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

Friday, November 29, 2013

GEAR REVIEW: Big Sky International Dream Sleeper UltraLight Inflatable Pillow

By Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl

Why would an ultralight backpacker carry a pillow?  Answer: when we sleep on an inflatable ¾-length 2.5 inch high sleeping pad that creates a drop-off at both ends, and we don’t have any extra clothing to use as a pillow. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-Lite Short pad that weighs just 7.6 ounces, but the drop-off issue made it uncomfortable to sleep on until I considered a pillow. Now I put my empty backpack under my feet to elevate them off the cold ground, and use a pillow under my head. The extra weight is less than 2 ounces, not bad.

An ultralight backpacking pillow, like the Big Sky Dream Sleeper, eliminates the drop-off at the end of an inflatable air mattress and weighs less than 2 ounces.

I know this sounds decadent, but I have been loosening up a bit to include a few comforts in my UL backpacking kit like an inflatable sleeping pad and pillow. I’m not alone J. Gear is getting better and lighter, and my base weight is still under 6.5 pounds, and that’s for summer backpacking and camping at high elevations in the southern Rockies.

Big Sky International Dream Sleeper UltraLight Inflatable Pillow
Inflated Dimensions
17 inches wide x 11 inches high x 5 inches thick (4 inches in center head pocket)
Pillow alone 1.85* oz, pillow with soft cover 4.05 oz
Pillow alone $24.95, pillow with soft cover $34.95

*Note: This review is based on the original Dream Sleeper pillow that weighs 1.85 ounces; the latest version weighs just 1.45 ounces.

The Big Sky Dream Sleeper Inflatable Pillow is made of durable urethane plastic. The
inflated pillow measures 17 inches x 11 inches x 5 inches thick and weighs 1.85 ounces for the bare pillow. The center has a self-centering head pocket that is 4 inches thick (giving a 1-inch deep head pocket. An optional soft “pillow case” adds 2.2 ounces, for a total weight of 4.05 ounces if you use the cover.

The Big Sky Dream Sleeper UL Inflatable Pillow in profile (top) and flat (bottom). The pillow has a self-centering head pocket and has generous dimensions for its minimal weight.

In Use
The pillow inflates like an air mattress, requiring 5-6 blows to completely inflate it. We tested the pillow on several summer backpacking trips and loved it. Deflated, it fits in the palm of your hand; inflated, it is a very generous sized pillow. To save weight we prefer to carry and use the bare pillow, and rarely have skin contact with the plastic because we wear a warm hat at night. But even when sleeping with skin contact on the pillow, it doesn’t fill clammy or uncomfortable, at least for us.

Getting your head at the correct angle is important for comfortable sleeping. We accomplish that by either placing miscellaneous gear under the pillow, or inflating/deflating the pillow or air mattress slightly to achieve the optimum height and softness.

The optional “pillow case” soft cover makes the pillow feel really plush. It’s actually pretty complex: it has a soft outside fabric bonded to a synthetic insulation, each end has a zipper to facilitate inserting the inflatable pillow, and there is a hole in one corner for the inflation valve. It even has a built-in silnylon stuff sack on the inside. We use the plush version for car camping where we want to minimize volume and weight in our car. Likewise, we would also take the cover when canoe camping

In a recent review of the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-Lite Short inflatable sleeping pad for Backpackinglight.com, I complained of the drop-off issue at both ends of the pad, and suggested that the pad could be made thinner to reduce that issue. However, since we have been using the Big Sky Dream Sleeper UL Inflatable Pillow the problem has literally gone away. It completely overcomes the drop-off issue when using a short inflatable sleeping pad, and frees up our empty backpack to put under our feet to insulate them from the cold ground. The combination turns a ¾-length 2.5-inch thick inflatable sleeping pad into a very comfortable sleeping system.

The current version of the Big Sky pillow has been lightened, making it the lightest one on the market (see footnote below), and it has ample dimensions to contribute to a good night’s sleep in the backcountry. The following table compares it with other pillows currently available, or soon to be available in spring 2014.

Weight (oz)
Big Sky Dream Sleeper
Montbell UL Pillow
Klymit Pillow-X
Sea To Summit Aeros
Exped Air Pillow UL (medium)

*We tested the original Dream Sleeper pillow for this review; the weight of the newest version (December 2013) has been reduced to 1.45 ounces, which makes it the lightest backpacking pillow currently available.

Considering its new lighter weight, the Big Sky Dream Sleeper provides the best balance of light weight, larger pillow size, and cost. The Exped pillow is also very light and ample sized, but it’s very expensive.

Overall, the Big Sky pillow is a great find and has become a core component of my UL backpacking gear kit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

GEAR REVIEW: Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers (Inflatable Sleeping Pads)

By Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl

Ultralight gear keeps getting better, and provides more creature comfort. Nowadays many UL backpackers choose a lightweight inflatable sleeping pad instead of a closed cell foam pad. Why? -- Because the weight is similar (except for the skimpiest CCF pads), they are less bulky to pack, and they are much more comfortable. Bottom line, a good night’s sleep is very important after a full day on the trail, so many hikers choose a comfortable sleeping pad for their luxury item.

For an ultralight inflatable sleeping pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-Lite is state-of-the-art. But it’s not perfect. Although its very lightweight, comfortable, and provides some insulation, the NeoAirs are very expensive, a bit narrow when inflated, noisy, and have a noticeable “drop-off” at the foot end if you choose the shorter pad.

For awhile we had the Kooka Bay inflatable pads, which were both lightweight and inexpensive, but unfortunately Kooka Bay is now out of business. The new Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers fill that niche, and significantly improve on the design and quality.

While simple air-only inflatable sleeping pads from other companies (except the NeoAir) are simply not light enough or durable enough, the new Gossamer Gear pads get it right with adequately durable materials, quality construction, sleeper-friendly design, and reasonable pricing.

The Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers currently come in four sizes; I tested three sizes: S, M, and XL.
The initial launch of the Air Beam Sleepers comes in four sizes, as summarized in the following table. Data are Gossamer Gear specifications.

Width (inches)
Length (inches)
Thickness (inches)
Weight (ounces)
Cost (USD)
21 tapering to 14.5
2.5 tapering to 1.5
21 tapering to 14.5
2.5 tapering to 1.5
21 tapering to 14.5
2.5 tapering to 1.5
28 tapering to 19
2.5 tapering to 1.5

Notable features evident from the table, and other observations:
  • The pad width is tapered to save weight. Also, the outer tubes are slightly larger in diameter to help a sleeper stay centered on the pad. Gossamer Gear describes this feature as follows: “Slightly higher side rails to let you know when you are on the edge.”
  • Pad thickness is also tapered to minimize the drop-off at the foot end. The foot end drop-off of other manufacturer’s pads makes it feel like your feet are hanging over a cliff. The design of the GG pads minimizes that issue.
  • A feature useful to some hikers is integrated tabs on the sides of the Sleepers for securing them to a quilt or foam pad.
  • The weights of the Gossamer Gear pads are comparable to the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir pads. (The pad dimensions differ so it’s hard to directly compare weights.)
  • The Gossamer Gear pads sell for about half the cost of the NeoAir pads.
  • So far, the Gossamer Gear pads are only available in shorter lengths. This is apparently due to the limited width (60 inches) of the bulk fabric. Although many UL backpackers will choose a shorter pad to save weight, many LW packpackers will insist on a full-length (72 inches long) pad, so Gossamer Gear needs to offer a full-length pad pronto, or lose a lot of sales.
I tested the pads on several backpacking trips and a car camping trip where my wife and I slept on the Gossamer Gear pads in a floorless tent and a double-wall tent, in temperatures down to freezing.

Gossamer Gear size L pad in a floorless pyramid shelter; the nighttime low was 34F. I used a LW inflatable pillow at the head end and put my empty backpack under my feet.
We camped one night in a LW two person double wall tent out in the dunes at White Sands National Park, New Mexico; the morning low was a chilly 33F.
Our observations after testing the pads in several shelters and conditions:
  • The pads inflate quickly by mouth, faster than the NeoAir pads.
  • The top and bottom fabrics are a good balance of lightweight and durability; we did not have any punctures, but it is still wise to avoid camping on sharp objects.
  • The top and bottom fabrics have good slide resistance; we did not have any problems with sliding around on a plastic groundsheet or nylon tent floor.
  • Janet reported some issues with staying on the size M pad, although that was not an issue for me on the size XL pad; more on this below.
  • For colder weather camping on a shorter pad, we found it necessary to use a LW inflatable pillow (or other gear) to support our head, and lay our empty backpacks at the foot end to insulate our feet. This is a typical routine for using a shorter sleeping pad (48 inches long or less).
  • On colder nights, which were the case for most of our testing, we felt our bottomside getting cold at around 35F. The pads are uninsulated and require some supplementary insulation for camping in colder temperatures.
I found that a 1/8-inch thick Gossamer Gear NightLight foam pad on top of the inflatable pad is sufficient to stay warm on colder nights. The thin pad stays in place very well and actually molds to the contours of the inflatable pad. A thicker foam pad, e.g. the Gossamer Gear ¼-inch thick ThinLight is overkill for temperatures around freezing but is a good choice for sleeping temperatures below around 25F.
 The “higher side rails” feature, meaning larger diameter outside tubes, applies to only the size XL pad. After my wife and I had dissimilar experiences sleeping on the pads, we looked more closely at the tube diameter difference in the pads, and found something interesting. The size XL (wide) pad has distinctly wider outside tubes; laid flat, the outside tubes are 25 millimeters wider at the top and bottom of the pad, meaning the tubes will inflate to a larger diameter. However, the outside tube width in the S and M sizes we tested is the same as its neighbors at the head end of the pad and 6-7 millimeters wider at the foot end of the pad. So, for the size XL pad, the larger outside tubes definitely provide their intended higher side rail function, but the similar tube sizing in the other pad sizes does not provide any effective side rail function at all (only a slightly larger tube diameter at the foot end).

I consulted with Gossamer Gear on the discrepancy and learned that, in the manufacturing process, they found it expedient to go with only one "die" to press the pads. The (expensive) die they use is the size of the XL pads; for the other pad sizes they omit the inside tubes, so the tubes are in fact all the same size. They hope to make standard size (72-inch long) pads in the next production run.

The size XL pad has distinctly larger outer tubes, which serve a "side rail" function, but the outer tubes on the other sizes we tested (S, M) are only slightly larger at the foot end, so no side rail function.
Another observation to note on the air-only inflatable pads is the feeling of floating while sleeping on them. Basically you feel like you are floating, like sleeping on a waterbed. Sleeping on an inflatable foam pad (like a traditional Therm-A-Rest) provides more support for your body, so you don’t feel like you are floating. All this is saying is that you need to get accustomed to sleeping on an airbed.

Overall we are very positive on the new Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers. They are well-designed, a good balance of lightweight and durability, incorporate some innovative sleeper-friendly features, and are reasonably priced.

  • Pads are sleeper-friendly with their tapering width and thickness, plus oversized outside tubes (XL pad only).
  • Weight is comparable with the NeoAir pads.
  • Cost is about half that of the NeoAir pads.
  • Fabric is a great balance of lightweight and durability, slip-resistant, and a cheerful color.
  • They inflate quickly and are very comfortable to sleep on, much more comfortable than a closed cell foam pad.
  • No full-length (72-inch) sizes are currently available; which is a glaring deficiency in the sizes available.
  • Only the size XL pad clearly has larger outside tubes to provide a side rail effect, that feature is missing on the other pad sizes.
  • An air-only inflatable sleeping pad, i.e. an airbed, gives a floating feeling, while a foam core inflatable pad is more supportive (but heavier).
  • These uninsulated pads are cold to sleep on when temperatures drop below about 35F. (However, that is easily remedied by placing a Gossamer Gear ThinLight foam pad on top of the inflatable pad; the 1/8-inch thick 2.6 ounce ThinLight is sufficient.)