Lightweight Mountain Gear. How to Make the Right Choice

Moving fast & light, has become the trend in recent years due to the undeniable advantages of the latest, lightweight and compact gear compared to the heavier, traditional equipment. But is it as good as it is made out to be? Here we explain different ways to choose what is best for your needs and to understand which materials are most suitable and where to start saving weight.

Lightweight equipment, an appreciated advantage. Photo: Ulf Kuehner / Vaude

In the world of mountain equipment, we are used to the fact that, after the appearance of a successful product, the following, improved versions of subsequent seasons tend to be even lighter.

This aim to reduce weight, while maintaining performance and, if possible, without increasing the price, is one of the greatest aspirations of the end user and the cause of sleepless nights for the engineering departments of different manufacturers. Because who wouldn''t prefer to carry around a lighter product if it has the same features?

However, sometimes, achieving lighter materials comes at the cost of sacrificing durability, comfort and safety, three basic and normally essential points of mountaineering equipment. Finding a product with the best weight levels without sacrificing these three sought-after features is the greatest challenge to outdoor brands, but it becoming more and more achievable.

This is the first of a series of articles that look at lightweight and ultralight equipment used for different activities such as mountain running, multi-day trekking, climbing or ski touring.

What is Ultralight Material?

Lightweight or ultralight material has been reduced to a minimum while maintaining the benefits of the original product, in as far as possible.

Although the features of a lightweight product are usually very similar to its standard weight equivalent, it must be assumed that to a certain extent, the performance of a lightweight product cannot be exactly the same, but the slight reduction in performance will be compensated for by the advantages offered. Finding the balance between the advantages and disadvantages is the key to making the right choice of material.

Sometimes an item is put into the fast & light category, because it excels in other areas such as having a compact design. A very clear example of this is the inflatable or self-inflating mat: heavier than the traditional foam mat, its reduced volume for transport and its enhanced comfort and insulation make it a favourite for the fast & light user, despite it being significantly heavier than a classic mat.

Technological Revolution

Scientific research and often just chance, have led to the creation of optimal synthetic materials for outdoor use over the years: polyamide (nylon) or polyester for textiles or ropes, neoprene for its insulating properties, carbon fibre for its low weight and strength, Teflon for its waterproofing and breathability, EVA foam for cushioning... The list is endless.

Other elements have perfect characteristics for use as mountaineering equipment. Aluminium alloys, iron (steel) or titanium, often with carbon treatments are used to make products with a perfect balance between strength and a low weight.

From time to time, new materials or different combinations are used to improve the final features of an outdoor product. This improvement may mean better technical features, such as insulation and protection against adverse weather conditions, or a lower weight or smaller volume.

But it is not only the discovery of new materials that make it possible to reduce weight and size: food preservation processes such as freeze-drying make it possible to dispense with plates; energy supplements for intense activities can fit in a pocket; water purification systems make it unnecessary to carry water over long distances; the use of the geodesic dome, the popular igloo tent, boasts the greatest possible efficiency of internal space with respect to external materials used; self-inflating mats; the simple and efficient compression sleeve.... technology, research, manufacturing processes and design also collaborate with materials in the ultralight world.

Benefits of Ultra-light Gear

Nowadays, most outdoor enthusiasts appreciate ultralight equipment, but it was formerly associated with a loss of quality and the low weight of a product was synonymous with a lack of strength, comfort and safety by old-school mountaineers.

While that still remains true, to a certain extent, nowadays it is common for ultralight material to maintain those features while incorporating new advantages to your activity.

Although certain traditional materials such as leather, wool or down are still very much in use, it is difficult to conceive of modern backpacks without mesh, or carabiners that are not made of aluminium or shoes without elastomers for cushioning... elements that stand out for the function they were specifically designed for and which provide undeniable advantages.

Among the most outstanding advantages of ultralight, outdoor equipment, the most obvious and undeniable is that it involves less effort. This means less fatigue and allows you to finish the planned activity in better condition, which in turn, results in greater safety by minimising loss of concentration due to fatigue and the consequent accidents or injuries.

Equipping yourself with light and compact materials also allows you to carry all you need, without having to discard items that are too bulky or heavy. It is sometimes surprising to see which items are removed from a pack, due to lack of space or excessive weight; first-aid kits, warm clothing or a headlamp, for example.

Bivouac with ultra-light and ultra-compact gear. Photo: Sea to summit

Another advantage is that it allows you to tackle greater activities. Lighter equipment is usually less bulky, so less space is needed to carry more items, so that you can take on more serious challenges: longer ropes with less volume, more food without adding weight, light and compact sleeping bags for comfort at higher altitudes... the possibilities for exploration and adventure allowed by modern equipment are immense.

What are the Drawbacks of Ultra-light Gear?

We have already given an example with self-inflating mats. Although the purpose of this article is to show the advantages of ultralight material, we should also point out its limitations and explain when it is not the best option.

We hope we have made it clear that, reducing the weight of a product should not mean you reduce the quality or performance. The benefits of ultralight gear should outweigh any reduction in durability or comfort. It should also be clear that carrying out a fast & light activity should not be interpreted as a reason for leaving essential equipment behind.

It is also important to be aware of your own capabilities , to know what you can do with light material. Not everyone will benefit from changing boots for shoes on mountain terrain or using just a thin shell jacket to withstand low temperatures.

If you make a comparison, in most cases you will find that the more weight you save means the more money you spend. It is no secret that the materials, design and tech that go into making lightweight equipment are not particularly economical.

The Importance of Choosing Wisely, Where to Lighten Up

100 grams does not always feel like 100 grams. If you are going to start renewing your mountain equipment, we advise you to choose equipment where you will notice the effect immediately.

If you attach a weight to your waist, the effort required to move it is less noticeable than if you attach the same weight to your foot. For this reason, the benefits of lighter piece of equipment depends on where it is placed on your body.

Items that are placed far away from the centre of gravity of the human body (the pelvis in men and a little lower in women), when in a static vertical position, such as skis, shoes, poles or helmets, require a greater effort to move the weight. Due to constant repetitive movement, it is in these areas – your hands and feet, as well as your head, where you will most notice the benefit of lighter equipment. 50 grams difference is more noticeable in a helmet, boots or poles, for example, than in a sleeping bag.

Poles and shoes, a good place to start lightening your load. Photo: Madison Rose / Leki

In other cases, where items are tucked in the bottom of the backpack like tents, sleeping bags, gas cartridges, food or bulky clothing, the weight is not as noticeable unless it is significant or accompanied by a reduction in weight of all the other items.

The Main Materials Used in Lightweight Mountaineering Equipment

Gone are the years when any metal element in our mountain equipment was usually made of steel. Steel (iron alloy with a small amount of carbon) is an economical and very resistant material, but it is also heavy when carrying a lot of equipment: its density is 7.8 grams per cubic centimetre.

Despite being gradually replaced by lighter materials, steel is still the main component of safety products, which are subjected to high stress, such as crampons and ice axes, as well as elements where resistance is essential, such as climbing anchors, or which will suffer from rope friction, such as certain parts of belay devices, pulleys, ascenders or screw-links.

Aluminium

Nevertheless, aluminium is the material of choice for mountain equipment manufacturers. It offers more than enough strength and its most valued alloy, aluminium 7075, has a density of only 2.8 grams per cubic centimetre. Above all, it is easily available and has a low cost, making this an essential element for the mountaineer.

Aluminium can be found in almost any material that requires a rigid structure for load-bearing equipment: tent poles, backpack frames, camping furniture and, of course, everything related to climbing, from carabiners to belays and cams.

Carbon Fiber

The emergence and, until now, scarce use of carbon fibre in mountain equipment deserves a special mention. Its very low density of 1.77 grams per cubic centimetre and its enormous resistance provides the best resistance/weight ratio, however, it is expensive and this is its worst feature.

Mountain equipment is typically exposed to impact, which has led to the occasional use of carbon fibre: trail running poles, rigid inserts in mountaineering and expedition boots, high-end ski boots or its recent use as a stability and propulsion plate in the only model of trail running shoe with a carbon plate, the Flight Vectiv by The North Face..

Titanium

Titanium is another of the more familiar familiar lightweight elements, but we are not used to seeing it in large quantities on mountain equipment. Its extreme resistance and its high price, even more expensive than carbon fibre, restrict it to a very specific and minority product segment.

Titanium is generally used in mountain equipment due to other features that have nothing to do with weight, since its density of 4.54 grams per cubic centimetre means it is not as light as aluminium or carbon fibre: climbing anchors that require high resistance to corrosion, such as those used in marine environments, or camping equipment and the inner lining of canyoning wetsuits due to its thermal insulation capacity. Other elements, such as the pegs of high-end tents, are made of titanium because of their incredible strength combined with low weight.

Because of the high strength of titanium, equipment can be made with much less material than comparable items made from elements such as aluminium, so that, although denser than aluminium, titanium equipment is usually lighter.

You may well have heard of Titanal and immediately associated it with titanium. However, that is a misconception. This is the trade name for an aluminium alloy and other elements such as zinc, magnesium and copper, but there is not a single atom of titanium in Titanal, although it is quite light, flexible and strong, which is why it is generally used in the world of skis and poles.

Magnesium

Lighter and also more difficult to find in mountain equipment, magnesium is also an aluminium alloy, but with a higher proportion of magnesium and occasionally used in the buckles of high-end ski boots.

Polycarbonate

This is a thermoplastic and therefore non-metallic polymer, lighter than the elements mentioned above. With a very low density of only 1.2 grams per cubic centimetre, it is an extremely light material, although not as resistant as metal or carbon fibre.

Relatively inexpensive and quite resistant, it is used for goggle lenses, due to its capacity to filter ultraviolet rays, as well as for the outer shell of high-end helmets.

Lightweight Textile Materials

High molecular weight polyethylene, better known by its trade name Dyneema, or polyparaphenylene terephthalamide, a para-aramide better known also by its trade name Kevlar, are extremely light and strong materials that can be spun. In other cases, very light materials are achieved by using just polyamide or polyester, selecting very fine yarns, as in the case of fabrics such as Pertex Quantum, to name just one of the best known textiles.

For this reason they are particularly valuable in the production of lightweight materials or for outdoor clothing reinforcements . Dyneema is mainly used for climbing slings, such as for quickdraw dogbones or for backpack attachment elements, such as loops or equipment carriers, while Kevlar is used for areas prone to friction on certain outdoor garments.

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