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.
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.
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:
- Western Mountaineering Everlite Sleeping Bag (14 ounces)
- NEMO Siren Sleeping Quilt (19 ounces)
- Feathered Friends Flicker 40 UL Quilt (19 ounces)
These are both good alternatives. They’re all insulated with down and highly compressible.
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.
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.
- Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 (31 ounces)
- Big Agnes Scout UL 2 (25 ounces)
- NEMO Equipment Hornet 2P (32 ounces)
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 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.
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 One||100.2 oz.||6.26 lbs.|
|Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20 Sleeping Bag||29 oz.|
|Therm-a-Rest Z-lite SOL Sleeping Pad||10.2 oz.|
|Granite Gear VC Crown 60 Backpack||34 oz.|
|Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1 Tent||27 oz.|
|Big Three - Sample Two||87 oz.||5.4 lbs.|
|Big Agnes Pitch Pine 45 SL||20 oz.|
|Therm-a-Rest Xlite Sleeping Pad||12 oz.|
|Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack||26 oz.|
|Tarptent Protrail Tent||26 oz.|
|Big Three - Sample Three||30.1 oz.||1.9 lbs.|
|Western Mountaineering Everlite Sleeping Bag||14 oz.|
|Gossamer Gear GVP AirBeam Sleeper||4.1 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.
- Sleeping Pad Weights and R-Values
- Granite Gear Crown VC 60 Backpack Review
- Tarptent Notch UL Tent Review
- Big Agnes Scout UL2 Tent Review
- Sierra Designs Backcountry Quilt Review
- Therm-a-Rest Xlite Sleeping Pad Review
Disclosure: I sincerely hope you’ve found this article to be informative. If you have any questions, please leave a comment.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.
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