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Reader Poll: Does Cuben Matter?

Zpacks.com Cuben Fiber Blast 32 Backpack in Scotland
Zpacks.com Cuben Fiber Blast 32 Backpack in Scotland

I’m not against Cuben Fiber. It’s super-lightweight and strong and I’ve certainly bought my fair share of backpacks and tarps made out of the stuff. But I’m on the fence about whether it’s really worth the extra money or whether it’s going to ever cause a revolution in the way mainstream or ultralight backpacking gear is made.

Design Matters More

High tech fabrics come and go, and in the end, I care a lot more about the design of a product than what it’s made out of. Take backpacks: I’m perfectly happy carrying a ultralight backpack that weighs over a pound if it fits right, has all of the features I want, and is tough enough to stand up to the abuse I give it.

I reckon a lot of the cottage ultralight manufacturers agree with me. Having been an entrepreneur myself, betting exclusively on a particular fabric doesn’t seem like a sustainable competitive strategy. The same holds for gear weight. Design trumps both and there’s plenty of precedent in the outdoor industry to prove it.

What do you think? Does Cuben Matter?

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23 comments

  1. Just bought my first cuben piece, a zPacks Blast 26, so there is not much expertise I can share. However, I can explain why I bought it. Experimenting with a BPL Absaroka showed that features just aren't needed for a light load – as Ray Jardine pointed out, all those years ago. Something simple, which permits one shouldering when sweat-soaked, is what I need.

    And the other reason is not one I've seen discussed elsewhere, but Dyneema seems unable to hang on to its waterproofing. One summer each and my Jam packs leak like sieves. Not through the seams, but straight through the fabric. The Absaroka's sil nylon also appears to be on the way out. I'd like to know if cuben is any better.

    Now to find out how to stop Safari from correcting cuban. See. There it goes again.

  2. Comparing cuben to silnylon:

    1) Cuben is EXPENSIVE compared to silnylon, it's only real drawback

    2) It is just as abrasion resistant as sil

    3) It requires different techniques (tape, glue) being a plastic film

    4) It does not stretch as much as sil

    5) It is more water resistant

    6) It weighs far less than sil, roughly half what sil does.

    7) It is more transparent than sil

    8) It requires more knowledge to build a good tent (due to condensation issues)

    9) It absorbs less water, you carry less weight after a storm

    10) Many failures of early stuff were due to inexperience with the material techniques

    11) It is the only real avenue to SUL, XSUL packing without doing away with essential items or scrimping on "necessaries."

    Yes, cuben is a nearly perfect material…well as close as it gets. But at around $30 per yard, too much to stock large quantities for most cottage people. In that regard, I avoid it. I can get good silnylon for <$8. I do not build packs, tarps, or tents for sale, so, there is no way to recoup this cost. For now, as you say, "High tech fabrics come and go". I believe that cuben is here to stay, though.

    Typically, large manufacturers do not inovate. They need a solid customer base. The small cottage manufacturers can inovate. A stock of 5 packs is not that great a risk. A stock of 105 can be. Especialy in a product line containg more than 5 styles and three sizes of each.

    I can see your point about packs. There is not a lot to be gained, overall. For a 3000ci pack (Zpack vs Gossamer Gear for example) the difference is about 6-10oz. This is roughly the same as a half day of food. Not enough difference to make me go for it. For tarps, there is a larger difference, though. 4oz vs 15oz for similar coverage. For a full tent, (Liteheart vs Warmlite 2xsw looking at price points) the difference is about 1.4 pounds or ~20oz. We are talking a whole day of food. And a smaller packing size. And the cost is only marginally greater. This is worth it, IMHO. Between the pack and shelter, you can easily add an extra day out to your excursions. Or, simply shed about 2 pounds of weight.

    But, I agree with you generally. The cost of this is the killer. When (not if) the price of the material drops significantly, it will become an important material in most vendors lines, I believe. When it means cutting into their bottom line, no, they won't do it. Rebuilding a production line to handle it will be expensive, too. I do not anticipate Hilleberg, Exped, Big Agnes, or MSR jumping on cuben for a few more years. Most people out there don't even know that cuben material is available at this point. It will take a mainstream vendor to jump on it and put it on the market before they do. Overall storage durability is another factor these people need to consider. They often do not change their product lines extensively between model years. For example, the old Expen Sirius became the Sirius Extreme with only a change in fly material. So, something may sit in a wharehouse for a couple years before selling it. Let alone looks. Cuben LOOKS like cheap plastic. And it wrinkles easily. A new tent with a lot of wrinkles is not the norm.

    Yes, cuben matters. But, it is really in a tough spot right now. About the same as silnylon about 20 years ago. Good, expensive, and not widely accepted. But, there is a strong dedicated market.

  3. Oops, I forgot to mention the design. Tent design will require more and larger venting systems. Probably a chimny type vent. It is important, much more important than with sil nylon, to vent moisture out. While not a concern with packs and bags, this will require some thought and redesign of tents and enclosed shelters.

  4. Interesting point about the history of silnylon, i.e. wait 5-10 years and maybe cuben will matter.

    great point about manufacturing processes and retooling – big delays in anyone scaling this or getting gear makers in china to produce products with it. maybe this makes cuben a competitive barrier to entry against large manufacturers and gives small manufacturers a protected niche. Only problem is cost because the products are too expensive for most people. Reminds me a lot of gore-tex doesn't it?

  5. For the average Joe cuben doesn't matter.

    For a dedicated lightweight/ UL/ SUL backpacker, cuben is a great material to reduce weight and packing size.

    With TerraNova being the first major company using cuben in their backpacks and shelters, it won't be too long till other major companies will join. This might drive the price down, making it more affordable and hence more attractive to even the average Joe.

  6. Other than what has already been mentioned here, my experience with Cuben has been mixed. I'm not thrilled with it for backpacks, or more clearly, I'd be more enchanted with it if used in hybrid situtions where certain areas are reinforced with more conventional fabrics. In fact, I probably won't buy another Cuben pack again unless I get it through a very custom shop like Chris Zimmer (http://www.zimmerbuilt.com/index.html) who is willing to really explore and be innovative. For tarps, simply, there is no better option. For other more conventional shelters, cuben is a bit of a pain to work with, requires taping to be done right, and unless someone has a lot of time and money……silnylon would probably be a more realistic option for most of us. I guess it is a lot like buying a Ferrari over a Honda. It's not necessary to have, but it's pretty cool when you do.

  7. I'm with you – I wouldn't buy a cuben backpack again, at least not form the current choices. As for a tarp: I use a 6 oz silnylon tarp more than my 3 cuben ones these days. It's 1/4 the price. Cuben might make a difference for huge tarps, but then you're probably not an ultralight backpacker anyway.

  8. I still don't own a single piece of cuben, although I've been lusting for it for years now. Come to think of it, I only have one piece of spinnaker gear, which is a stuff sack that GossamerGear gave me with my poles when I ordered them (those guys are too good to me). To me, the importance of cuben is that I'm at the point with my gear list that there's not much I can do to lighten my load other than change to lighter fabrics. There are a few things that I could leave at home, and I could switch to a poncho tarp, but for the same level of comfort I would need to switch my pack and shelter to lighter materials. I only foresee being able to drop about a pound that way, and since my base weight is already very comfortable most of the time at around 8-10 pounds, I'm not in a huge hurry to spend the few hundred bucks it takes to drop the extra weight, but I would sure like to at some point.

    Maybe I should drop a few bucks for a cuben stuff sack, since that seems like a good way to get a feel for the fabric.

  9. Cuben or not doesn't matter to me. I walk light but not ultralight so I'm not as fanatical about one extra pound on a pack. As an oldtimer who started with external frame packs I've come to appreciate and prefer a pack with a good belt to take the weight.

    As for Zed's previous comment about waterproofing: for the sake of longevity igniore waterproof claims and just get a light rainproof pack cover. Makes things easier because you can easily replace or re-waterproof a pack cover, and it opens up the choice of packs to begin with.

  10. I'm going to save you some money – why don't I loan you one of my cuben tarps. We just need to figure out the hand-off, but like I said, my schedule gets a little less crazy in October.

  11. Zed – my cuben blast 32 leaked water – paint the seams, particularly the bottom ones with diluted seam seal.

  12. Thank you for the advice. It fits with what Joe said. But if it's only the seams, I can live with that, even in British conditions. The thing I was wondering about is whether waterproofing is unable to grip effectively to Dyneema. I'm moving on from the Jam solely because water pours through the fabric – which still looks immaculate and would be fine for any desert hiking. (I read Jolly Green's bit on cuben being dyneema strands trapped between two layers of film. Perhaps that's the only way to waterproof dyneema properly.)

    I've heard from some very unhappy people on the subject of packcovers. You rarely see them in Britain and, by the sound of things, there are reasons for that. My solution has been dry bags. I just don't want to go into the pack and find the drybags swimming.

  13. Thanks, Phil! I'd love to try that out. I actually do need the excuse to get out on a couple overnighters anyway. Come to think of it, my friend Gary lent me his Hennessy Hammock at your Boston presentation in May so I could try out hammocking, but it hasn't left the trunk of my car since then :)

    As for waterproofing, I've never found that to be an issue with my Dyneema pack. Even better than a pack cover, just use a compactor bag for a liner. It'll take multiple all-day downpours and is easily replaceable (and 2.1 oz each… or lighter if you go for thinner trash bags).

  14. The only Cuben I currently own is a set of dry sacks from Lawson. I love everything about them. I will say that I decided to go back to me eVent drysack for my down bag. The Cuben made a poor pillowcase. For UL I think multiple use is a must. As far as tents and tarps go, I'm waiting for more reviews before I sell a kidney to afford one.

  15. Heard compactor bags mentioned many times but don't know what they are. Maybe an American phenomenon? Or do you mean bin liner?

    One large waterproof bag inside a rucksack is how I started and very soon moved on from. Hands transfer rain water into the sack at stops and I've had condensation inside the rucksack after spending time up in the clouds. I found myself bagging up everything inside the big bag, so gave up on the large outer bag. Individual dry bags, one which might be opened during the day near the top and others which definitely must not be opened till in camp further down is the current method and it works well enough when the rucksack is offering some resistance.

    In theory, we get one rain day in every three. It's just that they seem to come in large clumps and with wind blasting the rain along. Also, nearly all of my hiking takes place above the tree line. Any solution to water ingress gets thoroughly tested over here.

  16. Yeah, compactor bags are just the heaviest version of trash bags you can get, so the most durable. I keep mine with my sleeping bag and camp clothes in the bottom of my bag, while my food and other equipment stay outside of the compactor bag but inside the backpack. Then there's a small drybag at the top of my pack with all the stuff that needs to stay dry and accessible, like the camera, notebook, etc. I figure most of what's in my bag can get wet without negative effects– tarp, rain jacket, food (which is in sealed baggies anyway), pot, stove. The compactor bag with the camp stuff and sleeping bag never gets opened until I'm in my tent, so it never gets any significant amount of rain inside. Worked perfectly in the Pacific Northwest rainy season last year.

  17. I really like my cuben tarp and MLD mids. Well made, well designed, all taped. But I have my doubts about sewn cuben – too many reports of failures. Which means cuben packs are pretty much out.

    Will it ever make a difference to Joe Backpacker? Not unless the cost drops enormously! I've swallowed the high price of cuben for the weight savings – being old and with a cranky back, ounces make a real difference in my ability to get out on the trails. The same isn't true of the average backpacker.

  18. Thanks, Guthook. Your set up sounds like mine, in how it works.

    I moved away from trash bags in NZ. Abrasion was a problem in the long term and hardware stores were far apart as the backpacker packs so I ended up carrying a roll of trash bags as well as smaller bags for clothes, sleeping bag etc. While visiting a gear shop in Nelson, I realised that the mass of plastic bags was greater than the mass of a decent sized Ortleib dry bag so I made the change. My dry bags are a lot lighter now.

  19. For me, it hasn't made a big difference yet. I'm intrigued by the weight savings on some items but I've already pared my load down to a comfortable level (also affordable level since everything is paid for). With the economy and all the medical bills I've accumulated the last year or so, I don't have any disposable income–it's already been disposed of or will be as soon as it comes in. Just last week, I spent the first dime on myself this year that wasn't an absolute necessity for the household. I bought a RailRiders shirt off their summer sale.

  20. Cuben holds the potential for me to lighten the load within my hiking preferences. But, all things considered cuben remains too expensive for my budget. Switching from sil to cuben is not as big a jump as it was switching from canvas to nylon (back in those days).

  21. Sounds wonderful, but what kills me is the high price with the short life expectancy of the material.. especially when exposed to sun. To me, a material must be strong, durable, able to withstand the elements, and affordable. I do not have any cuben gear, due to these reasons; I am not a UL or a SUL dude. I keep supplies in the bag to a minimum, and am quite comfortable with the weight of my pack and the way it carries. I believe if anything, a cuben bivy might be nice, but I'm not willing to pay more than $100 for it. Until then I'll make do with my Honda.. okay it's really a VW, but I love her!

  22. Patrick – check out the tyvek bivy sacks from TeraRosaGear in Aus. $55 for a tyvek bivy/sleeping bag cover that weighs under 6 oz. I have my eye on it. I'm looking at the value for $$.
    http://www.terrarosagear.com/quiltbagcover.htm

  23. As someone that makes gear I agree that design, function and durability are the building blocks of what makes a great piece of gear. From a different stand point using high tech materials like Cuben Fiber push the boundaries of what is truly possible with your gear.

    I'm currently working on rain mitts made from the lightest mix of WPB and non-breathable Cuben Fiber. They are seam taped, breathable, completely waterproof and only weigh around 10 grams a pair. An SUL/XUL performance luxury item for those people whose needs for them are met perfectly.

    So I think the value is simply how useful it is for what you want to do with it. So while it's a niche market it lays the groundwork for other say heavier Cuben Fiber generations that yield all the qualities of a great piece of gear. It doesn't mean making the lightest of the light isn't always a good challenge to move the line a bit further out though!

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