For years, Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCFs) and Hybrids (DCHs) have been the go-to choice of ultralight backpack, shelter and accessory makers — and, for good reason. These lightweight yet super strong and highly water-resistant materials tick important boxes for outdoor enthusiasts looking to keep their pack weight low.
Before late 2021, there weren’t many viable ultralight alternatives to DCFs and DCHs on the market. But, when Challenge Sailcloth launched its line of Ultra fabrics it changed the landscape for gear makers.
Designers and manufacturers quickly took note of Ultra’s claim that it’s a more durable, abrasion-resistant material — and therefore, longer lasting than its Dyneema counterpart. (Ultra and Dyneema are similar in weight and competitively priced.)
Early adopters began running stress tests and pumping out prototypes to see if the Ultra fabrics lived up to their hype. Promising results came rolling in and a handful of companies began incorporating Ultra into their flagship packs.
Being as curious as the rest, I decided to experiment by putting two packs of the same design but different fabrics — one made in DCF and one in Ultra — to the test with a head-to-head comparison over the course of nine months.
The team at Zpacks, who were already busy incorporating Ultra into their line of ARC Haul packs, agreed to the challenge. They sent out two versions of their Nero 38L backpack.
One pack was made from army green DCF with a 50 denier polyester face fabric laminated to it (making it a hybrid fabric) weighing in at 10.9 oz / 308 g. The other pack was made from gray Ultra 100 with black Ultra 200 accents, weighing in at 10.2oz / 288 g.
I knew it was crucial to have each pack go through the same amount of use — loaded with similar weights; rolled open and closed an equal amount of times; and exposed to the same doses of stress, sunlight, and storms.
Being that my partner Mathieu and I spend most of our waking moments together, I knew it would be easy for us to test the bags evenly on our daily adventure outings.
When they landed in our laps in March 2022, we carefully inspected each one, concluded they were both created equal in terms of craftsmanship and design, and started testing them out.
To get the most use out of the Nero’s during Canada’s long, crisp transition to spring, we used them for everything — day hiking, gym bags and grocery getters — loading them well beyond the recommended 20 pounds in the process.
We also took them out trail running and trekking, setting them down in slush and snow, getting them wet and cold, and rolling them open and closed in sub zero temps. Once spring finally broke, we got a chance to use them for their intended purpose, multi-day hiking adventures.
They saw monsoon June, the hot heat of July, and a soggy summer trip to Scotland, serving as our only checked luggage. They came on day treks, section hikes and backcountry traverses while remaining our go-to packs for everything in between.
In the fall, we wanted to incorporate overnight hiking missions into some of our bikepacking trips, so we’d roll our Neros up into tight little balls and shove them in the bottom of our bike panniers with more gear piled on top.
After a few days of cycling, we’d stop at a trailhead and lock up our bikes. Then we’d unravel our crinkled little backpacks from the bottom of our bikes bags and stuff them full of camping gear, water and food to head out into the woods.
Through our 600+ kilometers of trekking adventures, the Nero’s held strong. Both bags took their ground impounds, searing sun rays and scathing rock rubs with grace. Neither one split, delaminated or tore.
The DCF shook off water droplets with ease, while the Ultra fabric had less of a ‘beading’ effect in the rain. The water never penetrated through either pack, even in heavy coastal downpours. (Note: we both used bag liners all the same.)
Nine months later, the Ultra fabric still looks as fresh and new as the day it arrived, while the DCF wears its wrinkles much more evidently, but in a way that hasn’t compromised its integrity.
The only places where abrasion issues are starting to rear their heads is at the bottom corners of both backpacks, which is common in ultralight packs after being loaded up and getting set down so regularly. I’d say the Ultra is wearing down at a slightly lesser pace.
Like a biased scientist, I started this experiment thinking the Ultra fabric would blow the Dyneema out of the water when it came to abrasion resistance and durability.
But, I was wrong.
The laminated layer of 50 denier polyester face fabric added to the DCF is a big part of what makes the hybrid fabric so much more resilient than DCF on its own.
Since the weight of the packs comes within an ounce of one another and the pricing is on par, I can’t pick a clear winner in this standoff. Maybe another year of wear and tear will set them apart, but for now, I think both fabrics make for great, ultralight, highly water-resistant, and durable choices when it comes to selecting your pack fabric.
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.