Every backpacking book or website will tell you that it's all about the big three: tent, pack and sleeping bag. Get the very best of those, and the rest of your backpacking will be a breeze.
Well, we disagree. It's not about the big three. It's really about getting outdoors and on the trail. And if you are going to obsess about your equipment instead of hiking, you really are missing the point.
Sure, the big three are the main ingredients to your home on the trail. And sure, it would be wonderful to have the very best, lightest and latest version of each item. But it isn't a requirement. In fact, it doesn't really make a big difference.
Examples? OK. Some of our early equipment would never meet the standards of today's equipment geeks (even though it served us through some of the greatest trips we have ever taken!) A couple of full sized sleeping bags that weighed five pounds and didn't compress much smaller than an ice chest cost us about $40 each. A three-man Eureka tent that we originally bought for car camping and weighs nearly eight pounds and costs us another $150. And a pair of Eureka backpacks that we picked up at a box store for under $50 apiece.
Our total pack weights just for the big three were something like 17 pounds for P, and another 9 pounds for M. And that's without food, water, cook kit, or clothing. That sounds like a lot. But then again, when we left for a four day trip in Yosemite that covered over thirty miles in four days...the sutuff worked just fine, and we had a phenomenal trip! Our total pack weights were 35 pounds for P and 25 for M. And our total expenditures (including stove and water filter) were just over $420.
That's not unbearable by any means. We picked up a great aluminum pot for a buck at Goodwill, and that's also where we bought all of our fleece layers. And we left the skillet at home, and didn't bring our tuxedos...but we had all we needed, and that's all that really matters. Those are reasonable pack weights for most people, and if you can carry that, you can have some great adventures in the mountains, even if you don't own the latest ultra-light airskin equipment.
Do we still use that stuff? The answer might surprise you. Over the years, we've upgraded our equipment a bit. We picked up a couple REI Sub-kilo sleeping bags for under $200 each, and that cut almost three pounds off our packweight. And P made a little two-man tent that cut another found pounds of his load. But we still sometimes use the Eureka when we have a guest along, and it works just fine. And our packs? The same old ones we started with. They work just fine, thank you very much.
So now our base weights are lower. For the big three, M carries just six pounds, and P carries about nine. Which means that on a an eight day trip last summer over three 10,000 foot passes, our starting trail weight was 36 pounds for P and 26 for M--only a pound more than that earlier trip in Yosemite.
That was nice, but we could have done the same trip carrying the extra ten pounds between us.
And so can you.
So don't spend your life making constant upgrades to a kit you don't use. Get out there with whatever you have, and over time that equipment will take care of itself. If you REALLY want to look like a pro, it's always better to have older, well-used equipment on your back instead of brand new equipment sitting in your living room.
The Big Three is a game that was probably started by equipment manufacturers.
I hiked about 450 miles in BigSur and the Sierras using a 5 pound sleeping bag made of cotton, a canvas pack, etc and I never let the baseweight go over 20 pounds. Of course I cooked over a wood fire, but I had no tent, just a 8x10 piece of plastic - called it a ground cloth and when it rained I pulled half of it oveer me. Jim
These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.
Loc: Washington State, King County
"If you REALLY want to look like a pro, it's always better to have older, well-used equipment on your back instead of brand new equipment sitting in your living room."
And if you want to BE like a pro (who cares what you look like in the woods ...), it's always even better to have the right mix of gear for the conditions at hand, whether older or brand new.
I'm certainly not inclined to take older gear out with me just to "look like a pro". I think that when we focus on how we look, there's too much risk of looking like some sort of jack-ass anyway ... and I can do that just fine without working at it. :-)
For me the right philosophy is one of balance --- on the one hand not putting down the good aspects and wisdom of the ultra-light movement, nor on the other hand of going gonzo to save the last gram of weight. I don't see why there need be any tension between trying to keep pack weight down vs. "getting out there" ?!? It seems like an invented argument, as I can't see anyone taking up the side of "better to buy new equipment than to go out and use it ...".
I certainly have no argument with the "Get out there" mantra. One doesn't need to wear Nike products to "just do it".
Loc: Central Texas
I took the key part of that statement as the new gear being "in the living room" rather than on the trail.
In another one of my hobbies there are a great many people who go out and buy the newest flashiest gear and post pictures and "reviews" of it on internet forums but never really get out and use it. Then there are those who get what they can and get out and run the snot out of it. Good gear makes everything more enjoyable but if you wait for the absolute best before you go out and use it you'll never get out.
I'd say it's a matter of run what you brung but always be on the lookout to improve either the running or the what you brung.
Loc: San Diego CA
This is a great philosophical thread. It really is just about getting out there and discovering what works for you. I was lucky in a way to have my family start me out with gear, which I still have by the way. On my last trip I used my dad's old Kelty pack and frame. OK, so I figured out that the old frame doesn't work for me cause I'm 6'4" and my dad was 6'1". I still enjoyed the trip immensely. I'm using gear from the 60's up through the 00's. It typically takes me a long time to actually cough up and purchase something cause I am trying to see if it really is worth while.
Loc: Lynchburg, VA
Great thread here! I think there must be some folks like me who just like to see new fabrics, fasteners, systems, etc. I don't have to have the latest thing out there, but I thoroughly enjoy innovation and material science, as well as ergonomics. I have always been a tinkerer and a pretty serious one at that. Um, I just ordered a length of 7/64" Amsteel. I have no need, or project in mind - but I want to see exactly what are it's properties. Same goes for Spectra - a few years back I had to order some to see how it acted when wet, how much friction, etc. I had to get a Hennessey Hammock years ago just to see for myself. I recently bought a Nemo bivy/tent just to check out the air bladder support system. It won't see much use. I had to get some titanium just to see how it handled heat transfer. I hope to gain some sympathy for this sickness.
"Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long." Ogden Nash
The first post reminded me of the book written by Donald Trump, "The Art of the Deal". He began with a similar statement. Something to the effect of, Every other real estate book you will ever read will say the 3 most important attributes when looking at real estate are , location, location location. I will tell you right now, that is all bunk. The most important thing is the deal.
Anyway, to get back on topic... Way back when, many of us had external frame packs which can handle a heavier load quite well. When internal frame packs became the rage, many people didn't (still don't?) know how to pack them for optimum load carrying and thus needed to shed pounds in order to be as comfortable as we were with our vintage external frames.
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
The Big Three (or Four, for those who want to include the sleeping pad) are definitely the easiest way to cut a lot of weight fast. They are, however, the most expensive way! They don't have to be, though--there are less expensive substitutes and ways to lighten the Big Three/Four you already have. Examples: (1) "surgery" on a heavy pack to remove a lot of unneeded fancy gizmos (in any case you shouldn't replace the pack until all the rest of your gear has been streamlined/changed/eliminated); (2) switch to a lightweight cheap tarp or maybe just get lighter stakes for the tent you have; (3) buy a 2 1/2 lb. 550-weight down sleeping bag for $130 (Campmor) to use for the 10 years it might take to save your pennies for a top-of-the-line down bag; (4) watch this forum and others for good bargains on used gear; (5) shop thrift, military surplus and big box discount stores, taking your postage or food scale with you.
It is important to remember, though, that the Big Three/Four amount to only half or less of your gear! I recently read a suggestion that if you want to reduce base weight to 12-14 lbs., half of that comes from your Big Four but the rest comes from everything else.
A big chunk of the "everything else" excess weight for many people comes from taking too many changes of clothing, taking items like sunscreen and insect repellents in their original containers instead of repackaging into small containers just the amount needed for the trip, taking too many duplicate items, or just packing stuff that "might" be needed but after a dozen trips has never been touched. The difference is that you're talking an ounce here and three ounces there per item, but all these ounces can add up to many pounds saved! The job is more complex than just spending $$$ on a lighter "Big 4," but it can be accomplished with far less expense. Besides, if you want a lightweight pack, you're going to have to go through this process anyway!
One problem with saying "Go ahead and go out with your 40 lb. weekend pack" is that some of us just can't do it! That's what happened to me after my knee injury, now 23 years in the past. I had to give up backpacking altogether until I discovered this new lightweight gear, mostly from the articles on the home page of this forum. I did start with the "Big 4," except pack, mostly because I was very dissatisfied with the items I had for reasons other then weight, but I had a relatively modest investment thanks to watching like a hawk for sales and closeout items. My pack even showed up on a closeout sale at just the right time!
Above all, though, concentrate on the unneeded/duplicate "non-Big-4" items. You may be able to save 5-10 lbs. right there, enough to enable you to enjoy backpacking even with physical ailments! Also, get out on "base camp" style trips where you're carrying the heavy pack only for a short distance. Base camping a couple of miles from the trailhead (and dayhiking from there) also is a good method for trying out your cut-back "everything else." If it turns out you eliminated too much, it's easy to bail out to your car!
Edited by OregonMouse (01/12/1105:31 PM)
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey
Mouse brings up a good point, no matter how light those base items are, the real weight comes from everything else you carry. You have to carry fewer and lighter "everything else".
As an exercise, if you use a spread sheet, remove all but the "big three", then add what absolutely cannot be changed or left at home and then contemplate the rest. What would happen if you didn't take it? Do you have other options? Then add one or two comfort items back in and go for it.
These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.
Loc: California (southern)
To me, the big three has always been backpack, bag, and boots (the big B's). I backpacked and climbed for over a dozen years before I owned a three season tent. If the three B's work for you and keep you comfortable, weight and cost are relatively insignificant. Consequently, you will get plenty of trail time.
Great post!!! It's first and foremost about getting out - gear is merely the means to an end.
Hi, I'm Glenn, and I'm a gearaholic. It's been almost a week since my last purchase...
And that purchase was a stainless steel pot, an experiment. In the past, I've gone through a lot of gear - I've been the guy out on the trail with all the latest-and-greatest, shiny new stuff. Not because I wanted to achieve a particular look, but because, for me, playing with gear became something of a sub-hobby (and I was fortunate enough to be able to indulge myself.)
However, after flirting with light weight as an ends unto itself, I'm starting to slide back to the overall concept of convenience and comfort. I'll never return to my 45 pound weekend loads; like OM so aptly says, I'm old enough that I just can't do that anymore. But I'm thinking that I may end up preferring the heavier Hubba to the Carbon Reflex, Prolite Plus to NeoAir, and so forth - resulting in a load of 23 pounds instead of 20 for a summer weekend.
In the end, though, it is about getting out there - and where "there" is, isn't as important as getting out. Sure, we all love the Isle Royale, Yellowstone, CDT, or AT "big trips." But, we can lose a lot of valuable time sitting at home dreaming about those places. (I'm as guilty as everyone else on that score.) It's better to go to that "boring" little state park, half an hour from home, than to go nowhere. Several times, I've grudgingly done that when a trip to the AT, a day's drive away, fell through - and sure enough, something happened at the lowly state park that wowed me: I'd get within 15 feet of a buck with a creek gurgling between us, or walk through a flock of 300 geese sleeping on the public swimming beach on a crisp, clear January morning - or come across the snow-covered fresh carcass of a young doe that had clearly succumbed to starvation in the last 48 hours, and suddenly realize that, if we're going to hunt the natural predators to extinction, we also have a duty to step in to manage the herd to prevent the cruelty of overpopulation and starvation. (Not a particularly elegant solution, and one open to abuse, but it did change my perception of hunting and hunters.)
So, what about all the "old" stuff that gets set aside by the dabbling in the latest and greatest? In my case, a lot of it has ended up on someone else's back (a couple of nieces, a nephew, my son, some of my old Scouts, and some new friends), letting them get on the trail a bit sooner than they would have otherwise. Until it ceases to function, the age of the gear is irrelevant; I've had great trips with all manner of gear.
It is about getting out there AND being safe. In a lot of backpacking environments, so-so gear is just fine. However in some environments, like winter backpacking, you better be sure that old stuff works! Just as important, are your skills. Often, you are better off updating your skills, instead of your gear. For example, there is nothing more humbling and informative than camping out in your backyard in a raging storm! You may find that the beloved old tent leaks after several in the downpour. And all of us could get a lot out of an orinteeriing class or how to use our trekking poles most efficiently (REI offers lots of free classes). You are never too experienced to learn more or practice a skill.
It's true that getting out there is more important than acquiring the lightest equipment available.
Hindsight is 20/20 though and I wish I had known about this site before I acquired my big 3! My big 3 weigh in at 15 lbs, and I know I could have found a lighter shelter and pack for around the same amount of money that I spent.
A lot of the "everything else" comes from *experience* - and that you only get by going out.
One of the biggest things I found saved me weight waaay back when when i started using them was my alcohol stove - but the weight savings was really *NOT* so much in the stove and fuel, it was that when I started using that, I started changing the kinds of food I took, thinking more carefully about menu, quantity, and how and what I cooked - doing FBC cooking, and finding meals I really liked that were actually that easy to make. The result was a lot less cooking gear, a lot less miscelanny, and lighter food.. Those savings (in addition to the stove and fuel weight) made for a big savings in my pack. Of course the food difference didn't count in my "base weight" either
The other thing that reaaaaly comes from experience is clothing and how you use it. Geting clothing to the level of the right amount for safety and comfort, yet not packing your entire dresser - is something that comes from experience, and thinking about how you use it. Some of it also came as I lighened my pack. Why? well, I changed how I was *doing* things. With a heavy pack, I would hike a short distance, stop, and spend a lot of time in camp. I therefore took a lot of clothing to "sit around in" and enjoy camp even in awful weather. With a lighter pack, I enjoy the walking, and really, I'm in camp to sleep. I now take clothing that I hike in, and clothing I rest in, but I don't worry about "sitting around in foul weather" - if it's that bad, I tuck into the tent in my sleeping bag. I don't need to "sit around" in weatherproof clothing. The trouble with "righsizing" your clothing is that going too light can be dangerous. so really, it's all about getting that experience in bad weather conditions in and knowing what you need.
Loc: Washington State, King County
"I now take clothing that I hike in, and clothing I rest in, but I don't worry about "sitting around in foul weather" - if it's that bad, I tuck into the tent in my sleeping bag."
Ditto. The tricky bit for me comes when I go on trips with others; I'm pretty used to my approach, so unless I pause and really think it thru it's easy for me to bring too little clothing to be comfortable for adapting to some other group process.
i have to agree totally my first big three was a 8x10 utility tarp, a micro-plush blanket and diy pack made from a mesh sack . which was actually about 5lbs lighter than what i carry now. i got some strange looks in the woods but always stayed dry warm and have seen alot of mountain sides with that (recycled "FREE") setup. But now thanks to a self proclaimed gearaholic i nolonger daydream about the gear i need to buy. as much as the places id like to go. Thanks Freind
SAMOSET ps. now i just need to get out there
Some peopole live life day by day. Try step by step.
We all love rankings of the "top 3" or "top 10" or whatever. All our backpacking gear and skills are inter-related and have lots of feedback responses. If you have poorly performing "big 3" your first trip may just be so miserable that you are hesitent to repeat the experience, or worse, get seriously injured. Your "big 3" can be the best on earth, yet if you do not have the skills to use them properly, you may be miserable, and, guess what - not go out again. Every piece of gear I take out is important, otherwise I would not take it! The beginner needs to learn what is important (and necessary) and what can be left home. And this "list" is different for each environment we backpack in. A few have related how they started out with make-shift gear. You probably were in a fairly benign environment and lucky (also helps to be stupidly young and invincible). Paul Petzoldt climbed the Grand Teton as a 16-year old in cowboy boots and with only a pocket knife. He made it back, just barely. He hever "boasted" about that as "getting out there". Rather he recognised it for what it was - stupid and he was lucky to be alive. He never went ill-equipped on a climb again. Nature has her own rules; those with too much huburis sp?? may get stung or may luck out - for a while. Be safe.
Good point - and one I assumed was implied (thus proving that what they say about you, me, and assuming is correct.)
I agree that skills and gear are interrelated, and that both have to be evaluated as part of the planning process for any trip. Again, I think many of us have been at this so long that it's second nature to do so. I know I did recently, when I decided not to go on that trip into snow and cold that I determined was beyond the practical limits of the gear I'm using - even though it was an area I've been to a few times, using the same "big 3", but in more moderate conditions.
I guess that when I think about using make-shift gear, I think in terms of two types of people: very experienced folks, who know the limits of such gear, and like it because they enjoy the minimalist aspect, or sticking to a budget (or, in a few cases, very experienced folks who couldn't afford to get out otherwise.)
However, all of those folks at some time fit into the other type: the new hiker. I know that my first few backpack trips (with the plastic-coated tarp, cotton bag, and Sterno stove) were purposely taken in the summer (thanks to advice from another hiker.) Now, for the new hikers I'm associated with, the gear takes a back seat to ensuring that they start with trips that are within their capabilities. Having done that, I can compensate for any gear limitations: if they can't spend much money (or don't want to until they know they'll like it), they can borrow some of my gear and supplement with Wally World tarps, sleeping pads, etc. I'll simply ensure that we don't take our first trip in cold, rainy weather, or try to do high mileage days in tennis shoes and 30-pound packs; I'll design it to be one they can enjoy and feel competent with, so they'll want to go again. (Then I take them to the local outfitter, where the rows of shiny and new lure them to the Dark Side.)
Thanks again for reminding us of a very basic assumption that needs repeating every so often, not so much for our own sakes as to keep us from accidentally encouraging someone to do something foolhardy.
Loc: California (southern)
The one thing in common that I have seen in outdoor accident victims is inexperience, and often a goodly amount of hubris, but mostly, just plain ignorance of the environment into which they were entering. And yes, by golly, i was once one myself; I was very fortunate.
Loc: Western Montana
Some are born to weightless, others have weightless thrust upon them...
I understand what Mouse is saying about circumstances dictating whether or not to go lite. Personally, I've never been a light backpacker. I've never really even had an interest in being a light backpacker until a few years ago. I was raised to stuff whatever I could into an external frame pack and walk until I dropped. Of course, as a teenager, the 70 lb pack I hauled on a three day, 30 mile trip didn't really bother me too much (I'm 5'7 and have never weighed more than 135 lbs). This isn't machismo or bragging, I just figured that was what backpacking was because that is what I learned. My philosophy over the years didn't change much- I have gear, I love to backpack, I "handle" the weight, why would I need to change my attitude toward backpacking?
Now, I have a wife with a bad knee, a young son who hasn't been able to carry much weight the last few years, a tight wallet, and a genuine desire to get out there!!! We actually took several years off from backpacking after our boy was born, mostly because we lived in the desert for a while and I was a little intimidated by desert camping (we hiked all the time, just not overnight). Anyway, after moving back to more familiar surroundings, our first overnight backpack trip was exhilarating. We had a great time, but were way overloaded. For our first extended trip, I tried to reduce our weight (carrying all of the kid's heavy gear on our backs), and we had a great time camping, but only a moderate time hiking.
Last year, before our big hike for the year, I decided to investigate ways to reduce weight from the pack. I laid out everything we took the year before, and started to cut. I set aside all sorts of things that really weren't needed or we could substitute for cheap with something lighter. We invested in some lighter cookware, lighter clothes (my first time ever not hiking in jeans- like wearing boxers the first time), and a food dehydrator. Overall, I estimated that we cut 20 lbs from our total pack weight just by focusing on things that were not the big three. We were still heavy, but better considering we still decided not to have our son carry much more than water, raingear, spare clothes, and a book.
Of course, now that I've got the bug for hiking light, each year will be a little better. Ironically, our budget isn't going to allow for the adults to get much new gear this year, but we've already reduced our pack weight by getting our son gear that he can carry himself. We bought an REI Lumen bag for kids to replace the full size Nebo bag his grandparents bought him (OK- how could I not pack a free sleeping bag?). He can carry his own bag, pad, water, clothes, and misc. toys and still keep the weight around 10% of his body weight. And it's weight I don't have to carry. We're talking about getting our first down bag to replace the old North Face bag I've had since I was 12 (that was almost 4 years ago in dog years). Basically, I know the weight of my pack this year would be a joke among members of this forum, but it will be lighter than last year. And next year, even lighter.
Essentially, I feel like lightweight backpacking has been forced on me because of my family situation, and I'm grateful for it. My goal is to lighten our "adult" pack equipment to compensate for the added weight of our son. Then, when it's just the two of us, we'll be packing at a weight I never realized would be safe or enjoyable.
I guess my point here is that I agree with Mouse that some people don't have a choice but to go light or ultra-light, depending on their situation. As I learn more, I see obvious benefits in reducing my pack weight, but I'm not sure I'll ever get to some of the weights as others on this site. Honestly, if I knew I could keep my pack weight to 40 lbs, my wife's to 25, and my son's to 10 this year I would think that was light, relatively. Overall, however, I think the desire to get out there is the constant around which all of us little hiker-variables revolve. I do think there is a great deal of work that can be done on everything but the big three- until you've reduced all but those.
Maybe one of these days I won't feel embarrassed to post my gear list on this site, but until then I'm going to keep cutting where I can. Until then, I'll keep hiking.
...then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really. - Milne
If you're embarrassed to post your gear list, the rest of us are doing this wrong. The reason to post a gear list is to receive advice, usually in response to a particular question; it shouldn't be about judgments of "you're doing it wrong."
If your gear lets you do the trips you want to do, allows you to stay warm, dry, and well-fed, and you're willing to carry it, then there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Could it be lighter? Probably. Are you taking "too much"? You may be taking more than I would - but that may not be "too much" for your needs.
If you post your list and ask how your load could be lightened, you'll get all kinds of suggestions on what to replace with lighter versions as well as what not to bother taking. You can take those suggestions, or reject them - it's your judgment about your own needs that controls.
You pretty much hit the nail on the head regarding "light hiking": a reduction from 75 pounds to 40 pounds is going lighter - significantly lighter. You may never be able to - or even want to - reduce your load to 15 pounds. The reasons why (be it affordability, preference, or style) don't matter; it's about getting the lightest load that is right for you.
So, please, never feel embarrassed. We're supposed to all be in this together, helping one another - not trying to prove that Our Way is the only Right Way.