The Big Three – Recommended Backpacking Gear

The Big Three

Moving fast and light along the spectacular ridge line of the GR20 in Corsica. A minimal pack (and good pre-trip training) enabled Alison and I to do a 16 day trip in under 8 days.

To save as much as 10 to 12 pounds with with the minimum of effort, look at The Big Three.  1) Backpack, 2) Tent/Shelter, and 3) Sleeping bag (or quilt). The lighter versions of these are just as functional as their heavier counterparts. They will carry your load and keep you warm and dry. The only thing you stand to lose is a bunch of weight off your back.

And most people do not enjoy being a pack mule. It is rarely the highlight or happiest memory of a trip. Alternatively, unburdened from the misery of carrying a heavy pack, folks become joyful and alert—in the best state of mind to appreciate everything around them—the reason they went backpacking. The Big Three is the fastest way to achieve that goal.

The Big Three

1) Take a Backpack that weighs less than two pounds
(see Recommended Backpacks)

Recommended Backpacking Gear

2) Take a Tent/Shelter that weighs less than two pounds
(see Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters)
Recommended Backpacking Gear

3) Take a Sleeping bag that that weighs less than 1.5 pounds
(see Recommended Sleeping Bags and Quilts)
Recommended Backpacking Gear


Recommended Pyramid Shelters

Recommended Pyramid Shelters

A pyramid shelter is likely your lightest effective shelter, unless the weather forecast is for constant, pouring-down rain or there are going to be a bunch of bugs (and there is an optional Innernet to handle that). This is the collective wisdom of literally decades of experience by most of the people I hike with.  I know that many readers may still be unconvinced on this point. If so, you can jump to the Tent and Tarp Tents sections.

Recommended Pyramid Shelters

Pyramid shelters give you the maximum coverage and storm protection for the minimum weight. Consider the palatial 65+ ft2 floor area and 5+ feet of headroom for the 1.5 pound Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid XL (only 1 lb if you get it in Cuben Fiber). If you like to sleep out under the stars you can leave these shelters at the bottom of your pack, greatly reducing the time to setup and breakdown camp and without the weight penalty of carrying an unused conventional tent. (A two-person tarp weighs 8-12 oz and takes up virtually zero pack volume.) Many of pyramid shelters and shaped tarp shelters come with an optional “Innernest” which has full mosquito netting and a bathtub floor, effectively making them a tent when needed. But giving you the option of leaving the Innernest at home, saving the weight and volume.


MLD SuperMid kept Don and I sheltered and dry from a freak and exceptionally violent Sierra storm at 11,000 feet. For a couple of hours we had 50mph winds, tons of rain and horizontal hail up to the size of quarters.

Mountain Laurel Designs produces some of the finest Pyramid Shelters anywhere. Of note are the 11 ounce MLD SoloMid 2016, and for two people the DuoMid XL, or their largest shelter the SuperMid. I have used all these MLD Pyramid Shelters on trips to Alaska, Patagonia, the Sierras, major European treks and around the world—with good results even in challenging circumstances. These pyramids use your trekking poles for a center pole like a circus tent. Like many shelters in this section you have the option of Cuben Fiber, which while expensive (especially for larger pyramids) is light, incredibly strong, and waterproof. Cuben Fiber also doesn’t stretch, even when wet which means you don’t have to constantly re-tension guylines if it’s raining or just damp and dewey overnight. My Solomid 2016 is in Cuben, but my DuoMid XL is in the more cost effective Pro Silnylon.


HMG Pyramids use Cuben Fiber and are exceptionally strong and light.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear produces excellent and light Cuben fiber Pyramid Shelters. They make two pyramid shelters, the 1 pound UltaMid 2-Person, and the 1.3 pound UltaMid 4-Person. Both have an optional bug mesh and floor insert. HMG shelters are only available in their CF8 Cuben Fiber. “Cuben Fiber is lightweight, highly durable, and is 50-70% lighter than Kevlar, four times stronger than Kevlar, and allows flex without losing strength. It also weighs less than Silnylon, it floats on water, is 100% waterproof and has high chemical and UV resistance.” While this provides exceptional performance and low weight, it is also expensive. There is is no lower cost Silnylon option for HMG shelters.

The My Trail Co pyramid shelters are a good deal at since their price includes with everything you’d ever need: inner nest, pole, states and stuff sacks.

My Trail Co Pyramid 4 and Pyramid 4 Shelters (by founder of GoLite) are other options for pyramid shelters. If you want both the pyramid and inner nest they are a great deal.


Recommended Tarps and Shaped Tarps


The 7.8 ounce MLD Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp was our choice for the Wind River High Route: Don and I weathered a strong thunder and hailstorm at the back of Cirque of the Towers. Exposed at over 10,000 feet in a mountain meadow, it kept us and all our down gear dry.

Tarps and Shaped Tarps are significantly lighter and have more floor area than pyramid shelters. e.g. a 2-person MLD Grace Cuben Grace Duo tarp is 8 oz vs the 16 oz for the DuoMid XL. For many backpackers, Tarps and Shaped Tarps are more suited to places with occasional rain (Summer in the Sierras or the desert of Southern Utah) and/or for camping in more sheltered areas (below treeline, behind large rocks, etc.). Although some skilled and adventurous backpackers use them above treeline in the high mountains and other exposed areas that get appreciable wind and precipitation.


Tarps work! Blizzard in the Wind Rivers – a 15 degree night under a tarp & 1 lb down quilt.

True Tarps have the advantage of being simpler, less expensive, lighter and having more pitching options from “close to the ground for storm protection,” to “airy lean-to pitches with great views.” Shaped Tarps tend to be a more storm resistant, but are are designed be pitched only one way—usually lower to the ground with less headroom and views. Note: I do not recommend a solo tarp—for just few ounces more you get almost double the coverage for a 2-person tarp.



The light and storm-worthy MLD TrailStar

Mountain Laurel Designs True Tarps of note are the Grace Duo Tarps in either Silnylon or Cuben Fiber. The 7.8 ounce MLD Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp is a personal favorite and where I think the upgrade to Cuben Fiber makes sense. Don and I shared one on our Wind River High Route.

Mountain Laurel Designs Shaped Tarp of note is the award winning and perennial favorite TrailStar. Like the pyramid shelters it has an optional innernet.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear True Tarps of note are the 8′ x 10′ Flat Tarp and the Echo II Tarp. Both have an optional bug mesh an floor insert. HMG tarps are only available in CF8 Cuben Fiber.


A modular approach for Shaped Tarps: HMG Echo Tarps have an optional Beak (a front end/vestibule add on) and an an optional bug mesh & floor insert. Combine all three for a flexible and very light “2-walled tent.”

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Takes a modular approach for Shaped Tarps. The Echo Tarps have an optional Beak (a front end/vestibule add on for the tarp) and an an optional bug mesh an floor insert. Combined all three for a Echo Ultralight Shelter System (an extremely light “2-walled tent.”) But you have the option to take only the components needed for a particular trip.

For Tarps available off-the-shelf from a major retailer, look at the Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp Shelter from REI or a MSR E-Wing 2 Person Shelter. But realistically tarps are not seriously carried by major retailers and you are better off getting a tarp from one of the manufacturers above (or other well regarded cottage manufacturers).

For a Bargain Tarp: look at Etowah Gear’s Basic $75 8×10 Silnylon Tarp.


Recommended Tents and Tarptents

A two-pound TarpTent on the Alaskan tundra

A two-pound TarpTent on the Alaskan tundra

  1. Look at The tents and shelters listed in my 9 pound gear list. It has recommended Tents and TarpTents in the “Sleeping Gear and Tent/Shelter” section.
  2. And then take a look at the recommended Tents and Tarp Tents below.


Here are a few suggestions for Tents and TarpTents


Mountain Hardware Direkt 2 Tent – $550 at REI

This is one of the lightest freestanding four-season tents on the market. While it’s made for fast and light alpine climbing, it could be just as good for fast and light… anything. At least anything where you need to stay out in crazy conditions safely! This tent can be staked out to handle huge winds, and is more comfortable, lighter, and stronger than the previous best-in-class alpine tent: Black Diamond’s FirstLight.


REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent – $300 at REI

Okay, not everyone needs a siege-proof alpine four-season beast of a tent. REI’s long-time favorite Quarter Dome Tent is a great option for those looking for a reasonably priced lightweight free-standing backpacking tent. If ultralight tarps seem too daunting, this will still help you cut weight, weighing just over 3 lbs, but the Quarter Dome remains comfortable with ample head room, and plenty of space for two backpackers. The increased room/livability from extremely vertical walls is what sets tent apart from most of its peers.


Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 Tent – $450 at REI

If you want to cut a little weight, but keep lots of space, Big Agnes has you covered with the high volume version of their Copper Spur UL 2 freestanding tent. It comes in at 2 lb. 12 oz on the trail, and can be pitched even lighter using just the fly. This is one of the most spacious 2-person tents out there, which is great if you are going to be stuck in your tent playing cards for a while in bad weather, or just prefer highly livable tents.


Tarptent Notch 1-Person Shelter – $285

Tarptent has been around for ages with a great reputation in the lightweight backpacking community. As the name suggests it combines the best aspects of a tent and tarp. That is, low weight combined with a fully waterproof floor and mosquito protection. The Notch is a great 1-person shelter, that sets up with two trekking poles, and includes a full inner bug netting and a bathtub floor. The Notch will keep you and your stuff dry in a rain storm, and there is ample headroom to sit up and wait out the foul weather from dry comfort inside! The shelter weighs in at 27 oz, which is a fair bit lighter than even the lightest free-standing tents!


Tarptent MoTrail 2-Person Shelter – $259

This is a light shelter with plenty of room for two to sit up side by side and eat dinner looking at the view. This Tarptent MoTrail is more like a traditional tarp setup with a ridgeline held by two trekking poles in the long direction of the tarp. The tarp has a mesh inner, and a Silnylon outer with a Silnylon tub floor to keep you dry even in a total downpour. Inside is space for two people to sleep comfortably without a trekking pole between them. At 36 oz, it’s just over 1lb/person, and it’s less expensive than the 1-person shelters like the Tarptent Notch or MLD Solomid!

The following Pyramids are fully storm worthy shelters

All can be ordered with an Inner Nest if you need a floor and bug netting


Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid XL – $365

This is the pyramid shelter against which all others are measured. These have been used by thru hikers on the longest treks, deep in the wilderness of Alaska, on glaciers and high peaks, and even occasionally as car-camping tents! The design is flexible, durable, functional, livable, and light at 21 oz for the SilNylon version. It can withstand serious storms, and open up on nice nights. It is spacious and comfortable for two backpackers and their gear. Of course, for the gram counters, this tarp also comes in the much lighter cuben fiber (Dyneema composite fabric) version, weighing in at 16 oz even, and costing about $700 depending on the color of fabric used. Note Asym design: one of the few ‘Mids that allows a couple to sleep side-by side without a center pole between them.


Mountain Laurel Designs SOLOMID XL 4.5′ X 9.2′ – $265

This is the upgraded version of the shelter Andrew Skurka took on his epic Alaska-Yukon Expedition. It’s a 1-person version of the Duomid with all the same great features, but it’s lighter and less expensive! It fits 1-person with ample room for gear. This SilNylon version comes in at just over a pound (17 oz). The Cuben fiber (Dyneema composite fabric) is a svelte 12 oz, but costs $465. For such a versatile, lightweight shelter, it’s a bargain! Note: new 2017 Asym, single pole design with 70% of the user space behind the one center pole and the front 30% functions as a vestibule. This offset design allows entry and exit in rainy conditions to help keep the sleep side of the shelter dry like the DuoMid XL design.