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Light is Right
Ultra-Lightweight Hiking Gear Review
By John Walter

Weight. It's the bane of every hiker's existence and what they all try to cut when packing for their next adventure. From purchasing high tech clothing and equipment to sawing down the handles on their toothbrushes, backpackers have always sought for ways to shave more ounces.

Recently, several outdoor manufacturers have heard the lament of overburdened backpackers and have taken up the torch to produce ultra-lightweight equipment. The strategy is simple: produce the basics that every backpacker needs, i.e. shelter, sleeping bag, and pack, at an extremely light weight. The catch is that it has to stand up to the rigors of extended trips on trail. Two of the early leaders in the ultra-lightweight market are GoLite and Sierra Designs.

GoLite was founded on the minimalist concepts of the reluctant guru of lightweight tactics, Ray Jardine. Jardine's books The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook, is not so much a trail guide as it is an indoctrination to what is now being called "the Ray Way." Tired of lumbering under the heavy loads for months on the trail, Jardine used his aerospace engineering background to design and create inter-related gear that, over a 5-year string of thru hikes, has been pared down to 8.75 lbs for the whole system. Jardine even publishes his plans and measurements for the gear in his books. The founders of GoLite penned a deal with Jardine to manufacture and sell the gear for those hikers who were reluctant to sew their own. The result is the minimalist approach that is taken to the extreme; simplistically designed gear. I have seen some of the most skeptical looks while hiking in and showing others the GoLite system.

Sierra Designs, on the other hand, has taken the opposite approach. Using their background in lightweight shelters and results of their extensive study of sleep patterns, Sierra Designs has produced equipment that, compared to the GoLite gear, is extremely high tech. The company has been producing equipment and clothing for the outdoor market for 35 years. They rely heavily on this experience, and their purchase of pack manufacturer Ultimate Direction, to provide designs for equipment that trims down excess ounces and produce lightweight equipment that is more aligned with the current outdoor trends.

After using the products on several one and two day trips, I wanted to put these products to the test. A 75-mile stretch of the Highline Trail in the Uinta Mountains over a 4-day push seemed like the perfect testing grounds. My partner was GearReview.com editorial director and Utah hiking guide author Steve Mann. The results of our review are listed below.

Since this month's column contains so many products, we will compare apples to apples by comparing the same products from each of the two manufacturers.

Shelter
Backpacks
Sleeping Systems
Rain Clothing


Shelter

GoLite CaveGoLite Cave and Nest - The Cave from GoLite is a tarp made from silicone-impregnated nylon, material used mostly for parachutes. Without poles but with the stakes, the Cave weighs in at a scant 23 oz but covers just under 76 square feet. To erect the Cave, one would use hiking poles, trees or longer sticks found near the your site.

My first reaction to the Cave was "Yeah, right." But after several outings I changed my perspective. Pitched low in stormy weather, the cave stands up to the wind surprisingly well. The Cave also has a huge covered area, enough for both of us and all our gear. Another great feature of the Cave is the unbeatable ventilation.

The Nest is a 19 oz net tent with nylon bottom that clips to the underside of the Cave with 8 hooks. The Nest fits two average-sized people with little extra for storage. Without a zipper to close the Nest the opening has an extra 6 inches of netting to drape over the opening to keep insects out. The Nest also has a clothesline that runs down the center of the tent, enabling you to dry out wet clothing while you sleep. Getting into the Nest is a chore. Being so low to the ground, it helps to be a contortionist.

At first try, the full system took me a good 45 minutes to set up (in broad daylight in my backyard). However, after I had become acquainted with it, setting up the shelter was no problem. The biggest problem we had on the trip was finding a large enough camp site.

Both the Cave and the Nest come with their own stuff sack made of the same silicone impregnated nylon. A 3 oz Mylar emergency blanket provided a perfect ground cloth.

Sierra Designs Ultra Light Year CD TentSierra Designs Ultra Light Year CD Tent - Using their extensive background in lightweight tents, Sierra Designs has come up with what turns out to be a high-tech, solo version of their popular Clip Flashlight. Using ultra light aluminum with a carbon bonding developed by Easton gives these poles a 30% strength to weight advantage over their traditional aluminum poles. The poles also have Kevlar pole connectors to strengthen the joints.

Fastpacking weight of the Ultra Light Year CD is 28 oz, but only consists of the rainfly, poles and ground cloth. Use this only in bug-less conditions though, as you would be inviting every mosquito in the area to a dinner otherwise. The full packed weight of the Ultra Light Year CD is more accurate at 50 oz.

While using the tent I found it's strengths and weaknesses are pretty much like most other tents from Sierra Designs. When the rainfly goes on, the ventilation in the tent drops considerably. The vestibule is very small at 3 square feet. However, unlike the Nest, getting in and out of the tent is a cakewalk and there is plenty of room to sit up and dress in the tent

Backpacks

GoLite BreezeGoLite Breeze - Constructed of spectra-ripstop nylon, the Breeze looks more like a laundry bag than a backpack. At 12.5 ounces for the large pack, the Breeze weighs as much as a handful of energy bars. The Breeze is frameless and lacks hip belt and sternum strap. GoLite claims that this design allows one to hike in a more natural, upright position, taking advantage of full lung capacity while keeping weigh off the hips. Mesh pockets on the side and back panels allow items to be carried externally for quick access or for drying out wet items. The pack is also noticeably devoid of any other straps, buckles or daisy chains.

The Breeze definitely takes some getting used to. It was designed to be worn over one shoulder, alternating between the two to keep one shoulder from getting overtired. But I found the pack to be more comfortable carried on both shoulders. The sleeping pad (reviewed below) is rolled up to be the frame of the pack. This design, coupled with the lack of the hip belt, causes the pack to ride higher than traditional packs.

My shoulders felt like they were being pulled back while wearing the Breeze. Since there is no other distribution for the weight, my shoulders and neck were more tired and sore at the end hiking days. However, my hips were never sore. Also, the pack bounces somewhat, especially on steep, rocky downhills. This caused the shoulder straps to loosen and I found myself adjusting the fit of the shoulder straps every 15-20 minutes.

While holding 3000 cubic inches, the sleeping system takes up about one third to half of the pack space. This limits the internal holding capacity of the pack, so I felt like I was always overstuffing the pack, even though I never used to 1200 cubic inch extension collar. Several times while putting on the pack I heard a seam popping. Upon closer inspection I found that the seam where the shoulder straps attach to the pack began to split out. I also found several holes in the external mesh pockets caused by wear against hard objects, such as water or fuel bottles, and rocks when the pack was placed on the ground.

Editor's Note: After speaking with the product designer at GoLite, we were informed that many of these issues have been addressed. They have redesigned the attachment patches for the shoulder straps to reinforce those points and prevent slippage. They have also incorporated a mesh that has smaller diameter holes and is more tear and abrasion resistant. In doing this they stayed true to the philosophies of ultra-lightweight gear—there was no increase in the weight of the pack with these upgrades.

Steve's final comments are more telling: he felt that the simple, lightweight pack idea is a good one on paper, but fails to meet real trail needs. When you have a smaller pack you are more likely to stuff it really full-especially when the sleep system takes up so much of the usable space--making it just as important to have bomb-proof seams as a full-sized pack. Steve stated, "For me personally, I'll take the little bit of extra weight for a sternum strap to keep the shoulder straps from working their way off my shoulders, and for a hip belt to give me more options for weight distribution. I think they've over applied minimalist principles to the pack taking a good idea, but making it not very practical or comfortable for longer distance hikes."

Ultimate Direction WarpspeedUltimate Direction WarpSpeed -Although Sierra Designs doesn't make packs, they do own a company that does, Ultimate Direction. Bryce Thatcher and Jim Knight, who, incidentally coined the term "Fastpacking", started Ultimate Direction. Ultimate Direction packs are created with the outdoor athlete in mind and are used by some competitors of endurance races like the Eco-Challenge and the Raid Gauloise.

The WarpSpeed is a 1500 cubic inch pack weighs 32 oz and sports a free-floating harness system for the shoulders. The hip belt is lightly padded and the buckle has dual strap adjustments. Load lifters, mesh pockets, hip belt pockets, ski straps, ice axe loops, a daisy chain, and a top pocket all make the pack look bloated when compared to the GoLite Breeze, but were features that Steve found useful during our hike. The frame sheet and the aluminum stay of the WarpSpeed are removable and can accommodate a sleeping pad, like a ThermaRest Ultralight. The WarpSpeed also ships with a 128 oz hydration bladder. All of these features are found in packs of full size, but the designers of the WarpSpeed were able to keep the weight down my minimizing the padding.

Although weighing almost 3 times the weight of the Breeze, Steve raved about the WarpSpeed. He liked the accessibility that the top lid pouch and extra zippered pocket on the back offered. The pockets on the hip belt carried items, like a camera or snacks, needed quickly. Steve used every bit of the 1500 cubic inch capacity and then some, but never felt uncomfortable in the pack. He would gladly carry it again on a trip, of any length, without worries about comfort or durability.

Sleeping Systems

GoLite Fur GoLite Fur - The concept of the GoLite sleeping system follows closely with the sleeping systems we use at home. More of a quilt than a sleeping bag, the Fur is a ripstop nylon shell with Polarguard 3D for the insulation (better insulation when wet). The quilt attaches to a closed cell foam pad with hook and loop patches. While laying in a sleeping bag, the body compresses the bottom layer of insulation, rendering it useless, and requiring a pad to insulate you from heat loss through conduction. So GoLite removes the underside of the bag, attaches the quilt to the 3/8" foam pad and, voile, just like home.

Well, not exactly like home. The pad took me a good 4-5 nights to get used to. While it does insulate you from the ground, it is not very comfortable. If you sleep on your side, you'll sure to have sore hips in the morning. Also, the hook and loop patches aren't very comfortable if you roll over them in the night. Also, the pad got a little beat up over the course of usage. It showed scratches and creases and seemed to compress slightly.

However, I did like the quilt a great deal. I stayed plenty warm in the Fur, rated to 20°. The shell has a high thread count, ensuring comfort, and is zippered at the bottom to create a pocket of warmth for the feet. At the head, the quilt curves over the shoulders and around the neck to provide a draft collar. And the Fur has plenty of room‹I never felt my movement restricted at all.

Sierra Designs Moonlight
Sierra Designs Moonlight - Weighing in at 23 oz, the Moonlight from Sierra Designs is a true minimalist sleeping bag. Without a zipper, the Moonlight is more of a sleeping tube than a bag. Rated to 30° and using 775 fill down, the Moonlight is a perfect option for cycling and climbing trips, as well as Fastpacking.

Wriggling into the Moonlight for the first time, I thought that I would find the bag to be restrictive and uncomfortable. But the Moonlight uses the Ultralight Flex construction from Sierra Designs to pull the insulation next to the body and still allow for some sleep movement. I was able to turn and twist with quite a bit of mobility, considering the lack of space. I never felt uncomfortable in the bag and stayed warm.

Steve, who is 6'0", found the Regular Moonlight to be at his comfort level. Any colder than the low 40° nights that we experienced and he would have slept cold. The bag seemed a little drafty to him, especially around the flex points. He'd also like to see an opening cinch with a pull cord to keep drafts out.

Another nice feature of the Moonlight is its compressibility. Because it is made of down, the bag compresses down to the size of a large cantaloupe, perfect for a Fastpacking trip.

With the Moonlight we used the ThermaRest Ultralight sleeping pad, which folds over and packs very nicely. ThermaRest is a backpacking staple and for those who are uncomfortable on closed cell foam pads, the Ultralight is a very comfortable pad. It also fit well into the frame sleeve of the WarpSpeed from Ultimate Direction.


Rain Clothing

GoLite NewtGoLite Newt and Reed - Made of two-layer laminated rip-stop nylon, the shell clothing Newt jacket and Reed pants were met with delight from the both of us. Weighing 11.5 oz and 8 oz respectively for men's large this shell system has no frills. A full front zipper for optimal ventilation, oversized pockets, fully zipped seams and a hood round out all the features. The Newt jacket is a full cut to fit over layers, such as the Coal insulate jacket from GoLite (not included in this review), and covers to almost mid thigh.

Drawbacks to the GoLite shell system were that I noticed areas where the laminate was bubbling up from wear after my first day in the jacket. This gives me concern on the durability of the treatment. Also, the Reed pants have no zipper, making you remove footwear to put on the pants.

The GoLite Newt and Reed are a unisex system.

Sierra Designs Peak Bagger JacketSierra Designs Peak Bagger Jacket and Pants - The Peak Bagger clothing from Sierra Designs uses their Genesis 3.0 LT 3-ply laminate fabric. The jacket and pants are both ripstop nylon. They are part of the SD Zone system from Sierra Designs, meaning they are designed for done-in-a-day activities.

The pants have elastic cuffs and knee length zippers to provide easy entry or removal with pants, at increased weight, however. The jacket is cut more to form and has a short waist, perfect for fit over a harness. Both have fully taped seams.

The shell system from Sierra designs, while heavier, appear to be more durable than the GoLite wear. The Peak Bagger Jacket weighs 16 oz and the pants weigh 14 oz for men's large. Sierra Designs carries a women's version of this line called the Alpine Start.

Summary: This was one of the most enjoyable reviews that I have been able to take part in. While we found problems with some of the gear, overall the products we reviewed are extremely functional. The GoLite Cave/Nest shelter, Ultimate Direction WarpSpeed, and both companies rain shells made strong impressions on us. While Sierra Designs and GoLite are early adopters of the ultra-lightweight market, you can be sure that others are quickly jumping on board.

During this review, we were able to use other lightweight gear that we couldn't fit in this article. Look on the GearReview.com website for reviews of ultra-lightweight stoves, pots, hiking shoes, base layers, and other equipment.

GoLite
Product Weight (oz.) Cost ($)
Cave Tarp 23 185
Nest Net Tent 19 75
Breeze Pack 12.5 120
GoLite Fur Sleeping System 32 245
Newt Rain Jacket 11.5 170
Reed Rain Pants 8 110
Total 106 905


Sierra Designs
Product Weight (oz.) Cost ($)
Ultra Light Year CD Tent w/Ground Sheet 50 381
Ultimate Direction WarpSpeed Pack 32 125
Moonlight Sleeping Bag 23 275
Peakbagger Jacket 16 189
Peakbagger Pants 14 129
Total 135 1009

Contact Sierra Designs at (800) 635-0461 or on the internet at www.sierradesigns.com

Contact GoLite at (888) 5-GOLITE or on the internet at www.golite.com

John Walter is a Contributing Editor at GearReview.com.


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