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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Big Agnes Flume UL 30 Sleeping Bag

The Big Agnes Flume UL 30 is a cutting edge ultralight down bag designed for warmth. Its pricing is similar to other bags in its class, but the design features and details are a level above.

By Will Rietveld

Because key sleeping bag specifications are often lacking, it’s “baffling” for a consumer to compare them and make an informed purchase decision. In this review I share some of my wisdom from testing numerous ultralight sleeping bags, and present my evaluation of the new Big Agnes Flume UL 30 mummy bag.

Introduced in spring 2017, the Flume UL 30 (and its sibling the Hitchens UL 20) is a truly ultralight down sleeping bag from Big Agnes. Prior to this, Big Agnes offered literally dozens of high quality, utilitarian sleeping bag models for most any outdoor activity, except ultralight backpacking.

A good ultralight mummy style sleeping bag has thin shell fabric, a minimal zipper, high loft down (850 fill-power or greater), a good fitting hood, and enough shoulder girth to enable wearing camp clothing inside the bag to extend its warmth. So, how does the Flume UL 30 perform in relation to these criteria?

The Big Agnes Flume UL 30 sleeping bag features 850+ fill-power water-resistant down, ultralight shell fabric and  Insotect Flow construction weighs 24.8 ounces in size Long, and costs $500.

Specifications and Features

Big Agnes (www.bigagnes.com)
Flume UL 30 (size Long tested)
Downtek water-resistant down, ultralight high-tenacity ripstop nylon outer shell (with DWR) and lining, 40 in YKK #5 zipper
Measured weight 24.8 oz; mfr specification 24 oz
850 fill-power Downtek water-resistant down, Insotect Flow™ construction, 3-D anti-snag draft tube, vertically structured side walls integrating contoured baffles, contoured hood baffles, oversized interior anti draft collar, ergonomic foot box, ultralight high tenacity shell fabric, low profile cordlock lets you un-cinch the hood with one hand, minimal 40” zipper, zipper garage, interior fabric loops for sleeping bag liners, exterior loops for hang drying or storage, mesh storage sack, nylon stuff sack
Size Regular $469.95; size Long $499.95


We are not a society of string beans; far from it. Yet numerous ultralight mummy bags are simply too slim (shoulder girth of 59 to 60 inches) for the average hiker. I’m 6 feet tall, 165 pounds, and normally wear a size Large shirt – which is fairly average – but I can hardly close the zipper on a bag with the above girth if I am wearing an ultralight down jacket. If you are smaller than me, then you should be okay with a trim bag. If you are my size or larger, read on.

Ultralight backpackers like to carry an ultralight down jacket to wear in camp for warmth, and then wear it inside their sleeping system to extend its warmth. That’s an important technique to save weight and increase efficiency. To do that, an average or larger person needs 61 to 62 inches of shoulder girth, and that extra inch or two makes a big difference. Using this technique, I can sleep warm in a 30F rated sleeping bag when the temperature drops into the 20s, assuming an adequate shelter to minimize convective heat losses.


I chose the size Long Flume UL 30 bag for it 62-inch shoulder girth (size Regular has 60 inches of girth). The extra length also makes it easier to enter/exit the bag and pull the hood over my head.

The Flume UL 30 contains 12 ounces of 850 fill-Power down in size Regular and 14 ounces in Size Long. The fill weight is a good way to compare sleeping bags, and 12 oz (Regular) or 14 oz (Long) is pretty decent for a 30F rated bag.

Insotect Flow construction claims the following advantages: 1) it holds down in place with fewer, smaller baffles; 2) it allows vertical baffles that contour to the body, holding insulation closer to the sleeper, and 3) it distributes body heat through the length of the bag. Using this construction method, the bag can be “body mapped” to place more down where it is needed (like the topside) and less down where it isn’t (like the bottomside). I have tested bags with “continuous baffles” that allow the user to shift the down as desired, which is good, but requires constant attention to avoid cold spots.

The Flume UL 30 has vertical baffles using Insotect Flow construction.

For an ultralight sleeping bag, the Big Agnes Flume UL 30 is feature rich (see specifications above), which perhaps adds 2 to 3 ounces to bag weight compared to a more minimalist bag. However, in my opinion, those details translate into more warmth, reliability, and convenience.

Big Agnes does not provide detailed specifications on the bag’s shell and lining fabric other than “ultralight high-tenacity ripstop nylon”. It appears to be equivalent to Pertex Quantum GL in terms of denier and downproofness.

Many manufacturers opt to put a full-length zipper on an ultralight bag, bowing to the notion that buyers insist on it, but Big Agnes seems to focus more on warmth and functionality. Rather than a long #3 zipper, Big Agnes uses a shorter more robust #5 zipper with a well-defined zipper track. The result is adequate zipper length for convenient entry/exit, more warmth, and little zipper snagging. The downside is the bag can’t be used as a blanket as easily on warmer nights.


I tested the Flume UL 30 bag on several summer mountain backpacking trips and one fall desert trip. Most nights the nighttime temperatures neared the bag’s temperature rating. The photo above was taken after a very damp night caused by an evening rain followed by a clear night and large temperature drop. The outer shell of the bag was coated with heavy condensation, but the bag’s DWR and water-resistant down kept it perfectly dry inside.

Ergonomically, the bag suits me just fine. I did not find any inconvenience with the shorter zipper; I entered the bag by sitting near the hood, bending my knees to slip my legs in, then sliding to my sleeping position.

The bag’s 62-inch girth provides plenty of room to wear camp clothing inside the bag to extend it s warmth, which is a must-have for me.

I had few problems with zipper snagging, owing to the bag’s roominess and zipper track design. While a tight-fitting bag puts stress on the zipper, causing it to lock or snag, a roomier bag allows the zipper to slide unimpeded. It does help to straighten the zipper channel with one hand while zipping with the other. One negative is the zipper will separate if it is unzipped all the way to the end, and it is frustrating to restart the zipper in the dark. I learned to stop zipping 1 to 2 inches before the end.

Sleeping bag warmth is very difficult to assess because it’s the composite of numerous variables. Wearing long johns, wool socks, and an ultralight down jacket inside, I found the Flume UL 30 to be warm down to its claimed 30F rating, which is actually a favorable evaluation, because most sleeping bags are optimistically rated. For that reason, some outdoor writers recommend getting a 20F bag if you want to be warm at 30F, or getting a 10F bag if you want to be warm at 20F. My preference, instead of going to a heavier 20F bag, is to wear my camp clothing inside the bag. That’s more versatile, because I wear the insulated clothing to stay warm in camp, and wear it in my bag to extend its warmth, and eliminate the need for a bag liner.


An ultralight sleeping bag is a key component of an ultralight gear kit, and it’s expensive, so it’s very important to do thorough research before you buy. This is something you want to get right the first time; otherwise it’s expensive buyer’s remorse.

Researching down sleeping bags is more difficult than other gear items because information is often lacking and it’s hard to compare them on a uniform basis. Comparing them solely on the basis of bag weight is not a good idea, because you can end up with a cold, tight fitting bag. More important are fill weight (the amount of down in the bag), fill-power (the volume one ounce of down expands to, in cubic inches), and shoulder girth. Since down fill-power varies, for comparing bags it helps to multiply fill weight by fill power to get total fill volume. The shoulder girth issue is explained above.

I found the Big Agnes Flume UL 30 to be a cutting edge ultralight down bag designed for warmth. Its pricing is similar to other bags in its class, but the design features and details are a level above. It’s warm to its specified temperature if you wear a few clothes inside, which is something you probably want to do anyway. The only way to get a warmer bag in this weight class is to order a custom bag with overfill.

The weight of the Flume UL 30 is a bit higher than other ultralight 30F bags, but in its defense I note that I have tested 20F bags of the same weight that are not any warmer. A smidgeon of extra weight is okay, if that weight is put into features that enhance warmth and functionality. In that context, Big Agnes gets it right with the Flume UL 30.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Patagonia Airshed Pullover (Windshirt)

By Will Rietveld

A windshirt is a wonderful hiking garment under the right conditions – cool, overcast, and windy. Any two of those factors together constitutes good windshirt conditions. And, indeed, a windshirt over a baselayer is often an ideal combination for hiking comfort, especially in the cool months and mountains.

Windshirt breathability isn’t talked about much. They are designed to resist wind, using tighly woven fabric, calendaring, and coatings as design features to provide the desired performance. With their new Airshed Pullover, Patagonia emphasizes the garment provides “a balance between wind protection and breathability”. Is that possible, and does it make a difference under hiking conditions?

The Patagonia Airshed Pullover (3.7 ounces, $119) “balances wind protection and breathability”. (Patagonia photo)

Specifications and Features

Patagonia (www.patagonia.com)
Airshed Pullover
Mfr. Weight 3.7 oz; measured weight men’s Large 3.65 oz
Body: 1.3-oz 20-denier 100% nylon mechanical stretch ripstop with a DWR finish. Hem and cuff panels: 4.2-oz 79% nylon/21% spandex jersey
14 in zipper, 1 zippered chest pocket (converts to stuff sack), stand up collar, raglan sleeves, elastic cuffs and hem, stretch fabric. Trim fit.


I tested the Airshed Pullover over an 8 month period that spanned three seasons, and 19 outdoor trips in a wide range of conditions. Photo taken at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

The soft and stretchy fabric used in the Airshed Pullover is the same as the shell fabric on Patagonia’s Nano-Air insulated jackets, which are in a new category called “breathable insulation”.

It’s claimed to have a trim fit, but I find the fit to be typical for a size Large, which is my normal choice (I’m 6’ tall, 165 pounds, and 34” sleeve length). It has enough room inside to fit over a thick baselayer or fleece top, and the sleeve length is spot on. For me, an excellent fit.

I read an earlier review of this pullover on a prominent lightweight backpacking website, that cited air permeability numbers for the Airshed Pullover in the 50 to 60 CFM range versus only 1 to 7 CFM for a conventional windshirt. Those numbers were obtained by the author from a manufacturer representative, and are not specifications normally provided by the manufacturers. The article boosted my expectations for the Airshed Pullover.

A quick fabric air permeability test can be done by putting your mouth to the fabric and sucking air through it. Applying that test, I found that the Patagonia Airshed Pullover has distinctly higher air permeability than the Montbell Tachyon Jacket (1.6 ounces) I used for comparison.

In my field testing I gathered some comparative data for the two garments by placing a Kestrel Model 4000 Weather Tracker inside the zippered garment and recording temperature and relative humidity at 10 second intervals during a 90 minute hike over undulating terrain. The garments were tested in early morning on cloudy days. The starting temperature inside the garments differed by about 10 degrees, and the starting inside RH differed by about 6 percent.


The temperature data show the inside temperature initially cooled as I started hiking in cooler air, then became fairly steady through the remainder of the hike. Adjusted for the initial temperature difference, the two garments maintained about the same inside temperature during the hike.

Relative humidity inside the Airshed Pullover increased during the first half of the hike, to a higher level than the Tachyon, then remained fairly steady at about 60 percent. RH inside the Tachyon increased slowly and modestly in the first third of the hike, then gradually declined. The data suggest that the Airshed Pullover held more water vapor inside, rather than exhaust it through the fabric.

These results are contrary to the air permeability numbers and my mouth test, which indicated that the Airshed Pullover should have better breathability and exhaust moisture vapor more readily. So why didn’t the Airshed Pullover perform better in my instrumented field test?


It’s important to note that I did not feel much difference in comfort between the two garments during my testing. Furthermore, in all the product testing I have done over the years, I have never found that fabric breathability alone has much of an effect on perceived comfort. A much bigger factor, by orders of magnitude, is ventilation – simply open the front zipper and exhaust the steam. It’s much easier, and reliable, to adjust the front zipper for thermoregulation. Fabric breathability is minor compared to ventilation.

But there’s a wild card in this windshirt equation, and it’s called the sun. The radiant heat from the sun trumps everything, including opening the front zipper. If the wind subsides while hiking on a sunny day, a windshirt gets too hot inside and it has to come off. A windshirt works great in the sun on a windy ridge or constantly windy conditions, but in variable conditions the windshirt is on and off repeatedly. The best conditions for a windshirt are constant cool, overcast, and windy.

The key points in this discussion are:
·         Ventilation is much more important for garment comfort than fabric breathability.
·         Weather conditions have a larger effect on garment comfort than ventilation.


The Patagonia Airshed Pullover is a very nice windshirt, but don’t expect its breathability claim to be a silver bullet. It’s an analogous situation to Gore-Tex; Gore-Tex first needs to be waterproof, then it provides breathability (not much). Similarly the Airshed needs to be wind resistant, then provide some breathability (not much). During my many outings wearing the Airshed, I looked for extended comfort while hiking after the wind stopped and the sun came out, and didn’t find any. It got too hot to wear and I had to take it off, just like any other windshirt.

My recommendation is to select a windshirt that has a full height front zipper so you can open the zipper as needed for thermoregulation. My personal preference is an ultralight windshirt, like the Montbell Tachyon Jacket (1.6 ounces), so it’s a no-brainer to keep it in your pack. However, many hikers love the Patagonia windshirts because of their excellent fit and light jacket feel. Whatever you choose, get one with a full height zipper, and don’t get enamored by fabric breathability because there is not enough there to make a difference.

Monday, September 18, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Low Trail Shoe and Trail Gaiter

The latest version of the Altra Lone Peak version 3.5 (low mesh style tested) leaves nearly nothing to complain about. They are very dialed in every detail and dependably provide comfort, support, cushioning, and traction on the trail and off.

By Will Rietveld

I tested the Altra Lone Peak 3.5 for ultralight backpacking. Here are a few things we look for in footwear for hiking and backpacking:
  1. Ultralight backpackers usually prefer a trail running shoe because of their light weight. Specifically, we like an all-synthetic upper, moderately cushioned midsole, stability shoe with good rock protection and grippy outsole.
  2. We prefer mesh shoes rather than waterproof, because they are cooler to wear and dry out quickly. Waterproof shoes are slow to dry once they get wet inside.
  3. Choosing a shoe is all about fit, so footwear is a very personal thing. Once you find a brand you like, stick with it.

That said, I see more UL backpackers wearing Altra footwear than any other shoe. It’s becoming a cult favorite. Why? I explain some of the reasons in this review.

Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Low Mesh shoe. (Altra photo)

Specifications and Features

Altra Running (www.altrarunning.com)
Lone Peak 3.5 Low Mesh
25mm stack height, zero-drop
Measured weight size men’s 12: 12.25 oz/shoe, mfr specification 9 oz/shoe for men’s size 9
Durable air mesh upper, dual layer EVA midsole, MaxTrac TrailClaw rubber outsole, StoneGuard rock plate, FootShape toebox, Gaiter Trap


The Lone Peak is available in four versions for men and women: Low with mesh upper, Low with NeoShell upper, Mid with mesh upper, and Mid with NeoShell upper. I chose the Low with mesh upper because it is the lightest and most breathable version.

I tested the Lone Peak 3.5 Low Mesh style, which is the lightest and most breathable, a common choice by ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers. I also tested the Altra trail Gaiter along with the shoes. Photo taken at the beginning of my testing.

 All Altra shoes have the same basic claim to fame: a wide toebox that provides room for the foot to splay, a snug heelcup, and zero-drop (no heel rise). It’s those key features plus numerous details that make them favorites.

The new version 3.5 is an update, not a makeover. Changes are a more durable mesh upper, drainage holes to help keep feet dry, and a 4-point gaiter attachment. I tested the shoe with Altra’s current Trail Gaiter since their new 4-Point Gaiter was not yet available.

The Lone Peak’s MaxTrac TrailClaw rubber outsole provides plenty of grip for both on-trail and off-trail use.

 Altra states the ideal uses for the Lone Peak 3.5 are: trail running, hiking, fastpacking, and trail racing. That matches my application pretty well. This model has moderate cushioning, rock protection, good padding around the ankle, and a grippy rubber outsole.


I tested the Lone Peak 3.5 on a total of 15 outings totaling 21 days, which included backpacking, day hiking, and trail running. The shoes got some rough use, far beyond ordinary hiking on trails.

For background information, I tried zero-drop shoes for hiking when they first came out a few years ago, and suffered foot problems from lack of transitioning to them. This time around I transitioned through testing several shoes and boots with 3-4 millimeters of heel rise, which is becoming more common. The move to the zero-drop Altras did not result in any problems, although I still needed to concentrate on developing a whole foot landing rather than a heel strike.

My comments are organized in the following categories:

Design, Materials, and Construction – I love the shoe’s wide toebox and snug heelcup. For me, the extra width is mandatory because I have wide feet. I wore thinner socks in the shoes and used up every bit of width they had, and wished for a little more. Most readers with normal feet should find the toebox roomy. The rand extends out from the upper, which helps protect the upper from abrasion, and gives the shoes a bigger contact area to soften impact and increase traction.

The mesh used in the upper is plenty durable; seams are sewn rather than welded. Inspecting the shoes after my testing, I found some broken stitching here and there, but no seams coming apart. The extended rand helped a lot to reduce abrasion on the upper.

Cushioning and Padding – Just right, in the midsole and around the ankle.

Rock Protection – Again just right. I hiked through a lot of sliderock and didn’t feel a thing through the bottom of the shoes.

Traction – The tread on these shoes is sufficient to get a good grip on a variety of surfaces, and outsole looks like it will last the life of the shoes.

Durability – Despite the rough terrain I have taken them through, the Lone Peak 3.5 is holding up very well. No holes in the uppers, no seams coming apart, and lots of tread left.

Stability – Very good; no problems in most conditions, but some rollover in off-camber situations like hiking across steep sidehills.

Trail Gaiter – I tested Altra’s Trail Gaiter along with the shoe. The shoe has a gaiter hook on the front and a “Gaiter Trap” at the heel, which holds the gaiters securely. The Gaiter Trap is ingenius; two Velcro tabs on the back of the gaiter are sandwiched between two Velcro tabs at the heel of the shoe. I didn’t test Altra’s new 4-Point gaiter, but I must say I am satisfied with the existing attachment. The gaiters rarely came loose and show little or no wear.


The latest version of the Altra Lone Peak, version 3.5 low mesh tested, leaves nearly nothing to complain about. They are very dialed in every detail and dependably provide comfort, support, cushioning, and traction on the trail and off.

The Lone Peak 3.5 at the end of my testing period.

My personal preference is for welded uppers, for better durability. The nemesis of wearing trail runners for off-trail backpacking and hiking is broken stitching which results in seams coming apart. After my testing the shoes do have some broken stitching here and there, but the seams are still holding together, so far. Altra must have a reason for staying with stitching on their shoes; perhaps it is the shoe design or stitching method, but it seems to work.

My comments only pertain to the mesh version of the Lone Peak 3.5. The NeoShell version is another animal. Personally, I am quite content with the mesh version: they do get wet easily, but they dry out fast too.

Overall, the Altra Lone Peak 3.5 just gets everything right, making it a near perfect trail shoe. There is a lot to like, and nearly nothing to dislike.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

GEAR REVIEW: Katadyn BeFree Collapsible Water Filter Bottle

The BeFree collapsible water filter bottle at long last is the ideal ultralight water filtration system that I have been looking for. It’s very lightweight at 2 ounces, compact, effectively filters water to safe levels, has a fast flow rate, is easy to use, and it’s fairly inexpensive.

By Will Rietveld

Water is heavy, so I don’t want to carry any more than necessary. When I am backpacking in an area that I know will have water available at frequent intervals, I carry a small bottle and refill it often. The complication is water purification – how can I purify water quickly with the lightest technology?

Two of the lightweight solutions I have tested are: 1) the Sawyer Mini water filter on a small soda bottle, and 2) a wide mouth small soda bottle (e.g., a Gatoraid bottle) and a Steripen Freedom UV water purifier. Neither is ideal in terms of performance, light weight, and convenience. The Sawyer Mini filter has a slow flow rate and I get tired of sucking/squeezing hard to get water. The Steripen system only takes 45 seconds to treat a pint of water, and there is no wait time, but it relies on batteries and it failed me on one trip.

However, both systems are very lightweight, about 4 ounces total for the device and bottle. As far as convenience, the Sawyer Mini system needs to reside in a backpack side pocket, so it’s a bit hard to reach and replace; but the Steripen system can be carried in a shoulder pouch.

The new Katadyn BeFree filter bottle presents the opportunity to provide safe drinking water while reducing weight, with no wait time, a satisfying flow rate, and excellent convenience. Is it too good to be true?

When the Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System became available, and I jumped on it. The whole system, bottle + filter, weighs only 2 ounces, and it has a low profile, so it works in a shoulder pouch. How does it perform for ultralight backpacking?

Specifications and Features

Katadyn (www.katadyn.com/)
BeFree Water Filtration System
Collapsible TPU bottle, hollow fiber water filter attached to cap
Tough collapsible bottle, fits any HydraPak  flask with a 43mm opening, flip cap on the drinking spout
Measured weight 2 oz, mfr specification 2 oz
$40, replacement filter $25


The 0.6 liter soft TPU flask used for the Katadyn BeFree is made by HydraPak. HydraPak has collapsible containers in several sizes and the BeFree filter + cap will fit any of them, as long as it’s a 43 millimeter opening. At present, that’s the only containers the BeFree will fit; it will not fit ordinary soda bottles, even those with a wider mouth.

The BeFree filtration system uses hollow fibers, like the Sawyer Mini and Squeeze water filters, and the specifications are similar: 0.1 micron absolute hollow-fiber water filter that is 99.99% effective for removing protozoa, including Giardia and Cryptosporidium, and 99.9999% effective for removing bacteria. The difference – and this is a BIG difference – is the BeFree has a much higher flow rate.

The process for using the BeFree is: remove the cap + filter, fill the bottle at any water source (preferably clear water), replace the cap + filter, then flip up a drink spout cover and drink. The claimed lifespan of the filter is 1000 liters, or 2000 fillings, but that depends on water quality.

Katadyn first introduced the BeFree in a 0.6 liter size, which I tested. However, when I first drafted this review I discovered that they subsequently introduced 1 liter (2.3 ounces/$45) and 3 liter (3.5 ounces/$60) versions of the BeFree, which deserved my attention.

Since my main interest is an ultralight water treatment system, I focused on and tested the 0.6 liter size. But then another issue came up: apparently the first lot of that bottle was undersized; a mistake had been made and the bottle was about 0.4 liter rather than 0.6 liter. So I had to back up and test the true 0.6 liter size so I could evaluate it. I also tested the 1 liter size to see how well it fits into a packing system, but did not test the 3-liter version.

Left to right: 1-liter, 0.6 liter, and the original "0.6 liter" BeFree water filtration bottles. The latter size was a production goof and is no longer available. It's 8.5 inches tall compared to the true 0.6 liter bottle's (center) height of 10.5 inches.

Field Testing

I tested the BeFree on several mountain day hikes and three backpacking trips.

The undersized 0.6 liter (actual volume is about 0.4 liter) BeFree is 8.5 inches tall and carries nicely in a lightweight shoulder pouch. To drink, I flip open the cap and drink while squeezing the bottle while still in the mesh pouch. This size bottle provides about two drinks before it needs to be refilled, so it needs to be refilled frequently, which is inconvenient.

The true 0.6 liter size is 10.5 inches tall, a bit tall for my 7-inch shoulder strap pocket (same height as the one in the previous photo), but it works with an added rubber band to secure the top. This size provides about three drinks per filling, so it goes longer between refills, about right. Note the replacement cap for the one I lost (see next photo).

When water is plentiful and frequent, as it often is in the mountains, the 0.6 liter BeFree is perfect to minimize water weight. It is easily and quickly refilled at any water source.

I truly love the high flow rate of the BeFree. Getting a drink of water is more like drinking it straight out of a bottle, very satisfying. I was once a loyal user of the Sawyer Mini water filter, which mounts on any volume soda bottle with a standard 28 mm opening. But I grew tired of having to suck + squeeze hard to get water. The slower flow rate was not very satisfying, especially in hot weather.

To clean the BeFree, simply remove the filter and swish it in clean water, or partially fill the bottle, replace the filter, and shake it. It cannot be backflushed like the Sawyer filters, thus the 1000 liter lifespan. The Sawyer filters are claimed to filter 1 million gallons if backflushed regularly and properly.

For camp water, I simply filtered water through the small BeFree into a larger lightweight flask. It required only a few minutes and worked fine for one person, but was a bit cumbersome to filter enough water for two people. Perhaps the 3-liter size would be more convenient for filtering camp water for two or more people.

The only issue I had with the BeFree is the plastic hinge on the cap over the drink spout gradually broke off from use, and was quickly lost. That was a problem because, without a cap, the bottle spills water when I bend over. If it does break off, the drink spout can be replaced by a standard 28 millimeter cap (see previous photo). Another issue with the BeFree is the tab to lift the drink spout cover is small and not very visible, so I have to hunt for it each time I want to take a drink. To remedy that issue I marked it with a permanent marker (not shown in the photo).


The BeFree 0.6 liter collapsible water filter bottle at long last is the ideal ultralight water filtration system that I have been looking for. It’s very lightweight at 2 ounces, compact, effectively filters water to safe levels, is fast and easy to use, there is no wait time, and it’s fairly inexpensive. The Sawyer Mini is less expensive, but it has its limitations, as explained above.

The system I used before the BeFree consisted of the Steripen Freedom (2.7 ounces), a gallon size ziplock bag for treating water, and a 1-liter Platypus flask and drink tube hydration system. The 6.1 ounce system was fast and easy. However, the BeFree bottle plus a 1-liter flask for camp water weighs just 3 ounces. The BeFree system meets my needs for a net savings of 3 ounces. An alternative for trail water is to use a 20-ounce Gatoraid bottle with the Steripen Freedom, but that adds a little more weight and the stiffer plastic bottle does not squeeze and deliver water as well as the TPU BeFree bottle.

One drawback is the BeFree is limited to HydraPak TPU flasks with a 43 millimeter opening. It would be nice to have a version that fits a wider mouth plastic bottle available for free, like a Gatoraid bottle. That would be functional, but it would not squeeze as easily to deliver filtered water as the HydraPak TPU bottles.

The 1-liter size BeFree filter bottle is flared at the bottom, so it does not fit in my shoulder pouch, and is too heavy to carry by that method. However, it can be carried in a hipbelt mounted pouch for easy access.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2017: Gear for Lightweight Backpacking

By Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl

Not all lightweight backpacking gear comes from small online manufacturers; the larger companies are providing a lot as well. In fact, there are 238 companies that manufacture ultralight gear, according to Alex Beale at 99Boulders.com. His list is searchable, so you can quickly find a source for anything you need. Thanks Alex!

Lightweight backpacking is defined as a base pack weight under 20 pounds, and nowadays that’s extremely easy to attain. There is absolutely no reason to carry a heavy pack anymore; all it takes is a little effort to find and select lighter gear.

All items will be available in spring 2018, unless stated otherwise. Weights are for a men’s size Medium.

Osprey Levity and Lumina Backpacks.  Osprey probably has the most complete line of backpacks, and somehow they found a way to add two more. The men’s Levity and women’s Lumina are internal frame backpacks in 45 and 60 liter volumes that weigh less than 2 pounds. Their light weight is made possible by their new Nano-Fly fabric, which is an ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) ripstop Cordura nylon, plus common 30 denier silnylon. UHMWPE is very abrasion resistant. The aluminum frame design is similar to their Exos packs. The men’s Levity Pack weighs 1.82 pounds and 1.95 pounds for the two sizes, and the Lumina is 1.76 and 1.85 pounds. MSRPs are $250 and $270; available in January 2017.

Osprey Ether and Aeriel Pro Backpacks.  Osprey is also introducing a lightened version of these two popular backpacks, weighing 2.5 to 3 pounds, which is good for a full-featured load hauler. The Pro version will also utilize the new Nano-Fly fabrics, feature their Airspeed suspension and moldable hipbelt, and be strippable to further reduce weight if desired. MSRP is $375. Available in January 2017.

Klymit V Ultralite Sleeping Pad. This is a full-length (22 inches wide at the head end, 18 inches wide at the foot end, 2.5 inches thick) mummy shaped sleeping pad that weighs just 11.9 ounces and takes only 8-12 breaths to inflate. The standard pad has an R-value of 1.3 and costs $100; an insulated version weighs 15.9 ounces, has an R-value of 4.4, and costs $120. Both pads use 20 denier polyester fabric and are available now. A Zion Narrows printed version (photo) is available while supplies last.

Exped Down Socks.  These down insulated socks are available in S, M, and L sizes weighing 4.4, 4.6, and 4.9 ounces. MSRP is $59 and available now. They are not as lightweight as the Goosefeet down socks, but they are fitted better and more durable. To reduce weight, they don’t have a waterproof non-slip bottom surface like many other down booties.

Sierra Designs Backpacking Tents. Sierra Designs has been reinventing itself for the past two years to get back in touch with their backpacking roots. Their new lines of backpacking gear balance lightweight, quality materials, and price. There are four tents in the series, all double wall: the High Side is for one person, has a side entry with vestibule, weighs 1 pound 14 ounces, packs small, and costs $280; the Sweet Suite has 2 doors with vestibules, weighs 3 pounds 1 ounce, and costs $370 for the 2P version and $460 for the 3P version; the Studio 2P has an end entry with vestibule, weighs 2 pounds 12 ounces, and costs $350 and a 3P version costs $420; and the Meteor 2P also has an end entry, weighs 3 pounds 15 ounces, and costs $250 and a 3P version costs $300. The High Side has limited headroom. 

Sierra Designs Cloud Sleeping BagsSierra Designs introduced the first zipperless sleeping bag a couple of years ago with their Backcountry Bed, which is a bit heavy but very comfortable. Their new Cloud bags are a lightened version. Instead of a zipper, these bags have a flap closure, or comforter as SD calls it. Insulated with 800 fill-power DryDown, the Cloud will come in 35F and 20F ratings weighing 23 ounces and 29 ounces and costing $270 and $300. Both bags have a foot vent. The comforter closure is a big plus because it eliminates a snaggy zipper and the tight shoulder girth issue, but there are still a couple caveats. The upper 2 feet of the bottomside of the bag is uninsulated to save weight, relying on a sleeping pad for insulation, and it has pad sleeves on the bottom to hold a sleeping pad in place. That works out just fine for back sleepers, but it creates a situation for side sleepers: it appears that side sleepers need to sleep on their left side so the flap stays tucked in. Also the hood it facing up, so how does that work out for side sleeping? I slipped into the bag to try it out and it seemed manageable for a side sleeper like me, but that needs to be tested in the field to provide a full analysis.

Sierra Designs Nitro Sleeping Bags.  These are conventional mummy bags in three temperature ratings: 35F, 20F, and 0F weighing 22 ounces, 28 ounces, and 40 ounces and costing $300, $330, and $380. Insulation is 800 fill-power DryDown and they have a ½ length zipper. Available September 2017.

Sierra Designs Firefly Windshirt.  This 3-ounce windshirt costs only $84 for the hoodless version and $89 for the hooded version.

Columbia OutDry EX Featherweight ShellColumbia’s OutDry Extreme fabric puts the WP/B membrane on the outside of the jacket, and does not require a DWR coating for water repellency, or any maintenance for that matter. Previous OutDry Extreme jackets were heavier and targeted for snow sports and general weather protection. For 2018 Columbia is introducing a thinner version of this fabric, which translates to lightweight rain jackets like this one at 8 ounces, and the OutDry Extreme Caldorado Shell at 6 ounces (covered in our UL gear article). The Featherweight Shell has a few more features: adjustable hood for peripheral visability, underarm and chest vents, center front and chest pockets, and adjustable cuffs and hem. MSRP is $199.

Hilleberg Mesh Tent 1 and Tarp 5.  Hilleberg’s new Mesh Tent 1 is sized for one person, and is made of Monomesh, which is actually a fabric rather than a netting. It appears to be more durable than ordinary no-see-um netting. The Mesh tent sets up with two trekking poles (the same ones used for the tarp), weighs 14.5 ounces, costs $210, and will be available in April. The Tarp 5 is available now, weighs 11.3 ounces, and costs $160. The combo weighs a total of 25.8 ounces, about the same as a lightweight single-wall tent. The advantage is the versatility: pitch one or the other, or both, depending on the weather and bugs. Headroom in the mesh tent is 37 inches at the entry, just barely enough.

Big Agnes AXL Inflatable Sleeping Pad. This is something of interest to both LW and UL backpackers: the AXL is a full-length pad (20x72x3 inches thick) that weighs only 9 ounces. Many of us are willing to carry a few more ounces of sleeping pad to get a good night’s sleep, and this is “the one”. The AXL will be available in uninsulated ($140) and insulated with Primaloft Silver (10 ounces, $180) versions. The fabric is 20 denier with random ripstop, and the pad has a large inflation valve that seals as you blow.

Big Agnes Pumphouse Ultra Inflation Bag. An inflation bag is not new, but this one by BA weighs just 2 ounces, doubles as a stuff sack, and the outlet is compatible with the inlet on the AXL pad. Cost is $35; available now.

Granite Gear Crown2 38L Backpack. 38 liters of volume is enough for a compact lightweight backpacking kit, and Granite Gear’s new Crown2 38 weighs only 2.3 pounds (strippable down to 1.3 pounds sans framesheet, top cap, and hipbelt). But you probably don’t want to do that. Granite Gear packs are not the very lightest to be found, but those extra few ounces of weight are pure comfort. The Crown2 is made of durable Robic fabric, has an adjustable length hipbelt, and costs $185. It has a fixed torso length that fits torsos 18 to 21 inches.

Brooks-Range Foray Tent. The two person version of this 3-pole freestanding tent has a minimum weight of 2 pounds 15 ounces. It has an end entry with vestibule and the poleset is a hubbed unit. The fly is 15 denier and floor is 40 denier. MSRP is $390. 3P and 2P Deluxe versions (with 2 doors with vestibules) will also be available.

Frogg-Toggs Extreme Lite Jacket. This new rain jacket from Frogg-Toggs costs just $45. The WP/B fabric is two-ply and seam taped. Features are an adjustable attached hood, two zippered hand pockets, drawcord hem, and Velcro wrist closures. A name that includes the words “Extreme Lite” begs the question: “how light is it”. The answer was “I don’t know, but I’ll check”. The rep came back and said “4 ounces”. I said “I don’t think so…”, then he said “that was just a guess”. I think they are new to the LW business. My best guess is 8 to 10 ounces, maybe more.

New Sleeping Bags from Therm-a-Rest. TAR is coming out with a new line of three lightweight value priced 800 fill-power down sleeping bags, and one synthetic bag. All of the bags feature a Thermacapture heat reflective foil under the outer shell. The Polar Ranger (-20F), Oberon (0F), and Parsec (20F) feature Nikwax hydrophobic down, with 50%/50% top/bottom insulation for the Polar Ranger and 60%/40% top/bottom insulation for the Oberon and Parsec. The Space Cowboy (45F) is synthetic with 70%/30% top/bottom insulation. All have a ¾-length zipper and one zippered accessory pocket. The models of interest to backpackers are the 20F Parsec (31 ounces, $400), and the 45F Space Cowboy weighing 19 ounces and costing $150. All are designed to provide a bag with lightweight quality materials at a value price. 

Mountainsmith Scream 55 and 50 Backpacks. These new packs replace a previous version by the same name. The new packs, the Scream 55 for men (2 pounds 13 ounces, $160) and Scream 50 WSD for women (2 pounds 10 ounces, $160) are made of an attractive durable ripstop fabric and have a nice feature set: rolltop top closure, a wrap-around zipper for panel access, two tall fabric front pockets, two mesh side pockets, and hipbelt pockets. Each pack comes in one size; the men’s version fits 17 to 21 inch torsos, and the women’s version fits 14 to 17 inch torsos. The Scream is also available in 25 and 20 liter sizes with different feature sets. All are made of quality materials and value priced.

Alchemi Labs Sun Hats.  These hats use a radiant barrier technology from the space industry that blocks 99.8% of UV rays and reflects up to 80% of the sun’s heat waves, instead of absorbing heat like conventional hats. Their hats are available now in three styles: a billed Sun Cap, wide brimmed River Hat, and skirted Desert Hat. All are adjustable to head size and to keep them from blowing off. We weighed only the Desert Hat, 3.3 ounces. MSRPs are $35-$40.