Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Ultralight Backpacking is 'Messing About' and 'Dangerous'



"Ultralight backpacking is dangerous and people should not be 'messing about' with ultralight backpacking gear here in the UK, especially in winter. "

Interesting allegation, lets break this down.



The storm is coming. Could I die tonight in this ultralight sub 500g shelter? 


If someone wanted to cover 100 miles in one day on a bicycle or cycle Lands End to John o' Groats in winter - would that person be encouraged to buy a full on suspension mountain bike, 'just in case' or would that person be advised to consider a light weight road bike or hybrid? Most people would intuitively choose the lightweight option and choose an appropriate tyre to handle the frost and snow expected on the road.

If an individual wanted to walk 15 to 20 mile day averages, should that person choose to carry a backpack and gear with an all up weight of  20 Kg or more, ( the weight of 4 to 5 full buckets of water ) or would that individual make better progress and comfort keeping things under 10 Kg? Most would make better and more comfortable progress carrying less. 

If a backpacker wanted to cover mileage in adverse winter weather, would that walker choose to skirt around the highest mountains and use passes and national trails between ranges, or would it make sense to go over the top of them? Most people would stick to the low and mid level routes and take in only the occasional summit in the right conditions. 

If you were planning a 'day hike' to the summit of Ben Nevis in winter conditions would you consider carrying a 4 Kg ( weight to a bucket of water ), full on, double skinned, geodesic tent up there as part of a minimum of safety gear? Or even perhaps a 1.7 Kg semi-geodesic or tunnel tent as a back up. Or would you consider carrying  a 500 gram bivvy or survival bag as an adequate fall back option? Most hill walkers would consider the bivvy bag to be more than an adequate 'back up' even for such conditions. In fact I suspect many carry little more than an orange plastic bag. 

So why should ultralight camping in relatively sheltered lowland or even mid level winter conditions along our national trails with ultra light gear such as a bivvy bag or single skin tipi backed up with plenty of light weight down clothing and decent waterproofs considered to be unsafe? or Dangerous? 

What is dangerous is becoming fatigued and mentally drained in adverse conditions through the exertion and sweating from carrying too much weight, and then faffing around burning calories for an hour trying to find a space of ground big enough to pitch a tent with a sewn in groundsheet and then spending another half hour fighting 40 mph winds to get it pitched. I know I have been there the past!! Versus pitching a floor-less single skin tipi or pyramid style shelter which can be pitched over anything in less than 5 minutes - including tussocky grass or rocks, so full advantage can be made of natural wind breaks or other useful features of the landscape. 

The extra demands on the body to carry heavy gear risks injury. Sewn in tent footprints mean that often it is difficult to find an ideal place to set up camp in safety in truly wild places so compromises are taken, so increasing danger. 

Once the benefits of  ultralight gear become understood, most people make an instant decision to go lighter, and see those carrying over engineered and unnecessary gear as the ones that are potentially 'messing about'.

Well I am pleased to say that even in the torrential wind and rain that came down following the storm front in the picture above I did survive, also my clothing and sleeping bag stayed dry enough and I did live to tell the tale. Anyone ready to chuck in a few miles before breakfast? 


Thank  you as always for reading

Way of the backpacker





























Saturday, 11 July 2015

Roselli Carpenter - R110 Review

Roselli Carpnter feels just right in the hand


A superb general purpose back country knife suitable for all basic camp tasks - food prep, cutting cordage  / plaster and will excel at whittling everything from tent pegs to spatula's. These knives will also step up to the plate in an emergency situation to split down modestly sized wood to expose dry wood for fire starting or to use to size kindling for a portable backpacking wood burning stove. The knife also excells at feather sticks and can take on larger wood crafting duties such as temporary shelter building and so on within reason.

It was a picture of a Roselli Carpenter similar to the one I have taken above that started my journey into an appreciation of this classic style of knife. Similar knives to these have been used for generations by Northern Scandinavian peoples such as the Sami reindeer herders.

Here's the shocker - The weight of  these knives is actually 'less' than my Swiss Army knife and only 20g more than my Ettrick single blade pocket knife.

That is not to say the parting of my ways from a SAK or my Ettrick for that matter would be easy. The SAK has a number of tools which I regularly use - scissors in particular and the can opener gets occasional use, and the Ettrick excels at small whittling tasks.

Before finally purchasing this knife I looked at many similar knives by Ahti, Roselli, Helle, Lapin, Tommi, Kellam and others. All these Scandinavian manufacturers produce traditionally inspired designs which cover the two basic traditional designs - big knives for chopping / splitting duties - and small knives which do the detail carpentry, food prep and dressing of game. The larger knives are termed 'Leuku' and the smaller ones, (smaller being a relative term) are called 'Puukko'. I was in the market for a Puukko.

As a regular trail walker I wanted a modestly sized fixed blade knife, light in weight, to be carried alongside a multi-tool or Swiss Army knife.  I was specifically looking for a general purpose knife that could provide service both in the camp kitchen and for general camp duties, that could be sharpened easily and would hold an edge for a long time. Also a tool able to step up to the plate in a survival or emergency situation should the need arise.

For the odd occasions that I had needed a larger knife in the past, I had carried a kitchen knife such as the Victorinox Rabbit knife from the cutlery drawer at home alongside my pocket knife. Knives such as these perform well for food prep and paring but do not carve / whittle wood very well and are supplied without a sheath so carrying them around is not really very convenient. I have also owned and used classic style Mora knives in the past which are great - but once I had seen the Carpenter.... 

Few would disagree that this knife has an aesthetic appeal - from any angle this knife has the appearance of a small work of art. I also liked the rustic look of a tool which is designed to be used. Although the design is created by Roselli himself a self taught knife maker from Finland, his design is clearly inspired by the style of knife that has been used by the Northern Indigenous peoples of Europe for centuries - the Puukko.  Interestingly the Roselli Carpenter knife has evolved over time, Earlier models do look slightly different to the current model. Roselli also offers a variety of steels for the blade - standard or UHC, which stands for Ultra High Carbon. Mine is the standard hardness as I suspect it will be easier to field sharpen. 

The Handle:

As with many knives from the Nordic countries the blade is inserted into an ergonomic handle usually of curly arctic birch as in the Carpenter or a similar wood. Inevitably this arrangement is not likely to be as strong as a full tang bushcraft knife for use say as a pry bar, or batoning wood . On the other hand the blend of less metal and more wood leads to a considerably lighter and more comfortable and dextrous knife that is still adequately strong for general purposes. The handle of this knife for my medium sized hands feels perfect. In fact I have never held a knife that felt so right in the hand, with no metal touching my hand anywhere. This knife unbelievably weighs no more than my Swiss Army Climber, yet still manages to feel absolutely solid. The other thing of note is the lack of a finger guard.  This means that the knife will not be suitable for a stabbing type action, if this matters to you. On the other hand it leads to a very controllable blade with a super comfortable grip when carving. With appropriate use your finger is not likely to be nicked by the blade, indeed I have not so far cut myself or come anywhere near. The curly birch feels warm to the touch and grips really well, especially when damp or wet. All four fingers are easily accommodated in a variety of hand grips. Extended knife use does not leave any hot spots for me.  

The Blade:

From the super sharp fine pointed tip, the blade has a sharply curved belly which then leads to a straight edge which runs up to the handle. The standard blade is forged from 58C carbon steel and is 3mm thick at the spine, tapering to a fine point at the tip. Roselli has put a typical Scandinavian grind onto the blade which is very easy to sharpen either by sharpening the full bevel to a perfect and true zero Scandi grind for the ultimate razor edge or by placing a secondary bevel which creates a strong edge for general use. The knife arrives with a very slight secondary bevel. The overall length of the blade is 80mm.  The steel blade although of fine high quality steel has been left with the forge marks and black finish so looks very rustic. Personally I really like this but this may not appeal to everyone.

Personally I would prefer slightly more of a drop point along the spine towards the tip which would bring the point slightly lower to create the ultimate carving knife for me.  This is more of a preference of my own than a criticism however as this may detract the knife form its other general purpose duties. 


So How does the knife perform in use?

The main use of a knife on the trail for me at least is slicing salami's, chorizo and other cooked meats, dicing shallots to pep up my trail rations, chopping garlic, slicing up apples and other fruit and the occasional wild edible. It also needs to open food packaging and act as a knife as in knife and fork - in my case knife and spork. It also needs to cut cordage, and plaster and repair tape and may be used occasionally for prepping line caught mackerel and also for whittling tent pegs, toggles, small chopping boards, rough spatulas and splitting down small kindling for a portable wood stove. So how does it perform? 

I was expecting the knife to easily dispatch these duties, but in actual fact the knife is not fantastic at 'all ' these functions. Of course no knife can be perfect at everything. This is no fault of the manufacture or quality of the knife, but is more of a factor to do with the scandi grind which acts like a spitting wedge when say halving an onion. However, it will take very fine slices from the edge of say an onion, if you angle the knife so that the grind edge sits flush with the direction of cut.  It chops garlic easily and is a dream to peel vegetables with - its just so comfortable. Acting as a regular knife as in knife and spork it also peforms well  - look out plastic plates if you use them! it will score deep marks in them. Food packets are very easily sliced open. 

The next most likely use is that of a utility knife for cutting say plaster, cord, rope, bandage and the like. The knife performs here as a knife through butter, super sharp and effortless. 

Whittling and Carving duties. Needless to say this knife is perfect for these sorts of camp duties as per its name  - the 'Carpenter' - replacement tent pegs or whatever else takes your fancy are yours within moments with the right skills. I am more than happy to make pegs with either green or even seasoned wood from the forest floor with this knife. The knife can be sharpened to a very fine cutting edge, so I would take knife safety very seriously indeed. 

Can it split firewood? Inevitably this question seems to be the thing that defines a suitable knife for back country 'survival' use for many. The answer is 'yes it will within reason'  - The knife is sturdy and the blade is long enough for say up to 5cm diameter logs. However, I do not intend using this knife for this function myself. I do not believe  a push tang knife is really designed to be used with a baton and if this is your 'main' priority from a knife maybe look more to a full tang full on heavy duty bushcraft knife. On the other hand I think in all other regards this knife is better suited to camp duty than what we now call a bushcraft knife. For the heavier chopping jobs the Sami would have presumably deployed the Leuku. If regular chopping is needed maybe consider one of the Leuku knives?  Roselli makes an attractive traditionally inspired Leuku, which is still super light compared to say carrying an axe. 

Cutting meat and gutting fish:

Super sharp nimble blade, I have opened up mackerel and have had great control of the initial cut due to the super sharp point and razor blade edge. The lack of  a finger guard could be an issue if you were cutting deep inside a large animal carcass but this is not an issue for me with the odd fish. Roselli does produce a dedicated hunting knife with a sort of finger guard worked into the handle and a slightly more clipped blade tip. I have sharpened my Carpenter to a zero bevel, so any contact with bone could roll the edge. I could easily put a secondary bevel back on the knife if I were using the knife for regular game prep. Main issue for me though is that carbon steel is prone to tarnishing and rust around sea water, and the sheath is prone to damp. So the knife will do the job, but consideration needs to be made to the grind and maintaining the knife correctly by ensuring it is dried and oiled after use. This is not a knife that will live well in a damp fishing box. Also there exists the tiniest of gaps around where the blade inserts into the handle which will be very hard to clean say dried blood from. 

Sheath:

The carpenter is supplied with a vegetable tanned leather sheath which appears very Nordic and traditional. It may not appeal to everyone's taste but personally I really like it. The sheath could be worn on the belt, 38mm max belt width, but I generally will stow such a knife inside my pack when on the move, especially anywhere near civilization. Technically this knife is not a UK legal carry unless you have good reason for doing so. Most likely carrying a camping knife on the trail whilst carrying and using camping gear would be OK, effectively its the kitchen knife and camp knife, but its probably best to not have it on show anywhere that may create the wrong impression. Also be mindful when travelling on public transport, especially using the underground or indeed anywhere a bag search could occur. There are laws which cover 'concealment' and 'intent'.

The knife is very light for its size and a leather thong or paracord around the neck and through the sheath loops would make this knife a great neck knife around camp. The tanned leather picks up dirt and stains easily due to its pale colour. I intend to rub some bees wax or fat into the leather in time. There is a plastic tip liner which slightly catches the knife tip if you mis-align it when placing the knife in the sheath. Not a biggie but careful insertion is required. The sheath is a tight fit on the knife handle and I have not been concerned about the knife coming out. It does not 'click' to fit, it relies on friction to stay put. 

Conclusion: 

Overall I am super happy with this knife which I purchased for £60.00 from Lamnia Finland.  Not a cheap purchase when you consider that you could have 3 or 4 Mora knives for the the price of this one. However I do not intend buying another Puukko in this life so in the fullness of time I am sure this will still represent great value. I was kept well informed during the delivery process and everything went smoothly. If you need a comfortable great looking camp knife and like the traditional carbon steel rusticity and provenance then look no further. This is what Roselli says about his designs:

"Smith Heimo Roselli refuses to build any non-functional or unnecessary attributes in his knives. The unessential is detrimental"

I agree that Heimo Roselli has acheived his aims here and has produced a very practical light weight tool that is a joy to hold and will perform its intended function without fuss. If you need to Baton wood consider the Roselli Leuku, if you need the choil / finger guard consider the Roselli Hunter - however both are heavier.

The main advantage of this knife the Scandinavian grind and fairly thick solid blade also provides its disadvantage - the knife splits food when halving rather than slicing through the middle of things like apples or onions. This is a concern only if you prefer a dedicated camp cooking knife and you are not too worried about other duties. A full flat grind can be better at slicing and dicing.  A knife such as the Enzo necker 70 flat grind may suit you better. On the other hand for a general purpose knife which is a joy to use and handle with wood and that can also perform all the other main camp tasks then the Carpenter by Roselli may be a hard one to beat. As an added bonus, if I were stuck out in a wilderness setting and I had to create a quick shelter, split down some modest kindling and make a fish trap, digging stick or improvise fishing gear then I would feel very secure with this knife in hand.

Some other great light weight small sheath knives with an historic or other pedigree to consider:

Mora/ Frosts - Great blades in high quality carbon or stainless, budget looking plastic handles and sheaths are not to my taste, although no doubt very ergonomic and in many respects very practical. The classic range however is still supplied with the original red ochre colored wooden handles which appeal to me.  Models such as the classic 2/0 make a great buy. 

Enzo - In particular the Necker 70 - Half the cost of the Roselli in kit form and available in full flat grind or scandi grind depending upon your preference. Although smaller it finishes up about the same weight as the Roselli as it has a full tang, so may be a better choice for splitting wood for kindling in Scandi grind or better at slicing and dicing in full flat grind. Also available in stainless or carbon. 

Grohmann- Bird and Trout - Great looking Canadian full tang knife similar price point to Roselli Carpenter here in the UK. Choice of grind, ergonomic handle and option of stainless steel which would make this great if you Canoe or Sail as well as Hike. They also produce a dedicated boat / yacht knife. The sheaths look to be very high quality and comes in many styles to suit.

A Wright & Sons - Green River knife - A traditional all purpose basic camp knife modeled on the 'trapper' knives supplied to the Canadian fur traders back in the day,  a knife then with an historic pedigree - this time from an English cutler from Sheffield England. Excellent price point for the quality and super light in weight for something so adaptable. Also available with a shorter clipped point blade called a boating knife, it would work brilliantly for opening up freshly caught fish, as well as cutting cordage and food prep,

Thank you as always for reading

Way of the Backpacker. 















Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Fire Craft & Stove for the Trail - Bushcraft meets Ultralight Backpacking

In this article we look at one of the fundamentals - Fire, or to be more precise the best way to create it and a thought or two about when and where it is appropriate to use fire, together with a suitable stove option for sustainable ultralight trail walking.

Basic Stove Lighting / Fire starting Kit, Note how the BIC lighter fits perfectly in the Victorinox Sheath with the Climber  model Swiss Army Knife. Also note the secure water-tight container for the matches. 


On the one hand fire has been so fundamental to the development of our species that it seems like an injustice to not own the ability and primitive skills to make it from the natural materials around us as a right of passage. On the other hand it seems like a nonsense to not take advantage of our latest and most convenient technology for making a controlled fire. i.e. a lighter/ ferroceum  rod or matches.

How we are intending to cook and keep warm on the trail has a direct knock on effect which will govern our other gear / outfit selections. In simple terms our choice of  cooking arrangements has an associated 'flammability' risk.  Open wood fires at one end of the spectrum and a controlled gas cartridge stove flame at the other end of the spectrum. So its easy to see why outdoor outfitting falls broadly into two camps. One camp using the latest synthetic fabrics & down filled clothing  / sleeping bags to keep warm - perhaps using a controlled gas or liquid fueled camp stove to cook. The alternative outfitting style utilizes more natural fabrics and materials such as wool and treated cotton canvas around an open wood fire or biofuel / woodburning stove ( wood burner ).

In truth both outfitting systems can work - but mixing the systems needs careful fore-thought. To give an example or two - A Nylon coated down jacket is not going to be ideal if you intend to cook on an open fire regularly - those stray sparks and embers are likely at some stage to burn a hole or two in the outer shell of what may have been an expensive jacket, soon after the down will start to drop out of the holes and the jackets functionality is compromised. Looked at the other way around using a light weight wool or alpaca blanket would often need a warming fire to keep the camper warm, especially in colder weather. The more traditional approach relies more heavily on open fire as an integral part of that backpacking style. The higher tech approach uses a controlled flame in the form of a stove.

As most trail walking in the UK involves complying with extensive legislation, and 'no fire' bylaws - I go with the higher tech approach and my own outfitting reflects this. Irrespective of the legislation I also 'prefer' ultralight gear on trail walks, as I do not so much notice the pack on my back so I immerse in the surroundings better. 

As a practitioner of  'leave no trace' backpacking - building an open fire on the trail, for me at least, comes with genuine feelings of guilt and a sense that something is not quite right, due to learned perceptions of how to act as a responsible person where land has to be shared with other people and the creatures and flora that inhabit our Isle. Lighting fires, cutting greenwood sticks for pot hangers, and building fire breaks along a national trail would quickly denude resources no matter how responsibly we tried to act. This is due to the volume of foot traffic along the trail and the limited natural resources. There are so many other ways to interact with nature - sustainable food foraging, medicinal plant and tree identification, watching the habits of wildlife, studying geology and so on that I can feel close to nature - thereby increasing my 'bushcraft' or 'wilderness' type skills without needing to build open fires and roast squirrels.

To build a fire without causing offence or being considered a nuisance would exist only once we have gone beyond the edge of civilization, beyond hinterland, truly into the wild or remotest areas as it were. Here we have reached that place where fellow man, and 'bylaws'  are no longer exerting reasoned influence on our personal liberty. At this distance from habitation, we will have gone further than the point where land owners are forcing their reasons whether rightly or wrongly as to whether we can build, own or access fire as that fundamental human tool. In the UK there are few places such as this, In England & Wales in particular finding an appropriate place to use fire will be very difficult, we may have a right to roam in some places, but that is all.  Fires, fishing, foraging & wild camping in most national parks and along trails are usually strictly forbidden. In Scotland, things are slightly different but even here it would be impossible to guarantee every night of a 100 mile trail that a fire could be responsibly lit, particularly in dry weather. For all these reasons a stove of some description will need to be carried on the trail, and so the overall outfitting style / decision is made. We will have to rely on down or synthetic insulation to keep us warm, perhaps choosing a great view as a focal point rather than a fire. That being said there are still options using a wood burner type stove to practice our fire-craft in a controlled and more socially responsible way.


Wood burning  / wood gas stoves which burn biomass collected from the floor throughout the day are a great option. However, do not expect everyone to appreciate or understand the merits of such a stove. Of course 'we' understand that what we are using is environmentally friendly but many of those looking on see similarities in essence to a disposable BBQ set on bricks. Its a fire but not a fire that leaves a mark on the ground if used correctly, for example if sat on a rock, log or raised off the ground in some other way. People, and in particular camp site and land owners will tolerate it where for example a disposable BBQ would be acceptable.

As an added benefit - some light weight wood burning stoves work perfectly in conjunction with the coke can type alcohol stove which can be used at times when burning wood is either not convenient or possible. The stove becomes a pot stand / windbreak . This marriage is made in heaven & brings together the requirements of ultra-light weight backpacking with bushcraft elements so in my opinion is perfect for an extended trail walking scenario. In my opinion, it is the perfect compromise between environmental sustainability, safety and social responsibility. Through interacting with items collected using such a stove encourages the uptake of knowledge about tree species, as different woods burn differently. It is also fulfills a primitive way of interacting with the wild space without causing any long term damage or seriously denuding resources. A few sticks from the ground, an empty pine cone or two and  a few handfuls of dead leaves become the fuel for the stove for those times when a fire is appropriate and denatured alcohol another renewable resource is used when it is not.

I am a trail walker so my ultralight tarps and down filled clothing and sleeping bags are highly combustible. In essence with this type of kit I avoid large fires and poorly controlled flames /sparks at all costs - so I would rarely if ever use any kind of sizeable open fire. The wood burner / alcohol stove option still has flammability risks when say compared to a cartridge stove , but is much more controlled than an open fire.


My Primary Fire Kit. ( Shown above )

For trail walking, long distance walking, scouting, or hiking as some may prefer to term it my fire kit for lighting the stove could not be simpler. I carry a basic lighter such as a BIC or similar in my every day carry kit in my backpack, which is really never used, it acts as a spare. Another similar lighter is placed in my Victorinox sheath together with my SAK ( Victorinox Camper model ) which is either on my belt or in the zipped pocket of my trousers, so is accessible at all times.  A few waterproof matches in a separate waterproof container stay in my backpack also. Matches are great for lighting fires in Bothy fire places and for pushing into the base of a wood stove to light tinder. A few balls of cotton wool and a tiny tin of  Vaseline which can be used to rub into the cotton wool to make a small firelighter is also useful. The Vaseline is multi-purpose, it also serves as a lip balm, or water filter 'o' ring lube.  If  I were canoe / dinghy camping or heading into very remote areas I might also take a Ferro Rod as these will throw a spark even when wet from salt water.

I am amazed at how long a BIC lighter will last, start thinking months of stove lighting. It won't work when soaking wet which a Ferro rod will, but in reality you can dry a BIC in minutes in your pocket. I would not be surprised if  1000 or even 2000 very controlled strikes were possible from one BIC lighter. I would choose a BIC as my first choice as they are very reliable but I have had long term success with the Poppell and Caio brands also.

Emergency & Alternative fire lighting options:


You can use the spine of a carbon steel knife in lieu of the steel in an emergency, which is a good argument for carrying one on the trail. 


Although to date I have never needed to 'rely' on these skills, I do  practice and enjoy creating fire by percussion, in my case a small Viking / Lapland inspired steel and piece of flint used to ignite charred wood and other materials held in a small tinder tin - The whole kit weighs just under 100g. Provided I do not lose the steel element of the kit I could create fire for the rest of my natural life from this simple kit if necessary. It is also worth noting that a high carbon steel uncoated knife spine such as an Arthur Wright & Sons Ettrick or lamsfoot style knife or an Opinel carbon no8 could be used instead of a dedicated steel with alot practice. The knife being multi-purpose versus the dead weight of the steel.

A mint tin works well as a tinder box, I use the ones sold in M&S. Altoids tins are another good option. Another great thing about the mint tin is that the seal around the lid and hinges is not perfect, so if you throw wood in it and then let the lid rest closed without snapping it shut we can char wood and other materials in readiness for the  'next' fire on top of the lit stove. With this method of stove lighting we are always thinking at least one fire ahead. Once the smoke ( gases ) stop leaking from around the edge of the tin, take it off the heat and snap it shut to starve the burn of oxygen. Perfect tinder for the next time fire is needed.

On the point of tinder, there are many fungus' and trees which have suitable barks around to make superb tinders, however I would never exploit such resources along a national trail. Best to carry these in if you are intending to practice at camp. I prefer not to take such resources from along national trails. A good option is to collect tiny pieces of white dry rotted wood from the trail floor. Charred and retained for use inside a tinder tin works perfectly well enough. A reliable ember is available with practice in seconds with this method of fire lighting.

Interestingly 'Otzi the iceman' that lay in ice for over 5000 years had a similar set up in his belt pouch which consisted of flint rocks, and a flint knife together with 4 pieces of tinder extracted from the horseshoe fungus ( Fomes_fomentarius ) which upon analysis showed the remains of iron pyrite on its surface. Although the iron pyrite rock itself was not present amongst his remains it is clear that it had originally been part of his fire starting kit. An pyrite rock can throw sparks, although not ass effectively as the steel does in my kit. Experts suggest that Otzi may have carried smouldering coals of charred fungus in a birch bark container using maple leaves to wrap the coals from camp to camp - Essentially a wooden tinder box!

An alternative back up kit that essentially would weigh nothing is the knowledge to create primitive fire from friction - bow-drill, hand-drill or fire-plough. Again this looks like great fun to learn, probably better suited to warmer / drier climates than ours admittedly. Fire created this way would not be a quick solution in an emergency situation unless you had made the neccessary kit in advance

I have practiced building modest fires mainly at home or on permitted land from gathered standing dead wood, either by using a single match or by throwing sparks from my flint and steel kit into a tinder box to create an ember. In 20 years of  hill-walking, trail walking and camping / adventuring I have 'never' needed to build a large fire. In fact I do not know of anyone else that has 'needed' to build a great big fire on the trail either through survival necessity or otherwise.

Along the trail, fire building can be pretty inconvenient and leaves unsightly scars by the uninitiated, We cook at camp in the evening and boil water for drinks in the morning. Trying to start, control, relight and extinguish an open fire to this pattern v's a compact wood stove or alcohol burner - for me for me the stove wins.


Conclusions

 I never set off along the trail having the intention of building a fire but I am ready to construct and manage a fire should the need arise, such as in a truly survival situation. In this circumstance fire will make water safe to drink, dry wet clothing, provide a micro-climate. and act as a signal. In short I aim to keep the shrinking wild areas as pristine as I can. Probably the stove with the least environmental impact would be the stove made from recycled materials, and burn alcohol which is a renewable resource, such as the coke can type stove. Such a stove teams well with a compact wood biomass stove which in some circumstances can be used to enable us to enjoy a connection with fire that in our every day lives we have all but forgotten. Such stoves also provide a great focal point and are practical for quick lighting and stove ignition with a little practice.

I have often thought about using a Ferro rod in place of a lighter as these sticks are good for a few thousand strikes, even when wet and they will light a stove. This may be a good option for dinghy cruising or canoe camping especially, where there is some risk of total immersion in salt water.  In the end I decide not carry a Ferro rod because even expertly used they often take several strikes even to light a canister stove, 3000 degree F sparks fly everywhere which could set my tarp alight if its in the vicinity and it basically only does what the flint does on a regular lighter in a less controlled way. There is no magic, it is just a lighter really. In a long term survival situation it could even run out of sparks, what then? Best to carry a lighter as the most convenient way to light the stove  and some initial fires if needed, but have practiced how to make sparks from other things such as knives, traditional steel and rocks. I find I learn a lot more about tinder and fire lighting doing it the hard way with a traditional flint and steel rather than the surety of success virtually every time with the modern ferro rod. Using flint and steel in this way encourages us to look in much more detail at what is around us, a further level of understanding of our natural worlds resources opens up to us.

I hope Otzi would agree!

I have described my own fire / stove / stove starting preferences in this article from the standpoint of a regular trail walker in the UK. I am looking for lightweight convenience with minimal impact upon the environment I am walking through. I practice other methods of fire starting as this could be a lifesaver and its really good fun to practice our basic bushcraft skills. I fully realize that my personal set up may not be right for everyone. The fun is working out what will work for you in your setting and enjoying the process of experimentation.


Thank you for reading, please as always do not hesitate to drop me a line or comment.


Way of the Backpacker
















Saturday, 4 July 2015

Ultralight Backpacking Tarp - Peg Considerations


Ultralight Pegs from Vargo are my own first choice.
Peg ( aka 'stake' ) selection is almost a whole subject in its own right and one where there is an infinite number of incorrect selections that can be made. Poorly selected pegs could potentially spoil an otherwise great tarp experience.

For this reason I will describe my own peg preferences and how they are deployed in practice. To ensure weather proof integrity an ultralight tarp relies heavily on being securely anchored in place. Of course if  natural features are present such as small trees or walls or fencing to act as an anchor point I would aim to use them.  Fixing to a tree or wall will always be stronger than a pegged out guy line, indeed in many respects these are the ultimate peg!

A single person tarp will usually need at least 8 tie outs for most configurations outside of a wooded environment. Larger tarps will usually need more, perhaps 16 to 20 in windy conditions. 

Almost exclusively I use three types of peg. Titanium shepherd hooks. aluminium Y stakes and hand made wooden pegs created at camp. Strong thin pegs such as the shepherd hooks are very difficult to make from natural materials, large wooden ones on the other hand, are very easy. So I  carry the ones that are hard to reproduce in a natural setting. I prefer to carry a strong little pocket knife ( A Wright Ettrick ) which weighs very little and is multi-functional rather than carry another 6 to 8 large pegs just in case. 

For a solo tarp, I carry 2 Y shaped aluminium pegs for the ridge line anchors, and 6 to 8 titanium shepherd hooks. I also carry a small pocket knife as mentioned to quickly craft chunky wooden pegs if I need something a lot larger from wood lying around.  If I am going somewhere I have never been before I will add a couple of extra Y pegs especially if I am heading to the Lake district or Scotland where the ground is usually softer than eastern parts of the country. The hardest ground I have ever experienced was in North Norfolk, where I could only get the shepherd hooks about half way in, The softest ground was at a camp in the lakes where I did make 4 very chunky wooden pegs, one for each corner, and tied off the front and back of my tarp to trees. In sand you may be better to tie guy lines to buried rocks or buried lumps of drift wood. You are unlikely to be using a tarp in snow.  

My first choice for shepherd hooks are the ones such as the ones made from titanium which weigh next to nothing. I use the ones made by Vargo, 8g each. I have had some success also with aluminium shepherd hooks which are also light but are much more prone to bending. By the same token they are easy to straighten. 

Vargo Y beam - Summit stakes' as they are called weigh 14g each. They are  very strong and I have yet to bend or break one. They will not easily be pushed by hand into hard ground, especially on the the trail as I would not generally be carrying a mallet or hammer. A piece of handy wood or a rock may be used as a baton or hammer in lieu of the real thing, but be warned the rock will damage the top of the peg and handy wood is not always around, so in the absence of an improvised wooden baton or rock - make a pilot hole with the shepherds hook then try the Y stake if you are having a bad time of things. The pegs have to go all the way in to work properly.

Shepherd hooks on the other hand can be poor in very soft ground, so be prepared to make a few wooden ones as necessary if you face very soft holding, which is why I carry a decent and sharp pocket knife, I keep mentioning the knife as many ultralight backpackers seem to be leaving the sturdy pocket knife off their packing list these days. Ray Jardine one of the earliest pioneers of ultralight backpacking suggests taking a decent knife on the trail.  These wooden pegs can be discarded to save carrying the weight from camp to camp so little point in making anything too fancy. Placing rocks over shepherd hooks in soft ground will also help as an even quicker fix if these are available.

 Here's an example of a disposable peg.

Disposbale pegs - Nothing fancy, make in situ or on  the fly & eject after use. 


Mainly I will use the Y stakes for the ridge line anchor points of my tarp, unless the ground is too hard to get them in and I use the shepherd hooks for the corners and sides. 

I also carry a few 10 cm pieces of elastic shock cord which I use to relieve stress on the ridge tie outs in heavy wind, I also prefer to use knots on my guys rather than guy- line tensioners as the knots will slip under heavy strain, hopefully allowing the peg to stay put. The elastic is really important particularly if you use Dyneema cordage over say nylon guy lines. Nylon has a little give in it naturally, Dyneema does not so the peg has to do more work. Also a slightly longer line than you might think may help alleviate strain in very windy conditions on the ridge tie outs. Doubling up ridge tie outs in windy conditions can also be beneficial, effectively halving the strain on each peg.

A piece of cord around the head of your pegs, to help you pull out the pegs is a great idea. It will help when its time to leave. If this cord is a bright colour  it will help to locate any lost pegs in the grass or leaf litter. 

Of course I always count the pegs back in, to ensure that I have a full set for the next pitch.

My 8 pegs in total weigh 105g including a little stuff sac to keep the mud off other pack contents.

Thank you for reading.

Way of the Backpacker

























Friday, 3 July 2015

A Wright & Sons - Ettrick Knife Review

A Wright & Sons - Ettrick Knife


I am often attracted to functional items that have an appealing aesthetic born purely out of their function. Items such as these cannot readily be improved as any alteration would be a reduction in utility rather than an improvement. The Ettrick knife from Arthur Wright of Sheffield falls squarely into this category.

A Wright & Son describe the knife as follows:
"One of our best-selling pocket knives. The Ettrick started life as a small gutting knife, reputedly designed by the Earl of Wharncliffe and his gamekeeper! Due to its comfortable handle and short blade it has since become a great general purpose pocket knife, easy to carry and particularly popular with whittlers."

I purchased this knife as a general purpose EDC pocket knife, but find that the knife is making itself very useful for backpacking, especially around camp. Whilst I do strive to keep my pack weight to an absolute minimum I also believe in carrying solid reliable items.  After all - the items we carry over hundreds if not thousand of trail miles become the items of much focus and sometimes heavy or constant use. We need the few items carried on our backpacking trips to work impeccably for their designed use and deliver reliability beyond their design at times.

This knife weighs around 57g on my scales, so not super ultralight by any means but certainly light enough for a pocket carry. The 5cm length blade is made of C70 Carbon steel with a Rockwell hardness of 54-56. Once opened against the very robust spring the blade has no noticeable side to side or other movement at all. The high carbon steel blade in the closed position sits slightly proud of the rosewood scaled handle, so using the spine as a striker against a ferro rod is certainly possible.

The handle is very comfortable for a pocket knife and is long enough to accommodate all four fingers. There are slight gaps between the brass liners and the internal metalwork upon very close scrutiny on my example. This in no way appears to affect the strength.  I would describe the finish as 'workmanlike' / 'No-nonsense' rather than an attempt at 'cosmetic perfection'. Considering the price point I am not concerned by this, as this is an item designed to be used rather than to act as an ornament.

The blade has a flat grind and arrives new with a secondary bevel, this makes a strong edge for pruning type duties. I altered the secondary bevel angle slightly to help the knife work better with general camp and food cutting / slicing. A DC3 sized pocket stone is more than adequately sized to keep the knife razor sharp in the field. Indeed an even smaller stone or even just a ceramic rod for regular honing would probably suffice.

My usual backpacking knife is a Victorinox Swiss Army Climber which has been with me for over 10 years, which replaced a simple Ettrick style pocket knife by another Sheffield 'Little Mester' - possibly Thomas Ablett. I can no longer recall the makers mark, the knife having been lost in use years ago. I had been looking for something similar and spotted this one a few months ago. Almost identical to my original, and also hand made in Sheffield from carbon steel, result! Incidentally Arthur Wright and Sons also produce a Barlow knife design, another historic design which gained favour as a small outdoor / hunters knife with a clipped blade shape. and also a larger heavy duty utility Lambsfoot farmers knife.

The spine of the Ettrick blade is around 3mm thick at the spine. The blade comes with a flat grind with a secondary bevel, so sharpening is very straight forward. The knife is well suited to assist with basic camp chores, such as food prep without a chopping board, opening food packets, cutting cordage, plaster and so on. The sturdy little Ettrick bladed knife will also take care of basic woodworking duties - such as whittling tent pegs and so on, in fact it excels at this. The handle offers a good 4 finger hand grip and is also long enough to enable a thumb to bear on the back of the handle bolster to deliver plenty of power to the tip for push strokes.

So will the single blade be replacing my SAK anytime soon? Well, yes, maybe, - I am going to be carrying this little Ettrick blade on a few shorter trips to see if I can manage again without the usual array of SAK tools. I am doing this mainly to ensure that I can consider different ways of achieving my aims on the trail.  My initial thought is that I think I will miss the little scissors on my SAK for trimming nails etc. Perhaps an emery board might be a solution. Also more alarmingly I am now without a can opener. Not that I aim to carry tins but they are available in camp shops and village shops along most of our trails here in the UK - Maybe most tins these days have a ring pull? Again lets see how we get on. . After all there are ultralight trail walkers out there carrying only a couple of razor blades in lieu of a knife so by comparison this knife is surely 'luxurious'.

This general purpose working blade shape has a long heritage similar in style to the Lambs foot - These general styles have been used for cutting everything from from cordage to ovine hooves to sailors scrimshaw carvings for generations. The blade also has a scalpel sharp and strong tip which works well for gutting fish, which is not surprising if the gamekeeper did provide input to the design.

I particularly like using the knife for paring veg. I can peel and cut veg into small pieces without needing a chopping board, which I do not carry on the trail. I use cutting strokes towards the thumb, to the halfway mark, then rotate and cut again to the halfway mark.  The handle is so comfortable and easy to control that these tasks become about as enjoyable as it gets cutting carrots! The tip can be honed to scalpel sharpness and so is great for slicing bacon, chorizo and other back country staples. Of course other tasks such as cutting cord and line, slicing the tops from food packets and trimming plaster or webbing to length are all easy tasks.

I have found the best way to sharpen this knife is by laying the secondary bevel on a DC3 diamond stone and then working the DC3 in tiny motions forwards backwards and then slightly up and down, then switching to the left hand and repeating for the other side of the bevel. Finally repeating with the ceramic side of the stone. Works a treat, and gains a razor edge without even needing to be stropped. Of course if you want to go the extra then even the smallest pocket strop or belt back would be sufficient. The ceramic side of the DC3 is the side that is mostly used in the field for touch ups -  so to reduce carry weight further a simple ceramic rod in my opinion is really all that would be required to maintain the edge in the field.

The knife does not have a lanyard attachment hole, but a lanyard could still be tied and attached due to the shape of the handle which thickens to a bulb at the end, perhaps using a turks head or similar.

Conclusion

An attractive, solid, ergonomic, general purpose utility knife for basic camp duties and trail food prep without the necessity of a chopping board. The cutting edge of the blade is only 5.0 cm long, the opened knife is 15.9 cm overall, so the knife will have its limits. The knife is very solid & should last for years if appropriately used. The knife is hand made here in the UK by apprentice trained cutlers in Arthur Wrights workshop. How they make such a knife for the money I will never know, but make it they do, so grab one and a stick and start making those tent pegs!

I purchased mine from Heinne - £14.95 plus £2.00 delivery. For some reason they are cheaper on here than the manufacturers own site. Delivery was very efficient and the communication was exemplary. Please note I am in no way connected to either the manufacturer or supplier and have given my views based upon my own experience of using this knife in the field.

Thank you for reading as always.

Way of the backpacker




























Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Ultralight Backpacking Tarp


A trail staple: The ultralight tarp 
One of the most useful and adaptable pieces of  staple kit on the trail is an 'ultralight tarp', usually made from silicone impregnated nylon ( silnylon) or spinnaker nylon fabric impregnated with silicone. On almost all of my outdoor trips I take an ultralight tarp of one description or another. The one I use the most is a 295g silnylon tarp with 8 pegging points, ironically this is also the simplest and lowest cost tarp I own.  It is rectangular in shape, 1.5 metres wide and 2.7 metres long. On 'solo' trips the tarp teamed with a suitable inner nest becomes my only shelter, replacing the tent entirely. In a 'family' setting I do take a lightweight 3 to 4 man tent for sleeping in, usually a tipi for three, the tarp is taken in addition to the tent.

In the family or group setting the tent, acts as the bedroom, the tarp is used to store and dry wet gear and boots, or form an enlarged porch  to cook under in the rain or to throw up a quick lunch stop shelter or provide a groundsheet. In fact it is used so often I consider it as fundamental to comfort and well being on the trail during the day and at camp in the evening.

I try to carry  gear which serves several functions for a given weight of carry. At 295g, this piece of fabric more than earns its keep. In later posts we will look at some of the wider uses a tarp can be put to. In this post we will look at size selection, and then run through a daily run with a solo sized ultralight tarp acting as a primary shelter on the trail.


Tarps come in all shapes and sizes, and often I am asked about what size of tarp is best. Specifically I am referring in this article to backpacking tarps which may be used primarily as a shelter using trekking poles or environmental attachment points such as vegetation, rocks or fencing. If  I intend to use my tarp as a shelter on its own without any sort of inner nest or secondary protection from the elements, which may occur outside of bug season  I will take a slightly larger tarp, say 2.7m by 2.5m. If I am using a tarp in conjunction with a secondary form of protection such as a bug bivi, bivi bag, solid walled nest and so on I can take a smaller tarp.

The important thing with sizing is that at least one of the dimensions for a shelter tarp that is intended to provide protection from the elements whilst you sleep will need to be at least 70 to 80cm longer than your stretched out height. On this basis someone such as myself will need a 2.7 to 2.8 metre tarp. The overhang at each end keeps out the elements. I often see tarps being sold that are only 2.4m long, this is not long enough for anyone over 5' tall in my opinion.  At the other extreme I see tarps over 3 metres, a length of 3m or more provides a diminishing return and therefore becomes dead weight, you may also need as many as 16 pegs, and side pullouts to retain a taught pitch on a 3 metre width.

In terms of width, a single fabric width of around 138cm will work fine for a minimalist solo backpacker using either a low A frame, a flying A frame, or half pyramid type pitch. The smallest tarp I use however is 150cm by 2.7m.

There are several  methods of retaining privacy when using a tarp as a primary shelter say on a campsite. The most effective is by use of accessories such as using a solid walled inner nest, such as the Wrath Outdoor Jetstream, or by the addition of small beaks which close off the open ends. Alternatively, if the tarp is to be used without such accessories, creative use of the camp site landscape can work well - hedges, trees, walls., fences, anything to completely obscure the view from at least one direction is ideal provided the spot is sheltered and the open ended side of the tarp is not facing directly into the current wind direction.

In a wild setting privacy is much less of a consideration, in fact it is one of the best aspects of a tarp, the opportunity to see the landscape around. Some people find being able to see out is quite scary, but think of it this way; if there were something scuffling around outside, an animal for example would you rather know what it is or let your imagination run wild behind a tent wall?

Here set up as half pyramid, the bug bivi acts as a tub groundsheet. A great set up for food prep and camp chores as sitting headroom is provided. 


Upon arrival at my chosen campsite or wild camp I almost always set up a half pyramid with my 1.5m x 2.7m tarp setting a single pole at around 110cm. The open end of the tarp points away from the elements.I carry 8 lengths of  guy line to facilitate my pitch. I generally do not leave my guylines attached when I pack up at the end of my trip, but on the trail I do leave my hanked guylines attached. Check out my post on 'String Theory for Backpackers' for details of my guyline set up and the variety and use of knots for setting up a tarp. Some tarp users however use small line locks on the guys instead of the knots which I use, it does not matter which option is used really.

In midgie season I arrange my bug bivi underneath my tarp. The bivi has a sewn in 10cm tub groundsheet. Unzipping the bivi I place my sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and my spare clothing inside, and then zip it in. I sit on top of all this whilst prepping my meal, maintaining and mending kit etc. I prefer to set things up in this way initially as the half pyramid makes a weather resistant shelter, affords privacy from three sides but most importantly I can sit up straight out of the wind, rain or sun. I leave my camp set up like  this until maybe an hour before bed.


At this point I  rearrange the pitch into a fairly low A frame, with a pole length set at around 70cm.  The windward edge pegged close to the ground. All my spare gear goes back in my rucksack and I place this either as a pillow or at my feet. I pull up the apex ends of the bug bivi to form my bedroom, climb inside and zip up. I generally read, check next days route or listen to podcasts for a while unless there is a spectacular sunset or view in which case this offers all the entertainment I need. For warm humid dry nights I pitch the tarp higher to allow plenty of air flow. In the UK this does not occur very often admittedly.

This A frame is being flown very high to provide lots of air flow, ideal to get everything bone dry for a few minutes before camp is struck, or for warmer nights on the trail.  Dropping the apex of the bug bivi would provide sitting headroom to cook or eat.  



Come the morning depending upon the conditions experienced in the night the tarp will either be bone dry or have an amount of condensation inside and out. If condensation is present then it is best to avoid touching the inside of the tarp or shaking it too much. In this event I would unzip my bug bivi via the top zip, and carefully wipe any excess within arms reach with a small absorbent cloth I keep for just such a purpose, this cannot be done with a tent, so you have to wait a lot longer for condensation to evaporate.  I then climb out. If the weather is dry and not too windy I generally then increase the pole height to around 100cm at one end and extend the front and middle guys accordingly. I can then sit cross legged at this end to prep breakfast, wash and generally get organised.  If its raining I pack up my sleeping bag, mat and other gear into my rucksack before even climbing out of my bug bivi, this way ensuring it all stays as dry as possible. Going in and out into the rain is the best way to soak gear. I then get dressed into my waterproof  before climbing out into the weather. I next pack up my bug bivi / groundsheet and then finally the tarp. The tarp is shaken and stuffed into a ruck sack side pocket, once I have hanked the guylines. A quick cereal bar and then I hit the trail.

I don't bother sitting around at camp if its raining, I may lay in bed for a little longer in the hope of it stopping, but if this isn't going to happen I prefer to get up and set off along the trail. If I am lucky the rain will stop after an hour or two along the trail and I can then stop for a while to dry the tarp and eat again. If its still raining by lunch I set up the tarp as a half pyramid and sit under this for lunch. Shaking off the excess water and packing it away into the pocket again afterwards. I do stop for meals. I find keeping a routine like this allows me to sit and watch the world a bit, which I enjoy, and check my route.

The above describes a typical set of scenarios, but occasionally we can experience storms. As with any sort of camping it's then a game of survival, which at times can be enjoyable in its own right. I really enjoy storm camping. In this event I  pitch a very low A frame with my bug bivi set up underneath, the windward edge, whichever that one is will be pitched right to the ground, or with just the hint of lift on the centre tie out, which is achieved using a 30cm guyline.  The main pole height is set as low as 60cm. The bug bivi has a top zip entry which facilitates the low tarp entry, the bivi is dropped to the floor as I climb in, and is pulled up again once I am in. As an an occupant in these conditions I am more than happy to be warm and dry in my sleeping bag. Food prep is going to be difficult, but it is possible. A simple meal which only needs hot water rehydration is ideal. If the weather is really bad I just east meusli made up with dried milk which I always carry. I  then settle for the evening and night with my podcast, music or a book, and hope I do not need to 'go' in the night - torch and a waterproof handy though just in case. In stormy weather I use my waterproof as a pillow so its immediately accessible. Some keep an old wide necked bottle for such an emergency which can be emptied and washed out the following morning.

So there you have it, a typical daily run with an ultralight tarp. Certainly I find it ideal, even more so than a tent when used with an accessory such as a bug bivi with sewn in ground sheet. Later in the season, around October time I swap the bug bivi for a solid walled nest. Some use a Goretex or other lightweight breathable bivi bag.

If I were to not have any sort of  nest or bivi, I would move up to a 2.7 x 2.5 sized tarp as a minimum, even for solo backpacking. Ironically you gain a weight advantage overall with the larger tarp as you  manage without the nest or bivi bag, all that is needed is a groundcloth, which could be something as simple as a survival blanket. You lose out in respect of protection from midges, mosquitoes and ticks in summer though, and you lose out on the the increased warmth provided by the micro climate formed inside a bivi bag or solid walled nest in colder weather. I rarely now use a tarp without such an accessory. Even with a nest however my tarp & nest combo is around half the weight of a tent which provides in reality less space. My nests weigh from between 325g to 495g, 8 to 10 pegs around 80g, guylines 20g, a stuff sac 25g, so this comes to around 700g to 800g for the tarp nest combo. I use a single walking pole and use features such as trees or rocks or objects such as sticks found in the landscape or camp site to effect my home each evening. I can arrange a suitable arrangement with just one pole, a bicycle, a paddle or even my rucksack stood on end if absolutely necessary.

The tarp nest combo fits in well as part of my regular long distance walking kit. My solo tent is no longer taken on the trail for solo backpacking. Contrary to what it seems I do not obsess about weight. In fact I like to be comfortable. To my mind shelter also includes appropriate clothing, good insulation from the ground at night, and a warm sleeping bag.  There is no merit in being cold or wet. As someone once said to me, 'any fool can be uncomfortable'.

I find the tarp nest combo more practical and comfortable than my solo tent. A tarp does need a little 'pitch' practice before use, this just adds to the fun.

Thank you for reading, please do not hesitate to comment or drop me a line.


Many Thanks
Sean

















Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Fabric Choices for Ultralight gear


 Considered use of ultralight fabrics in this Wrath Outdoor sub 600g shelter system which utilises a ripstop silnylon fly and a PU coated nylon tub floor

Ultralight backpacking gear has to work in the real world, it has to have an adequate safety margin, it has to look after the user in unexpected situations. By the same token it has to offer weight savings over main stream alternatives.

The ultralight backpacking shelter designer is looking at combining a design which cuts away redundant or over engineered features to save weight, adjusts panel shape to cut away wasted cloth and so on. Even using the same materials as the mainstream shelter designer the ultralight design will still be lighter. 

The real game changer however is the fabric and other materials used to make the shelter. These fabrics are the best and most fit for purpose fabrics on planet earth at this time. These fabrics can be quite expensive and utilize everything that modern fabric manufacturing can bring to the table. Yes, the design can make a difference, in the end though there are only so many ways to make a tent or shelter. The utilization of cutting edge fabric is what cuts the weight. Think about the steel body shell of a modern car, its strong fairly light and works well as an outer skin for the average vehicle. Then think Carbon Fibre and Kevlar, if well designed the same shapes can be derived but the parts can be stronger AND lighter. 

Ultralight backpacking gear designers and manufacturers are using the fabric equivalents of Kevlar and Carbon Fibre. Most ultralight tent designs come from cottage manufacturers running low overheads, selling their offering online or direct. So even though the fabric costs are perhaps 10 times more expensive than the usual mainstream tent fabrics the final product finishes up similarly priced or even cheaper than a mainstream relatively heavy counterpart. In this sense ultralight gear is a bargain. If a mainstream manufacturer were to build their products from the same fabric they would price themselves out of the market, which is perhaps why ultralight gear remains the preserve of the cottage gear manufacturer. Mainstream gear has to pay the brand owner, the factory, the distributor and the retailer and in fact for a whole marketing infrastructure to bring the product to market. The actual fabric cost was probably less than 10% of its final value. 

The cottage industry is by definition a low key, low overhead operation with a minimal marketing outlay, perhaps even a single website. Custom builds through word of mouth amongst like minded individuals. The value is added into the fabric and design which is passed on to the final user of the product - the customer. 

So which ultralight fabrics are most popularly used by the cottage gear industry. 

There are four  mainstay fabrics in reducing weight order:  PU coated nylon, Silicone impregnated nylon, Silicone impregnated spinnaker fabric and finally Cuben Fibre. There is little to no loss of shear strength as the weight goes down, but the cost increases quite a bit. Cuben fibre costs around 4 times the cost of silnylon. 

Here's the lowdown on each fabric:

PU Coated Ripstop Nylon: 

Very water resistant. Easy to work with, glues will stick to it, and it has at least one face which is not slippy. Its a good choice for making your own gear. The fabric usually has a nylon base fabric which is then coated with a PU coating which then makes one face of the fabric water resistant or waterproof depending upon specification.  The mainstream manufacturers that are looking to offer a lightweight choice would probably choose this fabric as its fit for purpose, fairly light and as mentioned easy to work with. It is relatively inexpensive so a margin can still be achieved in a supply chain scenario.  The main disadvantage is that PU coatings at the lower end of the quality spectrum can be heavy and when subjected to abrasion will begin to peel or rub off rapidly. 

Ripstop Silnylon

Is very difficult to work with, it is super slippy, glue will not stick to it and you cannot put pins through what will become a waterproof membrane, in essence a manufacturers nightmare. On the other hand, there is no coating to rub off, the fabric is totally impregnated with the silicone. Not even mildew can get a foothold. The fabric still has some stretch and both sides of the fabric are waterproof. The strength is around 4 times that of canvas for the equivalent weight and is much more abrasion resistant. Even small pin holes will mend themselves in time. It is more expensive than PU coated nylon, but it is around 25% lighter. 

In many ways this fabric offers the perfect balance of weight and strength for an ultralight product. You can really feel the weight advantage straight away.  It can be used for either a ground sheet or a flysheet. The fabric poses no real compromise for the end user, all of the negatives fall to the cottage manufacturer that has learned how to work with the cloth.

Some mainstream manufacturers have offered what they describe as silnylon.  Quite often it is a hybrid of silicone one side and a thin coating of PU or other coating on the other to make it easier to glue and work with. Always ensure what you are getting really is 'Silnylon' .You can tell straight away by feel. Silnylon is slippy on both sides. PU coatings have a tacky rubbery sort of feel.

Silnylon is flammable. Consider safety if using a silnylon shelter near an open flame. Having run a burn test or two myself I can report that silnylon is not as flammable as some say but do bear this mind.

Silicone impregnated Spinnaker Fabric:

About half the weight of  standard silnylon and just as slippy, at around .98oz or 25g per square metre this is very light, but twice the cost of standard silnylon. Spinn fabric as its known can either have a polyester or nylon base fabric which is then impregnated with the silicone, personally I prefer the nylon. It has the same advantages of the standard ripstop silnylon, is very strong, has a bit of stretch but is not quite as waterproof.as standard silnylon. Still more than fine though for a flysheet, perhaps not so great for a groundsheet as the pressure of knees or elbows over a small area can force water through the membrane.

The main disadvantage is often the colour choice. The fabric is mainly manufactured for sailmakers, who specify bright colours for spinnakers. Natural white or cream is probably the best choice, or pale grey if you don't mind it.

A 3m x 3m  shelter in such a fabric will weigh less than 300g, incredible really and it  is really strong. Look for sewn on ties with bar tack stitching, as grommets will pull out of the thin fabric unless heavily reinforced and hand-stitched as in the clew of  a sail. Personally I love the look of this fabric but if you are planning to stealth camp the color may be a consideration.

Cuben Fibre

Two drawbacks, cost at this time, the fabric cost is four times that of silnylon, and the fabric is very slightly transparent. Oh and did I mention not so abrasion resistant, so that's three drawbacks. On the other hand its the lightest fabric in this list at a quarter the weight of silnylon. It can also be noisy in the wind so pitch technique needs to be practiced. There is less stretch in this fabric so designs that work well in silnylon do not always translate into Cuben Fibre without modification.

I would say that the huge price hike to gain a few grams over say a spinn fabric shelter is hard really to justify, so I am not going to try, but if you have just got to have the lightest this is the way to go. So, would I choose a Cuben Fibre shelter for myself, erm, yes absolutely! :).