Hiking in Finland

Climbing, bikepacking, skiing & packrafting in the north

Interview: Joe Valesko From ZPacks

Wednesdays are the new Tuesdays when it comes to cottage manufacturer interviews. So today we will learn what makes ZPacks such a fine cottage, how often Joe is out hiking, what is his next long distance trail project and what kind of new SUL products we can expect from ZPacks in the near future. Grab a cup of tea & biscuits and enjoy.

Joe, please briefly introduce yourself and tell us who you are. Since when are you backpacking, and how did you start?
I started backpacking when I was in high school in the 90's. I first heard about the Appalachian Trail back then and knew it was something I wanted to do. That's when I bought my first set of backpacking gear and started doing training hikes. I finally thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail after graduating college in 2004.

How often are you out backpacking nowadays?
We typically try to plan a hike at least every month or so- usually 3 day weekend hikes or week long trips. Living in Florida we do most of our trips in the fall, winter, and spring. Either on the Florida Trail or up north on the AT in Georgia or North Carolina.

You're a triple crowner, having finished all three long distance trails in the United States. Which one did you like best?
I liked the Pacific Crest Trail the best for sure. The trail is well maintained, the weather in that part of the country is great in the summer, and it has a really good balance between a wilderness experience and a close knit trail community. It is the best of all worlds you could say.

The Appalachian Trail by comparison is a bit crowded and not as much wilderness. It can be a pretty wet! It does have a good trail community and good trail towns.

The Continental Divide Trail is the opposite end of the spectrum- very wild, sparsly populated. It is challenging somtimes to navigate, and there are hazards like snow storms and very long distances between water some times. The scenery in the Rocky Mountains is epic, but the PCT is just as good without as much trouble.

Any other long-distance trails you're having an eye on, or are you nowadays more of a "weekend hiker"?
My wife and I plan to do Te Araroa, the New Zealand Trail in 2013. It is a roughly 3,000 km trail the length of New Zealand. We would also like to do the Pacific Crest Trail again some day. We aren't sure what to do about the work shop while we are away. Now that we have employees it is not as easy as just closing shop for five months.

I reckon we can put you firmly in the UL backpacker category, right? What is your typical baseweight?
I typically carry around 5 to 6 lbs (2.5 kg) baseweight. I might leave a few things behind on a weekend trip if the weather is nice, but for the most part I carry the same gear if it is 3 days or 5 months.

Please tell us where the name "ZPacks" came from, and what it stands for.
I wanted a name that was short and easy to remember. The web address ZPacks.com was available so I grabbed it! Other than that it doesn't have any great significance.

ZPacks makes innovative lightweight gear, which started off as a side-business only in the beginning, but nowadays has grown into a proper cottage, and you even have a few employees. Can you tell us how the idea to start the company emerged and how you see its future?
I started making gear just for myself, but people encouraged me to start selling it. For five years I worked alone out of an apartment while still keeping a full time day job. It finally got to the point where ZPacks became a full time job, and then I started hiring some help just last year. I'll keep expanding as necessary! Either that or take off hiking ;)

What makes ZPacks different from other cottages?
We do alot of customized products and modifications. We still build most products one at a time and we are usually able to accomodate requests, for example changes in size, or different features. I like to think the customer service experience is very good.

The ZPacks cuben Blast backpack and the Hexamid shelter are proper UL products, aimed at people who want to go really light. Can you tell us a bit how you went about the design process of these two pieces, and where the inspiration came from?
Most of the products start as something I want to use myself. I designed the Blast backpacks originally for my wife and I to use on our Pacific Crest Trail hike. The original Hexamid tent was created right before I did my Continental Divide Trail thru-hike and it was tested on that trip. Often times once I start selling a product customers suggest improvements and they get even better. I guess you could say my main drive is to create products that solve a problem like "shelter" or "carrying gear" in the lightest, most efficient way that I can.

You just released the "Exo" External Frame backpack, how did this design come about?
The Exo is made from stronger material, and it has an ultralight frame to help carry a load more comfortably. I know that not everyone has their gear list as stripped down as mine and I wanted to make a backpack to help bridge the gap between traditional heavier gear and ultralight frameless backpacks. The Exo can carry more weight comfortably, but I still tried to make it as lightweight as I could, around 335g.

Joe, we love to be let in on the work-in-progress stuff! Can you let us know what kind of new products you're working on at the moment?
We just started doing ultralight down sleeping bags last month. We are exited about those since we now make all of the big three gear items: backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags. We keep adding new things as time allows, you'll have to check the website for the latest.

Any new UL materials that have you all excited?
Yes actually! We just received our first production batch of a new waterproof breathable cuben fiber material at the beginning of October. It is the lightest wpb fabric available that I know of, and we have a jacket made from it on the site. A bivy should be coming soon pending testing.

How works the R&D at ZPacks, do you have a need yourself that you try to fix, or do some of your clients inspire you for new products and ask you for solutions to their problems?
It is a little of both. A lot of the items are things I personally want, but I also do custom projects on request. If enough people ask for the same thing, and give good feedback, it will end up on the website.

Where do your customer come from?
Our customers come from pretty much everywhere in the world. The majority are in the US, but Australia and Japan are the next biggest destinations followed by Canada and European countries.

Are you in touch with other cottage manufacturers in the USA, Europe, Japan and other places?
We have met a handful of other cottage manufactures in the USA at various hiking conventions. I don't have any contacts outside the US.

What is your own favorite backpack, sleep system and shelter?
My big three are a Exo backpack (335 g), one of our down sleeping bags (476 g), and a Hexamid Solo Tent (250 g).

Any other favourite piece of gear which you always carry with you?
I always carry a nylon wind breaker jacket, and a fleece hat. Other than that I just add warmer clothing and rain gear as necessary. I think one of our new waterproof breathable cuben fiber jackets will be a new favorite.

When and where was your last backpacking trip, and what was your baseweight?
My last trip was to a place called Eagle Creek, near Cascade Locks, Oregon. The route we took passed through one of the more scenic sections of the Pacific Crest Trail that I have been to before. It was just an overnight loop. I probably had around 4 lbs (1.8 kg) or less, just the essentials. I carried the items I mentioned above, a neoair sleeping pad, a few small items like a headlamp, plus food and water.

Are you planning to get out for a trip soon, and enjoy the autumn season?
The weather will finally be cool enough to start getting out on the Florida trail. I don't have anything big planned but I like to do something outside every weekend if I can, sometimes canoeing, or biking, or surfing if not hiking.

Do you think ultralight backpacking will become more popular and break into the mass market, or will it continue to be something for a small group of people?
I think ultralight backpacking is probably growing every year. I don't think many people that try ultralight gear go back, so the tide should keep shifting to lighter gear. I don't know if the real ultralight stuff will ever be mass market, ultralight gear isn't as easy to mass produce, and it requires informed customers to use it correctly.

Joe, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions =) Is there something you would like to add?
Thank you for the questions!

Enjoyed this cottage interview? Read the other ones and Like it on Facebook!

The Week in Review

Three weeks of paternity leave are over, and tomorrow it is back to work :/

Jack Brauer spent a week in San Pedro de Atacama. That's in Chile, it is gorgeous, and so are the photos. Recommended read.

Alex did Lost Arrow Spire direct & solo.

Markus and his girlfriend spent seven days in September on the South West Coast Path in Cornwall.

Basti's report on GORE-TEX® Active Shell and the Blogger Summit was a enjoyable, educating read.

Fraser has a new ride. It is orange. Me likey.

Scott did a redesign of the Booster Rocket seatpack.

phattire found this excellent All Mountain MTB skills video. Recommended for the bikepacking crowd, n00bs and experts alike.

I interviewed Evan Howard of Terra Rosa Gear, a cottage manufacturer from Australia.

James went backpacking the empty Nant-y-moch hills.

Rick hiked up Mount Takao, and got lost on the hike down.

Mike is enjoying the autumn.

Brian enlightens us on Gear Lists.

Benjamin spent a few nights in the beautiful Berner Oberland.

Paul walked on his own from Castle Rigg Stone Circle to Raven Crag. I still really like how he presnts his walks.

Sheila begs to differ - Moruisg is not a boring hill.

Sabine did a 24h autumn hike.

Peter shows us the Buff Hood.

Nick talks about gear, including the Scarp 1 and the Ti-Tri Sidewinder.

Maz talks about his Alpine Kit choices for 2011-2012.

Roger and Niels hiked from Blokhus to Hantsholm along the Nordsøstien, and stunning coast images are to be seen.

Hawaii in October looks like Finland in high summer. Well, minus all the sunshine and tropic flora & fauna!

Jim shows us how to run the Optimus Nova on Gas.

Jake went on a barefoot autumn hike, stunning autumn photos for our enjoyment brought back he did.

How about a midweek sunset beachride? Then the Coastkid has you covered.

Greg & Trina find gorgeous autumn days a suitable excuse for not writing a lot. Right they are!

124 gram MYOG Bug Bivy tutorial.

John and Jean have been visiting the most beautiful National Parks of the USA, and their photos make you want to visit every one of them. Stunning, a must see.

Impressions from Slovenia showcases what the attendants of the 2012 Ultralight Backpackers Summit should expect if Slovenia stays in the lead.

Jarkko muses on The Focal Lenght Analogy and wants to know your favourite piece of optic & preferred style of travel.

Joery presents part III of his Greenland adventure, which takes place in Nanortalik.

Tom woke up at an absurdly early hour and set out for a hike around Julian Price Park.

Finally, David reports that it is almost winter!

Interview: Evan Howard From Terra Rosa Gear

And we continue with a cottage manufacturer interview today. What I love about them is that they are very open-minded people, and what I love even more is that cottages now also to start to exist in other places than the USA - Evan from Australia being a prime example! He was so kind to sit down and answer my questions, and I think you will enjoy his story.

Evan, please briefly introduce yourself and tell us who you are. Since when are you backpacking, and how did you start?
My name is Evan Howard and I run Terra Rosa Gear. I started backpacking seriously about 5 years ago. Growing up in British Columbia I was outdoors all the time and consider that to be a large reason for my love of the outdoors. I now live in beautiful Sydney, Australia and do most of my backpacking in the Blue Mountains to the west of the city.

How often are you out hiking and camping nowadays
I try to get out as often as I can. I aim for at least 2-4 times per month for a few nights. I also do a few longer trips a year. I have just arrived back from a 2 week trip in the Coastal Mountain range in British Columbia.

Are you more of a "weekend hiker" or do you have some long distance trails under your belt?
I have no long distance trails under my belt such as the well know AT, PCT and also here in Australia, the A.A.W.T. (Aussie Alps Walking Track). When I go out on longer trips I really enjoy being off track and exploring the area that I am in.

Which category would you put yourself in: SUL, UL, Lightweight or Bushcraft*? What is your typical baseweight?
It depends on the trip really. I could fit into anything from UL to bushcraft. I enjoy the challenge of getting my pack as light as possible but I also love the history behind bushcraft and the atmosphere created by an open fire. I’m honestly not sure what my exact base weights are but they are very comfortable to carry without having to sacrifice any important gear.

Please tell us where the name "Terra Rosa Gear" came from, and what it stands for.
The name Terra Rosa Gear has two meanings. Terra Rosa means “red earth” which Australia is famous for having a lot of. Also and more personally, in British Columbia there is a remote Glacier called the Terrarosa Glacier. I have now completed two successful expeditions there, climbing the amazing spire peaks and exploring the area for a historic legend. The glacier is one of the most beautiful and exciting places I have seen. I wanted to capture some of that for inspiration with Terra Rosa Gear.

Terra Rosa Gear makes lightweight tarps and quilt covers. Can you tell us how the idea to start the company emerged and how you see its future?
It would have been early 2009 - I got my first camping hammock and wanted to get a tarp for it. After looking around I found there was nothing in Australia that suited what I wanted. So I sat
down and stitched one up on my girlfriend’s sewing machine. Things really went from there and only a few months later I had my first trip where everything other then my airmat was made by my own hands (including my sleeping quilt, tarp, backpack). It was a very satisfying feeling. I then worked on improving my manufacturing skills to the highest level I could before starting www.terrarosagear.com in mid 2010. I hope that in the future, Terra Rosa Gear will continue to develop its reputation as a reliable local (aussie) manufacturer of quality outdoor gear for whatever your needs -SUL to Bushcraft.

What makes Terra Rosa Gear different from other cottages?
First, I would say location. To my knowledge there is no one else who makes tarps and custom gear here in Australia.

Second, I work one-on-one with customers to get a thorough understanding of what they want from the piece of kit. I then make the piece to the specs (specifications) they give so that the end product is as close as possible to what the customer had in mind.

Third, is that although I work mainly with the lightweight fabrics I can and do also work with other materials such as canvas and heavier nylons. The skills from using and working with one really transfers well between the different types of material.

The Terra Rosa Gear tyvek and silnylon tarps and the tyvek quilt cover are not yet very well known among the northern backpackers, how does it look like in Australia and New Zealand? Are your products well known among the down-under hikers and backpackers?
Slowly but surely the Terra Rosa Gear's 'Name' is getting out and about around Australia and NZ as well as overseas. I use word of mouth and a few online forums in which I take part to pass on any news. Also, my gear is better known within the small but rapidly growing hammock community here in Australia.

Can you tell us a bit how you went about the design process of the Exploring tarp, and where the inspiration came from?
The exploring tarp is my ideal tarp for the Australian Spring through Autumn season. What I wanted when I set about designing the tarp was a multi-purpose tarp for either sleeping on the ground or in a hammock. I wanted it to be as compact and as light as possible. If you notice on the Exploring tarp the seam
crosses the tarp at the centre. There is no seam along the ridgeline. This is because there was a lot of wasted material in the cutting process when the seam was also the ridgeline. I made a few different proto types and, seeing how much fabric was being lost, made a decision to use my materials as efficiently as possible so as to minimize wastage.

Evan, we love to be let in on the work-in-progress stuff! Can you let us know what kind of new products you're working on at the moment?
Of course - there are no secrets here. I'm currently working on a range of net tents that will suit T.R.G’s tarps as well as most common tarp shelters that people might already own. I'm very excited about these- they are simple but effective. There are also a fews things in some neat materials.

Any new UL materials that have you all excited?
Oh yeah, the textile industry is always on the move. I have been working a lot with .75 oz spinnaker as well as cuben fibre. I have also been looking into very light weight canvas for use in winter shelters.

How works the R&D at Terra Rosa Gear, do you have a need yourself that you try to fix, or do some of your clients inspire you for new products and ask you for solutions to their problems?
I would have to say both. I am 190cm tall (6 feet 3 inches) and a lot of gear is just slightly small for me. Over the years I have modified a lot of my own gear to fit my height, so my designs tend to be for slightly taller people. Clients often have great ideas and are always challenging me to find new ways to solve problems with their gear and I really enjoy that process.

Where do your customer come from?
The majority of my customer base are from here in Australia. I get lots of interest from my home state of New South Wales and from Tasmania, where the mountains make for great backpacking.

Are you in touch with other cottage manufacturers in Australia, the USA, Europe, Japan, and other places?
Yes, I speak with a few in the USA. There are also a few small Australian-based businesses I keep in touch with, although they are not necessarily Backpacking-related companies. We mainly chat about materials and other bits of hard wear.

What is your favorite backpack, sleep system and shelter?
My favourite backpack would be my trusty Aussie-made One Planet Industrial HR pack. It’s a great pack that has travelled with me for many kilometres now. I can fit everything I need for a two week climbing trip in there. My favourite sleep system would be my hammock set up. I had Brandon at Warbonnet sew me up one of the famous BlackBird hammocks a couple of years back. It’s the double layer 1.1oz and I have the footbox on the left. I have a a few quilts that I made to suite the expected temps on a given trip and a 3/4 length underquilt that is very warm. Its a great system and very fun to use. I also really enjoy using the Adventuring tarp. Its very simple and easy to use. I have taken it on trips through the Tasmanian Scrub all the way to the glacier country in Canada.

Any other favourite piece of gear which you always carry with you?
Definitely - my billy, I have eaten many meals and drank many liters of tea from it. Also I have a walking stick that I carved a few years ago. It comes along, even on most climbing trips. It's great to use with the tarp set-up when sleeping on the ground.

When and where was your last backpacking trip?
My last little trip was last weekend in the Blue Mtns of New South Wales. It was a Wilderness Search and Rescue exercise. My last big trip was in August where for two weeks, my climbing partner Adam and I climbed 7 peaks and traversed 3 glacial complexes in British Columbia. This was around the Terrarosa Glacier as well as the Stave Glacier. It was an epic and inspiring trip.

Are you planning to get out for a trip soon, and enjoy the spring (Australia has reversed season from the North!) season?
That’s right it is spring right now and the Waratah flowers are blooming here. I will be heading out for 3 days next week to an amazing area in the Kanangra Boyd National park.

Do you think ultralight backpacking will become more popular and break into the mass market, or will it continue to be something for a small group of people?
I think that ultralight backpacking will no doubt become more popular as people see the benefit, challenge, and the enjoyment of toting lighter packs. From my experience, I think there are also a lot of people who tend to cross back and forth between the various weights. For example, people who enjoy SUL and UL might also enjoy Bushcraft and vice versa.
As for the mass market, it's hard to predict these things. It would be nice if more people enjoyed and had a love for the outdoors and wilderness. I think maybe if people were outdoors more they would develop more of an appreciation for the environment and work harder to prevent its destruction.

Evan, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions =) Is there something you would like to add?
Yes, Thank you very much Hendrik for the interview. It’s an honour to be included in your list along with with some legends of the ultralight backpacking scene. Also If I may I would like to thank the great people who make up the outdoor community in Australia. It is a pleasure to be involved with them and to make custom gear to their needs. Thanks again. All the best and safe travels.


*Definition of "Bushcraft: Supposed to be lightweight, but because of the massive amount of necessary bushcraft gear the Bushcraft Follower carries closer to 20 kg than the 5 which Nessmuk carried.