The ZPacks Hexamid
The ZPacks Hexamid is a state-of-the art shelter, made of cuben fibre, that is attracting a lot of attention, however, the shelter yet to be widely reviewed. Long distance hiker Colin Ibbotson tells me that during his PCT hike this year he reckoned the Hexamid to be one of the most popular shelters . Fellow hiker Keith Foskett used a Hexamid on the PCT and, this year, took it with him on his Compostela walk. But how does the Hexamid shelter stand up to UK conditions?
In this review hiker and author John Davison shares his first impression on the shelter, which has has been using in the UK.
ZPacks make a few different models of their Hexamid shelter, so I’ll start by being specific: my shelter is a Hexamid Solo tent, with bug netting and a beak. I use it with a ZPacks cuben fibre bathtub groundsheet, which I ordered with the tent. Oh, and in my Hexamid, it’s pronounced “Zed-packs”, which tells you which side of the pond I live on.
I should stress that this is very much an introductory review: I’ve slept in the Hexamid for a mere five nights, but I have learnt about it in that time, and maybe it’s a credit to the tent when I say that I look forward to more. I think it’s fair to say that what I thought at first were shortcomings of the Hexamid were, in reality, my own shortcomings. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I normally use a Terra Nova Laser Competition, which has been my faithful companion through thick and thin, or one of the three bivvy bags which decorate the loft in my garage. I bought the Hexamid because it offered a substantial weight saving compared to my usual set up and it seemed to offer a slightly bigger usable footprint than my Laser Comp. ZPacks quote a weight of 451g all-in for this model of Hexamid, including eight of their own titanium stakes, which is pretty astounding.
My new tent arrived within two weeks of me placing the order. My initial impression was good. This was my first cuben fibre shelter so my experience was limited, but I could see that the workmanship was first-class. There were no loose threads or dodgy-looking seams; everything was as it should be.
Compared to the ZPacks figure of 451g, my Hexamid weighs 475g, but I’m responsible for the weight increase. I attached Lineloks when I fitted the guys (because I prefer adjustable guylines) and I carry ten Vargo 16cm titanium stakes (I like to have a couple of spares). When it comes to weight on my back, I can get as obsessive as the next backpacker, but I can live with the extra 24g.
ZPacks have a video showing how to pitch a Hexamid:
and provide written instructions
Both are simple and accurate. Even though it was snowing, I had to get this thing up in the back garden straightaway, and here is my first attempt:
Pitching was quick and easy, using one of the Pacer Poles that I normally walk with. Having pitched it, my first reaction was, “A six inch gap all round? Looks like it’s going to be draughty under there.” My second thought was, “Olive drab? Are you sure?”
I checked the ZPacks website and, yes, their version of olive drab really does look like that. I remembered reading somewhere that cuben fibre is difficult to dye, and my Hexamid was certainly stealthier than the white or blue alternatives, so I decided I could live with the colour. I pointed out to a friend that, although I’d only owned this tent for a day, I’d already taken more photographs of it than I had of some women I’d been out with. A fellow walker, his reply was reassuring, “Don’t worry, that’s completely normal”.
I took the Hexamid down and did some more test pitches a few days later, just to convince myself that the easy pitch wasn’t a fluke, but it wasn’t: it went up easily and quickly every time.
Although I was nervous about the six-inch gap around the edges, I took it on a trip to the Brecon Beacons in south Wales and on another to the Scottish Highlands. I couldn’t believe that the UK has a monopoly on rain, wind and fog; after all, the ZPacks website has comments from people who’ve successfully used Hexamids on the big American trails for months at a time, and on other long distance trails all around the world.
The Brecon Beacons trip was in March 2013. I pitched the Hexamid in pouring rain in the dark, in a lowland field. As usual, it went up quickly and easily, but I found that I should have started off using this shelter in daylight. I couldn’t simply place my kit around me as I would in my Laser Comp: I had to be a bit more thoughtful about what went where to ensure that nothing channelled rain onto the bathtub groundsheet and my cosy down sleeping bag, and that’s not easy in the dark and the rain.
The next thing I noticed was that I was going to have to be careful if I was to avoid brushing against the inside of the tent. I’m 6’ 1” and 15 stone, and I’m quite broad-shouldered. That means that when I sleep on my side, the tent roof is very close to my face and my upper shoulder. Alternately, when I turned onto my back, it seemed very close to my face and my feet.
I was woken up several times in the night by what felt like a fine drizzle on my face. My headtorch showed me a large patch of condensation from my breath on the inside of the tent, not surprisingly, right over my face. As the rain beat down on the outside of the tent, the force of the impact caused the condensation on the inside to come off in fine droplets, onto me. It wasn’t enough to cause me problems, but it did wake me up several times.
I struck camp the next morning wondering if I’d need a bivvy bag to use the Hexamid successfully. That annoyed me because it would defeat the weight saving, and if I was going to use a bivvy bag I wouldn’t need a tent in the first place.
The next night was cold and frosty, with a little snow instead of rain, and I had no problems with moisture. I still hadn’t worked it out at this stage.
The next month in Scotland, the Hexamid went up easily and felt solid under a moderate breeze. The bathtub groundsheet clipped into place simply and quickly. Here we are in Glen Spean, below Inverlair:
I pitched the Hexamid low to minimise the gap around the edges and thus keep most of the wind out. No moisture dropping on my face this time, but when I woke up next morning there was a lot of condensation on the inside. I started to think of strategies to protect my sleeping bag, and realised that I might have to use my jacket to cover the foot end of the bag, to prevent me inadvertently brushing against the condensation as I turned in the night. I still hadn’t got it.
The next evening it was blowing a gale. It had been a long day, and I was tired and frustrated. I didn’t even cook dinner: I simply found a site slightly less wind-blasted than its surrounds, chucked the tent up and crawled into my sleeping bag with some biscuits. I quickly realised that more air than usual was moving through the Hexamid. Without meaning to, I’d set my trekking pole higher this time, resulting in a bigger gap around the edges and more draught. I was tired and I couldn’t be bothered to get out again and adjust everything, so I arranged a few dehydrated meal packets to keep the wind off my face and went to sleep. The higher pitch might be more draughty, but at least the tent was away from my head, shoulder and feet.
I slept right through the night and woke up warm and dry. There was no condensation anywhere in the Hexamid. And finally, I got it.
When the Hexamid’s designer, Joe Valesko, says that the Hexamid offers “great ventilation”, what he really means is that it offers great ventilation. I’d been deliberately pitching it to minimise air flow, misguidedly thinking it would offer more protection like that. But this tent needs air flow to work properly. That makes campsite selection and weather forecasting more important concerns than they might otherwise be: you can’t simply decide to stop for the day and throw this tent up anywhere, as you might with some 1990s geodesic contraption. But if you enjoy carrying the weight of the 1990s geodesic contraption, good luck to you, crack on. Let’s face it, we already put some thought into campsite selection: I wouldn’t pitch my Laser Comp anywhere. So it’s just a question of learning to use the Hexamid in order to get the best out of it. That said, you don’t want so much air flow that you have to carry a heavier sleeping bag – that would also negate the weight saving.
What else did I learn? Well, take good care of the shockcord guyline that tensions the beak. When the beak is open and rolled up, the shockcord guyline is attached to the main guyline peg only. When you strike camp, it would be very easy to take that peg out, tie up the main guy and not notice the black shockcord left behind on the ground. You could easily lose it altogether like that, and have to improvise a piece of blue baler twine with bits of cow shit dangling off it, because there’s nothing else available. Only if you were careless, though.
The detachable groundsheet is very handy. If there is condensation on the inside of the tent you don’t have to get it onto the groundsheet: just remove the latter and pack it separately, nice and clean and dry. This also means that in bad weather you can quickly put up the Hexamid for a lunch or tea stop, sitting on your sit mat or a carrier bag, without getting the groundsheet wet or dirty.
But most of all, pitch it nice and high.