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.
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 for my “Big (or not so big) Three” items is generally between 1.3 and 1.5kg. A savings of more than 5.5 kg 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
2013 THREE SEASONS
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. For an overview of the pro’s and con’s of the various types of backpacks, see Backpack in the GEAR section.
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. There are two options for would-be light and ultralight backpackers: Frameless and Internal Frame.
Frameless packs are the simplest and lightest option available. They generally weigh less than 1.5 pounds (0.68kg). Basically a sack with shoulder straps. A foam mat unrolled inside the pack can act as a makeshift framesheet. Most models have side pockets, but not all have compression straps and hipbelts. Personally speaking I like to have both, as it provides a greater comfort level over a wider range of pack weights. Since 2009, my ultralight pack of choice has been the MLD Burn.
Frameless packs are not for everyone. Many hikers want more support and space than a frameless pack can provide. Unless you have pared your base weight down to ultralight levels, than you are probably better off going with a lightweight internal frame pack, which has a semi-rigid plastic framesheet, padded shoulder straps, a slightly comfier hipbelt and more carrying capacity. My favourite pack in this category is the Granite Gear Vapor Trail, which weighs in at 2lbs (0.9kg).
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 (eg. 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.
- Tarps, bivys or a combination of the two (see Shelter in the GEAR section), represent the lightest backpacking shelter options.
- The lightest tents are generally single wall tents made of siliconized nylon, spinnaker or cuban fibre (eg.Tarptent).
- In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of relatively (in comparison to the other shelter options) lightweight double wall shelters. Recommended sub 1.3 kg (3 lb) models include Big Agnes Fly Creek, Big Agnes Seedhouse, MSR Hubba and Tarptent Scarp 1.
- For an overview of the pro’s and con’s of all the lightweight shelter options, see Shelter in the GEAR section.
- Click here for a comparison chart of lightweight shelter options.
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. For tips and advice regarding shelters, see Shelter in GEAR and Choosing a Campsite in SKILLS.
Lightweight, and particularly ultralight enthusiasts, are willing to endure the occasional moment of discomfort in exchange for the multitude of benefits which 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.
SLEEPING BAG / QUILT
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/quilts (see Sleeping Bag in GEAR). The only catch with high performance lightweight sleeping bags/quilts is the price. Unlike with the other “Big Three” items, gossamer weight sleeping bags/quilts are invariably more expensive than their heavier equivalents.
For lightweight and ultralight hikers, down is the fill of choice when it comes to sleeping bags/quilts. Down bags are lighter, more compressible and have a better warmth-to-weight ratio than their synthetic fill equivalents. The primary negative associated with them is that they are useless when wet. This is true, however it rarely represents a concern as long as you take some basic precautions such as using a trash bag to line your backpack and perhaps even putting your sleeping bag/quilt in a waterproof stuff sack when undertaking difficult river crossings.
Mummy sleeping bags, which are wider at the top and taper in towards the bottom, are lighter and more compact than their rectangular shaped equivalents.
Quilts are lighter than sleeping bags. They provide insulation on top of the sleeper where it matters, but not underneath where the users weight will negate the benefits of loft. They generally come with a foot box (which keeps your feet nice and toasty), but without a hood. Once upon a time quilts were suitable only for people who didn’t toss and turn. However, in recent years companies such as Katabatic Gear, have upped the ante in regards to design and workmanship. These days top quality quilts now come with neck collars and vastly improved attachment systems, meaning that those bracing drafts which were once the bane of quilt users around the lightweight backpacking universe, are now largely a thing of the past.
WHAT IF I USE A TARP?
Many lightweight hikers use tarps. In wet and windy conditions, tarps (particuarly smaller models such as poncho tarps) will not provide the same all-around protection for your sleeping bag that tents do. If there is a chance of inclement weather, I recommend combining your tarp with a lightweight, breathable bivy sack (eg.MLD Superlight Bivy). An additional advantage of bivy sacks is that they add an extra 5 to 10 degrees of warmth to your sleeping system.