TGO Challenge: Zero Hour
The days grow lighter and so does my rucksack.
The TGO Challenge kicks off later this week, a fortnight of hiking, camping, making new friends and meeting old ones, floundering through bogs and wondering why, why, why people do this sort of thing for a holiday. It’ll be glorious.
The Lovely Emma has wavered between gentle mockery and slight concern when it comes to the kit I’ll be carrying for the walk, reassured perhaps by the knowledge that I do actually have some experience in this sort of thing and am not the sort of person to take risks anyway. Even so, eyebrows were raised when a very, very small envelope arrived yesterday morning, containing a rucksack. New equipment this close to the start is a bit of a risk, with very little time to test anything, but I’m prepared to make an exception to my usual rule of sticking to the tried and trusted, just this once.
Lurking inside the envelope was a crinkly plastic bag, far from inspiring, yet it quickly unfolded from this pupal state to reveal itself as a ZPacks Zero backpack, all the way from ZPacks in Florida. ZPacks (“zeepacks” I presume, although forever pronounced “zedpacks” in my head) is a small company, part of the oft-mentioned “cottage industry” of the ultralight backpacking world, started by Joe Valesko and his wife and, according to their website, now grown to include additional staff. Like many of these small manufacturers there is a lengthy and variable waiting list for orders with occasional periods when no new orders are taken, because either the company is working to full capacity, or else everyone has gone off hiking for a few months. I can’t fault that attitude.
In my case I’d mentioned to Joe that I would need the pack for early May and he assured me that there’d be no problem. I sent an email recently to check on the order (it can be a bit unnerving to order something and then have to wait for months) and Joe bumped it up the list. A week later it was at my door.
It’s worth noting that this is not precisely an off-the-shelf design. The basic ZPacks Zero rucksack (prices $45 and up at the time of writing, with very reasonable international postage charges) is little more than a simple bag with shoulder straps with a wide range of options available, from the fabric used to extra pockets, straps, bungee cords and so on. Joe points out on his site that there is a tipping point where customising the Zero is no longer cost-effective, suggesting that the more fully featured Blast pack is then the one to go for. In my case I went for extra pockets and a couple of small bungees to hold such hiking essentials as my umbrella (*ahem*), but the main decision was to have it made from Cuben Fiber. What a very strange material this is. Created for racing yachts as a sail fabric, Cuben Fiber consists of non-woven Spectra fibres laminated between mylar sheets… all very fascinating, I’m sure, but in essence it looks like a carrier bag, is remarkably hard to tear and has all the weight of a pixie’s fart. My other rucksack, a comparitively elderly GoLite Breeze, weighs 406g and even today is considered radically light by many: the Zero weighs 146g.
As with the Breeze my Zero has no waistbelt, but at my request Joe very obligingly added two small fabric loops. A piece of elastic shock-cord recycled from an old fleece (one of Emma’s, actually, which unfortunately means that it’s a quite fetching shade of lilac) and a couple of plastic hooks forms a light belt if needed by clipping onto the loops, just something to add a bit of stability if I find myself needing to scramble at any point. The shock-cord also works to hold up my insect netting under the tarp.
So how good is it? No idea… I’ll let you know after I’ve thrown Scotland at it for a fortnight. It certainly looks to be considerably more water-resistant than the Breeze and doesn’t have the acres of snag-happy mesh all over it that the GoLite pack does. The “lid” is quite brilliant, really, simply the excess fabric at the top of the pack folded over and hooked to a loop near the base of the pack. Because Cuben Fiber is quite stiff it’s easy to shape this into a rain-shedding cover. Fingers crossed, eh?
I’m bracing myself for endless comments about the semi-invisible bag (it is a bit odd being able to see inside it, but my sleeping mat obscures most of the contents), but for now I’m impressed and confident that it will do the job. Probably.