Following last year's "Willis Wall Snippets: 2013" and "Happy Holidays from Gossamer Gear" I decided to start an annual review/Holiday message, incorporating video and photos I've had the pleasure to collect over this past year. Here's wishing all readers a Wonderland Holiday season and best wishes for 2015.
A natural tendency when one acquires a new piece of gear is to share one's excitement, perhaps via blog. I try to wait until I have enough experience with a piece of equipment before I do an actual review, and an appropriate amount of time has passed to render an opinion on the ZPacks Arc Slim pack. I've put a few hundred miles on the pack, including a full day of drenching rains. In a nutshell, not too shabby.
Anyone reading this probably knows the ZPacks Arc series is basically an updated version of an external frame pack, utilizing carbon fiber and burly mesh. One needs to know my usage to put things in perspective before making an informed decision as to whether this pack will work for you. I wanted the Slim version for off trail days where I may have the pack on for upwards of 20 hours, or multiday trips with a light load, a usual occasion for me. I'll forego the detailed description of the pack as you can read about it on the ZPacks website. I also knew I would be doing some occasional trotting (not quite running, think 5 MPH) on the flatter or downhill segments of my trips. I did not opt for the external water bottle pockets as I planned on using an internal bladder for day trips and wanted to keep the profile clean. I also ordered this pack along with a custom front pack that includes two water bottle pockets if I needed them (I also use two of ZPacks older version hip belt pockets). In another nod to off trail, I had Joe make me a custom front pocket, with the top and bottom sections of stretchable mesh but the central area cuben hybrid; this idea comes from the snaginess of a large mesh pocket when crashing brush. I get the benefits of a large external pocket, the stretchiness and visibility of mesh but with less area to snag. I reiterate that this semi custom setup is made for moving, with items needed during the day available in the front pack and hipbelt pockets, negating the need to stop and take off the pack every time I needed something. Indeed, this system worked well and some days I would go multiple hours without taking off the pack. Understanding that my loads never exceeded @20 pounds, the system works.
• Comfort: Let's start with the frame system, which is designed not only to support the pack but to promote airflow between the pack and the back, reducing the sweat factor. It works really well as a support system….I never had to take off the pack or readjust due to discomfort, even after hours of hiking, trotting, or off trail squirming. To me this is the number 1 reason for endorsement of this system. When a pack virtually disappears on your back, when it becomes unnoticeable and just part of you, then it's a winner. I want to reiterate that I have never loaded this pack down beyond 20 pounds so I cannot attest to the efficacy of heavier loads. Buyer beware.
Now to the airflow: it is indeed much less sweaty, and the possible disadvantage of the center of gravity of the load being further away from your back was unnoticeable in my use. If you tension the frame system more than I do, placing the load a few inches further away, and carry heavy items while executing climbing moves then this may not be the case for you. That's why one's usage is paramount when buying any piece of equipment, and why I stress WHAT I do with the pack so much. I can't say my back wasn't the least bit sweaty, as even the porous mesh against your clothing is still a barrier for moving moisture, but it was a definite improvement over a pack that lies directly against your back.
• Water Resistance: The pack is made of waterproof cuben hybrid and fully seam taped, making it extremely water resistant. During my all day drenching hike, I ended up with a few teaspoons of water in the bottom. This may have been from one stretch where I failed to secure the roll top, but in any event the material does not absorb water, so removing it from the pack was easy with a paper towel. I would always recommend that at least your bottom layer in a pack is in a waterproof stuff sack. I compare this to a different pack I used for a weeklong hike that included rain, mist and hail. That material absorbed water and my first aid/foot kit in a non waterproof stuff sack got soaked, rendering most items inside unusable…..something I found out on a later hike when I needed to address a blister. Take normal precautions. In sum, this pack is about as water resistant as one can get, but it's not a dry bag suitable for dunking. Know your equipment.
• Durability: Beyond this pack I have had good experience with cuben hybrid material. I am still using an older front pack (custom ZPacks) that has seen thousands of zips/unzips, weather, brush abuse and snot bombs. It's not as pretty as it was but it is still fully functional and to this day I carry my camera equipment in it if I don't need my larger one. On this Arc Slim pack the bottom has some minor stains from ground gunk and the roll top exhibits a little dirty hand use, but the pack cleans up well after use and there are absolutely no wear problems from rock, ground contact, or pointy tree limb/prickly devils club/annoying brush encounters. If anything the material seems to make things slide across it easier compared to other fabrics due to a "slippery" hand.
• Overall Impressions: Even this slim version of the Blast pack has plenty of room for practically any multiday hike I would do, but for my long day hikes/scrambles it is more than cavernous to carry my clothing, food, stand by overnight gear and extra stuff for my daughter if she's taking a small day pack. It's as comfortable as a pack can be, at least for loads below 20 pounds. It's practically waterproof and stands up to normal wear and tear. In my case the white cuben is luminous inside making it easy to find stuff with this top loader (and the white keeps items inside cooler in blazing sun). It's obviously customizable. I can run/trot without undue bouncing. If anything goes awry with the pack, I know that ZPacks will fix it in a hurry, probably for no charge. The Arc system works. I'm trying hard but really can't think of many downsides to owning this pack. If this review sounds too good, then perhaps the pack is, too.
Well, I've used the ZPacks Duplex for a year now with enough time to render some observations. To qualify, I am not talking many nights, as I use a number of different shelter systems depending on the trip. Probably the best test was this year's Pasayten Wilderness hike with my daughter where we spent 8 nights out. That said, my general impressions are this may be as close to the ideal backpacking tent as a manufacturer can come. The reasons?
• Situp Room: I've owned tents from Mountain Hardware, Gossamer Gear, Garuda, and Tarptent. Naturally there are pros and cons for every example, and in truth this is also true for the Duplex. But this tent provides just the right amount of peak height for two adult males to sit up and attend to things like changing clothes or whatever, a vast improvement over tent designs that have a single entry and peak towards the front.
• Dual Entries: Two half moon zippers provide each occupant with their own access, plus vestibule. My daughter and I found that we would use one side for entry/exit and the other side to stash our packs under cover. We just had to coordinate nighttime nature calls.
• Taut Pitch: We never experienced what could be considered high winds, but once the pitch was made the non stretchable cuben maintained a nice taut line. The design of the tent seems to have enough geometry over the two poles to deflect winds from every direction, especially with both vestibules down. We used 8 stakes in the pitch. In general I find the ultralite titanium stakes adequate; however, the hi viz coating comes off in a hurry when trying to pound into firmer ground and the stakes can easily bend in more difficult securing conditions. I much prefer the titanium V shaped for robustness and poundability, and ended up using a combination of 4 and 4. ZPacks offers different stakes with these considerations, mine are from Gossamer Gear. Notice in the photos that the tent also has four additional tie out points for further stability. The supplied stuff sack is sized correctly, where I could roll up the tent and stuff it away without problems. This may seem a minor point but consider packing up on a cold and wet morning, conditions where I find my fingers going numb from handling wet material. The four letter words that emanated from my mouth trying to tuck away my Tarptent or GG Squall in these conditions were absent this year. Finally, the packed tent is small enough to place inside your pack without taking up much real estate, depending on your style.
• Cordage: The tent comes with supplied cordage which must be cut to length (specified) for the tie outs. With the exception of the two main tie outs for the doors, the rest of the guy lines are fixed length with loops. This is a perfectly acceptable configuration, just be aware that you must position the stakes in exactly the right spot to get the taut pitch. If you want more flexibility, you can use guy line adjusters to adapt the cord to where the stake might be better positioned, dependent on the soil. If you have tripped over guy lines at night like I have then you will appreciate that these have a reflective coating.
• Quirk 1: This tent does not like to be pitched on an incline (or any kind of uneven ground). One night we had to pitch in a meadow with no level areas. We found the bathtub floor always migrating downhill and this in turn pulls on the netting with the uphill zipper to where you could not close it back up (if used). The only way was to somehow unweight the floor so it could be slid back into position, something not easily accomplished with two people and sleeping gear taking up most of the available area. In this circumstance, the tension on the zipper, netting material and fasten points to the main tent was cause for concern, although we experienced no failures. Of note, I did use a polycro groundsheet. Pitching directly on the grass may have resulted in less slippage.
• Quirk 2: The tent does not like to be pitched at any level above or below the suggested 48 inches. Once I had it pitched too high and just couldn't get the fabric to smooth out, orbiting the tent redoing stakes to no avail. Another time I tried to purposefully pitch the tent lower in anticipation of wind blown rain with the same results, eventually giving up and going back to the 48 inches. As it turns out the tent was fine in the blowing weather at normal pitch with no intrusion of rain inside.
• Poles: I ended up purchasing the carbon poles for the tent. They are extremely light weight, the exact right size and they free up my trekking poles for other use (base camp day hike, camera mount etc).
• Condensation: A concern with any shelter, especially a single wall. If I had to rate this tent based on my experience, I'd give it a 7.5 out of 10. This means that in the morning there was some moisture near the head and foot of the walls, noticeable if you brushed against it, all dependent on the amount of airflow during the night, whether the vestibules were open or closed, and the conditions of the campsite. I have yet to use a single wall tent where there was zero condensation. What makes this tent better than my others is the amount of clearance. With two adult males (6') or myself and my daughter, we could easily avoid contact with the tent interior walls at each end or when sitting up. I found that using a pack towel to wipe both the interior and exterior before packing up kept the tent clean and dry for each night.
• Price: You pay for it, not cheap at $595 (disclaimer, I purchased mine from ZPacks at a discount). However, the size is right and so is the weight: 20 ozs/567 grams. I don't own a scale and go by manufacturer's weights. Adding the poles (4 ozs/113 grams) and stakes (2 ozs/57 grams) brings my total weight to 26 ozs/737 grams. This weight is low enough that I would consider using this tent as a solo shelter (longer trip, isolated, varying weather conditions, etc). I find the material robust; exercise normal cautions (watch the crampons, don't throw knives, sit with pokey pens, etc) and this shelter should last many years. Another consideration: cuben is easily patched with cuben tape or duck (or duct) tape.
• Service: Simply put, ZPacks is renowned for customer service. My personal experience can attest to this, with Joe answering emails in a timely fashion, repairing a pack, and accommodation of tight schedules. I needed a new Challenger Jacket in the longer size for a particular trip where I used it in conjunction with a custom 3/4 bivy (also ZPacks made) as a shelter system. Despite advertising multi week waits, I had the jacket in hand two days before my requested date. When making a major purchase like this, remember to consider the whole package....it's not just about the product you are buying, but the company and people behind it. ZPacks scores on both accounts.
• Summary: In case the reader is on a tight schedule, here's my bit. Considering the pros, cons and observations listed above, I consider this close to, if not THE ideal backpacking tent (mountaineering is a whole different ball game) currently available, especially for duo hiking.
When I write rare, I mean the opportunity to do a great hike in weather that seasonally is not so cooperative. For October, this turned out to be on the 19th. My daughter was home for a few days from school and was craving a taste of North West outdoors, it didn't matter if it was in rain, she just wanted to get out. Staying within a two hour drive, we traveled to Mt. Rainier National Park to try something new, a loop hike starting at Mowich Lake that would take us up above 7000 feet with a possible summit of Observation Rock if time allowed.
Thursday, October 9th may turn out to be the last great weather day before typical Northwest conditions set in. With this forecast in mind, my buddy CB joined me for a "closeout" hike under clear skies and decidedly non-fall like temps.
This trip had an interesting start, as I was back from London without much sleep and decided to take advantage of good weather on Monday and Tuesday (Sep 15-16) to head out. But first I was supposed to pick up some new pants from Beyond Clothing, and waited at the Seattle store for the UPS truck to arrive with said trousers. As I finally had to head out the door from the no show truck, they sent me to their warehouse in Kent to pick up a pair on the way to the mountain.
This is the last in this year's "7Up Hikes" series. My goal of hikes around Rainier taking advantage of off trail segments and touching points above 7000 feet certainly delivered a unique and different experience of the park beyond the Wonderland. That said, this last hike (September 10th) I ended up scaling back quite a bit as the original included another high point on a cleaver and 41 miles of hiking and biking, probably too much for this old man. This one was juuust right, doable in 12 hours: Stats: 25 miles (8 miles biking)/5300' elevation gain and loss.
Get ready for a spanking on this one, as it provides 26 miles and 8200 feet of vertical, the hardest parts off trail. It took me nearly 17 hours to complete. This is the third in a series of hikes I planned for Mt. Rainier National Park where vistas above 7000 feet and off trail travel let one experience a whole different world outside of the Wonderland Trail. Although already planned, the timing was spur of the moment.
Originally planned as a 200 mile trip, my daughter's recovering hip, rehabbed enough to get the go ahead for hiking, had us entering this foray with different criteria: plan on 10 days max and venture into the heart of the Pasayten wilderness as far as current fires, physical limitations and trail conditions allowed before looping back. The meager stats (101 miles, 16,000' of elevation gain) don't do justice to the difficulties we faced….pea sized hail and thunderstorms at 7000', trails and phantom trails with meager tread, river crossings, soaking head high grasses and fireweed leaving our lower bodies in a constant state of saturation, and hundreds of blowdowns and deadfall to name a few. But what a trip!
This is a big hike with big views. I recruited my buddy CB for this one as the extensive off trail and planned exit warranted a partner for safety. As it turns out the gnarly exit was bypassed, more on that. This trip provides 17 miles and 5600 feet of elevation.
We parked at the Fryingpan creek trail head and spent a very short time on trail, taking a right on the Wonderland for less than half a mile and proceeding off trail at the obvious bend. This lower part of the ridge for Goat Island is of course treed but manageable enough and eventually the terrain opened up into some meadows