It’s almost as though Red Paw Packs founder Matt Evans was destined to be an ultralight backpacker who builds ultralight outdoor gear. While it’s much more common to schlep too much gear on an inaugural backpacking trip, Matt, a native Floridian, found himself packing a bit too light. “Like, super, duper, stupid light,” he laughed.
On a multi-night trip with his university’s outdoor program, he remembered the first piece of DIY backpacking gear he ever made. With the budget of a broke college student, he crafted his own hammock underquilt from an emergency space blanket and shock cord. “I froze my butt off,” he laughed. “But, I got pretty hooked, regardless of how cold I was.”
Once home, he set up a cheap sewing machine in his tiny, shared apartment, “with no space to do anything,” in hopes of teaching himself to sew and grow his own backpacking kit on a budget.
Matt found himself spending a lot of time on YouTube in a constant state of troubleshooting.
“I was screaming at myself to learn! It was an agonizing process,” he laughed of the learning curve. “I wasn’t particularly crafty, I was just lucky that I found sewing was something I could pick up and do pretty well after hours and hours of trying.”
Many expensive mistakes later, he finally pieced together his first backpack. Then came a fanny pack equipped with a unique, stretchy draw-cord pouch on top perfect for sunglasses or a small water bottle.
He dutifully used these early prototypes, but they were still a little rough around the edges. “You can tell that I had no idea what was going on!” he said.
Still plugging away as a full-time digital media student in Tallahassee (he’s got a host of fun YouTube videos on the brand’s website), Matt slowly grew his brand of ultralight packs through social media. Interest and inquiries started trickling in.
His first dozen or so orders were for custom work. He remembered responding to some of the requests with something like, “Let me get back to you in a couple weeks and see if I can make something worth selling.”
“I’d spend 60 hours, making no money at all, but I learned so much. It was cost insufficient for sure, but the designs inspired me,” Matt said. “I was doing something that was fun and hardly felt like work. I thought, maybe there’s something to this, maybe I can ramp this up a little.”
Once he purchased another industrial sewing machine and enlisted his brother to design a website, Matt was starting to feel more validated and decided to give the brand 100% of his effort. He named the business after his golden retriever
Lucy, who after a trip to Georgia’s Providence Canyon State Park quickly adopted the trail name Red Paw. “This dog was no longer ‘golden,’” Matt laughed of the red-colored sediment that stained his dog for days.
Not only were Matt’s efforts translating to more orders, they resulted in added, tricky logistics, too. Starting out, Matt found it challenging to get a hold of the right materials in the right quantities for the right price. Sourcing “a mile” of YKK zippers and a few thousand dollars of Dyneema fabric at a time was a huge chunk of change for a young startup.
Matt’s solution? “You just have to bootstrap a bit,” he said. That’s the spirit that’s carried Red Paw Packs this far as a one-man show (unless you count Lucy, of course). “It’s just me,” he said of the workforce, and he takes a lot of pride in that.
“Anything I ship out, I know I’ve made it and it’s the quality I want to deliver. I made this, I marketed it. When I deliver it, it feels personal.”
Eventually, he hopes to get to the point where he’ll need some help, but for now he said, “I’m pretty pleased to be doing it by myself.” He didn’t always know he wanted to run his own business. “But now, I do,” he said.
“My confidence might be naiveté,” he explained. “But, doing this keeps me motivated, I’m excited about it. Thinking about ultralight gear keeps me up at night. I still get that great feeling when I turn a pack inside out and it came out well and it’s gonna last.”
With durability of utmost importance to Matt, he loves testing his gear. “When you make something and send it out in the void, you don’t really know how it’s going to do in real conditions. It varies product to product, item to item.”
In effort to test this, he’ll stuff his backpacks tightly with multiple sleeping bags, 30 pounds of water, whatever.
“I love trying to break my gear,” he laughed. And when he makes gear for his friends he strictly tells them: “Do not be nice to my bag.”
One aspect of owning a backpacking gear brand in Florida Matt didn’t enjoy, however, was the difficulty to get outside year-round and really put his equipment through the ringer in a variety of conditions. He felt doomed to stay inside forever.
“It’s so bloody hot here, and the only time is winter when the mosquitos won’t carry you away! What good is it if I can’t get out and try my own stuff?”
Matt’s solution? In 2019 he packed up Lucy and Red Paw Packs and traded Florida’s beaches for Boulder, CO.
“I was like, ‘Wow!’ Coming from the east coast, the mountains here are epic!”
“That changed everything, my whole perspective shifted.”
Suffice it to say, Matt loves the Boulder vibe and the community suits Red Paw Packs well. “People are happy to be outside, it’s a different energy. Everyone is friendly and relaxed. And it’s that, times two, if you catch them out on the trail.”
At first Matt taught himself to sew gear for his personal use, but he was also inspired to build gear so he could take more friends out on backpacking trips, too.
“The recipe for a good backpacking trip is good company. If you can get one person hooked on backpacking, it can change their life,” he said.
He strives to get gear in the hands of others and share his stoke for the outdoors.
“I want to help them on their journey, just as they’ve done for me,” he said.