So, what is all the hype with respect to Cuben Fiber, and why is it changing my perspective over good solid well tested, dependable and reasonably priced backpacking gear? Why are hikers and outdoor people embracing the new trend in ultra-light gear despite that on the surface it appears that it may not be as dependable and quite a bit more expensive than conventional gear? The simple answer is that ultra-light gear based on Cuben Fiber is lighter and stronger than conventional gear. I am changing out my old gear to newer ultra-light to improve my outdoor enjoyment and performance.
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 criss-crossed Dyneema fibers that are layered between 2 sheets of Mylar plastic.
Dyneema was first discovered by a DSM Dyneema (Dutch based) 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 are 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