My pride and joy, a custom ultralight frameless Backpack by R2 Packs.
Who makes the perfect backpack? It’s all in the eye of the beholder. The perfect backpack is a utopian concept. Each of us has different needs and preferences, so a standard backpack rarely fits and satisfies every hiker and every need. Manufacturers try to balance it out, so their pack’s fit and features satisfy as many people as possible, and that’s appropriate. The challenge for the hiker is to find the backpack(s) that fits best and meets his/her needs. Most of us end up with an assortment of packs for different types of trips and conditions, and each pack is selected because it comes closest to meeting our needs and preferences. We find ourselves searching for the perfect pack, and never seem to find it. And some hikers have an unusual body shape, or a special need, that an off the shelf backpack won’t satisfy. There’s another alternative - have a custom backpack made that exactly fits your body and needs.
Why Get a Custom Backpack?
Fit is probably the most important factor - getting a pack that fits your body like a glove, so it feels like you are wearing it rather than carrying it. Perhaps the next most important factor is the feature set - having everything exactly the way you want it. We all have individual needs and preferences, which might include a particular size and shape, a particular fabric choice (very light or very durable), or a special feature set. Perhaps you want a pack designed to carry specialized gear for packrafting, climbing, skiing, fishing, photography, or adventure racing. Or perhaps you want a special pack for long-trail hike, a Himalayan trek, or an alpine expedition. Or perhaps you are a veteran hiker who wants a personalized backpack designed by you - something special, your pride and joy.
A custom pack at R2 costs more than a stock pack ($250-$350), but you get what you want. Once you make the investment, you may use it for a lifetime. Look at it this way - instead of your spouse getting you a GPS (or other electro-wizardry) for your birthday or Christmas, why not drop a hint for a custom backpack, something you can really use? Conversely, you can treat your significant other with a custom backpack, something he/she will prize forever. After all, other people spend thousands on their motorized toys, so what’s wrong with spending a few hundred for a killer backpack?
I had the opportunity to design and test a custom backpack made by R2 Packs, a new company entering the custom packs business, which gave me the idea for this article. Rather than review the backpack, which is one of a kind, I would review the process and report on my experience. The key points I want to address are:
- How easy is it to go through the design and decision-making process to have a custom backpack made?
- Did the pack meet my expectations?
- Is the final product really worth the cost and effort?
- What would I do differently next time?
Custom, Customized, or Stock - the Choice is Yours
To my knowledge, R2 Packs is the only true custom backpack manufacturer in the United States who will construct (almost) any type of backpack from scratch. Their slogan is “Custom packs, designed by you”. R2 uses a systematic interactive process to design your custom backpack, much like the blueprints and specifications for a custom home. They will build any type of pack you want up to about 3500 cubic inches - frameless or internal frame, bristling with features or clean cut, or activity specific. This includes conventional backpacks, ski packs, and adventure racing gear. A wide range of fabrics is available, from Cuben to 1000 denier Cordura, to satisfy any need. This article will focus on R2 Packs and the custom backpack they made for me to illustrate the process of having a custom pack made, and to assess the key points listed above.
My original plan for this article was to contrast the process of having a custom backpack made by R2 Packs versus McHale Packs (www.mchalepacks.com); however that didn't quite work out. In my contacts with Dan McHale, I learned that his company doesn't make custom backpacks per se, rather they make customized backpacks. Basically a customer selects the pack model he/she wants from McHale’s proprietary designs, and the pack is built to the customer’s specified fit and options. McHale also makes stock packs with pre-selected options and fabrics for a lower cost. McHale has built an excellent reputation as a backpack innovator and customizer; however, all of their packs have an internal frame and emphasize durability. Only one model is lightweight by our standards (the Sub-Pop), so lightweight and ultralight backpackers will have limited choices in a McHale pack.
A better comparison is Rodney Liwanag’s Packs (www.freewebs.com/litepacks) located in Manila, Philippines. Rodney has a sizeable local business making custom sewn products including packs, groundsheets, tarps, rain jackets, wind shirts, pack covers, and repairs. For the past 10 years he has also made standard and custom packs for the ultralight backpacking community in the United States and Canada (his custom pack business is limited to the US and Canada because he has relatives who travel back and forth who can carry the packs with them to reduce shipping costs). Rodney’s custom packs are limited to ultralight frameless backpacks. A customer can request a customized version of one of Rodney’s standard packs, or create a unique design. Rodney is willing to build most anything (within reason) using a wide range of modern nylon fabrics. A custom pack will cost about $85-$95 including shipping, which is an outstanding value and comparable to standard packs offered by other manufactures. He usually has a number of already made packs for sale on his website at very reasonable prices (currently $40-$47). Rodney has found that e-mail communication is very effective to communicate to him what a customer wants. He asks for complete body measurements (torso length, height, chest size, waist size, weight, and photos), plus a detailed description of the pack they want. His method to be sure he has the correct information is reiteration - he checks and double-checks (especially on factors pertaining to fit) to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Rodney currently makes about 40-50 packs a year for US/Canadian customers. (Disclaimer: Surely, there are other custom pack makers around that I missed, and I encourage them to speak up in the attached forum to let us know about their offerings.)
If you don’t want to go through the custom pack process, there are many excellent backpacks available from established small companies - like Gossamer Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, Six Moon Designs, Fanatic Fringe, and Ultralight Adventure Equipment (to name a few) - that are specifically designed for lightweight and ultralight backpacking. If you can get a good fit with these packs, you can buy two of them for the cost of a single custom backpack by R2 Packs or McHale Packs. The choice is yours.
The Design Process
Develop a Concept - The first step in approaching your custom backpack is to “decide what you want to build, before you start building it”. Most experienced backpackers already have a vision of their perfect pack, so having a concept isn’t a problem. Others may need to think on it for awhile, and R2 has some alternative approaches to assist with the process.
A fundamental first step is to decide what the pack will be used for - any special needs, and the types of trips and conditions. In my case, I go on frequent two or three day trips, with a total pack weight less than 20 pounds, so a frameless pack with about 3200 cubic inches of total volume is about right. I typically hike off-trail routes which involve scrambling and bushwhacking, so the pack needs to be fairly durable. And I frequently encounter afternoon showers in the Southern Rockies, so a waterproof pack would be really nice so I don’t have to bother with a rain cover. So, I settled on the concept of an ultralight, frameless, durable, waterproof pack for summertime backpacking in rough and sometimes wet conditions.
The next step is to identify the attributes of a pack that are most important to you. Again, most experienced backpackers can do that in a heartbeat. But if you’re not sure, it helps to do some research - survey a variety of available packs to find ideas, and peruse the options available and design process on the R2 Packs website (www.r2packs.com). You should end up with a design concept and a list of the attributes you want to incorporate in your custom pack.
R2 likes to do a phone interview with each customer to discuss their project. The purpose of the interview is to discuss the project in detail and make a number of tentative decisions about the type of pack and its construction, materials, and features. The result is a shared concept of the custom backpack to be built. In my communications with Ron, I found him to be exceptionally easy to work with. I never received a “that won’t work, because…” response; he was always supportive and accommodating.
In my case, I had two initial interviews with Ron. The first time around, my concept translated to a frameless backpack very similar to those manufactured by Mountain Laurel Designs or Gossamer Gear. That made me realize that it doesn’t make sense to design a custom pack that is very similar to one I could buy off the shelf for a lot less money (which is certainly a logical decision in many cases). So, I dug deeper. I realized that my custom backpack needed to have more of the “wow factor” - I needed to be really stoked about it. Then the idea hit me - develop an ultralight frameless waterproof pack with lots of convenient outside storage. Now I was getting excited!
The goals for my custom pack were now as follows:
- Shower-proof, so I don’t have to carry a pack cover
- Frameless, to carry loads from 12 to 20 pounds
- Ultralight, less than 14 ounces
- Durable, with reasonable care
- Lots of convenient outside storage pockets
Even though R2 Packs has a diversity of fabrics to choose from, I chose to look for something really cutting edge. I settled on Dimension Polyant X-Pac TX2 fabric (also known as VX-2), which is a durable waterproof tri-laminate weighing 1.8 ounces/square yard. The sandwich construction consists of (from outside to inside): 0.25 mil PET (polyethylene teraphthalate) film, grey adhesive with UV-resistant additive, X-ply of 840 denier black polyester yarn inserted at 22 degrees and 0.75-inch spacing, and a 20 denier white nylon taffeta backing fabric.
Close-up of the Dimension Polyant TX2 fabric used to construct my custom backpack. It has an exterior PET layer, which is waterproof.
Dimension Polyant developed this strong, lightweight fabric specifically for tents and packs. When I contacted the company, I found them to be very supportive of our project and anxious to see their fabrics used in new applications. They generously provided the fabric for our project and shipped samples of several of their laminated fabrics to R2 Packs to use in the construction of my pack and to experiment with in future projects.
The outcome of the interview process, plus perusing the options on the R2 website, is a list of specifications for the custom pack. With the concept, goals, and fabric for my custom pack solidly in place, I was ready to move on to the next phase. Following is an abbreviated specifications list for my dream pack; the actual list is more detailed than this:
- Dimension Polyant X-Pac TX-2 fabric throughout
- 3000 to 3200 cubic inches of total volume (including all pockets), approximately 1800 cubic inches in the main compartment
- 20.5 inch torso length, 34 inch waist
- 18 inch high pocket on each side with #3 watertight zipper
- Front kangaroo pocket with mesh side and bottom attachments and #3 watertight zipper
- Fixed 6-inch high top pocket with #3 watertight zipper on the head side
- Drawcord closure with top strap and two connecting straps for the top pocket
- 3D mesh hipbelt wings with oversized pockets, #3 watertight zippers
- 3-inch wide padded shoulder straps with 3D mesh inside face
- Water bottle bungee cord attachment on left shoulder strap
After we thoroughly discussed and developed a list of specifications for my new pack, Ron went on to develop what he calls the “Design Packet 1”, which is essentially a blueprint for my pack. It comes as an e-mail attachment, using Adobe Acrobat’s Review Session Technology, so I can make comments directly on the Design Packet and send it back. The eight page document provides front, side, and backpanel drawings of the pack accompanied by detailed specifications and a cost breakdown. At this stage it was very important for me to examine it carefully and make any needed corrections and changes.
Illustrations showing different views of my custom pack contained in Design Packet 1.
The next stage is Design Packet 2, which incorporates all of my corrections and changes. This is a critical stage, where I need to be certain that everything is the way I want it. I opted to make a few changes, including adding a sternum strap pocket, and seam taping to ensure the pack is waterproof (more on that later). Note that additional volleys can be added to the design process, as needed, to finalize the design. Up until now, no cost has been incurred to the customer, other than a phone call or two.
A page from Design Packet 2, showing frontpanel details and specifications. The eight page Design Packet is like a blueprint, it includes complete drawings and specifications for the pack.
Once the customer has settled on the design, R2 will send a final approval contract and cost of the pack. The pricing schedule consists of a base price (depending on the size of the pack), plus an itemization of additional costs for the options selected. An average pack will be in the $250-350 range.
After R2 receives the go-ahead, he will build the pack. When the pack is finished, R2 will contact the customer to request payment before the pack is shipped. It normally takes him about four days to sew a pack and he typically delivers it within a week, which I consider amazing.
The Pack Arrives
When I opened the box, I was definitely impressed by the new pack! The Dimension Polyant X-Pac TX-2 fabric, the unique feature set I designed, and the prominent R2 logo clearly say “this is something special”. The design was exactly as expected; I got what I wanted; it is truly a one-of-a-kind backpack.
But all was not perfect. When I stuffed a sleeping bag in the pack to fill it out, and tried it on, I found that the fit was not quite right. The webbing on the shoulder straps was barely long enough when fully extended; same for the hipbelt. The main issue was that the torso length was too short. I measured the pack torso length at 18 to 18.5 inches (distance from the underside of the shoulder straps to the center of the hipbelt), which was about 2 inches short of my specified 20.5 inches. When I contacted R2 about these problems we discovered that we had miss-communicated on torso length measurement; R2 measures pack torso length to the bottom of the hipbelt, which accounted for the 2-inch discrepancy.
I decided to use the pack on a couple of overnight backpacking trips to try it out, and found that the problems were real. The shoulder strap and hipbelt webbing were definitely too short, especially when I wore insulated clothing. The shoulder straps were too tight around my shoulders and cut off circulation. And the torso length was definitely too short; when I positioned the hipbelt in the right place and tightened it, the shoulder straps wrapped around my shoulders and down my back. It didn’t fit right, and Ron and I both regretted the miss-communication that had occurred.
No problem. R2’s immediate answer was “Our solution to this situation is a new pack. We will correct these issues. A custom pack that does not fit is hardly custom. We guarantee 100% satisfaction, and we stick to it.” This makes “customer support” an understatement!
Another issue that emerged is the iron-on seam tape did not stick well to the Dimension Polyant fabric. It took 6 hours to install the seam tape in the first place, and added 3.3 ounces to the weight of the pack. It obviously turned out to be a bad idea, and I took the opportunity to omit the seam tape in the construction of the new pack. Because seam taping is so time-consuming, it is cost prohibitive, and R2 no longer offers it as an option.
The Pack Arrives Again - Second Impressions
The replacement pack fits perfectly. The workmanship is impeccable. The final weight is 15.4 ounces, which is not bad considering the durable fabric and numerous features. The cost with my selected options, including the special Dimension Polyant fabric, added up to $338.
Views of my custom R2 backpack. The pack is made entirely of Dimension Polyant TX2 fabric (1.8 ounces/square yard) and all zippers are water-resistant. The front (top left) has a large kangaroo pocket with a space behind it to stuff gear. The backpanel view (top right) shows the pack’s 3-inch wide padded shoulder straps, large hipbelt pockets, and sternum strap pocket. Each side (bottom left) has an 18-inch high pocket. The top (bottom left and right) has a fixed lid with a 6-inch high pocket.
Some of the extras I selected for my custom pack are a front kangaroo pocket (left) that has dry storage within it and space to stuff gear behind it, large hipbelt pockets (center) with watertight zips, and a sternum strap pocket (right) also with a watertight zip.
I have used my custom backpack on several more backpacking trips this summer and truly love it. Having a backpack that fits my long torso is a pure delight. As with most frameless backpacks, it comfortably carries up to a 20 pound load. The 3-inch wide padded shoulder straps help a lot to distribute the weight. It’s also nice to be able to access most everything I need on the go, without having to remove the pack. I also managed to test the pack’s durability when squeezing through tight places while bushwhacking, and put it through one unexpected fall, and the pack fabric held up well, no punctures or cuts.
Overall, the final pack is impeccably constructed, fits me perfectly, and has all the features I want. It’s my dream pack, and I’m very satisfied. The design process went smoothly, in spite of a communication glitch, and resulted in my getting the pack I wanted. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Is it waterproof? Nope, not under these conditions. Without seam sealing, and with 30 pounds of water pressure, cotton towels inside the pack got pretty damp after 10 minutes in the shower. After seam sealing with silicone, the pack was highly water resistant under field conditions, meaning it leaked very little while hiking in an afternoon shower.
Is a Custom Backpack Worth the Cost and Effort?
To conclude this article, I would like to re-visit the questions I raised at the beginning. Every endeavor is a learning experience (and this one is no exception), so what have I learned from my experience?
- How easy is it to go through the design and decision-making process to have a custom backpack made?
If you are an experienced backpacker, the process is fairly easy, because you are already familiar with backpack anatomy and already have a fairly good idea of what you want. Also, if you are a detail-oriented person, the pack design process can be an enjoyable experience, especially if you take your time and think things through. However, if you’re not a detail person, or agonize over decisions, the process can be tougher and less enjoyable. In that case, R2 provides “Design by Feature” and “Pack Template” approaches to walk you through the decisions, followed by an interactive phone call or two to make sure you end up with your dream pack.
The best advice I can give is to think a lot before you act. This applies at two stages: 1) in the concept stage, so you design a pack that really meets your needs; and 2) in the Design Packet 2 stage, so you review every detail before you give the go-ahead. No matter how thorough you are, you are bound to overlook something (I did). Good communication is critical, so it’s always good to double check to be sure.
- Did the pack meet my expectations?
Yes, in the end. On the second pack, every feature was exactly as I specified, and the torso length and volume were right on. It was unfortunate that R2 had to construct a second pack in order to provide the torso length I wanted, and to lengthen the shoulder straps and hipbelt. The misunderstanding was based on how pack torso length is measured, and R2 assured me that they will strengthen their communication on all factors related to fit so it will not be a problem in the future. Overall I am totally satisfied with R2’s customer service and the quality of the product.
- Is the final product really worth the cost and effort?
The answer really depends on the person. Many people will readily pay a fair price to get exactly what they want, or to give a special gift. For me, it did require quite a bit of effort to consider every facet of the pack and decide what I want, but it’s something I enjoy doing. The cost ($338 including the cost of the fabric) is admittedly substantial for a frameless backpack, but I received a truly unique, one of a kind backpack that will be my pride and joy for life. Backpacking is my passion, so I’m willing to invest my gold in a custom backpack. Other hikers may flinch at the high cost, and may want to take a hard look at the stock backpacks offered by several ultralight gear manufacturers, or consider getting a custom backpack from Rodney Liwanag.
I found designing my own backpack a fairly intensive experience (although R2’s design tools help a lot to successfully navigate the process). Some decisions I found especially difficult to make are the pack dimensions, amount of volume in the main compartment and in the pockets, and how many features to add. My concern was running up the pack’s weight. Most of the weight in a pack is not in the fabric, but in the features. Adding features adds more weight in the form of extra zippers, straps, and buckles. Even with a custom backpack, the design is a balancing act.
In my opinion, it is much easier to modify the design of an existing pack, rather than create my own unique design from scratch. It is not that hard to select different fabrics to increase durability or reduce weight, and modify the feature set. McHale Packs are based on that approach, and it seems to work quite well. Many customers also use that approach for designing a customized pack from Rodney’s Packs.
- What would I do differently next time?
As you may have surmised from the description of my custom pack, I overdid it a bit on outside pockets. Although my calculation of the total pack volume is approximately 3000 cubic inches, nearly half of my summer backpacking gear will fit in the outside pockets! Admittedly, items needed on the trail are handy, as desired, but the pack I designed has too much volume for an overnight trip, and is just right to hold everything for a five day trip. To fill up some of the extra space in the main compartment on overnight trips, I partially inflate my torso length sleeping pad and stuff my sleeping bag in the bottom. You can tease me about being a pocket fanatic, but the space is there when I need it and I don’t have to use all the pocket space; it’s there when I need it. Even with a custom backpack, the design is a balancing act.