Despite my first car being a wonderful 1967 Triumph Herald in sky blue, my cars since have never been British. My Dad once questioned why this was so to which I replied that as patriotic as I am, and with very few exceptions, we generally don’t build good cars.
El Camino is proving to be the lightest trip I have managed to take, especially with the Arc Blast.
It’s the same with the lightweight gear in the outdoor industry. The British are a way behind the leaders, especially in respect to the smaller, cottage industry companies in the States that are leading the field in design, innovation and manufacture of shelters, backpacks, sleeping systems, cook sets and a host of other gear.
Enter a small company called ZPacks started in 2005 by Joe Valesko. Veteran of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide Trails and this year the Te Araroa in New Zealand. Nearly 10,000 miles of thru-hiking have resulted in equipment that has been designed by a man who knows what he’s doing.
He’s also busy. Current shipping times are 3 to 4 weeks. This is not an indication of poor service, more standard cottage manufacturing time frames. There’s something strangely reassuring about having to wait for gear you want.
I’m currently walking El Camino de Santiago, a 1,000 mile route through France and Spain. My excellent usual choice of pack, the ULA Ohm 2 was too big for this hike. Food re-supply is often and the climate mostly warm so all I needed was something around 52 litres. I also wanted to take advantage of carrying less weight by bringing super light gear with me. I used a ZPacks Hexamid Solo tent on part of my AT hike last year and having been impressed with that, the Arc Blast seemed to fit the bill.
Velcro roll top enclosure and an impressive extension collar give the Blast plenty of space after that town re-supply.
2.92 ounces sq. yard Cuben Fibre Hybrid fabric. Cuben Fibre on the inside with a protective layer of 50 denier polyester on the outside.
All seams and attachment points are taped water tight.
Flexed Arc carbon fibre.
45 litres / 2,750 cubic inches
52 litres / 3,200 cubic inches
60 litres / 3,650 cubic inches
45 litre: 454 grs / 16 ounces.
52 litre: 468 grs / 16.5 ounces.
60 litre: 482 / 17 ounces.
Colours (Yes colours!):
Black, grey, indigo, orange, white and tan.
Available extra options:
Belt and shoulder pouches. Backpack lid. Chest pack. Top side pockets. Ice axe loops. Load lifter straps. Shock cord lashing. Trekking pole holders.
Further options available on request if possible.
Large Mesh pocket on back. Mesh back panel. Roll top main pack opening. Side compression straps. Various belt length and torso sizes. 2 side pockets for items such as a water bottle. Central, upper hydration port. Top and base straps for lashing extra items.
Recommended maximum weight: 14 kilos / 30 lbs.
Price (As of August 2013 but liable to change. See ZPacks website for current pricing):
$275 / £183.33 app. for the 45 litre base pack.
$279 / £184.00 app. for the 52 litre base pack.
$289 / £192.67 app. for the 60 litre base pack.
(All plus packing and handling)
My shoes demonstrating good storage space in the back mesh panel.
2 side pockets for your water bottle and other items are slanted forward.
Is it any good?
In a word, it’s excellent. This pack proves that all the bells and whistles we find on mainstream packs just aren’t necessary for ultra light back packing and indeed most other hiking trips. The array of straps, buckles, adjustment options, pockets and opening covers are a waste of money, add extra weight and don’t really serve a purpose.
As with most of ZPacks and cottage industry gear, the minimal approach is winning loyalty with end users. The straps, buckles and cords are all as small and light as possible without compromising quality or durability.
When I first noticed companies offering base ‘units’ with available options at an extra charge I was disappointed. It’s like Ryan Air, the seat is £15 before you pay for your food, drinks, seat allocation, toilets etc and then it all adds up. Now, with equipment, it is a good idea. If you don’t need hip pockets then there’s no need to order them. No use for a chest pocket? Leave it off. It’s an excellent way of tailoring gear to what you actually need and not paying out for options you don’t. All I added was 2 hip pockets (21 grs / 0.75 ounces – $19.95 / £13.30 each). I walk in running shorts with no pockets and besides, even if I did have pockets I wouldn’t use them because the contents jangle about and weigh things down.
It wasn’t so long ago that I wrote a post on Cuben Fibre (HERE) which wasn’t exactly complimentary to the new wonder material. My main gripe was the durability to which I explained that the packs I had come across, particularly on the AT last year, where displaying alarming signs of wear after just a few hundred miles. Since then I have realised that the Cuben used in those packs was of too thin quality for the task being asked of it. Also, it was used in an area of relatively high abrasion, namely the back panel of those packs. The result was a thinning out of the Cuben to such a point that it had started to disintegrate and display strands with holes around, or fraying.
Apart from that issue, I like Cuben. ZPacks, it would appear, have noticed this and dealt with it. The Cuben on the Arc Blast is of a thicker version (2.92 ounces sq. yard) and its coated with 50 denier polyester layer on the outside. This alone should address the durability problem but to take things a stage further ZPacks have added a mesh back system.
The mesh does three things; allows air to circulate around your back which means less sweat. The gap also means your spine is not digging into unwelcome items protruding from the pack. And, it takes any possible wear issues with the Cuben completely out of the equation.
The back mesh means air can circulate round your back, keeps it away from objects protruding from the pack and takes any possible wear to the back panel out of the equation. It is tensioned by 4 LineLoc adjusters.
The pack is attached to the carbon frame (2 vertical upright and 2 horizontal stays) via Dyneema cords and 4 LineLoc 3 adjusters. Push down on the top stays and they bend the pack out making the pulling and tensioning of the cords easy. Joe did explain on some earlier models that these cords had a tendency to slip but I’ve had no problem with mine, it works a treat.
The side pockets are thoughtfully slanted forward a little to allow easy access to a water bottle, or whatever other item you choose to store in them. The mesh pocket, as with most packs that have this fitted, provides loads of additional storage, I could fit my shoes for example in them. They’re so great for drying out wet gear or for items you need to access often.
All seams and attachment points are sealed which along with roll top enclosures on the main compartment and hip pockets make this pack, supposedly, waterproof. I’ve yet to find a water proof pack so time will tell. For now I use a poncho (also ZPacks) and a GoLite umbrella which has ensured I haven’t experienced wet gear for a long time.
After a few short trips at home and now 100 miles on El Camino I can safely say this is a comfortable pack. I experienced a small sore spot from rubbing the first day which I resolved by undoing the hip belt for a couple of hours and then repeating the process for a couple of days. I have worn the hip belt secured for the last 50 miles with no problems.
The shoulder straps may not be as thick and padded as some other packs but are comfortable, I have had no abrasion issue there. They are adjustable depending on your size and preference and the base model comes with a sternum strap.
The main advantage of the blast is the weight. At 468 grs for the 52 litre model it’s a super light pack and begs the question of whether any thru-hiking pack needs to be over 500grs. It’s also one of the main 3, or 4 main items as I like to think where most weight can be saved – pack, shelter, sleeping bag and mat / mattress. Pick wisely on these and it will pay dividends.
The hybrid polyester coated Cuben used on the Blast has a good feel about it. It feels more ‘slippery’, the 2.92 ounces sq. yard as used here feels very durable, it’s obviously a thicker Cuben more keeping with a feel of Cordura and it appears impressive. We now also have seen the introduction recently of Cuben available in several different colours, proof that the industry is working at improving several areas.
The Blast carries weight well. I’m still not convinced by frameless packs with no hip belts. I believe weight should be transferred down the frame of a pack to be carried on the hips. At least on a thru-hike where I’m carrying more weight, on shorter day hikes I have no problem with them. With a maximum carrying weight of 14 kilos I’d be happy doing a full thru-hike. My base weight (no food or water) on this trip is about 5-6 kilos (10.5 – 12.6) which I can get pretty near to on a 2000 to 3000 mile hike. This leaves 8 kilos for food which is around 8 days worth.
There is still an apparent fear, perhaps hesitation would be a better word with lightweight gear that it won’t last the distance. It’s only the last 10 years or so that we have seen backpacking equipment weights plummet. On my first hike on El Camino some 11 years ago my pack weighed in at a hefty 2.5 kilos / 5.25 lbs, and I thought I was doing pretty well at the time. Cuben has been around since the 90’s but has only crept into the outdoor market with any major force in the last 5 years and now the prices have dropped to a level that are relatively affordable. Arguably a pack made from Cordura or similar will be more durable but this does not mean Cuben packs and other lightweight gear will fail in the durability area.
I ordered the optional hip pockets which are impressivel sized.
Hydration tube exit.
A couple of straps at the bottom of the Blast provide lashing.
Time will tell but Cuben, especially hybrids such as the coated polyester version used on this pack but it is proof that the industry is aware of some issues with this material and are addressing it. I have no reason to think the products available in the ultra lightweight market cannot last the distance compared to their heavier cousins. Remember, the lighter loads capable with lighter gear mean hiking is more pleasurable, greater distances in one day are achievable, with less chance of injury and less fatigue.
Price wise Cuben products are still dearer than their conventional counterparts but they have now reached a level where the margin is minor and should not be of too much a concern to those in the market for a new product. They are worth the initial outlay.
The American hiking cottage industry continues to dominate the field. The likes of ZPacks, Mountain Laurel Designs, Trail Designs, ULA and others are catering well to the new demands of an ever growing breed of lightweight hikers.
Here in Great Britain, and the rest of the world, we’re all feeling a little humbled.