Gear Series: The Big Three

The Big Three: Tent, Pack, Sleep

(First in a 5-part Series on Gear Picks)

When I finally set out on my first thru-hike, I had a base weight of 12lbs. Not bad. Definitely not super ultra light (SUL). Heck, it’s not even technically “ultralight” which needs to be under 10lbs. Most hikers will find that the easiest (though costly) way to get their base weight down is to lighten up their “big three”, which is the backpack, the shelter system, and the sleep system. Get these under 5lbs and you’re doing really well. My list below comes in at 7lbs on the nose, but you’ll find notes on how I’d cut that down next time.

TarpTent Notch (1lb 11oz)

$314 direct from manufacturer. First, my light and versatile tent, used for all of the Colorado Trail in 2017 and more than a dozen nights since with nary an issue. With stakes, groundsheet, and sack, it comes in at 27 ounces. To pitch it requires two hiking poles: a welcome reason to bring the “sticks” that save my legs on long days. I could get a similar but lighter tent at far greater expense (sigh, Solplex….). I ain’t into doing the tarp thing, which would be far cheaper. And like Heather “Anish” Anderson, I prefer to keep the creepy crawlies out. So for me it’s a real-deal tent. Henry Shires, the founder of TarpTent, and his team build these in Seattle and they do good work.

TarpTent Notch, set up near Copper Mountain, CO
TarpTent Notch, set up near Copper Mountain, CO

Osprey Tempest 40 Backpack (2lbs 3oz)

Osprey Tempest 40. $160 from Amazon. One of the oldest items in my kit at 5 years old, this pack was my first serious backpack and it took quite a bit of adjustment before I found the magical fitment that made every mile well balanced. Luckily this pack’s torso length is adjustable and the hipbelt fits nicely snug right over my iliac crest. I wear my belt low compared to many women, so getting a big enough belt can be an issue, but this Osprey does the job. It is not superlight at 2.2 lbs, but it carries weight well and that’s more than you can say for a lot of the very light frameless rucksacks. If I were getting another Osprey today, it might be their new ultralight pack called the Lumina 45 which sheds nearly a half pound yet still has solid internal framing.

Thermarest NeoAir XLite Women’s sleeping pad (12oz)

$160 from Amazon. Whew! Crazy lightweight and packs down tiny when deflated. Drawbacks? A little crinkly when you roll around on it, thanks to the thermally reflective material inside. Other than that, nothing. This is the short version, meaning 5’6″ in length to capture just what is needed for shorter humans and not a gram more. The R-value is 3.9: wonderfully high. The thru-hiker favorite ThermaRest Z-Lite Sol weighs the same with half the R-value and must be strapped to the outside of your pack. It ain’t small. Why a thru-hiker favorite, then? Cheap, indestructible, simple. There you have it.

Marmot Xenon Women’s Sleeping Bag (2lb 6oz)

$459 from Amazon. This bag ain’t cheap nor light but boy is it toasty when you need it! I started my Colorado Trail hike with a phenomenal 20 degree ZPacks quilt (1lb 3oz!!!), which was unfortunately more of a survival rating. I was darn uncomfortable for a few nights before I swapped out for this Marmot, ordered in Breckenridge and shipped to me in Twin Lakes right in the nick of time. Still have the ZPacks and it is the lightest summer bag I will probably ever own. But it ain’t for fall camping in the mountains. This Marmot is rated for comfort at 15 degrees and ‘survival’ at -9 degrees. That makes it 30 degrees warmer than the Zpacks, which makes the weight all of a sudden seem tolerable. Biggest drawback to me isn’t the weight so much as the size it takes up, even stuffed, in the pack. That said, it still fit with my tent, the pad, gear and all my food inside a 40L backpack.

Marmot and Zpacks sleeping bags
Warm bag top, summer bag bottom. Note the Marmot was stuffed much tighter than the Zpacks.

Followup Notes and Comments

Heavier can be better! Let’s say you get your Big 3 down to a really feather weight. Below 5lbs or even 4. This means you definitely have a shelter that might be best when treated delicately. You might have a pack that can’t take more than 25lbs or even less. And you might be skimping on a bag that lets you kind of sleep but still keeps you pretty chilly throughout the night. Where would I recommend you go very light vs not so light? I’d spring the big bucks and get a really fancypants tent, taking 11oz off that weight. And I’d go back to a lighter pack, maybe shaving off 8-10oz more. But where does extra weight mean comfort that is truly wonderful? SLEEPING. Buy the best, warmest, most amazing sleeping bag you can stomach. Maybe it doesn’t stuff down super tiny. Maybe it costs $600. But sleeping poorly after a long day on trail because you are cold flat out SUCKS. And you won’t be rested for the next day.

When I started the Colorado Trail last fall my Big 3 weight was at 5lbs 5oz: quite a bit lighter than the 7lbs above. I was using an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 45 (8 oz lighter than Osprey) and that Zpacks sleeping bag (1lb 3oz lighter). Next “cool weather” trip I will stay with the warm sleeping bag, but probably switch to a lighter backpack again.

Next up: Clothes on your Body!

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