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Cuben Fiber – Frequently Asked Questions

What is Cuben Fiber?

What is Cuben Fiber?

Cuben fiber is a non-woven, laminate material that is used to make ultralight backpacking gear including backpacks, tents, and tarps, stuff sacks, and backpack rain covers. It is made by sandwiching ultra-high-weight-molecular polyethylene Dyneema fibers with polyester to produces an exceptionally lightweight, strong, and waterproof material. Dyneema fibers are 15 times stronger than steel by weight, which gives cuben fiber its strength.

Cuben fiber is available in different thicknesses and weights which are used to make different types of products. Heavier cuben fiber has a higher density of Dyneema threads that increase it strength. Hybrid variants of cuben fiber laminated with heavier polyester are used to make backpacks since they receive much more wear and tear than tents or tarps. This hybrid cuben fiber is also easier to dye, providing a wider range of color options.

What is the difference between Cuben Fiber and Dyneema Composite Fabric?

What is the difference between Cuben Fiber and Dyneema Composite Fabric?

Cuben fiber is also known as Dyneema Composite Fabric, CTF3, or non-woven Dyneema. Originally developed to make ultralight sailboat racing sails, cuben fiber was made and marketed by a company called Cubic Tech. Cubic Tech was subsequently acquired by a Dutch Company named Koninklijke DSM N.V, the makers of the Dyneema fibers which are used to make cuben fiber. They attempted to rename and rebrand cuben fiber as “Dymeema Composite Fabric” after the acquisition. However, most ultralight backpacking gear manufacturers and consumers still refer to the material as cuben fiber, and the original name has stuck. 

How much lighter weight is Cuben Fiber than other materials used to make ultralight backpacking gear?

How much lighter weight is Cuben Fiber than other materials used to make ultralight backpacking gear?

You can expect a 25-50% weight reduction by using an item made with Cuben Fiber. For example, silicon impregnated nylon (silnylon), another popular material for making ultralight backpacks, tents, tarps, stuff sacks, rain gear, and backpack covers, is two to four times heavier than the cuben fiber used for similar applications and products.

How expensive is ultralight backpacking gear made with Cuben Fiber?

How expensive is ultralight backpacking gear made with Cuben Fiber?

Gear made with cuben fiber is typically two to three times more expensive than gear made with more conventional fabrics. It is also more labor intensive to make gear with since most of the work must be done manually by highly skilled workers in the United States and can’t be outsourced to Vietnam or China. For example, backpacking gear made with cuben fiber is often taped together by hand instead of sewn, requiring gear companies to evolve highly manual fabrication and styling processes to create products using it.

What other benefits does Cuben Fiber provide besides weight reduction?

What other benefits does Cuben Fiber provide besides weight reduction?

Cuben fiber is a waterproof material that doesn’t absorb water like nylon or other woven fabrics. This makes it ideal for making tents, shelters, and backpacks. It also does not stretch like silnylon (used to make ultralight backpacking tents and tarps), eliminating the need for you to adjust tent or tarp guylines at night to counteract fabric sag. Cuben fiber is very tear resistant because the Dyneema fibers embedded in it are so strong. This, in addition to its light weight, was why it was used to make large racing sails.

There's not such thing as a perfect material for making backpacking gear. What are some of the weakness or disadvantages of using backpacking gear made with Cuben Fiber?

There's not such thing as a perfect material for making backpacking gear. What are some of the weakness or disadvantages of using backpacking gear made with Cuben Fiber?

The cuben fiber used to make tents and tarps is translucent and lets in light that can disturb people who are sensitive to it. Being translucent, it also provides limited privacy, unlike solid fabrics which prevent you from seeing occupants or their backlit silhouettes.

Some sewing is required when making cuben fiber backpacks in order to attach non-cuben shoulder straps, webbing straps, pockets, and hip belts. This creates holes in the fabric which can leak water if not seam sealed. This is the reason that most cuben fiber backpack manufacturers have stopped claiming that their backpacks are watertight, even though cuben fiber is a non-absorbant, waterproof material.

Gear made with cuben fiber occupies more space when stuffed rather than folded or rolled. Frequent folding and unfolding can also weaken the material resulting in fraying or holes, particularly in stuff sacks.

What colors is Cuben Fiber available in?

What colors is Cuben Fiber available in?

Regular cuben fiber is available in light green, light blue, and white. It is used mainly for making tents, tarps, stuff sacks, and backpack covers. Hybrid forms of cuben fiber covered with thicker polyester are easier to dye. They are often available in black, blue, green, orange, or camouflage

Why don't all backpacking gear manufacturers switch to using Cuben Fiber if it's so great?

Why don't all backpacking gear manufacturers switch to using Cuben Fiber if it's so great?

Cuben fiber is far more expensive to make gear with than other more conventional fabrics and most consumers are unwilling to pay extra for it. That’s unlikely to change unless the cost of cuben fiber drops and automated fabrication processes are invented and tooled to reduce labor costs.

What companies make ultralight backpacking gear using Cuben Fiber?

What companies make ultralight backpacking gear using Cuben Fiber?

Some of the largest, most experienced manufacturers include Hyperlite Mountain GearZpacks.com, and Mountain Laurel Designs, although many smaller companies also create products using the material on a smaller scale.

Where can you buy Cuben Fiber if you are interested in making your own backpacking gear?

Where can you buy Cuben Fiber if you are interested in making your own backpacking gear?

Ripstop by the Roll and MakeYourGear.com are two companies that sell small volumes of cuben fiber and cuben fiber tape to consumers who want to make their own gear.

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14 comments

  1. Does the production of cuben fiber have an environmental impact? Possibly in the same way as gore-tex.

    • Good question, although everything manufactured has an environmental impact of some sort. I think you’re asking if it has an “adverse” environmental impact. Frankly, there’s so little of the stuff made that it probably pales in comparison to its constituent elements – Dyneema fibers – which are widely used across the backpacking and clothing industry – and polyester. Cuben fiber is a laminated sandwich of these two materials, baked in a autoclave to bind them together.

  2. I believe zpacks also sells cf and the tape.

    • They do! I believe Zpacks is the cheapest Cuben you can get in small quantities. I purchased some of the 0.34 oz/sqyd from them to make a pack cover and a rain skirt, it is nice stuff. It is really hard to cut though, I was using some fancy Gingher scissors and I was still having to hack away at it repeatedly.

      • Agree on the difficulty of cutting Cuben with scissors. I ended up using a straightedge and utility knife, which worked much better.

  3. What is the longevity of gear made with cuben? Since the material is a relatively new one, so it seems no long-term evaluation is available. Hence, one is not sure about the tall claims made by the companies about their products. Does it make sense to purchase such expensive gears when we don’t know how long it will last? How tough and abrasion resistant are these gears?

    • It’s difficult to make a blanket claim about cuben fiber’s longevity since there are so many different variants, thicknesses, and hybrid formulations in use today. I’m not making an apology for the material, but you have to understand that different thicknesses and strengths are used for different products. For example, tents and tarps are subject to little abrasion compared to backpacks which are scraped on the ground constantly, so they are made with thinner, weaker grades of CF and not coated with extra thick polyester.

      Probably the best test of a backpack is to look at thru-hiker use during the course of a 6 month trip. Some backpacks from some manufacturers hold up wonderfully and some don’t. What can you conclude about the material? Did it fail or was the manufacturer’s use of the material flawed?

      While you can abrade cuben fiber and create holes in it by abusing it, you can do the same with any fabric used to make backpacking gear. I certainly have. I can tell you that the CF gear I use, particularly CF backpacks, has been much more durable than the nylon and robic UL backpacks I’ve used in the past. Both of my packs are from Hyperlite Mountain Gear (the 2400 southwest and the 3300 southwest) which makes packs with a heavier duty hybrid cuben fiber material than that used by other companies. I hike with my packs off-trail all the time and they’ve stood up to terrible abuse without any rips, holes, or serious abrasion. I find that pretty remarkable, but your mileage may vary.

  4. Lots of good detail here. Great post.

  5. Couple of notes:

    The weight savings of cuben is directly related to the complexity of the product. Simple tarps achieve the greatest savings as most of the weight is in to fabric, Even then you’re not likely to get a 50% weight savings unless you’re using really light cuben. Which is considerably more fragile. In general one can reasonably expect a 20% to 25% weight savings over a comparable item.

    One disadvantage of cuben is that it is more susceptible to abrasion. Especially with tent canopies. So additional care should be taken with sight selection.

    • so true. My 32 ounce cuben fiber backpack weighs as much as a Robic (nylon) UL pack because it is overbuilt (and has so many non-cuben parts sewn onto it). The value for me is a tougher outer fabric, not weight, or even though the material is waterproof.

  6. Cuben is great material for the most part but it is definitely a pay-to-play expenditure – maybe more so in shelters tops/tarps than in backpacks because of the differences in cuben choices typically used. I think it’s important to note that it is susceptible to UV exposure. All fabrics are, but like kevlar and standard nylons, it’s best to try to limit UV exposure with cuben. Also while it is very nicely waterproof and stays that way unless you poke holes in it, over time the plastic can get “crinkled”, for lack of a better term, to where it will absorb some water. This has happened to a few people after extensive use and I believe they were stuffing their shelters rather than rolling. It’s fairly susceptible to abrasion damage as well but not terrible. All this to say that it’s a fantastic high end material but the cost is high and longevity has shown to be slightly disappointing for many compared to woven fabrics. I think Z-Packs now states that their .51 shelters can be expected to last one long thru hike, possibly two. For weekenders and section hikers it may last many years but with heavy use the cost per use is much higher. If durability in regard to abrasion and puncture resistance is important and the heavier weights of cuben are desired then the weight savings dwindle quickly but it still has other advantages (shelter floors, packs). I guess I’m making this comment just to point out that there are more disadvantages – if that’s what these should be called – than just bulk and cost, but they can be mitigated somewhat with proper care and consideration of the weaknesses it does have. Early on there were some unhappy people using cuben but I think that was a learning curve for both manufacturers and end users (some people may remember the shredded and torn shelters that used the .35 cuben which proved to be just a bit too light for dependability and I don’t think anyone is using that at all these days except for ditty sacks and such. Then there is the example of the Z-Packs shelter last season that was shredded by small hail – never did hear the consensus on that situation but I’ll bet they took care of their customer somehow.).

  7. I use a HMG pack. It was the only pack I tried on that was comfortable and did not make me feel as though I had a Volkswagen on my back. I was able to get it at 20% off so that made it financially more in line with other packs. One of the benefits to using this pack is the material itself will not absorb water so while it is important to use a pack liner due to seams that are not waterproof, the pack itself will not get much heavier in a rain. My friend’s pack gains quite a bit of weight since it absorbs the rain water.

  8. My Seven year old cuben fibre tarp has mainly been used as a ground cloth. Feels as if it’s letting the water through now. Can I reproof it ?

    • Not sure what you mean by reproof..it never had any extra coating on it. One way to fix it might be to coat it with the urethane that tent manufacturers tell people to reproof their tent floors and flies with. Not sure how much weight that will add. Or you could dilute some seam sealer and try that.

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