By Conor Mihell
For years, the saying "You get what you pay for" seemed not to apply to ultralight camping gear. As manufacturers invested in new fabric technology, they cut back on creature comforts, making featherlight yet Spartan gear best suited for maniacal long-distance backpackers. No longer. On an early summer canoe trip we tested three new products from Washington's Cascade Designs that prove comfortable lightweight camping gear don't have to mean high price.
MSR Elixir 2 ($249.95)
The vertical-walled dome shape and rectangular footprint of the Elixir 2 closely replicates MSR's bestselling Hubba-Hubba tent--at a cost savings of $140. Granted, the two-person Elixir weighs about a pound more than the Hubba-Hubba, but that's of small concern when your sea kayak or canoe is doing the lion's share of the hauling. The unique frame relies on parallel color-coded aluminum poles with twin hubs to form two overlapping arches. A short rooftop spreader pole completes the frame and creates awnings over the symmetrical doors and nine square-foot vestibules front and back. We liked how the Elixir set up intuitively (and in minutes) and included a floor-protecting footprint. Inside, there's enough room to fit two six-plus-footers and ample space for headlamps, paperbacks and other items in two mesh pockets sewn into the end walls. Clever (and closeable) vents on each side of the rainfly promote good ventilation while the fabric itself creates a bright space on gloomy days.
Thermarest NeoAir Venture WV ($59.95-89.95)
Finally, an insulated air-filled mattress that provides plush comfort at a value price. The rectangular-shaped, two-inch-thick NeoAir Venture is a full-size sleeping pad with three-season insulation. Like all NeoAir mattresses, it takes a few minutes to inflate by mouth--well worth it for a pad that smoothens the lumpiest ground. Best of all, the Venture packs down smaller and weighs about the same as a comparable self-inflating pad, and benefits from Thermarest's time-tested made-in-USA construction.
Auriga Blanket ($269.95-289.95)
Blanket-style sleeping bags are all the rage in the ultralight backpacking community. Why bother with the weight of top and bottom insulation when modern pads provide plenty of warmth under the body for three-season use? That's the rationale for the Auriga, a 35-degree blanket with gossamer-thin fabric and 750-power down insulation. Thermarest includes a simple button system to attach the quilt to your sleeping pad, which in turn offers more room to twist and sprawl than a traditional sleeping bag at a fraction of the weight. Space-conscious sea kayakers take note: The Auriga compresses to the size of a grapefruit. After a cool 40-degree night, our tester noted it's important to form a good seal between the blanket and sleeping pad to avoid drafts. That said, he also slept through his alarm--reason enough to believe Thermarest has developed a winning down blanket.