Gear Guy

Q:

What's up with the NASA insulation that weighs next to nothing?

I have recently heard talk about a new insulation from NASA, called Aeroloft or Spaceloft. It supposedly weighs less than air and three millimeters of it can keep you warm down to 50 below. Burton apparently used it in a jacket called the Ronin Katana. Do you know anything about this material? Will it be possible to make expedition-worthy sleeping bags that weigh eight ounces? John Atascadero, California

A:Actually, it's called Airvantage, and it's an insulating material marketed by Gore-Tex that first came out in 2002. It doesn't weigh less than air—it is air. That is, the material consists of tiny inflatable chambers that can be filled by blowing into a tube, sort of like inflating a life vest. That "air blanket" around your body adds insulation (really, most of what down does is create dead air space between you and the outside) on an as-needed basis.

Really, the warmth added is only about that of a fleece vest (although it's at the expense of only an added ounce or two of air). The Ronin Katana was in Burton's line last year, though is now no longer available. None of the products in this year's Ronin line feature Airvantage, perhaps something to do with price as the Katana was a hefty $550.

Anyway, the concept of Airvantage makes sense, and it's hard to beat the cool factor. I think the market is still testing the waters on this one, so perhaps in the future you'll see more of it reflected in prices that will have come down markedly.

As for the NASA connection, there is a material being developed based on aerogel, a substance invented some 70 years ago that has a porous, sponge-like structure in which 99.8 percent of the volume is empty space. It's a fabulous insulator, and incidentally was the stuff used to collect comet samples on board the recent Stardust space probe. Anyway, a material that may find its way into apparel is called Spaceloft, and it's being tested as insulation in a wide range of consumer products, including some Burton pieces. I don't think it will result in an expedition bag that weighs eight ounces, but you could see such bags in the two-pound range, which would be pretty remarkable. For now, though, this type of insulation is still very much in its infancy as a readily available consumer product.

For all manner of warm (and oh-so-cool) gear for the slopes, check out Outside Online's Ski Gear Buying Guide.

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