A Tale of Two Hikers
Any article on lightweight backpacking mentions the big three; Tent, Sleeping Bag and Pack. Two recent experiences have led me to believe the attainment of lightweight enlightenment with regard to the Big Three is more elusive than previously credited. In the first case, a friend is in the first couple weeks of her Mountain-to-Sea Trail thru hike across North Carolina and she is experiencing the typical break-in period most thru hikers face: shaking down equipment, initial confrontation with less than desirable physical condition and the realization this is going to be hard. And like most freshman thru hikers, there is the inevitable effort to lose pack weight. I had provided some pre-hike coaching and helped her shed a few pounds but when we had a telephone catchup, she was still hauling over 30 pounds. So we went through everything, item by item, starting with the Big Three. She reported to me that her sleeping bag, pack, tent and sleeping pad still weighed about 17 lb. which couldn’t be true because the tent and bag were only about 5.5 lb. together. I know because I loaned them to her. The pad was another pound and finally we got to the root of the matter. Her pack weighed nearly 7 lb. empty. She bought a good pack from a reputable outfitter. No blame here but a 7 lb. pack for someone less than 5’6″ was a bad fit.
Now to the second part of the story. Yesterday, upon returning from a day hike with a friend on West Prong Trail, I engaged in one my my favorite post hike celebrations in Maryville. That being a stop at Little River Trading Company. I wanted to share what wisdom I could on backpack choices. A helpful sales guy was right there at the backpacks and was quick to engage us. I stood back and listened to his approach to see where he would lead my friend. He asked to typical questions like, “what kind of hiking are you going to be doing?” At no time did the question of weight come up. My friend’s attention was directed to a popular brand with plenty of room and would certainly meet his technical needs. But pack weight was never discussed, even when I suggested the lighter weight brand I prefer.
Sales people are no doubt helpful but it is my contention they rarely steer the novice toward the lightweight options unless pressed to do so directly. With packs, the thing is size and suspension technology. With sleeping bags, it’s temperature rating and price and with tents, well I’m not sure because I’ve never bought one from a store. And this is why my Mountain-to-Sea Thru-hiker friend is carrying over 25 lb. in base pack weight. So here are two basic rules when looking for one or more of the Big Three, or any other piece of gear.
Basic Target Weight for the Big Three
The maximum target weight for the Big Three combined is no more than 9 lb. total weight. Breaking that down, target 3 lb. for a tent, 2.5 lb. for a summer weight sleeping bag and no more than 3 lb. for a pack. It’s not difficult to do less weight but you start to run against cost, especially with sleeping bags. Tent’s and packs weighing 3 lb. or less each are no less durable or more expensive than any others. Beware the popular brands that offer a lot of features and technology. That translates to cost and weight. My North Face summer down bag weighs about 2.5 lb. and my Eureka one-man tent weighs barely 3 lb. Neither came with a hefty price tag and both can be found on sale for $150 each or less. My ULA Circuit holds 4,200 cubic inches and weighs 2.5 lbs. It sells for $235 which is comparable to other major brands. Total for theBig Three in this example: 8 lb.
Helpful Sales People: How to Help Them Help You
Outfitters offer a great service and they desire to get you quality gear but like any other sales person, if you go in without some prep work, they will make recommendations based on their priorities, which is to sell you the best pack in their opinion. They may not put pack weight at the top of the list of most desirable features so you will have to. Pack weight should be number one after good fit. Size should be secondary. 3,500 cubic inches is plenty for week long trips as it is quite enough for through hikers. Sales people may direct you to bigger packs so you will always have enough room for whatever but size adds weight. Most popular brands have lightweight models at reasonable cost. You just have to ask.
Use the same strategy for sleeping bags and tents. If they can’t offer you a reasonably priced product under 3 lb., move on to another store. Or find a good friend with extra gear to loan you…
Erik The Black’s Backpacking Blog has a great article with further wisdom on choosing the Big Three