Kelty Red Cloud 110: A Monster Backpack Classic, Updated

Winter backpacking often means carrying heavy, bulky loads over rough terrain; the right pack can make a huge difference (Tim Jones photo)

When we need to carry a really big or really heavy load, we don’t mess around…we head for a “MONSTER backpack.” These behemoths hold over 100 liters internally, with room to strap more on. The advantages when you need to carry HUGE loads are obvious, but there’s also an advantage when carrying a fairly large load over rugged terrain; a load strapped inside a pack is a lot better balanced and more stable than when things are hanging off all over the place. Winter backpacking, helping carry the load for smaller, older or younger companions and family members, you name it…Sometimes, being able to carry more, more comfortably, can make a trip happen.

And for people who need to save a few bucks, there’s been no better MONSTER than the Kelty Red Cloud 6650. We were impressed when we compared it to the Osprey Argon 110 in the “MONSTER Backpacks” story; for half the price, it stood up remarkably well against arguably one of the best BIG packs made (for more details about the pack in general, read that story, then come back here to see the changes). But, as often happens, the 6650 was discontinued and replaced by the “new and improved” Red Cloud 110. Same size, new name that follows the current leaning toward describing size by liters instead of cubic inches, and some changes to improve it. But, we’re always wary of “improvements”; we’ve seen too many excellent products overthought and ruined in the update process. Clearly, testing was needed.

The new Red Cloud 110, left, looks almost identical to the older 6650. But, dig into the details, and you find some surprising improvements! (David Shedd photo)

There’s one thing about doing what we do; we almost always have to carry way too much stuff when we’re doing gear testing. Four flashlights,  three stoves, two sleeping bags, and a partridge in a pear tree…you get the picture. So, the biggest packs get plenty of use by many people. Kelty’s Cloudlock suspension on the old 6650 was a favorite among our testers because it was so easy to adjust to torso length. Luckily, they didn’t mess with it.

And because it is still so easy to adjust, the new 110 got handed around plenty, and here’s what we found:

The first change we noticed didn’t really affect function all that much. Kelty now uses a new, “greener” material; we found it to be a little noisier and stiffer, but it worked fine. And, so far, durability seems on a par with the original.  Looks…everyone liked the more understated color scheme. Score one for Kelty.

Tight photo cropping makes it obvious; the new Red Cloud 110 (right) has a significantly narrower, shallower lid pouch (David Shedd photo)

The next change, starting at the top, is in the “lid”.  Kelty clearly streamlined it, making it narrower and a little shallower. We understand the rationale; the pack became easier to maneuver under overhanging trees and through thick brush. And, reducing space up there meant (usually) reducing weight, so the pack shifted around on our backs less. On the other hand, we like big storage pockets, so were a bit disappointed with the smaller space. Still, we overall found it to be an improvement, and with the Red Cloud having a ton of other pockets, we weren’t hampered in our organizational efforts. As a bonus, some combination of less material used and the material itself caused the new pack to be 3 ounces lighter than the old. Gram counters will perk up at that; the rest of us will realize that when you’re talking massive loads, it’s a nice little bonus, but not a big deal.  Still, better than having it go the other way!

Combined with the smaller lid pouch, the new, higher handle placement makes the Red Cloud 110 easier to grab and go. (David Shedd photo)

The next change seems like a small one, but it’s actually a great refinement.  Look carefully at the photo of the handles on the two packs, and you’ll see that they’ve moved it up a little higher on the 110. One of the things that we loved about the original 6650 was that handle; when you left your house to put it in the car, or wanted to use it as airline luggage, it provided a very convenient way to carry it. But, too often the balance was wrong, and the blasted thing wanted to tip toward that bigger top pocket.  Combine moving the handle up with the smaller lid, and it’s a significant difference…not a reason to buy or not buy the pack, but real evidence of Kelty “sweating the details.”

Old to the left, new to the right. Note where the aluminum struts come down to the waistbelt; the way the pack extends below the belt on the old model; and the larger “sticky” patch on the new. Add them together, and you’ve got a pack that distributes weight MUCH better! (David Shedd photo)

But now we get into where Kelty made the biggest change to the Red Cloud, and that’s the suspension/hipbelt combination. One of the more irritating flaws in the original was “saggy butt” syndrome: the bottom of the pack bag would sag down onto YOUR butt if you didn’t pack it very carefully, and cinch the lower straps really tight (“Honey, does this pack make my butt look big?”). The basic design had the aluminum stays tuck into pockets on the bottom of the bag itself, with the hipbelt floating in a pocket behind the lumbar pad.  When you put the pack on and cinched the belt down, the weight pulled the whole bag down below the belt itself; there really wasn’t anything you could do about it. Look carefully at the photo of the 6650 suspension, and you’ll see the bag extending an inch or so below the bottom of the hipbelt, and that’s without it being loaded. With the 110, the stays move inward at the bottom, narrowing enough that they can tuck into pockets in the hipbelt itself.  Now, the weight is being carried directly by the belt, not pulling down below it.  This is a change you REALLY can feel when you put them on side-by-side. And, narrowing the stays at the bottom has another advantage.  The hipbelt can oscillate vertically as your legs move up and down without shifting the load above at all; it allows us to tighten the shoulder straps down a little more, making the carry that much more stable.

While they were at it, the Kelty designers reworked the hipbelt itself, adding an HDPE sheet that dramatically stiffens it vertically without keeping it from wrapping around your hips well.  That helps shift the load forward toward your center of gravity, rather than pulling you down and back. An added touch, visible in the suspension comparison, is that they increased the area of the lumbar pad that is “sticky”; even with less tension on the belt buckle, it’s less likely to want to slip down on you.

Reality check: Susan’s Mountainsmith Juniper 50 is what most people would consider a “normal” size pack; yet the Red Cloud 110 utterly dwarfs it (Marilyn Donnelly photo)

Then, of course, there’s the bottom line…literally. Pricing of the new Red Cloud 110 is virtually identical to the 6650. On Kelty’s site, retail is a whopping $10 more…and street price, as far as we can tell, hasn’t changed at all. That’s a whole lot of improvements to get for free!

Ultimately, what it adds up to is not a revolutionary change, but rather a very strong evolutionary one. Kelty took a good product with great value and turned it into a VERY good product and an even BETTER value. Would we recommend ditching your 6650 and replacing it with the 110? Probably not…and, in fact, we’re still happily using both regularly. But, when we recommended the 6650 originally, we noted several flaws, and Kelty has significantly reduced those. So, if your old 6650 is showing signs of age and abuse, you just might want to check the new 110 out; and, if you’re considering ANY monster pack, you owe it to yourself to give this a try before you buy something else!

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About David Shedd

David Shedd is a lifelong resident of New England, and has been skiing, kayaking, mountain biking, and trying anything that anyone throws at him for most of his life. A 2001 Maine Mountain Bike Association State Champion, his current goal is to learn to break fewer bones.