Perhaps you’ve noticed the buzz around ECOPAK™ UltraWeave, or Ultra, as it’s more commonly known. Cottage-made packs with the word Ultra attached to it are popping up in social feeds right and left.
Now being used by a range of progressive pack makers, like Pa’lante Packs and LiteAF, all the way through to Superior Wilderness Designs, Zpacks and Bonfus (coming soon to GGG!), we decided to find out what all the hype is about.
Ultra is a two-layer laminated fabric that boasts a wide range of technical properties beneficial to the outdoor gear community. The fabric is lightweight, highly water resistant, abrasion resistant, tear resistant, UV resistant and extremely durable.
“The lightweight community gained a fabric innovation that gave us durability and strength without giving us any real weight penalty,” said Matt Favero from Zpacks.
Zpacks released the 60L Arc Haul Ultra in January 2022. It’s been their best-selling bag since launch. “People are really excited about this new fabric, and so am I,” Favero said. “In fact, I haven’t been so excited about anything in ultralight backpacking for a really long time.”
What is Ultra?
The UltraWeave (Ultra) fabric line was released in February of 2021 by Connecticut-based Challenge Sailcloth. Beyond all the great performance properties of Ultra, one of its greatest assets is its availability.
“All we ever used in the past was Dyneema, which is a great fabric, but it's hard to get your hands on currently,” said Chris Millard, owner of LiteAF. “So fortunately for all us cottage vendors, Ultra came in at the perfect time, which has helped push the fabric to where it is.”
LiteAF built two packs with Ultra 200 fabric that have been out and about for thousands of miles of hiking and testing. “Everything else on the packs are starting to fail, like the mesh, which is really not made to last that many miles,” Chris said. “But the Ultra fabric is holding up really, really well.”
LiteAF is going exclusively with Ultra as soon as it sells out of Dyneema-made gear. “Probably another six months and LiteAF will be 100% exclusive to the Ultra fabrics,” Chris said. “Personally, I think it’s the future of ultralight backpack fabrics.”
Where Did Ultra Come From?
The Ultra line was dreamed up by long-time sail maker and innovative product developer, Hale Walcoff, a few years back. When pandemic problems with another company led to layoffs, Hale was welcomed to take his fabric technologies elsewhere.
“I took the summer off to hike, bike, paddle and sail,” said Hale, who believes that innovations come from moments of quiet inspiration and spontaneous conversations. “During this time I thought a lot about the outdoors, and what could be done to help preserve it. The idea came to me to develop new materials using recycled polyester.”
Hale decided to align himself with a company who shared a similar mindset. He joined forces with Challenge Sailcloth, and helped launch their new company, Challenge Outdoor, in July 2020.
Hale now oversees Challenge Outdoor as Managing Director and is a key player in fabric development and product innovations. In just twelve months, the company has been able to merge modern technologies with Hale’s progressive visions and create over 100 new products.
The ECOPAK Laminates (EPL) Ultra line is currently available in four different weights, Ultra 100, Ultra 200, Ultra 400 and Ultra 800, which are part of a larger, diverse line of 18 unique ECOPAK fabrics offered by Challenge Outdoor.
Similar to Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCFs) and Hybrids (DCHs), Ultra is made with high-density molecular-weight polyethylene fibers, or UHMWPE. Where the Ultra fabric line differs from DCFs and DCHs is a few fold:
- DCFs and DCHs use trademarked Dyneema® fibers, whereas the fibers used in Ultra are unbranded.
Ultra is also a laminate, like DCFs and DCHs; but the UHMWPE fibers in Ultra are woven together with polyester fibers, while Dyneema fabrics are non-woven and are sandwiched in between two layers of film.
Ultra fabric is marginally more expensive than DCFs and DCHs.
Ultra is backed with a 100% recycled polyester film and the glue that's used is solvent-free.
“In 2019, the quality of recycled polyester had improved so that the abrasion and tear strength was equal to or better than the virgin nylon used in most packs,” Hale said. “And the recycled fiber components were more readily available.”
When it comes to comparing the line of ECOPAK Ultra offerings to competitor fabrics, Hale is quick to note, “I can't say if it's better or if it's worse – this is up to the designers and hikers to decide. But we did approach the use of Ultra fiber differently, by placing the woven UHMWPE on the outside, instead of the inside of the composite fabric."
Where is UltraWeave (Ultra) Manufactured?
Ultra and its ECOPAK sister line are manufactured in one of Challenge’s factories in China. While many people see overseas production as a potential downside, Hale explains that it lessens the environmental footprint of the fabric, seeing as virtually all recycled yarns, fabrics and films are produced in Asia.
“The lamination process is also more cost effective in China, and saves the carbon emission of shipping raw materials to the USA, and finished fabric goes back to Asia factories,” said Hale, adding that lowering the carbon footprint of fabric travel is a priority for Challenge.
What Does The Future Hold For Ultra?
With over a hundred innovations in just twelve months, it's impressive that Hale has any new ideas left in his head. He admits that many of his innovations come from listening to customer feedback and trying to make their dreams a reality.
“Initially, I met with Chris Millard at LiteAF to get his feedback on the Ultra 400, which he liked, but he asked for a lighter fabric,” Hale said. “We sent him some of the Ultra 200 to test, and got rave reviews. Then designers started asking for a sub-three ounce fabric, which was the impetus for Ultra 100.”
The Ultra 100 is the lightest of the line, weighing in at 2.92oz. Hale thinks it might be the lightest the line will go for now, as the next iteration would have a significant price increase and the weight savings wouldn’t be huge.
What is Ultra TNT?
Perhaps the most exciting new ultralight offering the company is currently working on is their first iteration of Ultra TNT (tent and tarp) fabric which currently weighs in at 0.95oz.
Chris and the team at LiteAF have been mocking up some early prototypes and sending in feedback.
“It definitely has some flaws right now,” Chris said. “But it's the first 60 yards that have ever been manufactured, so I think that's to be expected. I think there's still a lot that needs to go into it to get it to where it's something that is usable, but there is definitely something there.”
Based on LiteAF and other designers’ feedback, the updated version of Ultra TNT will be available May 1, 2022.
Beyond the Ultra TNT fabric, Challenge Outdoor is also set to release their own seam tape, dubbed the Ultra Tape, as well as Ultra Grid, the world’s first Grid fabric made from 90% recycled Nylon and 10% Ultra ripstop.
Pa’lante Packs Founder Andrew Bentz was an early adopter of the Ultra 400 fabrics for his Desert pack. Through trial and error, he was able to help give Hale valuable feedback.
“Ultra is really helpful for the ultralight community, because we want to develop all these fabrics and we want new things to happen,” said Andrew at Pa’lante. “We want to be heard, rather than just being like an afterthought, and this is one of the first times this is happening.”
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.