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Zpacks: A wilderness hobby gone wild

25.01.2019

In 2005, Joe Valesko began Zpacks in his apartment to confront a very specific demand: his own. He wanted to make the lightest and most functional backpacking equipment for his long-distance hikes along iconic US trails – from the Appalachian to the Pacific Crest. As of 2018, he’s covered over 10,000 miles while building his Florida-based company into one of the most renowned brands in the ultralight backpacking world. Now with over 100 employees, Valesko still designs and tests all Zpacks products himself.

What was your background that led up to starting Zpacks?
I had originally started building my own gear as a hobby to make my backpacking trips easier and more fun. Right after completing school for computer science in 2004, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Hikers I met underway encouraged me to start selling my designs. So when I finished the trail, I did apply for a "real job", but at the same time I started building a website and making prototype gear out of my apartment. Between 2005 and 2009, I worked as a software engineer during the day, and worked nights and weekends sewing backpacks and other items for customers. I ended up quitting my software job twice: once to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007, and again to do the Continental Divide Trail in 2009.

How did Zpacks evolve size wise in the years that followed? 
For the first five years it was just me, and then my wife and I, building gear out of an apartment and then a garage. We hired our first employee in 2010, and moved out of the garage in 2011. We've been growing steadily since then, and have now reached 110 employees and have an 11,000 square-foot unit in an industrial park. We still build all our gear in shop. Most of our employees are seamsters.
 
What led you to seek out Dyneema® Composite Fabrics to use for your products?
Backpacking gear needs to be as lightweight as possible without sacrificing too much on durability or function. Naturally we want the lightest, strongest materials we can get our hands on. Dyneema® fabrics beat the alternatives in both strength and weight – it’s as simple as that.
 
Over the years you’ve created a wide range of items out of Dyneema® Composite Fabrics – shelters, bags, raingear, etc. In fact, most of your products include it. Can you explain why?
These fabrics are waterproof, stretch resistant and lightweight. Those characteristics are very suitable for most outdoor products. We've spent the last decade refining our construction techniques to suit the sometimes-delicate fabric. We use tape to seal and strengthen most of our stitched seams and add adhesive reinforcements to stress points. Our finished products are able to beat the weight of comparable gear, usually with equal or better durability.

"We hired our first employee in 2010, and moved out of the garage in 2011. We've been growing steadily since then, and have now reached 110 employees and have an 11,000 square-foot unit in an industrial park."

Do you use any techniques invented by Zpacks? Can you please elaborate on the innovations you’re most excited about?
We had to figure out the best way to sew the laminate material, and the best adhesive to use for tape. Dyneema® Composite Fabrics are a laminate rather than a woven fabric, so you have to take extra care on the seams. Also, Dyneema® Composite Fabrics have very minimal stretch, so that has to be factored into the designs of gear such as tents.

Would you give us some insight into the process of working with a material as strong as Dyneema®.
We've been through a good deal of trial and error and testing to figure out what works and what doesn't. My favorite testing method is to get out and walk a couple thousand miles with our gear. After a trip like that I can fix any weak points and improve our designs. We also get a ton of valuable customer feedback.

Since you sell directly to customers, you must indeed have all sorts of interesting interactions... 
We do free repairs on our gear, so if anything goes wrong we usually hear about it. We also constantly make small improvements whenever we see the same problem occurring more often. For example, I recently had a customer who reported holes in the mesh parts of his backpack after a five-month thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, and he wanted to get it fixed up for another future thru-hike. That got me thinking about the Dyneema® mesh that DSM offers…  Problem solved!
 

"My favorite testing method is to get out and walk a couple thousand miles with our gear."

Are there any other directions you would like Dyneema® fabric to go as a component?
I would still like to see a superlight woven Dyneema® fabric that can beat the weight and strength of the lightest nylon. That would be excellent for clothing, sleeping bags and other gear requiring breathable cloth. A Dyneema®-based insect mesh would also be useful.
 
Outside of how you’ve already used it, what other possibilities do you see for a material with such specific properties?
I have seen other people dabble with the material for things such as kites, cycling gear, rescue equipment and parachutes. Even when it comes to backpacking gear, there are still a few more product categories that can be lightened up with Dyneema® fabrics that we have not tackled yet. But we’ll get there!
 
What innovations outside of your immediate professional field are you most excited about at the moment?
I think it is amazing how fast electronics such as smartphones, laptops and so on have progressed in the last ten years. I can hike with a super computer in my pocket that has maps, GPS, word processing, a camera, and I can video chat for free anywhere in the world with Wi-Fi. All for a few ounces. Crazy. 

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