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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 all 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


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.

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.

The next article in this series is about using multi-purpose backpacking to further trim your gear weight.

See Also

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

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  1. I don’t agree with you on the down bag choices. I live in the PNW where rain and moisture is part of all we do, but then again I have never owned a down bag, but just the risk of it getting wet is too much to justify such a huge expense.

    • 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!

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

  2. Great post Philip, thanks! I really have to get my tent weight down, I'm just having a hard time committing to a single walled tent. But as with other items, you've got me thinking and I'm sure it is just a matter of time. Can't wait for the follow-up post :)

  3. I like your site very much and find some of your tips and reviews very helpful.

  4. How come no mention of a bivy tent? Less than 2 lb. tent/sleeping bag combo.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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