Ultralight backpacking update - some equipment changes and why I've made them

I'm Now Hiking Super-Ultralight (SUL) - New gear changes for this upcoming season

I have purchased a 7.15 ounce bivy and a 13 ounce wearable quilt (hereafter poncho-quilt). (Manufacturer listed weights are given here. The new equipment will be weighed with my scale upon arrival.)

The the new equipment weighs a combined 20.15 oz.

The equipment being replaced includes: a 26 ounce mummy-style sleeping bag, a 14 ounce waterproof-breathable bivy sack, and a 10.4 ounce down puffy jacket. The replaced equipment weights a total of 50.4 ounces.

Old weight (-) New weight (=) 30.25 ounces dropped. That's 1.89 pounds.

This is a significant weight reduction! I've come a long way from my 20+ pound base pack weight when I started the Appalachian Trail.

  My base pack weight is now 4.68 pounds. (Will be 4.33 pounds when I am able to ditch my rain jacket in warmer summer temperatures).  A base-weight under 5 pounds is commonly considered "Super Ultralight". It has taken a lot of experimentation and hiking to get to this point. Let's take a look at how I dropped that weight.

This hiking gear kit is for long distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail in peak season. For other AT and ultralight posts use the topics drop-down list in the sidebar.

Some key points about why I picked these new items:

The 7.15 ounce Bivy Sack  is about  half the weight of my original bivy. The bivy is constructed of three main materials:

  • Like the original bivy the bottom of this bivy is a fully waterproof fabric. The waterproof fabric used in the bivy is called sil-nylon. 
  • The top of the bivy is made of a water resistant, highly breathable argon fabric. 
  • A section of the bivy top is made from very fine bug mesh. 

Sil-nylon is a very durable and cost effective fabric choice for waterproof applications. I know that sil-nylon, the same fabric used in the construction of my waterproof poncho-tarp, will hold up very well on trail. I got the bivy in an extra-wide style so that I can pull one side of the waterproof fabric up over me to improve the water resistance of my sleep system if there's a crazy storm. (Think like a taco!)

The bivy's bug mesh and argon top fabrics are where the true "upgrades" lie. The argon and bug mesh, along with shorter and lighter zipper, are the primary reason that this bivy is half the weight of its predecessor. But with the weight reduction there are some trade-offs. This fabric will still provide some protection from wind and moisture, but when compared to the waterproof-breathable fabric of the original bivy it is no where near as protective.

Isn't it bad to switch to a less protective bivy? The answer is that it depends. Since the bottom of the bivy is still completely waterproof, and I camp with a tarp over me to protect me from wind and rain, I don't really always need the extra protection of waterproof-breathable top fabric on the original bivy.

I find that I get pretty hot in the waterproof-breathable bivy sack if the air temperature is much higher than the mid 40's Fahrenheit. Where it is colder, like on my next winter hiking trip, I will still be using my original bivy. Remember, this kit is for the main hiking season and nighttime lows in the mid 40's or higher.

Getting all hot and sweaty in a bivy is no fun, especially if the mosquitoes are out and you cant unzip the bivy to ventilate it! I have found, in my months of using the waterproof-breathable bivy under my poncho-tarp, that I rarely get much more than a slight misting of water on me in the rain. But there is some potential for the new bivy to let water through into my sleeping setup.

That brings us to the next equipment change. The poncho-quilt is a wearable sleeping quilt. I will be able to wear this warm quilt instead of my down jacket. That makes the poncho-quilt a multipurpose item: an excellent way to save weight while backpacking. "But what about the misting water under the tarp? What if you do get wet?"

At the end of the day there's one undeniable truth, you need dedicated insulation to keep warm. Nighttime temperatures can be quite chilly even in the summer. Being wet and cold is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to you during any outdoor activity. Moisture can compromise the effectiveness of the insulation hikers rely on for safety and comfort. Having two forms of insulation, both sleeping gear and a warm jacket, adds a safety redundancy to any equipment setup. If one gets wet, the other is available to keep you alive!

With the fact that I have only one form of insulation in mind, I've chosen to switch from down insulation to synthetic (man-made insulation). Any insulation will be less effective when it is wet, but using synthetic insulation can really make a difference. Synthetic insulation performs better than down when exposed to moisture. Furthermore, Synthetic will dry faster, and can be dried more easily with your body heat (worn dry). There are treated-down insulation products meant to better withstand the negative effects of moisture, but synthetic insulation is commonly understood to be the moisture-management king.

The main trade-offs with synthetic materials are weight and compressibility:

Weight - Synthetic insulation weighs more for the warmth it provides. If you have two thirty degree blankets that are completely identical except for the material used for insulation the down blanket will be significantly lighter. Dramatic weight differences between the blankets will be present where the down used is of very high quality. Higher quality, called "higher fill-power" down (aka "900+fp") is very expensive and extremely light.

So synthetic insulation is heavier, but is it so much heavier that it isn't worth switching to? Absolutely not. Synthetics have been improving greatly in their weight to performance ratio over time. While significantly heavier than most down alternatives, the weight of the synthetic gear is easily out-weighed by its performance characteristics in situations where those characteristics are desirable.

Compressibility - Synthetic insulation will not pack down as small as a thermally equivalent amount of down. Furthermore, synthetic will not withstand compression as well as down. Over-compression and long-term compression will seriously impact the "loft" of any insulation, and all insulative gear will perform poorly if mistreated in this way. Synthetic insulation will have a more limited lifespan due to its inferior ability to re-loft over time and subsequent loss of warmth. This can be made up for in the price of the product. Synthetic gear is typically cheaper than down equivalents. Most equipment, however, will last you a very long time if you take care of it.

So with the increased weight and poor compressibility of the new quilt how the heck does it weigh so much less than my 30 degree sleeping bag? Easy, there's less of everything!

  • Sleeping bags wrap fabric and insulation all the way around you, meaning more material altogether. A quilt only covers your top and sides (Usually with a form-able foot-box to keep your feet warm). Since the insulation underneath you in a sleeping bag is compressed by your body weight it doesn't do much to keep you warm. Cutting out the fabric and insulation that would normally be crushed underneath your body saves a lot of weight.
  • Sleeping bags often have hoods that cover your head and can be tightened around your face. In the winter, a hooded sleeping bag can be extremely nice to have. Where you don't want or need a hood, removing all that excess fabric and insulation can save a lot of weight.
  • Sleeping bags usually have zippers to close up tightly. Zipper teeth don't insulate well, so most sleeping bags have a flap of insulation to close up the drafty strip of teeth down the entire length of the zipper. Zippers, zipper-pulls, and draft-tubing are heavy, cutting these out of the design saves a lot of weight. 

Cool huh?

The most contentious thing about the gear changes I've made is probably going be the use of the poncho-quilt. It will get chilly at night and I will have to wear it for warmth. I am going to look a little silly all wrapped up with my head poking out of my bulky quilt. All that bulk will give me some serious warmth though!

More importantly, there will be some concern that having one single piece of lofted insulation will be dangerous. I am confident, though, that my equipment selections are both appropriate for the conditions that I will be hiking in and my experience level and skill.

WARNING: If you are new to hiking and backpacking be very careful with your equipment selections. Never jeopardize your safety and comfort just to have a lighter pack. With more knowledge and experience you will learn to be able to go much lighter much more safely!
Do you want to learn more about what equipment choices you have and what job each piece of equipment does for you on trail? If you are a new hiker, new to ultralight hiking, or just don't know what the heck to do about gear check out my book. You can read it for free if you take a free trial of Kindle Unlimited! (Otherwise it's five bucks that will tell you everything I wish I'd known starting out - that's why I wrote it!)

Don't miss the hiking tips at the end!
If you do read it please leave a review! Loads of people have read the whole book (I can see how many pages get read a day) and I only have one review. Sadness!)

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