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Lightweight Backpacking: The Big Three

Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo
Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo Ultralight Tent

The three heaviest items in your backpacking are your backpack, sleeping bag+pad, and shelter, often called the Big 3. If you can drop their combined weight under 9 pounds by replacing them with lighter weight alternatives, you can quickly reduce your backpacking gear weight.

Typical Summer Gear List - without food, fuel, or water
Typical Summer Gear List – without food, fuel, or water

The Big Three: Tent, Sleeping Bag+Pad, Backpack

If you’ve finished weighing all of the items in your backpack and created a gear list, you’re ready to start reducing your base pack weight. Looking at your list, the three heaviest items are probably your sleeping bag, tent and backpack. If you can reduce their weight to under 3 pounds each, you’ll be well on your way to a substantially lighter load. Keeping each of these components under 3 pounds might sound impossible to you today, but it is easily achievable.

Unfortunately, the only practical way to reduce the weight of the big three is to replace them with lighter alternatives.

Lightweight Sleeping Bags and Sleeping Pads

Lightweight backpackers use the term “sleep system” to refer to your sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Your goal should be to reduce their combined weight to three pounds or less. This is achievable if you can get your sleeping bag under two pounds (32 ounces) in weight and sleeping pad under one pound (16 ounces).

Let’s start with your sleeping bag. If it weighs more than 40 ounces, you should probably replace it. For 3 season camping, I recommend that you purchase a sleeping bag rated for 20 degrees F. Down sleeping bags are better than bags with synthetic fills because they are lighter and more compressible. Compressibility is important because it means that you can get away with a lower volume backpack, which can save you a lot of weight.

Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20 Sleeping Bag
Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20 Sleeping Bag

A lot of experienced backpackers will tell you that the best 3 season down sleeping bags on the market are from Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering. They retail for between $400 and $500. Down bags, from Montbell or Marmot, in the 20 degree F range, are a bit less expensive and but also high quality.

Buying a new sleeping bag is a big investment, but a good down bag can last well over ten years. If you keep them clean and store them uncompressed, they’re an investment that will pay for itself over the long haul.

If you know that you’ll be sleeping in warmer weather, 40 degrees or above, buying a quilt or hoodless sleeping bag is another good option because it can save you even more weight. Check out the:

These are both good alternatives. They’re all insulated with down and highly compressible.

Tarptent Notch Ultralight Tent
The Tarptent Notch Ultralight Tent weighs 27 ounces

Lightweight Tents and Shelters

Now let’s switch to your shelter. If your 3 season tent weighs more than 40 ounces, you should replace it with a lighter weight alternative. This can be another area of huge weight savings for you. The best lightweight tents on the market are sold by Tarptent and cost under $300. One of the nice things about most of their tents is that you can set them up using hiking poles instead of tent poles which can help you avoid carrying even more weight if you’re already a trekking pole user. One and two person alternatives are available, but unless you always backpack with a significant other, I recommend that you stick with the one-person version of these tents.

The Big Agnes Scout UL 2 is an ultralight cross between a classic pup tent and an A-frame tarp
The Big Agnes Scout UL 2 is an ultralight cross between a classic pup tent and an A-frame tarp

If you prefer buying a more conventional shelter, here are some other excellent lightweight options. Advances in tent design and fabrics have come a long way in the past four years, making these tents very competitive in terms of weight with the tents made by smaller companies. Tents from larger companies have much better long-term guarantees than ones from smaller companies and you can often see these tents in retail stores before you buy them.

Hammocks or tarps can also be a lightweight alternatives to tents, but they have a narrower temperature range and are less adaptable than tents in many circumstances.

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa Backpack (52L) only weighs 29 ounces
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa Backpack (52L) only weighs 29 ounces

Backpacks

The last item you should put on a weight diet is your backpack because you won’t have a good idea about the volume you’ll really need until you replace your sleeping bag and tent. Chances are good however that a 55-60 liter pack will handle just about any trip you plan on taking from a weekend section hike to an Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

Mainstream backpack weights have fallen rather substantially over the past few years so there are quite a few alternative packs that weigh between 2 and 3 pounds to choose from like the Osprey Packs Exos 58 or the Granite Gear VC Crown 60. Personally, I prefer buying backpacks from ultralight cottage industry manufacturers like Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA) or Gossamer Gear because they both sell packs that weigh under two pounds and have features such as hip belt pockets and external mesh pockets that are unavailable on packs manufactured by mainstream manufacturers.

Granite Gear Crown VC 60 Backpack
Granite Gear Crown VC 60 Backpack

Do the math

Let’s review some combinations of Big Three components to illustrate the weight savings that are possible. In each of these samples, I’ve listed the weight of each component in ounces, the total number of ounces of all of the components together and their equivalents in terms of lbs.

ItemOuncesPounds
Big Three - Sample One100.2 oz.6.26 lbs.
Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20 Sleeping Bag29 oz.
Therm-a-Rest Z-lite SOL Sleeping Pad10.2 oz.
Granite Gear VC Crown 60 Backpack34 oz.
Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1 Tent27 oz.
Big Three - Sample Two87 oz.5.4 lbs.
Big Agnes Pitch Pine 45 SL20 oz.
Therm-a-Rest Xlite Sleeping Pad12 oz.
Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack26 oz.
Tarptent Protrail Tent26 oz.
Big Three - Sample Three30.1 oz. 1.9 lbs.
Western Mountaineering Everlite Sleeping Bag14 oz.
Gossamer Gear GVP AirBeam Sleeper4.1 oz.
Hyperlight Mountain Gear Stuff Pack (30L)3.6 oz.
Hyperlight Mountain Gear Flat Tarp (M)8.4 oz.

Each of these examples illustrates you can achieve significant weight savings, far beyond our original goal of reducing your Big Three to 9 pounds total.

See Also

Disclosure: I sincerely hope you’ve found this article to be informative. If you have any questions, please leave a comment. 

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24 comments

  1. Great topic. I would add lightening your footwear as well. For every 1lb you take off your shoes it equals 5lbs off your back. I hike in low-cut hiking shoes for 3 season backpacking. I have less fatigue and can hike longer. I am more nimble as well. I save my "boots" for winter backpacking. Even my winter boots have loss weight over the years.

  2. I do winter hiking, and finished a 2010 AT thru hike. Some of my gear is heavier, because I do more winter camping. I use a ridgerest winter cc pad, and a 0 degree synthetic bag. I prefer synthetic, even though it is heavier, due to the warm when wet thing. Things happen, and worse case, I can sleep in a wet bag instead of freezing to death. It wouldn't be a picnic, but I do a lot of survival skills and training, and things do go wrong. My overall base weight is around 14 lbs, I carry winter layers as well, with a down jacket. Total pack weight is usually around 30, slightly less. I still use many of the UL techniques I learned on my thru, like flip flops made of 550 cord and an old cc pad.

  3. I grew up camping in Louisiana. We got 50-60 inches of rain each year. If your bag gets wet, your trip is over. It doesn’t matter whether it is synthetic or down. Keeping your gear dry is a fundamental backpacking skill.

    • In the past, I opted for synthetic bags because of the “insulates when wet” issue but switched to down about a decade ago to save weight and space. My grandson and I attended a lightweight backpacking workshop at REI and the down vs. synthetic issue came up. The guy moderating the discussion then brought up a salient point when he asked, “If you’re cold, are you going to crawl into a wet sleeping bag? No way! You’ll find another means to get warm.”

      I guess the answer is: Don’t let your down bag get wet!

    • Actually, synthetic will still insulate to about 80% of it’s value when wet, down is about 10%. I’ve had to sleep in a wet synthetic bag before, and while it sucked, it was still warm. I do keep my bag dry, but worse case scenario things happen, and the trip isn’t over, if you are a couple days from the nearest exit point. You can’t just pack up your gear and go home, sometimes.

      I am the same Aaron that posted the original reply, pack weight is now about 9lbs, about to do my PCT thru hike this year. Down definitely does have advantages, but I’ve managed to get a decent synthetic bag to 25oz by turning it into a fetal quilt(exactly what it sounds like).

  4. Nice advice…if money is no issue! $300-$400 for a sleeping bag that is only going to last 10 years or so? For some that may be an “investment”…for others it is insane.

    • The shelf life a quality down bag is more like 15-20 years with proper care. But there’s no arguing that they’re expensive, On the other hand, buying a heavy synthetic bag and then never using it is just a waste of money.

    • I own a Western Mountaineering Alpenlite. It’s spendy but I was glad to do. Insane? Not at all. It should last longer, but at $50 per year, and for the amount of nights a year I spend in it, it’s excellent value. People will spend that for an evening of pizza and beer, which is gone in an hour or two.

      • There was a fairly recent report from someone who was hiking and camping full-time. She said her down bag lasted about 700 nights. I think her bag was Western Mountaineering.

      • I own a Marmot Penguin Gore-Tex bag rated to Adirondack winter nights, down to 35 or 40 below, Fahrenheit, and a friend owns a non waterproof breathable Western Mountaineering bag rated similarly. I saw him crawl into his wet bag in negative forty temps, with wet shoes and wet clothes on. I crawled into my soaked bag too, but without the shoes. Stay away from waterproof breathable down bags. He slept all night and woke up dry with dry boots. Meanwhile I was cold, was forced to turn my bag inside out, try to sleep in plastic vapor barrier pajamas over my polypros, and still the bag never got dry enough to unclump the feathers. After a sleepless night I had to waste hours drying my bag. I lived outdoors for several winters, and never wore out my bag, but only the zipper sliders. It looks dirty and won’t clean up is all. I stored it halfway compressed in a pillowcase in summer, makes no difference to it. A nine inch loft bag, of pretty wet down, will dry in two or three hours atop a tent heated by a cookstove or even laid atop a row of campfire heated rocks, but not on your body if the bag has any kind of waterproof-breathable nonsense, and not during a storm because there’s no place to dry it. A high pile synthetic jacket and pants and polypropylene long johns are a must-have part of your survival system in those conditions: be able to stay alive without your bag!
        My early version of Gore-Tex bag needs at least a steady 40 mph wind and exposed bivouac conditions in order to breathe well in temps way below freezing. I’ve done that a lot, because I like looking through fir trees at the night sky, so it’s good for me, but I still envy that Western Mountaineering bag’s breathability. I think the shell material was called versa-tech, but that’s going back a whole lot of years.
        Frost will freeze in the feathers close to the outside of the bag, or right onto the waterproof-breathable shell, and then melt while the bag is in the pack against your back during the day, wetting every feather. Down bags always get wet, and need to always dry out again. You want to buy more loft than you need because driving moisture cools you. An extreme loft good for -35 will still work at 35, you just open it up and use it like a blanket. It will still be mighty warm if half it’s loft is lost to dampness from last nights sleep in a condensing snow-eater fog followed by fifteen miles hiking in 33 degree mist through thick wet fir trees covered with melting snow, with it against your back. Halfway through the night, almost all the loft will be back again, but once again the outside feathers will be carrying enough water to partially collapse its loft in the next day’s hike on your back. I hope my experience helps others.

        That said, buy a good extreme cold down bag with no Gore-Tex nonsense, thinking that extreme breathability is foremost, and if the zipper isn’t good enough, have a big toothed YKK sewn to it’s zipper-tape, because down’s loft lasts forever, will save your life, and all those synthetic bags I ever owned all took a compression set and became worthless after a couple weeks.
        I would have bought a Western Mountaineering bag after that night, but I can’t wear out the Marmot except for the zippers, and they’re cheap to replace.

    • I buy used off backpacking sites. Excellent equipment can be found there. Backpackers are always upgrading.

    • Not as insane as buying a car. I’ve had friends think I’m crazy for the few expensive backpacking items I’ve bought over the years, but they think nothing of paying 30k for a vehicle, when I’ve driven $1,500 cars for years with no issues.

      Also, it depends on how much you hike. If you do it constantly, the investment is worth it. Even occasionally, too. Even if you went out and bought all top of the line ultralight gear at once, it is still cheaper than most hobbies people do for enjoyment.

      Also, for the cost, I never plan on buying a house, either, so what I spend on gear over the years is a minimal expense. Never seen the need for paying rent when I have a perfectly good tent in my bag. When I need to, I’ll rent a room for several months pretty cheaply, then I can leave and go on hikes with no rent or bills to pay while I’m gone. Look on craigslist or whatever, plenty of people renting out rooms for 500 bucks a month or so, depending on where you are.

      I’m becoming a lot more nomadic, and am minimalist enough where renting an apartment or house on a traditional lease isn’t going to work for my lifestyle anymore. The only reason I have over the years is gaming, my other hobby, I build custom gaming PCs and play a lot, but as I’ve gotten more ultralight and gotten rid of most of my stuff, I’ll prefer to spend my time hiking and traveling, and get a very occasional motel room if I feel like it.

  5. Sierra Designs makes Dri-Down which is water resistant. Keeps you warm even if it gets wet.

    • I hiked with a 20 degree f Jacks or Better. Down here in SC we get a lot of damp, high humidity and cold weather at the same time. The bag never did get wet by rain but the down constantly shifted during the night so I would end up with a 1/2 inch or so of fluff on the top and had to get up and shake it down. It had the dri-tek or whatever water resistant down and in high humidity it just kept compressing and I was seriously wondering about hypothermia. I switched to a cheapo Mountain Smith 40 degree and added a fleece liner. Both right at three lbs. The bag is built like a tank. I’ve kept toasty in 20 degree weather with no problems. Plus you can easily wash the liner keeping the bag clean and the noxious hiker odor at bay. I have tried down several times and found it wanting. I’ll put up with the extra bulk and weight to sleep well. You don’t sleep cozy and believe me your next day on the trail will be tough. In real hot weather ship the bag ahead and just use the liner. If the bag goes south, which I doubt for some time I can replace it for about $50 or less and not worry about damaging a $400 dollar lightweight bag. Also most of these expensive bags are not EN (European Norm) rated which is an international test with actual dummies with temp sensors, etc. (very accurate). Most of the cottage industry bags are “guestimates”. If I were to get a down bag I would not get one with the horizontal baffles due to down shifting, I would go with something like Enlightened Equipment which finally saw the light and has vertical baffles which are much more stable. I think synthetic bags really get a bad rap from purists and the like. So be it. My two cents.

  6. Down bags, taken care of last much longer than 10 years. My primary bag was purchased in 1974 – still performs!

  7. One comment and one question: I think that you missed one excellent source for ultralight backpacks: Zpacks. I bought the 45L Arc Blast at 21 oz and so far so good. I am too old to carry 30 pounds up and down mountains, so the weight really matters to me. I am not influenced by the choice of materials nearly as much as the weight. My question: Do you pack with a groundcloth for under the tent? I do but mostly because “its what I have always done” which is a poor reason to do anything. Is this necessary in your opinion or just extra weight? Thanks.

    • ZPacks are just one of many. I’ve owned them but prefer others.
      No, I never use a groundcloth under a tent. The floor is already waterproof. If I’m concerned about flooding or abrasion I just find a campsite that’s better. Not always an option if you backpack or camp someplace where you must use the campsite provided, but I still wouldn’t bother. A groundcloth is redundant in my opinion.

    • I use a poncho for both rain and a groundcover. It covers the pack when hiking and is very light.

  8. Some of us are allergic to down – I have Primaloft bags

    Does anyone know anything better?

    • I’ll have to check those out, do you happen to have a URL? Maybe you can give us a little more info on your experience with a permaloft. Thanks man.

  9. My big 3 for week long trips:

    MLD Duomid silNylon
    Enlightened Equipment Revalation 20 degree quilt with a NeoAir Xlite pad
    ULA Catalyst

    All in , including tyvek ground sheet, stuff sacks, tarp pegs and guy lines: 7.6 lbs.

    For weekenders trips I use my ULA CDT ( 28 oz.) and a silNylon square flat tarp (9 0z.) and I am under 6 lbs.

  10. In addition to focusing on weight carried on the back, another often overlooked thing to do to reduce hiking strain: lose some lbs (i.e., diet a bit, fatty!) in the weeks before hitting the trail

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