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Reader question: Are Cuben Fiber shelters & backpacks worth the cost?

A question from reader Patrick H.:

I plan to buy a new tent and backpack, as part of a larger effort to reduce the weight of my gear. I’m attracted to the weight of Cuben Fiber, but I’m concerned about its durability relative to sil-nylon or Robic. Is it worth the premium price?

Most backpackers who look beyond REI while researching gear have probably learned of Cuben Fiber, either in a standalone conversation or as a fabric option for shelters, backpacks, and accessories made by cottage brands like Hammock Gear, Katabatic Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs and others.

Cuben stands out, partly because equipment made with it is exorbitantly expensive relative to comparable products made of more conventional fabrics. A few examples:

These price tags beg the question: Is Cuben Fiber worth the cost?

What is Cuben Fiber?

Cuben Fiber, also known as Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), is a grid of Dyneema fiber — which is the strongest fiber in the world, at 15 times the strength of steel per weight — embedded in flexible polyester film. Imagine a painters plastic-type material that is remarkably waterproof, tear-resistant, and lightweight.

The most common versions of Cuben weigh 0.5 oz/yd2 and 0.75 oz/yd2.

Cuben Fiber is a grid of Dyneema fibers embedded in a translucent and flexible polyester film. For its weight, it is exceptionally strong and waterproof.

Cuben can also be laminated to other fabrics, like a 50-denier polyester, to improve resistance to abrasion and puncture. These laminates weigh more, in the range of 3.0 to 5.0 oz/yd2, depending on the Cuben variety and the laminating fabric. ZPacks and Hyperlite Mountain Gear are both well known for their backpacks made of Cuben laminates.

To improve its resistance to abrasion and punctures, Cuben (the clear shiny fabric) can be laminated to another fabric, such as a 150d polyester (the black fabric). The combination makes a worthy pack fabric. The Cuben is kept on the inside of the pack, where it is more protected.

Shelter fabrics

Conventional fabrics

Backpacking shelters are typically made of woven nylon or polyester. If the fabric must be waterproof — such as the case with a tent fly or floor — it is coated with polyurethane (PU), polyethelete (PE), or silicone (sil).

All things being equal, silicone results in the strongest and most waterproof fabric. However, pure sil-nylons cannot be seam-taped and do not meet fire-resistant standards for critical US markets like California and New York. So wholesalers like Sierra Designs, MSR, and REI use fabrics that are treated with silicone on one side and with PU or PE on the other.

I think that we will see fully seam-taped and fire-resistant sil/sil nylon available within a few years. But the technology is not yet commercial.

A conventional coated nylon that is treated with sil on one side (upper left half) and with PU or PE on the other (lower right half) so that it can be seam-taped and fire-resistant.

Today’s best coated woven fabrics weigh 1.0 to 1.5 oz/yd2 and have been rated up to 4,000 mm of hydrostatic head, several times in excess of “rainproof” standards. If the fabric performance is undisclosed — such as in the case of Big Agnes tent fabrics — you should assume that it is less.

In the case of hydrostatic head, more is better. A more waterproof fabric will withstand greater forces and will have a longer service life.

The quality of coated wovens is continually improving. I’m certain that the shelter fabrics I used on my longest trips are not as good as what I use and see today, while guiding trips and designing shelters with Sierra Designs.

Among active backpackers, coated wovens may have a trust issue. A high quality coated woven makes an excellent shelter fabric, but one bad experience with a low quality version (e.g. cheap or poor quality control) may create nervousness about the whole fabric category. Personally, I have never experienced “misting,” but I have had to replace multiple shelters because they were no longer reliably waterproof — they absorbed too much water, and in some cases would visually leak.

Cuben Fiber

As a shelter fabric, Cuben is very attractive — if you can afford it. A shelter made of Cuben will be:

  • Lighter by 30 to 50 percent, depending on the exact fabrics being compared and on the amount of non-fabric parts, e.g. zippers, buckles, struts.
  • As waterproof as the best coated nylons, with hydrostatic head ratings of 3,500+ mm.

The performance of Cuben will degrade over time due to use, UV exposure, repeated folding, and wet storage. But the lifespan is still excellent. Ron Bell at MLD estimates the functional lifespan of his shelters made with .75 oz/yd2 at around 250 “thru-hiker nights,” which assumes intense use and occasional wet storage. This is comparable to or in excess of standard coated nylons, which Ron puts at 300 to 500 nights depending on the quality.

Cuben is an exceptional shelter fabric: it is ultralight and extremely waterproof.

Besides cost, weight, waterproofness, and tear strength, there are a few other noteworthy qualities of Cuben. First, it does not “stuff” small. The material is stiff relative to coated wovens, so it needs to be folded for it to pack away small.

Second, Cuben does not stretch. This results in a less forgiving pitch — the tension and anchor points must be perfect — but the shelter will stay taut until the morning. Sil/sil nylon is especially stretchy, and a pre-bed and sometimes middle-of-the-night adjustment is necessary, especially in wet or humid conditions. Obviously, this could get annoying.

Third, the surface of Cuben is less slick than coated wovens, so more snow tends to stick to it. I’ve had multiple Cuben shelters on my winter guided trips with no issues; the coated nylon shelters nearby have fared better, but not dramatically so.

I have had mixed experiences (and have heard mixed reports) about the water absorption of Cuben versus coated wovens. With use, I think you should expect both fabric types to absorb more water than when new.

Is Cuben worth it?

Without knowing your budget or your expected use, I can’t tell you if a shelter made of Cuben is worth the premium price. But hopefully you now have the information necessary to decide.

If you need some help deciding, leave a comment below with an explanation of your situation.

Pack fabrics

The weight and performance of a shelter, especially common designs like A-frame tarps, is largely a function of its fabric.

This is not the case with backpacks. I can think of at least a handful of considerations that I prioritize above the pack fabric, including:

  • Fit/comfort,
  • Suspension/load-carrying ability,
  • Pockets,
  • External utility and compression, and
  • Volume.

Conventional fabrics

Premium conventional pack fabrics may be branded as Cordura, Dyneema, Robic, and X-Pac. They are all woven nylons, perhaps with a reinforcing gridstop of an exceptionally tough or thick fiber. They can be coated with PU or sil to improve resistance to water, abrasion, and tearing.

For long-term abuse, I would avoid any fabric less than 100 denier.

As a thru-hiker I put serious miles on a handful of packs. For example, I used one GoLite Jam for the length of my 7-month 6,875-mile Great Western Loop trip. And I used the ULA Epic for about two-thirds of my 6-month 4,700-mile Alaska-Yukon Expedition. The packs were made of 210d Dyneema and 210d Robic, respectively. These are high quality fabrics, but reasonably priced and widely available.

Top: A Cuben laminate with 150d black face polyester face fabric. Bottom: The 210d Robic nylon that is standard on ULA packs.

Cuben Fiber

On its own, Cuben Fiber is an inferior pack fabric, unless you are okay with:

  • Disposable gear, or,
  • Babying your backpack.

Why? Because Cuben has poor resistance to abrasion and puncture. For its weight, it’s pretty good, but for my uses I would never buy a pack made only of Cuben, even the heaviest version of it — it would get trashed by a few bushwhacks or rough bumps against granite.

Cuben laminates — whereby Cuben is glued to another fabric, like a 50d polyester — are another story. Their performance is more comparable to the premium woven nylons mentioned earlier, and some would argue that they are even better. The supposed value-added:

  1. Weight-savings,
  2. Greater tear-strength, and,
  3. Waterproofness.

But I think this argumentation is dubious:

1. A pack made of a Cuben laminate will be marginally lighter, by perhaps 5 percent. The reason: the pack fabric constitutes just a small fraction of the overall pack weight. Most of the weight of a pack is its suspension, hipbelt, shoulder straps, and buckles and straps.

2. Based on past performance, standard woven nylons have proven to have sufficient durability for hard, multi-month trips.

3. With extended use, Cuben laminate packs will not remain waterproof. So, as with a pack made of woven nylon, you will need to waterproof your gear. I recommend using a 20-gallon trash compactor bag as a pack liner.

Is Cuben worth it?

If you find a Cuben laminate pack that fits you perfectly and that has your exact wish list of features, go for it.

But I would strongly discourage limiting your search to packs only made of Cuben. They are not functionally lighter or tougher than packs made of conventional woven nylons, and you will pay $50-100 more for it.

Your turn: Do you think that Cuben Fiber is worth the price? Leave a comment.


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31 Responses to Reader question: Are Cuben Fiber shelters & backpacks worth the cost?

  1. Jeff Howell March 8, 2017 at 9:12 am #

    I have a “reinforced” cuben pack that is no-frills; basically just a sack with straps. But it only weighs 9 ounces. I’ve found it to be pretty sturdy. It’s perfect for a max of three nights in fair weather. Anything longer – or under a troublesome forecast – and I’d need something more substantial. As with most things, it’s very trip specific. My cuben mid is my go-to shelter on every trip, however.

  2. Campbell March 8, 2017 at 9:39 am #

    It’s great to hear your thoughts on this.

    There are two additional points that influenced my decision in buying a pyramid shelter-

    Silnylon stretches when its wet, causing a tent to sag. (I would love to hear any recommendations for how to cope rather than going out in the rain to tighten guylines) Cuben fiber does not stretch.

    Silnylon, reportedly, sheds snow better than cuben fiber.

    FWIW, my cuben fiber pack has help up perfectly ice climbing and on short backpacking trips.

    • Brad W March 8, 2017 at 11:52 am #

      You could try tying some shock cord into your guy lines to make them self-tensioning, like so: http://blog.gossamergear.com/diy-self-tensioning-guy-lines-2

      I did this on the tent I bought this winter, but haven’t gotten to test it yet in the field.

    • Jan March 8, 2017 at 9:28 pm #

      I can lengthen the center pole from the inside in my sil mids to greatly alleviate the sagging. Either with a small rock or two at ground level, or by un-flicking the trekking pole and adjusting its size.

      I

  3. DouchePacker March 8, 2017 at 9:51 am #

    Great article. Do you happen to know if cuben is fossil fuel based like polyester and nylon?

    • Mittencamper March 8, 2017 at 10:06 am #

      It’s made of plastic, so I’m gonna go with yes.

    • Sean March 8, 2017 at 10:06 am #

      Wikipedia has you covered. Dyneema fibers are a type of polyethylene basically. From what I gather from reading Wiki and other sources, it is spun out in such a way that tensile stress is efficiently distributed along a very long chain of molecules in an efficient way.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-high-molecular-weight_polyethylene

    • Andrew Skurka March 8, 2017 at 11:17 am #

      I don’t know the chemical makeup of Dyneema. But the polyester film in which it’s embedded is definitely a fossil fuel-based product.

  4. Mark D Filbey March 8, 2017 at 10:01 am #

    Outstanding, Andrew. That’s the best article I’ve read on cuben fiber. Clear and concise. Hey, you should write a book one day 🙂

  5. Patrick H March 8, 2017 at 10:01 am #

    The information you provide is quite valuable. Your willingness to help the rest of us is priceless.

  6. George March 8, 2017 at 10:56 am #

    As of yet merely an occasional backpacker, but I like the zpacks and hmg backpacks and tents I’ve been using…a lot. My perspective….if price is a priority differentiator for you, then maybe not the best option.

  7. Brad R March 8, 2017 at 11:25 am #

    Dyneema is not the same as “Dyneema Composite Fabrics” otherwise known as Cuben Fiber, though Cuben Fiber does use dyneema fiber – it is a composite of Mylar film and dyneema fibers. It is not a woven fabric.

    Full Dyneema is a woven fabric that is virtually bomb proof but very expensive. The only packs that offer full dyneema are McHale, Cilogear and HMG but only as an extra cost option. Full dyneema by itself is not waterproof.

    Of course neither are to be confused with “dyneema grid” which is a common pack fabric pictured above used by ula, Golite, exped, mld, zpacks, and a whole bunch of pack makers. Only the white in the grid is dyneema fiber, the rest is regular nylon.

  8. Brad R March 8, 2017 at 11:35 am #

    I have used a composite cuben 150d poly faced fabric and liked it, though I prefer the cheaper 210d xpac and 210d dyneema grid is tougher than either though not waterproof or water resistant.

    For shelters it seems to do well with no sag or misting. Some sil is better than others but I have used some older tarptent and smd sil that was pretty bad.

    • Andrew Skurka March 8, 2017 at 11:45 am #

      Some sil/PE/PU nylons are definitely better than others, not just among manufacturers but also among the exact fabric rolls. Quality control and fabric testing has a role.

      I had a good conversation with Ron about sil-nylon and Cuben while I was writing my book last spring. He said that the quality of sil has improved greatly, even saying that his current Pro is “great” versus the “okay” quality that he was using a few years prior. Experiences with sil products from a few years ago are increasingly less relevant given the technology today.

  9. Andrew Choffin March 8, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    Yes!
    Great article. Thank you Andrew.

  10. dizzy March 8, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    I love, love, love my cuben gear. I think it’s important to consider what you are using it for and how gentle you are with your stuff. My zpacks zero is about to go on it’s 2nd thru with just a small repair (that manufacturer did for free, thanks!). I decided to get the hexamid as well and can’t wait to use it on the PCT as needed. Like anything though, it’s only spendy if you pay full price. I paid $355 total for these including shipping, it’s super easy to spend more than that on a silnylon tent alone. Zpacks Bargain Bin and Backpackinglight forums are your friends.

  11. Steve Flinn March 8, 2017 at 1:39 pm #

    Unquestionably. I love my CF gear. I have been using my Zpacks Zero for 4 years for both every-weekend backpacking and weekly CostCo runs (I live in San Francisco and, when I’m not out on some mountain, I am schlepping stuff around in town on public transit).

    • Andrew Skurka March 8, 2017 at 1:54 pm #

      But do you love your ZPacks pack because it is made of Cuben, or because of its overall performance (in this case: simplicity, packability, comfort maybe)? I suspect the latter. And I’m willing to bet that if you lost your pack and that ZPacks only made the Zero in, say, Robic, that you would buy it again because the fabric substitution does not dramatically change the pack.

      • Steve Flinn March 8, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

        I’d say both, actually. If it were made of Robic then I’d have to consider the rain. Other than that, yeah, Robic would be fine. Though both would cost me about $100. Thing is, before CF came out and sort of turbo-charged UL design it wasn’t as easy to find the sheer ruck I was after.

      • Maeglin March 9, 2017 at 12:24 am #

        I agree regarding backpacks, Cuben is less important, especially since it needs to be a laminate for durability. Look at the Z-Packs Arc Haul, it is only 3oz heavier, has more space and carries more weight. That said, I love the near-waterproof Cuben hybrid. I won’t go back to bags that soak up water drench your stuff. It might not last forever, but probably better than the urethane coating on the Gridstop.

        Regarding tents, Cuben fiber is great stuff, being lightweight and strong. Still, the design of the tent will probably have a greater effect on your happiness with it.

  12. Pat March 8, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

    If you want the lightest tent possible and can afford cuben, it’s worth it. I have a 2 person zpacks duplex tent that weighs 20oz, has floor, two doors, netting, and it very dry in a down poor. Uses two trekking poles.

  13. Dan Durston March 9, 2017 at 12:19 am #

    I’ve had good luck with hybrid cuben retaining it’s waterproofness. It’ll leak at the seams a bit, but 95% of the time it’s waterproof enough here in the PNW until it gets really old and there are obvious problems with the inner plastic (mylar) layer.

    I prefer XPac fabrics for packs though. The woven fabric on both sides of the plastic layer really protects it, so i stays waterproof longer plus it’s much cheaper than the cuben options. Xpac comes in all sorts of face fabrics up to 500D or so. XPac VX21 (210D nylon + plastic + 50D inner layer) is pretty sweet.

  14. BCap March 9, 2017 at 6:57 am #

    I love my Seek Outside Divide in VX42. In retrospect the VX21 would have been fine, but I erred on the side of durability since I’d never used XPAC before. My wife has a HMG 3400 and honestly I don’t see any substantial benefit of cuben (for a pack). I would love it if HMG had a XPAC option, though it seems that won’t happen any time soon.

  15. John the xcar March 9, 2017 at 7:11 am #

    I love CF tents for their weight savings but more often than I expected grab a sil-nylin tent because they pack so much smaller in volume. CF fabric tents stuff down to about twice the volume of a similar s-nylon tent.

  16. Jay Kerr March 9, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

    I love my sil-nylon Duomid. It weighs in at 18oz, and cost $265.00. In 7.5oz. CUban the same tarp is $455.00, and weighs in at 14oz.. That is a delta of $190.00, for a 4 oz. savings. Much as I would love to bank that quarter-pound, I just can’t justify the cost.

    I also love the easy taut pitch I get with the sil-nylon. Like Jan, I’ve taken to keeping a nice flat rock in the mid for a quick pole-lift in the night to retension if needed.

    JK

  17. Evan March 9, 2017 at 11:21 pm #

    So why doesn’t Big Agnes make a tent with the body of a Fly Creek with a fly made of Cuben? I only see tarp tents made of Cuben, why is that? I live in the PNW so waterproofness is very important, but I’m afraid of committing to a tarp tent because I’ve never owned one and they seem cumbersome to setup.

    Columbia uses something they call “OutDry” on their packs, I know it’s not Cuben, do you know what fabric/technology they use for that? They claim it’s totally waterproof.

    • Andrew Skurka March 10, 2017 at 9:34 am #

      Cuben is used only by cottage manufacturers because their price structure can support it (i.e. no middleman) and because they can train specialized labor.

      OutDry is a waterproof/breathable fabric, similar to Gore-Tex. It’s completely different than Cuben or a waterproof/non-breathable fabric like a tent fly.

      • Evan March 10, 2017 at 4:30 pm #

        Yeah it just seems like in the tent world you have to choose between freestanding and fragile materials, or non-freestanding and durable materials (at least that’s what my read of the landscape is).

        I’m currently looking for a UL option for my fiancé and I. So it’s gotta be 2 person. We live in the PNW so it’s gotta withstand heavy rain. The BA Fly Creek looks promising but it seems fragile and reviews say it’s not truly freestanding. I don’t mind paying more for something that is going to last. But last year I made a poor choice and spent a lot of money on the wrong tent (BA Foidel Canyon 3, wayyyyy to heavy) and I really want to get it right this time. We backpack with our 2 huskies, which is a workout in itself, so dropping our pack weight would make a HUGE difference for us and allow us to travel further.

        • Andrew Skurka March 10, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

          I would look at a mid for 2-3 people. MLD DuoMid, My Trail Company Pyramid 3, Black Diamond Mega Light, etc. For the weight, mids are hard to beat. And you can get one made of durable material. Fairly easy to set up, especially those with rectangular or square footprints.

          If you insist on an inner tent, too, mid don’t make as much sense. At that point you are back to BA Copper Spur or MSR Hubba tents.

  18. Peter March 10, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    I’m looking for a shelter for my upcoming PCT sobo thru hike. I’d also like a shelter that would last me another thru on the CDT along with many thousand mile bikepacking expeditions. A mid seems like the way to go, but barring any unforeseen oddities, would one of the fabrics hold up better in the long run? Is this even a reasonable expectation?

    • Andrew Skurka March 10, 2017 at 4:28 pm #

      A modular tent like a mid+nest or the High Route will give you the performance you need for those wide-ranging conditions and the versatility to mix-and-match components as conditions warrant them.

      I think the expectation of one shelter enduring two thru-hikes plus a 1,000-mile bikepacking expedition is probably unrealistic. You might be able to re-waterproof it after each trip, but this is not as good as factory-fresh, and it adds weight. I would suggest you purchase an expensive high quality tent and hope that it goes the distance. Or buy two less expensive tents, and swap them out when necessary.

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