I've recently been testing some prototype equipment for Gossamer Gear, a small US based manufacturer of lightweight backpacking equipment. It seems there is a small revolution going on concerning materials and designs for the outdoor industry that is being embraced by cottage industry companies like Gossamer Gear but overlooked by the larger manufacturers. I was talking to a co-worker last week who was describing how he took his wife and son backpacking this summer, toting his 40 pound pack. When I mentioned some of the products available, like a 2.5 pound 3-person tent from Tarptent, or sub 2 pound packs from Gossamer Gear or Zpacks, or 1-2 pound sleeping bags from Feathered Friends or Western Mountaineering, he literally didn't believe it. I told him about the new X-frame sleeping pad from Klymit, offering full length cush for the critical areas of the body (hips, shoulders, feet, head) with adjustable psi but weighing in at 10 ozs, and he didn't believe it. I told him about a bivy bag I was testing, using the latest in high strength but low weight materials called cuben, and that the bag weighed only 4 ozs....and no, he didn't believe it. Thats because you don't see these things in the major retailers, where most people go for gear and stuff their packs with all the enticing goodies on the shelves (most likely made in China), offered by the major manufacturers.
Cuben fiber, developed by Cubic Tech Corp, was originally developed for sails, where low weight and high strength was imperative. They are now marketing this technology for the outdoor industry, called CTF3. So far I've only seen products available for sale using these materials through the innovative cottage industries. I like these companies for various reasons. They are nimble and able to develop products quickly, adapting their products to customer input. Sometimes they are just one or two people, a typical "garage" setup, yet offer outstanding customer service. Many times these people are very experienced backpackers who, frustrated with the lack of a specific product that they needed, went about and made it themselves. Witness Joe from Zpacks, who has completed the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail, using his own shelters and backpacks. Do you think he knows something about what works and what doesn't on the trail? Then there's ULA (Ultralight Adventure Equipment), who manufacture everything themselves in Utah and create packs that almost half of the thru hikers of the PCT use. Tim from enLightened equipment is producing cutting edge sleeping bags using vapor barrier liner methods to produce extremely lightweight quilts (as low as 7.1 ozs for a summer bag!)
Ron from Mountain Laurel Designs sums up the nimbleness of these small companies in his "about" section on the MLD website:
MLD started making light Silnylon Tarps and sold them first on eBay and then from our own website. In 2003 we added more sophisticated designs built from lighter spinnaker fabrics. We broadened our line with ponchos and packs. Right from the start our goal was to offer the lightest fully functional backpacking and wilderness travel equipment possible. 2004 and 2005 was a time of continuous prototyping and we improved our products almost weekly.
A lot of custom orders were built and we learned what the ultra light backpacker wanted and we developed designs and processes to improve construction techniques using the UL fabrics. We tested over 100 different ultra light weight .2 to 2.0 oz/sq/yd fabrics in those years. We learned what worked as the lightest fabrics for each piece of equipment and trip goal. 2007 was the move to a permanent full time business for Ron and a leap for MLD with a new website and even lighter equipment.
Are you looking for innovative products, manufactured here in the US, that utilize the latest in materials and design? Then you will have to get online and seek them out, as most will not be represented in the big retailers. Now, I'm going to continue testing some Gossamer Gear prototypes, like a 7oz pack, a 4 oz bivy bag, a 4 oz tarp, and a set of carbon fiber poles (current product) weighing in at 5 ozs for the pair, and you'll most likely see these available on their website sometime in the coming year, probably improved from what I'm using....but not likely at your local retailer. I suggest getting online, checking out some of these websites, doing your own research, and consider cutting edge gear from these cottage industry companies that might fit your needs instead of wandering into a big retailer and just buying off the shelf. Not that good gear can't be found there, I've been an REI member for 25 years, but the silent revolution in backpacking gear seems to be occurring elsewhere.