The “big three” in backpacking refers to your heaviest pieces of gear — tent, sleep system, and backpack. The best gear varies for each person’s needs because there are tradeoffs between weight, comfort, and price. Below we explain how we selected our big three items.
We love our Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2. It suits our weight/comfort/price mix perfectly. After removing extra stuff sacks, and replacing the stakes with 6 Vargo Titanium Ultralight hooks, this 2-person tent weighs only 2.3 pounds! This is very light, and as you can imagine, when trekking such a long way we opt for less weight on our backs whenever possible. It’s cozier than most tents, but two sleeping pads fit perfectly next to one another inside and we’d rather have the lighter weight than extra space. This is a free standing tent, which is more convenient than a tent in which you must use your trekking poles as supports.
Unlike a tarp tent, the Fly Creek UL2 has an inner mesh layer to keep the bugs at bay. This adds a small amount of weight compared to tarp setups, but in our opinion is well worth the comfort of being out of range of mosquitoes. We can add the rain fly for cold or rainy weather, or go without if we want extra ventilation. The Fly Creek UL2 is a bit pricier ($350) than other options. However, if you look at the price in terms of the equivalent amount you’d spend on a few nights in a hotel, the cost isn’t bad.
Sleeping System (Sleeping Bag and Pad)
Some of the main decisions you’ll need to make when selecting a sleeping bag are down vs. synthetic and temperature rating vs. weight.
Down bags are lighter, more expensive, and more compressible, but lose their loft and ability to keep you warm if they get wet. Synthetic bags are the flip side — a bit heavier, cheaper, less compressible, and maintain their loft and warmth in all conditions. We have one additional criterion that isn’t important to most people. I (Anna) am highly allergic to mold, which is the reason we are moving from the Bay Area to a drier climate. Once wet, mold might grow on the feathers in a down bag, but not on the manufactured fibers in a synthetic bag. So our choice was easy, we went for synthetic sleeping bags.
A sleeping bag’s temperature rating is the manufacturer’s guideline for the minimum temperature at which the bag will keep you warm. However, not all sleeping bag temperature ratings are as scientific as one would hope. Each manufacturer can assign a rating based on their own research, so there can be significant differences in temperature ratings and actual warmth between brands. Luckily the industry is starting to use a standardized system, the European Norm (EN) rating, so comparing bags from different companies is getting easier. On average, women sleep colder than men, so women should select a bag based on the the EN “Comfort” rating. Men, as warmer sleepers, can select a bag based on the EN “Lower Limit” temperature rating.
If there isn’t an EN rating for the bag you’re interested in, we suggest reading customer reviews to figure out if the bag actually keeps people warm at the temperature the manufacturer claims. We decided to go for Mountain Hardware Lamina 20 and 35 bags, based on the synthetic fill, low weight for its temperature rating, good reviews, and matching full zippers so we can connect our bags together into one giant sleeping bag if we want. These bags have served us well so far, even when sleeping in a snow cave!
Sleeping pads are essential in chilly weather, for insulation from the cold ground. Sleeping bag temperature ratings assume you are using a sleeping pad. We are both very happy with the our lightweight and comfortable Thermarest NeoAir inflatable sleeping pads. However, due to the NeoAir’s ultralight construction, it is somewhat delicate, so when camping with spiky desert plants, we will carry Thermarest Z-Lite foam pads. The Z-Lite is a solid choice for an inexpensive, lightweight sleeping pad.
Smaller, lighter gear allows for smaller, lighter packs. We saved a lot of weight by switching to smaller backpacks!
The lightest packs available (about 1.5 lbs.) have no frame. We felt these packs were not comfortable enough, especially for sections that require carrying more weight — extra water in the desert, or bear cans and additional food in the Sierras. On the other hand, traditional internal frame backpacks weigh about 5 lbs, and are designed to carry loads much greater than we need with our lightweight gear. We decided to select packs between these two extremes. The Osprey Exos 46 and the Osprey Talon 44 are the lightest packs we found which are still quite comfortable for loads over 20 pounds. By trimming excess straps and pockets, and removing the pack lids, we were able to save almost half a pound off the retail weight. This put each of our packs at about 2 lbs.
Pack fit is specific to each person, so we recommend visiting a local to store to test packs. When testing, make sure you load each pack the way you would in the field, with a bulky but light load in the bottom, and heavier weight close to your back. Outdoor stores often provide beanbags for this purpose. Walk around the store with each pack, and note any ill-fitting or sore spots. These will become a big problem as the miles add up. A pack that fits you well should feel comfortable and carry a load without effort.
Choosing gear requires balancing weight, comfort, and price. Lightening your pack means you’ll have more energy and more fun as you wander the backcountry. Most people can drop weight without compromising comfort, simply because technology and materials have improved. This may mean a small investment, but we’ve found that our old equipment sells easily on Craigslist, recouping some of the new purchase costs.
If you decide to lighten your pack weight, we recommend reducing the weight of your tent and sleeping system first, then your backpack. Since the big three comprise most of the weight on your back, these items are where you should focus before thinking about the ounces you’ll save elsewhere. We’ve listed gear which works for us, but we encourage you to do your own exploration. We hope this was helpful!
See our full gear list by clicking the “Gear” link at the top of the page.