Saturday, January 25, 2020

Common Pro vs Con Gear Debates in Ultralight Backpacking


I first wrote this text as a brainstorm over on the Ultralight subreddit, hoping that it would be added to the information side bar or wiki section. But it didn't seem to pick up enough steam and it would have given the moderators there extra work when they are busy enough as it is. So I figured that since I put some work into it anyhow, why not post it here on my blog. Not everyone is on Reddit and some of my followers might find this useful, or better yet maybe someone new to UL that is Googling info on UL pros and cons might stumble upon this and find it helpful.

I will include some improvements and more solid info from some of the feedback I got from the UL forum. So thanks to anyone that gave constructive criticism that might be reading this! Unfortunately, I also got trolled by one rather mean spirited member of that forum, and won't be getting into all the absurd semantics that were thrown my way that were neither constructive nor helpful for someone trying to understand the basics of these UL issues. 

What was lost on this troll is that this pro vs con list and discussion was/is intended for general points (as most pro vs con lists are), and should be helpful for those who are not as familiar with these UL debates. This was never intended to be an exhaustive meditation on each and every aspect of these issues and points. Yes, there is quite a bit of nuance for veterans to jump down the rabbit hole and get into. And yes things like UV radiation and its effect on fabric can be quite complicated. But that is a story for another time, not for an easy to read introduction to common UL pros vs cons when it comes to certain common gear choices.

Which brings me to my next point: this list is also for UL gear intended for use by UL or more lightweight backpackers. For example, there is no need to bring up say 70D fabric for a tarp when it comes to UL backpacking. The grand majority of UL backpackers and UL cottage gear manufactures stick to 7D to 40D when it comes to tarps and tent rain flies. That's not my opinion, that's just a fact that anyone can confirm by checking out the current state of affairs of UL tarps. Nor do I think bringing up heavier and more robust stoves meant for deep winter/cold backpacking is very useful here--one should start with 3 season before moving on to more advanced conditions, like say alpine trekking in Alaska in the winter.

Thus the point of this text is to cover some main points that are the most relevant and useful for someone that has little to no knowledge of UL backpacking. While it can be interesting for UL veterans to read as well, and maybe a few vets could learn a thing or two as well, again, this is mostly for noobs. So with all that being said, below is the final version of the text that was originally posted on Reddit. I will go through and edit it to make some improvements and such, and may do more updates on it in the future. Feel free to email me with constructive feedback and if I have time I'll be happy to get back to you.


The purpose of this text is to give a good general summary of what are recognized by many veterans of the UL community as the major advantages and disadvantages of certain core gear choices. I've personally been discussing, researching, and experimenting with all these choices for about a decade now. It is common to find these choices discussed and debated on UL forums like on Reddit or BPL, but for those unfamiliar with these conversations, it can be easy to be confused or not up to speed with all the details. Hopefully after reading this, you will have a better understanding of some of the various nuances of specific choices when it comes to dialing in your gear. And hopefully this post will make things easier for UL veterans so they don't have to explain things again and again. Just send a noob a link to this text!

Please note that personal preference as well as conditions and location of a given backpacking trip can and should tip the scales in favor of a choice (or even combination of choices) of gear, and always remember that personal safety and commons sense should always come first. A gear list for a teenager going on a weekend trip in the summer in California will be vastly different than a retired person in their 60s going on a thru-hike in the winter in Scandinavia.

Three of the most common gear debates will be examined: fabrics for tarps/rain flies, stoves for cook kits, and the all-in-one big sleep system debates (bag vs quilt, synthetic vs down, and air mat vs foam mat). Each debate will also have some definitions of some terms in question that outside the UL loop people might not be aware of.

1. Shelter. Choice of fabric for UL tarps or tent rain flies: which is best to protect you from the elements?

The three fabrics that are by far the most common for this purpose are DCF, silnylon, and silpoly.


Hydrostatic Head (HH) is a term used to describe how water resistant or waterproof a fabric is based on testing. It has been generally accepted by outdoor communities that water resistant enough for use as a tarp or tent rain fly is around 1,500mm. For this reason, many mainstream, big brand UL tent flies have around 1,200-1,800mm HH. For example, the popular brand Big Agnes (used by UL'ers and and more traditional backpackers alike) has several tents with rain flies that have 1,200HH.

Denier is a term used to describe how thick a fabric is (or technically I have read that it refers to the yarn weight), and fabrics will often be described with a number followed by a "D" which is shorthand for this term. For example, when you look at the specifications tab of a tarp or tent online, it might say something like "Fabric: 30D silnylon" or "Fabric: 15D PU coated nylon," etc. Various types of high and low denier fabric exist, but for this purpose 7-40D are by far the most common--feel free to check various UL cottage companies (Mountain Laurel Designs, for example, which uses 20D or 30D silnylon) to see this in action.

DCF is short for Dyneema Composite Fabric (AKA Cuben fiber), which is a waterproof, non-woven composite material made out of Dyneema threads laminated between two sheets of Mylar (plastic). Various thicknesses exist, but for this purpose, the 0.51oz, 0.67oz, and 0.75oz versions are the most common. UL'ers have been using DCF for this purpose since roughly the mid 2000s.

Silnylon is ripstop nylon fabric that has been impregnated/treated with silicone to make it water resistant or water proof to various degrees. Higher denier for UL (20-40D) silnylon is generally more water resistant than lower denier, and different manufacturers produce different quality fabric. This has caused the water resistance of silnylon to vary wildly depending on both denier and quality, with a HH from under 1,000mm to over 5,000mm. UL'ers have been using silnylon for this purpose since roughly the late 1990s.

Silpoly is similar to silnylon in many regards as far as what it is in theory, but uses polyester fabric rather than nylon, and is also coated/impregnated with silicone. And like silnylon, it also comes in various deniers and quality. It is relatively newer on the market compared to silnylon and DCF, with it becoming more common around the mid 2010s. Some silpoly on the market is not ripstop (e.g. Membrane silpoly), while nearly all silnylon is made with a ripstop.

Pros vs Cons:

DCF Pros: lightest weight of the three, inherently waterproof/very high HH (some independent tests have it rated at 10,000mm), does not soak up water and is easy to dry off, does not stretch after it is pitched, high tear resistance, easy to repair in the field (with DCF patch or even duct tape)

DCF Cons: expensive, low abrasion resistance, as of now limited number of companies use it, bulky and not very compressible, does not unfold or unfurl on its own (AKA has a fiddle factor), snow and slush tend to stick to it more than the other two, low UV (i.e. sunlight) resistance, louder when it rains

Silnylon pros: affordable, higher quality versions have high HH (3,000-5,000mm), moderate tear resistance, high abrasion resistance, many companies (including mainstream brands) use it, unfolds/unfurls on its own, less bulky and is compressible, snow and slush don't stick as much, moderate to low UV resistance

Silnylon cons: 20D and up usually have the highest weight of the three, lower denier (under 20D) still not as light as DCF, lower quality and/or lower denier versions have lower HH (under 1,500mm), soaks up water and takes longer to dry off, it stretches after being pitched and pitches often need to be readjusted in the field, more difficult to repair in the field

Silpoly pros: affordable, high quality versions have high HH (3,000-5000mm), high abrasion resistance, unfolds/unfurls on its own, less bulky and is compressible, snow and slush don't stick as much, has very low stretch when pitched, polyester is hydrophobic so it soaks up little to no water and it's easy to dry off, usually lighter than silnylon, high UV resistance

Silpoly cons: heavier than DCF (similar in weight to silnylon), low tear resistance, more difficult to repair in the field, as of now not many companies (including mainstream brands) use it, less versions of silpoly to choose from in the market as of now (the majority being used are 15-30D)

Yama Mountain Gear also has a good pros vs cons list that you can also check out that confirm some of the above observations.

2. UL stoves: what's best for you to cook outdoors?

Before we get to stoves, let's quickly cover what you'll need to cook over them. When it comes to UL pots, they are a less complex discussion than stoves. There are two main UL choices: titanium vs aluminum (hardened or regular). Titanium hands down beats aluminum in nearly all major categories: stronger, higher melting point, and is non-toxic. They have roughly the same or similar weights when compared, so the big difference that separates the two is cost: titanium is more expensive. But note that the price of titanium pots is within the realm of affordable. Decent UL titanium pots can be had for roughly the same price as a case of decent beer.

The following five choices are a pretty comprehensive guide to the UL stove choices, with canister and alcohol generally being the two most popular.


Canister stoves use compressed gas as fuel and attach to a can of this fuel to burn the gas. There are a wide variety of these types of stoves, but they have generally two parts: a burner and a regulator. The burner and regulator are often built together into the same unit, which is what attaches to the can of fuel. Some of these stoves have a built in ignition to get the fuel burning, while others require users to ignite the flame themselves (e.g. with a mini-Bic lighter). 

Note that this post will only cover upright canister stove, which are by far the most common UL canister stoves being used. There are other types of canister stoves that have their own pros and cons and distinct features, such as remote canisters, integrated canisters, etc. Many regular canister stove users will weigh their cans of fuel to estimate how much fuel is left in the can, and often will mark the number of times used on the bottom of the can with a Sharpie to keep track of fuel.

Alcohol stoves use denatured alcohol (AKA methylated spirits) as fuel. Technically the grand majority of UL backpacking alcohol stoves use denatured alcohol, but there are rare exceptions that use isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol). In the USA a common, more readily available brand popular with UL backpackers that use an alcohol stove are bottles of HEET, which can be found at gas stations and many big shopping centers. Also pretty common in Europe. There are a variety of stoves made specifically to burn alcohol (often made out of titanium), as well as many DIY stoves used by ULers (do a Youtube search), including some of the most well known and used DIY stoves such as the soda-can stove and the cat food can stove.

Esbit stoves use solid fuel tablets made of hexamine, which burns smokelessly, has a high energy density, does not liquefy while burning, and leaves no ashes. While these tablets are essentially concentrated, solid chemicals, they are non-toxic (from the Esbit official website): "According to Regulation (EC) No. 1272/2008 Esbit solid fuel is not classified as a toxic product." So they are safe to handle and burn outside or in a well ventilated area. There are a variety of stoves made specifically to burn Esbit (often made out of titanium), as well as many DIY stoves used by ULers, much like alcohol stoves.

Wood stoves use wood sourced directly from the field--like sticks, twigs, bark, etc.--and other natural debris such as dried leaves, dried grass, resin, etc. for fuel. There are a variety of stoves made specifically to burn wood (often made out of steel or titanium), as well as many DIY stoves such as the classic hobo stove (often made with a tin can) that has been used for well over a hundred years (hence the name "hobo"--hobos literally invented these stoves).

No stove simply means not using any kind of stove at all. This means only eating food that is ready to eat (e.g. food bars) or food that can be cold soaked with water (e.g. cooscoos, ramen, etc.) in a waterproof container. Recycled, plastic peanut butter or gelato jars are popular choices of containers.

Pros vs Cons:

Canister pros: fastest in terms of set up and boiling water, ease of use, wide variety of UL stoves with many options (ignition, simmering, etc.), affordable stove options exist, stoves themselves are often pretty lightweight, fuel is self-contained (e.g. can't be spilled), burns clean (little to no soot on pot), many stoves are small and easy to pack, easiest to extinguish

Canister cons: fuel cans not as readily available, fuel cans can be expensive (especially from one location to another), difficult to measure fuel and know how much you have left (e.g. user should count number of times used and make estimates), fuel cans are the bulkiest and heaviest containers, difficult and potentially dangerous to repair stove or fuel can in the field, complications when used in cold temperatures (weaker flame/heat), stoves not as lightweight as alcohol or Esbit, fuel cans are difficult to dispose of and should be recycled in town, overheated fuel cans can explode (though this is rare)

Alcohol pros: usually the lightest stove (roughly tied with Esbit), fuel is the most readily available (aside from wood if you are in a woodland terrain), fuel is usually the cheapest, easy to measure and see how much fuel you have left, DIY stoves are easy to make and practically free, easy to repair in the field, stoves are small and easy to pack, fuel containers for shorter trips are less bulky and are lightweight (e.g. a small, recycled plastic soda bottle weighs around 0.5oz/15g)

Alcohol cons: a good and leak-proof fuel container is required, fuel containers on longer trips are bulky (e.g. bigger plastic bottle), fuel can be spilled/wasted, most stoves difficult to extinguish, difficult to use in colder temps (requires priming or warming up of fuel before it can ignite), leaves little to some soot on pots (depending on what kind of alcohol stove being used, there are many), slower boil times than canisters

Esbit pros: usually the lightest stove (roughly tied with alcohol), easy to measure and see how much you have left, can't be spilled and difficult to be wasted, DIY stoves are easy to make and practically free, easy to repair in the field, stoves are small and easy to pack, fuel is least bulky (aside from wood sourced in the field), fuel is easy to store and lightest container (e.g. small ziplock bag weighs around 3g), easy to extinguish (just blow it out), easier to use in cold weather

Esbit cons: fuel not as readily available, fuel smells bad, leaves a lot of soot on pots, much slower boil times than canister and usually slower than alcohol, most expensive fuel in the long term, stoves become fairly dirty and a separate container for them is recommended (e.g. another small ziplock bag)

Wood pros: free fuel, no fuel bulk if going to woodland area, DIY stoves are easy to make and practically free, easy to repair in the field, easier to use in cold weather

Wood cons: usually the heaviest stove, usually takes the longest to get going and boil water, stove is by far the bulkiest and dirtiest, separate container for stove is pretty much a must (e.g. big ziplock bag), difficult to extinguish, limited application (i.e. only can be used in woodland areas), if it rains it is at best difficult or at worse impossible to get a fire going, may be illegal in certain areas or conditions (e.g. dry seasons, fire banned areas, etc.), most soot on pot of any stove and your hands will probably get dirty handling the pot, wood smoke from stove can irritate eyes and is generally not good for you to inhale (technically carcinogenic)

No stove pros: least amount of weight and bulk (you pretty much just need a spoon and a plastic jar), no fuel to worry about or carry, no need to repair anything, spoons and jars are cheap and easy to replace, more and more no cook foods are available now a days, least amount of time needed to prepare food, cheapest option available as far as gear goes

No stove cons: no warm food or drinks, less options for meals, it is pretty much universally accepted that it sucks eating cold soaked food in cold temperatures compared to warm food, one less option available to treat hypothermia, some no cook food is expensive (e.g. fancy bars), it takes planning to buy and prepare cheaper no cook meals

3. Ground UL sleep systems: what sleep system is best for you to sleep on the ground outside?

The two main parts of a ground sleep system are: a cover for your body plus a sleeping mat underneath you. You can also sleep above the ground in a hammock, but this involves other complications and gear that would require a separate discussion. For this discussion I will also only go over professionally made choices that one can buy, not any DIY/MYOG projects, which also would require a separate discussion. This discussion will also ignore the ethical/moral issues of using synthetic vs down insulation, which is yet another big complication.

This comparison will go over covers and mats, and obviously it is up to the individual to mix and match the best cover and best mat for your own personal wants and needs. Blankets and sleeping bag liners will be ignored, as their use is far more specific and uncommon compared to bags and quilts. And also keep in mind that you can combine different types of both covers and mats in different situations. For example in extreme cold you may want to consider using a synthetic quilt, a down quilt inside the synth quilt, an air mat, and a foam mat under or over the air mat.


Sleeping bags are the most well known and most popular outdoor sleeping cover. They generally cover a sleeper's entire body from head to toe, the grand majority of them have zippers to fully enclose sleepers aside from their face. Most sleeping bags for backpacking (UL or otherwise) are "mummy" style, which means they are made with a general outline of the human body covering the head as well. Bags come in a variety of temperature ranges, and most of them have either synthetic or down insulation (more on this later) inside of them for insulation.

Sleeping quilts are more popular in the UL community compared to other outdoor enthusiasts. Quilts do not have a hood, and instead have a drawstring at the top to cinch the quilt around the sleeper's neck. The majority of quilts also do not have insulation under the sleeper, instead focusing the insulation on the top and sides. Like sleeping bags, the grand majority of quilts have synthetic or down insulation, and they also come in a variety of temperature ratings. Under the sleeper quilts usually have zippers, snaps, straps, or a combination of these features, all of which are intended to keep the quilt securely in place and keep out drafts. Some quilts have a sewn up foot box, some have a zippered foot box, some quilts can be opened up into a rectangular blanket, and a more rare type of quilt is sewn up on the bottom completely (like a big tube). Some quilt users attach their quilt to their sleeping mat, others don't, and still others do one or the other depending on the conditions.

Synthetic insulation is made out of various types of plastic fibers, and the most popular synthetic insulation in the UL community is Climashield Apex (often called just "Apex" for short). UL quilt makers such as Enlightened Equipment and MLD exclusively use Apex as their synthetic insulation choice, for example.

Down insulation is made of bird feathers from either goose, duck, or a combination of the two. The most popular down in UL is goose down because it is generally lighter and warmer than duck down. Down is measured in fill power, with the higher the fill number, the more loft it will provide. The more loft you have, the warmer you will be. UL bags or quilts made with down usually range from 750-950 fill power. Covers made with higher fill down will also weigh less in providing the same amount of warmth as lower fill down, e.g. an 800 fill quilt rated at 30F/0C will weigh more than a 950 fill quilt rated at the same temperature (both being the same size, of course). It is now common for down to treated with hydrophobic chemicals, which is called "dry down."

Air mats are sleeping mats that are filled with air. There are generally two types of air mats: inflatable and self inflating. Inflatable mats need to be blown up with air (with your lungs, a mechanical pump, or an electric pump), while self inflating mats fill with air on their own but still need to be topped off with air after they expand fully. Air acts as the insulation, but many air mats also have other types of insulation inside of them to make them warmer. Air mats usually come in either rectangular or mummy shapes.

Foam mats are made out of various types of insulating, plastic foam, and come in various thicknesses. Most come in rectangular shape, and some have coatings or layers of aluminum to make them warmer.

R value is the term used to measure how efficient/effective a sleeping mat is at insulating you, i.e. how well it keeps you warm. It has a more technical, scientific definition, but for the purposes of this text this simple definition is sufficient. Generally the higher the R value, the warmer you will sleep, and higher R values (around 4 and up) are recommended for extreme cold (i.e. below freezing)--but everyone is different, so this takes personal experimentation to find your comfort level, much like a sleeping bag or quilt temperature ratings.

Pros vs Cons:

Sleeping bag pros: full body coverage, no drafts, lower learning curve to use compared to quilts

Sleeping bag cons: heavier and bulkier than quilts, active sleepers can roll their face inside the hood of the bag which can cause issues (e.g. discomfort, condensation inside the hood from breath vapor), zippers can get jammed/stuck

Sleeping quilt pros: less weight and bulk than bags, no hood complications, no zipper complications if the quilt has no zipper, more adaptable to temps (e.g. quilts that are rectangular can be opened up and used as blankets to adjust to warmer temps)

Sleeping quilt cons: can be drafty (or at the least drafts require more experience to deal with), fiddle factor if strapping to a sleeping mat, requires users to wear hooded clothing or warm hats/hoods to keep head/neck warm, requires user to experiment with different methods of use with a quilt to find their ideal comfort/sweet spot (in short a higher learning curve)

Synthetic insulation pros: cheaper than down, deals with humidity/dampness/condensation/getting wet much better than down, dries off far quicker than down, easier to clean, easier to repair and less potential to lose insulation from severe damage (i.e. a big rip) in the field

Synthetic insulation cons: much heavier and bulkier, looses loft after repeated use and doesn't maintain temp rating in the long term as well as down

Down insulation pros: much lighter and far less bulky, looses less loft after repeated use and keeps temp rating better than synthetic (with proper care) in the long term (e.g. down bags can be used for over a decade with nearly the same temp rating)

Down insulation cons: expensive, untreated down deals with humidity/dampness/condensation/getting wet poorly, dry-down deals with wetness better but still not as good as synthetic, highly recommend that down users have dedicated dry bag and/or waterproof pack liner to keep bag or quilt as dry as possible, difficult to clean, difficult to repair and severe damage (e.g. a big rip) can cause down to literally get blown away/lost for good in the field

Air mat pros: some decent air mats are affordable (limited to lower R values, however), far less bulky and easier to pack, same size mats (torso vs torso, regular vs regular) usually the air mat weighs slightly less or the same (with the exception of thin foam mats), softer (i.e. you probably won't feel that root under you), highest R value mats are dominated by air mats

Air mat cons: high quality and higher R value air mats are expensive, difficult to repair, generally fragile, provide little to no warmth/comfort if they are damaged and go flat, difficult to modify (e.g. cut down a mat), require users to inflate and deflate mats as part of camp routines

Foam mat pros: affordable to very cheap, very durable, easy to repair, will provide warmth even if damaged, easy to modify/trim, ease of use in camp (just roll/fold or unroll/unfold), if you can sleep comfortably on a thin foam mat this is the lightest choice possible

Foam mat cons: very bulky, usually weighs either the same or slightly more unless you really trim them down and/or use thinner mats, firm (i.e. you probably will feel that root under you), lower R values in general, foam mats with higher R values are the heaviest and bulkiest choices, can't compete with high end R values (4 and up) of air mats


Hopefully this has given you a better understanding on the pros and cons of common UL gear choices. While this list is not a definitive list that covers all of the many nuances of these choices, and other complications like location, conditions, and personal preference should be taken into account, I think this post does give a good general overview of these hot topics in the UL community. Happy trails!