Hyperlite Mountain Gear from Biddeford, Maine (USA) builds ultralight, durable and functional packs, shelters and accessories. They utilize Cuben Fiber, now called Dyneema® (non woven) since the acquisition of Cubic Tech by DSM Dyneema earlier this year, because it’s the most cutting-edge fabric available in the outdoor industry. The brand has won several blog and magazine editor’s choice awards over the past few years; and has grown from a two-man operation to 24 people in six years while selling directly from online to consumer.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear makes lightweight equipment that helps outdoor adventurers increase their speed, distance, efficiency and overall enjoyment in the backcountry. Their gear is exactly what’s needed and nothing more. And this principle drives their design and innovation methodologies. It informs technologies, materials, fabrics and the techniques they utilize to make their gear.
MSP: My name is Mike St. Pierre and I’m the CEO of Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Why do I do what I do? I am passionate about the outdoors and I started our company six years ago because I couldn’t find the lightweight, modern gear I was looking for anywhere in the marketplace.
Editors note: Cuben Fiber is the original company and product name. Cuben Fiber was sold to North Sails for the use in sailcloth, and the company – outside of sailcloth – was restarted as Cubic Tech Corporation. Cubic Tech promoted their product portfolio under the name CTF3, but in the meantime the outdoor industry continued to use Cuben Fiber to refer to Cubic Tech’s product portfolio. The product portfolio will now be part of the Dyneema® brand family going forward, and referred to as Dyneema® (non-woven) fabrics.
(Photo: Brian Threlkeld)
MSP: When I worked as a chef in New York, I’d go on 50-mile-plus hikes on weekends to maximize my time outdoors. But I couldn’t find gear for my adventures; everything available at the big box stores was overdesigned and heavy. So I decided to make my own gear. I researched materials and found Cuben Fiber It was a no-brainer to use this fabric, a waterproof film reinforced with the strongest fibers in the world. I built myself an ultralight tarp and a rudimentary backpack on a sewing machine I borrowed from my mother. After seeing the performance of my gear, the disbelief of park officials at the small amount of gear I carried and the shock and awe from other hikers, I realized I might be on to something. So I started the company, developed a strong relationship with the company, and began building gear with almost a sole focus on Dyneema® Cubic Technology fiber and Dyneema®-based technical fabrics. And it’s been an awesome ride.
MSP: Given the laminated nature of Dyneema® non-wovens and the “slipperiness” of the raw Dyneema® fibers (not much sticks to it), working with it from a production standpoint is very different than working with fabrics traditionally used in the outdoor industry. We had to develop our own techniques to seam seal the products, and those are done by hand. But it isn’t exactly a low-tech process. Precision stitching is key, which means higher skilled production labor. And depending on the seam and its function, bonding is often stronger than stitching, which means we had to try, or tinker, with every possible solution before finding the right recipe of adhesion in order to build the high-quality gear for which we’re known.
MSP: We quickly realized traditional cut and sew techniques were not going to directly apply to the fabric; it just doesn’t respond like other fabrics. We tried building prototypes with roofing materials, plastic tarps, among other things, but they just didn’t work. One of the advantages we have in building Dyneema® non-woven products is that we did a lot of early prototyping and testing with straight A-grade Dyneema® non-wovens. We’re still learning what’s possible.
MSP: We think Dyneema® fabrics - especially Dyneema® wovens - are the future of the outdoor industry, especially when laminated to Dyneema® non-wovens. By weight, Dyneema® fibers are stronger and lighter than steel, and Dyneema® Cubic Technology is 100% waterproof and also lightweight. This combination is really exciting, and we are launching a small line of products with woven Dyneema® in mid-August. There’s just no comparison to traditional nylons and silnylons, which stretch and sag when wet. Tents made with Dyneema® fabrics stay taut in just about any conditions, and it provides the ultimate in abrasion resistance. Plus, there are so many possible innovations with these fabrics. We hope to continue to work together to find even better, lighter fabrics.
MSP: Thanks very much. I am a product user and the last thing I want to do is carry an uncomfortable backpack. So we spent a ton of time in the early days looking not only at the sizing, but also at the fundamental components of the suspension of our packs. We gleaned extensive insight from military databases and outdoor industry research in order to assess every shape and size a person could be—the curvature of their spines and shape of their torsos. We considered that information and developed the most minimalist suspension system possible, in turn creating a really comfortable, lightweight and functional pack. Then we tested the gear. We put close to 20,000 miles on our first packs and shelters before ever selling one. Two guys who took some of our first prototype packs out on the trail were the first and second finishers of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2009. They provided us with valuable feedback on areas that needed refining and reinforcement. We’re not willing to cut any corners. We’ll do all the research it takes to build packs that fit right and that will be durable enough to do the job.
MSP: Both are hugely important to our success. Cubic Tech is the manufacturer of the fabrics and DSM Dyneema makes the fibers. We’re excited to work directly with the source of Dyneema® because that opens the doors to more research and development thereby allowing us to be on the leading edge of innovation in terms of outdoor industry fabrics. Dyneema® fabrics are expensive, but price doesn’t drive our innovation. We want to build the best products possible, using the best materials. This allows athletes to push the limits of their activity. People shouldn’t have to think much about their gear while they’re using it. When they’re in that Zen moment, they’re just moving and everything is working right. They can achieve this with our gear because of the minimalist design, full functionality and high quality of our fabrics.
(Photo: Seth Timpano)
MSP: Big outdoor gear companies can be slow to change or adopt new, expensive technologies. They hit very broad markets meaning most of their customers aren’t high-end users, and that broader market customer will buy based more on brand recognition. We attract a core user that’s willing to pay a premium because they know our gear will benefit them in their outdoor pursuits. We’ve targeted that user from the beginning. Will big businesses be willing to invest in the new technologies anytime soon? I doubt it. The Dyneema® wovens in the packs and duffel we launched is about 15-20 times more expensive than traditional Asian-sourced materials. This is problematic for companies not manufacturing gear locally and not selling direct to consumer. Big companies typically keep prices as low as possible for the end consumer and I think, similar to GORE-TEX® which was invented in 1969, it may take decades before every big player is utilizing Dyneema®.
MSP: Dyneema® fibers, threads and fabrics are the lightest and strongest on the planet. Its uses are highly applicable to many industries, even beyond outdoor gear, and I think DSM Dyneema is tapping into those diverse markets. Something better may come along eventually. It always does. But it could also take decades for that to happen. And right now, despite the costs, this is the best technology available.
MSP: I’d like to see much thinner, finer denier weaves. This is where we get deeper into pricing issues. The finer the weave, the more fibers you need to make the same amount of fabric. But I’d love to acquire a 200-denier Dyneema® woven fabric that’s laminated to Dyneema® non-woven fabric. We could then drop the weight of our new woven Dyneema® packs even more, but still maintain the durability and waterproofness. We’re still constantly exploring the fine balance between weight and durability for outdoor gear and we will always keep a close eye on any new cutting edge materials.
MSP: Dyneema® fabrics that we haven’t yet had access to could be used in many other outdoor industry applications: apparel, sleeping bags, footwear, you name it. DSM Dyneema has been making cut-resistant gloves for manufacturing for years, for example. And while I’m confident that there might be limitless uses for this technology in countless other industries, my main focus is on how I might apply it to the outdoor gear industry.
MSP: The advancements in computer programs and technology for research and development are really allowing for us to streamline our workflow and do rapid prototyping. Fail fast, fail cheap, fail forward. We can do this much faster than we were able to in the past. And that’s important when you’re trying to be innovative.