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 items to improve my own backpacking kit, but I am also looking for gear of interest for anyone wanting to lighten their load.

A blog is also the ideal place to post some random philosophical thoughts about UL backpacking and why we do it. It's a passion after all, so we just plain enjoy talking about it. When I'm out hiking by myself, my mind wanders and some interesting thoughts rise to the surface. A blog is the perfect place to share and discuss ideas. I hope readers of this blog will add their wisdom to my comments, respond to my questions, ask their own questions, and correct me if I get something wrong. Happy hiking! Will

Will and Janet are proud Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors. Take 15% off all Ultralight Backpacks, Shelters, Trekking Poles and Accessories at Gossamer Gear with Coupon Code: SWUL

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Simple, Inexpensive, Lightweight, Effective Accessory to Control Condensation in a Single Wall Shelter

By Will Rietveld

Ultralight backpackers love a single wall shelter because they save a lot of weight and (to them) function effectively to provide all the weather protection needed.

Lightweight backpackers disdain them because of condensation. “Yuck! The tent walls are all wet in the morning, and if I brush against them, I will get wet.” How terrible! Therefore they gotta have a double wall tent; no matter that it weighs one-third more, and costs more.

I have a hard time understanding lightweight backpackers; they want to reduce pack weight but somehow manage to shoot themselves in the foot every time :).

Somehow they fail to notice that a double wall tent gets condensation on the inside of the fly, so it’s just as wet. And that brings up another strange behavior of lightweight backpackers – they wait for the tent to dry out in the morning before they pack it up and get going. That can take hours in cool morning temperatures and high humidity. Direct sun is needed to dry out a tent.

Fortunately there is a simple, inexpensive, lightweight, effective accessory that fixes the condensation problem. It’s something everyone can carry in their pack for this purpose, and many others. It’s easy to obtain and easy to use. It works great for single wall tents, but is harder to use on double wall tents because the condensation is harder to get to. 

After use, the tent walls are mostly dry, and one can decide whether to pack up the shelter mostly dry and get on the trail (a good choice), or let it stand while eating breakfast so it dries some more. Actually, with this accessory, you are better off to use a single wall tent, because you end up with a dry tent faster in the morning. Whereas if you use a double wall tent your choices are to pack it up wet, or wait it out for the tent to dry.

This accessory costs only about $10, but you can probably find a cheaper substitute, and it’s readily available at most outdoor stores or online. The weight is about one ounce, and it can be used multiple times. Single wall tent manufacturers ought to provide this accessory with each tent purchase, just to enlighten people. Frankly, when you find out what it is, it will seem like a lightbulb moment.

Well, here it is, it’s a pack towel! Yep, that’s all you need to control condensation in a single wall tent. Simply wipe down the tent walls in the morning. Problem solved. You don’t need to pack up a wet (heavier) shelter that may wet other things in your pack. And, like I said, it’s harder to use this accessory on a double wall tent, so a single wall shelter is actually better.
 Okay lightweight backpackers, here is your chance to do something right and actually save weight; get a single wall shelter plus a pack towel!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Hightlights From The Outdoor Retailer Winter 2014 Trade Show: Loads of Interesting New Gear and Technologies for Lightweight Backcountry Travel

By Will Rietveld
Outdoor Retailer, on the floor. I have reported on the OR Show since 2006, so this is my 17th show. OR never disappoints; it’s big, high energy, and always yields lots of emerging new technologies and products of interest to lightweight and ultralight backpackers. This show is no different.

Highlighted products will be available in fall 2014 unless noted otherwise. For footwear, the weight listed is per shoe for a men’s size 9, unless stated otherwise.
Vasque Arrowhead Ultradry Boot. The new Vasque Arrowhead Ultradry Boot (women’s Skadia) features 200 gram Thinsulate insulation, a heat-reflective lining, a zippered waterproof outer shell, and quick-draw lacing on the inner boot. Weight for the men’s version is 2 pounds 12 ounces per pair, and MSRP is $170. This looks to be the perfect boot for active snowshoeing. Another winner from Vasque is the Snow Junkie insulated boot, which is wonderfully lightweight and perfect for snow hiking.
Sierra Designs Mobile Mummy. Sierra Designs continues to build on their innovative sleeping system designs with the addition of a cold weather version of their Mobile Mummy Bag. The bag (which has a 0F lower limit and 13F comfortable rating) has a long top zipper, arm ports, and a hood that zips up snug without drawcords. The bag is wearable in camp by extending your arms through the arm ports and opening the bottom of the bag to let your feet out then pinning the bottom up to the backside of the bag. Weight is 3 pounds 6 ounces, insulation is 29.4 ounces of 800 fill DriDown, and MSRP is $479.
Sierra Designs DriDown Baffled Jacket and Hoody. Sierra Designs will also introduce a DriDown Baffled Jacket and Hoody which has a soft nylon/polyester outer shell with DWR, 800 fill-power DriDown insulation, weight of 19 ounces (men’s Large), and MSRP of $299. These hoodies also feature SDs no drawcord hood, which closes snugly with a pull of the zipper.

Primaloft fabric and fleece, and Polartec Powerdry High Efficiency fabrics. Other news from Primaloft is their new Primaloft fabrics and fleece (left), which will eventually be utilized in baselayers and midlayers by various manufacturers. Not to be outdone, hours before the Show Polartec announced their new Polartec Powerdry High Efficiency fabrics (right), which will be available in different weaves and thicknesses for different applications. These basic fabrics are polyesters, which are superior for lightweight, hydrophobicity, and wicking. Of course the yarn can also be spun or woven with other fibers like wool to create hybrid fabrics.
Outdoor Research Sparkplug Gaiter. The new minimalist Outdoor Research Sparkplug Gaiter (available now) weighs just 1.2 ounces per pair and costs only $20, making it the best value for an ultralight short gaiter. It attaches with a simple front lace hook and rear Velcro patch. The Velcro is a heavy-duty type that really holds fast; I could not strip it loose in my testing of the similar OR Stamina Gaiter for my state-of-the-market report on ultralight gaiters published at Backpacking Light Magazine. In case you’re wondering, my favorite UL gaiter is the Montbell Semi-Tall Spat (which is actually a short minimalist gaiter), which has an underfoot cord protected by a urethane tube. I have yet to wear out the underfoot cord, which is normally the nemesis of traditional gaiters.
Saxx Sub Zero Bottom. Hey guys, if you haven’t heard about them, Saxx boxers are the bomb for keeping your junk under control while hiking (gals should go on to the next item now, but I know you won’t). For fall 2014, Saxx will introduce a Sub Zero ¾-length version that incorporates their ball control technology (it could be called ThermoBall, but that name is taken). They are made of polyester and Spandex and the front pouch is windproof. MSRP is $50.
Zem Gear Oxygen 2. Gear’s Oxygen 2 minimalist shoe weighs just 3 ounces per shoe and makes a perfect stream fording and camp shoe. MSRP is $50 and they are available now. These are a heck of a lot more elegant than sandals dangling on the front of your pack. Stream crossings simply hurt if you do it barefoot; the O2 allows you to do it effortlessly because they stay on and are very slip-resistant.

Montane Aero eVent Pullover. Previously, Montane broke new ground with their lightweight Spektr Smock, a minimalist eVent rain jacket with a funky Velcro front closure. Now Montane gets it right with the Aero eVent Pullover. This one weighs about an ounce more at 9.8 ounces, but it has an offset half-height water-resistant zipper and front pouch. It’s made of 3-layer eVent air permeable waterproof-breathable fabric (our favorite) in a lighter fabric construction to save weight. Other features are shoulder vents, elastic draw on the lower back, 3-way adjustable hood with wire brim, and Velcro tab cuffs. This updated smock has more features than the Spektr did (perhaps more than we prefer), but the added weight is minimal, and the Spektr’s faults are gone.
eVent Direct Venting Storm Membrane (right). Last summer I reported on eVent’s new membrane (right), dubbed the 59T, which is about 20% lighter and three times more breathable (that’s correct) than the standard membrane (left). The new membrane will be named eVent DVS (for Direct Venting Storm). The word I get is that manufacturers are a bit nervous about its durability in a 2.5-layer construction, and no manufacturers are planning products with it for 2014. Stay tuned for further progress.
Olicamp IonMicro Stove, Kinetic Ultra Titanium Stove, and XTS Aluminum Pot. Canister fuel stoves keep getting lighter. The Olicamp IonMicro Stove (right) has manual ignition, 8900 BTU output, weighs just 1.5 ounces, and costs $50. The Kinetic Ultra Titanium Stove (center) also has manual ignition, a larger burner head with 9620 BTU output, 1.7 ounce weight, and also costs $50. The XTS Aluminum Pot has a heat exchanger base, weighs 6.7 ounces, and costs $30. All three items are available through Liberty Mountain, which is the US distributor. I don’t have any information on the stoves’ performance.

Patagonia Nano-Air Jacket and Hoody. The Patagonia Nano-Air Jacket and Hoody combine a Toray synthetic insulation and Patagonia 4-way stretch shell to yield exceptional softness, stretchiness and breathability unmatched by competitor’s products, which presumably includes Polartec Alpha insulation. The chart to the right provides results from Patagonia’s lab tests, which are certainly attention-getting. This is a garment intended for active cold weather pursuits, where you want moisture to be readily exhausted rather than trapped inside. The jacket version weights 13.6 ounces and the hoody is 12.5 ounces; MSRPs are $249 and $299.
Patagonia Houdini Pullover. Patagonia will also update their popular Houdini Pullover windshirt for fall 2014 with a great new fabric with DWR. Weight is 3.1 ounces and MSRP is $89.
Trog Eyeglass Retainer. The Trog eye/sunglass retainer is the nicest one I have seen. The earpieces slip through the hole at end of the band and out one of the side holes. MSRP is $8.

Xcel Action Camera. The Xcel Action Camera seems to have all the features and accessories of other sport cameras, plus some extra features that appeal to me – it’s easy to see that the camera is on and what the settings are, and it comes with a remote control. The basic HD model ($250) has a 1-button on/off remote with a 40 foot wireless range, and the HD2 model ($350) has a 4-button remote that allows you to switch among recording modes and zoom in and out. The camera comes with a waterproof case and a number of accessories (right); a wide range of other accessories is available.
Ruby Bay Salmon Jerky (left), and Sweetwood Beef Jerky (right). Jerky is a good way to get meat protein into your backpacking diet either as a trail snack or dinner ingredient. Ruby Bay Salmon Jerky (left) comes in different flavors and portions for $3-$6. Sweetwood Beef Jerky (right) likewise comes in different flavors. I reported on EPIC Meat Bars last summer. I like to grind a meat product like these in a coffee mill or food processor and mix the grated meat with instant potatoes to get good flavor distribution in my meal. Other good additions to a home made dinner are sun-dried tomatoes, powdered cheese, or dried refried beans, depending on your tastes.
TRX Totes Light n’ Go Trekker Umbrella. The TRX Totes Light n’ Go Trekker Umbrella is compact and lightweight at 7.5 ounces. A cool feature is an LED light in the handle. The extended arc length is 39 inches. It’s treated with Scotchguard for water-repellency and Sunguard for UV resistance. MSRP is $34.
Baffin Ultralite Series of Extreme Lightweight Footwear. A common problem on multi-day outings in snow is moisture absorption in boot linings, leading to cold feet. An insulated boot with a removable liner is the ticket to getting boots dried out, but regular pac-style boots are normally heavy. The new Baffin Ultralite Series of extreme lightweight footwear is designed for use in a temperature range of +41F to -58F (note that the lower rating is typically optimistic.) Two especially lightweight models are the Sage for women (left, $159) and the Revelstoke for men (right, $179). Both contain the equivalent of 400 gram insulation and have a removable liner with reflective technology. The weight is listed as 2 pounds per pair; I was not able to verify the weight.
New Balance 89 and 99 shoes are intended for speed hiking and fastpacking. The very lightweight New Balance 89 and 99 shoes are intended for speed hiking and fastpacking. The 89 is a mid, and the lowcut 99 will be available with or without a Gore-Tex waterproof-breathable lining. Both shoes feature no-sew construction, 4 millimeters of heel rise, lightweight cushioning, a midfoot wrap, Vibram outsole, and will be available in men’s and women’s models with extended sizes and widths. MSRP is $110-$120.
Brooks Running True Grit, Cascadia, and Adrenaline ASR. More shoes. I visited Brooks Running this time and found some good trail runners suitable for ultralight backpacking. Generation 3 of the Pure Grit (left) will be out this fall and features no-sew construction, a TPU rock shield, weight of 9.9 ounces/shoe (mens 9), and MSRP of $120. The current Cascadia (center, 11.7 ounces) is a trail running workhorse with good support and an aggressive tread; MSRP is $120. And the Adrenaline ASR (right, 11.8 ounces) is supportive and grippy at $130 ($150 for the Gore-Tex version). Brooks shoes come in a medium (D) width.
MyFC PowerTrekk generates electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell. The MyFC PowerTrekk generates electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell to recharge portable devices. To fuel the power generator, add about 2 tablespoons of water to a small cup inside the generator and drop in a sodium silicide “puck”, then snap on the green upper battery pack. It starts generating power in about 1 minute. It takes about 1.25 hours to fully charge the integrated Lithium-Ion 1500 milliamp battery. One puck provides enough fuel for 1.5 to 2 charges. Weight is 8.7 ounces and MSRP is $149; pucks are 3 for $13. One caveat is that the system only works above 25F.
Manufacturers do whatever it takes to attract attention, like roaming cuddly creatures.
Kahtoola Nanospikes. For fall 2014, Kahtoola will introduce their new Nanospikes, which is a milder version of their popular Microspikes. The Nanospikes have carbide studs for traction compared to the Microspikes’ crampon-like teeth. Consequently they are lighter (7.6 ounces/pair versus 13.6 for the Microspikes) and less expensive ($50 compared to $65). The Nanospikes are mainly intended for walking on icy sidewalks and for shoveling snow; for icy and snowpacked trails, especially where there is a scary dropoff involved, the Microspikes are recommended.
Hillsound Free Steps Six Slip-On Traction Device. In competition with Kahtoola’s Microspikes is the new Hillsound Free Steps Six traction device. The “Six” delineates the number of points – 4 in the forefoot area, 1 in the center of the heel, and one on the rear. At 11.2 ounces per pair, they are a bit lighter than the Microspikes, and at $40 they are substantially less expensive. Like the Microspikes, the Free Steps Six are appropriate for icy and snowpacked trails.
The Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultra goes one step further, with longer spikes for serious ice and packed snow. The Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultra goes one step further, with longer spikes for serious ice and packed snow. Compared to the Kahtoola Microspikes, they have more spikes, a wider heel plate, a Velcro strap over the instep to secure them, and a durable carry sack. Weight is 14.8 ounces/pair and MSRP is $70.
Soto Windmaster canister fuel stove. The new Soto Windmaster is arguably the most advanced canister fuel stove. Notable features include (1) a concave burner to provide superior performance under windy conditions, (2) interchangeable pot supports (narrow and wide), (3) a microregulator to provide continuous output in colder temperatures, and (4) it collapses to a very small size for packing. The burner has a piezo igniter. Total weight with the smaller pot support is 2.3 ounces. MSRP is $75 and the wider 4Flex pot support costs $15. Wind is the nemesis of canister stoves; even a light breeze can dramatically reduce heating efficiency. Although I have not tested the Windmaster, I can say that it is the only canister fuel stove besides the Jetboil that has wind resistance.
Montbell Ex Light Anorak. Montbell will add a new puffy to its collection – the Ex Light Anorak – and this is one that should be of huge interest to lightweight backpackers. Basically it’s a hoody version of the Ex Light Jacket with a half-height zipper, thus the name “anorak”. It’s insulated with 2.3 ounces of 900 fill-power down. Unlike the Ex Light Jacket, this one has hand pockets. The weight is an amazing 6.3 ounces and MSRP is $219, which is also amazing considering the rising cost of down puffies.
Big Agnes Third Pitch Hooded Jacket and Meaden Jacket (no hood). Down puffies abound! New ones from Big Agnes are the Third Pitch Hooded Jacket and Meaden Jacket (no hood). It’s insulated with 6.5 ounces of 850 fill-power DownTek water-repellent down in Insotect Flow vertical baffles. The garments are full-featured with a full-height front zipper, thumb loops, adjustable hood and hem, 2 hand pockets, 2 inside drop pockets, and an inside chest pocket. The hoody weighs 14 ounces and the jacket is 12 ounces; MSRPs are $450 and $400.
Fischer S-Bound skis and boots for backcountry nordic skiing. This time I stopped by the Fischer booth to have a look at their lightweight S-Bound skis and boots for backcountry nordic skiing. Ski equipment categories and equipment get complicated, but basically backcountry nordic is focused on touring and turning in untracked snow on intermediate slopes. The gear is much lighter and less expensive compared to Telemark and Alpine Touring gear which utilize plastic boots and heavier skis. The S-Bound series features full-length metal edges, lots of sidecut plus nordic rocker for easy turning, a fishscale pattern on the bottom for moderate climbing without skins, and four widths (78, 88, 98, and 112 millimeters at the tip) to match the intended terrain steepness and snow conditions. The length of the bottom fishscale pattern also varies by ski width. The photos show the range of ski widths and the matching boot for each ski. For the popular 98 millimeter width and matching BCX675 boot, the cost of skis and boots is about $588, which is less than the cost of a pair of plastic boots.
Watson’s Microfleece Baselayers. I found them! Microfleece long johns that is. In my series on Mountain SuperUltraLight Backpacking published last year in Backpacking Light Magazine, I recommend wearing microfleece long johns because they provide lots of warmth with minimal weight. But, to my surprise, they are very difficult to find nowadays. At this OR Show I found them at two booths: Watson’s (www.mywatsons.ca) and 32Heat. The former sells the pictured long johns for $30 each (top or bottom), and the latter sells through Macy’s, Bonton, and Sportsman’s Guide.
Bushnell PowerSync SolarWrap Mini. Now that a cell phone will do most everything on the trail and otherwise (phone, camera, internet, GPS, etc.), lightweight portable power is becoming an increasingly important need when you are off the grid for extended periods. The Bushnell PowerSync SolarWrap Mini at 3.5 ounces is the lightest one I have seen so far. It utilizes an amorphous thin film panel that can be extended on the front of a backpack. Energy storage is in an integrated 2200 milliamp Lithium-Ion battery and output is 1 watt. The MSRP is $60.
The Berghaus Vapourlight Hyper Smock is the world’s lightest rain jacket! A new exhibitor at this OR Show is Berghaus, which is new to the US but ranks #1 in the UK and #3 in Europe. I decided to check them out, expecting to see a lot of heavier traditional gear. I was blown away! For starters they showed me their 3.88 ounce Vapourlight Hyper Smock ($149) which is the world’s lightest waterproof jacket. A frequent forum discussion among ultralight backpackers is “which is the lightest fully waterproof rainwear”; now I can say this is it. The weight and features surpass the Sierra Designs Cloud AirShell (4 ounces) and the Montane Minimus Smock (5 ounces). This pullover rain jacket has a half-height front zipper, one zippered shoulder pocket, and an adjustable hood. The fabric is 7-denier nylon ripstop with a polyurethane coating; waterproofness is 7,000mm and breathability is 8,000g/m2/24hrs, which means it’s adequately waterproof and not very breathable. For drier climates, this is all the rainwear you need because you only wear it once in awhile for shorter duration. The photo shows the Smock in two colors.
Berghaus Ramche Hyper Down Jacket (right), Ilam Down Jacket (center), and Ramche Down Jacket (left). Next up the Beghaus rep showed me their ultralight line of down jackets, which feature body-mapped insulation, a Pertex Quantum GL shell, and 850 fill-power HydroDown. They explained their research that went into their jackets: utilizing infrared imaging to place the down insulation where it is most needed (notice the zoned baffles in the jackets), and choosing the very best treatment to make the down water-resistant. Their very lightest is the Ramche Hyper Down Jacket (right) at 6.3 ounces and MSRP of $299. The next warmest is the Ilam Down Jacket (center) at 11.3 ounces and MSRP of $349, and the warmest is the Ramche Down Jacket (left) at 15.8 ounces and MSRP of $449. The latter two jackets are hooded, as shown, and all jackets have two hand pockets, and an adjustable hem. These puffies are cutting edge, and the prices are reasonable.
Berghaus Vapourlight Hypertherm Jacket. Another interesting piece from Berghaus is their Vapourlight Hypertherm Jacket, which is a very lightweight and versatile midlayer with thin synthetic insulation. The jacket is reversible with two different shell fabrics. The “warmer side” is used when wind resistance and more warmth are needed, and the “colder side” is used when higher air permeability is needed to exhaust moisture. It eliminates the need for a windshirt. Weight is 5.9 ounces and MSRP is $169. The photo shows the jacket in two colors.
GoodOnYa bar. A new energy bar on the block is called the GoodOnYa bar. Four flavors are shown in the photo, and one of them is a breakfast bar for a quick no-cook morning start. Ingredients are all organic.
Olomomo Almonds. Another healthy and tasty new snack food is Olomomo Almonds, which come in several yummy flavors.
Outdoor Research Peruvian Hat. My favorite camp hats for ultralight backpacking are the Outdoor Research Peruvian Hat (shown, 1.9 ounces, $32) and the Wind Warrior Hat (2.5 ounces, $36). The latter is a similar design but constructed of Windstopper fabric for more wind resistance. The newest version of the Peruvian Hat has a chin cord.
SofSole Plantar Fasciitis Insole. The SofSole Plantar Fasciitis Insole is designed as a solution to the pain resulting from stress placed on the plantar facia. It’s basically a PF orthotic, featuring a nylon-composite bridge in the arch area, a forefoot pad, and gel cushioning and support in the heel cup. These insoles are ¾-length and come in one size each for men and women. MSRP is $20.
Darn Tough Vertical Series Socks. Outdoor socks keep getting higher tech and more decorative. For example, Darn Tough is introducing their new Vertical Series for snow sports, which are available in ultralight or cushioned versions ($23-$24). On the right is their new men’s Thermolite cushioned sock. We especially like Darn Tough socks because of the extreme durability provided by 1441 stitches per square inch, the highest in the industry.
Topo Footwear Speed Trainer (left), Mountain Trainer (center), and Light Hiker (right). Topo is a new footwear company launched in summer 2013. While it’s initial products had a split toe design, new models coming out now are more conventional looking lightweight zero-drop shoes with a wide toebox and snug heel cup. Specific shoes of interest are the Speed Trainer (left, 5 ounces, $90), Mountain Trainer (middle, 8.2 ounces, $100), and Light Hiker (right, 9 ounces, $100). Cushioning, stability, traction, and rock protection increase across the three models.
The Atlas Endeavor and MSR Revo Snowshoes feature a hybrid frame. A new development in snowshoes is a hybrid frame consisting of injection-molded composite decking attached to a metal serrated frame. While serrated frame snowshoes grip much better and have superior sidehill stability compared to traditional aluminum tubing snowshoes, they do not glide nearly as well, meaning you need to lift them up and set them down compared to shuffling along. The new Atlas Endeavor (left, 4 pounds/pair, $220) features Atlas’s Spring-Loaded Suspension which keeps the snowshoe positioned as you stride and enhances sidehill flexibilitiy. The serrated metal frame of the new MSR Revo Series (right) is  similar to their Lightning series, with the addition of a injection-molded composite deck and an all new binding for increased ease of use and support.
The Heatwave Series from Seirus features Dual Stage Heating. New lightweight and warm clothing for the extremities are the Heatwave Series from Seirus. The socks, skull cap, and liner gloves in this series feature Dual Stage Heating (reflective and kinetic), consisting of a metallic heat reflective lining and components in the fabric that convert body movement to generated heat. The latter is pretty vague, but we will take their word for it. All three items are very light weight but I did not weigh them. MSRPs are $35 for the socks, $25 for the skull cap, and $20 for the liner gloves. The socks can be worn as a liner sock, or as a sleeping sock in the summertime.
Fix n’ Zip zipper repair kit. Finally, I end my OR coverage with a last minute find that is a good one. With the Fix n’ Zip zipper repair kit, you can repair any zipper for $10. Think blown tent door zipper, which commonly costs $100 or more to replace. The Fix n’ Zip comes in three sizes (small, medium, large), with each one working on a range of zipper sizes. The medium size shown matches the most common zippers. Basically what you do is clamp the Fix n’ Zip on one end of the broken or damaged zipper and it becomes the new zipper pull; you don’t have to open the stitching on one end to put it on. You can leave the old pull on the zipper or pry it off. Way cool!

Heat Holders Socks. Ultralight down socks are the ultimate for keeping your feet warm in camp, but you can do it on the cheap with Heat Holders Socks, which have a thick pile lining to keep feet warm. They are very lightweight and inexpensive at around $15. The lining is too thick to use them as a hiking sock, but they can be used in insulated boots for cold weather outings and camping if you size up to make room for the socks.

Friday, November 29, 2013

GEAR REVIEW: Big Sky International Dream Sleeper UltraLight Inflatable Pillow

By Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl

Why would an ultralight backpacker carry a pillow?  Answer: when we sleep on an inflatable ¾-length 2.5 inch high sleeping pad that creates a drop-off at both ends, and we don’t have any extra clothing to use as a pillow. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-Lite Short pad that weighs just 7.6 ounces, but the drop-off issue made it uncomfortable to sleep on until I considered a pillow. Now I put my empty backpack under my feet to elevate them off the cold ground, and use a pillow under my head. The extra weight is less than 2 ounces, not bad.

An ultralight backpacking pillow, like the Big Sky Dream Sleeper, eliminates the drop-off at the end of an inflatable air mattress and weighs less than 2 ounces.

I know this sounds decadent, but I have been loosening up a bit to include a few comforts in my UL backpacking kit like an inflatable sleeping pad and pillow. I’m not alone J. Gear is getting better and lighter, and my base weight is still under 6.5 pounds, and that’s for summer backpacking and camping at high elevations in the southern Rockies.

Big Sky International Dream Sleeper UltraLight Inflatable Pillow
Inflated Dimensions
17 inches wide x 11 inches high x 5 inches thick (4 inches in center head pocket)
Pillow alone 1.85* oz, pillow with soft cover 4.05 oz
Pillow alone $24.95, pillow with soft cover $34.95

*Note: This review is based on the original Dream Sleeper pillow that weighs 1.85 ounces; the latest version weighs just 1.45 ounces.

The Big Sky Dream Sleeper Inflatable Pillow is made of durable urethane plastic. The
inflated pillow measures 17 inches x 11 inches x 5 inches thick and weighs 1.85 ounces for the bare pillow. The center has a self-centering head pocket that is 4 inches thick (giving a 1-inch deep head pocket. An optional soft “pillow case” adds 2.2 ounces, for a total weight of 4.05 ounces if you use the cover.

The Big Sky Dream Sleeper UL Inflatable Pillow in profile (top) and flat (bottom). The pillow has a self-centering head pocket and has generous dimensions for its minimal weight.

In Use
The pillow inflates like an air mattress, requiring 5-6 blows to completely inflate it. We tested the pillow on several summer backpacking trips and loved it. Deflated, it fits in the palm of your hand; inflated, it is a very generous sized pillow. To save weight we prefer to carry and use the bare pillow, and rarely have skin contact with the plastic because we wear a warm hat at night. But even when sleeping with skin contact on the pillow, it doesn’t fill clammy or uncomfortable, at least for us.

Getting your head at the correct angle is important for comfortable sleeping. We accomplish that by either placing miscellaneous gear under the pillow, or inflating/deflating the pillow or air mattress slightly to achieve the optimum height and softness.

The optional “pillow case” soft cover makes the pillow feel really plush. It’s actually pretty complex: it has a soft outside fabric bonded to a synthetic insulation, each end has a zipper to facilitate inserting the inflatable pillow, and there is a hole in one corner for the inflation valve. It even has a built-in silnylon stuff sack on the inside. We use the plush version for car camping where we want to minimize volume and weight in our car. Likewise, we would also take the cover when canoe camping

In a recent review of the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-Lite Short inflatable sleeping pad for Backpackinglight.com, I complained of the drop-off issue at both ends of the pad, and suggested that the pad could be made thinner to reduce that issue. However, since we have been using the Big Sky Dream Sleeper UL Inflatable Pillow the problem has literally gone away. It completely overcomes the drop-off issue when using a short inflatable sleeping pad, and frees up our empty backpack to put under our feet to insulate them from the cold ground. The combination turns a ¾-length 2.5-inch thick inflatable sleeping pad into a very comfortable sleeping system.

The current version of the Big Sky pillow has been lightened, making it the lightest one on the market (see footnote below), and it has ample dimensions to contribute to a good night’s sleep in the backcountry. The following table compares it with other pillows currently available, or soon to be available in spring 2014.

Weight (oz)
Big Sky Dream Sleeper
Montbell UL Pillow
Klymit Pillow-X
Sea To Summit Aeros
Exped Air Pillow UL (medium)

*We tested the original Dream Sleeper pillow for this review; the weight of the newest version (December 2013) has been reduced to 1.45 ounces, which makes it the lightest backpacking pillow currently available.

Considering its new lighter weight, the Big Sky Dream Sleeper provides the best balance of light weight, larger pillow size, and cost. The Exped pillow is also very light and ample sized, but it’s very expensive.

Overall, the Big Sky pillow is a great find and has become a core component of my UL backpacking gear kit.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

GEAR REVIEW: Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers (Inflatable Sleeping Pads)

By Will Rietveld and Janet Reichl

Ultralight gear keeps getting better, and provides more creature comfort. Nowadays many UL backpackers choose a lightweight inflatable sleeping pad instead of a closed cell foam pad. Why? -- Because the weight is similar (except for the skimpiest CCF pads), they are less bulky to pack, and they are much more comfortable. Bottom line, a good night’s sleep is very important after a full day on the trail, so many hikers choose a comfortable sleeping pad for their luxury item.

For an ultralight inflatable sleeping pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-Lite is state-of-the-art. But it’s not perfect. Although its very lightweight, comfortable, and provides some insulation, the NeoAirs are very expensive, a bit narrow when inflated, noisy, and have a noticeable “drop-off” at the foot end if you choose the shorter pad.

For awhile we had the Kooka Bay inflatable pads, which were both lightweight and inexpensive, but unfortunately Kooka Bay is now out of business. The new Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers fill that niche, and significantly improve on the design and quality.

While simple air-only inflatable sleeping pads from other companies (except the NeoAir) are simply not light enough or durable enough, the new Gossamer Gear pads get it right with adequately durable materials, quality construction, sleeper-friendly design, and reasonable pricing.

The Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers currently come in four sizes; I tested three sizes: S, M, and XL.
The initial launch of the Air Beam Sleepers comes in four sizes, as summarized in the following table. Data are Gossamer Gear specifications.

Width (inches)
Length (inches)
Thickness (inches)
Weight (ounces)
Cost (USD)
21 tapering to 14.5
2.5 tapering to 1.5
21 tapering to 14.5
2.5 tapering to 1.5
21 tapering to 14.5
2.5 tapering to 1.5
28 tapering to 19
2.5 tapering to 1.5

Notable features evident from the table, and other observations:
  • The pad width is tapered to save weight. Also, the outer tubes are slightly larger in diameter to help a sleeper stay centered on the pad. Gossamer Gear describes this feature as follows: “Slightly higher side rails to let you know when you are on the edge.”
  • Pad thickness is also tapered to minimize the drop-off at the foot end. The foot end drop-off of other manufacturer’s pads makes it feel like your feet are hanging over a cliff. The design of the GG pads minimizes that issue.
  • A feature useful to some hikers is integrated tabs on the sides of the Sleepers for securing them to a quilt or foam pad.
  • The weights of the Gossamer Gear pads are comparable to the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir pads. (The pad dimensions differ so it’s hard to directly compare weights.)
  • The Gossamer Gear pads sell for about half the cost of the NeoAir pads.
  • So far, the Gossamer Gear pads are only available in shorter lengths. This is apparently due to the limited width (60 inches) of the bulk fabric. Although many UL backpackers will choose a shorter pad to save weight, many LW packpackers will insist on a full-length (72 inches long) pad, so Gossamer Gear needs to offer a full-length pad pronto, or lose a lot of sales.
I tested the pads on several backpacking trips and a car camping trip where my wife and I slept on the Gossamer Gear pads in a floorless tent and a double-wall tent, in temperatures down to freezing.

Gossamer Gear size L pad in a floorless pyramid shelter; the nighttime low was 34F. I used a LW inflatable pillow at the head end and put my empty backpack under my feet.
We camped one night in a LW two person double wall tent out in the dunes at White Sands National Park, New Mexico; the morning low was a chilly 33F.
Our observations after testing the pads in several shelters and conditions:
  • The pads inflate quickly by mouth, faster than the NeoAir pads.
  • The top and bottom fabrics are a good balance of lightweight and durability; we did not have any punctures, but it is still wise to avoid camping on sharp objects.
  • The top and bottom fabrics have good slide resistance; we did not have any problems with sliding around on a plastic groundsheet or nylon tent floor.
  • Janet reported some issues with staying on the size M pad, although that was not an issue for me on the size XL pad; more on this below.
  • For colder weather camping on a shorter pad, we found it necessary to use a LW inflatable pillow (or other gear) to support our head, and lay our empty backpacks at the foot end to insulate our feet. This is a typical routine for using a shorter sleeping pad (48 inches long or less).
  • On colder nights, which were the case for most of our testing, we felt our bottomside getting cold at around 35F. The pads are uninsulated and require some supplementary insulation for camping in colder temperatures.
I found that a 1/8-inch thick Gossamer Gear NightLight foam pad on top of the inflatable pad is sufficient to stay warm on colder nights. The thin pad stays in place very well and actually molds to the contours of the inflatable pad. A thicker foam pad, e.g. the Gossamer Gear ¼-inch thick ThinLight is overkill for temperatures around freezing but is a good choice for sleeping temperatures below around 25F.
 The “higher side rails” feature, meaning larger diameter outside tubes, applies to only the size XL pad. After my wife and I had dissimilar experiences sleeping on the pads, we looked more closely at the tube diameter difference in the pads, and found something interesting. The size XL (wide) pad has distinctly wider outside tubes; laid flat, the outside tubes are 25 millimeters wider at the top and bottom of the pad, meaning the tubes will inflate to a larger diameter. However, the outside tube width in the S and M sizes we tested is the same as its neighbors at the head end of the pad and 6-7 millimeters wider at the foot end of the pad. So, for the size XL pad, the larger outside tubes definitely provide their intended higher side rail function, but the similar tube sizing in the other pad sizes does not provide any effective side rail function at all (only a slightly larger tube diameter at the foot end).

I consulted with Gossamer Gear on the discrepancy and learned that, in the manufacturing process, they found it expedient to go with only one "die" to press the pads. The (expensive) die they use is the size of the XL pads; for the other pad sizes they omit the inside tubes, so the tubes are in fact all the same size. They hope to make standard size (72-inch long) pads in the next production run.

The size XL pad has distinctly larger outer tubes, which serve a "side rail" function, but the outer tubes on the other sizes we tested (S, M) are only slightly larger at the foot end, so no side rail function.
Another observation to note on the air-only inflatable pads is the feeling of floating while sleeping on them. Basically you feel like you are floating, like sleeping on a waterbed. Sleeping on an inflatable foam pad (like a traditional Therm-A-Rest) provides more support for your body, so you don’t feel like you are floating. All this is saying is that you need to get accustomed to sleeping on an airbed.

Overall we are very positive on the new Gossamer Gear Air Beam Sleepers. They are well-designed, a good balance of lightweight and durability, incorporate some innovative sleeper-friendly features, and are reasonably priced.

  • Pads are sleeper-friendly with their tapering width and thickness, plus oversized outside tubes (XL pad only).
  • Weight is comparable with the NeoAir pads.
  • Cost is about half that of the NeoAir pads.
  • Fabric is a great balance of lightweight and durability, slip-resistant, and a cheerful color.
  • They inflate quickly and are very comfortable to sleep on, much more comfortable than a closed cell foam pad.
  • No full-length (72-inch) sizes are currently available; which is a glaring deficiency in the sizes available.
  • Only the size XL pad clearly has larger outside tubes to provide a side rail effect, that feature is missing on the other pad sizes.
  • An air-only inflatable sleeping pad, i.e. an airbed, gives a floating feeling, while a foam core inflatable pad is more supportive (but heavier).
  • These uninsulated pads are cold to sleep on when temperatures drop below about 35F. (However, that is easily remedied by placing a Gossamer Gear ThinLight foam pad on top of the inflatable pad; the 1/8-inch thick 2.6 ounce ThinLight is sufficient.)