Joe Valesko is a serious guy. Usually I’d say “hey lighten up!” but it just so happens that Joe is serious about ultralight hiking – a triple crowner, and he’s already way lighter than most of us. Joe’s the man behind Zpacks whose name is synanomous with ultralight backpacks and shelters as well as other accessories, specializing in Cuben Fiber construction. You don’t want to miss this one? Check it out!
Hey Joe. Thanks for talking with us today. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking and backpacking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
I did my first backpacking trip as a teenager in the 90’s. I went on to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2004, the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007, and the Continental Divide Trail in 2009.
These days I try to get out as much as possible, usually weekend trips. I want to do another thru-hike in 2012.
Way to go on the triple crown! So what’s the next major destination?
We are planning to do Te Araroa (The New Zealand Trail) in 2012.
Do you have any favorite places or trails to hike?
I rarely hike the same places more than once, but my favorite places that I have been were the High Sierras in California, and the Wind River range in Wyoming.
Which of the following terms best describes your personal backpacking philosophy: Super Ultralight, Ultralight, Lightweight, Conventional, Sherpa.
I guess Super Ultralight. My hobby is to try to carry as little as possible.
What was your motivation to begin making gear? Can you recall the first piece of gear you ever made?
When I first started hiking I bought the lightest set of commercial gear I could find. I quickly realized that I could make my own gear much lighter and went from there. It started as a hobby, but became a small business after I finished my AT thru-hike.
My first ever piece of gear was a backpack that didn’t come out that great. My second was a better backpack, and then a down quilt. I still use the quilt today 10+ years later
10 years on the same quilt is a testament to your build quality. Would you say that all of your products are built to last despite being very light-weight?
We do our best! Backpacks tend to get beat up over the course of a long thru-hike just from being exposed to the elements 24-7, but gear like tents and sleeping bags can last a very long time despite the ultralight materials.
How did you learn the fabrication techniques needed to work with lightweight fabrics?
I picked up a few things from message boards online, and also lots of trial and error. Much of it was learn as you go.
Which aspects of your gear designs set Zpacks products apart from other manufacturers?
We use the lightest materials and have some creative designs that are unique to us. A large amount of our gear is custom built; there is a lot of flexibility for our customers to choose the gear that is best for them and have it customized to their specific needs.
When did you realize the existence of a market for the gear you were making?
When I was hiking the AT many fellow hikers encouraged me to start selling my gear. I mainly design products that are things I personally want to use. Turns out other people are like-minded.
Did production begin as a part time operation?
Yes. I started in 2005 working nights and weekends after a full time job as a Software Engineer. It wasn’t until 2009 that Zpacks became a full time operation for me.
Can you briefly discuss the evolution of your company and your present role?
By 2009 word had spread about our products and sales increased. It was at that time that I left my Engineering position and Zpacks became a full time gig. I started out by myself doing everything from customer service, designing and building the gear, shipping it out, etc. I guess I still do all of that but now I have a handful of seamstresses to help with the sewing. There are currently 5 of us including myself and I’m very much personally involved in all aspects of the business.
Which of your products are your best sellers?
Our Hexamid tents and Blast backpacks are the most popular.
Where are your products currently manufactured?
Everything is built, by us, at our shop here in Palm Bay, FL.
Would you say the term “cottage manufacturer” is appropriate for your company, or do you prefer something else perhaps?
That sounds accurate.
Is there a point where it becomes difficult to balance a cottage business culture with business growth? Have you reached this point yet?
Everything I sell is gear that I use myself. I think that helps in creating “good” designs, and I like to think that our customer service benefits from it as well. Due to our size we are also able to accommodate requests for product customization which is something that mainstream manufacturers simply can’t do.
Does having an intimate knowledge of why, how, and where your gear will be used give you an edge, as an independent manufacturer, over the mainstream competition? What about added value for the end user?
I think that cottage manufacturers are motivated mainly by the fact that we are not satisfied with the gear that is commercially available. The focus isn’t on “competing” with mainstream manufacturers; we just want something. If we succeed in the quest to make a better item of gear, other people may also appreciate its benefits, and it can become the basis of a new business.
What would you say to the folks out there who aren’t familiar with the smaller independent manufacturers and what to expect in terms of customer service, and product quality? Is there anything about your products, business, or the cottage industry in general you’d like to emphasize?
To the hikers and backpackers out there considering lightening up and maybe trying some cottage gear; I would say don’t be afraid to try it. Sometimes people look at super ultralight gear and they think “that will never hold up”, but it does! Try some small items like stuff sacks and work up to the big items. I think customers may also find a better customer service experience with a small company like ours. Having a close relationship with our customers is important, especially when it comes to customer feedback which we can use to implement improvements into our product line without any big-business type of politics getting in the way..
What does the future hold for lightweight and ultralight backpacking?
I think more and more people are transitioning to ultralight gear. I don’t see why that would change. Once people make the switch I don’t think many go back
Can you tell us what your personal “big three” items are for a typical 3-season, 3-day hike?
My personal big three items are all ZPacks gear, or homemade items that we don’t offer for sale currently:
Blast 20 backpack (6.8 oz)
Hexamid solo tent (8.2 oz)
homemade down sleeping bag (1 lb)
Snow Peak 1.4 liter titanium pot with a home made bail attached
I typically carry about 4-5 lbs of gear once all the accessory items are thrown in.
Just for fun, what’s one of your favorite pieces of gear made by another manufacturer?
A few items that I like that I don’t make are a NeoAir sleeping pad, and an Evernew titanium pot.
Is there anything new on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Ultralight waterproof breathable jackets are on our radar. I have a waterproof breathable jacket for myself weighing in at 4.5 ounces. I don’t know when or if they will be available for sale at this point. The material itself is a prototype and isn’t yet available.
So, what’s your vision for yourself and your company for the future?
We are taking things as they come. We may hire a couple more seamstresses near term, other than that I am more concerned about making time for my next thru-hike!
Complete this sentence: “I hope that Zpacks products will …”
…will work for you as well as they do for me.
Thanks for taking time with us today, Joe.
No problem, thank you!
You can check out all of the Zpacks products www.zpacks.com. We’re happy that Joe was able to stop walking, take a break from building gear, and take five to chat with us. Would you like to pry our ear for a minute or two? Try the comment form below, we’re pretty sure it works. Hike it Like it.
To the hikers and backpackers out there considering lightening up and maybe trying some cottage gear; I would say don’t be afraid to try it. Sometimes people look at super ultralight gear and they think “that will never hold up”, but it does!
Hexamid Solo tarp with a view
Hexamid Twin tarp on the trail
Blast backpack… yep it’s also Cuben Fiber!
A Cuben Fiber stuff sack
Everything I sell is gear that I use myself. I think that helps in creating “good” designs, and I like to think that our customer service benefits from it as well.
Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy.
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