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.

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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.

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What is ultralite backpacking anyway?

If you have stumbled across my blog, and are not already a lightweight backpacker (hi mom!), you may be wondering what the heck this ‘ultralite’ business is about. My first official blog post is for all the non-hikers out there, or hikers stuck in the ‘traditional’ practices of backpacking.

Wikipedia defines ultralite backpacking as a “style of backpacking that emphasizes carrying the lightest and simplest gear safely possible for a given trip”.

Probably the most important concept when it comes to ultralite and lightweight backpacking is base pack weight (BPW). A hiker’s BPW includes the weight of their backpack, and all of the gear inside or outside of it (excluding consumables such as food and water).

In the U.S., ultralite is officially defined as having a BPW of less than 10 pounds, while a BPW of less than 20 pounds is considered lightweight. If you have ever experienced what is called ‘traditional’ backpacking, you may notice that these numbers are significantly lower than the weights typically carried. Ultralite backpacking is a relatively new phenomenon, and many long-distance hikers of yesteryear (aka the 90s and earlier) would cover hundreds or thousands of miles with pack weights of up to 50 pounds or more.

In order to get pack weights so low, ultralite hikers can go to quite a lot of effort. EVERY. OUNCE. COUNTS. For an ultralite backpacker, the weight of a piece of gear is arguably its most important attribute. This makes the already complex process of gear shopping require even more research, as the weight of each item must be carefully considered. Ultralite backpackers can spend a lot of time and energy trying to find the lightest possible version of each item of gear. (Remember when I said I was planner? Yeah, days of research went into my gear list).

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One of the more sophisticated shelters used by lightweight backpackers (from tarptent.com)

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