Preparing For The Trail
Until recently, I was a day packer and did most of my camping close to my vehicle – weight was never a problem because my vehicle was always close by. But this year, I just retired from civilian military service at the ripe age of 60. I was always somewhat conditionally fit, went to the gym a few days a week, rode my bike to/from work, and day hiked for the outdoor pleasure.
Shortly after I retired I went overseas for a long three-week vacation with some family members and explored the mountainous and desert regions almost every day – it was quite enjoyable – so I decided that upon my return to the States I would expand my outdoor activity and try my hand at multi-day backpacking. Since I live in San Diego and not too far from the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I decided a few days out on the PCT would be my test case.
I had some gear from my car camping days but needed more gear for this adventure. After doing some research on what I thought I needed, I went to REI, picked up some gear and supplies and complimented the rest online.
After several single night outings, less than 20 miles, I decided to see if I could handle a multi-day outing. I had additional incentive for doing this since I committed my son and I to a backpacking adventure with my cousin for 32 miles on the very scenic landscape of the Kesuegi Ridge in Alaska in just 8 short weeks.
A 60lb Pack Will Kill Your Back
Being a novice backpacker, I carried way too much weight for me (60 plus lbs.) the first time out. I say for me because I abused my back years ago in the gym and every now and then it comes back to haunt me. I brought with me gear I realized afterward was a big mistake, such as my IPAD, multiple battery backups, and other non-essential electronics, large first aid kit, multiple extra clothes, extra food, my old heavy sleeping bag and pad, extra bug spray… the list goes on.
After the first 25 miles, I was hurting and decided to lighten my load in the future. I decided to return to my vehicle for the dreaded 25 miles back to my SUV which was parked in Warner Springs, CA.
With only a few miles left, I was dreading each and every minute on the trail, entirely due to the weight of my backpack and knowing there was too much-unneeded gear causing my distress. After I took the backpack off, I just sat in my truck for several minutes, enjoying the relief I was feeling by not having to haul that backpack (for note: it turned out the backpack was not sized correctly and also created deep lacerations on my hip).
After a few days of recovery, I went back out on the PCT for a weekend outing with a much lighter load, needless to say, I felt much better and truly enjoyed this experience, recovery time was minimal if at all.
With Kesugi Ridge now only three weeks away we backpacked every weekend to prepare. I reduced my base weight each time and survived with little notice. Recovery time was not needed due to the lighter load.
By the time we departed to Alaska, I was able to reduce my base weight to around 30 lbs. which included a bear canister.
A member of our hiking team (my cousin) was already into ultra-light and brought with him a z-pack tent, backpack, and several stuff sacks – needless to say, he was quite a bit more comfortable than my son and I. Kesugi Ridge was an incredible hike, highly recommended, and a true learning experience for us novice backpackers.
Lightening Your Load
One of my lessons learned is to continuously strive to lighten my load. I believe this will give me the opportunity to complete several sections of the PCT despite my lower back problems come this spring. I plan to go ultra-light to a point where I feel comfortable. The reason I say comfortable is because a thru-hiker passed us on one of our weekend trips on the PCT in June — south of Eagle Rock going north— with only a 6 lbs. base weight, wearing toe socks and sandals, no water filter and eating mostly tortillas and cheese, hiking about 28 miles per day.
For me, a base weight of 15 lbs. seems reasonable and I plan to get there using Cuben Fiber where it makes sense, i.e., tent, backpack, stuff sacks. I also plan to replace my perfectly capable sleeping bag with an ultra-light comforter. I still have room for improvement on my rain gear and clothing and will partition my food rations on a daily cycle – perhaps I will eat more tortilla and cheese. But, I will not give up my water sanitizer – I can’t imagine getting sick in the middle of nowhere due to contaminated water that could easily be prevented!
Is Cuben Fiber The Answer?
Since I am in the process of building a Cuben Fiber tent and backpack – why do I feel confident they will meet my needs? For one, my cousin used his Cuben Fiber tent and backpack with virtually no issues and stayed dry. Secondly, I reviewed multiple articles on Cuben Fiber and associated outdoor Cuben Fiber gear along with excellent testimonials from the user community.
Below is a quick synopsis of why I am now convinced this ultra-light approach will meet my needs despite the fact I believe it’s pricier than most gear, at least from a point where I feel comfortable.
So, what is Cuben Fiber?
Per my research on the web, Cuben Fiber is the strongest man-made fiber in the world. It is a laminate of crisscrossed Dyneema fibers that are layered between 2 sheets of Mylar plastic.
Dyneema was first discovered by a DSM Dyneema scientist in 1968. At the time, DSM did not see the marketability of this product and sold off the rights. In 2015 DSM Dyneema had a change of heart and purchased Dyneema from Cubic Tech Corp. – under the more recognizable name – Cuben Fiber. DSM tried to rename Cuben Fiber to Dyneema Composite Fabric (CTF3) or non-woven Dyneema but most ultra-light gear manufacturers and consumers still refer to Dyneema as Cuben Fiber.
Here is a few more information about Cuben Fiber:
- Cuben Fiber has 15 times the strength of steel per comparable weight, it is waterproof, tear-resistant and lightweight. By lightweight, it is 30-50% lighter than comparable size fabrics. There are different densities of Cuben Fiber such as the common 1.43 oz./sqyd of the heavier 2.92 oz./sqyd hybrid material. The Hybrid material can also be dyed. The 1.43 oz./sqyd could get frayed by end of thru hike. Whereas the 2.92 oz./sqyd only adds a couple of ounces to the weight of a pack but has substantially more durability.
- Cuben Fiber does not lose technical integrity when folded or crinkled and does not absorb water weight. The fiber does not stretch; however, it does not stuff well also and needs to be folded to get small and compact.
- Due to the high cost of the material and craftsmanship – Cuben Fiber gear tends to cost typically 2- 3 times more than conventional fabrics and gear. Thru economies of scale, As the demand increases, the supplies will follow suit – – and hence an expectation the price of Cuben Fiber gear will be reduced.
- Cuben Fiber material can be purchased per ½ yard online if someone has the tenacity to fabricate their own gear. A quick search showed “Ripstop by the Roll” and “Make Your Gear.com” sell Cuben Fiber fabric.
Several companies manufacture Cuben Fiber gear – a quick search online showed “Hyperlite Mountain Gear”, “Zpacks.com” and “Mountain Laurel Designs”.
- As Cuben Fiber takes off there is reasonable expectation this fabric could revolutionize other markets like the clothing industry – examples on the web included products like denim jeans or perhaps hiking shoes. Imagine jeans and hiking shoes lasting forever.
The Final Verdict
As a final note – as people start retiring and want to continue their outdoor backpacking activities, like myself, then I believe this ultra-light alternative will provide them the ability to enjoy backpacking and other high-impact outdoor activities that would have proved much harder without considering weight vs comfort on the trail.
Dyneema & Cuben Fiber Technology > hyperlitemountaingear.com
Zpacks.com Ultralight Backpacking Gear – Materials > Zpack.com
Andrew Skurka//adventurer, guide, speaker, writer > andrewskurka.com
Cuben fiber > makeyourgear.com
Cubic Tech/about/Dyneema > dsm.com
Cuben fiber (half yard) > dutchwaregear.com
Cuben fiber is now Dyneema Composite Fabrics > blog.gossamergear.com
Cuben fiber – frequently asked questions/section hikers backpacking blog > sectionhiker.com