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Zpacks Nero Frameless Ultralight Backpack Review

The Zpacks Nemo is a 38L frameless ultralight backpack
The Zpacks Nero is a 38L frameless ultralight backpack

The Zpacks Nero is a frameless 38L ultralight backpack that weighs 10.9 ounces and is made with waterproof Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), formerly called cuben fiber. It’s seam taped inside, making it effectively waterproof so you don’t have to line it with a plastic garbage bag or cover it with a pack cover to keep the interior dry in the rain. At 38L and frameless, packing and using the Nero is quite different from using a backpack with a stiffer frame or load bearing hipbelt, so I include a number of usage tips below to help you make the most of this exceptionally lightweight backpack if you decide to try it.

Zpacks Nero Ultralight Backpack

Comfort
Weight
Features
Sizing
Durability
Ease of Use

Excellent

The Zpacks Nero 38L is streamlined 10.9 ounce backpack that's good for ultralight backpacking and travel, with plenty of capacity to carry loads up to about 15-20 pounds. It's designed for ultralight backpackers who want to shave every extra ounce and have with a base pack weight under 10 pounds.

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Specs at a Glance

  • Weight: 10.9 oz (11.5 oz, actual,tested)
  • Optional foam sit pad: 1.0 oz (1.6 oz, actual tested)
  • Max Recommended Load: 15-20 pounds
  • Gender: Unisex
  • Volume: 25L main body, 2.5L each side pocket, 8L center pocket
  • Materials: 2.92 oz/sq. yd. Dyneema Composite Fabric covered with 50d Polyester

Backpack Design

The Nero is laid out like a typical ultralight backpack with a roll top closure, side water bottle pockets, and a long rear mesh pocket. It’s frameless and best for carrying loads under 20 pounds, with a hip belt that’s a simple webbing strap and not designed to be load bearing. With 38L of capacity, it’s a good size for overnight or multi-day backpacking trips if you have a compact and lightweight gear list with a base weight of 10 pounds or less.

The Nero is two side water bottle pockets and a rear mesh pocket
The Nero is two side water bottle pockets and a rear mesh pocket

The side water bottle pockets are easily reachable while wearing the pack and I can remove and replace bottles stored in them. Both pockets are made with solid DCF, so they have better durability that mesh pockets, with drain holes to prevent water accumulation in rain or if you stuff wet gear into them. The bottle pockets are nice and deep, capable of holding two Smart water bottles each, with an elastic rim to keep bottles from falling out.

The Nero also comes with a closed cell sit pad that located behind your shoulders and back, much like the pad on the back of Gossamer Gear’s overnight packs, although the Zpacks pad has a smooth surface not a dimpled one.  The pad is held in place by elastic cords and looks a bit amateurish, but it’s surprisingly easy to use, effective, and reasonably durable. You do sweat under the pad when the pack is worn in warm weather, but it’s easy to pull out and reseat when want a dry place to sit, and prevents sharp objects in the pack from poking you in the back.

The Nero has a floating sit pad held in place by elastic cord
The Nero has a floating sit pad held in place by elastic cord.

Being frameless, the Nero carries best when it’s packed full of gear, so that your gear forms what is, in essence, a virtual frame.  Otherwise, it collapses in on itself like a shapeless sack – which is pretty typical of frameless backpacks without frame stays. When packing the Nero, it’s best not to pack it too tightly however, because the back of the pack will barrel roll into your back. At 38L, the Nero is a pretty high-capacity pack, so the best way to take up the space without exceeding the 15-20 lb max load is to pack your sleep insulation loose. You can also mitigate the lack of stiffness a bit by moving the sit pad inside the pack or by using a stiffer foam pad.

The hip belt is a simple webbing strap. You can remove it or anchor it at three different heights on the back or the pack. JPG
The hip belt is a simple webbing strap. You can remove it or anchor it at three different heights, shown, on the back or the pack. JPG

The Nero’s hip belt can be non-destructively removed if you don’t want it. It can also be moved up or down between three fixed positions (through sewn on loops)  if you want it to ride higher or lower. Zpacks claims that this makes the Nero an adjustable torso length pack, but I’d take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t a load bearing hip belt, so there’s no pressing need to have it rest on your hip bones, and its only function is keep the bottom of the pack from bouncing against your back as you walk.

The roll tip clips are tied to the end of the side compression strap
The roll top clips are tied to the end of the side compression strap

The top of the Nero’s main compartment closes with a roll top, with a velcro stiffener to help keep the sides closed and make it easier to roll shut. You typically need three rolls to achieve a waterproof seal on a roll top. The sides of the roll top don’t clip together (they’re both female) and there’s no top strap on the pack. The sides of the roll top clip onto male connectors tied onto the end the side compression straps, sharing the same non-elastic cord. Overloading the functions on the one cord works fine, and doesn’t interfere with using the side compression straps to hold longer items stuck into the side pockets. It also simplifies backpack construction.

Recommendation

The Zpacks Nero 38L is a sub-1-pound ultralight backpack that’s good for ultralight backpacking and travel, with plenty of capacity to carry loads up to about 15-20 pounds. To appreciate the Nero, you have to understand that this is a streamlined backpack that does not have any of the frame stays, load lifters, extra shoulder strap padding, internal pockets, hydration ports, ice axe loops, trekking polders, external pad pockets, sternum strap whistles, or webbing straps that you’ll find on other packs. It is also essential that you pack light when using the Nero, because it doesn’t have a load-bearing hip belt.

Made with Dyneema Composite Fabrics (formerly called cuben fiber), the Nero is highly water-resistant and a good choice if you hike in wet climates. Solid water bottle pockets also increase the pack’s durability, although care should be taken not to rip the relatively fragile mesh back pocket or hang up the extra cords hanging from the pack on overhanging vegetation.

Being frameless, the Nero takes the shape of your gear when loaded, and therefore takes a little practice to pack if you’ve never owned a frameless backpack before. This can be a tricky because there’s a real temptation to fill its 38L of volume with too much gear, exceeding its max recommended load. However, once you dial in your packing strategy, the Nero is a comfortable backpack with wide 2.5″ shoulder straps that distribute the load across your shoulders and eliminate pressure points.

Disclosure: Zpacks loaned the author a Nero backpack for this review.

Written 2017.

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6 comments

  1. I own and use (for overnight trips) a Six Moon Designs Feather pack (11 oz). Although it is no longer made, many of the comments you made on packing, load limit and use of a pad for rigidity for this Zpack Nero, pertain to the SMD Feather also. The Feather has some fabric on the back that will hold closed cell foam padding. It is optional, but having used this pack in several configurations, I have found that I always use at least one piece of foam (actually an old piece of a Ridgerest pad) and add a second when the load is heavier. It also allows me to not be as picky about the volume of contents. I know this adds some weight, but it makes the pack (IMO) much more versatile, functional and comfortable . Although you found the strapping for a pad on this pack acceptable, I have to wonder how much weight it would have added for something a little bit more enclosed.

    • This pack reminded me a lot of the Arc Blast 32 I bought from Zpacks in 2010. I had it customized (back when Zpacks customized packs) to have the pad pocket inside the main compartment, which greatly enhanced the carry in what was essentially a frameless pack with a minimal hip belt. Adding weight to increase the rigidity of a pack and make it easier to carry is a good tradeoff and one that I never worry about.

  2. I have the original superthin 5.8oz Zero and use it on a daily basis. I think I got it in about 2008. It goes everywhere with me (like, to the library and Safeway and the CostCo) on my back or on the MUNI bus when I’m in town. My friends describe me as the guy with the little green backpack.

    I got a second, smaller one for my 2018 PCT trip, adding the poly layer on the outside in case the extra strength was needed, and added customizable features. The same configuration has now become the Nero. It added four ounces to the whole package and stands up a little better on its own when empty. Otherwise, it’s the same. And impossible to improve upon.

    There have been times when I needed to carry items like snowshoes and winter boots, skis, tools, bearcan, etc, but I have found those are just better carried when I rigged them on slings or on straps in front of me.

    This has been the ideal backpack and I wouldn’t use any other design. I think the beltless ruck plus a fanny pack for trail gear + snacks is the ideal way to operate. I can slough my load easily which means I take quick breaks whenever I want to. And I can easily throw on a tiny belt to help carry a swollen galley when needed.

    I do toy with going back to more breathable fabrics, the downside of waterproof packs being that the hold moisture and funk that does get inside them. Airing things out is the trick to combat that and it’s not perfect. On the other hand, the wp fabric completely removes fear of precip, and that’s a big deal on my usual coastal weekend jaunts.

    Thanks for reviewing this. It’s hard to find a trustworthy voice sometimes WRT ultralight equipment and techniques – which are definitely the way to go.

    • Waterproof packs fail. It took me 3 years, but I beat an HMG 2400 to death. The bottom is now so severely abraded and holed that it can’t be used anymore. It’s unfixable. I’m kind of bummed about it.

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