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The Durability Myth

Super Durable Heavyweight Camping Tent

Durability Does Not Mean Heavyweight

In this economy, we all want to buy backpacking and camping gear that is durable and going to last. But as consumers, we need to realize that many outdoor manufacturers overbuild their gear with less expensive and heavier materials in order to keep their manufacturing costs low and reduce their rate of product returns and customer support calls.

The Case of Tents

Take tents, for example. Manufacturers like Big Agnes, MSR, REI, and others, sell a lot of double-walled tents that are made using urethane coated nylon. The stuff is pretty indestructible with minimal care, but adds a lot of weight to a tent that could just be built using lighter weight silnylon. On top of that, tent manufacturers created this myth that you need to use a tent footprint under a tent to make it last longer and prevent water from seeping up into the floor.

Just my opinion, but these heavy duty fabrics add a huge amount of unnecessary weight to peoples’ packs and don’t have any material impact on the effective lifetime of a tent. Most people, even rabid camping fanatics, don’t use their tents more than a dozen nights a year. You need to question why a heavier tent is going to be more durable, when one made with lighter weight materials, will last just a long.

Consider silnylon tarp tents. They’re used by many Appalachian trail thru-hikers (the Samonsite gorillas of the backpacking industry) more nights in 6 months than your average backpacker would use them in a lifetime, and they standup to the abuse just fine.

Lightweight Durability

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t demand durable products from outdoor manufacturers. What we should demand is the use of lighter weight fabrics that have a high degree of durability and are not overly expensive. Material science has progressed beyond pack cloth and urethane coated nylon.

The good news news is that there is movement in this direction, particularly from backpack manufacturers. Mainstream manufacturers like Osprey and Mountain Hardware are incorporating lighter weight fabrics into their backpacks, in order to sell to baby boomers who are living longer but want lighter weight packs.

Equally encouraging, is the use of more durable fabrics by cottage gear manufacturers who also want to tap into the boomer market. It’s a tradeoff, but smart cottage brands are using more durable fabrics without increasing gear weight or cost to expand their sales into a new consumer base. Durability is still important, but it has to be affordable and light.

What do you think about the durability of lightweight backpacking gear?

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21 comments

  1. I agree. The big manufacturors are the primary culprets. And describing a 4-5lb tent as ultralight…well, this is just funny.

    I know when I buy something about how long it will last. For example, the old Miniposa pack I use. It is comming up on another repair, but it is still servicable after several years of use. And I mean at least 30-40 nights per year tramping through the woods. There is a nice selection of <1# packs out there today. Some are more durable.

    The issue of durability means an item is cheaper for the average consumer. $100 for 3 years is not too bad. But $100 for 20 years is a whole lot better. A down bag will outlast a synthetic bag 6-10 times over. It makes sense to carry less weight. A good tarp will easily outlast most commercial tents, is cheaper to buy and easier to maintain and lighter to carry.

    Expensive UL gear is a myth. Unless you are fighting the last gram, you can get your weight down to about 10# with off the shelf components, easily. And most of this stuff will be around when heavier stuff has been discarded. UL stuff needs to be taken care of, so your time is spent wiping down a tarp, not packing a larger tent. Or cleaning your pack out, rather than letting debris abraid the inside. Or picking up trash around a campsite rather than leaving a stake. Good for the envoronment, too.

  2. Unfortunately many people believe the advertising. I've been seeing the word "ultralight" in catalogs and online to describe gear and it's the same old heavy stuff, just relabeled.

    A more objective measure of durability might be cost/days out per year. This would show people that spending huge dollars for heavy overbuilt gear is a waste of money if they only get out 2 or 3 days a year.

    I wonder if cuben fiber is too expensive to be used in mass market products. I'm thinking it is, and that better designed, lighter gear made out of silnylon will get the majority of sales as the lightweight gear market expands into the mainstream.

  3. In addition to materials I think that the durability and weight savings are often in the bells and whistles. Simpler is usually more durable, easier to repair and often lighter. Or if you want something super durable you could take an advantage from the weight saving and built the piece of gear from even more durable though heavier fabric.

    Then there is the question whether people in general really need or want really durable gear? (Not speak if the industry really wants to sell that kind of gear.) For example many old Finnish Savotta rucksacks with external frame are running strong after well over 20 years of repetitive use with monster loads but many people want to switch the gear every few years to get lighter or otherwise fancier gear… I think it would be best to settle with reasonably light and very durable (often simple), shrug shoulders for the marketing hype and stick with the old gear. But even I can't do that. The mind is weak.

  4. Good points. I can certainly see how weight savings is in the bells and whistles, but not durability. That quality was pounded into my head growing up and is probably why American cars were so overbuilt and huge so long. Consider the case of parents buying for children – they're easy to scare with the durability "feature." I think it's a must-have with consumers. The trick is to decouple it from weight, which is why so many manufacturers say that thru-hikers use a product, even when it's not true.

    I agree that reasonably light and simple are best, but while reasonably light will win out (silnylon not cuben), simplicity won't. American consumers equate feature with value, which is why manufacturers cover their backpacks with straps and pockets.

  5. Yeah, in most items I agree with Korpijaakko. Simpler is generally more durable. I am glad the current trends are pushing the words Ultra Light out there. But no one can agree what they mean. Pack manufacturors go over the top. Bells are an option (bear bells) but whistles are often included…FREE…ha, ha.

    Pumps on stoves are a sore point with me. They break and require maintenence. Why? For nearly the same weight, they can be removed or designed around simple off-the-shelf replacement parts available at any hardware store. Durability means minor maintenence. A 10 cent "O" ring is easy, a $35 anual repair kit?

    A well built tarp or tent out of UL materials will probably last longer than a 6 pound tent PU coated tent that delaminates after 7 years…especially when computing Use/Days.

    Ahh well….durability also means reliability in the field. A UL piece of kit cannot afford to fail. Simpler, means less potential points of failure…

  6. Hear Hear! I, too, am constantly amazed at the buying trends of people. I find that the Boy Scouts (with a large consumer influence) have accidentally fostered the durability myth. "Back in the day" durable fabrics were a must for heavy wear and tear, and somehow, this has survived and multiplied. Mind you, I love the organization, but it is a history bound group that is not too often drawn to "new" things. Fortunately, this is changing. My local BS Group is beginning to try new fabrics and items without the BS logo on them. They recently had me in to do what Earli does in demonstrating UL backpacking. They loved it! Keep preaching the message! Long Live SilNylon!!!

  7. "many outdoor manufacturers overbuild their gear with … heavier materials in order to … reduce their rate of product returns and customer support calls"

    Doesn't that factor cut the other way and suggest that heavier fabrics are, indeed, more durable?

    I'm not sure I buy the other argument (raw material costs) either. Material costs aren't all that big a proportion of the cost of manufacturing most gear – construction, marketing, etc. have to be most of the cost.

  8. I talk to a lot of manufacturers, big and small, and know the particulars of their profit margins and how much retailers take from them. For example, if REI takes requires a 60% discount off MSRP, there's not much left for the manufacturer. The retail channels bear the brunt of marketing and sales costs, not the manufacturers.

    But the issue here is not whether heavier materials are more durable, but the fact that it doesn't matter. Most people don't use their gear enough to make it matter. Moreover, they've been brainwashed into thinking what they're buying is good when much lighter products will last just as long for them and be far more comfortable.

  9. If someone doesn't need durability — and you may be right that most people don't — then I agree it is a "no harm, no foul" situation.

    Brainwashed? That's harsh. (So was "myth")

    Couldn't some people use gear a lot and actually have found that in many cases traditional gear works better?

    I find it annoying that people seem to assume that all experienced hikers are ULs and all traditional hikers are novices or hike in some considerable discomfort. Just isn't true. There are experienced hikers in both camps, and who prefer sturdy gear and are willing to carry it, though — of course — you won't find many of them on sites devoted to UL hiking.

  10. I wasn't trying to insult anyone – sorry if it came out that way. It was an opinion piece, and I don't consider myself an ultralight hiker.

  11. Maybe I'm too touchy.

    I'd be interested in your views in this part of my post:

    Your original comment (extracts): “many outdoor manufacturers overbuild their gear with … heavier materials in order to … reduce their rate of product returns and customer support calls”

    My comment: "Doesn’t that factor cut the other way and suggest that heavier fabrics [etc.] are, indeed, more durable?"

    It was that part of your original posting that caused me the biggest question. I still doubt that material costs are all that significant when there are such significant marketing advantages of reduced weight, but lets end that discussion and turn to the high return rate of lightweight gear — which suggests to me durability issues, especially if we assume that most people only use gear for a few days a year.

    As I read lighweight gear advocates talking on many sites (sorry for the UL label – unjustified), it seems to me that they often talk about good return policies. They are great — but isn't it better if you don't need to return it?

    Just saying ..

    I haven't been here much before – I'll introduce myself as a co-moderator of the John Muir Trail group on Yahoo. I'm a older (65) traditional 4-season hiker about 30 days per year – mostly 6-12 day sections and usually only about 12 miles per day. I got my baseweight down to about 25 lbs (lightweight?) and decided I was giving up too much function and returned to a "traditional" baseweight of about 35-45 (depending on season). Haven't come to regret it yet. I find that well-designed packs allow me to carry the weight comfortably (if slowly).

    John

  12. "I can certainly see how weight savings is in the bells and whistles, but not durability."

    Think, for example, about a backpack. The more there are features and details the more there is something to fail. For example nixe 3D-mesh backpanels wear out surprisingly fast when compared to (sturdy) plain fabric. For example simple sack like Ortlieb X-tremer is extremely durable, mostly because it uses durable fabric but also because it doesn't have features that could break.

    "I agree that reasonably light and simple are best, but while reasonably light will win out (silnylon not cuben), simplicity won’t. American consumers equate feature with value, which is why manufacturers cover their backpacks with straps and pockets."

    Attitudes change over time but I think you are unfortunately right on this one. But I think it's same with features as it is with "durability": people are fooled to believe they need more than they really do. Unfortunately the real world doesn't necesseraly follow The Optimal Ultimate Truth i.e. my opinion. ;)

    "Bells are an option (bear bells) but whistles are often included…FREE…ha, ha." – That was a good one! =)

  13. Pleased to meet you John.

    I don't know what the return rates are for the UL manufacturers, but I doubt they're any higher than REI these days with their unlimited return policy. Otherwise, they just go out of business. They run on far less of a profit margin than you might realize.

    But, I'm glad that you have pointed out the Achilles heal of the UL cottage manufactures (sorry to lump them all into one group), which is that their gear is sometimes less durable than one would expect from a $250 backpack or tarp. I know a few who have beefed up their fabrics and replaced features that have a high failure rate in order to be perceived as more durable to people who normally buy gear from very large brands (who invariably manufacture everything in Vietnam). Those companies are seeing a significant increase in new orders.

    It seems like there are two groups within the UL cottage makers, those who want to get a piece of the next wave of boomers and are willing to modify their products or product lines to do it and those who are still focused on appeasing the tiny UL segment of customers with high tech fabrics and outrageous prices. Their loss.

  14. Korpijaakko – perhaps another reason for wanting "more" is fear. People who are unsure of their skills tend to want to bring more to feel safe. I certainly did this a few years ago. but now I focus more and skills and less on gear (believe it or not).

  15. Good point, and well said.

    Just to add to it, I think that part of the reason that people buy overbuilt gear is that we're trained to believe that light = fragile, ergo heavy = durable. While that's sometimes true, it's often perceived as a universal truism, especially when people fail to take materials into account, which I suspect has a lot to do with a lack of knowledge — ask someone whether or not they think parachutes are strong.

    Then point out that silnylon is parachute fabric… just don't set it on fire! :)

    Your comment about features was amusing, also. Sigh… some people don't seem to realize that features are only adding value if you use them. Otherwise, they just add cost (materials, manufacturing) and weight, while sometimes adding failure modes.

  16. For me its less an issue of durability, I do not go out that often. I do not like flimsiness. Cook sets that blow over in the wind, or tents that flap endlessly on a windy night because something stretches, bends or breaks.

  17. For my first tent, I sewed a footprint (this was years before footprints were commercially available) using the same material that the tent floor was made from, and I used it for the lifespan of the tent- hundreds of camp nights. The footprint never wore out or was punctured, so I conclude that the tent floor would have been equally durable. I haven't used a footprint since, although I admit using the fly alone is an intriguing idea.

    Personally, I would say the number one failure mode for gear has been urethane coatings either peeling off, or breaking down with that characteristic vomit odor. Number two would be zipper sliders wearing out (why are they made of such soft metal?) Number three would be fabric edges unraveling, with consequent seam failure- although I'm aggressive about keeping this at bay with a judiciously applied lighter.

  18. Another Myth: "UL gear isn't durable"

    I've been using the same Mountain Hardwear Vapor Trail pack since 2006 – its done a complete PCT Thru-hike and many, many weekend trips. I'm not easy on gear either, but this thing is bullet proof.

    Also, I think a lot of gear is designed to "Sell in the show room" – I hate buying neon colored gear with giant logos. I wish I could get things in more muted colors with less zippers (not more) and fewer useless features. You could do all that and save a bunch of weight!

  19. You mean Granite Gear right? They've been making great durable packs for years. Pretty darn close to 2lbs.

  20. Right, Granite Gear, not MH, my bad.

    2lbs. yeah, not super-duper UL , but it was pretty light in its day, 7 years ago.

  21. I will always attest to the durability of my UL gear, especially compared to more overbuilt options. My GG LT4s have over 3000 miles of use with one break, compared with my previous pair of Leki Super Makalus with about 2800 miles and six breaks. My MLD Exodus has over 2500 miles of use with the only damage being some holes in the mesh pockets from the first trip I used it for. My cheap silnylon MEC tarp has six years of use now, and no fabric failures at all. Heck, I'm still on my first two-pack of gossamer gear polycryo ground cloths after three years and 3000+ miles.

    The one area where I've found light gear to be not as durable is sneakers. Unfortunately, footwear wears out pretty regularly. But then again, I don't think I've ever put five hundred miles on a pair of boots, either, so I don't know if they'd last as well.

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