The Big Three
“He who would travel happily, must travel light.”
- Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wind Sand & Stars (1939)
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/quilt. To illustrate my point, let me give you a brief insight into my own evolution into an ultralight backpacker.
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). 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”
In September, 2003, 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. 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 70%. Amazing! 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, I became an instant convert.
Fast forward to the present day. The cumulative weight of my “Big (or not so big) Three” items is generally between 1.3 and 1.5kg (2.9 / 3.3 lbs). A savings of more than 5.5 kg (12.1 lbs) from my pre-2003 base weight. That’s a lot of weight. We are talking five days food, five litres of water or half a case of beer. See the table below for details:
PRE 2003 ALL SEASONS
Backpack……….Dana Designs Terraplane…………….3.3 kg
Shelter…………..Macpac Minaret……………………….2.4 kg
Sleeping bag……North Face Superlite………………….1.5 kg
TOTAL………………………………………………………7.2 kg / 15.9 lbs
2013 THREE SEASONS
TOTAL………………………………………………………1.30 kg / 2.9 lbs
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 poncho tarps, bivys and frameless backpacks. Many of us want more comfort, security and support than these gossamer items are able to provide. That’s OK, as I mentioned in the “Going Light” introductory page, there is no universal blueprint as to how we should all backpack. Ultimately your own experiences in the wilderness will be your best guide. Find a balance that suits both individual needs and the dictates of the environment in which you will be hiking.
Generally speaking, lighter packs have simpler designs. Less zippers, less compartments, less straps, less to figure out and worry about. The primary negative associated with these minimalist 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 an overview of the pro’s and con’s of the various types of backpacks, see Backpack in the GEAR section.
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). 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.
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 have the same degree of protection from the elements. If you choose a silnylon single wall shelter, chances are you will occasionally have to deal with condensation. While these are valid concerns, they are far from insurmountable obstacles.
Lightweight, and particularly ultralight enthusiasts, are willing to endure the occasional moment of discomfort in exchange for the multitude of benefits that come from going light. Therefore, when it comes to selecting a shelter, find a balance between between weight, comfort and suitability for the conditions into which you are venturing. For tips and advice regarding shelters, see Shelter in GEAR and Choosing a Campsite in SKILLS.
Some hikers are hesitant to downsize their backpack or shelter due to concerns about comfort and all-around performance. These are non-issues when it comes to sleeping bags (see Sleeping Bag in GEAR). The only catch with high performance lightweight sleeping bags is the price. Unlike with the other “Big Three” items, gossamer weight bags are invariably more expensive than their heavier equivalents.