Ultralight Fabric and Why Your Dog Needs It

If you’re a veteran of the trail, you’re likely at least familiar with the Ultralight tribe, if not a fully-fledged member yourself. Those of you who are not familiar with this curious crowd of dedicated gear nerds might be surprised by the lengths they will go to shed those extra grams:
Who needs a pillow when you have a pack?
Rain gear? You mean garbage bag?
I don’t need a water bottle, I have a straw.
This toothbrush handle is too long. Better cut it short and save a few grams.
Do I really need two kidneys?
What’s that? The liver is the only organ that…regenerates?
They are a dedicated group, if not obsessive, usually decked out in the latest innovations of the material science side of fabric making. Cuben Fiber, Dyneema, Gridstop, XPac, Robic, HDPE, UHMWPE, DWR…
But here’s the thing: Ultralight fabrics are really fascinating.
Not only are the constructions of the fabrics themselves inventive, innovative, and extremely useful. The addition of materials like this to the world of outdoor gear has changed the backpacking landscape by allowing people to go further, faster, and longer without the risk of added health concerns, injury, or fatigue. 
And contrary to what some might have you believe, going ultralight does not have to mean sacrifice and suffering. The lower you make your base weight, the easier it is to justify bringing that pillow, the camp sandals, a book, a bottle of wine or a fine whisky. And now that your pup can go ultralight, they can splurge too—maybe bring the wet food or a nice fresh bone for a boost in calories on tomorrow’s adventure! 
The reason the “ultralight” crowd exists, and the reason they can seem so obsessive, is not just because they love the nuances of nylon. Rather, ultralight travel is a philosophy: it is about simplifying your adventure by maximizing the efficiency of your kit. Your joints and body (and now your pup!) will thank you.
How do we maximize the efficiency of our kit? Three principles: 
  • Simplify our travel and routines
  • Share or use multi-purpose equipment
  • Use the latest innovations in UL materials and technologies 
DOGPAK is here to help by providing your pup with the latest in UL materials and technologies to minimize pack base weight and optimize pack utility. 
Don’t you think it’s strange that some humans will obsess over every ounce or gram, yet when it comes to outdoor dog gear, everything on the market seems to be either heavy, bulky, outdated, or cheap. The outdoor K9 gear market is at least a decade behind, if not more. We can do better, and your dog will thank you for it.
Think about it: a person who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg) will stress over the addition of even a few ounces here or there. And for good reason. Those few ounces here and there add up. And believe me, you’ll notice them on that long, chossy, uphill hike through class III scree just when you crest and realize what you thought was the top was actually a false-summit. Then you’ll be cursing those extra ounces here and there. 
Your average sized dog is only about a third the size of a 150 pound person. To a 50 pound (22 kg) dog, those extra few ounces here and there count for three times as much as a percentage of their overall size. If anyone should be hauling the extra weight, it’s the human. And as we discussed in more depth in this article, there are some important things to consider before adding too much weight to your pup. 
When it comes to backpacks for dogs or humans, weight alone is not the only concern. Rather, we are seeking to optimize the ratio between weight, utility, comfort, and strength (including abrasion resistance). That is where the latest innovations in fabrics and UL technologies come into play.
The fabric we use combines high strength with ultralight weight and waterproofing. It used to be that you could only have two of those qualities at a time: strength, low-weight, waterproof: pick two. Thanks to innovations made by our fabric supplier, we can now offer all three qualities in the same ultralight pack for dogs—the Moab Lite. 
When it was time to design the new dog backpack, we also had to consider pack utility and comfort. The utility of the pack includes things like its resistance to various kinds of weather, its load capacity, volume of the pockets, proper fit, and its appropriateness for that specific job. 
Ultimately, we decided to start with a lower capacity daypack that would be slim enough and light enough that it could double as a daily walking harness without bulky bags or excessive material hanging off or dragging through the brush.
A design like our Moab Lite stays true to the ultralight principles by forcing us to be selective in what we choose to put on our dog’s back. The lower capacity saddle bags make it less likely that your dog will be over-burdened by an excessively packed backpack. Plus, on the Moab Lite, there is always the option to tie-down a top-pack across the shoulders. 
The tighter, more form-fitting pockets on our backpack help keep the weight of the pack closer to your dog’s center and over their shoulders for better strength and balance. 3D-spaced foam padding along the underside of the pack keep your pup protected and comfortable while allowing air-flow and breathability. 
For gear nerds like me, here is some more information (probably more than you want to know) about common backpack materials and their evolution. We will tell you which specs are important and why we opted for a specific ultralight, waterproof, reinforced fabric for our new daypack for dogs: the Moab Lite. 
It might be helpful to understand what the term “denier” refers to before we go further. If you already know, skip ahead. There are a few technical terms used to describe fabric specs. For the purpose of this article, we will just define the most common one: denier. Denier is a unit of measure for the linear mass density of fibers. It measures the mass, in grams, of a 9000 meter long length of a fiber. It is based on the supposed mass of a 9000 meter long silk strand, which is said to be 1 gram or 1 denier. What does that translate to in practice? Generally speaking, the higher the denier number, the thicker, heavier, and more durable the fabric if all other variables are equal (i.e. you’re measuring the same kind of nylon, polyester, silk, etc). When looking at nylon or polyester fabrics, you’ll often see a number followed by a D. 210D, 400D, 1000D, 70D. The D stands for denier. 

Backpacking Materials: A Candid History

The three big players in modern backpack fabrics are canvas, nylon, and polyester. Each has its place and purpose, so depending on your needs or priorities, one might be a better option.

Canvas and Leather: 

Cowboy riding a horse is pulling a string of pack mules along a mountain trail behind him

Still popular among cowboys, mule packers, and outfitters, canvas is the old school fabric of choice. A natural-fiber weave, it was originally made out of cotton, or sometimes linen, and offered durability at a time when there weren’t many substitutes. The trade-off is weight. Canvas is very heavy, and although it can be made water-resistant with a coating of wax or oil, that only adds to the already burdensome weight of the fabric.
These days, canvas serves better for fashion than function. Synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester outperform canvas in nearly every area, including abrasion resistance. That said, canvas does offer a certain aesthetic that other materials can’t. And being a natural-fiber weave, some people do opt for canvas bags over their synthetic counterparts, but usually only when weight is of little or no concern. The same is true for leather. Leather is timeless, and while I do appreciate a fine leather bag, when it comes to hiking the trails, I’ll be leaving the leather and canvas at home. Unless we’re taking the mules and horses.

Polyester: 

Polyester Climbing and BASE Jumping Harness

You might remember our next contestant from its ubiquitous eruption on the 1970’s fashion scene. For better or worse, I myself am too young to have experienced the glory of oversized lapels, ruffled cravats, peacock parades, and bell bottoms (the first wave, anyway), though I am told disco had its time and place. 
Polyester refers to a broad category of polymers that can be spun into threads and woven into a fabric. Some polyesters can be found naturally while others are produced synthetically. Synthetic polyester tends to have better wind and water resistance and can be impregnated with coats of polyurethanes, silicons, or Perfluorocarbons (PFC’s) for further weatherproofing (more on that later).
In addition to its weather resistance, polyester possesses some resistance to UV light, is easy to work with, and has a low cost of production. The combination of these factors has made polyester a popular material in the outdoor gear world for the last several decades. These days, it is even used to make safety-rated climbing harnesses, belay loops, cordelette, and BASE jumping rigs. 
Polyester is less dynamic (it stretches less) than our next contender, nylon. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it depends on the application of use. If this were an article about building climbing anchors or sewing harnesses, we could go into more depth about that. For the purposes of this article though, here’s what you need to know: Ounce for ounce, polyester is not as strong as nylon, nor is it as resistant to abrasion. Polyester is, however, more resistant to UV light than nylon. 

Nylon:

Wingsuit BASE jumping in red squirrel suit next to cliff above lauterbrunnen valley in switzerland

The heavy-hitter in the outdoor gear and sports world: nylon is the most popular choice for trail packs these days due to its light weight, high strength, resistance to abrasion, and ability to be waterproofed. Nylon is a synthetic “thermoplastic” polymer with a seemingly endless array of applications, one of which being its ability to be pulled into threads and woven into fabrics. 
In the realm of fabrics, there are generally two kinds of nylon: nylon 6 and nylon 6,6. However, in recent years, a new type of proprietary nylon, called Robic nylon, has made its way to the outdoor gear scene. According to the manufacturer, fabrics made with Robic nylon are said to be up to 50% stronger and more resistant to abrasion than fabrics made with nylon 6. Nylon 6,6 is a “high tenacity nylon” and is stronger than both Robic and nylon 6, though it is less commonly used as a backpack material. 
Nylon has a higher strength to weight ratio than polyester. Because of this, gear made with nylon can be lighter than gear made with polyester, while still retaining the same strength and resistance to abrasion. Nylon is also more dynamic (stretches more) which makes it more pliable. For these reasons, nylon has a noticeably smaller pack volume than polyester. Polyester also has a tendency to absorb odors over time, making it less ideal for use as a dog backpack and even less so for use as a hippie backpack. Just messing hippies, you know I love you :) 
As mentioned, nylon’s one notable drawback is its lower resistance to UV light. All things considered, though, nylon is still the go-to choice for many high-end backpack and gear manufacturers for its combination of high strength, light weight, weather resistance, and affordability. 

Ripstop: 

Blue Ripstop nylon fabric on a wingsuit

Ripstop refers to a technique used to strengthen a weave of fabric and improve its resistance to tearing. It is most commonly used with nylon fabrics in everything from backpacks to paragliders, sailing to skydiving. Ripstop refers to a grid-like crosshatch pattern made up of thicker threads and evenly spaced throughout the fabric. These stronger threads compartmentalize pieces of the fabric and help to prevent further tearing in the event of a puncture. Originally, ripstop used single threads for the crosshatching pattern to create visible squares throughout the weave of nylon. These days, fabrics can be reinforced in a variety of patterns. Common are double-grids, diagonals, or diamond patterns, but the patterns are seemingly endless. 

Name Brand/Proprietary Fabrics:

Cordura:

Brown Cordura fabric 1000 denier

Cordura is a name brand that specializes in durable fabrics, often using nylon. Their fabrics are widely used for backpacks, luggage, and military gear. Their more common blends often have a distinctive texture and look, and are associated with heavy deniers known for durability and abrasion resistance. While they have a versatile range of uses, they are not commonly associated with making ultralight fabrics.

Kodra:

Dark grey Kodra fabric 500D

Kodra was a response to Cordura. Originally manufactured in Korea, Kodra provided an alternative to the heavy fabrics by Cordura. It is a durable nylon weave that is relatively weather resistant and available in a variety of deniers, though often seen using heavier deniers for luggage, camera bags, or backpacks. 

Gridstop:

Gridstop nylon ripstop fabric with HDPE or Dyneema reinforcement threads

Gridstop is a kind of ripstop nylon crosshatched with white Dyneema or HDPE reinforcement strands in their noticeable gridded pattern. It is an ultralight fabric that comes in a variety of deniers, 210D being a popular choice. It is also waterproofed using a PU coating on the backside. 

Cuben Fiber/Dyneema Composite Fabric:

Fabric samples of Dyneema or Cuben Fiber

Cuben Fiber was originally used as a sailing material and entered the ultralight scene sometime in the last decade. It was immediately all the rage. Hyperlight and super strong, its price reflected those properties and for anyone on a budget, it was tough to justify using Cuben Fiber. In 2015 the company responsible for a large amount of the production of Cuben Fiber was bought out by Dyneema and subsequently the material is now known as DCF or Dyneema Composite Fabric. The material is constructed using a thin sheet of UHMWPE (ultra-high-molecular-weight-polyethylene) laminated between two sheets of polyester. The result is a curiously crunchy, slightly stiff, laminate material that is ultralight and waterproof. It is also available in a range of deniers, though color range can be limited.

X-Pac and Liteskin:

Ultralight backpacking material X-Pac, white

X-Pac produces a few kinds of fabrics based on the same material composites available in different deniers and with different methods of reinforcement. They offer different lines of fabrics with different specs, and all are commonly used for backpacks.  Their X3 and X4 lines are constructed of 3 or 4 layer laminates of polyester, their patented X-PLY®, and a taffeta backing in different combinations or arrangements depending on the kind of material you get. Their Liteskin® line does not use the X-PLY® reinforcement grid, which some people prefer, arguing that the thicker grid laminated in between the other layers causes rub points at the corners of the grid, making the pack wear out faster in certain spots. All their materials are known for being ultralight, durable, and waterproof. 

Robic: 

Green Robic nylon fabric with complex ripstop pattern

Discussed earlier, Robic nylon is a proprietary kind of nylon chemical structure that is stronger than nylon 6 but not as strong as nylon 6,6. It is a popular choice in the Ultralight community for its increased strength and relatively low weight, combined with its lower price. It is available in a variety of deniers, colors, and ripstop patterns. 

Our Choice for the DOGPAK Moab Lite Daypack:

I had already fancied myself a bit of a gear nerd even before DOGPAK. I had a thorough knowledge of outdoor gear materials and their properties, I used to sew my own bags, and I also studied as a parachute rigger (being a licensed skydiver and avid wingsuit BASE jumper myself). I thought I knew just about all there was to know about nylon, polyester, Cordura, Kodra, XPac, Dyneema, Gridstop, Robic, Vectran, Kevlar, Spectra, HMA, HDPE, UHMWPE…you get the point.

Wingsuit BASE jumping next to cliff above Lauterbrunnen Switzerland with snowcapped mountains in background

I was wrong. There’s so much more to explore in the realm of material science and fabric swatches, warps and wefts and DWRs. That is to say that in this process of designing and building a new dog backpack, I have learned just how deep the rabbit hole goes. After pouring over hundreds of fabric options and specs, we selected a new-release proprietary blend of ultralight 210D nylon that is able to be waterproofed without harmful Perfluorocarbons (PFC’s).*
At 5.5oz./sq. yard (155 grams), this fabric is exceptionally lightweight, while still offering the durability of a gridded ripstop pattern using UHMWPE reinforcement threads. In addition, this material has a flexible nylon fabric feel and texture, whereas laminate materials like DCF and X-Pac are stiff, loud, and can be difficult to work with. Our material also comes in a wide variety of colors and offers a certain aesthetic that we feel is missing in the world of outdoor K9 gear.
Our material can also be PU2000 and C0 coated for additional abrasion resistance and waterproofing. The result is a clean looking, aesthetically appealing ultralight, waterproof dog daypack and harness system that optimizes the ratio between weight, strength, utility, and comfort. 
We are excited to see this project coming together, and we look forward to hearing your input. Stay tuned for updates, and feel free to reach out with any questions!  

*Instead of PFC’s, we will use a short chain DWR (Durable Water Repellant) on the outside, called C0, a vegetable base technology that is fluorine free and fully sustainable, and also Bluesign® certified. The back of the fabric will use a PU2000 coating, also a sustainable alternative to long-chain Perfluorocarbons and Bluesign® approved, but more on waterproofing in the next article).

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