Welcome! Ultralight backpacking is my passion, and keeping up on new technologies, gear, and techniques relevant to UL backpacking is what floats my boat. I'm always looking for the lightest, most functional gear to improve a lightweight or ultralight backpacking kit, and report my impressions and field testing results here. For hikers wanting to keep up on the latest and greatest ultralight backpacking gear, this is a good place to hang out. Also, there is a lot of information here (and on our informational website Southwest Ultralight Backpacking) on useful techniques and backcountry etiquette -- food for thought for hikers wanting to lighten their load and their impacts.

My goal for Ultralight Insights is to understand, test, and report on new technologies and gear of interest to lightweight and ultralight backpackers. It's a passion after all, so we just plain enjoy talking about it. I hope readers will add their own wisdom and comments, respond to my questions, ask their own questions, and correct me if I get something wrong. Happy hiking! Will

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

GEAR REVIEW: The 1.3 Ounce Sawyer Mini is the Lightest Water Filter Available

By Will Rietveld

Water treatment is always a hot topic among lightweight backpackers. We ditched the heavy pump style filters long ago, so they are totally out of the picture. Now it’s a debate about which is the best lightweight effective water treatment system: Aqua-Mira drops, Aqua-Mira tabs, Ultra Violet, or the Sawyer filters. Other “lightweight” filters on the market require expensive replacement cartridges, so I omit them.

It seems there is no “perfect” lightweight water treatment method currently available – they all have some drawbacks – so it’s a personal choice based on how one weighs the following factors: effectiveness, weight, convenience, wait time, taste, and cost.

My personal experience is probably typical: Aqua-Mira is the lightest system, but I got tired of the mixing and wait time, and the tabs are expensive; the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter (2.4 ounces) is lightweight, but I got tired of sucking to get my water – too much sucking and not enough drinking; the rechargeable SteriPen Freedom (2.65 ounces) is also very lightweight, but it requires a wide-mouth bottle for treatment and a full charge may not last through a trip. The SteriPen stopped working on a recent trip, which makes me less willing to rely on an electronic device for water treatment.

The new Sawyer Mini water filter weighs just 1.3 ounces (without the cap and drink tube), and can be used a variety of ways. It comes with a heavy-duty syringe (for backflushing), a drink tube (for drinking directly from a stream or lake), and a 16 ounce flask for $24.95).
Enter the Sawyer Mini (in September 2013), which at 1.3 ounces (without cap and drink tube) is the lightest water filter currently available. That’s roughly the same weight as using the Aqua-Mira drops in small dropper bottles! The beauty of the Mini is it filters to 0.1 micron (the same as the best pump filters) and it doesn’t use expensive replaceable cartridges. It comes with a heavy-duty syringe for backflushing, and it can be backflushed indefinitely; Sawyer guarantees it for 100,000 gallons.

Backflushing is the key, and I can’t emphasize that enough. I used the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter on many, many trips over a two year period and found that backflushing is essential after every trip, otherwise it is progressively harder to suck/squeeze water through the filter. If you go on an extended trip, take the syringe with you.

Another thing I learned is the filter can become “plugged” if it sits around for an extended period. After using it all summer (and backflushing it after every use, including at the end of the summer), the filter was unused over the winter. The first trip I used it the next summer it was very difficult to suck or push water through it, which was a pain since I was dependent on it. When I got home I soaked it in water overnight and backflushed it bigtime and was able to restore it to its “normal” performance, which I described earlier is a little too much sucking and not enough drinking.

Back to the new Mini. In my initial tests I found the flow rate to be much better than the Squeeze filter, but of course that can decline over time. For that reason, this will need to be an ongoing review of the Mini; I will add to this blog as I use it more over time.

My favorite way to use the Mini is screwed onto a beverage bottle. This is the same application as Sawyer’s Squeeze Water Filtration System. You drink by squeezing the bottle and sucking at the same time. The bottle is easy to fill from a stream or lake and is easy to insert into a side pocket of my pack.
 Another strong point of the Mini is its versatility; it can be used in a number of different ways: screwed on a beverage bottle, screwed on a Sawyer flask (but not a Platypus flask), used as an inline filter in a hydration system, in a gravity filtration system in camp, and drinking directly from a stream or lake.

My favorite system is the Mini screwed onto a 1-liter beverage bottle. The bottle is free and very lightweight, can be filled from a minimally flowing water source, and is easily inserted/withdrawn into/from a pack side pocket. In contrast, a flask is very difficult to fill from a stream or lake and does not carry well in a side pocket, but it works well for camp water.

One final point in this installment: it’s very important to protect a Sawyer filter from freezing. The filter uses a microtubule system for filtration, similar to that used for dialysis, which can be damaged by freezing, resulting in an impaired ability to safely filter water.

Stay tuned for future reports on the Mini water filter after I use it more in the field over time.

Addendum Nocember 17, 2013
I recently took the Mini on a 5-day backpacking trip in Utah's canyonlands country, where the water is often a bit cloudy. The Mini mounted on a one liter beverage bottle performed flawlessly, maintaining a good flow rate. I prefer to drink directly through the filter by simultaneously squeezing the bottle and sucking, but pre-filtering the water into another container is almost as fast and you can gulp the water.

One caveat with using the Mini mounted on a beverage bottle is the bottle flattens as shown, so you need to unscrew the filter one-half turn to expand the bottle so you can drink from it again. That step is unnecessary if you pre-filter water into another container or use the filter inline in a hydration system

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

GEAR REVIEW and My Favorite Gear #3 My Favorite Ultralight Gaiter: The Montbell Stretch Semi-Long Spats

By Will Rietveld

What a name; I challenge you to say it three times as fast as you can!

In spite of its long name, which doesn’t actually identify it as a gaiter, the Montbell Stretch Semi-Long Spats are my favorite gaiter, for the following reasons:
  • The fabric stretch is just right and very durable
  • An underfoot elastic cord is protected by a flat polyurethane tube
  • They are easy to put on/take off
  • They reliably seal shoe tops and ankles, keeping debris and snow out
  • They stay in place
  • They perform well on a wide range of shoes/boots
 The measured weight is 1.95 ounces per pair for Size Large, and cost is a reasonable $34. They are not the very lightest available; the Dirty Girl gaiters weigh as little as 1.15 ounces per pair (weight varies by style), but they fit too loose and are not very durable. The Montbell gaiters weigh a tad more, but they get everything right.

My initial impression was the gaiters are too small for my size 12 shoes, because they cover just the top opening of the shoe or boot. Other gaiters cover most of the topside of a shoe, which is unnecessary, and may impede shoe breathability.

The Montbell Stretch Semi-Long Spats are not “long” as the name implies; the height is 7 inches, which is about right. They cover the top opening of a trail running shoe or light hiker (shown) very well, and stay put, including the heel.

A unique feature is Montbell’s Dura Strap – a double underfoot elastic cord protected by a flat polyurethane tube – which are replaceable for just $3 a pair. The Dura Strap's elastic cord loops through a grommet on one side and hooks on the other.

The Dura Strap runs underfoot in the cavity in front of the heel. They make a huge difference in durability and longevity compared to a traditional underfoot elastic cord.

I have put hundreds of miles on these gaiters and find them to be extremely durable. The stretch fabric shows very few signs of wear, and I am still using the original set of Dura Straps. Before finding the Montbell gaiters, I went through a dozen pairs of underfoot elastic cords a year on other gaiters, especially when hiking off-trail through slide rock and scree. Montbell has eliminated this nemesis with their Dura Strap.

Overall, these gaiters are very rugged and maintenance free, and are built to last a long time.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Little Known Secret of the Gossamer Gear LT-4 Trekking Poles: Combine Two Poles to Create One Long Pole to Support a Pyramid-Type Shelter.

By Will Rietveld

Pyramid (Mid) shelters require a center support pole that is taller than most trekking poles. So, how do you come up with a tall pole without carrying extra weight? Common solutions are: 1) purchase a “pole jack” to extend the length of a trekking pole, 2) purchase a dedicated pole for that purpose, 3) lash two trekking poles together, or 4) use a ski or onsite tree branch. Most of these options require extra materials and time, and they are difficult to adjust to the exact height needed.

There’s an easier way, if you have a pair of Gossamer Gear LT-4 adjustable trekking poles. You can pull the tip section from one pole and connect it to the other pole, creating a long and adjustable tent pole.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this idea originated from Dan Durston, a Backpacking Light subscriber, who posted it on the BPL Gear forum. There have been frequent discussions on this topic, and I believe Dan’s idea is the best solution because you do not have to take any extra parts with you (well almost none), it’s fast, and it’s easily adjustable. Herein I report my experience with the method, including a few small embellishments.

The following sequence shows how it’s done.

Remove the circular plug from the top of one of the trekking poles. A thin/narrow screwdriver or knife blade works well. Also cut through the thin tape below the plug, to access the carbon fiber tube below.
Remove the tip end from the other pole and insert the end with the adjusting mechanism into the grip hole you created. Slide the pole down a ways to provide good overlap, then twist the section clockwise to tighten it. Place a plastic tip guard (these come with many conventional trekking poles, and are available at outdoor stores) over the tip of the inserted pole.

A plastic tip guard fits snugly over the pole section's sharp carbide tip; this end goes into the cone at the top of the Mid, so the tip guard is needed to protect the shelter.

After staking out the corners of your pyramid shelter, go inside and raise the shelter with the center pole; the end with the tip guard goes into the cone at the top of the shelter. With the pole’s adjustment loosened, press the bottom tip into the ground, then push up on the pole to tension the shelter while twisting the lower section to lock the pole.
In my opinion, this is an elegant solution for creating a tall center pole for supporting a pyramid shelter. The result is a quick, sturdy, height adjustable center pole to support your Mid, and you don't need to carry any extra weight (except for the plastic tip guard).

Some comments and suggestions:

  1. Be sure to save the cork plug and replace it after you re-assemble your trekking poles. This keeps debris and water out of the pole, which could impair the adjusting mechanism.
  2. Be sure there is good overlap in the pole sections for maximum strength.
  3. If you will be day hiking from camp, it's easy to collapse your shelter and use your trekking poles. It's quick and easy to assemble/disassemble the extended pole.
  4. I don't know if this technique works on other brands of adjustable trekking poles; if you find it works with other poles, post your experience in the comments section.