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R2 CUSTOM DESIGN BACKPACK

Test Series by Richard Lyon

Initial Report October 21, 2007
Field Report January 2, 2008
Long Term Report March 2, 2008

Personal Information and Backpacking Background
Richard Lyon
Male, 61 years old
6' 4" (1.9 m) tall, 200 lb (91 kg)
46 inch (117 cm) chest, 38 inch (97 cm) waist, 22.5 inch (57 cm) torso
Dallas, Texas, USA
rlyon AT gibsondunn DOT com

I've been backpacking for 45 years on and off, and regularly in the Rockies since 1986.  I do a weeklong trip every summer, and often take three-day trips.  I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500 - 4000 m). I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do my share of forced marches too.  Though always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight hiker, and I usually choose a bit of extra weight over foregoing camp conveniences I've come to expect.

Information Pertinent to this Test.  I'm also an avid telemark and Alpine skier, at resorts and in the backcountry.  Most of my in-bounds skiing is done at areas that encourage my if-I can-see-it-I-can-ski-it philosophy – patrolled terrain requiring traverses, boot packs, or hikes for the better runs, off-piste skiing easily accessible from the resort, or a combination of these.  Even in-bounds I usually ski with a beacon, shovel, and pack and regularly climb and traverse for desired runs.  Ski touring, in telemark skis and boots, is my preferred winter "hiking" mode.

Initial Report
October 21, 2007

A CUSTOM SKI PACK, DESIGNED BY ME

Telemaster with powder skisManufacturer: R2 Packs
Website: www.r2packs.com.  All quotations in this report come from this website.
MSRP: The price of a pack depends on the agreed design of the pack ordered.  It appears from the Design Proposal, discussed below, that each size pack and component has a list price, but these are not set out on R2's website.  R2 does state that "The average pack will be in the $250-350 [US] range." 

How R2 works.  I've thoroughly enjoyed proceeding through R2's design process.  

R2's motto is "custom packs, designed by you."  Over many years I've worked with many custom shops, for gear and clothing, but this is the first one I can remember that didn't start the customer with assorted base models to which available options are added or modifications made.  R2 starts from scratch, based upon what its customer desires.  Ron Rod, R2's founder and principal, wants to hear in the customer's own words what activities the pack will be used for, why the customer is looking for something new, what aspects of other packs the customer likes or dislikes and why, and similar details.  The website does list numerous options for size, fabrics, and primary and secondary choices (some with sub-options) for pack style (top or panel loader), pack top, front panel, side panels, and hip belt.  But these are neither a punch list nor everything that's available; they're not even all that R2 needs to get started building a pack.  That process starts with the customer. 

An interested customer who visits R2's "design lab" may proceed in one of four ways.  He or she provides a torso measurement (from the top vertebra to the top of the iliac crest) and then may: 

·         Design by feature, by completing and submitting a "Feature Survey" questionnaire.  The customer checks boxes corresponding to various options and answering some general questions about expected use, such as "What activities do you plan to use this pack for most?" 

·         Use one of three templates on the site, Resort Skiing Pack, Backcountry Skiing Pack, or Ultralight Backpacking Weekend Pack, and then design by feature.  This is similar to the first option except that the boxes to check and choices to make are pitched to the desired activity.

·         Submit a "Design Proposal Request," answering more pointed general questions [e.g., "Are there any features that you like (or dislike) on other packs that you have owned, used, or seen?"] and identifying gear he or she'd like to carry and sports for which the pack will be used.

·         Telephone Ron or his staff to discuss particular requirements and preferences. 

R2 may prefer this last choice, for a phone call with Ron was a critical step in designing my pack. Shortly after I was selected for this test Ron emailed me, asking to arrange a telephone interview to discuss my objectives.  Ron's offering to make the call to save me long distance charges or mobile minutes, and offering times as late as 8 pm Colorado time to avoid interfering with my day job, were my first indications that I was dealing with a customer-friendly manufacturer.  I had previously exchanged emails with Ron and sent him a copy of my test application, stating in both that I wanted a pack designed for hut-to-hut backcountry skiing and indicating some of the features that I thought appropriate. 

Ron and I spent at least forty minutes on that first phone conversation.  He first asked what packs I now used for hiking and skiing, what I liked and disliked about each, and inquired about particular gear items I carried.  Ron then pursued some of my preferences, making suggestions and inquiring about my typical backcountry ski days.  Some of our discussion was quite detailed, for example his asking for the particular size and type of shovel I carried, how I carried my skis, how I carried water, and the terrain and conditions I favored.  We also discussed various design aspects, including several not on the website questionnaires: webbing size, clip and zipper choices, frame design and construction, to name a few.  Ron takes a special interest in ski packs, which are featured in the photographs on R2's website and make up two of the three available templates. 

We followed this conversation up with email correspondence about a few details, including confirming the torso measurement I had submitted and providing my waist size.  For several reasons (my vacation, Ron's "field testing" [backpacking], and informal agreement among the testers that mine would be done last, to get some ski time into the test period) Ron and I delayed the project until late August, when we had another lengthy conversation about pack features. Ron's initial "Design Proposal" arrived three business days later.

The proposal I received is similar to the sample available for viewing on the website - seven pages of proposed features, fabrics, options, and suggestions, complete with sketches.  From this and my earlier correspondence I learned that available options aren't always limited to those posted on the website.  Ron suggested a 3500 cubic inch (57 liter) pack, a bit larger than any noted in the design lab.  Ski packs should be made in a bright color, the better to spot quickly (hopefully with skier still attached) in case of an avalanche.  Ron checked with one of his suppliers and suggested a color, gold, that wasn't listed.  (Thank goodness – the only bright colors listed for my fabric choice were light pink and blaze orange.  No respectable male tele skier – certainly not this one - would be caught on a double black diamond run with either of those.)  Ron's proposal for water storage, discussed below, can't be found on the website. 

The Design Proposal served two purposes.  I got a sense for the look and feel of my pack, and it gave me another chance to see if there was anything special I wanted.  Ron and I spoke once again, agreeing on a few minor changes to Ron's proposal and settling on final details such as hardware (buckles, webbing, zippers) sizes and types.  After another phone conversation I received a new, final Design Packet, which I approved. 

The Design Proposal is a customer's first glimpse of a pack's price.  As a tester my pack was built and furnished without charge.  A paying customer would provide a credit card with final approval of the Design Proposal, which R2 charges when it ships the pack.  My Telemaster (a name I chose) priced at $407 US, not including shipping.

During the design process Ron's attention to detail and knowledge of backcountry skiing gear were remarkable.  Once we'd agreed on a ski touring pack his questions became more and more focused on what I usually carried (down to particular brands and the width of my skis), where I liked to travel, skiing style, and backcountry preferences.  This approach meant more than a reassurance that my custom tailor knew what he was doing.  Ron likes what he is doing and his enthusiasm is contagious.  He gave the impression that he enjoyed working to design my pack as much as I did.  

The Telemaster arrived two weeks after my approval of the final Design Packet.  It would have been sooner except that one of Ron's sewing machines required repair, a fact of which he notified me promptly by email.  Throughout the design process Ron regularly inquired if I needed the pack for a particular excursion, offering to expedite his work to match my schedule.  As I said, a customer-friendly manufacturer.

The Telemaster.  When hut-to-hut skiing I wear or carry ski clothes, hut clothes, climbing skins, shovel, probe, avalanche beacon, small ski repair kit, food and water, toilet kit, fire starter, sleeping bag, and pad – almost a full winter backpacking kit except no tent, and not by any means a minimalist load.  That means at least a medium-sized pack.  Some options and the reasons I chose them include:

 

ITEM

My choice

Reasons

Pack style

Top loader

Simplicity. What I'm used to. Reduce the number of zippers.

Size

3500 ci/ 57 L

As large as possible. Not coincidentally this size fills a gap in my packs between day and expedition packs. The Design Proposal states a thirty-pound (13.6 kg) capacity.

Main fabric

1000 denier Cordura

The heaviest and toughest fabric available from R2, needed for the winter equivalent of bushwhacking.  I don't want to worry about rips in my pack when I'm ripping down the hill.  Some of the features are made of Spandura (a Cordura-Spandex hybrid) and others of 200 d Cordura.

Colors

Gold, with some features in dark blue.  Spandura portions in black.

For visibility.

Frame

Removable corrugated plastic frame sheet

To help with the large load.

Hip belt

Unpadded fabric wings

For stability and better load transfer. No padding needed since extra clothing layers worn in winter will provide it.

 

Sewn-in pockets

For camera, sunscreen, lip balm, snacks, and other things I can grab without having to remove the pack.  Something I requested from the design menu because I like this feature on another pack that I own.

Top

Anchored top pocket

I like a separate spot for medium-sized things needed quickly. This will always be filled.  To give an idea of Ron's level of detail, he asked how large I wanted this to be.  It's small because that's what I requested, to reduce flopping about when the pack's not full.

Front panel

Kango pocket

For my shovel blade in winter or rain jacket in warmer temps.  Note that the kango includes a separate zippered pocket on the front.

 

Fabric tube

For shovel shaft in winter, fly rod in summer.  Ron recommended that this be sewn inside the kango pocket for better protection against losing either in a fall than from an elastic pocket on one side.

 

Stowable ski loop

At the bottom right, for carrying my skis diagonally across by pack when boot packing.  I prefer this to an "A-frame" mode using side pockets.  The loop works with my snowshoes too. I can stow the loop in a small pocket when I use this pack in the summer to avoid its catching on anything.

 

Double compression straps

In addition to general compression, the upper straps assist in carrying skis, as shown in the photo above. 

Interior

Zippered pocket.

Two uses: For something that I want to know exactly where it is in my pack, such as an avalanche probe.  Or for items I won't use much in the backcountry but can't afford to lose, such as keys, wallet, and passport.  Another feature "borrowed" from another pack I own.

Back

Insulated Hydration pocket.

Sized for 2-liter (2+ qt) bladder; port on the right.

 

Padded shoulder straps with sternum strap and load lifter straps.

A sternum strap helps keep the pack from slipping around.  Padding primarily for backpacking use. 

Side panel -left

Interior zippered bottle pocket with vertical zipper

I've lost too many water bottles stashed in elastic-topped pockets.  Reduces the possibility of freezing.  Not in the feature list in the design lab but added after discussion with Ron. 

Side panels –left and right

 

Auxiliary quick release buckles, for cinching off the compression straps.  Could be used to lash something to the side of the pack.

We designed the pack with storage concentrated on the front and minimal features on the sides, to reduce direct exposure of items stowed on the outside of the pack to foreign obstacles.  This reduces the risk of a skier's yard sale in a fall, when everything from helmet to water bottles can scatter in the snow.  More importantly, snags on tree branches or rocks can cause a fall, shoulder separation, or other grievous bodily harm. 

Another design consideration was pack width.  We tried to add capacity by making the pack a bit longer rather than wider.  When the pack's completely stuffed I'll have to take the pack off to ride a ski lift, but maybe not if it's packed only for an in-bounds day.  I may be able to keep it slim enough so that I can sit comfortably wearing the pack rather than holding it in my lap.

Note that I used "we" in these two paragraphs – I truly look on the design process as a joint effort. 

THE PACK ARRIVES

The TelemasterThe photo at left is of my Telemaster just out of the shipping box.  The one at the top shows the pack with gear inside and my skis attached. 

The pack weighed in at 3 lb 7 oz (1.6 kg).  Dimensions are 31 x 14 x 9.7 in (79 x 36 x 25 cm), width measured with the pack full but not overstuffed.  I tried it on and with minor tweaking of the shoulder straps the Telemaster fit perfectly out of the box.  Testing will determine if it's comfortable on the trail and the ski hill.

As agreed in the Design Proposal all zippers are waterproof.  All webbing except the hip belt is one inch (2.5 cm) wide.  The hip belt webbing is 1.5 inches (4 cm) wide and has a quick release buckle and sliders to adjust the belt to fit over different clothing combinations. 

All sewing and seams are neatly done, with no visible loose threads on the inside or the outside of the pack.  As may be seen in the photo R2's logo is embroidered on the center of the top section.

Overall the pack looked like what I was expecting from the Design Proposal, though there were a few pleasant surprises.  The single storage compartment of the pack bag has an apron that I can cinch with a toggle.  The hydration system includes a tube of insulating material that will serve as a sleeve for the tube on my water bladder.  It's wide enough so that I can thread the tube through without removing the elbow and bite valves – much easier to install than the neoprene sleeve accessory for my Playpus or Camelbak.  While I'll likely have the neoprene on through the winter, this will provide additional insulation, and should come in particularly handy when using the pack in shoulder seasons when I meet a cold snap.  I also learned what a "key loop and mitten clip" (listed on the Design Proposal) is - a small fabric loop with a clip similar to those found on ski gloves to permit clipping the gloves together.  My pack has one inside the left side water bottle pocket and another at the top of the main compartment.  These should come in very handy for keeping small loose objects (knife, ski wax scraping tool) from getting "lost" at the bottom of a large compartment. 

TESTING

Snow gods willing, the four-month test period should include some backcountry turns and tours.  I plan to repeat the Steep & Deep clinic in Jackson, Wyoming in mid-January and will try to add some yurt or hut overnights to this trip.  The pack won't sit idly in the closet waiting for the snow to fall, however.  This pack is sized just right for my style of overnight or two-night trip and I'm looking forward to wearing it on backpacks in the Texas Hill Country and the Rockies this autumn.  

This concludes my Initial Report.  Check back in December for my Field Report.  I thank BackpackGearTest.org and R2 for the opportunity to design and test this pack.

Field Report
January 2, 2008

The Telemaster has been day hiking, backpacking, and skiing with me during the last two months.   

FIELD CONDITIONS

Shortly after I received the pack I wore it on a day hike on the Katy Trail in Dallas, about five miles of more or less flat, paved terrain, on a typical sunny October day in North Texas, 85 F (29 C) and low humidity.  The day after Thanksgiving (November 23) I wore it in cooler temperatures, about 40 F (5 C) and windy, as I wandered through the Bachman Nature Area, a small Dallas city park adjacent to my home.  Each time I had stowed in the main pack bag a rain jacket and pants, lunch, 2+ liter/quart water bladder, extra shirt for after the hike, and my Jetboil PCS.  I also carried a bottle of wine for lunch on the Katy Trail and a wool sweater on the second trip.  I wore the pack over a cotton tee on the first hike, over a mid-weight merino long sleeved shirt on the second. 

Oklahoma-Arkansas state lineIn mid-November I did a three-day, two-night backpack on the Oklahoma section of the Ouachita Trail, from Pashubbe trailhead to the Arkansas state line, starting at about 1000 ft (300 m) with a net 1200 ft (350 m) elevation gain over fourteen miles (22 km).  It was overcast the entire time in camp and on the trail, with occasional pockets of ground fog.  Also it was warm and humid, up to 80 F (27 C) during the day and not much below 60 F (16 C) at night.  During all hiking I wore the pack over a merino t-shirt.  My pack weight on this trip, including food but not water, was just under twenty-five pounds (11 kg).  All my kit was inside the pack except for three items: my rain jacket, which I stashed in the kango pocket; Zip-Lock with TP and trowel, which went inside the zippered pocket on the outside of the kango; and water shoes, strapped on the lower side compression straps.  I carried a 2+ liter/quart water bladder in the hydration pocket and a one liter/quart SIGG bottle of water in the side panel pocket. 

An air fare sale gave me a chance to warm up my ski legs on a weekend jaunt to Grand Targhee resort, just west of the Tetons in Wyoming, in mid-December.  The resort base is at 8000 feet (2500 m).  Both ski days were overcast and windy, with snow flurries throughout the day, and temperatures from 4 to 18 F (-16 to -8 C) at the ski area base, definitely colder on top.  In my Telemaster I carried a down vest in a compression sack, cashmere watch cap (for breaks – inbounds I ski with a helmet), and spare glove liners in the main pack bag; 2+ liter/quart Platypus water bladder in the hydration sleeve; climbing skins and tool kit in the top pocket; an 0.75 liter/quart thermos of tea in the zippered pocket; shovel in the kango pocket; and sunblock, small packet of Clif bars in a Zip-Lock, lip gloss, pocket knife, and headlamp in the hip belt pockets.  The pack fit snugly over a merino base layer shirt, ultralight down parka, and soft shell top.  Targhee is a wide-open ski hill with no real distinction between named runs and the spaces between them.  Though the resort boundaries are clearly marked, adjacent backcountry options beckon, and most of the in-bounds skiing has a backcountry flavor to it.  While most of my skiing was inbounds, I did plenty of hiking to get to the powder stash at the far north of the area.  I crossed the area boundary once, to boot pack to the notch on Peaked Mountain just below Mary's Nipple.

Snow ghosts at Grand TargheeJust after Christmas I went back to Wyoming for a three-day, two-night backcountry tour in the Targhee National Forest.  Under snowy skies with temperatures at 8 F/-13 C we began with a 4 mile (7 km) ski up a skin track, with a 1200 vertical foot (365 m) elevation gain (1000 ft/305 m in the last mile), from the trailhead near Driggs, Idaho to the Commissary Ridge yurt at 8000 feet (2500 m).  This yurt sits on an open face of the ridge with a spectacular view of all three Tetons, weather permitting (which it didn't during this trip), but requires uphill hikes of 2-3 miles (3-5 kg) to reach the better ski runs on Beard's Mountain across the valley.  After lunch at the yurt we hiked up the ridge for an afternoon powder run, and then hiked back up to the yurt.  Conditions deteriorated the following day, to the point where it was blowing a gale at the top of the ridge (about 9200 ft/2800 m) by mid-afternoon, with temperatures at 1 F/-17 C and falling.  Nasty hiking weather but a major contribution to the snowpack, making for exhilarating downhill skiing! The storm passed through Saturday night, giving us a mostly sunny, mostly windless day for some truly spectacular powder skiing – three feet (~1 m) of untracked cold smoke in spots on Sunday's long downhill run. 

Pack contents on the hike in (and ski out) were similar to the in-bounds ski trip, with lunch and the following gear added: mukluks, trousers, underwear, and shirt for the yurt; two extra pairs of socks; spare set of base layer top and bottom; paperback book; and map.  (Sleeping bags and food had been cached at the yurt.)  Altogether about 30 lb/14 kg including water, tea, and food, and enough room to spare for a stove and sleeping bag had I needed them.  After reaching the yurt I stashed my yurt clothes and jettisoned my water bladder, which had frozen, reducing weight to about 15 lb/7 kg.  While hiking I wore a lightweight merino top under an insulated ski parka, adding a second merino layer on the frigid day, and also adding my ultralight down parka at rest stops or when skiing downhill. 

OBSERVATIONS AND OPINIONS

Hiking.  The day hikes allowed me to test the efficacy of various pack features.  Total pack weight on the day hikes, water included, didn't exceed fifteen pounds (7 kg), so while not a true test for weight transfer I did get the feel of the pack on my shoulders on the trail.  The pack fit perfectly and was quite comfortable with the frame sheet.  I had adjusted the shoulder straps slightly at home for the proper fit, and I didn't need to fiddle with them at all on my hikes.  I had no chafing at the shoulders or the hips.

I quickly came to appreciate two features particularly.  The compression straps shone, letting me use about half (at most) of a 3500 ci/57 liter pack without having anything flopping around inside.  I kept the straps clipped on the sides of the pack (you will note in my Initial Report that they can also be strapped across the front) and pulled the straps through until I had compressed the pack bag.  My small load was similar in volume to what I expect to carry when skiing inbounds, and the pack appeared to be narrow enough so that had I been skiing I could have worn it on a lift. 

The real stick-out feature was the hip belt pockets.  These have about twice the capacity of the ones on my other pack, which was what prompted me to order them from R2,  The Telemaster's are large enough to keep snacks, hyponic tablets, water treatment, pocket knife, head lamp, camera, ibuprofen, bug dope, and sunscreen safely stowed yet ready to hand without having to take off my pack. 

The hydration sleeve and port worked just as they should, without any difficulty in threading the hose and valve through the port; a 2+ liter/quart bladder fits snugly in the sleeve.  I used the zippered pocket on the left side for my rain pants and spare pair of socks, two items I didn't expect to use but always take, instead of an extra water bottle. 

In designing a ski pack I just may have found the ideal pack for one- and two-night backpacking trips.  Great results in Oklahoma: the fit is terrific, its capacity is just right for my non-ultralight solo kit, and the frame sheet provides ample support for a thirty-pound (14 kg) load and keeps the back rigid on my back, like I'm wearing rather than carrying it.  I was thoroughly comfortable all day, uphill and down, without any incidents of the pack pulling back from my shoulders on any of the uphill sections.  The only tweaking needed on the trail was raising the sternum strap for a more comfortable fit.  The shoulder straps may be set a bit too far apart for use without a sweater or ski jacket, when cinched down the sternum strap pinched them inward, but this didn't cause any abrasion at the shoulders or chest.  As on the day hikes the compression straps kept the pack load – almost but not quite full – nicely compact.  I didn't miss the lack of padding on the hip belt; no abrasion there either.  All in all a very promising backcountry beginning for the Telemaster. 

Based on this trip I believe that R2's suggested 30-pound (14 kg) weight limit is conservative.  With three kilos (6.6 lb) of water my pack weight exceeded that, and there was certainly room for more gear inside or strapped to the pack. 

Ski touring.  I designed the Telemaster primarily for skiing, and in that category I haven't been disappointed.  On the in-bounds days the compression straps kept the pack narrow enough so that I didn't have to take it off to ride the lift, and kept the contents from bouncing around.  Probably because of the additional layers that I wore when skiing I didn't encounter any pinching of the shoulder straps.  The fit was such that I sometimes forgot I was wearing a pack at all.  The ski loop and top compression straps held my skis firmly in place while boot packing, and the loop was easy to re-stow at the top of the hill.  I found another mini-feature very useful for skiing – a shovel handle strap.  This small item is a hook-and-loop fastener with a quick-release buckle that fits over the shovel handle to secure it to the compression strap.  Without the fastener there's a danger of the handle's coming loose after opening and re-closing the compression strap.  There is also a tube sewn at the bottom of the front panel, inside the kango pocket, to hold the shovel shaft in place.  While day skiing the insulating sleeve for the water spout did its work and I wasn't left with a frozen valve, but without warming breaks I wound up carrying some ice in the backcountry.  A liter/quart Nalgene in a cozy inside the side pocket remained liquid, however.  The compression straps let me expand or contract the pack contents easily and effectively. 

On Commissary RidgeInbounds and backcountry ski hills have many obstacles this early in the Rockies' ski season, so the sturdy Cordura fabric took some serious punishment from pines and willows throughout the backcountry tour.  Many willows on Beard's hadn't yet been covered, scraping pack and skier on most of the descents.  The snow was so good and I liked a new pair of powder skis so much that once or twice I made the Douglas firs and lodgepole pines into slalom gates on a couple of runs.  No rents or rips, not even a mark, and all stitching remains sound. 

Problem.  Only one so far – each clip on the sternum strap has on two occasions worked itself loose.  The first time this happened, as noted below, I lost the clip, but I was able to find it in the snow.  I'm going to talk to Ron about this, as adjustment is required during ski touring when stowing climbing skins inside my jacket, giving me a much wider silhouette. 

I've yet to discover a consistently reliable means of using a bladder system in really cold temperatures, so I do not consider the freezing of my hydration bladder and spout to be a failure of the added pack sleeve.  In fact I was rather surprised that I didn't have a freeze-up when skiing inbounds.

SUMMARY

A number of overview comments are in order. 

First, as with custom clothes a precise fit is the best thing about a custom pack.  That's what I received from R2: just right at the waist, shoulders, torso length, and across the chest.  The Telemaster fits me better than any other framed pack that I have ever worn.  Had I been purchasing this pack, this fact alone would have justified in my mind the price premium for bespoke tailoring.

I have been consistently impressed with small details on this pack, like the oversized hip belt pockets, shovel handle top, shovel handle tube, and mitten clips.  The smallish top section of the pack is another.  It's large enough for a rain jacket and lunch and not much more.  That way it can always be full and thus not flopping about on top.  That feature was something I ordered specifically.  I ordered some of the others too, or knew from the Design Proposal that they were included, but I didn't anticipate all their fine points.  Then again, with Ron's expertise so apparent during the design process perhaps I should have. 

I've made use of and liked almost all of the features on the pack.  All do effectively what they are supposed to do.  I rate the hip belt pockets, bottle pocket, and dual-function kango pocket as near-genius. 

Another benefit of custom design is what's not there.  I haven't had to deal with an idiosyncrasy for which I have no use, extra straps, flavor-of-the month bells and whistles, or downright unwanted features that can come along with a pack or other product I otherwise liked.  I've never had much use for daisy chains and tool loops, for example, and extra straps for super-fine tuning always seem to snag on something while adding little functionality.  Fewer such superfluities mean less weight, fewer ways to get in trouble, and much less frustration. 

R2's customer service doesn't end with delivery of the pack.  While adjusting the sternum strap on my backpack I inadvertently loosened the female clip from its place on the pack strap.  When I set the pack down at a rest stop the clip came off, and I couldn't find it among the leaves on the forest floor.  (Note that I am not wearing a sternum strap in the backpacking photo above.)  I notified Ron and received a new one in a few days.  I've communicated with Ron by email about several features and issues, and he's prompt in replying with informative answers. 

I hope it's obvious from this report that I'm exceptionally pleased with my Telemaster.  I can't think of anything don't like or might change if I were starting to design the pack after two months' good use. 

This concludes my Field Report.  Check back in two months for my final field observations.  Thanks again to BackpackGearTest.org and R2 Custom Packs for the testing opportunity.

Long Term Report
March 2, 2008

FIELD CONDITIONS

Skiing.  The Telemaster accompanied me on two more two ski trips during the past two months: a week's vacation in mid-January at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, including the ski school's four-day Steep & Deep clinic, and three days at the Second Annual Cold Smoke Powder Fest at Whitewater Ski Area, near Nelson, British Columbia, Canada in late February. 

Jackson's base is about 6300 feet (1900 m), with more than 4000 foot (1200 m) vertical rise to the top of Rendezvous Peak.  I spent one day in the Jackson area backcountry, one day inbounds at Grand Targhee, and five days mostly inbounds at Jackson Hole.  As at Grand Targhee (see my Field Report) skiing at Jackson includes a fair amount of hiking and traversing to access preferred runs, even inbounds.  I wore the Telemaster every day but one.  Temperatures ranged from 8-25 F (-13 to -4 C), with snow showers or a full-blown storm most of the time. 

Conditions were quite different at Whitewater, very much spring skiing despite its still being February.  Overcast with occasional patches of sun on Saturday and Sunday, with temperatures posted at -5 C (23 F) in the morning, rising to 2 C (36 F) by mid-afternoon, followed by a sunny Monday with temperatures about 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) warmer.  Whitewater's base sits at 5400 feet (1700 m), rising to about 6700 feet (2100 m).  The Cold Smoke festival celebrates backcountry skiing and its devotees, so skiing programs tended to focus on hiking for one's turns.  I wore the Telemaster on both my backcountry days, carrying my lunch, a small stove, water, and day-touring A ski pack fitted for fly fishingessentials.

Backpacking.  Ski time has limited my backpacking over the past two months, but I did take the Telemaster on a two-day backpack fishing trip to Oklahoma in early February.  This trip involved a hike of less than two miles with a small elevation gain; we'd selected our campsite for fishing access rather than exercise or scenery.  Temperatures were in the 60s F (16-21 C) during the day, dropping to about 40 F (5 C) at night – not unlike late spring/early summer conditions on Montana spring creeks.  This trip gave me an opportunity to try my pack with the kit I usually take on backcountry fishing trips.  In addition to clothes, sleeping gear, stove, and food I included fly rod, reel, and my summer tackle box with flies, lines, tippet, and other small fly fishing items.  That kit doesn't usually include waders, but with the cooler weather and frigid water below the dam at Broken Bow I needed them on this trip.  I carried them rolled up under the lid of the pack using the straps that secure the lid to hold them in place.  Before leaving I experimented with different places for the reel and tackle box, eventually stuffing both into the main pack bag.  I used the compression straps across the front of the pack to secure my sleeping pad.

All told, the Telemaster has been on my back five backpacking days and thirteen ski days during the four-month test period.

OBSERVATIONS

Customer Service.  Let me begin with an update on the sternum strap issue discussed in my Field Report.  After another mishap at Jackson when I stripped off the pack, this time with the clip on the right shoulder strap webbing (the one attached to the sternum strap itself), I did some minor tweaking to ensure that both edges of the webbing were fully inside the two clips.  From this point forward I didn't have either clip come off despite skiing as rigorously as before and not taking especial pains to check the clips every time I shouldered or unshouldered the pack.  I now think that I may have been a bit careless when moving the clips along the webbing, forcing the webbing to jam out at one side or the other.  This might also have been caused by adding and subtracting layers.  The shoulder straps are (quite properly for a ski pack) sized so that they sit along the sides of my chest when I wear the pack over my usual winter three upper body layers.  As noted in my Field Report the straps can pinch in somewhat when I tighten the sternum strap after taking off a layer to begin a hike or when backpacking without a parka.  This can cause the webbing to bunch up slightly, increasing the risk that one edge will become dislodged.

Ron and I traded emails on this subject, and the only fix that either of us could devise was to replace the removable webbing clips with similar clips that are sewn in, with a solid bar across the strap instead of one with spaces for threading.  This would necessitate removing and then re-sewing the webbing to the straps, something I'm not capable of doing myself.  After the test period I may send the pack to Ron for this corrective surgery, as I don't want to be without the pack until I shelve my skis for the season. 

Ron's advice was prompt and helpful throughout the test period, on this issue and in replying to various questions I had about different features.  I repeat my judgment from my Initial Report: this is a very customer-friendly manufacturer.

I've had no other design issues with the Telemaster.  Performance during the past two months has been as exemplary as during the Field Testing period.  I replaced the hip belt buckle after breaking the one supplied with the pack, but the break was caused by my own carelessness, not a defective buckle from R2. 

Bonus points.  Two more months' experience has taught me more about my pack.  I'm becoming used to skiing with this pack to the point where I really don't notice I'm wearing it, thanks to the great fit.  I've found several more uses for the mitten clip in the water bottle pocket.  At various times I've hung a wax scraper, sunglasses case, blister kit, small flashlight, ski repair tool, and ski leashes from it – anything that's small and that I want to know just where it is.  The clip, which adds almost no weight, keeps any of these little devils from getting "lost" at the bottom among other gear.  The mitten clips even work for mittens aprθs ski or when it's warm enough to hike in lighter gloves. 

Lunch fits easily into the zippered pocket on the outside of the kango pouch, or in the top pocket.  The compression straps work well when strapped to the sides when my pack's not overly full or across the front when it is.  I'm adding this dual system to the features I listed in my Field Report as near-genius.  The side pocket is large enough for both a one-quart/liter water bottle and my backcountry tackle box, or my 1.5 l/1.6 qt SIGG bottle.  The zippered inside pocket lets me stow keys and wallet in a zippered pocket throughout a hike or ski.  Or I can use this for my fly reel.  The reel also fits in the zippered pocket on the front of the kango.  When the pack bag is full it's easy to store a rolled-up parka under the straps used to hold the lid in place, in a manner similar to that used for my waders.

The fabric tube and kango pocket have kept my shovel handle and blade safely tucked away with no risk of being strewn all over the slope in a yard sale, yet immediately ready to hand when needed.  My fly rod, in either its factory metal tube or a lighter weight plastic one) fits inside the fabric tube, though that isn't really necessary.  The elastic on the kango keeps it in place and there's little chance of a ski-like fall when I'm not skiing downhill.  In the tube or not, there's still room in the pocket for a rain jacket. 

Durability.  In a word, superlative.  I ski aggressively and the great snow conditions this winter have allowed me to indulge my passion for tree skiing, where the Telemaster has scraped many willows, pines, and spruces.  It kissed a rock or two on Meet Your Maker, a boulder-lined chute at Jackson.  The fabric has picked up a smudge or two but otherwise the pack looks none the worse for wear.  I've had no water seep inside the pack and never had the fabric wet out from melting of snow or ice accumulated during skiing.  I do plan to treat the pack with Atsko Water-Guard after the test period, strictly as preventive maintenance.  No stitching or webbing has frayed and the pack's integrity remains sound.  1000 d Cordura is tough stuff and this is a tough pack that I expect to use for many years.

RECOMMENDATIONS

These aren't recommendations for improving my pack.  That's pointless when each R2 pack is custom-designed and I've already said how little I'd change mine if starting over.  Rather I offer a few suggestions to any reader who is considering ordering a pack from R2.

·         Repeating what I said in my Field Report, in my judgment the guarantied fit of a custom pack alone is worth R2's price premium over an off-the-shelf model.  Getting exactly the features I wanted only makes the bargain better. 

·         Consider a custom pack an investment.  I rate my pack second only to boots in importance among my backpacking kit and clothing.  To me it's worth the extra time, effort, and money to get just what I want.  Spread over the pack's anticipated life span the price premium is small indeed. 

·         Do your homework first.  Consider both the big picture – why you want a new pack – and the details.  Really consider likes and dislikes from other packs you own or have seen, or what you'd like to have and what you'd prefer to avoid. 

·         Use your imagination.  Remember that a custom pack from R2 is limited only by the customer's desires, vision, and ingenuity, and the materials that are available just about anywhere packs are made.  Not choosing from a set menu is one of the best things about R2.  If Ron doesn't have something, he'll look for it.  This also allows fine tuning a pack for one particular activity, as I did for skiing.

·         Don't be disappointed if you forgot something, even after the pack arrives.  Ron may be able to add it (or if it's now unwanted, subtract it) and he's only too glad to help whenever and however he can.  You'll never think of everything.  I didn't; I'm going to inquire if there's a way to add a static cord compression system to the right side panel that can be removed in winter. 

·         LISTEN TO RON.  He really knows what he's doing.  He's working with you.

·         It's fun to design your dream pack.  Go for it! In fact I'm thinking about a super-lightweight overnight pack . . . .

SUMMARY

I'll be wearing the Telemaster whenever I go backcountry skiing or ski touring, even just for the day.  Great fit, tough, versatile, and functional, it's exactly what I hoped for when I selected that as its principal use. 

Backpacking use, particularly for fishing trips, wasn't ignored during the design process, so I'm not surprised that the pack has worked so well for me even when there's been no snow.  It's not perfect as a summer pack, as I'd like a few more pockets or other means of carrying extra gear, and the Cordura makes it as heavy as the next-larger pack in my closet, which has about fifty per cent more capacity.  These are nitpicks; I plan to put it to many years' future use when I don't need to size up.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT and THANKS

This concludes my Test Report.  I owe special thanks to R2 Custom Packs and BackpackGearTest.org for this test, the most enjoyable one in which I have participated for BackpackGearTest.org.  Not only did I test a great piece of gear, the design process and subsequent communications with Ron were pleasant and informative.  I learned much about pack fabrics and construction, and I made a new friend.  I certainly know whom to call the next time I need a new pack. 

 



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