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OR Summer Market: Ultralight Gear Overview

The biggest challenge for many companies leading up to this summer's OR show was to invent new superlatives to describe their lightweight products. Just as "extreme" became a hackneyed expression now banished from the vocabulary of anyone with a clue, "ultralight" and the countless variations and misspellings thereof (superlight, hyperlite, megalyte, etc.) have become so overused that they're almost meaningless.

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The Light and Not-so-Light

The biggest challenge for many companies leading up to this summer’s OR show was to invent new superlatives to describe their lightweight products. Just as “extreme” became a hackneyed expression now banished from the vocabulary of anyone with a clue, “ultralight” and the countless variations and misspellings thereof (superlight, hyperlite, megalyte, etc.) have become so overused that they’re almost meaningless.

While the hard cores take minimalism to the extreme and carry packs that weigh next to nothing, others with a healthy disposable income may choose to not lighten their overall load but instead increase their comfort. Quite simply, using lighter gear lets them take more of it. Reducing the weight of major items (tent, sleeping system, clothing, cooking system) allows consumers to carry more niceties — GPS, binoculars, camera, fresh food, wine, etc.

How about that new Snow Peak titanium latte set? It includes a French press, milk foamer and stuff sack, weighs 13.3 ounces (377 g) and will retail for $90. Of course a SNEWS review will be forthcoming. Or the less discriminating can settle for the $25 stainless-steel coffee filter holder that weighs only 4.5 ounces and folds flat.

Marmot — Although the soft shell line is mostly the same (one new model, the Photon), the real news was the best effort to date to explain to consumers what the heck this stuff does and which models are most appropriate for the conditions. The rating system divides the soft shells into three categories: M1 for cold and wet, M2 for cool and moist, M3 for moderate and mostly dry. An easy-to-read chart explains the trade-offs of different models.

Of course, this sort of thing has been tried before, by Marmot and others, but there has been little consistency between (or even within) brands and attempts often fade away after a season or two. What a concept if the industry could actually speak the same simple language to consumers. Nah, makes too much sense, it’ll never happen.

For some brands, “fast and light” means long-distance hiking but at Marmot that is the name of its latest alpine climbing pack line, which consists of three models. Fairly conventional top-loading designs with high-tech materials, nice features and modest price points will appeal to devotees of Mark Twight’s book “Extreme Alpinism.” Similarly, the new Alpinist tent is possibly the nicest single-wall around for serious mountaineering — poles that install from the outside are a major plus in a storm.

While the alpine packs and tent are rather specialized, just about everyone will lust-after the new Helium EQ sleeping bag, which combines the best down available with a Pertex Quantum Endurance waterproof/breathable shell. Compared to the standard Helium, or just about any other ultralight bag, the EG offers more wet protection and a full-length zipper (hooray).

The North Face — Trying is believing. Until you actually put it on and walk around with it over rough terrain, you are likely to write-off the new Pivotal external frame packs as hokey — we did at first glance. Sure it gave us flashbacks to the old Back Magic too, but the freedom of movement is something you can really feel. Of course, moving parts are always cause for suspicion but this appears to be a well-thought-out concept. While certainly not light, weight isn’t even mentioned, these new packs appear to rate high on the comfort scale (a SNEWS test will be forthcoming) and that may be enough for many.

Those who are gram-counters will be drawn to the new Flight Series of gear. This is a re-packaging of some existing products, along with the addition of some new, to create an entire category of ultralight products for the aerobically minded; it parallels the existing Summit Series of mountaineering gear.

Notable introductions are three 900-fill down sleeping bags with half-length zippers; rumor has it TNF bought up all the remaining stock of top-end down in Europe. The Propel is a new 40-degree zipperless synthetic bag, weighing only one pound, that laminates the insulation to the fabric so there is no stitching that causes cold spots (similar to what Wiggy’s has been doing for 15 years and Arc’Teryx is now using in parkas).

Gregory — The Anti-Gravity (formerly the Sport) Series of packs has added two new models — the Z Pack (a larger G) and the Reactor (a small adventure racer) — and shifted the venerable Makalu Pro over to emphasize the category. This re-emphasizes Gregory’s commitment to ultralight, though many of us know it’s been there for 20 years.

The somewhat less weight conscious, more technical driven consumer will take note of the new All Terrain Series of packs. Three models feature an external molded frame sheet that at least looks different. Reasonably priced with good margins, retailers will take note as well.

Granite Gear — Many associate this line with burly gear, yet its newest packs and stuff sacks are quite light. The Nimbus (3,800 cubic inches) and Stratus (4,800 cubic inches) are under 4 and 5 pounds, respectively, yet have a full frame and complete panel access, nice features, and they don’t cost an arm and a leg ($230 and $270, respectively). The Air Line of stuff sacks, compression sacks and zippered pockets are all made of white SilNylon, which cuts their weight in half from normal nylon and makes them semi-transparent so you can see what’s inside. GoLite and Integral Designs also offer these superior stuff sacks, but Granite Gear thoughtfully has better packaging and POS material.

Lowe Alpine — It’s baaaack…the Ninja Hoody has been on-again/off-again for quite some time. This newest incarnation of the hooded fleece jacket is updated with Lowe’s new body-mapping technology that puts more insulation where there is greater heat loss. Even better, it will come in something other than boring black this time.

The Attack line of packs received a nice overhaul. Nothing radical, just some good updating — and two new ultralight packs joined the Hyperlite line. Lowe is particularly proud of its new metal buckles that are lighter and tougher than plastic.

Kelty — It’s amazing how Kelty continues to make some of the best mountaineering tents on the market yet still receives little fanfare; the preponderance of mid-range products overwhelms the good stuff. The new Summit tent series (three models with two or three sizes each) is highly refined, though less radical than the Wedge tent, and reasonably priced. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the new Crestone 2 is a two-person hoop tent that weighs about 4.5 pounds yet only costs $140 at retail.

Similarly, its hydration packs rank among the top contenders on the market (in part due to the Source bladders) but the word is slow to get around. With 15 models to choose from next year, including two for kids, it’s likely that more folks will take notice.

Mountain Hardwear — A full-fledged freestanding two-person tent that weighs less than 4 pounds and costs under $300 seemed like a fantasy not too long ago. The new Airjet 2 (and the larger 3) uses maximum ventilation to minimize condensation on the single wall. Unlike the new Black Diamond tents, which are lighter, the Airjet’s fabric is waterproof (with welded seams) and the vestibule is built in.

Even more exotic than the Marmot Alpinist, with a price to match ($625), the new EV2 is a bombproof shelter for mountaineering. They weigh about the same (roughly 5 pounds), but the EV2 has five poles instead of three; stronger but slower to pitch.

With the introduction of the Wraith SL (minus 20 degree F) and Ghost SL (minus 40 degree F), welded seams are now featured on the entire line of expedition bags. This construction with a waterproof/breathable fabric makes these bags virtually waterproof, a good thing, with specs and prices competitive with other high-end brands that have sewn seams.

For the more weight conscious, the Phantom series of sleeping bags now includes four models (0 degree F, 15 degree F, 30 degree F, 45 degree F). Unlike some of the other new stripped-down bags coming out, these are light yet have at least a 3/4-length zipper and a hood.

Sierra Designs — Rivaling the Mountain Hardwear Airjet 2, the new Lightning also beats the 4-pound mark. But it does so with a conventional double wall design that is more versatile since you can leave the fly off on pleasant, bug-infested nights or leave the tent body at home when really going light. As a bonus, all Sierra Designs tents will come with an anti-fungal treatment on the fabric; smart feature, especially for rental programs.

The new Wicked Fastbags are the latest take on the old zip-a-bag-onto-a-pad concept. This time, saving weight was the main design goal and the Summerweight (45 degree F) comes in at only 15 ounces while the Springweight (40 degree F) is 21 ounces; OK, the ratings don’t make sense but the bags are nice. These don’t have hoods and depend upon a good pad but experienced weight weenies will be all over them.

The high-end sleeping bag line has been reworked to more conventional designs that feature a new waterproof/breathable fabric that is more breathable yet less expensive than before. With a focus on value, many models will have 600-fill down instead of the 800-fill currently used.

GoLite — Ever the reductionists, the folks at GoLite have pared down their new sleeping bags to the bare minimum without the radicalness of the original line. The F’Lite series bags either have no hood and zipper or a contoured hood and 1/4-length top zipper, while the DeepZ series is a bit more conventional. What is unusual, and a potential stocking PIA for stores, is that each of the eight models is available in nine sizes (three widths and three lengths) so that damn near anybody can get a good fit at the price they want.

Breaking from its own mold, GoLite is also introducing three packs that actually have the luxury of an internal frame (actually a Karrimore-style bendable framesheet). As you would expect, they are still lighter than most of the competition and have clean lines.

Weighing in at just under 3 pounds, the Trig 2 shelter is yet another new luxury item (by GoLite standards) that features a floor and mosquito netting. It’s rather like the old-fashioned single-wall pup tents except the material is SilNylon and the poles don’t block the doors.

Integral Designs — Tucked away in the corner of the oppressively dark ballroom, it was easy to miss this enduring Canadian brand. Long a premier maker of single-wall tents and high-end bags, it was among the first to realize the advantages of silicone-coated nylon. Its line of SilTarps is extensive and includes the unique Ski Guides Tarp, which can shelter six in a storm, and the Guides Silsack, a modern Zdarsky tent for three; each only weighs 13 ounces. Also noteworthy is the option of eVENT fabric on its single-wall alpine tents and bivy sacks. And it’s about the only company to still make bags with Primaloft.

Jetboil — Easily the hottest new product introduction of the summer show is the personal cooking system from this start-up. The Jetboil integrated high-tech butane stove and pot is remarkably efficient — way ahead of anything else. The first model is designed for the smaller cartridges, but a larger model and a hanging kit for cooking in a tent are promised. A few dealers were rankled that EMS got an exclusive through the first of the year but that’s what seed money gets you and by next spring everyone can order them…whether they can meet demand is a different issue.

Cascade Designs — The other new product that was the talk of the show was the MSR Miox water purifier, an exciting new technology for treating water without pumps or weird chemicals. The kit only weighs 8 ounces, it can’t crack from freezing, it treats most sources in under 30 minutes, and it costs no more than high-end filters ($130). At last, MSR has also redesigned the pump for its liquid-fueled stoves; long a sore point.

MSR finally stepped out from under the shadow of Moss and Walrus with original tent designs that looked quite nifty — Fast & Light shelters clearly targeted at the ultralight crowd. All four models use single-wall construction and trekking poles for their structure so they are indeed impressively light. One does wonder however that if someone is opting to go ultralight, would they be carrying trekking poles? Many folks we’ve talked to say no. On the other hand, using trekking poles does save knees and one could also argue that by eliminating tent poles the weight savings is gained while also encouraging trekking pole use. Either way, we’ve been testing several of the new line and love what we’ve experienced so far.

The latest Therm-a-rest pads help make Cascade Designs competitive again at the high-end of the market it created. The ProLite pads are 20 percent to 30 percent lighter and more contoured than previous models — and very, very comfy in our initial tests.

Indigo — Another relatively new pack line that is proving to be a brand to watch. These are some of the most innovative packs to hit the market in a while, largely due to a re-thinking of hydration that eliminates the need for bladders and tubes. This line started with ski packs, but the new Rox packs will appeal to hikers and climbers who prefer to use their Nalgenes and not guess at how much fluid is left.

Also noteworthy is the new Snow Logic avalanche shovel, available this season, and is an update of an old Ramer design. The handle stays attached to the blade at all times and the blade shape prevents flexing (the major drawback of most plastic shovels).

Pulling Teeth (and price lists) — Over half the outdoor industry is still guilty of failing to include price lists when they hand out workbooks to media. This is either laziness or stupidity and there is no excuse for not providing vital information about your products to the people you hope will write about them. Rest assured that it reflects poorly upon both the company and their PR firms when they fail to deliver prices. It even gets old having to ask at each booth if prices are in the workbook when the media rep hands them over.