Big Three Ultralight Backpacking Makeovers

Big Three Ultralight Backpacking Makeovers

When it comes to gear list weight reduction for lightweight and ultralight backpacking, the biggest gains come from lightening the big three, including your backpack, tent, and your sleep system which includes a sleeping pad and sleeping bag or quilt. These are almost always the heaviest items that you have to carry on a backpacking trip, excluding water and food, and you can achieve the gear list weight savings by replacing them with lighter alternatives. After that, you can gradually replace your stove, headlamp, extra clothes, trekking poles, and other items with lighter weight alternatives for incremental savings but they’ll be much less significant than the weight you can eliminate by replacing your big three.

As an example, I’ve assembled three “Big Three Makeovers” with gear that I recommend that illustrate a range of different price points. While you can go still lighter weight than these,  none of the items I’ve listed below require any new skills or a loss in comfort. For example, I’ve only listed tents that come with floors and bug netting and not floorless pyramids, flat tarps, or other more extreme UL shelters like poncho tarps. All of the sleeping pads listed are full size and the backpacks have frames.

Why isn’t hammock gear listed below? If you haven’t used hammocks before they do require a significant amount of new skill development and the learning curve can take a while. People who hammock are also generally more interested in comfort and less obsessed with gear weight. They still care about it, but not to the degree that conventional ground sleepers do.

Inexpensive Big Three Makeover ($) – 5.85 lbs for $730

Make / ModelWeightPrice
Granite Gear Crown 2 60L Backpack37 oz$200
Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo Tent26 oz$230
Hammock Gear Econ Burrow Top Quilt 40 Deg, 800 Fill Power, Wide 55"18.63 oz$160
NEMO Tensor Air Pad12 oz$140
Total93.63 oz$730

The Granite Gear Crown 2 is a great lightweight backpack that has an adjustable length hipbelt and lots of external attachment points. It weighs less than 3 pounds, has a comparatively low price and is really feature-rich. You can also remove the top lid because the main compartment closes with a roll-top to keep out dirt and rain. The Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo is a spacious single-wall tent that’s both lightweight and reasonably priced. Hammock Gear’s Economy Burrow Quilts are an excellent value and the Nemo Tensor pad is quite comfortable and low weight. I personally prefer using air pads with quilts, but there’s no reason you could spend less and replace it with a foam pad like the NEMO Switchback.

Moderate Big Three Makeover ($$) – 4.68 lbs for $1014

Make / ModelWeightPrice
Gossmer Gear Mariposa 60 Backpack30.5 oz$270
Gossamer Gear "The One" Tent19.93 oz$299
Hammock Gear Premium Custom Burrow, 40 deg, 850 Fill Power, 55" Wide15.57 oz$250
Thermarest NeoAir Uberlite Sleeping Pad 72"8.8 oz$195
Total74.8 oz$1014

Less costs more, which one of the ironies of buying lighter weight backpacking gear. While the Gossamer Gear Marispoa 60 costs more than the Granite Gear Crown 2 above, it can carry the same amount of weight in comfort and has lots of useful features. The Gossamer Gear One is also a really nice spacious trekking pole tent, plus it’s seam taped, so you don’t have to seam seal it before you can use it. You can shave some more weight by switching to a premium ground quilt from Hammock Gear with higher fill power down. Ground quilts are usually wider than hammock quilts to block drafts, which is why I’ve specified them at 55″ of width instead of 50″. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite is the lightest air mattress available today, and while it is more prone to punctures, the bathtub floor in your tent should be more than sufficient to protect it.

Expensive Big Three Makeover ($$$) – 3.42 lbs for $1285

Make / ModelWeightPrice
Zpacks Arc Blast 55 Backpack20.1 oz$325
Zpacks Hexamid Solo w/Floor14.3 oz$500
Enlightened Equipment Revelation 40 Degree,950 Fill Power, Regular Width14.83 oz$305
Thermarest NeoAir Uberlite Sleeping Pad Small6.0 oz$155
Total54.73 oz$1,285

If you want to really cut the of your Big Three, getting a Dyneema backpack or tent is a quick way to shed a lot of ounces. The Zpacks Blast 55 is a ventilated adjustable-length Dyneema backpack that can hold a lot of gear but is still super lightweight. Couple that with a Zpacks Hexamid Solo Tent and a bathtub floor insert and you have a fully functional tent for less than a pound. An Enlightened Equipment Custom Revelation Quilt with 950 fill power down will keep you warm at night, while the 2.5″ thick NeoAir Uberlite will keep you comfortable and off the ground.

Weigh Your Existing Gear

To have this exercise make sense, whip out your postage scale and weigh your existing backpack, tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag or quilt. If they weigh 9 pounds or more, you might really benefit from one of the makeovers shown below. You have to decide whether the price is worth it, but you’ll be surprised how much more comfortable it can be to hike with less weight. Need convincing? Pack all of your backpacking gear up, including 3L of water. Put on your pack and go for a walk. Then take the water, which weighs 6 lbs out and walk around. That’s what carrying 6 pounds less feels like.

Besides weight, there’s no huge functional difference between the items on all three of these lists. While it is fun to get the lightest weight gear, there are quickly diminishing returns for your money. There’s very little incremental value in buying the most expensive, lightest weight, backpacking gear, because the less expensive stuff listed above, will work just a well.

But everyone has different goals and resources. Just remember, the most expensive gear is gear you never use.

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19 comments

  1. One thing worth mentioning is that you can really reduce the cost of lightening your load by buying second hand. It’s similar to buying a used versus new car. The savings for high quality, lightly used gear are generally 20-30 percent, depending on the item. It also makes sense to buy gear that is rated for durability. While I love Zpacks’ stuff, I would be hesitant to buy second-hand since their gear, while some of the lightest on the market, has a history of durability issues. The best places to buy are the gearswap forums on Reddit and Backpackinglight, while Hammock Forums is a good place for hammock gear. Before buying an item, it’s best to check out the sellers profile. You want somebody with a long track record with no listing of complaints.

    • Buying used is definitely a good way to save a lot of money, but if you know what you want and can time your purchases for sales, you can save as much or more, and still get new equipment complete with the warranty. A couple weeks ago, I picked up the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor backpack for $128, which is 35% off its normal price. I bought last year’s model, and the site I bought it through had a “15% off your first purchase if you sign up for our mailing list” deal.

      REI has 20% off coupons twice a year, and even better, they also have 20% off the “outlet” items, which are already discounted. Most of the other outdoor retailers do the same thing. For the “cottage” manufacturers who aren’t carried in regular stores, sign up for their mailing lists. Gossamer Gear just had a 20% off sale a couple weeks ago (which lowered two of Philip’s “moderate” picks to only $10-20 more than his “inexpensive” picks).

      Finally, keep an eye on dollars spent vs ounces saved. The difference between the “inexpensive” and “expensive” quilts is $145 for only 4 ounces. But the difference between the “inexpensive” and “moderate” tents is only $70 for 6 ounces. And the difference between the “inexpensive” and “expensive” backpacks is $125 for 17 ounces!

    • Forums yeah! But you better join up ahead of time to have required number of posts before you can sell on them but you’re good to go when ready to buy. Just don’t expect to sell your gear on them without those accumulated posts for reinvesting capital, as I found when trying to sell my feathered friends bag to reinvest in a quilt. Also the zpack arc haul weighing in at 22.6 oz for $299, true it’s not dyneema but a more abrasion resistant gridstop material, but hey a 62L pack at 22.6 oz, true you’ll add a couple oz for some kind of liner.

  2. Lighten your load by 10-30 lbs just by dropping a few pounds from your body. It’s much harder to do than clicking the purchase button, but its free, might even save you money and chips and beer! You’ll be healthier and fitter due to the lifestyle change. Set a goal to lose double off your body as you’d get from a reduction in the big three from your current setup.

    • The best way to do it is to hike a lot!

    • Well, If I lost 20-30 lbs. the way you suggest, I’d be underweight on the BMI scale :D Joking aside, sure, that’s the best way. But even if you are way overweight (which might not apply to most readers here, but surely still does for the general US public), lightening your backpack load WILL usually help you to hike out more and actually enjoy it, while a unnecessary heavy pack might ruin the experience for a first-timer, who’d miss out on more hikes and opportunities to get fit normally. Although I agree there are better ways to do that than spending $1000 on gear!

  3. I disagree that you’d need to spend $700-1000 on new gear to lighten your load significantly. You mention that other items are much less significant. I don’t think so (in beginners’ context). Is that the US way? Just throw money at a problem until it’s “gone”? Not all beginners can afford to spend $1000 on UL gear.

    Especially beginners usually take way too much unnecessary gear and can make probably quite as big savings by throwing out all the junk that gradually accumulates. People tend to get way too big packs and stuff them full as a consequence.

    All the little items, like 7 different stuff sacks for “organization” (even here you “reviewed” organization sacks!)
    way too many spare underwear or shirts, way too many toiletries or gadgets (pillows,…) beyond what’s needed. It all adds up pretty quickly. Don’t skimp on the safety (warm gear, wind/rain proofs) or stupid little things (sawed-off toothbrushes), but you can save a lot of weight on the rest, and gain some valuable experience on the way.

    • It’s just one very fast way to accomplish this. I’ve written countless articles on how to reduce the weight of all of the other items or eliminate them altogether, as long as you consider the reduced safety and comfort they may offer.

    • I think you’re having an argument that doesn’t exist. Nowhere does this state that “you’d need to spend $700-1000 on new gear to lighten your load significantly.” The point is that if your ‘big three’ are really heavy, replacing them with lighter versions is an extremely easy way to reduce weight if you can afford it. All the other methods you mention–eliminating unnecessary gear, omitting “extras,” etc.–are great. But they also require extra skill or simply more confidence, which cannot be bought. As Philip states, there are scores of articles on this site on becoming more skilled and paring down to the essentials.

      As a beginner myself, I find articles like this really useful. I’m slowly acquiring my own gear for the first time, so focusing my money on the items that have the biggest impact on my packweight will–I hope–keep me from needing to spend more down the road.

    • F, help me understand how a pillow is a gadget. I think of gadgets as uneccesary, while a pillow may be very necessary for some to be able to sleep. If I don’t have extra clothes and I don’t have stuff sacks to put clothes in, what do I use for a pillow? I’m not challenging you, I really want to start a dialogue on things like this. Help figure out a realistic option and I think people can start moving towards a realistic, affordable kit that may be lower weight. There are some Youtubes out there that show how to put together an entire kit, low weight, for under 1000.00. But then, after awhile, I could see the beginner starting to count ounces and reading this article to see where they can cut even more.

      Good point on not filling up the backpack with lots of items, I think that’s a huge weight and money saver.

  4. I picked up Drop x-mid 1 person $140, Feather Friends Flicker YF 20 degree Quilt Sleeping Bag $369, and Nemo Switchback. Still working on selecting a backpack.

  5. This is a valid subject especially as age creeps up; as age goes up so should the weight carried go down. With age so we are led to believe wisdom and knowledge increase. It is my personal opinion that the big box dealers are mostly to be avoided; cottage outlets are very good but extortionately expensive in comparison. So enter Google! You know what is required and the world is your oyster. Check specifications and reviews very thoroughly and make cautious purchases. My purchases come from a variety of countries and my base weight is down to 4 lb 12 oz for 3 seasons and 6 lb 12 oz for winter the difference being the winter sleeping bag. The other big item for the serious backcountry traveler is experience. Experience and the knowledge of your gear and it’s limitations is paramount to success on the trail.

  6. BIG T you are KEERECT! As a geezer over 70 here is my more expensive but lighter BIG 3:

    1.) PACK-> Osprey EXOS 58

    2.) SLEEP SYETEM-> WM Megalite down bag, REI Flash 3 season mattress (R 3.7)

    3.) TENT-> Tarptent Notch Li (3 season) TT Moment DW (4 season)

    STOVES-> Brunton CRUX canister top and TRAIL DESIGNS Sidewinder ti cone stove (3 cup anodized alum. pot)

  7. I’m a hammock camper, and I think leaving out hammock stuff for comparisons was a wise choice. Hammocks are like religious sects in that our devotion to our particular flavor may cause a discussion of which is best to lead to blows. ;-)

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