What’s in my wilderness backpack: The big three

The easiest way to lose pack weight is by getting the lightest equipment of the Big Three: the sleep system, pack and tent. It’s also the most expensive, since each of the big three can run into the hundreds of dollars. My approach is middle of the road, which is solidly in the “light” category of a base weight (sans food and water) of 10-20 pounds. “Ultralight” is usually defined as a base weight of less than 10 pounds. I don’t want to spend a fortune on the latest space-age materials and/or spend hours doing research on cottage industries (if that appeals to you check out Erik the Black’s directory of UL companies). The smaller purveyors often handcraft super-lightweight equipment but lead times can be long and returns can be difficult, though the quality is usually quite high. The benefit of a national chain such as REI is that gear can be touched and tried on, experienced sales people can offer advice and returns can be made in a reasonable amount of time, sometimes as long as a year.

Using mostly easy-to-find pieces of equipment that are widely available I have been able to achieve a base weight of 16-18 pounds (without food and water), depending on electronics or weather-dependent clothing. My total pack weight for 4-5 days is around 25 pounds with food and water; and about 35 pounds for 10 days. I almost always hike with my husband so we can split up some items. He carries the tent, stove and cooking kit while I carry all the food. On long trips he has to carry excess food but only for the first couple of days. My pack weight goes down over time as we consume food but his stays the same, at about 25-30 pounds. This is a comfortable amount of weight for us, but our choices evolve over time. As we get older we might be motivated to lighten our load even more if it can keep us on the trails longer. Who knows? Some day we might be ultralight.

Sleep system

Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed

Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed

I’m using the Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 800 (2 lbs, 10 oz; 3-season, Women’s model filled with 800 fill Duck DriDown, EN Comfort: 25 F, EN Limit: 13 F, $540). I’m a side sleeper and I find the hybrid quilt/mummy bag to be less confining than a traditional sleeping bag. I used to regularly get zippers stuck, invariably catching some of the thin nylon outer fabric in the zipper. I find the lack of hardware freeing and the nylon taffeta liner feels nice against my skin. If I get warm I just throw off the “blanket” piece on top without having to struggle with a zipper and if it’s cold I can easily tuck the blanket around my body. If my lower body overheats I can slip my feet out the escape hatch, an overlapping vent in the bottom of the bag. Steve recently got one and loves it as much as I do.

When it’s very chilly, in the upper 20s, I notice that the Backcountry Bed doesn’t initially feel as warm as a mummy bag, though the model I have is rated to a limit of 13 degrees. Perhaps that is because it’s not as close fitting as a mummy bag. However, after 20 or 30 minutes the bag feels quite warm and I often find myself casting off the wool socks and long underwear.

I used a Marmot Angel Fire (2 lbs, 10 oz, 3-season, women’s, filled with 650 fill Down Defender, 25 F [I have an old version which is rated as a 15 F bag], $259) sleeping bag for years and it performed very well for a traditional bag. It’s made for a woman’s body so I was able to turn in it and draw my knees up. It kept me warm during cold Sierra nights down to the upper 20s. I’ve had this so long that I worry that it will lose it’s loft but so far it’s still quite warm.

Sierra Designs Nitro 800 sleeping bag

My 3rd option, which is currently my warmest, is the Sierra Designs Nitro Women’s 0-degree down bag (2 lbs, 8 oz, 3-season, 800 fill Dri Down; EN Comfort: 15 F; EN Limit: 2 F, $419). See my review of the Nitro bag.

Therm-a-rest NeoAir XLite mattress in a Lightning FL 2 tent next to a SD Backcountry Bed.

The other part of the sleep system is the pad and we each use a Cascade Designs Thermarest NeoAir pad (1 lb, 3.5 oz). We got them when Cascade Designs first came out with them and have an R-value of 2. I recently upgraded to a Neo-Air Xlite, which is lighter and warmer (12 oz; R-value 3.2) than the older model. See my review of the Xlite pad. The pads are comfortable and lightweight, but don’t self-inflate. Blowing up the mattress at high altitudes can be a dizzying experience so I blow it up half-way, take a break and finish when my head clears.


Inga & Steve with fully loaded REI Flash packs on the John Muir Trail

Inga & Steve with fully loaded REI Flash packs on the John Muir Trail

I lost almost three pounds of pack weight when I switched from my old backpack, which was very well made, but had way too many bells and whistles. Next was one of my favorite packs, the REI Flash 52 (2 lbs, 12 oz, women’s model, capacity for my size small version is 49 liters) but, sadly, they don’t make this pack any more.

Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 pack at Pt. Reyes National Seashore

I tried the Zpacks Arc Zip but didn’t find it to be comfortable once I had more than about 15 lbs in it. After much searching, my new favorite pack is the Gossamer Gear Mariposa (30 oz; $225).  At 60-liters, it has more capacity than I need most of time. I lead more guided trips where I need to carry some extra gear so it’s nice to have the extra space when I need it. It carries light or moderate loads nicely so I barely feel the weight. Otherwise, I leave the long collar rolled up and it’s about the same size as my old pack. Read my review of the Mariposa pack.

When Steve’s REI Flash pack wore out, he switched to the Granite Gear Crown 2 (60-L) and raves about it. At $199, it’s one of best-value light weight packs out there.


Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL

Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL on the John Muir Trail

Our go-to favorite tent is the Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL (2 person, freestanding, trail weight 3 lb-user verified, $370). We like how fast it goes up in the rain without the interior getting wet due to the integrated fly. The back half of the tent is single-walled while the front half  is doubled-walled, which reduces the tendency to accumulate condensation. In addition, gear closets are provided by the two “wings” that spread out on both sides as an extension of the fly. Zippered windows allow access to gear that is stored on the sides. We keep our packs and hiking poles in the gear closets. By keeping gear stored on the sides it keeps the front clear so either person can easily move in and out of the tent through the door.  We use Tyvek cut to the shape of the tent plus the triangular footprint of the closets and a couple of feet more in the front as our “porch”. There is a lot of headroom inside the tent so we can sit up and even cook from inside the tent, placing the stove on the porch to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. There’s enough room inside that we can wedge our boots in beside our sleeping pads on the side. Each person gets a small pocket near the head where glasses or electronics can be stored at night. The integrated fly means that there is less air circulation so occasionally condensation will build up around the foot of the tent. We keep a camp towel handy to wipe the moisture off in the morning.

Testing the Siera Designs Tensegrity 1 FL in the backyard

Testing the Siera Designs Tensegrity 1 FL in the backyard

When I go out on solo treks, I use the Sierra Designs Tensegrity 1 FL  (1-person, non-freestanding, trail weight: 2 lbs, 5 oz-user verified, $320). It is a little fussier to put up than the Lightning but with some practice it becomes easier. It uses two trekking poles in the front and a single, included, curved pole at the foot. One interesting thing about the Tensegrity is that the walls angle out from the bottom so there is a lot of headroom when sitting up and the tent doesn’t feel like a coffin. Another unique feature is the large vestibule in front, where all the gear can be stored, while the entry door is on the side so I don’t have to clamber over my stuff. The awning that forms the vestibule can be rolled up in nice weather to allow for star gazing. With the awning up and the side walls down the tent feels airy and spacious. If the side walls are zipped up some condensation can form.

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 without fly in Yosemite National Park

The Big Agnes Copper Spur  (2 person, freestanding, trail weight: 3 lb, 9.5 oz with fly and ground cloth-user verified) is a very popular tent on the trail. We like to use this traditional tent with a full fly when it is warm and dry because almost the entire dome is mesh, which makes for excellent star gazing and air circulation. The near vertical walls allow for a great deal of head room and the triple pockets on each side are handy for storing electronics, eyeglasses and other small items. Having two side doors is nice but the vestibule space is limited and the tent, with all its components, weighs a little more than our other tent.

We have found a variety of products with widespread availability that have lightened our load and given us flexibility across a range of conditions. We’re now in a “light” range that is comfortable for us to carry and provides enough amenities to set up a relaxing camp.

See related posts:


Therm-A-Rest Down Pillow, inflatable pillow and Therm-A-Rest Pillowcase are added luxuries.

Disclosure of material connection: I received some samples of some of these products for testing purposes but the opinions expressed are solely my own. They include Sierra Designs tents and sleeping bag and Big Agnes tent