Backpacking: The Big Three and What You Need to Know

February 22, 2019

A spring approaches, thousands of would-be thru-hikers are making their final decisions about what gear to take on their months-long journey. Generally speaking, the Big Three gear pieces of any backpacking adventure consist of: your shelter, your sleeping system and your backpack.

If the combined weight of those three pieces of gear is 12 pounds or more, you’re trending heavy and you could be in for a really hard time on your hike. You should consider upgrading to lighter gear. If you are at 9-12 pounds, you’re certainly making things easier on yourself. If you are at 9 pounds or less, you are doing exceptionally well at keeping your pack weight down.

Now let’s take a closer look at each of the Big Three and what you need to know for backpacking:

Shelter for Backpacking

For shelter most people come in at around 3 pounds. Notice we said “shelter” and not tent. Thousands of backpackers have moved away from tent camping to hammock camping. The ultralighters shave even more weight by using just a tarp and trekking poles. Those who want to do away with all privacy might even go without carrying anything. They rely on bunking in the wood and stone shelters that are scattered a day’s hike apart along most of our country’s long trails. That’s a risky undertaking if you arrive late and find there’s no room and it’s raining.

Tents offer great privacy and solid shelter on all sides from rain, wind and in some cases, snow. They come with poles and stakes, and rainflies. The materials vary in composition and weight, so the weights for one- or two-person tents can vary pretty dramatically. Know this, the lighter the tent, the higher the cost.


Hammocks keep you off the hard or soggy ground, which is nice if you have a bad back or it’s raining. They set up quick, and in most places, trees are plentiful. A hammock by itself is way under 3 pounds, but once you factor in a rainfly, bug net and straps, you’re probably somewhere near the weight of a lightweight tent. However, keeping warm requires extra gear, such as an underquilt, and there are portions of some trails (the Pacific Crest Trail begins in the desert) where there are virtually no trees to hang from.


In addition, tarps can be incredibly light and versatile. In fact, they can be fashioned in a number of setups. If it’s windy and rainy, set it close to the ground. In hot weather, raise it to enjoy more air movement. Just remember, now you don’t have as much protection from mosquitos and critters that want to warm up next to you during the night.

Sleep system

We say sleep system because there are more choices than just a traditional sleeping bag.  And, this is one area where you can make up for a heavier shelter.

Most backpackers go the sleeping bag route. You can sleep on top of them on hot nights; you can get zipped up tight inside them with a hood in cold weather. Again, weight can vary from about 1 pound to 3 or more, depending on the insulation needed to reach the temperature rating you want. But you can find a reasonably priced sleeping bag good to temperatures near freezing that weigh less than 2 pounds.

Many hammock campers and others now use quilts instead of sleeping bags. Quilts generally don’t have an enclosed foot box, so they allow more freedom of movement and adapt well to temperature conditions.

If you are sleeping on the ground, your sleep system should include a sleeping pad to insulate you from the ground. These can weigh just a few ounces to more than 2 pounds.

Backpack for backpacking

The options are too numerous to go into in this post. If you have a lot of gear to haul, you want a large and stout backpack. There will be top lids, hefty straps and a sturdy internal or external frame. Keeping it under 3 pounds will be a tremendous challenge. But if you are a weight-conscious packer, there are many great backpacks in the 3- to 4-pound range with many great features.

Ultralighters, and that’s what most thru-hikers evolve into, will favor packs with few features, a lightweight or non-existent frame. They will be as light as 1.5 pounds. They are made of lightweight materials, so the entire pack weight should be well under 30 pounds.

Get help

All this reading is ok, but talking to someone who has been there and done that can bring things into a different light. Visit an outdoor shop with experienced staff members and have them show you what’s available and how to put together a great system for you.