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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > R2 Custom Pack > Test Report by Curt Peterson
R2 Custom Backpack
Torso: ~ 21 in (53 cm)
Email address: curt<at>boopants<dot>com
I live in the Cascade foothills, just 20 mi (32 km) from the Pacific Crest Trail via trails leading right from my backyard. My outdoor time in Washington is spent dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, and skiing everywhere from the Olympic coast to rainforests to Cascade volcanoes to dry steppe. I played football in college and often evaluate products from a big guy perspective. My typical pack load ranges from 11 - 20 lbs (5 - 9 kg) and usually includes plenty of wet weather gear.
Comments on Packs and Custom Pack Experience
As a big guy, backpacking gear is often hit or miss. In an overall gear kit size doesn't really matter for most items. Stoves, kitchens, stakes, electronics, and with dozens of other “little things”, how it functions is independent of the user's size. Unfortunately, with the stuff that impacts comfort the most – clothes, sleeping gear, and packs – the complete opposite is true. In my opinion the most critical piece of gear that affects comfort in any backpacking gear closet is the backpack. Backpacks are what determines how comfortable one is on the trail and a poorly fitted or painful pack is arguably the worst thing that a backpacker could experience with the possible exception of really bad footwear. And, as luck would have it, it is one of the hardest things to get a good fit with for big backpackers.
I have tried on literally dozens of packs in the past 15 years. As new packs come out, I routinely try them out on the showroom floor for fit. Pretty much every time I do the story is the same: the shoulder straps are too short and dig into the front of my shoulders, the belt is too short or nonexistent, and adjustability is so limited that tweaking it to find a good fit is nearly impossible. In all these years, I have found exactly ONE pack that fits well. It fits very well, in fact, and it's essentially the only pack I use now. It has literally hundreds of fit options with various setting and components, so getting a good fit was not quick, but it worked out and I've never had an uncomfortable moment using this pack. The only problem is that it rarely fits my needs as a pack anymore. Without the pack itself, my typical summer backpacking load is between 9 and 12 pounds (4-5.4 kg). This pack is 4 pounds (1.8kg) empty, so it adds nearly 40% to my total pack weight! Certainly this is still pretty light and I'm not really complaining about the weight, but I'd like to experience the benefits of a 10 pound (4.5 kg) load since I've pared the rest of my kit down so much. Also, it is overkill for a weekend pack. It's an almost 4000 cu in (66L) pack with a full frame and hip belt. For quick overnights or weekends, it's just too much pack.
So, for a long time, I've been searching for an ideal weekender pack. My dream pack has always been something that can function as a comfortable 1 or so pound (0.45 kg) daypack, but have the ability to accept a single stay or simple frame sheet and handle a weekend with up to 20 or 25 pounds (9-11.3 kg) of gear and food and water while weighing less than 2 1/2 pounds or so (1.1 kg). Of course there are dozens of packs that meet this definition, but I have never found one that fits.
So I headed down the road of customization. I found somebody who builds custom packs for a reasonable price and began the process. 106 e-mails and 1 year and 5 months later, I got my pack. Beautiful work and exactly as I'd described, but the shoulder straps didn't fit well and it weighed about as much as my other pack. Great pack, but it meets the functions of the one I already have so my quest continued!
My goal with the R2 backpack was to create a compressible weekender pack that can serve as a comfortable lightweight daypack or overnighter but have the ability to stiffen up a bit for a long weekend or even multi-day backpacking trip.
The R2 Custom Pack Process
There are essentially four steps to getting a custom R2 Backpack:
Step 1: The customer's itemized "wish list" completed through the R2 website. This can be done in two ways. If a customer has a pretty good idea of what they want, they can go to the design area of the website and begin adding and removing features, choosing fabrics, determining style and size, etc. The other option - targeted at backpackers who aren't really sure what they want but have an end use in mind - is to answer a questionnaire of sorts and let R2 design the backpack based on the responses. I chose the first option as I had a very detailed vision of the pack I wanted built. This initial step is followed by an e-mail from Ron at R2 requesting a set of measurements - torso, waist, etc.
Step 2: Once the website option is complete, the next step is a phone call with Ron at R2. This is really a critical step as most of the details - right down to the types of clips and toggles - are worked out in this call. I actually really enjoyed this conversation. It lasts up to an hour or so, but every aspect of the pack is worked out detail-by-detail. Instead of a chaotic mix of random questions, Ron has a very methodic walk-through of each part of the pack. I had most of the pack very tightly outlined, but inevitably there are parts where choices come up. Ron does an excellent job of offering the choices, discussing the pros and cons of each, and letting the customer be the ultimate decision maker. He really knows pack construction in my experience, and asking him specific questions about certain components' durability, benefits of one feature over another, etc. brought thoughtful, knowledgeable responses from Ron. Even though I had most details of this pack worked out in advance, I have absolutely no doubt that this pack is better with Ron's input than if I had simply dictated every last detail.
Step 3: From there, Ron puts together a very detailed digital outline of the backpack. This includes images, components, fabrics, and many other details. My design proposal was 7 pages. A sample is found below. The customer's job at this point is to go over every little detail and note anything that doesn't look quite right, isn't how they want it, or make any changes of mind. This is an important step since this is the template Ron will use to build the actual pack. I think this is a great tool, as everything is in one spot, it doesn't rely on anyone's memory of a phone conversation, and it makes sure both Ron and the customer are on the same page and not relying on mind-reading abilities.
Step 4: Once the customer feedback from the design proposal is complete, Ron may ask for one or two clarifying questions or measurement, but it is this time where the actual pack is built. In my case, this was extremely fast. After a couple weeks of back and forth via e-mail and phone to get the design perfect, the actual pack was built in only about a day! I have no idea if this is typical or not, but as someone who has built some of my own gear and spent hundreds of hours hunched over a sewing machine, I was impressed. Obviously, once the pack is completed it shipped out and delivered to the customer.
Throughout this process Ron was incredibly professional. His e-mails, phone calls, and follow-up are top notch in my experience. For me, the entire process was very rewarding - much more so than dealing with large manufacturers. The attention to detail and obvious commitment to getting things "just right" is part of every communication. For a custom pack maker, R2 surely lives or dies on making customers happy, and in this regard I'd say Ron is doing a fantastic job.
The R2 backpack - which I named the P3 (Peterson's Perfect Pack) during the design process - arrived in the late afternoon the day before I left my home for a five week trip across the country. Ron at R2 built the pack very fast and shipped it two-day FedEx to make this happen - very much appreciated to make sure I had it on my vacation! It was completely ready to go out of the box it shipped in.
My goal was to create a lightweight backpack that could be used without a frame and with multiple compression points for dayhikes or quick overnights, but have the ability to add a frame and have the capacity for multi-day trips. I wanted it durable where it needed to be (bottom and abrasion points) and light where it didn't need to be so beefy. Besides typical backpacking gear, the only thing special I wanted it to carry was a fishing rod tube or two on the sides. Of course, ideally this would all come in at around 2 lbs (1 kg) with full frame and around 1.5 lbs (0.68 kg) without. With the details and features I kept piling on, these weight targets became more and more of a fantasy, but amazingly R2 created a pack with all of the features I'd asked for at the weights I'd hoped for. The main features of the pack include:
Everything on my pack is exactly how I had specified. There was not one surprise or disappointment as far as what I thought was going to be on the pack and what actually was. There were a few nice surprises, however. The whistle sternum strap buckle and unique zipper pulls were nice touches that I didn't expect - as were the multiple strap control loops to keep long straps from whipping in the wind.
I only have a couple of things that are on my initial concern list. The interior seams on the pack are exposed - not bound in webbing or buried in the seam to protect the edges. It appears the fabric edges were hot cut so there are no fraying or loose threads right now, but this is an area I will keep an eye on for wear as testing goes. The only other place I'm keeping a close eye on for durability is the pad and frame pocket closure. It appears to be heavily reinforced and I have little doubt it can manage the weight of the loads I'll be putting in it, but the frame and pad are a tight fit through the opening and putting them in and taking them out puts a lot of stress on the closure. Again, this is something I'll keep a close eye on in further testing.
The initial fit is good. It fits very well without the frame. I asked for extra long shoulder straps and these fit great. With the frame in the fit gets a little more awkward, but I haven't shaped the frame to my back or messed around with other adjustments while fully loaded yet, so I'm not ready to pass judgment on pack fit quite yet.
I will test here in the Northwest in
summer. I will use it on valley trails, subalpine mountain
backpacking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, higher cross-country
routes in the Alpine Lakes, and hopefully
With an R2 Custom Backpack., I hope to test and report on:
1) Expectations: Does the pack meet my expectations? Is it what I thought I'd ordered?
2) Fit: Critical!! This is the number one reason for customizing a pack in my opinion, so this has to be important. Is it comfortable? It is made for me so hopefully it should fit perfectly – does it?
3) Features: This is largely up to me in the design process – are they what I thought they'd be and do they function as intended? Do the compression straps cinch down the load? Do the pockets hold what I'd hoped they would? Basically, does everything work?
4) Construction Quality: Is the pack built well? Are seams exposed or frayed or is it tightly constructed and confidence-inspiring? I plan to use relatively durable fabrics – do they hold up to the rock and brambles of the Cascades?
5) Aesthetics: Does the pack look nice? Not a vital feature for me – fit and function are definitely more important – but a well built pack that is put together nicely is a beautiful thing to a gearhead like me.
6) Durability: Does the pack hold up? It will be used A LOT during the 4 months of testing – likely more than 30 days. Does it show signs of wear and tear after that amount of use? Look like new? Ask for more?
7) Functionality: Do all of the features actually work in on-trail use? They all look great on spec sheets and in the living room, but does that relate to trail functionality? Do zippers go smoothly? Are pockets accessible without removing the pack? Do draw cords pull nicely and stay closed when they're supposed to? Does the sternum strap sit where it's comfortable? Lot of little thing add up to a great pack – are they so in the R2?
8) Ultimately, does the R2 Pack enhance my outdoor experience? Is the time and energy and cost of doing a custom pack worth it? Do I think about the views and animals and experience on the trail more or do I focus on seams that rub, belts that dig, or other aspects of the pack? Is it my dream weekender pack? It's these types of overall questions that I will answer as well as any other new things that come up during this unique testing opportunity.
This concludes my Initial Report.
The R2 Pack has had plenty of use since my Initial Report. I went on a five week trip from Seattle, Washington to Cape Cod, Massachusetts and back. The R2 Pack was used periodically all over the place. Some of the more memorable places we spent time outdoors were near Bozeman, Montana, the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the boonies of Ontario, Canada above Lake Huron, in the Catskills of New York, and around the National Seashore on Cape Cod. On the return trip it saw use in southern Minnesota, in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, northern Wyoming, western Montana and northern Idaho. Of the 36 days on the trip I camped 25 nights. The R2 Pack was loaded and unloaded with gear on every day of this trip but was actually used as a pack for about half of those days.
The weather was decidedly hot. We were in temperatures over 100 F (38 C) for almost the entire first week. We spent 3 weeks in the Midwest and eastern U.S. in temperatures in the high 80s F and 90s F (31 C to 35 C) with very high humidity, and the return to the West was extremely hot as well - it was 110 F (43 C) in Badlands National Park. We were hit with a couple of serious thunderstorms in New York and Wisconsin, one of which included a pretty scary flash flood.
Since returning from that trip the R2 has been used on 3 dayhikes, 1 quick overnight backpacking trip, and on 5-day backpacking trip to Olympic National Park.
One of the most impressive things so far about the R2 Custom Backpack is the blending of materials. There are 3 primary fabrics used throughout the pack - spacer mesh, silnylon, and Dimension Polyant in high-wear areas. They are all sewn together nicely and seem to be playing very nicely together. The durability of this pack is one of its best characteristics - despite the majority of the pack being made of the very light and thin silnylon. At one point on my Olympic National Park trip my completely overloaded pack (more on that later) was sitting on a rock while I was putting on my socks and shoes. It decided to take a tumble on its own and tipped over and fell onto granite rocks with its full weight behind it. It landed on the top lid/flap that is made entirely of silnylon. There are definitely a couple of small holes from the experience, but a little rubbing between my fingers and a quick wipe down and it really doesn't look much the worse for wear. This is certainly the most fragile part of the pack and if it handled this abuse well I have a lot of confidence that this pack is tough enough for any of the backpacking trips I do. I have pulled and wrenched and cranked on the straps and they have held up very well. On the Olympic trip in particular I over-tightened and over-loaded almost every strap on the pack and they handled it fine.
There are a few ways to use the frame system. Obviously there is an option to go without a frame system at all. I have not used the pack this way so far. The next step is to use just the foam pad in the pad/frame sleeve. I have used this setup a couple times on dayhikes and it is very comfortable. In fact, this pack fits me best when used this way. The third option is to include the corrugated plastic frame. I have used this setup on all of my backpacking days. My first overnight the pack was uncomfortably stiff. There are thin metal rods inserted into 5 of the slots in the frame. I think this made the pack way too stiff. Between trips I pulled the two outside rods and it made a significant difference. The back was much more comfortable. Even with only 3 rods inserted the pack was plenty stiff - possibly still too stiff. During Long Term testing I will experiment with even less rods and even zero rods.
On the Olympic National Park trip I completely overloaded the pack. I estimate the pack weighed about 35-45 lbs (16-20 kg) on the trip - well more than double the load I typically carry. This is just too much for the R2 Pack as I had it designed. The frame handled the load well. There was no collapsing or sagging that I really noticed. The belt, however, couldn't handle this load. It is just sewn to the pack sides and there are no stiffeners or rigidity to the belt. The load would simply overwhelm the belt and it would sag to the point that the shoulder straps supported all of the weight. I could unbuckle the belt and there would be no difference in load shifting. With more reasonable loads - about half of the Olympic loads - the belt is functional and one of the better features on the pack. The belt pocket zippers started out pretty stiff and were a little tough to open and close with one hand initially. These water resistant zippers have loosened up after use, however, and are fantastic low-profile pockets now that keep my most often-used items quick and handy.
The fishing-specific features I'd asked for - pockets and high attachments for a rod tube - worked perfectly. One of the other members of the Olympic trip was continually having problems carrying a fishing rod. It got snagged in trees, slid out, or just plain fell off. I had no such problems and my rods were safe and secure the entire trip. I've also carried the rod on other short trips with excellent results.
I prefer a very clean profile pack with nothing on the outside. I can achieve this pretty easily on overnights and weekend trips with my usually loads. On the Olympic trip I knew I would be pushing the limits of the R2 Pack and in fact I even considered not taking it the night before we left. I decided to take it after all and utilized just about every possible hook and strap to get everything on the pack. It was ugly and definitely did not meet my neat-packing preferences, but it did the job.
If I have any complaints about the R2 Pack it would be the foam backpad and the shoulder straps. The foam used in the backpad is plenty cushy and comfortable - in that regards it's great. My issue is that it's really hot! Even in cooler temperatures it feels like there's a heated blanket on my back. Of all the packs I've worn over the years I've never quite experienced this feeling. This always left my back sopping wet with sweat - much more than I am used to. This is the lesser of my complaints, however, as this completely changeable. After the test period is over I can experiment with other types and sizes of foam and simply insert the one that works best for me. The shoulder straps are a little more of a challenge. They are padded well enough and even when the pack was overloaded and my shoulders were essentially carrying the entire load on the Olympic trip it wasn't overly painful. The spacer mesh on the inside and the tough Dimension Polyant on the outside also are nice and comfortable. The problem for me is the cut. If I wear the straps where I like them in front on my chest, the upper part of the straps rub against my neck. If I allow them to ride further out so they're not on my neck they twist a little and don't sit flat against my shoulders and chest. Both of these problems seem to be exacerbated with the stiff frame in. Going with the foam pad only allows the straps to get the flex they need to sit more comfortably. I think this could be remedied in two different ways. First, the shoulder straps could have a more dramatic 'S' curve to them. This would allow them to curve around my neck and still sit on my chest where I prefer them to. Second, they could be sewn at an angle so they are canted outward. This would allow them to angle wide on the back and top of my shoulders to avoid my neck but at an angle towards the center in the front to carry where I like them to. These are completely fixed shoulder straps so either solution would require re-constructing this part of the pack.
Other than these two issues - one, really, since the other is so easily fixed - the R2 has done well. For short and light trips this is the pack I will be reaching for. For longer, heavier trips I would hesitate, but that's not what this pack was designed for. Used within its limits it has performed well.Field Report Summary
The R2 Pack is a mixed bag so far. In the majority of aspects it is an excellent pack. It's proved to be very durable. For the short trips it was designed for it works very well - particularly with the stiff frame removed. With a stiffer frame and bigger loads, however, the burden of the load falls on the shoulder straps and unfortunately this is not very comfortable. Granted, I asked for this pack to haul much smaller loads and it does better with those. I believe the limits I've experienced so far are due to my own requests.
During Long Term Testing I will return to "normal" loads and experiment a bit with loosening and stiffening the frame to find an optimal setup for my typical 2-3 day trips.
This concludes my Field Report. A big "thank you!" to Ron at R2 and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test an R2 Custom Pack!
Long Term Report
During the long term test period I returned the R2 pack to more appropriate use. On one overnight trip and 3 or 4 dayhikes I carried loads of 10-15 lbs (4.5-6.8 kg) - much more in line with what this pack was designed for. It easily handled these loads and there was no frame collapse or shoulder pressure like when it was overloaded during the bulk of the Field Report testing. The overnight and all dayhikes were in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. A fishing trip to Rainbow Lake and dayhikes to Snow Lake, Lipsey Lake, and wanderings around the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River all gave the R2 pack trail use. These trails range from about 1000 ft to around 4300 ft (300 m to1300 m). Temperatures were typical fall for the Northwest - days in the 40s F (4-9 C) and nights in the mid 30s F (1-2 C). All hiking was on trail except for one short section of bushwhacking.
To make these smaller loads more comfortable and in an attempt to soften the flex a bit, I pulled all of the metal rods out of the frame (see picture below). The corrugated plastic frame is still pretty stiff - much more so than a thin HDPE sheet often used for lightweight pack support. In fact, I still think it's too stiff for day trip loads. With light loads the plastic frame feels like a full-on internal framed pack. With a bit more weight the frame gives a little and starts to feel pretty good. In my experience the frame without any rods is ideal right around 20 lbs (9 kg). My main issue with frame stiffness is that no frame (no rods or plastic frame) is too soft for overnight loads. It's essentially a book bag at that point. With the frame it's too stiff until ideal weight is reached around 20 lbs (9 kg). This leaves the majority of the time I use the pack in between a little uncomfortable. I need to experiment with some other frame materials, but that sort of modification is outside the scope of this test series.
The belt was a definite bright spot of the test. It still looks and works great despite being the part of the pack that contacts the ground every time I set it down. The pockets are nearly perfect in my opinion. They are very low profile but have enough space to swallow bulky GPS units or a few energy bars. The waterproof zippers and extra durable fabric worked great. The material is grippy without being sticky and the padding is sufficient for the loads I carried. It's not built to hold up the kinds of loads I carried in the Field Report, but for my more moderate adventures it's fantastic.
The shoulders straps continued to be the weakest part of the pack. Even with lighter loads they just don't lie correctly. They work better with the chest strap attached, but it's still less than ideal. They also presented the only durability concern of the entire test. I'm not sure when (likely in the Olympics) but one of the shoulder straps is starting to rip out (see picture below). It's not a fatal tear, and I've trusted it with 4 trail days since discovering it, but it's something that's obviously a concern. I was carrying light enough loads on the last few uses that I figured I could easily carry it with just one shoulder if it failed, but that's not something I want to have to consider every time I put on a pack. I have not made any efforts to repair the shoulder strap and it does not seem to be getting any worse at this point.
Besides the shoulder strap, durability has been a highlight of this pack. I'm really happy with the fabric selections. It's really tough where it needs to be and light where it can be. The silnylon - probably the most fragile part of the pack - has held up just fine. I find myself holding off throwing on a pack cover in drizzle because it sheds light rain so well. This is a nice bonus of the lightweight fabric that makes up the majority of the pack. The mesh areas all have worn well. Despite constant contact it is no worse for wear. The foam is still the hottest I've felt before. It was definitely better once temperatures cooled off in the fall, but it's without a doubt the most toasty back padding I've ever used in a pack. All the straps, buckles, clips, etc. are in perfect condition and work just as well as when they shipped.
With the rods removed the pack obviously got lighter. My real world in-use weight ended up being 1 lb 12.4 oz (0.8 kg). That includes the corrugated plastic frame - not bad for a framed pack with a full belt! I imagine a different frame setup could bring that weight down a bit even more, but I didn't want to include options in the testing that weren't included with the pack.
The entire pack is very clean and looks almost new. Silnylon wears very nicely and if punctures can be avoided keeps its color and integrity exceptionally well.
Field Report Summary
The R2 custom pack performs best when used as it was intended - for light loads. By tweaking the frame and softening the flex it fit better and was much more comfortable. Even the minimal frame without support rods is plenty stiff for moderately light loads. The belt and durability of the pack were highlights, as were the materials that came together nicely to make a light pack that was tough where it needed to be. The shoulder straps are perhaps the biggest disappointment of the test. They never did lie quite right. I could make it better or worse by playing with the frame, but there's really no substitute for having them fit right by design. I'm really happy with the weight of the pack and look forward to playing with it to lighten it even more. I think with some frame modifications and a different foam back I can get this pack pretty close to being a framed, supportive, custom-features pack right around 1 1/2 lbs (0.7 kg).
If I could re-do the pack I would definitely do it differently. That's easy to say after going through this experience once already. This is something to be careful about in my opinion - custom pack design could become a very expensive habit! Everything is possible and any changes are essentially limited only by imagination and money. I'd leave the pack bag itself pretty much as-is. I'm really happy with the way the fabric and design turned out. Ron did a GREAT job of bringing my vision to reality.
I would absolutely change the shoulder straps, however. They are my biggest complaint about the pack. I would also seriously look at other frame options, but the design Ron and I put together allows for this as it is now. It's a simple matter of pulling out the current frame and sliding whatever I want into there. That's a luxury few commercial packs offer, that's for sure. I love the belt pockets - they will be the new standard I will hold future belt pockets to in terms of both design and function. They really are great.
I'd like to extend one last big "thanks!" to Ron at R2. He offers a really unique opportunity to make anyone's ideal pack. I'd recommend him to anyone who has a vision for a pack but doesn't want to learn to sew and construct it themselves and doesn't like the commercial opportunities available. I would advise to spend some serious time thinking about the critical areas like the shoulder straps, frame, and belt, but once those get worked out a one-of-a-kind pack can be built by R2!
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