Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes packs and shelters with a new, Space Age material called Cuben Fiber. It's 15 times stronger than steel and lighter than anything that's come before. How do they do it?
We asked Hyperlite Mountain Gear's founder, Mike St. Pierre.
IW: What is Hyperlite Mountain Gear?
MSP: Hyperlite Mountain Gear is a designer, manufacturer and supplier of high-tech ultralight outdoor gear. We employ state-of-the-art fabrics and minimalist designs to create fully functional, durable and ultralight gear that is roughly half the weight of industry standards thereby allowing users improved performance in the outdoors.
The 55 liter HMG Southwest 3400 pack weighs just two pounds.
IW: How'd you come across Cuben Fiber?
MSP: In 2008/2009 I was working as a chef in New York City and, during days off, I was heading up to the Adirondacks to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. I'd been an avid outdoorsman and hiker for many years and had always been looking for ways to reduce or eliminate the 50-60lbs packs that I carried. During this time I stumbled upon Cuben Fiber which had just started being used by DIY'ers. So, I decided to try it myself and built a Cuben tarp and backpack in my small Brooklyn apartment on my mother's old sewing machine. It was pretty poor quality the first go-around, however, I was carrying such a small pack afterwards (20lbs) that I was being stopped by park rangers in the Adirondacks who were making me empty my pack and prove I had enough gear for sixty mile weekends — they didn't want to come rescue me! It was at that point that I knew I was on to something and that the game was changing — traditional gear built by the traditional brands was entirely unnecessary for me and probably would be for others as well.
IW: In layperson's terms, what is Cuben Fiber?
MSP: Cuben fiber is essentially a plastic laminate "fabric" embedded with the strongest man-made fibers on the planet. These fibers are called Spectra or Dyneema, depending on the manufacturer, and were originally developed for ligament replacement. These fibers are fifteen times stronger than steel by weight, are stronger and lighter than Kevlar, and don't lose their technical integrity when folded or crinkled.
Upon realizing the incredible characteristics of these fibers, the rope industry began incorporating them into the cores of their ropes as it enabled stronger and lighter products. Hyperlite Mountain Gear is essentially doing the same thing: using high-tech, modern material advancements to create better performing products such as tents, backpacks, stuff sacks, etc.
HMG's shelters pitch with trekking poles in order to save weight and increase strength.
IW: Can you explain how cuben fiber is "better" than traditional fabrics?
MSP: Many companies have or are trying to build lightweight gear using traditional fabrics, but it just isn't possible. What I mean is that it is possible to build lightweight gear using traditional fabrics, but it isn't possible to build lightweight gear from traditional fabrics that will carry the various weight loads that many outdoor adventurers require, or hold up to significant long-term use. If it were possible, every brand would be offering a two pound pack that could carry 65-70lbs, similar to HMG. Additionally, Cuben Fiber is 100% waterproof meaning gear doesn't wet out, it doesn't absorb water weight, and it eliminates or highly reduces the potentially harmful risks that wet gear can mean in the outdoors.
IW: What has Cuben had to sacrifice in order to achieve such radically light weight?
MSP: There are two main sacrifices that are made when using Cuben Fiber. The first is color. Spectra or Dyneema fibers cannot be dyed without losing some of radical characteristics that make them so beneficial. Cuben Fiber manufacturers are working on this problem and have figured out coloring methods in the lamination process. For backpack materials, we always use a face fabric (meaning Cuben is on the inside of the pack) which can be colored if purchased in very large volumes. In time, the sacrifice of color should be remedied.
The other major sacrifice is the inexpensive prices that consumers are accustomed to paying for traditional materials like nylon or silnylon. Cuben fiber is seven to thirty times the price of the traditional materials that are produced in Asia. Despite our minimalist distribution chain, the high cost of Cuben fiber still leads to finished goods prices that are higher than consumers are accustomed to. There can be a psychological consumer barrier to purchasing Cuben Fiber gear, however we believe it is only a matter of time before even that diminishes.
As an example, who twenty years ago would have imagined that almost everyone in our country would carry a $300-$600 phone in their pocket? And who twenty years ago would have imagined cyclists paying $5,000+ for a lightweight road bike? Technology continually enables higher performing products that make our lives easier, by creating more time or more enjoyment and that, in many industries, has proven to be well worth the added cost.
HMG recently moved to a larger factory in Biddeford, Maine. (Photo courtesy HMG.)
IW: What are the challenges of working with Cuben Fiber?
MSP: I can't say too much here due to trade secrets, but I will say that Cuben Fiber is nothing like traditional woven fabrics. As one example, there is much less room for stitching error because when making an error in a laminate, you can't just cut the thread and re-sew. An error in a laminate means that stitch holes remain and are clearly visible; and no customer wants to see that. Therefore we have to ensure that our Maine production staff is well trained and always stays focused on the task at hand.
IW: What limitations is the fabric subject to? Are there any applications where it wouldn't work?
MSP: Everything in the world is subject to some or many limitations and Cuben Fiber is no different. However, this simply means more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking when approaching a design. I believe that with the right fabric recipes and problem solving capabilities this material could be used in any capacity where woven fabrics have traditionally been used. To date, HMG only uses non-breathable versions of Cuben fiber. Therefore there are certainly limitations for many applications, however breathable versions are available and are constantly being developed and improved. Soon enough we will start working breathable versions of Cuben fiber into our R&D processes.
IW: When designing say, a pack, out of Cuben, how is that approach different than with traditional materials?
MSP: There must be a lot of thought that goes into the high-stress points of that product, such as a pack, because the methods by which laminate components are stitched or bonded together are very different from woven fabrics. Additionally, our goal is to make products that strike the most optimal balance between durability and weight. Therefore our designs must be well thought through and well tested so that we are not just adding reinforcement upon reinforcement in any high-stress areas and thus defeating our own goal and purpose. What we are doing though is working because it is unbelievable how many users say HMG packs are the most comfortable they've ever worn, regardless of how much weight is in it.
The pyramid-shaped HMG UltaMid 2 offers cavernous interior space and weighs just 16.6oz.
IW: If advancement in materials technology is the main contributor to innovation in outdoor gear and HMG already uses Cuben Fiber — the most advanced material available — how will HMG continue to innovate? Where do you go from here?
MSP: I think innovation breeds innovation and technological advancements in any industry drive further innovation because those technological advancements allow new ways of thinking and entirely new possibilities, particularly when it comes to design. Therefore as we embrace new technologies in a very traditional industry, we have a wealth of new possibilities to explore as we continue to learn how to apply these technological advancements. We will stay innovative by using any new material advancements, be it Cuben Fiber or something new that is developed, and racking our brains and tapping our creativity to try new things and continually attempt to solve problems through the synergies of technology and design.
IW: HMG currently specializes in packs and shelters. Would Cuben Fiber work well as a material in other gear, for instance sleeping bags?
MSP: This is a good question. We've already prototyped bivvy sacks using a combination of Cuben Fiber and other, more traditional fabrics. But there is always the potential of condensation when using non-breathable materials, which is why we have yet to launch that product. We will be exploring breathable Cuben options and are highly confident that we can make a better and lighter bivvy. Sleeping bags are not something we have looked into as of yet but, we do feel they could greatly benefit from our design and material philosophies. As excited as we are to start work on a sleeping bag, there are several other products in the HMG R&D pipeline that are going to take precedence over a sleeping bag for the time being.
The UltaMid 2 and Southwest pack sacrifice no strength or performance in pursuit of revolutionary light weights. The lighter the stuff you have to carry is, the further you can carry it into the outdoors.
IW: What are the barriers to bringing the cost down? Can we expect Cuben to be used more widely in the future?
MSP: When thinking of any new technological advancement, they are almost always more highly priced than traditional alternatives until they are proven to outperform those traditional alternatives. Then demand increases, supply increases and prices come down for two reasons. First, as the demand for the technological advancement is proven, supply increases at a higher rate to avoid supply shortfall, thus creating a lower price point. Second, as supply increases, manufacturers gain economies of scale that further decrease the cost of production.
While Cuben Fiber was invented over twenty years ago for world-class sails, it is still a relatively new and unknown material among the mass market of outdoor consumers. It is gaining more and more awareness all the time and I do believe that its improved product characteristics will continually lead Cuben fiber to be more widely accepted and thus cause costs, and ultimately retail prices, to fall. We're very excited about the products we're producing at Hyperlite Mountain Gear and we are admittedly excited about both the growing acceptance of Cuben Fiber gear in the outdoor industry and the resulting potential price decreases that may follow.
IW: What challenges does HMG face as the brand grows?
MSP: I think HMG faces very similar challenges that every early stage company faces as they grow. We need to continue to design and develop products that fill a need in the marketplace. We need to continually maintain or improve our high-quality product line. We need to continue to find and/or train a new generation of production stitchers given the stitching generation gap created by the overseas outsourcing of American manufacturing over the past 20-30 years. And we need to find and hire the right additional management help who share the vision of HMG's founders and can make meaningful contributions to the growth of the company.
With that said, I do believe that continuing to educate the outdoor consumer will be a significant task as we move forward. There has been a changing philosophy in the outdoors towards lightweight and ultralight approaches among hardcore users and outdoor adventure seekers. And we believe this approach, which includes gear made from non-traditional materials, is working very well. It is enabling users to perform better, engage in multi-discipline trips (like packrafting where users are carrying full whitewater gear plus hiking and camping gear) and do it all with more comfort and enjoyment. In our opinion, there is no longer a reason why any user should be carrying traditional heavy gear now that high-performing lightweight alternatives exist.
We've carried HMG gear for hundreds of miles. It works.
IW: Who benefits most from Cuben Fiber products?
MSP: The hardcore users engaging in distance hiking, mountaineering, ice climbing, packrafting, fatbiking, backcountry skiing and adventure racing are already using and achieving great benefit from HMG gear. These are the thought leaders and influencers in the industry who are proving that gear made from modern materials coupled with modern, simple designs are very effective and efficient thereby allowing them to perform better than they could with traditional gear. As the larger market becomes more aware that these products are available and embrace the changing approaches to the outdoors, we don't see a user category that couldn't benefit from the technology.
In addition to all the unbelievable trips that our core users share, some of the favorite stories we hear are from the aging population who have discovered our products and expressed such gratitude for the gear we offer because they sincerely believed they would not have the ability to engage in outdoor activities so late into their lives. Ultralight gear is enabling this demographic to continue enjoying time in the backcountry, and it is incredibly rewarding knowing that we are having this type of effect on people.
Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.