What are “Flash Reviews?”

Welcome to Flash Reviews, a new column at Backpacking Light.

Flash Reviews will feature short, introductory reviews of selected products that may be new on the market, have not yet received “official” press at backpackinglight.com, or may be just outside the scope of our core product review program to warrant a full review.

This column will allow us to feature more gear than ever before in a unique context – actual user experience from a wide variety of authors. The source of the gear may come from different places – the gear may have been submitted for review by a manufacturer (either solicited or unsolicited) or purchased by the author. In any case, you’ll get our honest and sometimes frank opinions about how this gear works for us.

Flash Reviews, in all cases, will represent gear that is new to the author writing the column issue. Our hope is that the author could provide their fresh perspective on gear that is new to them, and review it in the context of their kit, how that new gear might find a place in their kit, and what the new gear might replace for them.

We hope this column provides value and interest to the reader, so please leave your feedback in the forum below as we allow you to help us evolve this column.

If you are interested in writing a Flash Reviews column, please submit your proposal via our Story Submission Form.

Issue No. 1

ZPacks Challenger Rain Jacket & Pants

Until 2012, my rain pants of choice have been old pairs of Gore-Tex Paclite pants (various brands) trimmed below the knees with a pair of scissors to make “knickers”. This makes getting the pants on and off easy over shoes. In 2012, I upgraded to a simple Cuben Fiber version of the same style (also knicker-style) from ZPacks. I wore the knicker-style pants on about 2/3 of my trips, but I always kept a full length pant in the quiver, which provided better protection and warmth in the fringe and winter seasons, and for packrafting.

In addition, I’ve always kept a quiver of rain jackets for various purposes and seasons. However, over the years, I’ve found myself grabbing one style above all others: a simple, full-zip, highly breathable rain jacket with a single chest pocket. It was time to minimize the number of choices there as well.

In an effort to reduce the quantity of equipment that I own and use (and thus, to make trip preparation easier through simplified decision-making), I am exploring the idea of using a single set of raingear for all trips in all seasons. For my choice, I opted for the ZPacks Challenger Rain Jacket (5.6 oz) and Pants (3.8 oz).

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Wearing the ZPacks Challenger Rain Jacket in my shelter in the Gallatin Mountains while writing this review on an iPod Touch. In addition to the possibility that it’s going to replace several other rain jackets, I’m also exploring the possibility that it just may replace my wind shirt as well. I’ve worn the jacket in dry, windy conditions, and while sleeping, and am happy to verify its excellent breathability in a wider range of conditions than what I’ve experienced with most, if not all, of my other raingear.

Made with a 1.6 oz/sq. yd. waterproof-breathable Cuben Fiber material (a laminate of Spectra fibers, eVENT, and ripstop nylon), the Challenger garments are compact, lightweight, breathable, and have a stiffer hand characteristic of much heavier fabrics. In addition, they fit well, offer high quality trim (e.g., waterproof YKK zips), and don’t skimp on design features important to backpackers (e.g., room for layering, long sleeves and pant legs, articulation, adjustable cuffs).

I’ve used the pants for a year and they have officially replaced all other rain pants in my kit. I’ve worn the jacket for just a few trips in 2014 so far, and I foresee the same future for my other rain jackets. I’ve experienced their effective breathability and comfortable next-to-skin feel (e.g., when worn over shorts or a short-sleeved shirt); I love the fit, finish, and manufacturing quality of the garments; and have been impressed by their waterproofness and durability when bushwhacking, sitting in a packraft all day, and sitting and kneeling on wet ground.

As for as long term durability, the jury’s still out on this particular fabric. However, for now, they have edged out at least six other jacket-and-pant garments from my closet, and I’m expecting those to find their way to other owners soon.

Learn More: ZPacks.com

JepPak Custom Pack

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My custom JepPack on an overnight trip to the Windy Pass Cabin, Montana.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with a new backpack manufacturer, JepPak, to build a custom pack and review their process. I’ve now received the finished pack and have used it on a short overnight backpacking trek in the Gallatin Mountains.

My primary pack is a 2.5-lb full Spectra version of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter 4400. Mine is actually a bit bigger than 4400 ci, with a heavier-than-stock harness and suspension, for carrying the heavier loads required of my longer expeditions, while guiding clients, and carrying packrafting or climbing gear. I was hoping to use my HMG pack for all my trips, but I found it to just be too much for short trips. So, I’m looking to add one pack back to my quiver.

The specs I sent to JepPak were simple: build me a mostly waterproof pack with a top lid, rear pocket, and robust enough suspension to carry a heavy-ish load. The pack was to be durable and simple. Volume was to be compact – in the range of 35 liters – without sacrificing the length required for a nice long torso.

Sam Jepson, the owner and maker, built a little beauty of a pack with these specs:

  • Cuben Fiber CT5K.18 2.9 oz/sq. yd. 50d polyester-laminated, main body fabric (1.5 oz/sq. yd.)
  • Aluminum tubular “U”-shaped frame stay
  • 37L of volume in the main body (verified by me)
  • Compact dimensions (10.5” wide and 7” deep)
  • Torso length to fit me (23.5”)
  • Roll-top closure
  • Fully taped inside seams for waterproofness
  • Double layer bottom (reinforced with 210d Dyneema grid)
  • Twin rear daisy chains
  • Removable top pocket with waterproof zip closure
  • Removable back pocket with waterproof zip closure
  • Removable hip belt that can be used on top pocket for fanny pack
  • Dual daisy chains
  • Stripped weight (pack bag with shoulder straps): 13.8 oz
  • Total weight (pack bag, hip belt, frame, top pocket, back pocket): 29.7 oz

I’ve tested the pack to about 35 pounds and am thrilled with its comfort at this weight. This is about as dense as I’ll pack it – on those winter day trips where the pack is filled with carabiners, ice screws, and rope. The combination of wide padded shoulder straps and a wide padded hip belt with an aluminum frame immediately set this pack apart from floppy ultralight sacks that require some manifestation of a rolled or folded sleeping pad for a frame.

The pack is well made, aesthetically pleasing, and has a narrow profile that’s fun to wear in tight spaces. It’s comfort is outstanding, in part because it’s a custom fit for me, and in part because Sam pays attention to how loads should be carried, and builds harnesses accordingly.

I don’t have a lot of experience with my custom JepPak yet, but if first impressions are good predictors of the future, I can recommend one to you.

The most enjoyable part of owning this pack has been getting to know the JepPaks family and working with them through the process of designing and building the pack. Sam has a great attention to detail and pays careful attention to customer needs.

I’ll be writing a complete review of the process used by JepPaks, and a review of this pack, as I get more experience with it.

Learn More: JepPaks.com

Zebralight H52Fw Floody Headlamp (Neutral White)

In addition to a goofy name, there are other unique features of this interesting little headlamp.

First, the highlights:

  1. Its LED is a Cree XM-L2 – which outputs a whopping 266 Lumens (Lm) at full power. To the layman, this can be translated to mean: “really freakin’ bright”. I can light up the side of a mountain several hundred yards away with this thing;
  2. It uses a single AA battery;
  3. The lamp is detachable from a headband so it can be used as a conventional flashlight, stood on end as a table light, or clipped to a belt/pocket;
  4. Current-regulated in all lighting levels/modes;
  5. Waterproof (IPX7 – 2 meters at 30 minutes);
  6. Very powerful customization options;
  7. A wide variety of lighting modes and runtime options:
Mode Description Output (Lm) Runtime (hr)
High H1 266 Lm 0.9 hr
High H2 163 1.7
High H2* 102 3
Medium M1 47 7.5
Medium M2 23 12
Medium M2* 11 27
Low L1 2.6 4 days
Low L2 0.32 3 weeks
Low L2* 0.06 2 months
Low L2** 0.01 3 months

In addition to these modes, the H52Fw offers two beacon strobe modes (4Hz and 19Hz), both at level H1.

Did you see the asterisks in the above table? Those modes indicate so-called “sub-levels” that you can select via custom programming.

And that leads to the primary limitation of this light:

  1. You have to read the instructions to get the most out of it!

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The Zebralight H52Fw is a very well-made and outrageously bright headlamp with a nice form factor. It has a lot going for it, but at an MSRP of USD$64, it will have an uphill row to hoe if it’s going to compete with the simpler, more popular headlamp models that dominate the outdoor industry from Petzl, Princeton Tec, and Black Diamond.

My preliminary experience with the H52Fw is that its operation is not as intuitive, as say, a Petzl. Read the instructions to understand what is happening when you click the button through various modes, or hold the button down through various mode cycling.

Second, I’m discovering much shorter battery life (even with the manufacturer-recommended Sanyo 2000 mAh Eneloop AA battery) at the suggested outputs than what the manufacturer is claiming. This is based on circumstantial field observations, and not on a controlled test environment, so take this observation with a grain of salt.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth review of this light to come. My experience is limited with it, but I’m looking forward to spending some time studying its performance. For me, this light competes with my old standby – a Petzl Tikka+ XP, which weighs about the same but uses 3xAAA batteries. I like the Zebralight’s superior manufacturing quality, maximum light output, and utility when removed from its headband. But I like the Tikka+ XP’s simplicity, reliability, and runtime predictability…

Learn More: Zebralight.com