Thursday, August 14, 2014

All of Cesar's Ultralight Backpacks: Specifications, Comparisons, and First Impressions of a New Pack

What you see above you are all of the backpacks that I own and use for wilderness backpacking.  What will follow below will be a full analysis/breakdown of each pack, with specs, history, pros, cons, and when I (or my wife) would use them.  The shinny new green pack in the middle is my brand new custom built Zero from Zpacks, and at the end of this text I will have a video I did with my first impressions of this pack, as well as a brief comparison to my old custom Zero (second one on the left above).

For me having these five packs is a complete collection for all my wants/needs when it comes to wilderness backpacking.  As I have noted before, I go on trips regularly at least once a month all year round, and trips range from overnight to a week.  Plus I intend on if anything, going backpacking more as my children get older and I regain free time.  But not only does this cover all my bases, these packs on occasion are used by my wife.  

I currently have no interest in buying any other backpacks until I run one of these five into the ground, or if one somehow gets very damaged, etc.  And I'd probably just buy an identical or very similar replacement.  Of course things and minds can change, but I doubt that I am going to want/need another pack for a long, long time.  I must admit, feels pretty good :)

I'll begin with the smallest pack by volume (#1) and work my way up to the largest (#5)--or left to right as you can see them neatly arranged above.  If you are interested in reading a long-term review of pack #2 and a first impression of pack #4 from last year (September 2013), you can do so here.  

I'll begin with telling you the name of the packs you're looking at, in case you are unfamiliar with them:

#1 Zpacks Zero 2010? version size x-small
#2 Zpacks Zero 2012 version size small
#3 Zpacks Zero 2014 version size small
#4 Zpacks Arc Blast 2013 version 52 liters
#5 Mountain Laurel Design Exodus 2011 version size large

Now on with the show!  All weights of packs are without any extras like hip pouches, foam back pads, etc.  Some of the "ideal" and "max" loads are my own personal estimate, and some of which are based on numbers given by the manufacturer.

#1. Zpacks Cuben Fiber Zero (size x-small)

Weight - 65g!
Volume - 16 liters
Material -  1.0 oz/sqyd Cuben Fiber
Ideal Load - ~3.5kg
Max Load - ~5kg 

Options - Ha!  It's pretty much a big stuff sack with shoulder straps, and that's about it. 

History - I bought this used online and I'm not sure the exact year it was made.  2010 is my best guess, as I bought it in 2012 and the seller claimed to have put a lot of miles on it. 

Usage - XUL and lower weight/duration SUL trips--which will definitely mean warmer temperatures only for XUL, and probably SUL too.  I've only used this pack on the trail a handful of times, but do plan on continuing to occasionally use it in the future.  It only has maybe 100km of hiking on it.  It's good for what it was made for, which is pushing the very lowest weights possible for a good and safe backpacking trip. 

Pros - One of the single lightest backpacks on the planet, period.  Water resistant, and the epitome of simplicity.  Other people on the trail think you are crazy. 

Cons - Unless you're doing XUL or SUL, this is not the pack for you.  Material is not that durable, so rough n' tumble use is also out.  Other people on the trail think you are crazy.

#2. Zpacks Zero 2012 version size small

Weight - 240g
Volume - ~33 liters
Material -  2.92 oz/sqyd Cuben Hybrid
Ideal Load - ~7kg
Max Load - ~10kg

Options - Roll top, top strap (cord), Hybrid center pocket w/zipper, side pockets, webbing hip belt, seam sealed (by me using Silnet). 

History - I bought this new in spring 2012.  I have used this pack year round in many different conditions, and have put over 1000km of hiking on it.  It can be hard to estimate at this point will all the trips I take!  Check out the link above in the introduction (long term review) to see it in action, or just read one of my trail guides and odds are high that I took this pack on any given documented trip. 

Usage - SUL and lower weight UL.   For short trips (overnight/weekend) in late spring, summer, and early fall with my wife, this will be her backpack--and I will use my new Zero. 

Pros - Ideal size for a variety of lightweight backpacking trips.  From SUL, to UL, even with a base with slightly higher than UL for a shorter trip, this is a great choice for a pack.  It's options, while sparse, are pragmatic and functional.  The material is very water resistant, to the point one could call it waterproof outright.  The material is very durable, and after all its usage, only has two small duct tape patches from minor scratches--both of which didn't puncture the inner Cuben layer, just the outer nylon. 

Cons - Not ideal for extended trips (i.e. over 5 days) unless you're a veteran SUL/UL backpacker, and obviously not intended for heavier total weights.  I would personally go with my Arc Blast for a thru-hike or extended hike.  Most weight is on the shoulders, so people with a weaker upper-body may find it uncomfortable.  The custom Cuben front pocket, while functional and of generally good quality, could have been better (as backpack #3 will demonstrate).  The straps and buckles used for the shoulder pads are somewhat thin/small, and can be prone to break under heavy stress.  The cordage top strap, while functional and of generally good quality, is not for everyone--probably best to stick with a flat strap.

#3. Zpacks Zero 2014 version size small

Weight - 335g
Volume - ~41 liters
Material -  2.92 oz/sqyd Cuben Hybrid
Ideal Load - ~7.5kg
Max Load - ~10.5kg

Options - Side pockets, top strap, base straps, haul loop, top side straps, taped seems, hybrid Cuben front pocket, detachable webbing belt, roll top closure. 

History - *Update 26/11/2014* I have since put over 100km of trail on this pack, and love it!  It is now my go-to pack for section hikes, and I am pretty sure that I will be using this in the future for the majority of my trips.  I am very happy with the options I chose--the improved custom front pocket is great and easy to get gear in and out of (I think Zpacks should have it as an option on their Zero's ordering page), for instance.  The base straps rock too!  Easy to use and better grip with the flat straps rather than cords.  

The improved shoulder pads give a slightly better weight distribution and comfort, and I have updated the ideal and max loads above to reflect it.  It may not seem like much (about half a kilo), but considering how well both of my hybrid Zeros perform and feel, it's kind of like going from say a "B+" to a solid "A" in terms of performance/comfort for a frameless UL pack.

Usage - I intend on using this pack as my go-to, all-around UL backpack.  For SUL and XUL I'll stick with packs #2 and #1 above.  As noted, my wife and I can both use a Zero each on trips now too.  In warmer weather but longer duration trips, this pack will be good for the added volume for food and water.  But also great for shorter (2-4 day) section hikes year round.  This will also be my day-pack for fishing trips, and was one of the main reasons I got the top side straps (to secure my fishing pole). 

Pros - Similar to my old zero, really--only with more options and volume.  This is pretty much my perfect all around UL pack, and gave a lot of thought into exactly what I wanted it to be like.  My first impressions where positive in the end result, and after putting it to the test on a few demanding section hikes, it passed with flying colors.  See the video below for more details of my first impressions! 

Cons - With more options and volume comes a bit more weight.  Not that much, but it is 95g more than my old Zero.  So if you ask me, it's slightly too heavy for a XUL/SUL pack, but could be used for such trips in a pinch.  Same issue with a lack of a padded hip belt as far as weight distribution goes, but this might not be an issue depending on your body type and/or physical fitness, not to mention if your base pack weight is on the lower UL side.

#4. Zpacks Arc Blast 2013 version 52 liters

Weight - 475g
Volume - 52 liters
Material -  2.92 oz/sqyd Cuben Hybrid
Ideal Load - ~8kg
Max Load~14kg

Options - The stock options of the Arc Blast are numerous and you can check them all out here at Zpacks.  In addition to these options, I got Joe to make me two custom front pockets--the top one in mesh, the bottom one in hybrid. 

History - I bought this new in summer 2013 and have since put about 300km of hiking on it. 

Usage - For extended UL trips, family backpacking/camping trips, and winter/cold weather trips.  Also good for the occasional "luxury" trip with friends when I bring extra weight/goodies, e.g. fresh foods, bottle of whiskey/wine, bigger cook kit, etc.

Next summer my wife and I plan on hiking roughly one third of Kungsleden way up in northern Sweden, and this is the bag I'll be using.  My Zeros are my go-to bags because I am a section hiker--but I am not a section hiker by choice.  If I had it my way (e.g. won the lottery, but much more likely retirement), I'd be a perpetual thru-hiker.

- Can handle much more weight due to the frame, weight distribution and comfort of pack is exceptional, taped seams make it nearly waterproof, material is very durable, lots of bells and whistles as far as options go, plenty of volume.  If I had to pick just one backpack to own--which I will never do! you can't make me!--I would pick this one--in spite of how much more I have used my old Zero.  Not only is it an all around awesome pack, but in the future I intend on doing thru-hikes and much more extended trips, and this is the pack I would use for such adventures.  As much as I love section hikes and overnighters, thru-hikes and extended hikes (i.e. longer than a week) trump shorter trips.  All in all, this is the most comfortable pack to hike in I have ever used. 

- I am honestly hard pressed to come up with cons here.  I guess one could say cost or that this kind of pack is expensive, but that's a pretty subjective issue.  I mean, high quality, heavy, "traditional" type backpacks can cost around the same or more (e.g. Arc'teryx Altra 65 for 450 bucks) than the Arc Blast.  But I digress...

Aside from cost... seriously, for what this pack accomplishes and what it is made for, I'd say it's pretty much the pinnacle of UL backpacks.

#5. Mountain Laurel Design Exodus 2011 version size large

Weight - 445g
Volume - 58 liters
Material -  Dyneema X
Ideal Load - ~8kg
Max Load~12kg

Options - Top strap, mesh side pockets, mesh front pocket, sternum strap, whistle built into sternum strap, side straps, hydration ports, etc.  You can check out the newer models at MLD here.  I removed a few things like compression hooks and all the shock cord, as I didn't really need them. 

History - I bought this used online in January of 2012 and it was my first professionally made UL pack.  My wife and I have since put about 200km of hiking on it. 

Usage - For extended UL trips, family backpacking/camping trips, and winter/cold weather trips--though the Arc Blast has replaced it in most regards.  This is the pack my wife uses when we go on family trips, and will be the pack she will use on a longer section hike next year on Kungsleden.  She is very happy with the pack, and I was too when I used to use it regularly a few years ago. 

Pros - For a frameless pack, it can handle a good amount of weight, and is not bad at weight distribution.  The hip belt is good, but perhaps the biggest highlight of this pack are the big, comfy shoulder straps.  The material is also extremely durable--from what I gather it is even more tough/durable than hybrid Cuben.  Many thru-hikers have used this pack on their entire hikes, and some have even used them on multiple thru-hikes.  It has a good amount of bells and whistles as far as options go, and I especially like the built-in whistle.  HUGE main pocket for lots of volume.  Cheaper (by about 80 bucks) than the Arc Blast brand new.  A very comfortable pack to hike in--slightly more so than my Zeros. 

- Not very water resistant, mesh pockets can get snagged on branches/brush/etc., and the elephant in the room is its weight vs. the Arc Blast.  For a frameless UL pack to be close or about the same in weight to a pack with a frame, well, there's no other way to say it--the pack with the frame (Arc Blast) kinda makes the competition look a bit obsolete.  Especially considering that one can order a 60 liters Arc Blast that slightly surpasses the volume of the Exodus, and both packs are listed on each respective website as weighing exactly the same: 17oz (482g).  If you can afford the extra 80 bucks, I would recommend the Arc Blast--or try and get it used if you want to save money.  But then again, the Exodus is still a damn good pack that will likely last you for years to come.


Well, that's it as far as my breakdown of all my backpacks goes.  So on with the popcorn and video already!  Here is my old vs. new Zero comparison and first impressions of my new Zero:

Okay, so that's the lowdown with all of my packs.  I hope that this was helpful, and as always feel free to give feedback and/or ask questions.

Hope you like your packs as much as I like mine! 

*Update 15/08/2014 - I went back and calculated how many kilometers I have put on my packs more carefully, and adjusted my estimates accordingly.  At first I just used a rough estimate off the top of my head, but thought this detailed analysis deserved more accurate figures.  My guesses were actually not that far off.  

Here is how I added things up.  On average I take at least one trip a month, and these trips generally range between 20-30km per day--of course some trips are a bit less, some trips are a bit more.  I would also add that I sometimes take two trips a month, but very rarely in the past 5 years or so gone more than a month without taking any trip at all--and have never gone more than a month without a day hike.  

But I used 25km as an average per day to try and come up with a ballpark figure, and to make things easy use 2 day trips as the given--though sometimes I do 3-5 day trips, but again just for a ballpark figure.  Starting from January 2012 until July of 2014 that's 31 months, or very roughly 1550km--31 x 50km (two day trip 25km x 2)--of hiking on trails.  If you add up my estimates above for each pack, it's a total of 1600km.  It should go without saying that I don't document each and every trip/day hike I take on this blog, by the way!  So my trips documented in the "Trail Guides" page is only part of my total amount of hiking, albeit a significant contribution.

There are also other factors that contribute to a larger figure, such as day hikes--which I don't count as "trips."  For me a trip is at least an overnighter/2 days.  My old Zero has been my pack of choice for day hikes, in case anyone wants to know.  Then there is the fact that I only take public transportation (and sometimes hitchhike) to and from trail heads, so there is additional hiking I do off-trail.  So an exact estimate is hard to figure out, but I think that 1600km is a pretty conservative estimate.

Plus, when I read other backpacking blogs, I have often wondered how others have calculated their hiking miles/kilometers and such.  So I hope "showing my work" puts things more into context and supports my claims.