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Organic Ultralight Anyone?
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scott nelson
(twostudios) - F

Locale: Sierra Madre, Ca
Organic Ultralight Anyone? on 05/09/2009 15:07:49 MDT Print View

Has anyone experimented with natural fabrics such as waterproofed hemp canvas for making your own backpack, tarp tent, or wool for a ground pad, etc.?

Backpacking is all about communion for me and sometimes I find that the tactile experience of interacting with all of this petroleum based material is distracting.

I realize that using natural fibers will add some weight but I would be willing to add a couple pounds.

John Carter

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Organic Ultralight Anyone? on 05/09/2009 15:22:42 MDT Print View

Hmm, you specify two different limits; your title says organic, but then you say do don't like the petroleum products. Since this isn't food we're talking about, I think you should clarify what you mean by organic, since petroleum IS organic. And the silicon is organic, in so much as rocks are organic. Do you mean renewable? Do you mean non-dyed/unbleached? Or do you mean pre-industrial (i.e. no bright-orange plastic-looking fabrics)? An elephant skin tent with ivory poles is organic, but I don't think that's what you want. A down bag with silk fabric is organic, but will you tolerate bright synthetic dyes? East Asian cultures have for thousands of years dyed their silk clothing bright colors, which can look very similar to some of the petroleum products. So are you looking for Western Pioneer organic (muted colors, local fabrics), or can you still wear bright red so long as it is 'organic'? Further, some would argue using petroleum-based synthetic insulation is more humane than using goose down. Finally, are you looking for comercially available organic? That's harder to find, as it will always be more expensive, or are you willing to make/hunt down your own fabrics?

I'm sorry to play devil's advocate here, I'm just pointing out that your topic non-specific, and there are a vast number of local 'natural' products that vary widely amongst many cultures. It was the synthetic products that unified the global fabric world. Tell us what your philosopy is, and we can help you narrow down on the materials.

I'm only being mean like this because I have thought about going non-synthetic for years, and haven't been able to find suitable substitutes, particularly in the lightweight waterproof category.

Edited by jcarter1 on 05/09/2009 15:40:13 MDT.

scott nelson
(twostudios) - F

Locale: Sierra Madre, Ca
Clarifying "organic" on 05/09/2009 15:37:21 MDT Print View

It seems I couldn't resist resorting to a catchy sounding cliche.

Thanks for keeping me honest.

My question is this: Is it possible to create an ultralight gear list using natural fibers for the fabric based items: tent, backpack, clothes, sleeping bag and pad. Or are these materials just too heavy and low tech for such a purpose? It seems that wool and waterproofed hemp are two potential materials.

I'm not against using petroleum based materials for water bottles, flashlight etc.

John Carter

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Clarifying "organic" on 05/09/2009 15:50:52 MDT Print View

Thanks; I just didn't know if you were looking at this from a purely engineering question (i.e. get BPL to research and manufacture quality natural fiber materials), or if you were looking for a 'go back to the earth' kind of experience. And even I'll admit; I'd love to hike around with one of those Elven wool cloaks used in Lord of the Rings, carrying an ash bow and bone knife. =) Of course I'd need Sam to carry my iron pots and pans. Or better yet, if I had Boromir's leather and chainmail suit, that would rock! But there's only so much ridicule I'm willing to take on the trail. =)

Now this could be an interesting discussion; I'll be curious to see what others suggest. I wonder if you can create sil-hemp. That would be waterproof and use natural fibers. If not, most natural fibers would have to be oiled, and then you are adding significant weight and you're still not fully waterproof. Certainly it wouldn't be very breathable. Your insulating jacket would probably be the toughest to get lightweight and reasonably affordable.

Seems the backpack and shirt would be the easiest, since many natural fibers would work for packs, and smartwool/cotton are the obvious shirt choices. I've seen instructions for woven backpacks using palm fronds or various tall grasses.

Pants would be trickier, but I would think hemp or cotton would be fine. A wool kilt would be a better performer, as I imagine hemp dries out slowly like cotton, but wool pants would be too hot.

Edited by jcarter1 on 05/09/2009 15:57:40 MDT.

scott nelson
(twostudios) - F

Locale: Sierra Madre, Ca
hemp tarp tent/poncho combination on 05/09/2009 15:59:14 MDT Print View

My thoughts so far have been in the direction of using a tarp tent that doubles as a rain poncho using 12 oz hemp. I found a waterproofing solution at Has anyone used this stuff?

scott nelson
(twostudios) - F

Locale: Sierra Madre, Ca
Elven Cloaks on 05/09/2009 16:10:39 MDT Print View

Hey, maybe there's something to that "Elven cloak" idea. It could double as a ground cloth and would be very useful as camouflage when hunting orcs.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Organic Ultralight Anyone? on 05/09/2009 17:28:57 MDT Print View

Yes. I have made a nice pack of all cotton marine duck, but it weighs 2 pounds. Balloon cotton would probably get it under 1 pound, but I have not been able to find it. The hemp canvas I have found is upholstery grade and not suitable for packs. My favorite bicycle panniers are also marine duck and allow me to pack my down sleeping bag without any other protection even in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Marine duck is very water resistant. My first down quilt/comforter used a balloon cotton shell. But it weighed about 3 pounds. Perhaps higher quality down could have make it lighter.

High quality outdoor gear was made with natural fibers until fairly recently. During the 1960s the North Face made cotton (so-called 'balloon silk', actually cotton) mountaineering tents, and others continued this through the 1970s. As noted above, cotton packs (if made of adequate fabric) can be very weatherproof and have the additional virtue of breathing so they don't get clammy and sticky inside. The first waterproof/breathable rain gear were the British "ventile" jackets made of cotton woven so tightly that it would fray where it was folded tightly - as along French seams. The cotton would swell when wet, sealing the pores. They were not as good as modern W/B garments, only adequate, and they were heavy - about 2 pounds. Oiled cotton outerwear is about the same.

There are many natural fibers that could work for near-UL gear: long-staple cotton, hemp, silk, etc. - but there does not seem to be a market for suitable fabrics. In any case, the weight of natural fabrics is high and the strength is low compared to modern synthetics.

Edited by vickrhines on 05/09/2009 17:30:28 MDT.

Walter Carrington
(Snowleopard) - M

Locale: Mass.
natural fibers on 05/09/2009 17:41:30 MDT Print View

Take a look at Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart.
Royce Tent: half pyramid, 7'9" high x7.5'x7.5', 4 lbs made from 'lightly waterproofed Lonsdale Cambric'[a cotton fabric, but no idea what it is].
Kephart also mentions a light weight kit:
Silk tent, down sleeping bag, cook kit, 7 lbs.

He has recipes for waterproofing wool, canvas, etc, and many ideas for light weight backpacking circa 1920.
What people used back then was silk for ultralight tents, cotton for light weight and cotton canvas for heavy.
Lightweight wool pants, shirts, and long johns are available, but sometimes hard to find. Merino wool base layers are fine.

Silk is available as light as 0.5 oz per square yard, lighter than silnylon.

For 5 season outerwear and tents, Ventile cotton is the hot fabric (5th season = arctic/antarctic winter). It's just really expensive. There's someplace in

Why hemp fabrics?? Does it have advantages over cotton or silk. Cotton has the advantage that fine woven cotton the threads expand and make it more watertight so you can make a good steep sided tent/tarp if you can find the right fabric.

Long staple Egyptian cotton is great stuff but hard to find.

scott nelson
(twostudios) - F

Locale: Sierra Madre, Ca
natural fibers on 05/09/2009 17:48:10 MDT Print View

That's good stuff. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

I assumed that hemp was stronger than cotton and more UV resistant based on website research. Not true?

Brian UL

Locale: New England
El natural UL on 05/10/2009 04:31:46 MDT Print View

Ive been considering a fossil fuel free, or low impact lightweight gear list for a long time.
Ive slowly fazed out synthetic fiber clothing where it makes sense- after all wool is so much nicer than the slick clammy synthetics on my skin.
Some things to consider:
- wool, and when appropriate silk and cotton clothing.
- down with silk shell for insulation (already mentioned)
- silk can be used to make hammocks.
- look at traditional pack baskets as well -don't know what a light weight one would weigh?
- Ive heard the army has a silicone treated cotton thats water resistent.
- bamboo or wooden spoon
- use fire to cook with, alcohol is not so bad either.

These are pretty easy to do, though a pack may weigh more than the SUL ones I like my packs to be more durable anyway and I'm willing to carry a heavier pack as long its still in the lightweight range.
Here are the limiting factors:
-Waterproof resistant and waterproof breathable shells and
Light weight and packable waterproof shelter materials.

synthetics are excellent for their water resistance and waterproofness. I don't know of a good non synthetic fabric for a tarp or a waterproof/breathable material that is light enough to be a reasonable substitute. Also many of these things are very expensive. For instance I know of a good place that can teach me to make a pack basket from scratch- like "cut down the ash tree and pound it out" scratch, but it will cost too much for me now. Experimenting with silks and lightweight silicon/Egyptian cotton for tarp material is also too expensive.
Would love to hear anyone with more ideas and experience with lightweight natural fabrics.

Walter Carrington
(Snowleopard) - M

Locale: Mass.
Pack basket. on 05/10/2009 08:35:27 MDT Print View

LL Bean sells pack baskets. I got one for my ex-wife and I'd guess it weighs 2,3,4 lb. Heavier than light packs but lighter than big heavy packs.

Walter Carrington
(Snowleopard) - M

Locale: Mass.
Silk is cheap. on 05/10/2009 08:50:27 MDT Print View

"Experimenting with silks and lightweight silicon/Egyptian cotton for tarp material is also too expensive."
Habotai silk isn't expensive, $2.30/yard 36" width. 5 mm (mm=momme, not millimeters) weighs around 0.5 oz I think. I think Bill Fornshell has used habotai silk, but not for a tent (quilt lining??). I don't know what silk used to be used for tents.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
basketry on 05/10/2009 08:54:29 MDT Print View

Basket weaving isn't that hard, although it takes practice to get a good shape. You could make a pack basket from cattails or tule much easier than from wood and it might be lighter than wood, too.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Organic Ultralight Anyone? on 05/10/2009 09:20:26 MDT Print View

Back in 2006 a number of us discussed some ideas for natural ultralight gear. Take a look Here

Bill Fornshell
(bfornshell) - MLife

Locale: Southern Texas
Organic Ultralight Anyone on 05/10/2009 13:16:55 MDT Print View


Don't rule out paper, but not your normal everyday paper.

the Japanese have made paper from a lot of different fibers for several hundreds of years. They even made garments out of it. Some of it is very strong. You can even spin paper into yarn and weave it into yards of material. That yardage can then be made into many different things.

I spent 30 days in Japan several years ago on a Fiber Arts Program. One of the things I learned how to do was spin paper into yarn. When I got home I did a few weavings using the paper I turned into yarn. ( I also was able to get in a little hiking in the mountains north of Kyoto, Japan)

Using the right fiber based paper and putting a coat or two of starch on it you can get it sort of water proof. I am not sure how it would take to folding it up to pack everyday but I would think it would roll up without hurting it.

There have been many things used over the ages to water proof things. We also have a lot of different modern day things to waterproof fiber if you wanted to use one of them.

Edited by bfornshell on 05/10/2009 13:19:41 MDT.

David Erekson
(finallyME) - F

Locale: Utah desert
Organic Ultralight Anyone? on 05/12/2009 08:21:26 MDT Print View

Try this site. He uses mostly what you are looking for.

The site is a little difficult to navigate. Here are the two links that refer to tarps and clothing

Edited by finallyME on 05/12/2009 09:08:11 MDT.

Walter Carrington
(Snowleopard) - M

Locale: Mass.
Mildew on 05/12/2009 09:45:57 MDT Print View

Reading the revenlore site reminds me that natural fibers take longer to dry and mold and mildew find them edible. So always dry your gear and air out thoroughly when you get home and as best you can on the trail.
That Kochanski winch is really clever.

matthew hobby
(elohimself144) - F

Locale: tropics
Re: Clarifying "organic" on 10/23/2011 15:15:12 MDT Print View

Sorry its long i hope i can catch your eye

Hemp Tarp
Wool Blanket
Rope and Chords
Mosquito Net (4 corner bed cover)
Yoga Mat (organic rubber)
Spring Roll Ceramic/Carbon Water Filter Bag -

Weatherproof your tarp naturally
Set it out in the rain, and let it soak, the fibers will expand and become waterproof once dry. i also had the idea to wax it lightly with beeswax, like a surfboard, and set it in the sun, or soak it in warm water to let the wax spread through (haven't tried it).

Elven Cloak with no sewing: look at the youtube link
Get a Wool Blanket that can cover your body, Two Rocks, and some String:
Wrap your body in the blanket with an open torso and excess over your shoulders, Put one rock on either side of your neck/shouder-blade on the underside of your blanket, now tie the string around both rocks from the outside of the blanket, so the blanket is fastened to the rocks, and it should rest on your shoulders like a cloak. If you have excess on your shoulders you can pull a hood over your head

Set up the Tarp
Set it up like the tarp on a hennessy hammock and sleep on your Yoga mat wrapped in wool and surrounded by mosquito net. Catch water off your tarp at both sloped corners and pour it into the Ceramic Filter Bag.

To learn how to organically clean and remove mildew from all these organic camping items go here:

Edited by elohimself144 on 10/23/2011 15:16:58 MDT.

Mark Fowler
(KramRelwof) - MLife

Locale: Namadgi
Lightweight cotton on 10/23/2011 17:13:12 MDT Print View

In most instances synthetics offer fantastic benefits over natural fibres but we often forget that they really only replaced natural fibres in the last 30 - 40 years.

In Australia we had quite lightweight single skin tents made of cotton japara well into the 1980's. They were of simple A or walled design, with floor (PU nylon) and screens as options. They suffered the standard problem of leaking if they were touched but weighed around 2kg for a 2 person tent. There were 3 cotton fabrics used. The lightest of the fabrics was "Golden Tan" which, along with the standard green, was proofed with a parrafin wax mixture while the most stormworthy (Stormtite) was proofed with a very light pu coating.

The secret in the performance of these fabrics was not just the very tight weave but the high level of twist in the yarn. It was finding a weaving mill which could produce the twist became increasingly hard as the British cotton weaving industry disintegrated and the older looms disappeared.

Similarly we had "japara" rain jackets (around 700 grams) which were cotton proofed with an oil which would dry out - the name terbine comes to mind. Sleeping bag shells were also cotton.

Looking at an 11th edition copy of Paddy Pallin's Bushwalking and Camping (first published in 1933 - one of the earliest books on lightweight walking?) he gives a base weight of 8kg which would reduce to 5-6 kg with with only a lighter sleeping bag (1.7 kg) and pack (1.6 kg) and easily go sub 5 kg. A 1970 catalogue of his gear can be found at

I am about to build one of the water buckets in sil nylon. It should be less than 30 grams (1 oz) with 4-5 litre capacity. The design is self supporting and pours easily.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Organic ultralight and "waterproof" cotton on 10/24/2011 12:15:48 MDT Print View

In response to one of the above post, the Army was working on silicon encapsulated cotton for a rainjacket as their Gore ECCWS system is pretty heavy for their latest layering system. Didn't see it in their Afghanistan Gen III ECWCS kit however, as they had a very light double layer Gore product with just pocket holes ("pass through" pockets*) for handwarming in the underlying fleece (pretty neat design IMO but they took it back when I retired - waiting for an enterprising clothing line to copy that design, preferably in a neutral black or gray, don't want to wear camo again .. but I digress).

There's also "performance cotton" coming out from OR (iirc) next year. Might check it out for hot weather trips next year (with a synthetic layer in the pack just in case) and see how it goes.

(ed: *found new clothing term)

Edited by hknewman on 10/24/2011 12:34:17 MDT.