A Chat with Matt from Zpacks: The Value of Preparedness, How to Make Your Pack Lighter, and an Introduction to Shikoku Henro

As bowhunters, we often have an odd relationship with equipment: whereas hikers want to pare down gear as much as possible, we seem to be drawn to it. A lot of bowhunters have an attitude of “the more gear, the better,” and while that can work—it can provide a sense of safety, and the feeling that you can handle whatever situation comes your way—it’s not really the best way to go about things.

Yes, you need your bow, your safety equipment, and your tent and bedding—but if you’re not careful, all that stuff is going to weigh you down and make it harder for you to get to where you need to be to harvest your game. And if you’re putting in some real mileage—as you will if you’re spot-and-stalk hunting—extra poundage can exhaust you, and it can be the difference between a successful hunt and an unsuccessful one.

This is all to say: perhaps we, as hunters, should be talking a little bit more about lightweight gear.

To that end, we got in touch with Matt at Zpacks. They specialize in creating lightweight gear for outdoor adventurers, and their stuff is a fantastic fit for bowhunters (and outdoors-people of all activities). We always learn something new in these interviews, and we learned a ton during this talk: about lightweight options for hoofing it to huntable locations, about how experience can be the most valuable tool you'll ever have, and about how, in the end, enjoying the outdoors really comes down to the people you're sharing it with. We even learned about a specialized hike called Shikoku Henro, which we had never even heard about.

So, let’s jump in, and a big thank you to Matt at Zpacks!  

Q: Matt, thank you for talking with us! To start out, can you give us a quick idea of who you guys are, what you make, and a little bit about your history?

A: Sure. First off, thanks for reaching out to us. Zpacks came about from our owner, Joe Valesko, and his quest to hike the Appalachian Trail. Like most hikers, he went to the local outfitter to look at gear. Fortunately for us, he wasn't impressed—everything was heavy, had a ton of extra buckles, all sorts of extra webbing, and didn’t really appeal to him.

He thought that there had to be a better way, so he sat down at his sewing machine and made his first pack, his first shelter, etc. He got on a bus headed to Georgia with a bunch of unproven, DIY gear and started the trail.

It didn't take him long before he realized that his gear wasn't that good. He took a break, came back home, and made the second version of each item and then went back out on the trail. Then he came back home and made a third version before completing the trail.

As he refined his gear, it started to gain more interest on trail. Everyone encouraged him to start selling his gear when he got off trail, which he, kind of reluctantly, did. From there it has been slow and steady growth ever sense.

As a company, our approach is still governed by the very thing that inspired Joe before the Appalachian Trail: an obsession with the lightest function version of gear available. It's the core of who we are and how we approach gear design. Whether it was the backpacks that we first started with, the tents that came next, or the sleeping bags or clothing we make now, the final products always reflects our commitment being the lightest of the light, while still being functional and being able to stand up to a thru-hike (2,000+ miles) of use.

Q: I love that—"He got on a bus headed to Georgia with a bunch of unproven, DIY gear and started the trail." That's the sort of mindset it takes to become an entrepreneur: equal parts vision, DIY, and courage, and maybe a little bit of crazy, to be honest. Most people wouldn't do that—they would just kind of "make do" with the tools available. I love even more that he found out quickly—and was able to admit—that his creations needed some work! Back to the drawing board, as they say. 

We actually have a few questions about gear. Many of our readers are bowhunters, and we're finding—and thrilled to find—that there's been a renewed interest in bowhunting over the last few years. A lot of people in their 20s and 30s, who have never been hunting before, are getting their licenses and heading into the woods. Many of them are completely new to outdoor adventuring, and they're piecing together their knowledge bit by bit. Can you give some of our newer readers any tips on selecting gear for multi-day hiking and camping trips?

A: Anytime you head out into the back country you want to be prepared. Sometimes that means gear and sometimes that means knowledge and experience. The more time you spend outside the easier it is to determine what you really need and don't need to be safe and comfortable.

Avid hikers and outdoorsmen usually have the ability to pare down their kits to only the true essentials. They can do this safely because of their experience and first-hand knowledge. The concept is straight forward: the less weight that you're carrying, the further you be able to go and the less wear-and-tear your body will endure.

With this approach in mind, Zpacks has created a wide range of products that are great for novices and experienced outdoorsmen looking to shave weight. Our ultralight tents, like the Duplex, are a huge favorite in the outdoor community. We offer sleeping bags, like our Full Zip Sleeping Bag and our Classic Sleeping Bag that provide warmth and comfort at a fantastic price-to-weight ratio. When you get your kit truly dialed in, then you can switch to one of our ultralight backpacks like the Arc Haul or Arc Blast to save even more weight.

Q: Can you introduce us a little bit to your product-building process? It's easy to overlook how much work goes into a tent or a backpack, and you guys have some pretty unique designs. On your "About" page, it sounds like design literally starts at home, and Joe began the company sitting at a sewing machine because he couldn't find any gear he liked.

A: All of our products are born from our own needs as long-distance hikers and travelers. We constantly are using the gear ourselves. This, along with customer feedback, helps us to refine each of our products or re-imagine new ones. Once we have an idea, we sit down together and discuss the purpose we are trying to achieve and formulate a game plan. From there we prototype and test until we get it right.

Q: I think it's safe to say you guys are living the dream—we checked out your "Adventures" page on your website, and it looks like you guys make adventuring an important part of your business. You've got some dream hikes on there—Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, Tour du Mont Blanc. Can you tell us about some of the highlights of those trips?

A: I'd be lying if I said that this job wasn't awesome. It has provided me with some great opportunities to visit amazing places and to do things that I love—but that doesn't mean that it isn't work! We spend a lot of time on trail combing over gear, putting it to the test, and creating collateral for marketing. We also do a ton of market research by talking to and hanging out with other hikers. It's hard to know what the pulse of the community is like if you truly aren't out on the trail with them.

As for the highlights, every trail has its own character and special defining features. Some offer expansive views, and climbing to the top of a peak or standing, awestruck, in front of some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world, is incredible.

That being said, the highlights of a trail are usually the moments spent with other hikers. If you talk with someone right after a hike, they will usually touch on the visual highlights briefly before launching into countless stories of shared experiences with the other hikers. It's the sense of community and shared experience that makes the hiking crowd so special.

Q: We see, too, on your "Adventures" page, that you've been to Iceland! My wife and I went a few years back, and hiked the Laugavegur trail. It's an absolutely incredible place, and for all the amazing views we could see, it was pretty safe—it wasn't an extremely challenging hike, and we actually saw a lot of older folks having a great time.

 And that's one of the things I love about your website—other than that gorgeous Instagram page, that has about 50,000(!) followers—is the "Adventure Videos" page. Talk about great advertisements for your products—those videos are absolutely gorgeous! Why other "outdoor adventure" companies don't embrace videos on their sites is a mystery. What's the process for making those? Were those a planned part of your marketing strategy, or did that just kind of happen naturally?

A: One of my favorite things that we do is our adventure videos (and it's not just because I get to be in most of the videos!). Like a lot of hikers these days, we started documenting our own trips for ourselves and for our families and friends. The popularity of these videos began to take off and we just ran with it.

I think it's been beneficial for us that our community has been able to see that we are just like them—hikers out on the trail having a good time. We don't even talk about the gear, really—we just go out there and do our thing. Sharing our experiences, regardless if we're laughing, bleeding, struggling up a steep climb, or braving some insane weather just helps us connect to other hikers on the internet much in the same way we would connect with them if they were there with us.

Q: It also looks like the three of you—Joe "Samurai" Valesko, Matt "Details" Favero, and "Posh" Buzz Bradley—go on those adventures together. What are some of the advantages—and disadvantages—of running a company with your friends?

A: It usually takes strong personalities to run a company and with the three of us you have just that. I believe that it is our advantage and our disadvantage. While we all have entirely different ways of going about things, we respect each other and that allows us to balance each other out.

When we aren't all in agreement on something, the discussions can become intense, but the end result is usually something better than any one of us would have come up with on our own. It's the ability to work together and evolve an idea into something that serves our customers better that is our strength. We aren't overly concerned with personal wins as much as we are focused on wins for the customer and our entire company. That has really allowed us to make some great decisions as we've grown.

Q: Last question: money is not an issue, and neither is time, and Zpacks will run itself while you're away. What's your once-in-a-lifetime, dream voyage? Where do you go—and what do you take?

A: Before I become a long-distance hiker, I was on vacation in Takamatsu, Japan and noticed a few older Japanese men in white clothing and pointy straw hats walking together. I then saw a similar sight while I was in other spots on the island.

Eventually, I learned that these were pilgrims who were undertaking the Shikoku Henro, a pilgrimage connecting 88 different temples across the island. It is a 750-mile long journey with can take 30 to 60 days to complete. It is sometimes referred to as the Japan Camino, which is a reference to the very popular Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.

Once I started to get into hiking, I kept day dreaming about returning to Japan to take on this hike. I made a promise to myself that I would do it for my 50th birthday. It may be another eight years away, but I fully intent to keep that promise.

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Matt, a very big THANK YOU to you and the crew from Zpacks! Maybe we’ll see you all on trail sometime soon. Thank you for teaching our readers a thing or two about lightweight gear, and good luck on your Shikoku Henro trip—we look forward to seeing those photos on your “Adventures” page!

Gregory Johnson

With almost 20 years of archery experience under his belt, Gregory founded the Complete Guide to Archery website in 2019. His purpose has been to spread knowledge about the hobby and sport to anyone willing to learn.