Cuben Fiber for the Lightest Backpacking Gear
By Steve Gillman
Since I backpack very little now that I live in Florida, and
since I generally do not like to spend a lot for gear too often,
I don't have many experiences to report when it comes to the
latest ultralight backpacking gear. So for this introduction
to the wonders of cuben fiber I have had to rely on what other
backpackers have told me and on internet research. After having
just completed the latter I can say that I want to try this stuff!
This material was developed by the Cuben Fiber and Cubic Tech
Corporations, and is trademarked under the name CTF3. It's a
non-woven fabric that is very strong and light. The original
name was coined by some in the press after the boat America Cubed
won the 1992 America's Cup using sails made of earlier versions
of the fabric. CTF3 has also been used for airship hulls and
kites, and most recently for a wide variety of backpacking products.
Cuben Fiber Tarps and Wallets?
Strong and light products make sense for ultralight backpackers,
but just how light is this material? My tarp, made from some
of the lightest rip-stop nylon available at the time I bought
it a dozen years ago, weighs in at 14 ounces before tie-downs.
It is 7 by 9 feet. I just checked ZPacks.com, and a tarp of the
same size, made with cuben fiber, weighs just 5.3 ounces. Of
course you pay for that technology; this particular tarp is priced
at over $200 at the moment.
It is difficult to imagine a material that weighs just a half-ounce
per square yard being durable, but backpackers who have emailed
me about their cuben fiber gear tell me it is tough stuff. I
recently saw a wallet made of this material which weighed less
than a quarter of an ounce! I hadn't given much thought to the
weight of my wallet when backpacking (I keep it light in any
case), but that got my attention. I might have to buy myself
a birthday present.
The Lightest Tents
ZPacks also makes tents from this ultra-high molecular-weight
polyethylene (it is a laminated fabric). Their Hexamid Solo Tent
is large enough to sit up in and long enough to stretch out in,
yet weighs well under a pound. That weight includes a groundsheet,
stuff sack, and tie downs. If you do not hike with at least one
trekking pole, which you can use as a support, you'll have to
add a few ounces for an aluminum pole.
I would prefer a tent that comes complete, rather than as
a tarp with mosquito net attached and groundsheet underneath.
On the other hand, this setup is about as light as you can get
for a relatively bugproof and rainproof shelter. It will be interesting
to see what other designs come out in the next couple years.
Backpacks That Weigh a Few Ounces
There are a number of new backpacks being sold now that are
made of cuben fiber, and are therefore really light. For example,
if you don't need a lot of space, there is the Terra Nova Ultra
20 Backpack. It has a carrying capacity of 20 liters (about 1220
cubic inches), and weighs just 3.9 ounces. That's with a waist
belt and padded shoulder straps.
Many companies are producing backpacks with this material
that weigh a pound or two. These heavier packs get most of their
weight from the addition of straps, frames, pockets, and nylon
bottoms. The cuben fiber contained in any one of them probably
does not exceed a few ounces. Watch for better designs in the
future, which more fully take advantage of this incredible fabric
for ultralight backpackers.