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, February 24, 2016

GEAR REVIEW: Mishmi Takin Garamba Jacket

This new company designed the most breathable hardshell jacket to be found.

By Will Rietveld

Mishmi Takin is a new outdoor brand coming to market. I met its founder Kapil Dev Singh at the Winter 2016 Outdoor Retailer trade show and found a very interesting story. Kapil is an MIT trained immigrant from India. An avid hiker, Kapil was unable to find gear that performed in the hot and humid tropics of his native Himalayas or the West African forests. So, he created Mishmi Takin, a company committed to designing high performance gear for climatic conditions often overlooked by major brands. The company is named after a rare goat-antelope found in the remote Eastern Himalayas, and their products are named after national parks in India and Africa.

The Garamba Jacket I tested is their lightest hardshell jacket constructed of 2.5-layer air permeable eVent DVlite (Direct Venting Lite) fabric. It’s the only air-permeable jacket I know of that has pit zips, plus several other features to enhance ventilation.

Specifications and Features

Mishi Takin (www.mishmitakin.com)
Garamba Jacket (men’s and women’s versions available)
40 denier air permeable eVent DVlite 2.5-layer (1000 mm waterproofness, 18,000 g/m2 breathability)
14.2 oz (men’s Large)
2.5-layer eVent DVlite fabric, 2 high mesh lined core vent pockets with water-resistant zippers, full-height water-resistant YKK Aquaguard Vislon zipper with storm flap behind, 14-inch pit zips with 2 pulls and storm flap, attached hood with stiffened brim and 3-way adjustment, asymmetric cuffs with Velcro tab closure, dropped tail with 2-way adjustable hem drawcord, small inside mesh pocket, laser cut vent holes at chin and top of back


The Garamba Jacket is designed for maximum breathability through a combination of highly breathable fabric plus seven ventilation features. It’s best described as a versatile hardshell jacket for aerobic activities and trekking in more humid conditions – any situation where maximum breathability is needed. It’s not necessarily a mountaineering jacket, but it would serve that purpose with reasonable care. Applications include running, hiking, aerobic skiing, biking, and light mountaineering.

The jacket’s fabric is the most breathable currently available – 2.5-layer eVent DVlite. In my publications on testing air permeable waterproof-breathable fabric technologies I found eVent fabric to be the most breathable, better than Gore-Tex and NeoShell. So the fabric used in the Garamba is cutting edge.

Contrary to the claims of fabric manufacturers, under heavy exertion (like running or hiking uphill carrying a backpack) no waterproof-breathable shell fabric provides enough breathability to keep up with perspiration, so the jacket will eventually steam up inside. Supplemental ventilation is necessary to maintain comfort. The Garamba Jacket has the most ventilation features I have ever seen in an air-permeable jacket – front zipper, pit zips, cuffs, hem, core vents, and laser cut vents at the chin and upper back.

The Garamba is the only air permeable hardshell jacket that I know of that has pit zips (left). Core vents (right) are mesh-lined hand pockets that ventilate the torso area when the pockets are unzipped. The pockets are located high so a pack hipbelt doesn’t cover them.

Laser cut perforations in the chin area (left) and center of the back (right) behind the hood add extra ventilation.

Field Testing

Snowshoeing at 12,500 feet in Southwestern Colorado. I wore the Garamba Jacket on 22 outings in early 2016 while hiking trail running, cross-country skiing, skate skiing, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and one 4-day hut trip. Temperatures ranged from -10 to 50F in a range of weather conditions.

My first impression of the Garamba Jacket is its good fit and soft hand. I found the fit to be just right for me (6 feet/170 pounds), with enough room inside for layering over a lightweight down jacket. It feels like a windshell jacket. It isn’t stiff like many hardshells but functions like a hardshell for snow sports, as well as a rain and wind shell for the rest of the year.

I like the front YKK Aquaguard zipper, which is easier to zip compared to a typical water-resistant zipper. While a conventional water-resistant zipper adds to the stiffness of a typical hardshell jacket and requires two hands to operate the zipper (one to hold the bottom of the jacket and the other to grasp the zipper pull), the Aquaguard (to a large extent) can be operated with one hand and contributes to the jacket’s suppleness.

On me, the top of the zipper comes up to the bottom of my mouth and does not cover my mouth, which makes it easy to breathe with the zipper up and hood on. Other jackets cover my mouth, which I find uncomfortable when I am hiking or skiing hard.

So, how breathable is it? The Garamba’s eVent DVlite waterproof-breathable fabric is remarkable in terms of its comfort range; the best I have experienced. I was able to wear the jacket over a midweight baselayer and hike or ski hard in 15 to 50F temperatures without so much as unzipping the jacket. When hiking uphill carrying a pack, it gets down to how far you can go before steaming up inside (which means that sweat production is surpassing the capacity of the jacket’s fabric to transmit water vapor it to the outside). The eVent DVlite fabric allows you to go a lot further before reaching that stage, or it may not happen at all if you are hiking at a moderate pace, its overcast, temperatures are cooler, or its windy.

To extend the comfort range even more, the Garamba has numerous ventilation options; how much do they contribute to comfort? The short answer is they all add up.

By far, opening the front zipper provides the most ventilation. 

However, when it’s raining, it is often hard to open the front zipper very much for ventilation. In that case the other ventilation features become more important. These include: loose cuff openings, hem open at the bottom of the jacket, core vents via the hand pockets, pit zips, and perforations at the chin and top of the back. Individually they don’t provide as much ventilation as the front zipper, but their effects add up. Ventilation is assisted by vapor pressure (from sweating) that builds up inside the jacket which is seeking an exit to the outside. The extra ventilation features provide a way for it to get out.

The Garamba stayed dry and warm inside while hiking in a wet snowstorm. The hood adjusts to fit around the head without blocking vision.


Waterproof-breathable jacket technologies are hyped a lot, so buyer expectations are high. The reality is most jackets are waterproof as claimed but breathability is limited. There is a limit to breathability because waterproofness, windproofness, and breathability need to be balanced. There is a limit on how much breathability can be increased without compromising windproofness and waterproofness. Certainly you don’t want an exceptionally breathable shell jacket that the wind blows through and rain penetrates. There are many occasions when we count on a hardshell jacket for protection from the elements.

Manufacturers are extending the limits to attain dryness and comfort in hardshells. In that context, the Mishmi Takin Garamba Jacket is as cutting edge as it gets. It employs a combination of the most breathable air permeable shell fabric available (eVent DVlite 2.5-layer) with numerous ventilation features to create what can be claimed to be the most breathable hardshell jacket available. For that it merits an A+.

However, the added features do add a little more weight. The Garamba weighs 14.2 ounces, which is about 2-4 ounces heavier than comparable jackets with fewer ventilation features. The Montane Featherlite Shell Jacket, also made of eVent DVS, weighs just 10.45 ounces in size Large, but it doesn’t have pit zips, an Aquaguard front zipper, and a back vent. And it costs $399, $124 more than the Garamba, so the Garamba is a good value.

To sum up, the Mishmi Takin Garamba Jacket is the most breathable hardshell jacket currently available, its cutting edge, and it’s reasonably priced.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Meaning of Ultralight

Nowadays the word “ultralight” seems to be analogous with “religion”. Various individuals and institutions have a different interpretation of it, and promote their doctrine as the “true” one. Some are earnest and others are self-serving.

If you Google the words “ultralight backpacking” you will see what I mean.

Near the top of the list is REIs “Ultralight Backpacking Basics”, which comes through as “mainstream-light”. Backpacker Magazine has come on board too, and their idea of ultralight is based on what the big companies (their advertisers) have to offer. Again “mainstream-light”. You basically get the same response if you walk into an outdoor store and ask the clerk for her ultralight gear advice.

There are many people out there who don’t want to take the time and effort to research something before they act. They prefer to follow the advice from a credible source, such as the above. All I can say is these people are the target audience of the purveyors of the ultralight backpacking advice described above.

I have been accused of being “elitist” and “preachy” before, so I want to avoid that in this blog, if I can.

The best advice, I believe, is to do your homework first, and take your time. The internet is a vast resource, and there are several good books too. Research it until you find your comfort level on the ultralight to lightweight scale, and what kind of gear is needed for where you intend to backpack. Plan on investing some time if you want to get it right.

However, the “just do it” advice from others is hard for me to support. It’s simple, but you learn everything the hard way.

One big obstacle is the inability to try something before you buy it. Most people want to be confident about something before they buy it, but where do you get the information you need? Online gear reviews help a lot, especially from a creditable source. If you research something enough, a consensus does emerge.

That’s the reason I write gear reviews; I want to help people make an informed decision. But I follow that up by saying -- don’t just listen to my advice, read a range of opinions and make your own decision.

Want a quick way to do research on the internet? Google "ultralight backpacking" and then click on "images" at the top and peruse through the many images of ultralight gear. Click on whatever interests you to go to the source.

Your thoughts?

Introducing the Ultralight Insights Blog

A blog is what it is, an outlet to interact on what is currently of interest. In this case its about ultralight gear and backpacking. That's a favorite subject for many of us, and we want to keep on learning.

 I will have to admit that I am a first time blogger. I'm not really into chit-chat. I have a Facebook account but its sadly neglected. I don't Tweet. I prefer to read things that increase my awareness and to keep up on what's new.

Which brings me back to the present topic -- creating a blog on my website.

I'm doing it because I want to give it a go to see what happens. I will try to introduce some good topics that I hope will generate some interest and response. I want to find out what other people are thinking and learn from you.

While the blog is not open to others starting a new thread, like in a forum, I would still like to hear what you would like to discuss. Mention new topics in your comments and I will introduce the ones that are within the scope of this website and likely to generate reader interest.

Thanks in advance for your interest and contributions!

GEAR REVIEW and My Favorite Gear #9: Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System

In spite of its drawbacks, the 1.3 ounce Sawyer Mini lands on my favorite gear list. It's the lightest and best water filtration system currently available.

By Will Rietveld

Personal water treatment is always a hot topic among lightweight backpackers. We ditched the heavy pump style filters for personal use long ago, but perhaps they still have a role for small groups. Now the personal water treatment debate is 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.

Following up on their 2.4-ounce Squeeze Water Filter, Sawyer introduced the Sawyer Mini in September 2013. Weighing just 1.3 ounces stripped, it’s hard to imagine a water filter any lighter than this. However, as you will see, the choice is not that clear cut, each method has its drawbacks.

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.

 Specifications and Features

Sawyer Products (www.sawyer.com)
Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System
Filter, tip cap, drinking straw, cleaning plunger, 16 oz squeeze pouch
Whole kit 4.85 oz, filter without tip cap 1.3 oz, tip cap .05 oz, drink tube 0.2 oz, plunger 1.15 oz, squeeze pouch 0.8 oz


The Sawyer Mini at 1.3 ounces stripped is the lightest water filter currently available. That’s roughly the same weight as using 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.

The technology used by Sawyer is adapted from medical dialysis; water is drawn through the side walls of a cluster of micro-tubes into their hollow center and out the end of the tubes. Sediments and organisms are trapped on the outer walls of the tubes. Backflushing (using the included syringe) removes the filtered out debris and the system is ready to use again.

The Mini can be used four ways to filter water: 1) screwed onto any plastic beverage bottle with a standard 28 mm opening; 2) directly from a stream or lake using the included straw, 3) inline in a hydration system, and 4) using the included squeeze pouch to filter water into a bottle for drinking.

The Sawyer Mini does not screw onto a Platypus flask. The Platy threads are different from a common soda bottle, so that’s why Sawyer provides flasks that work with their filters.

Field Testing

I tested the Mini screwed onto a lightweight plastic soda bottle on several backpacking trips. A bottle is easy to fill from a stream or lake and is easy to insert into a side pocket of my pack.

I didn’t use the straw, but I have used the previous Squeeze Water Filter inline in a hydration system, which is a similar concept. I personally did not use method #4 above, but I have observed fellow hikers use that method.

The advantage of using a plastic beverage bottle is that you squeeze the bottle and suck at the same time, which increases the flow rate. Methods #2 and #3 above are suction only. With method #4 above one can roll down the squeeze pouch to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the water within to force it through the filter into another container, then you can gulp it down freely.

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, can’t easily be withdrawn/inserted in a side pocket with the pack on, but it works well for camp water.

Backflushing is essential, and I can’t emphasize that enough. I used both the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter and Mini on many, many trips over several years and found that backflushing is necessary 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. On the first trip 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 with hot tapwater and was able to restore it to its “normal” performance.

Now for the downside. After using the Mini on several trips, and especially in hot weather, I got tired of sucking hard to get water. I wanted to gulp water down instead of sucking it through a filter; it was too much sucking and not enough drinking. So why not go to method #4 (using the included squeeze pouch to filter water into a bottle for drinking) instead, you ask? That would require an extra bottle to collect the water and pour it into the flask, so extra weight and bulk. It’s hard to fill a flask directly from a minimal water source without stirring up debris.

Another drawback is the Sawyer filtering micro tubes can be damaged by freezing, resulting in an impaired ability to safely filter water. So you can be drinking unsafe water without knowing it. If temperatures are likely to drop below freezing, it’s important to put the filter in a pocket or someplace where it won’t freeze.

Finally, the Mini (or any water filter) is not recommended for turbid water or water with a lot of algae in it. Backpacking in Southern Utah is where I learned that the hard way, and I should have known better. After successfully using the Mini on one trip, where we found clean water, I (and my companions) took it on another trip there where we found only scarce cruddy water. Our filters quickly plugged and were unusable. Fortunately I had some Aqua-Mira tabs along as a backup and that saved the trip.


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

My personal history with water treatment is probably typical:
  • Aqua-Mira drops are very light weight, but I get tired of the mixing and wait time.
  • Aqua-Mira (and other brands) tabs is the lightest system but they are expensive and you still have the wait time.
  • Iodine tabs are cheap but it tastes bad and you still have the wait time, and iodine doesn’t kill all organisms; chlorine even less so.
  • The Sawyer Squeeze and Mini Water Filters are lightweight and there is no wait time, but I got tired of sucking to get my water, and they clog from cruddy water.
  • The rechargeable SteriPen Freedom (2.65 ounces) is very lightweight, but it’s not recommended for turbid water, and requires a wide-mouth bottle for treatment (see my article on using a zip-lock bag with a Steripen), a full charge may not last through a trip, and electronic devices can fail (which happened to me on one trip).

The “best” water treatment gets down to personal choice, as well as choosing the method that is best for the expected conditions. And carrying some Aqua-Mira tabs as a backup is a darn good idea.

Monday, February 1, 2016

GEAR REVIEW: Montbell Ex Light Down Anorak

By Will Rietveld

Montbell is the master of ultralight down insulated garments, and a leader in that category. One of their latest is the Ex Light Down Anorak, available now, which is a pullover version of the familiar Ex Light Down Jacket. But it is more than the addition of a hood...

Montbell Ex Light Down Anorak

Specifications and Features

Montbell (www.montbell.us)
Ex Light Down Anorak
7-denier Ballistic Airlight ripstop nylon
2.3 oz 900 fill-power goose down
Manufacturer 6.2 oz, measured 6.1 oz size men’s Large
Attached hood, 13.5” front zipper, reach-through front pocket, drawcord hem, elastic cuffs, stuff sack included


The Ex Light Down Anorak is more than a hooded version of the Ex Light Down Jacket. While the original Ex Light Down Jacket (fill weight 1.8 oz, total weight 5.6 oz, $199) is Spartan except for a full-height front zipper, the Ex Light Down Anorak adds a few features, listed above, bumping the weight up to 6.2 ounces.

The attached insulated hood is basic, with no adjustments.

Besides the hood, a really nice feature of the Anorak is a reach-through front pocket, which is great for stowing things like gloves or warming hands. The cord ends for adjusting the hem are inside the pocket. The Ex Light Jacket does not have any pockets at all.

Field Testing

I tested the Ex Light Down Anorak on eight backpacking trips in the southern Colorado Mountains and Utah Canyonlands. My camp clothing system includes wearing my daytime hiking shorts over my rain pants and silk long johns (and my rain jacket over my insulated jacket, not shown) to utilize all the clothing I carry for warmth in camp.

Many hikers still carry a fleece jacket or pullover on backpacking trips. Although fleece is versatile, it’s not very weight efficient. A 100 weight fleece top can weigh 8 ounces or more. Compare that with the Ex Light Down Anorak at 6.2 ounces, which provides a whole lot more warmth for less weight. And you can get the same warmth with the Montbell Ex Light Down Jacket at 5.6 ounces (which will be discontinued in 2016), and the Montbell Plasma 1000 at 4.8 ounces. These jackets make fleece obsolete for backpacking as far as their comparative warmth to weight ratio, but fleece jackets, including the new hybrid styles, are great for day trips.

I really loved the Anorak’s reach-through front pocket. In camp it’s really handy to have that pocket to stuff things into so they’re handy – gloves, camera, matches, whatever. It was especially handy when I went on an exploratory hike from camp because I could take a few items with me without carrying a pack.

I personally don’t have much use for the hem drawcord, I suppose that is a feature that normally comes with a hooded anorak. It can be removed to save a little weight.

I was testing a quilt at the same time as I tested the Ex Light Anorak and realized that a hooded jacket is a perfect match when you use a hoodless sleeping bag or quilt.

However, my testing included some nights in the low 20s F, which also made me aware that the Ex Light Anorak is a garment meant for moderate and cool conditions, down into the high 20s F (for me), but chilly at temps below that.

One thing I noted while testing is the zipper does not quite come up to my chin, so there is a gap at the top, and the hood fits loosely and can block my view. My solution is to wear my hiking cap over the hood to hold it in place, and add a bit of warmth. The extra room in the hood would allow it to be worn over a climbing or ski helmet.

How does the warmth of the Ex Light Anorak compare to the Plasma 1000 Jacket? When I hold each up in front of a window the fill and loft looks very similar, and that agrees with my field experience for warmth. In my opinion, the warmth is about equal, but the Plasma 1000 achieves the same warmth with less weight.


It gets down to whether you are a hoody person or not, or if you prefer a hood for certain seasons, or if your camping/sleeping system requires a jacket hood for warmth. If you prefer a hood, then the Ex Light Anorak is only weight efficient if you actually use the hood, frequently. I must admit that the front reach-through pocket is very addictive. It gets down to the fact that some hikers have a preference and specific need for a hood, and the Ex Light Hoody gives them exactly what they want, at a very light weight.

Note that the Plasma 1000 Down Anorak will be arriving in mid-August 2016; features include a full-height front zipper, attached 2-way adjustable hood, hem drawcord, two zippered hand pockets, and elastic cuffs. Fill weight is 3.4 ounces, jacket weight is 8.4 ounces, and MSRP is $379. This is much more than a hooded version of the Plasma 1000 Jacket because it has a lot more insulation and features.

Also note that Montbell will be discontinuing the Ex Light Down Jacket this year (2016), and currently has them on sale in the outlet section of their website. Montbell feels that the Plasma 1000 Jacket, a newer product, covers that niche.

Finally, note that jackets insulated with premium down are pricey, due to the limited supply and high cost of premium down. Montbell uses a lot of it, has locked in their supply, and (believe it or not) their MSRPs are a good value compared with many other brands.