What’s Your Backpacking Gear Made Of? Here’s Some of the Popular Materials Used in Your Gear

materials used in backpacking gear

From time-to-time Savage Camper likes to “go technical” and investigate the actual materials that go into the gear we use and recommend. What, for example, is Cuben Fiber (now known as Dyneema®). What is ripstop nylon and what makes it better than regular nylon? A big development gaining momentum is “waterproof down” a chemical treatment process that seems to be eliminating the main shortcoming of classic down compared to synthetic insulation – that is the fact that it loses virtually all of its insulating properties when wet. So here is a brief overview of four materials that go into the manufacture of a significant percentage of the outdoor gear we use. SC will be back occasionally to investigate more of the components that make up the gear we depend on for fun, comfort and safety in the outdoors but sometimes take for granted.


Invented in 1969 by Wilbert L. Gore and his son Robert Gore-Tex, is a fabric that repels water but is also “breathable” in that it allows water vapor to pass through preventing condensation inside a garment. Gore-Tex is used today for all types of outdoor gear including shoes, gloves and jackets. It is best known for waterproof, yet breathable rainwear. The basic non-Gore-Tex rain jacket is constructed of two layers. The outer layer is usually nylon or polyester and gives the jacket strength. The inner layer is PU or polyurethane and gives the garment water resistance but has no breathability. Gore-Tex replaced the inner layer with a membrane that would protect against rain but let perspiration escape. Other manufacturers have developed Gore-Tex-like fabrics. Examples include North Face DryVent, Mountain Hardwear D.O Elite, and Patagonia’s H2No. But Gore-Tex was the first to develop the technology and remains the gold standard of waterproof, breathable fabrics. Read more about the technology and history of Gor-Tex on the Gore-Tex website.

Waterproof Down

Since Eddie Bauer patented the first down jacket in 1940, down from duck and geese has been the insulator of choice for outdoor gear. Synthetic insulation, developed by DuPont in the mid-1970s is cheaper and achieves a very acceptable level of warmth, but nothing rivals down when it comes to lightweight, compressible warmth. Besides its relatively high cost down had one other drawback and that was it loses its insulating properties when wet. Now a “hydrophobic” down is eliminating that shortcoming. Mountain Hardwear with Q Shield, Sierra Designs with DriDown, Down Décour with DownTek, and other outdoor gear manufacturers are making down sleeping bags, jackets and other gear in which the down insulation is coated with a chemical that is “not compatible with water.” It is still priced high compared to synthetic insulation but waterproof down is finding rapid acceptance with gear manufacturers and outdoor gear users

What is RipSTop Nylon?

“Ripstop” nylon has reinforcing fibers that may include cotton, silk, polyester and polypropylene containing nylon woven into the nylon fabric that give it a toughness and a three-dimensional quality. Ripstop nylon has more strength than regular nylon and small tears are less likely to spread. Ripstop is used on tents, tarps, sleeping bags, hammocks, and other outdoor gear that is likely to come in direct contact with the ground.

Cuben Fiber

Cuben Fiber was the lightweight super-strong, waterproof material used for the sails of America3, the winner of the 1992 America’s Cup. (America3 = America “Cubed”, and hence, “Cuben” Fiber). The material has since been adapted to a wide range of outdoor products including tarps, tents, and backpacks. The light fibers are 15 times stronger than high-quality steel on a weight to weight basis, but never-the-less float on water. Small outdoor gear manufacturers like Hyperlite Mountain Gear and ZPacks have been industry leaders in adapting Cuben Fiber to a variety of outdoor uses. Now it’s increasingly available at mainstream outdoor retailers like REI and on Amazon. Here are 3 cutting edge outdoor gear products that take advantage of Cuben Fiber’s unique qualities. Note that in 2015 Cuben Fiber was bought by the Netherlands-based company Dyneema and the fabric is now officially known as Dyneema®