It's not about the big three

posted Jan 12, 2011, 7:33 AM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Jun 16, 2013, 11:11 AM ]
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 cost 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 stuff 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?  Someimtes we still use 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.