Red Paw Packs Front Range 40L Ultralight Backpack Review
Have you been on the quest for the perfect pack, only to come across a dozen options that make you say, “I would buy it if I could just change that?” After using six different packs extensively over the last decade, I have come up with a pretty specific criteria list for a good all-around backpacking bag. I have decided against off-the-shelf designs for things as simple as ice axe loop placement or what type of mesh they use on the outside pockets.
This time around, I decided to go the custom route with the Front Range 40L from Red Paw Packs. I worked directly with Red Paw founder/owner/designer/sewer, Matt to dial in exactly what I wanted on the pack from his broad catalog of options.
Red Paw Packs Front Range 40L Custom At-a-Glance
Price: $320+ (Some options add or subtract cost)
Weight: Pack weight can range anywhere from ~19oz to 23oz depending on options and materials. My selections came in as follows:
- Main Pack (No Hipbelt): 16.9 oz
- Full Wrap Hipbelt (26”/Small Size): 3.0 oz
- Webbing Hipbelt with Clips: 1.2 oz
- Bear Can Top Y-Strap: .7 oz
- Typical Trail Weight: (Pack with Full Hipbelt, no Y Strap): 19.9 oz
Materials: Matt has a huge catalog of materials to work with, and is open to suggestions for alternates. I picked the following for my pack:
- Main Pack Body: Ultra 200X in white
- Shoulder straps and Side Bottle Pockets: Ultragrid in blue
- Mesh Pockets (shoulder straps, outside, and bottom): Venom UL stretch mesh
- Padding: ⅜” closed cell foam and ⅛” 3D spacer mesh
- Volume: 40L main body + exterior pockets
- Side Bottle Pocket Size: Fits a 1.5L and 1L bottle tightly, 2x1L comfortably, or 1L+snacks.
- Shoulder Strap Bottle Pockets: Best fit is a .75L Smartwater or <750mL Flask, but 1L will also work.
- Shoulder Strap Width: 3” at shoulder, 3.75” at the sternum
The Front Range shares a lot of design elements with typical cottage brand ultralight pack designs. At 40L, this pack will suit long-distance hikers who have already adopted the ‘fast and light’ ethos in the rest of their gear and don’t need huge capacity for winter gear or week-long food carries.
Circumstance of Review
This pack landed on my doorstep at the end of October, which for the Colorado Rockies means snow has already landed and it’s time to head to the desert. I dragged this pack through four days of mostly off-trail hiking in southeast Utah, as well as several days of hiking, skiing, and climbing closer to home as training for next year.
READ NEXT — How to Choose a Backpack for Thru-Hiking
Red Paw Packs Front Range 40L Custom Features
Running Vest-Inspired Pockets
The biggest trend in cottage brand packs right now is borrowing design ideas from running vests. In most cases, that means more accessible pockets in places that don’t require taking off your pack at all. The Front Range has two pockets per shoulder strap by default. The higher volume pocket is sized for water bottles or bulky items like candy bags. The tighter upper pocket is optimized for quick grabs like snack bars, headlamps, or Personal Locator Beacons.
It also comes standard with a bottom pocket that has a large opening on one end for stashing big items like hats and chip bags, while the other sports a tiny corner gap where you can stuff in trash wrappers.
The side water bottle pockets are pretty standard, with a mild slope to the top lip to aid in pulling bottles out. They are generously sized, so if you only need 1 bottle, the rest of the space can be used for even more snacks, sunscreen, etc.
Double Sternum Straps
Taking yet more inspiration from running vests, the default option is two thin, slightly elasticated sternum straps. There is a daisy chain of loops up the shoulder straps to reposition for your specific body geometry, and they are easily removable or replaceable to personal taste.
Bear Can Carrying Option
Red Paw has a neat take on the Y strap for carrying a bear can on top of the pack. Instead of using multiple pairs of bulky buckles or sewing it into place (making it non-removable), the pack uses a set of plastic latches that connect directly to webbing loops instead of another hardware piece. This little change allows the Y strap to be removable with only 2 extra notions instead of 4-6 like most designs.
Removable and Replaceable Hip Belt
The Front Range can be configured with 3 different hip belt choices: a 1” removable webbing (unpadded) version, a sewn-in belt, and a removable full wrap. Typically, the removable padded option is matched with their aluminum frame option, but I wanted it so it can be easily replaced if the padding goes bad or I am on a trip light enough a webbing hip belt will be sufficient.
One Piece Aluminum Frame Optional
The Front Range can be optioned with a single aluminum frame stay, centered on the pack. Most UL framed packs opt for symmetrical 2 piece frames, which are more restrictive and heavier. I chose to skip a frame, wanting to avoid the extra weight and construction complexities that come with it, but it is a nice extra for those with longer food or water carries.
Where are all the compression straps?
While most UL packs use a roll-top design, they typically connect down to a strap located near the bottle pockets. Red Paw has the roll top connected to itself in a loop like a regular dry bag. It also forgoes the compression straps that typically go somewhere above the bottle pockets, front to back. I used Red Paw’s standard options in this category and can’t say I really miss the compression features. If you are afraid you will, reach out to Matt directly and he should be able to work them back in.
No Hip Belt Storage
Whether a pack includes built-in hip belt pockets is pretty hit or miss these days. The Front Range skips them, instead leaving a daisy chain for clip-on pockets if you strongly prefer them. Personally, I let Matt skip the webbing across the belt. I find hip pockets chronically small and uncomfortable when full. If I wanted more front storage, I would look at a fanny pack instead.
What’s with All the Weird Fabrics?
This pack was configured with a lot of fabrics you probably haven’t heard much about: Ultra 200X, UltraGrid, and Venom Mesh.
Ultra 200X (also referred to as EPL-200X, or short-handed as Ultra) is a slight update to the non-X Ultra 200 that has been gaining more popularity over the last few years. This fabric is a woven layer of 70% Ultra fiber and 30% polyester fiber. The “Ultra” fiber is a brand name for UHMWPE, known also as Dyneema from another brand. The RUV waterproof backing is now thicker and better adhered to the weave compared to the original version. The “X” added to the title refers to the new cross-ply layer between the weave and laminate, which promises to help prevent delamination and improve strength in the weaker diagonal direction.
Ultragrid is a new, humble competitor to the standard HDPE gridstop that has been around forever. It is primarily a nylon fabric with a double ripstop grid of Ultra fibers (~20% of the fiber content), with a waterproof polyurethane coating on the back and a PFAS-free DWR spray on the top. While there are several versions of HDPE gridstop on the market that Ultragrid competes with, Challenge (the manufacturer) is promoting its environmentally friendly manufacturing as a leg up on the others. This is in addition to increased tear strength, durability, and slightly lighter weight. Most important to me though, it has a lot of fun color options.
Venom Mesh is an interesting new material for backpacks. Historically the mesh options have been weak net mesh (like HMG’s Windrider), heavy/high stretch/kind of durable options like Spandura, or kind of light, kind of stretchy, kind of durable options like Durastretch.
Unfortunately, all these options are easy to put holes in when being used for pack exteriors. Venom joins a new group of meshes that are light and much more durable than previous options, but quite less stretchy. For me, I was happy to take the extra durability while getting any amount of stretch. Historically, I have always picked bags that use the main pack fabric for pockets, preventing tricky mid-trip repairs at the cost of stretch. With Venom Mesh, I think a fair balance has been struck.
Red Paw Packs Front Range 40L Pros
Wide Shoulder Straps
Another key inspiration from running vests, the straps on this pack are over 3” wide at the shoulder and get larger as they go down the chest to ~3.75”. Most UL pack makers seem to land just under 3” at the shoulder and taper down to 2.25” below the sternum strap. Some even go as narrow as 2.25” at the shoulder.
Having more surface area to disperse pack weight is arguably more important than getting thicker padding, and few high-volume packs can compete with Red Paw here.
Stable Load Carry
Between the extremely wide shoulder straps, the counterbalanced load distribution from the vest pockets, and the double elastic sternum straps, this pack is seriously stable without a hip belt. With a typical 10 lbs UL base weight and a light food carry, you can get upwards of 25% of your total pack weight balanced on the front.
On a recent ski tour, I accidentally left my webbing hip belt at home but was surprised to find my pack didn’t jostle or slide much, even less than some of my framed and fully belted bags. The better load distribution also creates a great sense of freedom and agility that no backloaded, framed bag can provide.
Bottom Pocket is Extremely Handy
I was honestly very skeptical of the bottom pocket taking over the ‘fast pack’ category. The bottom panel of a backpack is often the most abused when butt scooching and throwing a pack on hard ground during breaks. For this reason, many manufacturers use a higher durability fabric just in this zone as an anticipated failure point.
Replacing that durable fabric with a big expanse of mesh here had me concerned about giving it a try. In practice though, there is no visible damage after sliding down pour-offs or bushwhacking through spiky desert vegetation. Furthermore, having a secure place to store hats, gloves, and bulky snacks like chips was a game changer for me. I avoided a lot of unnecessary packs-off stops by having a place to store bulkier items on the go.
Strong Water Resistance
Ultra 200x is a waterproof fabric, utilizing a thick film backing and low absorbance face materials (Polyester and UHMWPE). Sewing the fabric pokes holes that can wick water through, however. Matt uses a 1.25” seam tape to reinforce and keep the water out. It appears to be Challenge Sailcloth’s Ultra TNT PSA tape, which has the same diagonal UHMWPE grid as the fabric and is specifically designed for their products.
So far there are no issues with peeling tape or fabric delamination, which is more than I can say for other packs I’ve used with last generation’s Ultra 200 and conventional PSA tape. If you are facing strong weather, I would still recommend a bag liner (Nylofume or trash compactor) as some extra insurance.
Large Water Carrying Capacity
Between the large, conventionally placed bottle pockets and the strap pockets, you can pack a lot of water right where you want it. Most people on long water carries will resort to back pockets, strapping a bladder on top, or dangerously storing inside the main body when they run out of room.
With the Front Range, it’s easy to store 5.5L of water in the typical pockets (.75L in each vest pocket, 2x1L in each side pocket). During a longer carry, you could even extend this to 8L (1L in each vest pocket, 1L and a 1.5L in each side pocket). During a recent 2 day dry carry, I had 7.5L leaving the trailhead. It was a bit uncomfortable, but it worked surprisingly well. The 1.5L and 1L in each pocket is a bit tight, but I was still able to easily pull bottles in and out without swinging my pack to the front.
While I was in the market for a very specific light, frameless, and efficient bag, there are plenty of options on Matt’s website to make the Front Range what you want. You could go lighter by forgoing several pockets, choosing lighter fabrics, or cutting out the hip belt option entirely.
You can also option the bag much closer to a typical thru-hiker pack with an aluminum frame, more webbing loops for accessories, and compression straps in various locations. If you have an idea you can’t find on the website, Matt is often willing to go even more custom.
Red Paw Packs Front Range 40L Cons
Less Thickness on Shoulder Straps than Some
Compared to a handful of other UL packs I have access to, the Front Range cushioning has less “spring” to it out of the box. Part of this is due to the use of 3D spacer mesh as the next-to-skin layer, which compresses easily. The website claims to use ⅜” CCF and ⅛” mesh, which is average for the category. In practice, I just didn’t find it to be as cushioned as the competition.
Under normal circumstances, I found the extra contact area of the strap widths to compensate just fine. Under unusually heavy loads (such as loading up on 7 liters of water for a two-day dry carry), it was a bit uncomfortable as you might expect from any frameless pack.
Hook Top Strap Is Harder to Use
Possibly to save some weight or to reduce hardware failures, the Front Range uses “hooks” instead of traditional buckles for the top strap and detachable Y strap. Buckles are familiar and easy to use, but are prone to breaking.
I haven’t had the pack long enough to comment on the hook’s long-term durability. I found it did have a bit of a learning curve to use elegantly; my first handful of uses were prone to accidentally snagging the barb on the webbing loop. After I settled into it though, I ended up liking this solution.
Roll Top Limited by Webbing
On most UL packs, the webbing for the top strap is connected directly between the shoulder straps. On the Front Range, the webbing loops for the top strap and Y strap are about 2.5” up the roll top. This limits your ability to roll the top down all the way to the shoulder when the bag is partially empty and still use the top strap.
This isn’t a huge inconvenience, but preserving this functionality would help keep the bag tightly compressed when you’re out of food and making the last miles into town.
Limited Weight Capacity
Like any frameless pack, there is a practical limit to the comfortable weight-carrying capacity. I’ve done long days in this pack with everywhere from 13 to 30+ lbs TPW (Total Pack Weight). For my body, cruising over 30 lbs meant sore shoulders and back even with the full hip belt. When I was able to drink the weight down to 25 lbs, I felt like it was a more sustainable level of discomfort, and 20 lbs was fully comfortable.
I preferred to have the full hip belt until the TPW was under 17 or 18 lbs, at which point I felt using the webbing belt or entirely beltless became more viable. This pack really shines for me in the under 17lbs TPW zone, where I could be fully hip beltless. The freedom of movement between your upper and lower body by not having a full wrap belt is great.
Matt does not list a structural weight capacity, but I don’t imagine there would be any concerns until you are in excess of 35 lbs.
Website Difficult to Navigate
While researching the standard pack configurations, I found it hard to know exactly what all the standard options are, how much they weigh, and how much my pack would cost in the end. Some custom pack makers have much more streamlined and readable pages that make the process a little easier. I also found that the website was better optimized for 1080p screens instead of the 4k now standard on most computers. On high-resolution screens, the text size was all over the place, and chronically small even for my young eyes.
Matt is the definition of a one-man shop. He does all the production on his own including making patterns, templates, and fulfillment. While I’m happy to support a small business and wait for a stellar product, those with less planning skills or facing an urgent gear failure are going to be left out. At the time of writing, lead times are about 3 months.
In the mid $300 range, the Front Range falls rights in line price-wise with most of the competition. However, the highly customizable design and extreme quality bring a lot to the table over the competition. Your pack is not a place to skimp on quality or comfort to save a few bucks, and Red Paw brings a lot to the table for a more than fair price.
Comparable Ultralight Backpacks
Dandee Packs – The Standard
Nashville Packs – The Cutaway
LiteAF Ultra 40L Curve Frameless
Ultimate Direction – Fastpack 40L
Disclaimer: The Front Range 40L Custom was donated for the purpose of review
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