Friday, September 20, 2013

Zpacks Backpacks Double Review: Arc Blast First Impressions and Zero Long Term Reflections

I recently got my brand new, custom built Zpacks Arc Blast backpack in the mail.  Needless to say, I am very excited about it, and wanted to pack it all up with everything that I plan on using for my updated 3 season gear list (I will write up a post detailing this gear list sometime soon).  While I was at it, I thought that I ought to write a first impressions review on my new pack--note: I have since taken it out on a section hike, see end of this post for a small update.  Then I looked over at my tried and true custom Zero, which is my go-to pack for most of my trips, and thought that it deserved a long term review too.  So why not do both together?  

 These two backpacks are, after all, the only two packs I plan on using for all of my outdoor/in nature backpacking.  My Zero I generally use from May to September in south west Sweden and south east Norway, when temperatures go no lower than around 5C/40F.  My Arc Blast is for the rest of the year, both 3 season and winter use, with my own personal limit as far as low temps go is around -15C/5F.  The reasoning behind each pack and when I use it is simple: bulk and weight due to conditions--and this is mostly clothing, but there are other gear nuances and future circumstances that factor into this as well.  

When I use my Zero I have a base weight between 2-4kg/4.4-8.8lbs (most of the time it hovers around 3.2kg/7lbs), and when I use my Arc Blast it will be for base weights between 4-6kg/8.8-13.2lbs (right now for 3 season use it is hovering around 4.3kg/9.5lbs).  The most weight I ever put in my Zero was 9.5kg/21lbs, due to 6 days of food and 2.5 liters of water; and while not that comfortable of course, it was not as bad as I thought, and I was still able to hike just fine for an entire day.

Though it did give me pause to consider a pack to handle more weight, especially when I took into account my backpacking bucket list plans.  In the future I want to continue to backpack regularly, but also go on even longer and/or challenging trips.  For instance, I recently bought a map for and started researching Kungsleden, up in northern Sweden.  I would like to write a guide for this trail as I have done with Bohusleden, and this project should keep me busy for several years.  I wish I could thru-hike, but don't have the time or money unfortunately, so I will survive as I have on section hikes and random weekend trips.

Longer trips in more isolated areas will require me to have some more gear, but particularly more food and possibly water.  Food and water weight for multiple days can really add up, easily matching or surpassing an UL base weight after a few days or so.  I needed a pack with a frame that can handle more weight more effectively and more comfortably, more volume for the bulk of this weight, and of course I still want a pack that does not weight a lot either.  Being very water resistant, made from very durable materials, and having useful options built into it are all big pluses.  Enter the Arc Blast.

So I'll start my review with the new pack and end with the old.  First some pictures after loading it up with everything in my 3 season gear list:

It swallowed up all the gear with ease, and with plenty of room to spare.  So far I really like the options, such as the base straps for my foam mat, and all the pockets, some of which I had Joe do some custom work on (more on this soon).

Basic specifications and standard options you can find here at Zpacks, weight on my scale is 460g/16.2oz, and the options/modifications I chose were:

* 52 liters volume - Enough (maybe more than enough, we'll see) for a full week of food.

* Tall torso - I am 183cm/6ft tall.

* No hydration port - I don't use hydration bladders--in fact I really don't like them.  Plus this is one less hole that rain can get into.

* Two smaller center pockets (one hybrid Cuben, one net) rather than one big net pocket - So far I really like my idea to have these two pockets instead.  The idea was to be able to organize things better, and find things easier.  Also less net to get caught on anything if/when I bushwhack.

Here are some more detailed shots of the custom pockets:

When I tried on the pack, I was honestly surprised at how comfortable it was.  Wearing it loaded with 4.3kg/9.5lbs felt about as comfortable as wearing my Zero loaded up with my SUL 2-2.5kg/4.4-5.5lb base weight.  Looking forward to seeing it fully loaded on a trip, which might be in early October when I plan on doing the last 4 stages of Bohusleden.

A few shots of me wearing the pack, and then on to the Zero long term review:

Note that I had not yet adjusted the frame.

The Zero I have owned for nearly two years now (got it in March, 2012), and it has been my pack for the grand majority--maybe 90%--of my trips.  It has seen rain, snow, and sun; and it was my pack for stages 27-5 of Bohusleden, or about 325 km / 202 miles of trail and occasional bushwhacking.  Simply put, I love this pack.  It is pretty much everything I want and need for my uses.  Here it is in action over the past few years:

Weighing in at a mere 240g/8.5oz, and roughly 33 liters of volume, I hope to use my Zero for at least a few more years to come, and the hybrid Cuben fabric ought to be tough enough to last that long and probably longer.  And if/when I replace it, it will most likely be another hybrid Cuben Zero with the same or similar options.  There are a ton of variables in Zeros, which you can check out here at Zpacks.  

The only things I would change on it would be adding base straps, a thicker top strap (the one included is pretty much a thick piece of string, but still works rather well), and have the webbing hip belt detachable (this is mostly for getting it out of the way on public transportation to/from the woods and such).  Maybe do the whole two pocket thing in the center, we'll see how that works out for my Arc Blast first though.  The custom zippered hybrid Cuben center pocket worked out great, though sometimes it can be a bit tricky to find stuff buried in the pocket--hence the inspiration for the custom double pockets.

I have taken it through the thickest off-trail hiking that south-west Sweden and south-east Norway have to offer (which can be pretty thick!), and it has only has one small scratch on it.  The scratch was from a sharp branch, but didn't puncture the fabric, just scratched it, and a tiny piece of duct tape fixed it no problem for nearly a year now.  

The pack did fail me one time, but it was because I was really pushing the limits of how much a shoulder strap can take.  I was climbing down a cliff while bushwhacking, and when I got to the bottom, I had around a 2 meter drop down to the ground.  So I jumped down, and the full weight of my pack dropping down on my shoulders broke a buckle on one shoulder strap.  I was able to just tie a knot and fix it to finish my hike, and Joe sent me some material so that I could do my own repairs rather than have to pay shipping costs.  I should also note that nothing else on the pack was damaged other than the little plastic shoulder strap buckle.

While I am at it, I should also note that I always use a foam pad as the back support for this pack, and it only weighs 40g--plus it has many uses as a sit/kneel pad, dry place to stand while changing, torso sleeping mat, fan for a campfire, etc.  A great option for using frameless packs.

A Zero is an excellent pack for SUL and lower weight UL backpackers, or for day trips.  You shouldn't pack it more than 10kg/22lbs, and if you pack it close to this maximum, it should only be for a few days while your food and water stores go down.  Yet that being said, if you have strong shoulders and/or back, this might not be as big an issue.  While I have used this pack for section hikes, weekend trips, and day trips, I would take this pack on a thru hike in warmer conditions and if there were enough water sources around that I wouldn't need to haul more than 2 liters of water at a time.  

Sure, this pack is a very specific pack, but if you do a lot of backpacking that fits into its specific uses, the Zero is one of the best (if not the best) choice out there for a backpack.  Keep in mind that there are a lot of options and modifications you can put on the Zero, thus I am reflecting on the unique combination that I opted for, which I think is a really great combination.

So there you have it, my two Zpacks backpacks, and probably the only two backpacks I will be using for backpacking for quite some time.  I will of course do an updated review of the Arc Blast in the future after I take it out in the field enough to feel "broken in," and will soon write up a breakdown of my new 3 season gear list.

For the record: I bought these two packs myself, and I am not sponsored by Zpacks--just a big fan of their gear.  Zpacks didn't even ask me to write a review or anything.  Though Joe, if you are reading this, and you ever want to get rid of some of your gear... you might just be able to twist my arm ;)

Update 17/10/13:

I recently completed the entire Bohusleden, and took my Arc Blast on my final section hike, where I hiked Stages 4, 3, and part of Stage two.  I loaded it with the gear I am planning on taking to Kungsleden next summer, around 4.5kg base weight.  I also made sure to adjust the frame to get the signature curve and air space between the bag and my back.  In the pictures above where I try on the pack, I had not adjusted the frame yet--I was just excited to pack it and try it on.  But at any rate, the pack preformed great.  It is very stable, and the best way to put it is what I already said elsewhere: it's like having SUL comfort with UL weights.

Update 01/06/2014:
Just a quick note to add that I have since taken the Arc Blast on a fair amount of section hikes since my last update, including several of my E1 trail section hikes.  It has always performed great and I think I might even like it more with time now that I have broken it in and gotten used to it.  I am still very happy with the double pockets and recommend them to people that like to be organized and have several small baggies and stuff sacks of things they like to have access to while hiking.

Just this past weekend I recently went on a section hike with my Zero rather than my Arc Blast due to a lower base weight because of warmer temperatures.  I am happy to report it is still going strong and shows little sights of wear and tear over the years now.  It has really served me well, and just as I mentioned above, I would replace it with another Zero similar to it.  And I did just that recently!  My wife has become more interested in backpacking, especially now that our kids are growing up and can be left with family easier, so my old black hybrid Zero will be passed on to her as a daypack and for use on shorter trips.

I have placed an order for a new custom Zero in army green and eagerly await it as my new go-to pack along with my Arc Blast.  I got the same options as before, plus a few more extras like base, top, and side straps.  I will probably do quick first impressions review of it in the future once I get it, but it will be a while, as Zpacks seems to be really growing in popularity, and thus has a longer waiting time for orders.

Anyhow, just another quick update.  Zpacks backpacks are awesome!