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, 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.

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2017: Gear for Ultralight Backpacking

By Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl

Not all ultralight 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!

And nowadays, ultralight gear is not just for backpacking – think bikepacking, UL mountaineering, canoep acking, kayak packing, motorcycle travel, and UL adventure travel. Whatever your endeavor, who’s not to like lightweight/ultralight compact versions of every component needed for camping. A lighter load is much easier on the body and enhances the enjoyment of what we do.

Ultralight backpacking is defined as a base pack weight under 10 pounds, which is all of your gear exclusive of consumables like food, water, and fuel, which vary by trip length. With today’s gear options it’s easy to get your pack weight under 10 pounds; all you have to do is spend a little time to find the lighter stuff.

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

Raidlight Trekking Poles.  Raidlight is a French company that was recently purchased by Rossignol, and is now distributed in the US. The company’s main focus is equipment for trail running. Their Composite Carbon Collapsible Pole (photo) is available in 110 and 123 cm fixed lengths and weighs 6.4 ounces/pole, $150. They also have the Vertical Carbon 3 Pole which weigh 5.6 ounces/pole, adjust from 105 cm to 130 cm, and cost $120. Available now.

Raidlight Ultralight Rain Jacket. Also available now from Raidlight is this 6-ounce WP/B rain jacket for $199. But their bigger news is next year they will have a 3.2 ounce WP/B jacket that is expected to sell for $265, which is a bit expensive.

Toaks Ultralight Titanium Cooking Systems. We have covered Toaks titanium cookwear before; it’s very lightweight and reasonably priced. At this OR we noticed that their pots are getting thinner and lighter, which is good, and we spied their new cooking systems for alcohol, fuel tabs, and wood fuels. Their Alcohol Fuel Cooking System consists of a burner, pot stand, and 900 ml pot,  (6 ounces/$90); their Fuel Tab Cooking System includes a fuel holder/potstand, 550 ml pot, foil windscreen, and spork (3.3 ounces/$58); their Small Wood Fuel Cooking System has a 750 ml pot (5 ounces/$45); and their Large Wood Fuel Cooking System has a 1100 ml pot (8 ounces/$60. In each system all of the components nest inside the cook pot, and a super light carry bag is included to hold it all together for packing.

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Sleeping Bags.  Following on their successful line of Ghost Whisperer down jackets and windshirts, Mountain Hardwear is introducing new sleeping bags with the same 10x10 denier fabric and 900 fill-power goose down insulation. Two versions will be offered with 40F and 20F temperature ratings. The 40F version will weigh 17 ounces and sell for $400, and the 20F version will be 29 ounces and $580. Expensive, but those are typical prices for a premium ultralight down sleeping bag. 

A cautionary note on shoulder girth of sleeping bags – This is a good time to mention the sleeping bag shoulder girth issue, and that applies to all mummy style sleeping bags. To make a bag lighter and warmer, manufacturers will often shrink the size of the sleeping bag, reducing the shoulder girth to the 58-59 inch range. The fact that many fabrics come in a 60-inch width may also affect that decision. That shoulder girth is fine for small people, but if you are an average or larger size person, that dimension is simply too tight, because it is very difficult to get the zipper closed or open. Wearing camp clothing inside the bag worsens the issue. Being locked in can get scary in the middle of the night, if you know what I mean! So here’s my words of advice when purchasing a sleeping bag: be sure to determine the shoulder girth of the bag; for an average or larger person, especially if you wear insulated clothing inside the bag, be sure the shoulder girth is 62 inches or more. A 61-inch girth may suffice, but know what you are getting into, so to speak.
Update: I requested the shoulder girth specification for three manufacturer's bags featured in this summer's coverage, and none of them was able to provide it. So, unfortunately, it buyer beware. Many manufacturers do provide that important information, which we appreciate, but many do not. Bottom line, do every thing you can to know the shoulder girth of a bag before you buy it, so you don't make an expensive mistake.

Columbia OutDry Extreme Caldorado Shell. By now you are probably familiar with Columbia’s OutDry Extreme fabric, which is the OutDry membrane used in their footwear adapted to create hardshell jackets with the membrane on the outside. The beauty of this technology is it is WP/B without needing a DWR treatment on the surface. Until now these jackets have been heavier, weighing a pound or more, and primarily used for snow sports and conventional backpacking. Now it is finally getting lighter and receiving our attention; the Caldorado Shell weighs just 6 ounces and costs $199. This jacket is targeted for running and has a minimal feature set, but it should perform just fine for backpacking.  A novel feature is gill vents under the armpits.

Columbia Featherweight Long Sleeve Shirt. This new outdoor shirt weighs just 4 ounces and costs $60. We like the topographic map print. It will be available in several colors for men and women.

Outdoor Research Surge Running Gaiter. This new gaiter is made of polyester and spandex material and is really lightweight. We were not able to weigh it, but it is similar to their 1.2 ounce Sparkplug Gaiter. $28.

Rab Mythic Sleeping Bags.  Following on their remarkable Zero G Jacket that we reported on last time, with 1000 fill-power down and 7 denier fabrics, Rab announced their new Mythic Sleeping Bags featuring 900 fill-power down and Pertex Quantum GL 7-denier fabrics. That’s correct; Quantum is now available in 7-denier. Three Mythic bags will be available with the following specs: Mythic 200 (34F/16.7 ounces/$385), Mythic 400 (19.5F/23.2 ounces/$435), and Mythic 600 (3F/31 ounces/$485). All bags are insulated with Nikwax hydrophobic down, have a ½ length zipper, and are claimed to have “extra shoulder girth” for mountaineers. I requested the shoulder girth spec and will post it here when I get it. Comparing the MSRPs of these bags with others we are reporting on, you will notice that the Mythic bags are remarkably value priced for a top shelf premium ultralight down sleeping bag.

Rab Flashpoint Pullon Rain Jacket. This is pullover version of Rab’s successful Flashpoint Jacket. The weight is just 4.6 ounces for size Large and the WP/B fabric is Pertex Shield +. Features include a half zip on the front, one zippered chest pocket, attached hood, and elastic cuffs and hem. $250.

The North Face Summit L5 Storm Jacket. This traditional Gore-Tex 3-layer jacket weighs just 6.1 ounces and costs $300. That’s remarkably lightweight for a Gore-Tex air-permeable jacket!

FlowFold Ultralight Wallets. FlowFold makes a range of lightweight travel bags from 100% reclaimed sailcloth. We spied these ultralight items: the Minimalist Limited ($12) is an ID and credit card holder, and the Vanguard Limited ($30) is an ultralight wallet. Both provide super light protection of your money and cards using strong and light outdoor fabrics. As a bonus, their products come with a lifetime warranty.

LifeStraw Flex Water Filter. LifeStraw appears to be an up and coming company with an expanding array of products. Their new Flex Water Filter (1.75 ounces/$35) can be used five ways: as a straw to suck water directly from a stream, inside a soft bottle, mounted on a plastic beverage bottle, in-line in a hydration system, or in-line in a gravity filtration system. The filter cartridge itself, which is taller than a Sawyer Mini, contains a hollow fiber .02 micron filtration system to remove organisms plus a carbon filter to reduce heavy metals and chemicals. The former is backflushable with a life expectancy of 500 gallons of water, and the latter will filter about 26 gallons. A replacement carbon filter costs $15, but the Flex will work without it. The basic Flex system includes the dual filter cartridge, a soft bottle (about 24 ounces), and a syringe for backflushing. Available October 2017.

Petzl Bindi Headlamp. The Petzl E+Light has been a favorite lightweight headlamp for many backpackers, but it only produced 50 lumens of light. How about 200 lumens from a 1.2 ounce headlamp? The new Bindi does just that; it will be the lightest, most powerful headlamp on the market. And it’s USB rechargeable, so no more AAA batteries. It has three white light settings plus a red light plus a red strobe. The headband is a simple elastic cord. $60, available April 2018. 

Black Diamond Distance Z Collapsible Poles. This will be the newest version of Black Diamond’s fixed length collapsible carbon fiber trekking pole. It will be available in 100, 110, 120, and 130 cm lengths for $170 starting January 2017. Average weight is 5.3 ounces/pole. An adjustable length version, the Distance Carbon FLZ Pole adjusts from 105 to 125 cm, weighs 6.35 ounces/pole, and costs $189.

Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System. We reported on this last time, but there is more to the story. It seems that the original TPU soft flask provided with the system was undersized, so a bigger version is now being provided with the basic system. I was wondering why I was only getting two drinks out of the original bottle! Besides the 0.6 litter soft flask, Katadyn now has 1 liter and 3 liter sizes. The filter plus flask weights are 2 ounces for the 0.6 liter size, 2.3 ounces for the 1 liter size, and 3.4 ounces for the 3 liter size. So, this is a really lightweight and versatile water filtration system. The bonus is that it has a high flow rate, 2 liters/minute, which I found delightful, and it’s easily cleaned by simply shaking the filter in a partially filled flask. MSRPs are $40, $45, and $55 for the three sizes.

Steripen Ultralight UV Water Purifier. Perhaps the first word will be Katadyn when it comes out, because Katadyn is purchasing Steripen. The new Ultralight is the smallest and lightest of the Steripen line, formerly called the Freedom. This latest version does not have a built-in light (hooray!), which I found to be a nuisance because it frequently cane on accidentally and used up precious power. One 45 second cycle purifies ½ liter of water, and one charge will provide about 40-50 cycles. The weight is 2.6 ounces and it is USB rechargeable; $80 (which is less than the Freedom cost).

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2017: Food and Nutrition

By Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl

There are zillions of energy bars and energy drinks on the market, and some of them have booths at Outdoor Retailer. We cover only the new ones to keep you informed about new products coming to the market.

Cusa Instant TeaThese organic teas are cold steeped for 8 hours then vacuum dehydrated. Each of the six flavors comes in a single serve pack that will make a 12 ounce cup of tea, hot or cold. The teas contain caffeine, but no additives or sugar. We tasted one of the teas and found the flavor authentic and remarkable, analogous to the Starbucks instant coffees. Cost is $1 per packet; a box of 10 packets costs $10.

Untapped Maple Syrup Athletic Fuels.  According to Untapped, maple syrup is naturally packed with electrolytes, antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins, and carbohydrates. They have created waffle bars sweetened with maple syrup ($2.25 each) and maple syrup single serve packets ($2 each) for quick energy and nutrition on the trail. They claim that maple syrup is gentler on the stomach during ultra-runs than other gel products. We got to sample a new coffee maple syrup that will be coming out soon, and it is outstanding.

Dharma Bars.  This bar was created by a chef/endurance athlete who became frustrated with the lack of a great tasting organic vegan energy bar. Made of organic plant based ingredients, three types of Dharma bars are available: Endurance, Recover, and Balance. Each is formulated for its purpose. Cost is $2.59 to $2.99 per bar.

Ultima Replenisher.  Ultima is electrolytes, pure and simple, 6 of them plus support minerals. No sugar, carbs, artificial flavors, or calories. Available in six real fruit flavors with plant-based color, and sweetened with stevia leaf. Ten packets for $10, or a 90 serving box (16 oz) for $40.

Organic Valley Organic Fuel.  These bottled drinks and drink mixes are based on whey protein powder. We focused on their powdered single serve flavored whey protein drink mixes, vanilla or chocolate flavored, which contain 26 grams of protein, 140 calories, and 3 grams of sugar. Simply add to 8 ounces of water, shake, and drink. I like to add a teaspoon of instant coffee to get my morning joe as a mocha. One packet costs $2.99. It’s also available in 12 ounce cans.

Tailwind Nutrition Endurance Fuel.  This is a complete energy drink mix containing sugars, minerals, and electrolytes. The sugars are dextrose and sucrose. Tailwind claims it is easy on the stomach and easily absorbed. One packet makes 24 ounces of go juice. I like to make it more diluted so it doesn’t taste so sweet. Caffeinated and non-caffeinated versions are available for $2.25/$2.35 per packet. Tailwind is the official energy drink of the Hardrock 100 endurance run, and it is well liked by the runners.

Natti Bar.  These bars are dried bananas alone or combined with chocolate or cacao nibs. Bananas are a natural source of electrolytes and carbs, and chocolate contains antioxidants. Each bar contains about one dried banana. They are chewy and taste like… bananas and chocolate. $1.49 to $1.99 each.

Good to Go Backpacking Meals.  These meals were created by chef Jennifer Scism, who was on a winning team who beat master chef Mario Batali on The Iron Chef. Simply put, they are gourmet meals for backpackers, made from natural ingredients. A range of breakfasts and dinners are available in single and double portion sizes. A single serving size is about $6.75 and a double serving is about $12.50. We tasted one of the dinners, served up by Jennifer herself, at the Jetboil booth, and it was indeed delicious!

Trailtopia Backpacking Meals. This is another new company making backpacking meals, from Minnesota no less. They have a full range of breakfasts, dinners, and desserts in short eat-in pouches that don’t require a long handled spoon. Their meals are color coded by the above categories, use high quality ingredients, and are claimed to have better flavor than the competition. We did not get to taste any of their meals, so we can’t comment on their flavor. Prices range from $2.29 to $10.99.