Saturday 27 September 2014

Shiny New Stuff From Z packs

This post is not a gear review. You can not sensibly review products until you have tested the life out of them, by which time they are often off the market!  However, I have had a number of queries and comments via Twitter about some recent purchases, with some requests for photographs.  Thus, I will call what follows a "first look".  In any case I can't get my head around doing gear reviews. I normally end up being  facetious as in my Pimp my Rucksack blog post.  I'll try to be serious here. The products which I write about are both made by Z Packs in the USA.  As ever, and especially to irritate @Locomountaineer, there must be  a disclaimer.  I bought all this stuff with my own hard earned pension. I have no relationship with the company other than as a customer.

Firstly, about Z Packs. To be frank I had never heard of them until this May. Their founder, Joe Valesko, was on the TGO Challenge, and I heard a few people mention this. On my last day on the Challenge I was on top of the cliffs at St Cyrus and heard Joe shrieking as he waded semi-clothed into the cold North Sea with his two colleagues.  I also shared a bus with these guys to Montrose and was amazed at how small their packs were.  It made me think.  So I checked out their website, and thus began my purchases, funded partly through some active recent selling of a number of pieces of surplus gear on Outdoor Magic and E Bay.

There are four things I want to mention about this company.  Firstly, they make some incredibly lightweight gear, seem to specialise in cuben fibre, and the prices seem to compare well with other firms working in this same expensive material.  Secondly, much of their stuff is customisable, which is really useful if you are very tall/short/fat/thin/blue eyed or whatever. Thirdly, they appear to have an extremely good reputation with US backpackers.  I do a lot of googling before buying and it was hard to find anything negative about them or their products.  Finally, they are very customer focused, with great service and you can easily talk with (well e-mail) Joe himself in advance of your purchases to make sure you get the right product for your needs. I stress I have no personal incentive to be be so positive but they deserve this praise.  I want good companies to prosper so compliments should be given when they are earned.  This company knows how to deal with people, and they know their backpacking.

The Arc Blast Pack

I ordered a 60 litre pack with the following additions: two hip pockets, one shoulder strap pocket, walking pole and ice axe loops, and extra lumbar support.  It is made of cuben fibre but has an outer covering of polyester to add durability (several colours available).  With these additions, and the longer back (see below) mine weighs in at just 590 grams. That weight is pretty incredible.

The pack has a clever frame which you must put under tension before use by pulling tight the cord on 4 linelocks (see third photo below). This creates some air flow between your back and the pack.  When ordering I wanted a longer back than any of the advertised lengths. This was no problem, and was at no extra cost.  For me this was one of the most important reasons I chose this pack. The hip belt  sits properly on my hips.

The Z Packs Arc Blast, 60 litres - the pack closes very neatly and securely - I hadn't fastened it properly when I took this photo. Nor is the pack properly filled - I had just bunged a sleeping bag in it to fill it up a bit.

Rear view showing the added extras of additional lumbar padding, two hip pockets and one shoulder strap pocket

Close up of frame - the idea is you tighten the four line locks. The tension then curves the frame, creating a gap between frame and mesh to allow some airflow to your back

I have only used the pack for a few days, carrying a load of about 10.5kg including food and fuel. It was a very comfortable carry.  I found the system to tension the frame difficult until I realised that this is straightforward if you do it when the pack is empty. When full it is was problematic, needing a lot of effort, and the thin cord cut into my hands. Lesson learnt.  Clearly, I can not comment on durability but reviews from US hikers and comments from long distance backpacker Keith Foskett have not raised any concerns. The mesh outer does not appear that robust to me, but I haven't tested it. I think it will need to be treated with care. The hip pockets are of a good size, as is the shoulder strap pocket.  The two lower open side pockets are reasonable, but I'm not certain I could use these for my shelter - they may be a little narrow.  I would like one to have been wider and deeper. I wonder if that would have been possible if I had asked before purchase? I like the roll top closure.  It's similar to that system on other packs I've had (eg a Golite Pinnacle and ULA Catalyst) but also has a full length velcro fastening which seems to make it easier to close effectively and securely.  As I wrote above, I bought the 60 litres size (they also do a 45 litre and a 52 litre) and it doesn't feel a generous 60 litres, so if you are buying, and in doubt about the volume to choose,  I would size up. The additional weight for the larger size is miniscule.  On a very superficial note I love my choice of colour and the fact that the various add on pockets are also in this rather nice shade of green.

The thing I will come back to again and again, though, is the incredibly light weight for a 60 litre pack with a frame.

The Challenger Jacket

All I had originally intended to purchase from Z packs was a lightweight jacket, promised me by my wife as a birthday present.  Again, I couldn't quite get my head around the advertised weight of the Challenger Jacket which is 180 gr in the XL size.  That's about 350 gr lighter than my Goretex Berghaus Paclite jacket which is the lightest waterproof I had previously owned. You pick this thing up and it almost seems to float off into the heavens.  I quite bored my long suffering wife by handing it to her and saying "here, hold this, isn't it light?"  I had the additional pit zips to improve breathability.

The jacket is made of a hybrid E Vent / cuben fibre material with a thin outer layer of nylon which, the company says, makes it more durable and allows it to be given a solid black colour.  As you would expect from the weight it is minimalist in design.  It has one chest pocket - which is not big enough to take an OS map.  I really like the simple wrist and hem closures which seem very easy and effective to use. There is no storm flap on the zip, which is supposed to be waterproof. The hood is very comfortable, just the right size for me, and it has a slightly stiffened peak.  It can be rolled and fastened away. The whole jacket packs very small.  To my intense annoyance (!!!) it has hardly rained since the jacket has  arrived, so any comments about whether it is fit for its main purpose can not be given now. I have high hopes of it, and if it does breathe as well as claimed it will eliminate the need to carry a separate wind shirt, meaning an even greater weight saving.

The Z packs Challenger Rain Jacket - it is not as shiny as this photo makes it seem

The Challenger Jacket - showing the rather dapper mottled white inner

As one blogger has questioned the hood this photo is to show that it is more than adequate
Finally, one tip if you do order anything from Z Packs.  They sell a whole series of useful accessories, not easily available in the UK eg cuben fibre repair tape and patches, stick on mitten hooks, tiny linelocks etc. These are very cheap and so I got various bits and pieces added to my order as the costs of buying them separately would have been high given the minimum shippng costs.

Afternote (28/09/14): one reader in the comments asked for photos of where the hood volume adjuster is attached. Those that follow are for those who want this sort of detail!

Hood volume adjuster (1)

Hood volume adjuster (2)

Inside fastner for rolling up hood (the strap on the rear fastens into this)

The hood rolled and fastened up - you can roll so it is bunched the other way with the outer black fabric uppermost. Not certain which way is best. Simple, functional and more than adequate if you want to stow the hood away. I rarely bother doing this on my jackets.


  1. Nice kit, and key point is Joe can custom make kit. Thats good, as well as hard to get from many UL firms.

  2. Thanks Martin. I know you have taken the mick a bit recently and I have no problem with that!!! I am the first to admit that I understand some of the concerns you have expressed. I have taken, given my risk aversion, what are to me gambles with recent purchases from this company. I normally follow the crowd in gear choices but I but have high hopes it will perform well. Joe has an incredible record in long distance hiking, not just in the US but also in new Zealand and Scotland so I currently have lots of faith. We also know that Keith Foskett is a fan and Colin Ibbotson has praised some of their gear. I also know that there are some good alternatives out there as you have pointed out eg the GG packs you like.

  3. I feel a nervous tick coming on.
    I shall start looking at the handle of my toothbrush again with a steely glint in my eye and a carbon steel knife in my hand.

    1. Funnily enough, Alan, Z Packs do a toothbrush.....But just think. Every gram saved on gear means you can carry another gram of cheese. Or a millilitre of single blend malt.

  4. Hi David. Exciting stuff. If you get round to it, could you post a pic of the rear hood adjusment please. The photo on Zpacks site makes it look as if the lower end is attached to the body of the jacket not the lower part of the hood itself like generally done.? Chers


  5. I'll need to get the camera out Mole. Whether the pic will be clear is not certain!

  6. I will stick some photos up later Mole. The lower strap is not attached to the main body of the jacket but to the seam between jacket and hood. The bit you can see on the official Z Packs picture is the surplus/end of the adjustment webbing strap. That strap unfastens and you can then rollup hoid clipping that rear strap to a fastener at the topof the inside of thr jacket. Very simple / minimalst again but appears effective.

  7. Nice looking pack, I have pack envy. Did they advise against load lifters ? Must admit when I had a close look at Jo's pack they didn't seem necessary anyway.

  8. I seem to remember that you have something like 26 packs, John so surely you can not have pack envy, unless it is some form of strange addiction? You would like it though! Funny you should ask about load lifters. I didn't discuss these in advance, didn't order them, then when waiting for delivery started to worry I should have done. In fact, once using the pack I didn't feel they were necessary. Thinking about it, I managed 30+ years without them before they were invented and never actually touch them on the packs I own that do have them. So I'm fine with my choice. You can order them when you purchase, though, if they float your boat.

  9. Ha! You must have been posting the photos as I wrote the last comment.
    It's clear now. I'll be interested in how that jacket works out.

  10. A nice post, David. But now you've made me rethink my plan to purchase the Gossamer Gear Mariposa. The Arc Blast is a wicked looking piece of kit and is clearly a darn sight lighter even than the Mariposa.
    With a rough guestimate of $25 P&P it works out about the same price aswell. That just leaves the Customs Lottery...again!

  11. Hi Elton
    I am certainly pleased with the Arc Blast but stress I have only got it recently and so have used it for 5 days on the trail so far which is not sufficient to strongly recommend it or one way or the other. People speak highly of the GG sacks too, but I haven't used one so can't compare. It is interesting, though, how many people seem to make firm and vocal comparisons between the gear they own and other stuff without having actually used or even seen some of the products they are commenting on 'in the flesh'. I try to be more cautious. However, if you are considering the Arc Blast I would Google Keith Foskett's review and also Will Wood's. Keith has used his now for a couple of major through hikes and raves about it. Also, he does counter the argument made by some that the CF hybrid material will not be robust. As I will not be hiking many hundreds of miles per year I am currently relaxed about whether the material is as strong as the GG packs. Do note my comment about volume. I was really pleased I got the 60 litres. The Blast is quite a narrow pack (which helps stability) and I wouldn't have liked less volume. The extra weight over the 52 litre version is absolutely miniscule. Finally, if I was ordering again I would find out if one of the side pockets could be made deeper and wider so that it would could be used to stow a more traditionally shaped packed tent such as a Scarp or Akto. Otherwise your shelter probably needs to go inside or be strapped on the top or bottom of the pack.

  12. I won't be jumping in feet first with any decision as I do like to debate the merits garnered from my own observations and those of people who have actually used and abused the gear. Many people will always be biased without basis in fact unfortunately and I applaud your caution in forwarding a strong opinion. I'm aware of Fozzies opinion of the Arc Blast (also on the Hexamid Solo Plus. One day maybe...:)). After selecting a few Optional extras the total cost of the pack looks slightly more prohibitive than it did initially. the Mariposa is still top dog as its a good 480g lighter than my former pack and fully featured. Like you I dont intend on hiking hundreds of miles (I would seriously like to but the opportunity is very unlikely just yet!) and I tend to take good care of my kit so the durability of the pack material is not a big consideration. As for volume I'd always go for the larger pack that was sub-60l anyhow because my kit volume is not sufficiently small enough to fit in anything below 50l for a multi-day trip. Saving the extra 400g or over the Mariposa may not be currently worth the £70+ cost to me considering I'll save nearly half a kilo with the Mariposa, receive it in a matter of days and not have to concern myself with any Customs Duty. Plus I'll be putting business the way of Bob at BPL and getting some free Skittles!

  13. Any updates on the Challenger Jacket please?

  14. I'm pleased with it. The design is great. Minimalist but functional. Good, easy to use lightweight fastenings/adjusters on hood and cuffs. The hood is a good shape and size and the stiffened peak effective. The chest pocket is not big enough, though, for an OS map. Size wise if ordering again I would get the longer version as it's a bit short in the body for me - although I am 6 foot 3 inches and it would be fine for normal sized people. The sleeves are a decent length. Main concern on purchasing was whether the zip would be waterproof as claimed or only water resistant as others told me it would be. So far there has been no sign of ingress. It has manly been used in showery conditions but it didn't let water in during a fierce 90 minute period of wind driven rain in the Lakes. The jury is still out on breathability. I need to wear it more to have a clear view on this. On one occasion I suffered badly from condensation and I am not certain whether this was the conditions that day or the jacket material - probably a combination of both.

  15. how do you like the pit zips on the Challenger Rain jacket? Do you use them often?