working hard to be durable and protective, but I would have liked to see a more traditional loose / stretchy pouch style design, for tripods and water bottles and things.
Lastly, the shoulder straps and waist belt are padded with some pretty stiff material. If you’re a lanky person like I am, the bones in your shoulders and hips will complain under a fully loaded Sukha if the weight isn’t distributed perfectly. (Meaning, if the straps aren’t set just right, or if you put all the heaviest stuff at the very back / top.) Also unfortunately, unlike a dedicated backpacking backpack, the shoulder straps are slightly less customizable for folks who are extra tall or short.
Having said that, being 6’2″ I am impressed by how decently comfortable it is to lug around 40-50 lbs worth of gear, especially considering the pain I’ve felt from smaller bags with less than half the capacity.
In fact some of the other leading brands’ high-capacity backpacks have shoulder straps and waist belts that are, in my opinion, too soft and squishy, resulting in a much worse “sack of bricks” experience that tugs on your shoulders, and/or gouges your spine. So, the stiffer padding plus the rigid wire internal frame is probably the only way to get this much gear on your back in relative comfort.
All in all, as someone who uses both medium size backpacks as well as enormous 80+ liter packs dedicated to actual trekking, I feel like the design of the Sukha could be improved just a little bit. The internal wire frame could be better fitted to accommodate the various size ICU’s; the padding could be a tiny bit more cushy; and the side compartments could be a bit more stretchy and expandable. I’m still giving it 4 stars for Design, though, because I suspect I’m wanting to have my cake and eat to.
F-Stop Gear has few (if any) peers in the quality category. The whole lineup of backpacks across the board is built to last forever even in the nastiest outdoor environments, and you can tell from the first time you inspect it. The buckles and zippers are extremely robust, and the clip points on the front of the shoulder straps are actually metal. The materials and workmanship, all around, are durable even by my own highly abusive standards.
I tested the F-Stop Sukha very rigorously over multiple travels, hiking trips, and on-location photo shoots. It endured everything from snowstorms to sandstorms, rain, and all the general abuse that comes with being out in the desert or in the mountains: dragging on rocks, snagging on underbrush, etc., and the Sukha seemed impervious to all. In fact, it actually still looks pretty much brand new despite months of abuse!
At $299 (with no ICU’s) this is not your average camera backpack. Once you add 2-3 ICUs you might surpass $400 or even $500, so the price tag is definitely going to cause a double-take.
Consider this, however: how much gear are you going to be taking out on your adventures? If you have $5,000 or even $15,000 worth of gear that needs protecting in a harsh environment, in my opinion it becomes a no-brainer to get something as robust as this.
So yes, it does take a lot of expensive gear and nasty conditions for the final cost to be fully justified. For example I do both video and timelapse photography, (frequently in the winter and in sand dunes – two of the worst possible situations for photography!) and I often need 2-3 bodies, 4+ lenses, plus other similarly valuable and vulnerable equipment. To me, the Sukha is worth saving up for. However it definitely needs to be the right choice for you.
I’m giving the Sukha four stars for value, because of what I do and what I need from a backpack, but keep in mind that your own value rating might be one or even two stars lower, if you’re a less demanding photographer.
Who Should Buy The F-Stop Sukha? Who Should Buy Something Else?
I’ll be frank: If I can avoid it, I don’t carry gear on my back, I use rolling cases. Pelicans are awesome, as are many of the innumerable others available. For example, a hard-shell rolling Pelican case (1510, the size that fits in most airline overhead compartments) is just $169.
If you don’t plan on hiking or climbing with your gear then you should spare your shoulders, back, and hips: get a rolling camera case.
On the other hand, if you like the rugged quality and interchangeable ICU system that F-Stop backpacks offer, but don’t need such an enormous bag, check out the rest of the F-Stop Gear lineup.
There is the 40 liter Anja which costs $229, (sans ICU) or their ultralight Loka UL which weighs in at 2.2 lbs and holds 37 liters, and costs as low as $199. (Again, without an ICU)
Who the F-Stop Sukha is perfect for
If you go on outdoor adventures with a ton of gear you can hop on a large airliner or a small puddle-jumper with confidence, knowing that your giant bag won’t have to be checked into the hold. Embark on a trek into rain, snow, sand; whatever you’re in for, the Sukha will protect your gear.
If you don’t own that much gear, but do like to go on 1-2 night overnight backpacking trips, you might also be able to make the F-Stop Sukha work for you. With just one medium sized ICU, filled with your one camera body and 2-3 lenses, you’re left with plenty of room for a sleeping bag, pad, other essentials, and plenty of external strap points for tents and tripods and whatnot. You can even fit a small bear canister inside the Sukha and still have room for an ICU!
In short, the F-Stop Sukha stands alone above any competition, with its cavernous capacity and armageddon-proof durability. Its size and price may stop it from being the right choice for every single photographer who wanders outside, but that’s okay. The lineup of F-Stop gear has some great alternatives for you if you want the same indestructible quality, in a smaller capacity.
Make no mistake, F-Stop backpacks are a high-end product, and their price reflects that. However a good backpack can be likened to a top-quality memory card: If you’re spending thousands of dollars on lenses and camera bodies, but skimp on the items that actually affect your ability to take photographs, you may soon regret it. I know I’ll be choosing the F-Stop Sukha (Or maybe even its larger sibling, the Shinn!) for my next high-capacity outdoor adventure.
Thank you all for reading. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to write them below! I am always eager to connect with readers and hear about their own experiences, or hear mention of other specific pros or cons they might want me to expand on.
Take care and happy, safe adventures to all,