Going Lighter and “The Big Three”

Thinking about reducing your pack weight, but not exactly sure where to begin?

Before you start cutting the labels off your clothes, the edges off your maps and the end off your toothbrush, it’s 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 an insight into my own evolution into an ultralight backpacker (i.e. base weight of less than 4.4 kg / 10 lbs).

The Big 3

Before & After | (L) Yours truly with the Dana Designs Terraplane on the Pyrenees High Route, 1999; (R) Me again hiking the Cape to Cape Walk in Western Australia with an MLD Burn in 2010.

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.


Macpac Minaret Tent | Landmannalauger-to-Skogar, Iceland, 2000.

Seeing the “Light”

In the early 2000’s, my backpacking world was turned on its head when during a hike on Washington’s 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: I’m an Australian that has spent much of his adult life living in Latin America. When I met Jim, “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 less weighty than the equivalents that I was carrying. How much lighter you ask? Probably 60%.


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 a convert.

(L to R) Jim and Dave.

The Evolution 

After meeting Jim, I started doing some serious research……….having the internet definitely helped on that front!

Before you could say Jenny Craig’s got nothing on me“, I was the proud owner of a new sleeping bag (Marmot Helium – 0.9 kg / 2 lbs), backpack (Granite Gear Vapor Trail – 0.9 kg / 2 lbs), silnylon tarp (Campmor 8×10 – 0.37 kg / 13 oz) and a single wall shelter (Tarptent Squall – 0.9 kg / 2 lbs).

Karakoram Range, Pakistan, 2008

Tarptent Squall | Karakoram Range, Pakistan, 2008.

My “Big Three” weight had dropped significantly, but just as importantly I had lost nothing in terms of functionality. On the contrary, by picking up both a new tarp and tent, I was now far better equipped to take a “horses for courses” approach to my time in the backcountry (e.g. different shelter for different conditions).

The Big 3 – 1999 Vs 2015

During the rest of the 2000’s, the downsizing continued but at a much more gradual pace. More tweaks than seismic shifts. I made the move from internal frame backpacks to frameless models. I switched from sleeping bags to quilts and started using tarps and single wall shelters almost exclusively.


MLD SoloMid XL | Colorado Trail, 2015.

By 2008, the cumulative weight of my “Not so Big Three” items was between 1.1 and 1.7 kg (2.43 / 3.8 lbs), depending on the conditions. That constituted 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 six days food, five and a half litres of water, half a case of beer or more than a hundred Snickers bars!

See the table below for details:

No Universal Blueprint

The above comparison chart illustrates the dramatic weight savings that are possible by downsizing your “Big Three”. However, not all hikers are interested in ultralight equipment such as tarps, quilts and frameless backpacks. Many folks want more comfort and support than these gossamer weight items are sometimes able to provide.

That’s Ok.

As I mention 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, see the respective articles on Backpacks, Shelters and Sleeping Bags in the Gear section of the website.


Gossamer Gear Kumo Backpack | Colorado Trail, 2015



Going Lighter and “The Big Three” — 7 Comments

  1. My original Big Three were 17 lbs, I went to 7 lbs about 12 years ago and pretty much feel that’s good enough. To me the best change was switching from leather Scarpa boots to trail runners. Which eliminated camp shoes. but if i randomly find something better I switch, I just don’t look much. Apps instead of maps and guidebooks within reason is a good one too.

  2. In the 70’s I weighed 135 lbs and carried a pack that must have weighed 40 lbs or more. In 1998 when I resumed backpacking, my tent weighed 9 lbs, my pack weighed 8 lbs, and my sleeping bag was over 3 lbs, for a 20+ lb big three weight. I quickly decided that I either was going to die on the trail, quit backpacking or find a way to go lighter. It took a while and lots of enjoyably wasted money to get down to my 4lb big three weight today. Ironically I just realized that today the combination of my body weight and pack weight is just about the same as it was forty years ago but fortunately, the ratios are much different!

  3. Great article, thanks. I carry a Granite Gear Crown V.C. and, like you, I’m an Australian living elsewhere – Seattle. I recently did the Overland in Tassie and nearly everyone commented about my lack of gear. I had everything I needed and more, wouldn’t consider myself in the UL category just yet, but the amount of junk the other trekkers were carrying was mind boggling. They’d be really shocked if they came to the States 😉

  4. I had a similar experience of having my “backpacking world turned on its head” when my hiking partner and I ran into a bloke named Cam Honan hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail through the Smoky Mountains National Park in November of 2011. I only got to talk to him for about 3 or 4 minutes, but he referred me to this site where I got some good tips on gear and philosophy. I then became, and will always remain, a lightweight convert.

      • I was that hiking partner. Yes, the meeting that rainy day literally changed our “hikinglife” and was conversation for the remainder of that trip and every trip since then. No longer backpacking, I’m hiking!

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