5 Ultralight Backpacking Companies That Shouldn’t Be Flying Under The Radar
Discover the mom-and-pop shops of backpacking gear.
Ever seen a 19 ounce, two person tent for sale at your local gear store? How about a sleeping bag that will keep you warm on a summer trip for only 13 ounces? I’d be surprised if you have because some of the best ultralight backpacking gear can only be found online from small specialty shops, known as the "cottage industry." Don’t worry, just because they’re “specialty” shops doesn’t mean the gear they sell is going to break the bank. On the contrary, a lot of their products are surprisingly affordable, especially considering the high quality of materials used. Another plus of buying from small vendors is being able to customize your order so you can get exactly the gear you need while staying within your price range. Although there are easily 30+ of these companies, the list below is a good starting point for becoming acquainted with the cottage industry.
If you’re looking for a performance tent that’s light on your back and your wallet, look no further than Tarptent. These guys have been at it for over 15 years now and offer a wide range of models, including several 1-2 person 3 season tents in the $225-$260 range all the way up to 4 season models that, at only 3 pounds, probably weigh less than your current summer shelter. Known and respected for their taut, storm-worthy pitches and good ventilation on hot summer days, Tarptents are also made in the USA so you can feel good about supporting local manufacturing. Lastly, with a large in-stock inventory, you won’t have to wait long after ordering before you can hit the trail!
Wonder how your sleeping bag could get lighter? How about only taking half of it. That’s effectively what Enlightened Equipment allows you to do with their quilt style sleeping bags. The quilt design has been popular among ultralighters for a long time, and is definitely worth checking out. If you’re a bit skeptical, their website has an excellent introduction to quilts here. I switched to an Enlightened Equipment Enigma a couple summers ago and haven’t looked back since. With a quilt, I sleep comfier and warmer than I ever managed before, and because they’re so versatile, I’ve been able to do so in a variety of conditions. Additionally, when ordering from Enlightened Equipment, you can customize your quilt’s length, width, color, temperature rating, and down fill power all at no extra cost. With all these options, it’s easy to find the perfect quilt for your hiking style and budget.
If while pulling together your ultralight gear list, you find yourself unable to quite reach that 10 pound base weight benchmark, don’t worry! Although Gossamer Gear does offer some featherweight backpacks for experienced ultralighters, they also have a selection of intermediate weight backpacks that are perfect for hikers in the process of converting to ultralight (or those who like bringing a few more creature comforts than a 10 pound base weight allows). Besides backpacks, you’ll also find an offering of tarp style shelters, minimalist sleeping pads, and various accessories. Gossamer Gear is also big on spreading ultralight knowledge through blog posts, newsletters, and local workshops, so they’re a great resource for backpackers who are new to ultralight.
For those of you who got excited when you read my article about cuben fiber, ZPacks is your go-to company for all things cuben. They use cuben fiber to make a variety of gear including tents, tarps, backpacks, sleeping bags, rain gear, and stuff sacks. In addition, their online shop sells raw materials and fabrics which can be a great resource for hikers interested in making their own gear. As I’ve cautioned before, although cuben gear is generally the lightest around (like that 19 ounce, two person tent I mentioned), don’t expect to get your hands on it for cheap.
An ultralight company with a heavy focus on fabric testing, MLD is primarily known for their pyramid style shelters and rugged, frameless backpacks. For backpackers who regularly camp in exposed areas, the low profile of pyramids makes them very effective at shedding wind if you’re willing to trade a little bit of interior space for increased performance. Like Enlightened Equipment, MLD offers a variety of configurations for each product, so it’s easy to select fabrics and features that suit your weight and budget goals.
As with anything related to ultralight backpacking, it takes a while to get used to the alternative products offered by these companies. Their style of gear definitely isn’t what you see regularly in stores and magazines, but that’s the beauty of it. If your goal is to carry a pack that’s lighter than everyone else’s, then you can’t shop for gear at the same place everyone else shops for gear, so why not give some of these smaller companies a chance :)
Cover photo: Ian Glass
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.