Gear I like...

The other day someone asked me about my four or five favorite pieces of gear. One of them is definitely Tyvek. Maybe it's an internet Faux-Paus to plagiarize oneself, but I haven't let societal norms stop me this far... Here are my thoughts on Tyvek as previously published online. It makes me wonder who else uses gear that is
  1. Free
  2. Not designed for climbing
And puts it to good use. I'd love to hear other ideas or examples.

As a financially-challenged (read: cheap) student and outdoor addict, I’m known to take extreme cost-saving measures in pursuit of new gear. And by working my summers at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, I was exposed to a full array of quirky-to-clever homemade equipment all tested during a season from Mexico to Canada. One of the most memorable items I came across was a simple frameless backpack made of Tyvek, a waterproof cloth used by carpenters and creative climbers.

I began experimenting with the material and had my personal confirmation into the cult of Tyvek adherents three summers ago in Washington State’s North Cascades. My climbing partner and I were traversing a ridge of unclimbed pinnacles, culminating in a new route on Bonanza Peak (9,511 ft.), one of the range’s largest mountains. After jettisoning the weight of sleeping bags and a tent, we spent consecutive nights shivering in our makeshift bivy of backpacks, down jackets, and a Tyvek sheet. I had the material trimmed to an ideal size (8 feet by 6 feet for two people) and it kept us fully sheltered from wind and rain while adding just 1.8 ounces per square yard to our packs.

Our route - a traverse of the unclimbed crest from Dark to Bonanza Peak.

Necessity is often credited as the mother of invention. If this is true, then invention’s stepmother, godmother, or doting grandmother is surely the almighty dollar. Created in 1955 by DuPont researcher Jim White, the invention of Tyvek was no exception, with the material soon becoming a dependable money-maker for DuPont. While outdoor-specific creations appeal to a tiny market segment, items like Tyvek immediately appeal to a broader and hence far more lucrative market. And outdoor junkies would be loath to ignore such products, despite their presence on the shelves of Home Depot rather than REI. As it turns out, this cheap, light, waterproof, and modifiable material has innumerable uses for weight-conscious travelers of all ilk.

Even if you haven’t used or even heard of Tyvek, you have almost certainly seen it. Covering the insulation and inner-walls of modern buildings, long white rolls of the cloth can be found at construction sites worldwide. Its cost in bulk from building-supply stores is negligible compared with outdoor-specific silnylon tarps, and I’ve had success on several occasions just stopping by a construction site and asking for a piece. Initially stiff (and annoyingly loud in the wind), the material softens and becomes more pliable with extended use, repeated folding, or one soap-less cycle in the washing machine.

Rather than purchasing a footprint for my two-person tent, I simply use the free sheet of Tyvek. The same piece doubles as a floor for my Black Diamond Betalight Shelter, keeping things dry and clean on sand, snow, or mud. The white color of the material also makes it ideal to spread out and sort gear, pack, or locate small items that would be lost against a darker background. And as a climber, I would rather flake out my nice new rope on a piece of free Tyvek than pay $30 or $40 for a similar nylon rope tarp.

For short trips (one or two nights), I have also experimented with using Tyvek as a modified bivy sack. By folding the sheet in half and closing the two edges with duct tape, one can quickly make a human-sized envelope. My first trip to the North Cascades' Gunsight Range ended with an August blizzard and a cold night huddling in my Tyvek cocoon, but I stayed dry as the snow piled around me. Cardiovascular and comedic benefits of this design are derived as you engage in the full body contortions needed to wriggle your sleeping-bag-clad self through the opening. The material doesn’t breathe as well as traditional bivy bags, but any inconvenience or dampness should be negligible on short outings.

Although the material’s weight, durability, and resistance to wind or water make it exceedingly versatile, it does lack a few of the extras featured on specialty tarps and shelters. Tyvek is packaged as a large roll, lacking any grommets or tie-off points. Though not often a problem, those wanting an ultralight shelter or windscreen should reinforce the corners with double-layer duct tape or Seam Grip before creating a hole in the material for tiedown points. Alternatively, you can go the route of a do-it-yourself grommet kit, but it will add an additional few ounces.

After several months with Tyvek instead of expensive alternatives, your pack should feel lighter and your wallet heavier – something all travelers can agree on. Additionally, the memories of you and your partner waiting out a storm in your human-sized envelopes will inevitably strengthen the friendship, allowing it to last as long as your coveted Tyvek.

For fans of the American Alpine Journal, or anyone who likes to read about mountaineering exploits, the 2009 edition is now already partly online, with articles and color photos at your E-fingertips. Here's the submission from a trip a I took to Alaska in July with Jason Nelson.


  1. I use the hell out of the USPS priority mail Tyvez bags. I cut them into a tube, sew a circular bottom on, and attach a drawstring. Makes a pretty much waterproof bag for gear, food, even collecting water off rocks. Tyvek rules. I use the adhesive tape attached to the envelope flap, cut into strips, to "weld" on the bottom and drawstring loop. So quick and so easy.

  2. Nice website, but my old eyes cannot read the blue print against the grey background.