Monday, February 15, 2016

Zpacks Arc Haul First Impressions Review

Back in August of 2014 I wrote up a big review of all 5 of my Ultralight Backpacks, and in this text I said the following:
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.
And at the time that is how I felt.  I really was completely happy with my packs and felt no need to buy another one.  But one can never foresee just how things will change as time goes on, and all of a sudden I found myself in a situation where I could kill several birds with one stone by replacing my Arc Blast with the newest/current version of the Arc Haul.  So first allow me to explain the thought behind buying the Arc Haul.

First of all, I recently bought a packraft.  I've always loved water and to swim in lakes and rivers and such, and Sweden has a ton of these bodies of water all over the woods, so this was pretty much inevitableAnd when you get a packraft, you need accessories; like a personal flotation device, paddles, dry bags, etc.  So when I go on trips and want to bring my packraft kit, it will be adding a significant amount of weight.  I'm not quite done finishing up my full packraft kit, but I am guessing the whole kit will be around 2kg total.  And in addition to weight is also more bulk--much more bulk.  While I probably could have fit my packraft kit in my Arc Blast (which was 52 liters), it would leave little room for food, luxuries, or much else.  So I was a bit concerned with both the weight and bulk increase and how my Blast would handle it.

On top of packraft adventures in the horizon, I also have trips planned that are far away from home on more isolated trails out in the mountains and hills of central Sweden.  I will finish the Swedish E1 trails this year, for example, then after that I will continue northbound.  There are areas I have studied on maps that have no civilization for dozens of kilometers in all directions, and even when there is civilization, it's mostly limited to tiny villages and hamlets.  I'll have to carry much more food with me on trips, and trips further away by default will have to be for longer periods of time.  By train it takes roughly 10 hours just to get to the next stage of the E1 I will be hiking, for instance, to a village of roughly 650 people.

Next, I am a proud father, and thankfully my whole family loves the outdoors too.  So I've taken my boys out on trips on their own, and the whole family will go on trips as well.  Thing is, my kids are getting bigger, which means bigger sleeping bags and clothing, plus more food and water is needed.  So weight and bulk became more of an issue for family trips, and only continues to grow, until they are big enough to carry all their gear (which will be a while).  Plus there are times when my wife and I go on trips on our own, and we like to take more luxurious food and drink, as putting in more kilometers is not as important (though my wife can put in almost as many kilometers as I can).

Then as I began to check out framed packs, I read a lot of good things about the Arc Haul, and also noticed that Zpacks had updated the design and made some changes that seemed to have a lot of great potential.  For example the addition of the tougher Dyneema fabric that is also water proof, and of course both the Blasts and the Arcs are seam sealedJoe also improved on the belt and shoulder pads, plus added mesh to the back of them for more grip and comfort, and also made the frame even sturdier with integrated load lifters and a third carbon fiber cross-bar.  The Zpacks backpacks just seemed all the more refined and evolved.

Finally the straw that broke the camel's back was something more personal.  My good friend Tomas is also really into backpacking and the outdoors has taken more of an interest in UL due to my influence.  He especially liked my Blast and said he wanted to save up to buy one used, so I decided I would sell him my beloved Blast at a good friend discountSo I put in my order for the Haul (with a few custom modifications, more on this later) and told my friend I would sell him my BlastHe was trilled to have the Blast, I was thrilled to soon have a new pack that looked to solve my new needs, and as luck would have it, I got my new Arc Haul just a few days before a trip with Tomas and a few other friends.  This trip would be the first time for each of us to break in our new packs.

It was a great trip!  The weather was good, the woods were dusted with snow and frost, and everything just went well and flowed like clockwork.  This includes an excellent first impression of my new backpack, and I am very, very happy with it.  It may be the best first impression a backpack has ever had on me after two decades of being an outdoor enthusiast and backpacker--and I've tried on and used a hell of a lot of backpacksBut before I get into what I love about the pack and why, and explain the modifications, here's some pictures of it in action from the trip, along with awesome go-to shelter system (a Zpacks 6 x 9 flat tarp in 1.0 Cuben fiber plus a MLD Serenity solo in silnylon):

The pack handles like a dream.  I had a base weight in my pack of 4.5kg plus a ton of luxury food and extra water, so the total pack weight was around 9kgI had previously said that the Blast was like having UL weights feel like SUL, but I think now having UL weights and using the Haul is pretty much the same comfort as having SUL weights in a good frameless packOf course how comfortable something feels is entirely subjective, but that's the best way I can put it, and this will perhaps make sense to those of you reading this that know how SUL or lower UL weights feel on your back as opposed to heavier loads.  

I would imagine that having a lightweight load in the Haul would accordingly feel the same as an UL load, and in the future I will get to test this out as a packrafter and family backpacker.  My total packrafting base weight looks to be around 12-13lbs/5.5kg-6kg, for instanceSo there will be a follow up, long term report on this pack, and I really can't wait to put it to good use.  My mind swims with future plans and trips, untraveled and traveled trails alike, and I can see myself floating across rivers and lakes with this pack strapped to the front of my packraft.

The Haul not only has exceptional weight distribution due to the robust and brilliant Arc frame, but the improved shoulder straps and hip belt grip and hug the body for a very comfortable ride.  I could run, jump, and scramble down hills without even thinking about the pack, let alone the normal hiking on and off trail with the Haul on my back.  If in the past I gave the Blast around an 8-9 out of 10 as far as an UL backpack goes regarding comfort and how it carries/distributes weight, the Arc Haul is pushing beyond 9--I'd go so far as to give it a 9.5 out of 10.  For an UL pack that is pushing the heavier limits of weight for whatever reason (base weight, extra food/water, or both), it's nearly perfect or as perfect as I am able to conceive at the this moment in time.  

And what's also so amazing is that you could very well use this pack for more "traditional" (i.e. heavy) weights.  Zpacks recommends a maximum load of 40lbs/18kg.  I doubt I will ever go beyond this figure, but if someone has a more traditional backpacker base weight of say 20lbs/8kg plus another 10lbs/4.5kg of food and water, this might be a great alternative to one of those massive, tank backpacks that many traditional backpackers use that completely empty can weight upwards of 2, 3, and 4kg and more.  It's awesome how a mere 710g backpack (and it is slightly lighter without my mods) is able to be so sturdy and accomplish what many packs that are more than twice its weight simply cannot.  

I remember in my last days as a heavy traditional backpacker over half a decade ago buying and using my last traditional backpack.  It was alright for what it was made for, but was slightly more than twice the weight of the Haul.  The Haul is not only more comfortable, but also arguably more durable, considering that the pack I am comparing it to was made by a big brand name that used 210D regular ripstop nylon plus parts in 100D nylon, whereas the entire Haul is 210D Dyneema X Gridstop.  The Haul fabric also has the added benefit of having a waterproof PU coating on the inside, plus it is seam sealed, making it a very water resistant pack.  Not so with most big brand packs.

I know, I know.  Maybe I am a little overly excited about this pack after only taking out on one trip.  Fair enough.  But I think that with packs, an important metric to judge them is on how well they fit right away and how quickly you can both notice how comfortable it is, and then forget about it.  I spent only about 5 minutes adjusting the pack after I tried it on at home after picking up at the post office and it was ready to go.  Maybe I got lucky with sizing, that could be true.  But the comfort, ease, craftsmanship, and overall feel of the pack really blew me away for what is an excellent first impression.

I did get a few modifications on the pack that I should mention.  I opted to have a full, solid fabric front pocket rather than a mesh one, which added a bit of weight (30g).  I paid an extra 10 bucks for this mod.  I also asked to have flat grosgrain base straps rather than the cord base straps that come standard with the Blast and Haul, and asked for a custom color motif of black and green.  Joe was nice enough to do these last two mods for free, but said that the pack can't be returned--which is fine by me, I love it and don't want to return it at all!  Thanks again Joe and everyone at Zpacks for your great customer service and patience.

I'll end this review with a few more random pictures from my trip, plus a video I recently uploaded where I show off the Haul and just shoot from the hip and talk on and on about it.  And as always, my usual disclaimer: I paid full price for this pack with my own money, and am under no obligation to review it.  

Hope this review was helpful, and happy trails to you all.


*Note: I updated this post with a bit more information as well as fixing up some grammar and typos roughly 5 hours after originally posting it.