For the month of November I am highlighting some of my favorite hiking based companies, giving readers a closer look into the people who make the gear they love on the trail as well as products that remind us of the trail when we can’t be there. Today we are taking a closer look at ZPacks. I had the opportunity to chat with the owner, Joe Valesko.
How did you begin making ultralight gear? What was your inspiration?
Joe: I first got into backpacking as a teenager. I got the idea in my head that I wanted to do the Appalachian Trail some day. I knew that lighter gear would be better so I bought the lightest stuff I could find at the time- 3lb backpack, 3lb tent, 3lb sleeping bag. After my first trip I could tell that alot of the gear I was carrying was overkill and figured I could build my own stuff in lighter material with only the features I needed. That is what kicked it off, and by the time I was able to do the Appalachian Trail in 2004 I had almost a full kit of very basic home made gear. Over time and through a lot of trial and error my designs got better, and I started selling gear in 2005 after completing the AT.
|Joe completes the Appalachian Trail in 2004 atop Mount Katahdin in Maine; Photo courtesy of Joe Valesko
Cuben Fiber seems to be your preferred material to work with. What do you love about it? Are there downsides?
Joe: We first started using Cuben Fiber around 2006, before that it was primarily produced for making sails. The main advantage of Cuben Fiber is it has the highest strength to weight ratio of any available waterproof material that I am aware of. It is made from high strength Spectra fibers laminated to a thin membrane material. The thinnest versions of it are particularly well suited for making tents and tarps. In addition to the high tensile strength it also has low stretch, and adhesives stick well to it, so it can be sealed with tape or patched easily. There are also thicker versions of Cuben Fiber that are good for backpacks, and a version made with an eVent waterproof-breathable membrane for rain gear.
The main disadvantage of Cuben Fiber is the price is significantly higher than other outdoor fabrics. There is also a learning curve to sewing it, reinforcing it, and sealing the seams so that ultralight gear made from it holds up for a long enough time.
photo courtesy of Joe Valesko
What makes your site different than any other online retailer?
Joe: We are somewhat unique in that our customers are buying direct from the manufacturer. All of our gear is made in shop and that gives us a lot of flexibility. If a customer wants a non standard color, or some minor design change or additional feature a lot of the time we can do that. If a customer points out a flaw or suggests an improvement we can implement it the next day, since most of our gear is made to order rather than being mass produced.
I have also personally done four thru-hikes worth of testing with our gear. I am available to give an experienced answer about any gear choices or questions.
ZPacks shelters are very different than the traditional freestanding tents many people use. What kind of backpacker should look into purchasing a tarp or UL tent?
Joe: Our tents are single wall shelters that set up using trekking poles for support. The main advantage of this style of shelter is it has significant weight savings over traditional tents. Our gear is designed for long distance backpackers and thru-hikers- people that hike enough that it is worth making the investment for the lower pack weight. Many beginners may not want to drop the amount of money on their first tent or backpack without at least experimenting with different gear choices, but backpackers who are ready to make the jump to ultralight are able to do more trail miles with less pain.
I don’t necessarily think you need a lot of experience to use ultralight gear, most of it is pretty straight forward with a little practice. It does help to understand what you are getting into though.
What is your favorite outdoor location?
Joe: My two favorite spots are the High Sieras in CA, and the Wind River range in WY. Those were my high points of the Pactific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail respectively. They are both extremely remote areas with breathtaking mountains and scenery. They are both sections of those trails which require over a week without resupply. I like being out in the middle of no where living with just the small amount of gear on my back.
Tell us a little bit about your background as a backpacker.
Joe: I did alot of training hikes before my first long distance thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail right after graduating college in 2004. I worked for a couple years as a software engineer, while also doing ZPacks on the side. In 2007 I took off again and thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with my fiance Sheryl. In 2009 I finished the Triple Crown on the Continental Divide Trail, and in 2012 my wife and I hiked the Te Araroa in New Zealand. I also did a “short” hike of 200 miles on the TGOC across Scotland this year with friends.
When we are not thru-hiking we like to do short section hikes on the southern part of the AT. We also do sections of the Florida trail locally here in FL in the winter. We want to do the Tour du Mont Blanc next summer.
What is your one “must have” item you carry with you backpacking?
Joe: If I had to pick just one, it would be my “Pointy Hat”. It is a home made creation resembling an Asian conical hat, except made from closed cell foam and Cuben Fiber. It is the only piece of gear that I use 24 hours a day on the trail. It has a wide brim that keeps the sun off my face, it is waterproof in the rain, and it doubles as a sit pad on breaks and as part of my sleeping pad at night. It does look a little goofy but it is a conversation starter as well.
You can check out Joe’s ultralight packs, tents, and more at www.zpacks.com
Last modified: September 2, 2017