The Big Three

“He who would travel happily, must travel light.”

~ Antoine de Saint Exupery, ‘Wind Sand & Stars’ (1939)

Landmannalauger to Skogar Camping

Macpac Minaret – Landmannalauger to Skogar | Iceland, 2000

Before you start cutting the labels off your clothes, the edges off your maps and the end off your toothbrush, it is worth noting that the most significant weight savings will most likely be found in your “Big Three” items; namely your shelter, backpack and sleeping bag.

To illustrate my point, let me give you a brief insight into my own evolution into an ultralight backpacker (i.e. base weight of less than 10 lbs).

Once upon a time………..

For more years than my back or knees care to remember, I lugged around a big tent, a huge backpack and a bulky sleeping bag.

Altogether the three items weighed in at over seven kilograms (15.4 lbs – see chart below).

Although undeniably heavy, all three pieces of equipment were uniformly well made, durable and never let me down in the most difficult of conditions.

Seeing the “Light”


Cam Honan carrying the Dana Designs Terraplane | Western Arthurs Traverse, Tasmania, 2002

In the early 2000’s, my backpacking world was turned on its head when during a hike on the Wonderland trail, I encountered a gentleman by the name of Jim, who hailed from Beaverton, Oregon. In addition to being an all-around good bloke, Jim was the first ultralight backpacker I had ever met (Note: At that point in time, “lightweight” backpacking gear was virtually unheard of outside of a relatively small community of enthusiasts in the US).

You name it, his pack, shelter, sleeping bag and everything else he was carrying was not only lighter, but considerably lighter than the equivalents that I was carrying. How much lighter you ask? Probably 60-70%.


At first I thought that Jim was some sort of minimalist nutter straight off the commune, but after chatting for a while and thoroughly inspecting all of his gear, it became obvious that the guy knew what he was doing.

From what I could see, he was sacrificing neither performance or safety with any of his gear choices, and the fact that his pack weighed so much less, meant that he was going to have a more enjoyable wilderness experience, simply because he wasn’t burdened with such a heavy load. Rocket science it wasn’t.

I became an instant convert.

The Evolution

Fast forward to the present day.

The cumulative weight of my “Big (or not so big) Three” items is generally between 1.2 and 1.7 kg (2.65 / 3.8 lbs), depending on the conditions.  A savings of at least 5.5 kg (12.1 lbs) from my 1990’s total.

That’s a lot of weight.

We’re talking five days food, five and a half litres of water, half a case of beer or more than a hundred Snickers bars!

See the tables below for details:

No Universal Blueprint

The above example illustrates the dramatic weight savings that are possible by downsizing your “Big Three”.

However, not all hikers are interested in ultralight items such as tarps, quilts and frameless backpacks. Many folks want more comfort and support than these gossamer weight items are sometimes able to provide.


Joshua Stacy & Ryan Sylva crossing Death Valley carrying Gossamer Gear Kumo Backpacks | USA, 2014

That’s OK.

As I mentioned in the Going Light introductory page, there is no universal blueprint as to how we should all backpack.

The trick is finding lighter weight gear options that suit both your individual needs as well as the dictates of the environment into which you are venturing.

For detailed analysis of the “hows, whys and wherefores” of the Big Three items, see the respective articles on Backpacks, Shelters and Sleeping Bags in the Gear section of the website.

For a brief overview of how to save weight on your Big Three, keep reading below:


Frameless backpacks (i.e. basically a sack with shoulder straps) are the lightest on the market. They generally weigh less than 0.7 kg (1.54 lbs). I have carried frameless packs on all of my backcountry trips since 2007.

Most frameless packs have side pockets, but not all sport compression straps and hip belts. Personally speaking I like to have both, as they provide a superior level of comfort and stability over a wider range of conditions.

The primary negative associated with frameless designs is that they offer less structure and support.

That is true; which is exactly the reason why a lighter backpack should be thought of as part of an overall lightweight system. There is no point in having a lightweight bag if it is overflowing with heavy equipment and uncomfortable to carry.

For a detailed overview of frameless backpacks see the following article: “Why Choose a Frameless Backpack?”

The Big 3

Yours truly with the Dana Designs Terraplane on the left (Pyrenees, 1999), and the MLD Burn on the right (Western Australia, 2010).


To some degree your choice of shelter reflects what’s important to you in a backpacking trip.

If you plan on spending most of your time relaxing in camp, then you may prefer a heavier shelter which offers more in the way of comfort, privacy and protection (e.g. a roomy double wall tent rather than a tarp).

If on the other hand you intend spending more time on trail than in camp, then a well-constructed lightweight shelter will probably be better suited to your needs.



Tarptent Squall Single wall shelter | Ganden to Samye Trek | Tibet, 2006

No shelter, irrespective of weight, will be ideal for all conditions. Trade-offs always enter the equation.

If you use a tarp, you won’t always have the same degree of protection from the elements or the bugs. If you choose a single wall shelter, chances are you will occasionally have to deal with condensation. While these are valid concerns, they are far from insurmountable obstacles.

Ultralight backpacking enthusiasts, are willing to endure the occasional moment of discomfort in exchange for the benefits of going lighter. Therefore, when it comes to selecting a shelter, find a balance between between weight, personal comfort and (once again) suitability for the conditions in which you do most of your hiking.

Sleeping Bag 

Dropping significant weight on the sleeping bag front can be done in two ways: 1. Buy a bag with higher fill power, and; 2. Switch from a bag to a quilt.

  • Higher fill power equates to better quality down, which means superior insulation and warmth to weight ratio. In real terms, upgrading from a down bag with 600 fill-power to one with 800 fill-power, both of which have the same temperature rating, can mean a weight saving of up to 300 grams (10.6 ounces). The catch? Bags with higher fill powers are more expensive.
  • Making the switch from a bag to a quilt can equate to weight savings of between 20 and 30%. HowQuilts provide insulation on top of the sleeper where it matters, but not underneath where the users weight will negate the benefits of loft.

Click here to read my seven reasons for why I prefer sleeping quilts over bags.