These days, ultralight hikers aren’t stuck cobbling together their own makeshift gear via a Ray Jardine Ray-Way manual, swearing and sweating away at a sewing machine. Instead, they can rely on the expertise of a growing number of companies and small shops that cater specifically to gram-obsessed backpackers. But how is it that these manufacturers keep finding ways to cut weight from their gear?
Plenty of ultralight gear makers choose light materials from the start—plastics, aluminum, titanium, even carbon fiber. Some of the biggest places to reduce weight, however, are actually in softgoods like backpacks and tents. Here’s how two ultralight makers keep their packs and other products lean without sacrificing durability and function.
Logan, Utah-based ULA Equipment knows light: their catalog includes the 2 pound, 3 ounce Ohm 2.0. Despite the featherweight design, the pack can handle up to about 30 pounds comfortably—ultralight gram counters can cut even more of its weight by pulling out the foam back panel.
“Fabrics are one of the most important areas, although actual fabric weights are not a huge factor in overall pack weights,” ULA’s owner Chris McMaster says. “For instance, total fabric weight in our most popular pack, the Circuit, which weighs 41 oz, is under 7 oz. The rest of the weight is mesh, frame materials, strapping, et cetera.”
Six Moon Designs makes ultralight packs, shelters, and other goods like trekking umbrellas; its 1 lb, 10 oz Lunar Solo shelter won a Backpacker Editors’ Choice Award in 2019. Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, the vice president of sales and marketing at the company, says that modern, lightweight-yet-tough fabrics are key in cutting down gear’s weight.
“Fabrics which are lighter in weight can make some of the biggest difference in saving weight, luckily the technology available today in fabrics has allowed us to use a lighter weight denier on most shelters without sacrificing the strength or waterproofness,” he says.
LaRuffa knows firsthand how important good gear is to a long hike. Outside of the office, he’s a thru-hiker with over 9,000 miles behind him, including the first thru-hike of the Chinook Trail in Washington and Oregon. He says that Six Moon Designs considers the weight of fabrics and other features when drawing up plans for its products.
For instance, without a zipper, bugs will sneak through even the best-designed flap on a tent. Instead, the company cuts weight by opting for lighter hardware like the #3 YKK zippers it uses on most of its shelters. Thinking like an ultralighter helps, too.
“We generally find the best opportunities for cutting weight is to first evaluate if something most people carry could work to save weight, such as using trekking poles as tent poles,” LaRuffa says.
It’s possible to get too light. As McMaster explains, ULA rarely uses the lightest-weight fabric available, as it just isn’t durable enough to stand up to the rigors of the trail. Instead, the company usually relies on fabrics like Robic and X-Pack for a strong mix of abrasion resistance, weight-to-strength ratio and durability in its packs.
“First, we don’t want to be selling disposable gear and second, we can’t afford to have our packs fail 50 miles from the nearest trailhead,” McMaster quips. For packs, “zippers are quite heavy and prone to failure so we generally don’t use them except on hipbelt pockets.” That way, a hiker doesn’t have to worry about a zipper failing on the 1,000th zip or tearing a hole in raingear or a tent when closing a ULA pack.
Six Moon Design’s philosophy on packs is similar: weight takes a backseat to safety, usability, durability and longevity.
“We make a great line of packs, and we know we are not the lightest even in our ultra-light segment. However, our pack utilizes very proven and strong fabrics to ensure they will hold up in the field,” LuRuffa says. “That is why our backpacks have double-layered reinforced bottoms to ensure they do not tear from constantly being set on the ground.”
“When we consider what to put on the pack we ask ourselves: ‘If I have been hiking for 10 hours in 37-degree rainy weather can my nearly frozen hands open this buckle or zipper?’ If we can’t answer with a yes we may go with a bigger buckle, for instance, to make sure the user—no matter how cold—can at least get in their pack to retrieve dry items to get warm and stay safe.”
When it comes to shelters, the company uses a wider variety of fabrics, including silnylon and Dyneema, which offer superior strength-to-weight ratios but aren’t necessarily tough enough to take the abuse that a backpack would over 500 miles of being scraped on rocks and poked by tree branches.
Last but not least, both ULA and Six Moon focus on simplicity in their designs. While more mainstream backpacks and tents have comfort-driven features like multiple pockets and doors, trampoline-style back sheets, and water-bladder pouches, all of those features add weight. Buy an ultralight pack or shelter, and you’ll sacrifice some of those comforts. In exchange, however, you’ll end up with something that maximizes durability and usability at its weight class.