Hyperlite Mountain Gear manufactures ultralight backpacking gear in an old mill building in Biddeford, Maine. The company was founded by two brothers, Mike and Dan St Pierre, who built the company from scratch. They’ve grown the company quickly by partnering with the State of Maine and local venture capitalists intent on adding skilled jobs to the Maine economy. Hyperlite sells their products directly to consumers through their website shop and through select retail outlets including REI, Campsaver, and Backcountrygear.com.
I caught up with Mike St. Pierre recently to interview him about Hyperlite’s backpacking gear and product designs. He has an enormous amount of Dyneema design and engineering experience that doesn’t get conveyed through the company’s marketing materials. If you’re interested in buying backpacking gear made with Dyneema, or want to dig deeper past the hype surrounding this high-tech material, I think you’ll find his comments interesting. Here’s a summary of our conversation. The questions were mine, but I’ve paraphrased his responses below for readability. Any errors in translation are my own.
1. Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes a distinction between Dyneema Composite Hybrids (DCH) and Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCF). What is the difference and why do other backpack makers say they use DCF and not DCH?
DCF is what used to be known as cuben fiber. It consists of Dyneema strands bonded to a type of polyester film with glue and then autoclaved. DCH is DCF that has been laminated to another fabric face, such as the 50 denier or 150 denier polyester, with more glue. DCH is a lot more durable than DCF so we use it to make our backpacks.
The terminology used by different companies is confusing, but it’s something that the company that makes Dyneema (named DSM) is trying to correct. They’re still pretty new to the outdoor market and haven’t quite figured out a good naming architecture for educating consumers about the different materials they make. They’re working on it, but they still have a way to go.
2. Can you explain why Dyneema Composite Hybrids (DCH) is better for making backpacks than fabrics like Robic Nylon or Cordura Nylon?
Nylon is woven fabric. It’s usually coated with something like Urethane which adds waterproofness, but it is still highly sensitive to decay from UV light. Nylon absorbs water and stretches on the bias, which is a characteristics of all woven fabric.
DCH has the tensile strength of 500 denier Cordura Nylon, but at half the weight. It is truly waterproof and has no stretch. That’s important when loading a backpack, because it doesn’t sag.
It’s true that polyester isn’t as abrasion resistant as nylon. But you can’t glue DCF to nylon because it absorbs water, which causes it to delaminate. So we use polyester instead. It’s a tradeoff. But we really haven’t seen any durability issues with the DCH made with our 150 denier polyester face material.
3. Why do you make backpacks with a 50 denier and 150 denier polyester face. Why would a customer choose one over the other?
The 150 denier backpacks are more abrasion resistant and durable. They’ll stand up a lot better if you hike in the desert or have to scramble and slide down rock faces. We also use the 150 denier material on the bottoms of all of our backpacks, even the 50 denier ones, for that reason.
The reason we offer both is largely historic. When we started making products with DCH, the only polyester exterior was 50 denier. But now 15o denier is available, so we offer it too.
4. What is the difference between the Dyneema Composite Hybrids (DCH) used by HMG and other ultralight backpack manufacturers?
Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s DCH is a little heavier than the material used by other backpack manufacturers because it has more Dyneema fiber content and significantly more adhesive. We’ve refined our recipes over the past 8-9 years to make a more durable material. It’s a balance between lightness and durability. Many of the people who buy our gear are on serious expeditions and count on our gear to last.
5. HMG also uses Dyneema Hardline and Woven Dyneema. What are these fabrics made from, where are they used on your packs, and how are they different from DCH?
Dyneema Hardline is a 250 denier nylon that has Dyneema fibers placed in a 10 mm x 10 mm grid, creating a true ripstop fabric. It’s less expensive that DCH, but still a lightweight option that we use on shoulder straps, exterior pockets and hip belts.
Woven Dyneema is a 375 denier cloth woven with Dyneema fibers, so it’s extremely strong. You can’t use it by itself because it’s very slippery. So it’s glued to a 175 denier polyester face fabric which gives it a lot of stability. We use woven Dyneema on our Dyneema Ice Pack, which is ideal for people who go off-trail a lot. We also use Woven Dyneema for the ski modification we offer. We use it to replace the side panels of your backpack so your skis don’t slice through it .
6. Are HMG’s DCH backpacks waterproof?
I prefer to tell people that they’re high water-resistant. While the DCH fabric is 100% waterproof, sewing a backpack with the stuff makes needle holes which might leak. We tape over all of the needle holes with a waterproof DCF tape we developed that closes those needle holes. But I’m also a big fan of redundancy and recommend that people use Hyperlite stuff sacks and pods as another layer of waterproof protection. That combination is the key.
7. HMG has a number of backpack models in different volumes that are tuned for different activities. Can you explain how to choose between them?
The Windrider and Southwest Backpacks (2400, 3400, 4400) are designed for backpacking. The only real difference between them is the durability of the front pocket, which is made from mesh on the Windrider and made with Dyneema Hardline on the Southwest. I prefer the Windrider because gear dries faster in the pocket and I can see what’s in it, so I can make sure I have all my gear when I pack up. But the pocket on the Southwest is tougher. We designed it for customers out west who rub up against abrasive rock and encounter thorny vegetation.
The Porter (2400, 3400, 4400, 5400) has the same tube design as the Windrider and the Southwest, but its exterior has been stripped down to the bare minimum with just daisy chains and compression straps. We designed it for people who bushwhack a lot, for example, in Alaska, so that there’s nothing to get snagged on. The Porter is also good for packrafting, because there’s less of a chance for entanglement.
The Ice Pack (2400, 3400, 4400) is our winter sport, ice climbing, and alpine pack. It’s designed so you can carry ice climbing tools and crampons. We are also working on a variation designed for ski mountaineering.
8. What are the advantages of a roll top backpack over one with a lid?
A roll top design is much more weather resistant than a top lid. There’s a reason why dry bags are made the way they are. They’re more efficient to use and the top compression they provide is very helpful for stabilizing your load, especially as it shrinks during the course of a trip.
9. How does HMG measure its backpack volumes? For example, is the volume of an open pocket counted in a pack’s total volume? What about its extension collar?
We fill our backpacks with packing peanuts and do one turn of the roll top to close them. The volume measured includes the extension collar all the way up the roll top.
10. Is there any way to preserve or treat the exterior polyester to make it last longer?
There’s nothing I know that you can add. If you need more durability, you should buy a pack made with the 150 denier DCH or one of our fully woven Dyneema backpacks.
11. What is the benefit of having a backpack with frame stays and how are they different from backpacks with frames?
Frames are good for carrying a ton of weight. But it’s more complicated to build a backpack with them. However, as backpacking gear has gotten lighter, there’s less of a need for a full frame anymore. Frame stays provide just the right amount of structure so that the pack doesn’t collapse. They’re not as heavy as a frame and work for most people just fine. All of our frame stays are shipped pre-bent and fit people out of the box without the need for any modification, although that is an option if it’s required.
12. Some of HMG’s larger packs like the 4400 and 5400 cubic inch models have frame sheets in addition to frame stays. How does the framesheet improve these packs’ maximum recommended loads?
Our larger 4400 and 5400 cubic inch packs still have aluminum stays, but we sew in a T-shaped piece of polyethylene which helps stiffen them and locks together the entire back panel. It’s sewn right into the back panel, so it’s not removable. We also reinforce the hip belt area so you can carry heavier loads.
13. None of HMG’s backpacks have load lifters? Can you explain why?
This is touchy topic and we’ve taken some flack for it over the years. When we were starting out, we looked at this very carefully and found that the most important variable in backpack fit was having an appropriately sized back panel, which is why we offer our packs in four different sizes: small, medium, large, and tall.
Packs that have load lifters have a smaller number of back panels than ours, which is understandable because pack makers want to minimize the number of variants they have to produce. But we suspect that load lifters were invented as a kind of kluge to overcome inadequately sized back panels. They caught on, but only mask the underlying back panel sizing problem, instead of tackling it head-on by having a wider range of sizes.
14. What were some of the manufacturing challenges the HMG had to overcome to ramp up Dyneema backpack production as demand has increased for your backpacks?
The biggest hurdle we have is finding good people, especially skilled sewers. Experienced sewers are a dying breed. Although sewing is coming back in a way. But we’ve had to train a new generation of people and it’s a time-consuming process. We’re also constantly refining our systems and processes, which can be sometimes frustrating for our employees. But we instill a model of continuous improvement, based on employee feedback and innovations. I’m constantly amazed by the great ideas that our employees come up with.
15. Does HMG use the same types of sewing machines, needles, and thread used by conventional backpack makers (using Robic or Cordura) or are special tools and materials required for working with a material like DCH?
One of our biggest expenses is in specialized tools, jigs, and templates, some which we buy, and others that we make ourselves. For example, all of our sewers use Juki sewing machines, which cost a couple of thousand dollars each, and are the best industrial sewing machines made. We’ve made that investment, because there’s a huge difference in the quality and durability the stitching they produce compared to what you can get if you buy a sewing machine at Walmart. But with all that, it’s our staff which makes the biggest difference.
For more information….
- Visit the Hyperlite Mountain Gear website
- Read about the materials that Hyperlite Mountain Gear uses in their products
- Read The Shakedown, a great ultralight backpacking education series on the Hyperlite Blog
About the Gear Tech Interview Series
The SectionHiker Gear Tech Series has interviews with backpacking gear designers and manufacturers about the materials, know-how, and issues that their products are designed to solve. The goal is to dig in beyond the marketing hype and advertising copy, to get at the history, skills, lessons-learned, and expertise required to build great backpacking products and outdoor gear companies.
Check out all of the articles in the Gear Tech series:
I appreciate you doing this…as a way you say of cutting through the baloney, and get the hard truth. God knows, there is a lot to go through.
Keep up the great work!
I’m a gear nerd. Imagine being able to ask these folks anything you like? Even hard questions. Plus I think they appreciate it too. They are engineers afterall with an unbelievable amount of expertise, and they like to share that knowledge with people who thirst for more. :-)
Thanks, Phil. I’ve really enjoyed reading this gear tech series, and now understand better how and why my gear works the way it does when I’m out. It also helped me tweak my technique a bit, to get the most out of that gear.
Great interview, and I love the company, but I have to question their strategy of selling to the big outdoor retailers. Sure, it’s great for awhile, but once you ramp up production and they get you on the hook, they start with the demands for price concessions and with ridiculous chargebacks ad deductions. Before you know it, they either drive you out of business or force you to move most of your production to the Far East to make end meet.
I know you’re a gear nerd but here you overemphasized the techie part in your interview. This is far beyond my technical knowledge and all these DCH, HMG, Dyneema nuances made me dizzy and got lost in all these Hyperlite Mountain Gear terminologies.
I’m just a mountain girl sorry.
It’s called “Gear Tech” for a reason. Some people want to know that stuff.
For lighter fare, I suggest reading my Dyneema Composite Fabrics FAQ which explain what DCF is in gentler terms.
Great article. How about a couple more production pics?
Check out the factory tour I took a few years ago. They’re still in the same location.
Great article. It would be great to see a similar interview covering Hyperlite’s shelter systems.
Excellent interview…. much appreciated!
Well done Philip.
Plenty of Mike’s opinions are contestable, but you have to give him credit for being straightforward.
Great to hear from you Dave! Yeah, I thought it was useful to hear his perspective and biases. As you say, many of his views are debatable. But then pack design is still an art, not a science, for just that reason.
I like your blog.
Much enjoyed, Philip. Thanks for continually cranking out enlightening information in an approachable and interesting format. You’re great at what you do. I frequent your site at least weekly, and never consider a backpacking purchase without poring through your archives. Again, thanks!