As we enter a new year, we can’t help but wonder when winter will release its grip, and we can once again replace our titanium crampons with zero drop shoes and leave the handwarmers at home as we begin the process of planning trips for the coming year.
With that trip planning comes a twinge of excitement, perhaps, for what new gear will be released this year, starting with this coming week’s announcements from the Outdoor Retailer Show. Unfortunately, missing from Outdoor Retailer (and rightfully so, considering the massive costs of renting a booth) is news from the cottage industry.
So, here are a few new and noteworthy pieces of gear from smaller manufacturers that were either released late in 2011 or are coming in 2012. Keep these items on your radar as you prepare for the coming season.
Tarptent Notch - Henry Shires introduces another entry into the “double-wall, double-entry, double-vestibule, trekking-pole-supported ultralight tent” niche with the Notch (and the larger Stratosphires). Ever since Bob Molen (Big Sky Products) introduced a double-entry / double-vestibule solo tent more than eight years ago, I’ve been a big fan of the design concept for its usability - keep gear on one side of the vestibule, and cook in the other. I especially like that the Notch offers fly-protected entries, which means big views and ventilation when rain is falling. Requiring only four stakes to pitch, I think the 26-ounce Notch just might prove to be “light enough” of a summer shelter solution to sway a few tarp campers. I hope Henry explores the possibility of expanding this design to include a full-fabric inner and the ability to use skis for support - which would make for a very light, warm, and imminently usable winter tent for mild conditions.
Tarptent Notch - A 26-oz, double-wall, double-door, double-vestibule, trekking-pole-supported summer tent, and only four stakes required.
Gossamer Gear Murmur - The Gossamer Gear Murmur promises to usher in a new wave of small volume packs that are not made with wispy fabrics, which means they only gain a few ounces of weight and should last longer. At 8.4 ounces and 28 liters of volume, the Murmur is sized about right for the proficient ultralight backpacker that has managed to downsize the volume of the rest of his gear to miniature proportions, and thus, is most suitable for short weekends and summer trekking that don’t require a lot of food or gear. Although still using silnylon for the bulk of its body, much of its outward-facing wear areas are reinforced with more durable 140d and 210d nylons. Also keep an eye towards the 2012 version of the Mountain Laurel Designs Newt pack, which is targeted similarly, but is manufactured entirely from 210d fabric. What I really like about the Newt is that the manufacturer claims that its load rating is “strong enough for 40+ pounds” - which tells me that Ron Bell is paying very careful attention to the manufacturing quality, and seam strength of the pack, perhaps more so than his competitors. Finally, Six Moon Designs is working on a similarly-positioned “Feather” pack, weighing in at 11 ounces with a packbag of slightly larger volume, perhaps.
Gossamer Gear Murmur - 8.4 oz, 1700 ci main compartment, 20 lb maximum load carrying capacity.
Mountain Laurel Designs Newt - 7.5 oz, 1500 ci main compartment, manufactured to a load rating of 40+ pounds, with durable 210d fabric throughout.
Mountain Laurel Designs Big Star - Riding on the coattails of the popular TrailStar, MLD will usher in 2012 with a larger version, the Big Star. For 24 ounces, you get multi-pitch options, weather resistant shelter, strong silnylon construction with no zippers, doors, or other frills (or failure points), and enough room to sleep three or four hikers. I don’t think it will offer the snow or wind loading resistance of its smaller cousins due to much larger unsupported fabric panels, but it should provide the basis of a good time when sharing shelter for a group while on a nice romp through the mountains during non-snowy seasons.
Mountain Laurel Designs Big Star - A 24-oz shelter for three or four based on the popular Trail Star design concept.
Nunatak Gear 950+ Fill Power Down - Nunatak recently announced the option to fill your custom garments and bags with 950+ fill power goose down for only $8 an ounce extra. Their confusing marketing suggests that their “875+ fill power down is superior in every way”. My guess is that Nunatak is well aware of the poor moisture resistance of this high-grade down. My own experience with “very high” (i.e., > 900) fill power downs suggests that it’s so sensitive to humidity and condensation that it takes precious little moisture (e.g., one night of condensation accumulation during a cold night) to reduce its loft to levels that have always made me wish for something a little more robust. So if you’re considering it, you might also consider that it seems mostly to be a novelty that looks better in your gear list weight column than on a rainy night in the wilds. I will concede that there may be some applicability of very high fill power down for hikers traveling through mostly dry and warm environments. Look for 900+ fill power down in Katabatic Gear quilts as well in 2012.
Goosefeet Down Jackets - Goosefeet is best known for their really light down booties. When I hiked with Ben Smith last spring, he was sporting an awfully puffy looking hooded down pullover while whispering its weight under his breath to our hiking companions. I couldn’t resist the urge, so I had him make me one, too. With a 7d shell and lining, 900 fill power down (yes, the stuff that is most sensitive to humidity), hood, long length, and loft measured in inches instead of centimeters, my 7-ounce down hoody is way too warm for summer use on warm evenings, but seems to be a reasonable complement for quilting in cold conditions. Look for Ben to bring this jacket into his core product line in 2012, perhaps, but don’t expect it to remain too lofty in damp conditions.
Goosefeet Down Jacket - 900 fill down, 7d shell and lining, hood, pullover design, and long enough to cover the butt (parka length), this jacket weighs about 7 oz.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Traverse Shelter - Take the twin-peaked MLD Circus Tent (or the GoLite Shangri-La 6) and downsize them for a more reasonable capacity of three or four people, lighten up the fabric, and you have the Traverse. At 11’6” x 8’0” (with 7’2” between the poles) and a 4’0” height, the 19-ounce traverse would be a terrific group shelter in the mountains. Replace more robust poles with trekking poles for support, carve out some benches with a snow shovel, and you can bet this will attract the eye of winter travelers. Save your coin, though. At $650, ultralight group living doesn’t come cheap.
HMG Traverse Shelter. 19 oz, room for four + gear, supported by trekking poles.
Ruta Locura Wasatch Bivy Sack - With a 7x10d breathable fabric upper and 7d silnylon floor, this new bivy sack weighs a remarkable 4.35 ounces. The utility of breathable bivy sacks, especially for tarp campers using quilts, cannot be emphasized enough, and Josh Leavitt takes the concept a step further with this innovative use of what will undoubtedly be an exciting new fabric (7d silnylon) that we’ll see pop up in more applications in 2012. My fear is durability of the seams. Every sub-8-ounce bivy sack that I’ve ever used (including Backpacking Light’s original Vapr Bivy models) has failed due to seams ripping out, and never from using fabrics that are too light - although the risk of low strength seams becomes much higher with ultralight fabrics. It will be interesting to see if Josh can solve this dilemma and create seams that are durable enough to handle repeated seam stress exerted by those of us who thrash in their sleep. Also coming from Ruta Locura in 2012: three-piece collapsible (to 20”) trekking poles that weigh 4 ounces each, and what should be an astoundingly ultralight jacket made of the new 7d silnylon.
Also for bivy campers - keep your eye on Oware USA, who will release their first bivy sack made with the newest version of “waterproof-breathable” and seam-taped Cuben Fiber. At 3.5 ounces, it may be the lightest waterproof-bivy ever specified. Worth watching. Joe Valesko at ZPacks is also making rain jackets out of the same material. For four ounces, if the jackets prove to be durable - this could be a big winner in 2012 as well. Also from ZPacks: whisperings about a new freestanding dome tent made from Cuben Fiber. Joe’s goal: make the lightest freestanding tent available.
Oware USA Cuben Fiber waterproof-breathable bivy sack, 3.5 oz, size small.
ZPacks waterproof-breathable Cuben Fiber rain jacket. 4.5 oz, size medium.
Six Moon Designs Skyscape X - SMD is offering a Cuben Fiber version of the Skyscape Tent - making it one of the lightest solo tents available - 15 ounces. Kurt Russel, a long-since-retired (resigned?) cottage gear manufacturer under the Wanderlust label, pioneered the design (he called it the Nomad Lite), and it became one of the most popular ultralight tents on the market, especially in the eastern U.S. Lightheart Gear and Six Moon Designs have both caught on to the concept, which is based primarily upon the premise that “some” amount of structure can be provided by placing the trekking poles in an “A” frame configuration internally, and then tensioning the ends of the tent as high as possible. In theory, the concept should work - especially for wind and snow loading. In practice, it depends on whether or not the tent’s construction and fabric can handle the extreme tension required to keep the fabric panels taut enough for meaningful storm resistance. My experience with both the Nomad Lite and early Cuben Fiber prototypes of the Lightheart Gear were not terribly positive - buttoned up, they were condensation traps, and their poor fly coverage resulted in sideways-blowing rain easily entering the tent. I’m more hopeful for the Skyscape, which makes important design modifications to the floor shape and fly configuration. My favorite thing about these tents is the view: roll up the fly and you have fantastic 360-degree views - something I value when hiking in grizzly bear (and mosquito) country. Regardless of what you value in an ultralight tent, the Skyscape X looks to provide a very lightweight - albeit a rather expensive ($450) - option as a solo summer shelter.
Six Moon Designs Skyscape X - A 15-oz Cuben Fiber solo tent with a roll-back fly for 360-degree views and internal trekking pole support for wind resistance and snow loading.
For gram counters who hike in pairs, the Six Moon Designs Cuben Fiber Haven might be a good option. When included with an inner tent, the Haven becomes a two-person, dual-entrance, dual-vestibule summer tent - for a remarkable 24 ounces. Pitched with two trekking poles and requiring four stakes, the Haven would not provide a lot of structure for a tent this size, so don’t expect its large panels to provide a lot of peace on a stormy or snowy night. However, did I mention that it’s 24 ounces? That makes it the lightest two-person double-wall tent on the market.
Six Moon Designs Haven - Dual entry, dual vestibules, sets up with two trekking poles, Cuben Fiber fly, 24 ounces with a fully enclosed inner tent. This is a photo of a prototype, so we expect the less-than-perfect patterning in this one to be tightened up on production models.
Speaking of Cuben Fiber, keep your eye on Terra Nova. This year will see the launch of their new Quasar Cuben Fiber pack line. Check out these specs: 30, 45, and 55 liters at weights of 12 to 30 ounces, with the biggest version offering an internal frame.
Terra Nova Quasar Cuben Fiber Packs. 30 to 55 liters, 12 to 30 oz.
Yama Mountain Gear is moving away from commercially manufactured products and towards building DIY kits, but not before they release what is a very nice looking Cuben Fiber tarp with lots of storm coverage. The 7-oz Cirriform Tarp should mate nicely with their Model 1.25 Bug Shelter for a very light and roomy summer solution for the solo hiker.
Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform in Cuben Fiber, 7 oz.
Locus Gear, a manufacturer of pyramid-style shelters in Japan, will release a version of the Khufu shelter in eVENT in 2012. I’m glad to see them exploring breathable fabrics for floorless shelters. While a little heavier, the condensation-free comfort they bring, especially in winter conditions, might be worth it for some. Several years ago, I contracted GoLite to manufacture versions of their Hex pyramids out of Nextec’s Epic fabric, and their performance was exceptional during the winter. Combined with a snow skirt, an eVENT fabric pyramid might be appealing to winter hikers.
Water-Resistant Down - Chemists have figured out how to add hydrophobic nanomolecular coatings to down plumules. If this works, this will offer a far better bang for your buck than spec’ing super-high-fill down (see above), which is only useful when the garment is hanging in your closet. Down that resists loft degradation in response to the accumulation of humidity or condensation in the garment or bag - now that gives us something to hope for. Look for new products in 2012 from Sierra Designs, Brooks Range, and others using this new “hydrophobic” down.
ULA Equipment will upgrade their pack line in 2012 with new fabric that preserves weight, doubles puncture resistance, increases tear resistance, and (maybe!) decreases water absorption - all without increasing weight or sacrificing that cool “Dyneema Grid Look.”
Tenkara USA will offer an attachment for existing rod owners that will allow them to reduce the length of their rod. This might be a good option for those that want to own only one rod and adapt it accordingly (reducing weight) for some backpacking scenarios.
Alpacka Raft has redesigned their pack raft spray skirts (again) so they behave more like a kayak sprayskirt and deck. Being able to exit the boat when flipped without fooling around with Velcro or fumbling with grab loops will be nice. Combined with last year’s introduction of the drop tail, the Alpacka is emerging as a very serious tool for whitewater use, while maintaining “pool toy” weights that save us pack weight.
The 2012 Alpacka Spray Deck adds 14.5 oz to any packraft and is essential for packrafting in whitewater and a very nice option to have in cold, wet weather.
Finally, from the non-commercial side of things - this is where much excitement is generated - Forrest McCarthy brings us the Unbinding Ski System.
Backpacking Light will be taking a much closer and critical look at cottage-industry manufactured gear in 2012. With the “ultralight” product niche becoming increasingly crowded with similar products, distinguishing them based on features or weight alone is no longer the overwhelming concern of many customers - a key finding we discovered in our Fall 2011 reader survey. Manufacturing quality, durability, performance under a wider range of environmental conditions, cost, and aesthetic appeal to become increasingly important for cottage manufacturers as they continue to compete for slices of the somewhat small pie of of the ultralight gear market.