The Big Three: Your Shelter, Sleep System, and Pack Are the Heart of Your Kit

Your big three gear choices - shelter, sleep system, and backpack - are the core of your comfort and safety on the trail. Learn how to choose quality lightweight options.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

My Waymark Gear THRU pack from my last Eagle Rock Loop trip
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The big three are the core gear needed for relative safety and comfort on the trail. They compromise the core weight of your entire kit and, as such, are the first and most essential gear choices you’ll make. So, then, what are the backpacking big three?

The big three are your shelter , sleep system, and backpack. Most thru-hikers will aim to get these three below nine pounds, with ultralight gear shooting for each to be under two, making them six pounds. This is where the most significant weight drop in gear can occur and the most expensive.

Let’s consider what you need to consider before making these core purchases and what weight you are aiming for.

Then, discuss each element separately so you can make quality-informed decisions before purchasing any gear.

What You MUST Know About Your Big Three Backpacking Gear

Overall, these items are the key to your base weight. If any of these go heavier, the rest of your gear has to compensate for it. But don’t let this scare you.

Each of these big three items has a lot of different ways to save weight without sacrificing safety or comfort.

The big three are also the most expensive backpacking gear purchases. So, do your research, know what you want before buying, and be patient in your search for used gear to save money.

Finally, these are the items that you will use every day on the trail. They should be your most reliable gear. So don’t cut corners here to save a few bucks or ounces.

Buy quality gear that you know will last multiple seasons and outdoor adventures.

How to Get Your Big Three Weight Down without Sacrificing Comfort

The key to many successful thru-hikes is to keep overall backpack weight down, not that you can’t complete one with a super heavy pack, but the chances for injury and fatigue go up exponentially. So, what are some ways to save weight with the big three?

There are many ways to achieve a lighter backpacking kit, but often it comes at the cost of a decent chunk of change.

The first way to reduce weight is by using ultralight materials. For example, shelters made with Dyneema Composite Fabrics (formerly Cuben Fiber) weigh a fraction of what traditional nylon shelters do. The same goes for sleeping bags and quilts filled with down versus synthetic insulation.

These ultralight materials often cost twice to three times as much as their traditional counterparts, but they can save you a pound or more in weight.

Another way to save weight is by choosing lighter gear. For example, using a tarp instead of a tent will save you weight. But it comes at the cost of increased setup time and some loss in comfort and exposure.

The last way to save weight is by consolidating gear. For example, using a trekking pole tent over a free-standing tent will save you weight. But it comes at the cost of reliance on trekking poles not breaking and the skill to set it up.

The decision on saving weight with your big three is up to you and what tradeoffs you are willing to make.

Before making any gear purchases, weigh your options carefully, no pun intended.

Why You MUST Choose Your Backpack Last

When building their kit, many new thru-hikers make the incorrect choice of buying their backpack first, the key issue here is the backpack has to fit every other piece of gear you need, and without buying them, you have no clue how much space you will need.

This leads to many having to buy a second backpack once they finish their big three because the first one was too big or too small or having to buy the much more expensive gear to pack it down tight.

To avoid this, list all the gear you intend to purchase for your thru-hike and find a backpack with the liter capacity to fit everything.

If you want to go super ultralight , consider making your backpack.

How Much Should Your “Big 3” Backpacking Gear Items Weigh?

As we discussed above, your big three are a huge part of your end base weight, which means focusing on getting the lightest options possible that will also function in the temperatures expected on the trail.

When working on getting as lightweight but safe as possible, the agreed-upon goal weight for all three items should be no more than two pounds each, but this is for ultralight backpackers with optimized lightweight gear kits.

In general, for most people, the big three should be under nine pounds, basically under three pounds for each core item.

This can be done in current times for not a gigantic expense helping you build a more budget backpacking kit which I spoke of here.

The Big Three: Shelter, Sleep System, Backpack

So now, to explain each part of the big three and the options contained within each part, as shelter and sleep system are incredibly vague and aren’t fully explained because they can have a wide range of options each.

Choosing the Right Shelter: Tent, Hammock, or Tarp?

Your shelter is your home on the trail , there are many options, but the most common one you will see is the tent, as everyone is familiar with this type of shelter.

The second most common would be a hammock setup that hangs on trees instead of being located on the ground, which has some amazing benefits.

Then there are tarps, these are the most lightweight option available, but it is a very exposed camp and requires some good knowledge of location and pitch for real effectiveness.

Tent Shelters

Everyone has used a tent at some point; they are the most popular type of shelter for car camping and backpacking.

Tents come in all shapes and sizes with a wide variety of options, but when it comes to backpacking, you want to focus on the lightweight ones that will protect you from the elements while being as light as possible.

On the trail, you will see four main factors for tents: ultralight single-wall and double-wall tents, trekking pole tents, and then the semi-freestanding tent.

Choosing a non-freestanding tent without tent poles will allow you to drop significant weight but at the cost of requiring you to pitch your tent using trekking poles for the main support structure.

The main difference between double and single-wall tents is that a double-wall has an inner mesh layer to keep bugs out while the fly, which is the waterproof outer layer, is pitched independently, which helps with airflow and condensation.

A single wall will lack this inner mesh layer and is one solid piece that can lead to more condensation but is a lighter option.

The double-wall will almost always be heavier than the single-wall; however, some manufacturers are making very lightweight double-wall tents that are catching up in weight.

Here are my best shelter options:

Hammock Shelters

Hammocks get you up off the ground. For those who use them, moving back to a tent is mighty difficult unless the terrain calls for it, as there is no better sleep I feel than in a hammock.

They have evolved over the years and become more comfortable, adding underquilts to keep you warm from underneath and rain fly’s that protect you from above.

Hammocks are not for everyone but those who use them swear by them. I use one when conditions permit most of the time.

They are much lighter than a tent and can be just as comfortable, but you must know how to properly hang your hammock to get a good night’s sleep.

Here are my best shelter options:

Tarp Shelters

A tarp shelter is the most minimalist and ultralight setup you can have, it will also test all of your backwoods skills to make sure it is properly pitched to keep you dry and comfortable.

A tarp can be as simple as a flat rectangular piece of waterproof fabric with some grommets or tie-outs for easy pitching, to an A-frame style with more support that requires more knowledge to pitch correctly.

You will often see ultralight backpackers using tarps as their main shelter with a bug bivy or netting underneath for protection from insects.

They will often pitch their tarp using trees, rocks, or their trekking poles for support instead of carrying single-use poles saving even more weight.

Sleep Warm and Comfy: Pads, Bags, Quilts & Underquilts

Your sleep system keeps you comfortable all night while you sleep, keeping you off the hard rocky ground and warm against the heat loss to the air above you and the ground or below you.

When many complain about their cold, it is largely due to the poor choice of sleeping pad or underquilt and less likely to the backpacking quilt or sleeping bag on top.

Sleeping Pad

For nearly any hiker, your pad is the key to your best night of sleep. First, you want to ensure any sleeping pad you choose has an ASTM rating as this means an outside agency tested it to meet the temperature ratings proclaimed; many bend this to your detriment.

You will see three different types of sleeping pads: closed-cell foam, inflatable, and hybrid.

Closed-Cell Foam Pads are the old school, more traditional big blue or green rectangle that most car campers have used at one point in their lives; these don’t insulate all that well and are summer-only options.

Inflatable pads are the most common on thru-hikes. These days, they come in all shapes and sizes, from big and plush to small and minimalist.

You will have the option to get an air mattress that is big and thick or a smaller ultralight model that doesn’t insulate as well but packs down very small.

I choose an inflatable pad for my tent trips as I like the big mattress as I am a side sleeper and mover which gives me more space for my fidgeting.

Sleeping Bag

The most common warmth item for sleeping is the sleeping bag; everyone has at some point used one. Most have some sort of synthetic or down-filling with a waterproof shell.

The big items to look for in a sleeping bag are the temperature rating, fill, and weight. The most comfortable way to sleep is on your back so you want to make sure you can roll around without getting cold spots.

A big advantage synthetic bags have over down is they can get wet and still insulate where down will not, so if you are in a wetter climate or are prone to spills, go with synthetic.

Down does have a big advantage in that it packs down much smaller for the same warmth rating as synthetic.

Backpacking Top Quilt

Two years ago I moved to using a backpacking quilt over a sleeping bag as I have restless legs and shift a lot, making a bag super uncomfortable.

A quilt is like a sleeping bag; instead, the fabric and insulation that would be useless and underneath you has been removed along with the full-length zipper, which greatly drops the weight on them versus a similarly rated bag.

The big advantage of a quilt is they are much more comfortable as you can move around inside them without feeling restricted like you would in a bag, plus they are lighter weight and pack down smaller.

Hammock Underquilt

If you are hammock camping, you need an underquilt to keep you warm from underneath as the air circulates freely underneath you. While it is possible to use a pad keeping a pad underneath you on a hammock is a pain in the royal rear.

The underquilt holds up the warm air next to your body somewhat like the top quilt does for you in top coverage, but instead it is suspended underneath you.

They come in all different shapes and sizes just like your sleeping bags do with varying levels of warmth. If you are hammock camping in warm weather, you can get away with a lighter weight quilt that doesn’t have as much loft or fill power.

There are typically two options on underquilts, a full length version or the three quarters which ends before your knee area, obviously the shorter the underquilt the less weight and the less space needed in your pack.

Backpack Styles for Short & Long Trips: Framed, Frameless, Ultralight

Finding and choosing a backpack is a lengthy process which I cover in more detail here, but let’s go over the forms and why each has a place.

Backpacks With Internal Frames

Internal frames help to distribute heavier loads to your hips from your shoulders and are better for carrying big heavy loads. You will often see people using these framed packs for week-long or longer backpacking trips into the backcountry, where you need to carry more food and gear.

Typically, a backpack with a frame will be the heavier option, but they help you better distribute your load from your shoulders to your hips, making the weight feel less hefty overall.

Backpacks Without a Frame

Frameless packs are often used by ultra lighters and those carrying lighter loads for shorter trips as they shave off a few ounces and sometimes pounds.

These ultralight packs often don’t have all the straps and adjustments of the big heavy-duty framed packs, but they make up for being lighter and often more comfortable if you carry a smaller gear load.

Example “Big 3” Backpacking Gear Lists

You want your heaviest items not to exceed three pounds each, preferably under 2 pounds each if possible, as you don’t want big and heavy carrying you down.

Budget – Big 3 (9.65 pounds) 154.4 oz / 4377 g

Lightweight – Big 3 (5.5 pounds) 86.63 oz / 2456 g

Ultralight – Big 3 (4.1 pounds!!) – 65.6 Oz / 1860 g

Picking the Perfect Big Three for Your Hiking Style & Budget

Your big three backpacking gear make up most of your base weight and are the most important gear on your back; it keeps you dry, comfortable, and warm at night.

Get these items right, and the rest of your hike will be much more enjoyable. Be sure to do your research, ask around, and don’t forget to enjoy the process of outfitting yourself for your next big adventure.

Please leave a comment if you have something helpful to add. I love feedback, but please bring positivity just as you would on the trail itself!

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