Wednesday 26 February 2014

Performance, Durability & Lightweight Gear

Tarp camping on the Arizona Trail

As my last piece on lightening the load has proved popular here's a piece that first appeared in TGO magazine looking at the performance and durability of lightweight gear.

Two myths appear regularly when weight is discussed by backpackers. The first is that lighter gear means lower performance. The second is that lighter gear means lower durability. Both are untrue if the right gear is selected.  Lighter gear may mean fewer features and lighter materials - not necessarily disadvantages – but it doesn’t have to mean poorer performance or greater fragility and shorter life.

Choosing the lightest equipment means knowing the weights of alternatives. This can be difficult as too many companies and shops don’t give the weights of many items, especially clothing, and when they do they are often inaccurate (and not only in one direction despite what you might cynically think).  The weights of tents, sleeping bags and stoves are usually given, those of fleeces, waterproofs and socks rarely so. Yet some fleeces and waterproofs weigh more than some sleeping bags (and a few waterproofs weigh more than the lightest tents) and socks can weigh as much as a stove so the weight of these items does matter if you’re trying to reduce how much you carry. Hefting items in each hand can be a help but it’s better to take scales into the shop with you and check the weights yourself. But surely, you may be thinking, the difference in weight between comparable fleece jackets, say, is hardly enough to matter. On its own this is true but a few grams here and a few grams there soon add up. In one fleece test I did the lightest Polartec 100 fleece weighed 267 grams while the heaviest weighed 337 grams. That’s a mere 70 grams difference but if ten items all weigh that much more than alternatives it becomes 700 grams, which in a light load is significant. The 70 grams gets you a full length zip and two handwarmer pockets but no extra warmth. Often the weight is more than 70 grams too. Take stoves for example. A simple screw-in gas stove can vary in weight from around 250 grams to less than 100 grams. Thus it’s possible to save 150 grams + by choosing one similar stove over another. 

Lightweight Camping On The GR20 in Corsica

With some items lighter weight actually means increased performance. Down filled clothing and sleeping bags are much lighter than equivalent synthetic filled ones. Shell fabrics, down quality and features make a difference between down items too.  In one review I tested two vests with the same loft yet one weighed 227 grams and the other 551 grams. You could carry two of the first and still save weight on the second! A heavier shell and down with a lower fill power were the main reasons for the weight difference. 

Wild Camp In The North-West Highlands

Increased performance can also mean increased durability. Some lightweight gear will actually last longer than heavier gear. Down is a case in point, being far longer lasting than synthetic fills. The lightest tents are usually harder wearing and longer lasting than heavier ones because they have flysheets made from silicone nylon and this fabric is far tougher than the heavier polyurethane coated nylon and polyester used in other tents. (All the shelters pictured are made from silicone nylon).

A lightweight Dyneema pack

Of course lighter weight doesn’t automatically mean better performance or greater durability so care needs to be taken when selecting gear. A thinner sleeping bag won’t be as warm as a thicker one, whatever the fill. A tent so small you can’t sit up won’t be as comfortable as one in which you can. Packs made from ultralight ripstop nylon aren’t as abrasion or tear resistant as Cordura nylon ones. However Dyneema Gridstop, identifiable by the white grid of polyethylene threads, is both very light and just as strong as heavier pack materials.

None of this is to say that the heavier items are no good. Far from it. Many are top quality products that perform well and might be considered by any backpacker. However by choosing the lightest alternative you can save many kilos. And I would argue that the performance and durability of many light items is in no way inferior to that of the heaviest ones. Choose carefully and you can reduce the weight of your load a great deal without any loss in performance and durability of your gear.

A Comfortable Lightweight Camp On A Rainy Day

If you found this and my previous post interesting take a look at these older posts: