The Backpacking “Big Three”

If you are new to the world of hiking, you may have heard people talking about the ‘big three’ and gone ‘huh???’. Well never fear, this post is here with a full explanation! The “Big Three” refers to the three heaviest items hikers carry: the backpack, the shelter, and the sleeping system (sleeping bag + pad). These three items are the most important purchases a backpacker will make, and also happen to be the most expensive. Buying lightweight versions of these items is the easiest way to cut a significant amount off of your base pack weight, as they are what will make up the majority of the weight you are carrying. You can cut ounces here and there with smaller items all you want, but it likely won’t make much of a noticeable difference if you are carrying a ton of weight in your big three items.


2/3 of my Big Three: shelter and sleep system (bag + pad)

As previously mentioned, these items can create quite a dent in your poor wallet, and buying them is a big investment. It can be especially painful if you already own heavier versions of these items and are looking to transition to lightweight hiking. However, making the switch is truly worth the investment, as your hiking experience will be that much more comfortable and enjoyable. Plus, if properly cared for, these items will last you for many years of happy hiking, ensuring you get your full money’s worth. The pain can also be lessened by selling your old equipment, which is easy to do these days through sites like eBay or Kijiji, or even backpacking forums such as Backpacking Light.

The general rule of thumb for lightweight hikers is to keep the weight of each “Big Three” item below 3 pounds (for a combined maximum total of 9 pounds). With the wide availability of ultralite technology in this modern age, this is fairly easy to accomplish. Below, I will give a brief outline of each of my “Big Three” items, along with important things to consider when choosing your gear.

BACKPACK: Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 (2.21 lbs)

I purchased my backpack from Gossamer Gear after reading the many positive reviews from other hikers, and so far have been very impressed with it! It is extremely comfortable, and most of the time I’m able to forget I’m even wearing it. It has a removable internal frame, and the back pad doubles as a sit pad which is amazing! It has tons of handy pockets, including two pockets on the belt that are great for storing small snacks or other things that need to be easily accessible, a side pocket for water bottles that is accessible without removing the pack, and a mesh pocket on the back that is great for drying wet gear or just storing things that you want somewhat more accessible. Size is probably the most important thing to consider when purchasing a pack, as you want to make sure it is large enough to hold all of your other gear, but unnecessary extra volume will add weight. I have found this pack to be the perfect size for my current gear set up, but pack sizes for thru-hikers seem to range between 40-60L.

SHELTER: Tarptent Protrail (1.62 lbs)


Tarptent is one of the most popular options for lightweight hiking shelters. Again, after much research I chose the Tarptent Protrail after reading the plethora of positive reviews. The Protrail is the new and improved version of the classic favourite, the Contrail. This is a one-person, single wall shelter. It is remarkably lightweight and easy to set up and take down (it literally takes 2 minutes!). Trekking poles double as tent poles for this shelter, which helps with keeping weight down, and it also comes with 4 pegs (with the option of using up to 8 additional pegs). While I cannot comment on how this tent stands up to the elements (having only used it in fair conditions so far), I have heard that it fares quite well in a range of conditions. Choosing a shelter is definitely a matter of personal preference. Some hikers choose to go even more minimal, using just a tarp or even cowboy camping (camping under the stars with no shelter), while some prefer a shelter with a little more substance. It’s up to you to choose the balance between space and weight that fits your personal style.

SLEEP SYSTEM: Mountain Hardwear Hyperlamina Spark (1.62 lbs) + Thermarest Neoair Xlite (0.75 lbs) (2.37 lbs total)


This sleeping bag purchase was actually made rather last minute, as I had originally planned to purchase a Revelation quilt from Enlightened Equipment. However, as these quilts are made to custom order, the long shipping time would have unfortunately had the quilt arriving after my first summer trip. I will likely still be purchasing this quilt before attempting a PCT thru-hike, as my current sleeping bag has a 30F temperature rating, while a 20F rated bag is likely more suitable for some of the cold nights on the PCT. However, the Mountain Hardwear Spark works wonderfully for trips where the temperatures won’t be dipping below freezing. Since I was purchasing this bag as a back-up, I wanted something that would get the job done at a relatively low price. The Spark uses synthetic filling, making it much cheaper than the down-filled options out there. Synthetic bags also perform better in wet or humid conditions, which is another thing to consider. The bag is extremely soft and comfortable, and kept me warm and cozy during my overnight trip. It easily compresses down to quite a small size. I really liked the hood and mummy bag style, which is making me question my intent to buy a quilt, but we shall see. Temperature rating and down vs. synthetic filling are probably the most important choices to make when choosing a bag. You should carefully research the weather conditions you may experience on your trip before choosing a sleeping bag.

The second component of the sleeping system is the sleeping pad, which some ultralite hikers will choose to forgo completely. For me, the comfort of sleeping off the ground is definitely worth carrying the extra weight. I found the Thermarest Neoair very comfortable to sleep on, and quite easy and quick to inflate and deflate.



My shelter + sleep system set up

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