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 hip belt, so I include a number of useful tips below to help you make the most of this exceptionally lightweight backpack if you decide to try it.
Specs at a Glance
- Weight: 10.5 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
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 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 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 you want a dry place to sit, and prevents sharp objects in the pack from poking you in the back.
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 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 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 to keep the bottom of the pack from bouncing against your back as you walk.
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.
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 ax 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 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.