Over the past ten years, fabrics made from the wonder fiber Dyneema® have become a mainstay in ultralight outdoor gear.
With a laundry list of high-performance properties — extremely lightweight, highly water-resistant and in certain fabric iterations, very durable and abrasion-resistant — it’s no wonder these fan-favorite fabrics have solidified themselves at the top of the ultralight food chain, and remained there for quite some time.
Widely used by established UL backpacking brands, burgeoning cottage industry makers, and MYOG (make your own gear) creatives alike, Dyneema fabrics form the backbone of many sought-after shelters, backpacks and accessories.
We decided to dig into Dyneema to find out more about its strengths, and drawbacks; and learn what the future holds for this far-out fiber.
WHAT IS DYNEEMA®?
While many of us think of Dyneema as the laminated fabric in our favorite outdoor gear, technically speaking, Dyneema refers to the ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers (UHMWPE) buried between those laminated layers.
“Dyneema really is a fiber first and foremost,” explains Mike St. Pierre, CEO and Founder of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and one of the early adopters of Dyneema for use in the outdoor gear industry. “A fiber that is 15x stronger than steel per weight and 40% stronger than aramids. They are abrasion resistant, chemical resistant and float water. It’s the strongest fiber we have on the planet today.”
While the process of turning the raw, input material, ethylene, into a Dyneema fiber is alchemical and complex, what comes out the other end is a long chain of polyethylene molecules that are then cured and stretched.
“You’ve taken these molecular chains that are kind of amorphous, like spaghetti,” explains Keith McDaniels, Junior Marketing Manager for Fabrics and Composites for DSM, the company that owns Dyneema, “and by pulling them straight, so that they are aligned, you get a very high-strength fiber from that.”
The uses for these high-strength Dyneema fibers extend well beyond ultralight backpacking and long-distance hiking. The scope and variety of applications is actually pretty mind-blowing, ranging from tethering satellites together in space to making artificial limbs and building bulletproof vests. They can also be woven into everyday textiles, like cottons, polyesters and lycras, to give them more abrasion resistance and durability.
But most recognizable to outdoor enthusiasts are the non-woven laminates — the Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCFs) and Dyneema Composite Hybrids (DCHs). These composite laminates are manufactured in Mesa, Arizona from bio-based Dyneema fibers that are produced in Greenville, North Carolina.
“We call them composite fabrics because it's a multi-layer material,” says McDaniels, “you can think of it like a high tech sandwich.”
The Dyneema fibers are the reinforcing material — the meat — on the inside. This is coated with glue — think mayo. From there, any number of different film and fabric combinations can be applied — the bread.
That high tech sandwich, as it turns out, has big implications for simplifying and streamlining our backcountry kits.
“In terms of shelter material, there isn't anything better. Period. The end,” says Matt Favero, Director of Marketing for Zpacks, another innovative gear company that helped bring Dyneema into the outdoor limelight over a decade ago. “There isn’t anything anywhere close to that weight that can provide you with the strength and function that DCF does. It's strong. It doesn't stretch. There's no sag. It's waterproof. It’s amazing.”
Dyneema Composite Fabric Hybrids, or DCHs, are essentially a DCF that is then reinforced with an additional layer of woven polyester.
Many ultralight packs use DCHs for their face fabrics, taking the hit of the weight penalty for the increased durability. According to St. Pierre, the additional layer of protection in DCHs provides “more body, abrasion resistance and structure, and extends the life of the material.”
“It's important to note,” added St.Pierre, “that not one of these fabrics is ideal for every application. That's why we are talking about all the different wovens and nonwovens, and different deniers and weights.”
WHERE DID DYNEEMA COME FROM?
Originally discovered in 1968 through a ‘happy accident’ in the Netherlands by chemist Dr. Albert Pennings, it took years of research, lab tests and corporate convincing before anyone felt it was a fiber worth investing in.
Three decades later, Dyneema was launched into the public eye when the boat that won the 1992 America’s Cup sailing race, America3, was carried to victory by sails made with the fiber.
The new technology was dubbed Cuben Fiber, and it quickly gained buzz word status on popular outdoor forums like Backpacking Light. While some people had initial reservations about the 'too-good to be true’ futuristic fabrics, early adopters like Gossamer Gear, Zpacks, Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Mountain Laurel Designs, among others, decided to give it a shot.
“The fabrics were so new, nobody really knew how they were going to hold up in the outdoors,” St. Pierre said, reminiscing about the early day of Hyperlite. “We built a pack and a tent, and sent them out for 30,000 miles of testing.”
Eventually, gear makers figured out Dyneema fabrics were viable for the long haul. They began refining techniques to cut, sew, tape and reinforce the flimsy fabrics. Thus began their evolution within the ultralight backpacking community.
SO WHY DOES EVERYBODY SEEM TO LOVE DYNEEMA?
Ultralight and Ultra-Strong — Dyneema fiber features an amazing strength-to-weight ratio. If Dyneema was the same weight as steel, it would be 15X stronger.
Extremely Water-Resistant — Dyneema composite fabrics don’t absorb water, making them ideal for UL shelters and tents. Beyond the obvious of keeping you out of the elements while you snooze, this can also significantly reduce the next day’s pack weight — anyone who’s ever hauled a bag full of saturated gear knows how quickly the pounds add up. (For the record, 1 liter of water weighs about 2.21 pounds). Packs made out of Dyneema also offer this benefit;
the weight of the pack itself doesn’t get all that much heavier in a downpour.
Easily Repairable— a variety of patches, tapes and glues work on Dyneema composite fabrics, making repairs both at home and in the field fairly easy. So, while you may spend a pretty penny for gear made from the fabric, you’ll also be able to make said gear last.
Unique Appearance— Because as Deion Sanders once said, “If you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you play good.”
Abrasion Resistant and Durable— Dyneema Composite Hybrids (DCHs), in particular, offer these properties.
Made in the USA from Wood Pulp Waste Using Green Electricity— While polyethylene fibers are traditionally made from petroleum-based byproducts, DSM has figured out a way to derive their raw material, ethylene, from wood pulp waste leftover by the lumber industry. What DSM refers to as their new ‘bio-based feedstock’ has allowed them to drastically reduce their carbon footprint.
Additionally, bio-based Dyneema fiber production is powered by solar and wind energy; whereas coal is often used overseas to create generic high molecular weight polyethylene fibers, or HMPE.
“So, our fiber has a 90% lower carbon footprint than generic HMPE, which also sets us apart,” explained McDaniels. That equates to a reduction of 29 metric tons CO2 for every 1 ton of bio-based Dyneema fiber.
WHAT ARE THE DOWNSIDES OF DYNEEMA?
Nothing in life is all good, and so goes the story with Dyneema and its composite fabrics and hybrids. Overtime, the materials will slowly begin to break down, especially when exposed to direct sunlight and high heat. Water-resistance properties eventually diminish and the material itself, being a plastic-based product, will slightly shrink in size.
“Due to the stiff plastic-y nature of the textile, stitching of any sort pokes holes in the fabric,” explained Matt Evans, Founder and Maker at Red Paw Packs, “which can lead to reduced longevity of the textile. Stitches can elongate over time and deteriorate when put under heavy stress.” Though, he adds that most damage can be easily and permanently repaired with the correct tape.
Also, while it’s really only a concern for the ultra shy among us, tents and shelters made from thin DCFs are inherently translucent, meaning people can somewhat see inside, especially in the clear light of day.
Dyneema can also put a serious dent into hiker budgets. Outdoor gear made with Dyneema fibers and fabrics is generally more expensive; the premium material comes with a premium price tag.
“Being made in the USA, you are paying more for the labor force, and the raw materials that are also made in the USA,” explained McDaniels. “The films we use are the best of the best. It’s really a material that’s not cutting any corners, but that adds up to the price being very high.”
While gear makers broadly agree that quality of Dyneema is second to none, some wonder if there’s more reflected in the price than raw costs alone.
When Cubic Tech got bought out by Dyneema both the minimum order quantity and cost of materials increased, said Favero, who feels the current pricing for the fiber reflects a monopoly mindset rather than a fair market price. “If we had started after that had changed, Zpacks could have never become Zpacks because they priced the innovators out of the market.”
“I love these small little companies that are starting,” added Favero, who likens it to Zpacks own startup story. “They want to change something; they want to try something new; and it’s good for the customer to have this innovation.”
However, the continually increasing cost of fabrics made with Dyneema fiber hasn’t resulted in less demand. In fact, exactly the opposite has happened; demand is skyrocketing. McDaniels notes this has been good for business, but challenging for the companies who rely on a currently limited supply to make their products.
“Supply chain wise, we've been completely sold out for a long time, and continuing to grow,” explained McDaniels, adding that covid has caused complications.
“We are doing our best to respond to the situation by growing the manufacturing in Mesa to add more shifts and get out as much material as possible,” he said. “We’ve been improving some things, but I realize it's been painful for some of our customers at times, but we are doing the best we can.”
Smaller cottage industry brands like Bronx-based allmansright have definitely felt the pinch, running low on their staple DCFs while waiting for their main distributor, Ripstop By the Roll to get restocked.
“It's been tough to get,” says Livio Melo, Founder and Maker at allmansright, “We are having to weigh our rolls to see how much DCF is left and how many products we can produce from it. We’ve even thought about spacing out what's available to get through a year if we can’t source any more. It’s looking rough out there.”
In a bind, one wonders what stops someone from sourcing a different fabric altogether.
“If we are going to replace Dyneema, it has to be with something equally cool, something worth holding, something to match its appeal and functionality,” Melo said.
DSM says it's focused on scaling up production to meet the needs of the outdoor industry. "We also have more innovations coming so stay tuned,” McDaniels said.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE FOR DYNEEMA?
There’s a hunger for fabric innovation among UL gear makers who say there’s a large market eager for new, progressive materials. Even Dyneema disciples like Hyperlite and Zpacks continue to be on the lookout for progressive offerings.
“While Dyneema still is, by far, the top fiber out there, we are always looking, innovating, experimenting and trying things,” St. Pierre said. “We always want to use what is best for our end use and for our consumer.”
“We’re not done with the pursuit,” echoed Favero. “We never stop looking for what could potentially be the next best thing. It’s still about function, it's about weight and it's about durability, and finding that balance. As long as fabric companies keep innovating, we are going to keep finding those innovative materials.”
Even as some lightweight backpacking brands are beginning to experiment with cutting-edge materials like Ultra100, laminates made with Dyneema fiber remain largely unchallenged.
“Dyneema has a little diamond as their logo," said Melo with allmansright. "We’re starting to feel like this stuff is a rare gem.”
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.