A look at some ultralight camping gear that maximizes performance and minimizes weight

Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport
Its not real practical to just hope for great weather when youre out camping especially on extended trips.

Yet, there is no reason to let weather dictate your enjoyment. Ive been on a number of trips in the backcountry or on my touring bike where it rained or snowed or was just plain cold and nasty, and in most cases, I was still able to enjoy myself: see beautiful places and wildlife, and experience nature like you dont get to sitting in your office.

The cold mist or rain even added to the serenity. There were also instances where weather did become a negative factor, and I couldnt wait to get back to "civilization." The difference: staying warm and dry.

With a little planning, staying warm and dry is pretty easy, especially if you are car camping. It starts getting tricky when you go on longer trips that require you to carry all of your gear. On these trips, the limited space in your packs is highly prized, and weight becomes the enemy.

The camping-gear industry has recognized this need, and many have answered with a line of ultra-light products. This gear, which maximizes performance to keep you warm and dry, minimizes weight to allow you to pack lighter and go further more comfortably.

Three primary places where ultralight gear can keep you comfortable are your shelter, rain gear, and sleeping bag. In this article, I review some of the best products in the industry in all three categories.


TENTS

There are a plethora of innovations in ultralight tents, including shelters (without floors), bivy bags, tarps, and simple one-person tents. For this review, I looked at three-season, two-person tents.

Mountain Hardwear Tri-light 2
The Tri-light incorporates a very innovative pole system with 3 poles and 2 "hubs." When I first spread out all of the parts, I feared this one was going to be a challenge to assemble. As it turned out, it was one of the simplest. "Simple" may be the best way to describe this tent generally: simple yet extremely functional. The Tri-light 2 has great head space and a roomy and very useable vestibule. It is a little narrow for 2 persons, although the side guy lines help in that regard. This gem from Mountain Hardware was one of my favorites of all those tested.

Mountain Safety Research (MSR) Zoid 2
The Zoid uses two poles, both of which have two fairly sharp bends in them to make for an upside-down "U" shape. Ive used this type of pole before, and did not find it very easy to guide through the sleeve. MSR pulls it off quite well though, combining a sleeve across the top and clips along the side. The design allows for a more squared roof, translating into more uniform head space across the top.

In rainy conditions, though, I found a slight sag at the rear pole that drew small pools of water. The Zoid uses a "4-way vestibule door system" that allows you to vary the ventilation. I found it made exiting and entering very awkward, as you must unstake then restake the fly flap to get through.

North Face Slickrock
The batwing half-fly struck me as a little odd initially, but I grew to appreciate the ventilation it provided, not to mention the weight-savings. The downside of the half-fly is the limited and open vestibule space, and the risk of not setting the tent up with the fly side squarely facing the inclement weather.

In rain, I did note that the design made it difficult to open the door without allowing water in. The Slickrock tent itself is very roomy with good head space. "His" and "her" doors along either side allow a very easy escape when nature calls in the middle of the night (figuratively or literally!). The two-pole assembly into pole sleeves is easy and provides great structural support.

GoLite Den 2
A leader in ultra-light camping equipment, Go-Lite really understands how to maximize function while minimizing weight. The Den 2 fully embodies this philosophy. It does not have a fly, making assembly a cinch: Guide the two poles into their respective sleeves; stake down the three front guy lines and the one rear guy; place the corner stakes; start cooking dinner.

Ventilation in the tent is easily regulated through the front and rear doors. And, as far as its rainproof-ness, the silicone-impregnated ripstop nylon fabric of the canopy, called "SilLite," will keep you bone-dry.

The purely simplistic design does mean a lack of any extras such as storage pockets in the interior, and there is a limited vestibule that does not fully enclose your gear. Additionally, as the air temperature cooled during the night, the roof began to sag, and in rain caught very small pools of water.

In meeting the objectives for this story, this tent was clearly among the best.

Sierra Designs Asteroid CD
New to the Sierra Design 2002 line, the Asteroid uses only one pole, which makes for simple set-up and saves weight. A spacious vestibule provides plenty of room for gear. As a two-person tent, though, I found it a little awkward. The person sleeping opposite the door is pressed up against the far-side wall and must crawl over their tent-mate to exit.

The odd angles within the interior also require tent mates to sleep in opposite directions: not the optimum if you are on unlevel ground or prefer to cuddle. The odd interior angles do create great nooks for storing gear, and I really like the large, circular entry.


SLEEPING BAGS

The criteria I set out for the sleeping bags were goose down with a temperature rating around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Down bags are tend to be lighter and have a longer life than synthetic bags, but are more optimal in dryer climates.

However, if down becomes wet, it loses its insulating ability and does not dry very quickly. If water is a concern, youd probably do better with a synthetic.

Mountain Hardwear Banner
This is a very straightforward bag. The Banner is not a mummy, but has an elastic drawstring and Velcro tab around the neckline to keep the warmth in. With 600 fill, it does not stuff quite as small as some of the others, and is not as light.

GoLite Fierce Ultra-Lite
Always innovative, the Go-Lite Fierce sleeping system combines a 775 fill bag with a waterproof-breathable zip-cover. Alone, the bag is rated at 40 degrees. With the Polarguard 3D cover, it bumps it down to 20 degrees. I really liked the design, and believe it is more practical than the Big Agnes Cross Mountain system.

At the same time, the Fierce does not pack as small as some of the others, and is on the heavier end of the scale for ultra-light bags. Depending on your needs, though, this may be the perfect bag for you.

Exped Hummingbird
This bag is superb! It weighs just over a pound, and the 700 down will keep you plenty warm. I was admittedly a little disappointed when it did not come with a stuff sack, so I couldnt see how small it stuffs. Then I read that the inner pocket acts as its own stuff sack, and it isnt a very big pocket! The Swiss-made Exped is top of the line.

Big Agnes Horse Thief
From Steamboat Springs, Colo., Big Agnes specializes in high-quality sleeping bags. The Horse Thief uses 775 fill, all of which is on the top side of the bag where the downs insulation is most effective. An underside sleeve is reserved for a pad, and the Big Agnes mummy pad is recommended. The air core in particular packs down to the size of a half loaf of bread, but blows up to a very comfortable bed. This bag also converts to a winter bag by combining it with the 40 degree Cross Mountain synthetic bag. Big Agnes has developed a solid sleep system.

lafuma Warmn Light 800 Down
For $129, the Warmn Light is a hard value to beat. The 800 fill bag packs up into a tiny stuff sack, but expands into a warm nest. This summer mummy bag has a 1/3 length zipper, and a small interior pocket for I.D. and cash.

North Face Kilobag
The Kilobag is comparble to the Mountain Hardware in many respects. It is a very simple design without many frills, but is highly functional for 3-season camping. It impressively weighs under 2 pounds using 600 fill.

Sierra Design Moonlight 30
Have you ever gotten all twisted up in your sleeping bag, struggling to sleep on your side with a bag that wants you on your back? Sierra Design has solved this problem with their line of "Flex" bags. Each baffle in the bag is expandable with elastic, which allows an increase in the girth without creating empty spaces that can lead to cold spots. The 775 fill packs up real small, and keeps you warm.

I really liked the design and comfort of this bag. The one negative I found was the lack of any zipper in order to regulate temperature.

Mountainsmith Mountainlight
This bag just looks cool ... But dont fear getting cold in this 750 fill gem from Mountainsmith. Its super light, but puffs up like your favorite federbett at grandmas. There arent a lot of frills to write about, but if you want function, this a great, featherlight sleeping bag.


RAIN GEAR

When bike touring or backpacking, I want rain gear to pack along that I can keep in a small side pocket of my panniers or pack to rip out when the summer thunderstorms start beating down. The gear should keep me dry from the rain, but also not act as a sauna on the inside.

The criteria I gave to the companies were ultralight shells, breathable, and waterproof. In testing the gear, Ive learned that "breathable" is a misnomer, or at best a very relative term. Some jackets are definitely better than others at dispelling the sweat that accumulates on the inside, but if you are active, youre bound to have some water buildup internally.

Pay close attention to the various features that provide ventilation. To protect against outside moisture, most of the jackets use a durable, water-repellent finish (DWR). These coatings or laminates act with varying degrees of success like Gore-Tex membranes, but will wear off with time. If you will be wearing a helmet, be sure to check that the hood will fit. Hoods fit quite differently from one another, and have varying degrees of adjustability.

North Face Venture Jacket/Varius Pant
The North Face ensemble uses "Hyvent" fabric, which is both functional and very comfortable. The jacket has good ventilation with adjustable cuffs and hem cord, and venting pockets (the uppers). The hood has front and rear adjustment, and there are two lower pockets for good storage space and hand warming.

The pants use a snap and Velcro fly with a Velcro-adjustable waist one of the better fitting pants. It also has two zipper pockets and two cargo pockets, and snap/zipper cuffs with internal gators.

An interior mesh lining makes this pant very comfortable on bare skin. Although a little on the heavier end of the ultralight gear, the Venture and Varius can be pulled out of the closet a little earlier in the spring, and not put back until a little later in the fall.

GoLite Squall Jacket/Reed Pant
You have to love GoLite for their simplicity. The Reed pant in particular has no bells and whistles just pure function. They pack down smaller than the peanut butter and jelly sandwich youre carrying, and weigh about the same as the baggie the PB&J is in.

These pants are really designed for just one thing: keeping you dry when it rains. Dont expect to find pockets or anything fancy like that. But for backcountry camping or bike touring, why do you need fancy?

The Squall jacket also maintains high performance with simple design. It ventilates through a rear vent and has an elastic waist. Two large zipper pockets give you good storage space. I did find the jacket to fit on the long side. The Go-Lite combo offers the best value for the performance, especially the Reed pant.

Cloudveil Drizzle Jacket and Pant
The Drizzle Jacket was easily one of my favorites. Everything about it is classy. One of the best ventilated jackets I tested, it uses extra-long pit zips and adjustable sleeve cuffs and adjustable waist to allow good air flow. The hood is also comfortable and functional with front and rear elastic drawstrings.

The Drizzle Pant is also well-crafted with some nice features: a snap/zipper fly; elastic waist; zipper rear pocket; adjustable cuffs; and 3/4 side zippers for ventilation and getting them on over boots. The waist is not adjustable, which means you really need the right size and better hadnt lose weight on your extended hike.

Lowe Alpine Adrenaline Tech Jacket and Pant
Id put the Lowe Alpine in the same group as the Cloudveil and Mountain Hardwear for its features and ventilation, but give a slight edge to the Cloudveil and Mountain Hardwear on looks.

The Adrenaline comes with extra long pit zips; adjustable sleeve cuffs and adjustable waist. There are two good-sized pockets that provide further airflow. The pant is more similar to the Go-Lite in its simplicity, which I tend to prefer. They do have full zippers down either side, and a simple, inside rear mesh pocket for a wallet or such.

Pacific Trail Cascade Jacket and Pant
It may not be quite fair to compare this $69 jacket with the $235 Cloudveil, because youd expect more from a jacket that is over three times as expensive. And indeed, the Cascade doesnt have nearly the ventilation. However, if your main goal is keeping dry from the outside elements, this jacket and pant will accomplish that nicely, and pack up very small.

I liked the pant in particular, given my preference for simple. They have an elastic waist and drawstring; and include a zipper rear pocket; and zipper cuffs.

Mountain Hardwear Grade 6 Jacket and Pant
This was the other favorite jacket...among a number of close seconds. Mountain Hardware was able to combine lightweight, performance, and good looks all into the Grade 6. It includes pit zips; adjustable sleeve cuffs; and an adjustable waist, all of which together allow for good ventilation. Additionally, the hood is easily adjusted with front and rear elastic drawstrings.

The pant has some nice features that really add value without distracting or adding substantial weight, including, a highly adjustable and comfortable waist, a zipper rear pocket; full side zippers; and adjustable cuffs. I have to put the Grade 6 pant at the top of the heap also.

lafuma Memphis Jacket/Prescott Pant
The French company lafuma has been around since 1930 making mountaineering and outdoors gear. It shows in their Memphis jacket, which uses a 2-ply Gore-Tex called PacLite. The only Gore-Tex jacket of those I reviewed, the Memphis is just as light as most of the others, but enjoys an advantage in the breathability of its fabric. It comes with a stowable hood, and two front pockets with ample storage space.

The Prescott pant, also of PacLite Gore-Tex, were a little heavy to be considered "ultra-light." At 15.5 ounces, they still pack pretty well, especially if you want the performance of Gore-Tex.

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