Backpacking Gear Review: The Big Three

This post is a long time coming! Since it's Black Friday and maybe you are looking for something to buy, this is perfect timing! Since the "big three" are really the most important for both comfort and weight in the life of a backpacker, I will start with those. For those of you that do not know, the big three consists of your shelter, sleep system and backpack. These are generally the three heaviest things you will carry, apart from food and water. There are a couple of different camps (ha!) when it comes to pack weight, but most say that the big three should weigh no more than twelve pounds, and many even think it should be no more than nine pounds. Of course if you are an ultralight backpacker, I think your entire base weight (everything except food, water and fuel) is supposed to be less than ten pounds. However, I digress; my big three items weigh about seven pounds with the heaviest being my shelter, then the sleep system, then my pack.

Before I start, I want to give a shout out to a tent that I have used for quite a while, but is no longer available online. It is the Big Agnes Fishhook UL1 Tent; a picture of it can be found here. It is a one man, three season, no zipper tent which weighs 47 oz. without a footprint. This was my first really light tent; before that, I believe my prior tent weighed about 6 pounds. Nope, I am not kidding. I was so excited to finally have a tent that was lightweight, easy to pack and carry and was actually quite spacious for one person. The only con is that the little hook closure is a little hard to open and close when you are trying to get out for a potty break in the middle of the night. Otherwise, it was great. I even took it to Peru where it got down in the 20s at night and I was pretty comfortable. Additionally, I would bring all of my gear inside with me and there was plenty of space. 

Lastly, but definitely not least, when the pole broke after I had owned it for about five years, I sent it back to Big Agnes and they fixed it for only the cost of shipping. However, this was right before the pandemic and when I had not received it back a few months later, I wrote to them and they said it had been shipped to me, but since I had not received it, they would send me a new pole set anyway, free of charge. The tent is great; the customer service is even better. 

Shelter: I guess that brings me to my next tent, as I bought this due to my happiness with my first one. The Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 weighs 46 oz. with the footprint. This is a semi freestanding tent, which means that there are two corners which have to be staked down and two corners which are connected to poles. It is a two man tent with two doors and two vestibules and it is spacious for one but you do have to be pretty friendly with your tentmate when you are sharing. Personally, I have had no issues with this, but I do think that if both people are sleeping on any wider than a 20 inch pad, it may be a tight fit. This tent has been with me in as low as 17 degrees Fahrenheit, has gone through snow and rain storms and has protected me from many a mosquito. It is easy to set up with only one pole and is skinny when packed up so it fits nicely in the outer pocket of my pack. 

Mine is made from nylon but there are now other versions that are made of other materials, like stronger nylon and also dyneema (DCF) if you really want to break the bank. There is also a three man version of this same tent. 

The Big Three

SleepWestern Mountaineering Ultralite 20 degree sleeping bag (29 oz.) and the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite regular size (12 oz.). If you know me at all, you will know that I can get stuck in the trap of analysis-paralysis. This was true in the case of buying a good sleeping bag. I own a really nice Caribou bag that I have had since I was in high school; it is synthetic and it is very warm and I used it for a long time on my backpacking trips. However, it is not small. There is a reason our packs used to be 40 pounds! Then I got an REI bag that is equally as warm, but even bulkier. So I tried to find a bag that was (a) warm, (b) light and (c) inexpensive. Like looking for a needle in a haystack, it was nigh impossible. Then I finally decided that I would have to pony up some cash, but then I couldn't decide between a quilt and a bag, down or synthetic, long or short, mummy or not!!! I finally settled on the Western Mountaineering bag. 

To make a long story short, it is an 850 fill down bag with a 20 degree rating. Just like most, it does not actually keep me warm down to the rated temperature; I have found that if it is under 30 degrees, I am happier if I add a silk liner to the mix. Otherwise, it is good; it has a little hood if you need it, although I normally just use that as a pillow cover. I wish it had a cell phone pocket, as I have had a few cold nights where I would have preferred to have my phone secured, rather than floating around in my bag, which is where I keep it. 

The Therm-a-Rest is a regular size, 47 inches long with an R value of 4.2, which means that it does keep me warmer on those cold nights. It is comfortable, but it took a little while to get used to the 2.5 inch height which sometimes feels like you are going to slide right off of it in the middle of the night. I find these pretty easy to pop though, and have popped two short versions. I repaired one of them with the kit that comes with it, but will carry tenacious tape from now on, as I constantly was having to blow it up in the middle of the night. The regular size one that I have now also slowly leaks but I am not sure where or why. However, it only requires one or two slight blow ups, so I have not really been overly worried about it. 

Backpack:  Hyperlite 2400 Southwest Backpack (28.6 oz.). I would say this is the best purchase that I have made. The other items are good, but I could  probably find better ones (like a warmer sleeping bag for instance). The backpack is made out of cuben fiber, or DCF, which is a waterproof, lightweight and very strong composite material. Think about the Tyvek they use to make buildings, but lighter. It has two hip pockets and you can order additional chest strap pockets if desired. It is built for your body, as in you measure your torso and waist and they customize it for you. It is frameless, has a roll top, three exterior pockets and it carries 40 liters. As I said, I love this pack; I was a little worried the frameless nature would be uncomfortable, but it isn't. It fits me like a glove. The only thing I would do differently if I ordered it again is that I would get the larger size, as you can always fill it less and roll the top more. However, I can fit a bear can, all my food and clothes and sleep system on the inside and my tent in the outer pocket and I sometimes still have room to spare. 

So there you have it! Next time, I will talk a little about the kitchen! 

What is your favorite "big three" item? Even if you are not a backpacker, tell me: what travel item is your heaviest? 


Emigrant Wilderness: Logistics, Gear & Planning

At the end of last month, my friend Dr. G (trail name Bugsy) and I decided to try to get one more trip to the Sierra before the snow flurries started to fly. And boy did we get lucky, as it started snowing the Tuesday after we got back and there have been several storms since.

The Emigrant Wilderness is a pretty small wilderness and is only about 25 miles long and 15 miles wide. However, don't let the size fool you! It is full of granite outcroppings and glacier scoured landscapes. It is also a great place to cut your teeth on cross country travel, as it is not too brushy in most places, so your "bushwhacking" is more like rock climbing than anything else.

The Plan/Logistics: When it had not snowed yet and Bugsy and I realized that we both had the weekend free, we kind of made a last minute decision to take a couple of days and get out one last time. Therefore, this was not the most well thought out or the most complicated plan; Emigrant Wilderness is about 2.5 hours away from the Bay Area if there is no traffic, so we decide that instead of sitting in the horror that is Friday traffic, we would start bright and early on Saturday. We left around 5 am and after two coffee/bathroom stops and a stop to get the (self issued) permit, we were on the trail by 7:50 am. Please note that if the ranger station is open (8:30 am - 4 pm on Saturday, 9 am - 4 pm all other days), you will have to get a permit from the ranger. They do not issue permits online. Permit info here.

The Route: we had a few options, but one of the things I wanted to try was a cross country route between Buck Creek and Huckleberry Lake, so we decided to give it a shot. I mapped it out on Gaia, but of course if there is no trail, you have to just estimate where you will go and it ended up being about 4 more miles than we had expected. That made what was planned to be about a 35 mile loop into about a 39 mile loop. Oops! We started from the Crabtree Trailhead, which is about 8 miles outside of Pinecrest Lake, and did a counter clockwise "loop" towards Huckleberry Lake. We ended up camping at Cherry Creek instead.

The Big Three: I have been using the same big three for a while and am loving them (Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 (46 oz. with footprint), Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20 degree sleeping bag (29 oz.), Hyperlite 2400 Southwest Backpack (28.6 oz.), and the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite regular size (12 oz.). However, on this trip, Bugsy brought his tent because it has a bigger floor plan than mine (Big Agnes Copper Spur 2), so my big three was only two! I also carried a silk liner, since we had gotten reports that it could get down into the mid twenties at night and my sleeping bag is not warm under about 30 degrees, despite the 20 degree rating. My big "two" weighed about 4.5 pounds.

Base Pack Weight: I did not weigh my base pack for the trip, but based on my LighterPack list and experience from other trips, I would say it was about 17 lbs.

Clothing: I brought everything from my normal list and did not bring any of the heavier winter gear or traction. My normal kit includes a beanie, gloves, extra socks & underwear, rain jacket and pants and a puffy, and the forecast was clear skies, so I did not feel that I would need the extra heavy gear for this trip. However, I did bring an older REI rain jacket rather than my ultralight Montbell, so I probably added a pound of extra weight by carrying that.

Food: This was a huge difference from our normal trips. Firstly, we usually share dinner duties; if we are going for 6 days, we will each make and carry three meals for two people. However, this time we each did our own thing since we didn't have to skimp to save weight. We brought lots of heavy stuff! For dinner, I brought noodles, salmon packets, fresh mushrooms, hard boiled eggs and miso paste. For snacks I brought a whole salami, cheese, cucumbers, nuts and blueberries! For breakfast I had hard boiled eggs and coffee. Not only could we afford to carry heavier food, but I didn't mind if I didn't use it, and we had built in refrigeration so we could carry whatever we wanted. It was divine.

Water: I used my new BeFree 1 liter filter bottle and carried an extra Platypus 1 liter bottle with a 2 liter Platypus for extreme emergencies/backup. I am glad I had the backup bottles as we went through some really dry stretches and crossed dry creeks that I had never seen dry before. However, we did camp near a lake so we really did not need to carry more than 1 - 2 liters at a time in the end.

Total Pack Weight: Including two liters of water, the bear can, one day of food and one fuel cannister (and the heavy rain jacket!), my pack weighed 25 lbs.

The Verdict: I really liked just going for one overnight as it really provides a lot of flexibility with food, which tends to be one of my most heavy items. It also is a great chance to test out items that you would not normally want to lug around for a week.  I could have lived without my rain pants and I am very glad that I added the silk liner, as I slept warm but not so warm that I would have been happy without it.

More Information: You can find information about the wilderness at the Stanislaus National Forest website. Stay tuned for the Trip Report!

For fun...here is what the same area looks like now! 

Highway 108 (source)

Have you been to the Emigrant Wilderness? What is your one backpacking item you cannot live without?


Looking Back: Books

Well yes, hi. I do only write about books and nothing else these days. I have all of these grand plans to write about hiking trips and gear lists and life, but somehow this fell along the wayside a bit. It could partially be due to the fact that I have been experimenting with other forms of media a bit more, but I will talk more about that later. 

It could also be that I got a new job and have been a different kind of busy, but I will also talk about that at a different time; for now, lets talk books! 

In all of the books I read in the third quarter, here were my five favorites! 

Happy-Go-Lucky by David SedarisYou either love him or you hate him, and I love him. Which is funny because he is a bit snarky for my normal taste. But he picks up trash on the side of the road, and he sees funny in normal things. This is another book full of interesting stories about him and his family and it was a great one for a long hike, which is when I listened to it. I am actually going to see him in a few weeks and I am really looking forward to it. 

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus: This was such a fun story of a woman chemist in the 1960s who leaves her job and goes to work as a cooking show TV host. Of course she wants to teach people the science behind the recipes, but her male boss does not concur. It is a bit silly, but was a fun and quick and entertaining read. 

Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River by Peter Heller: I really enjoyed Heller's book The River which was about a fictional rafting trip in Northern Canada gone awry, so I thought this would be more of the same. However it is actually a true story about an elite kayaking team's attempt to conquer a never-before-conquered section of the Tsangpo River in Tibet. They have many an challenge, including fights with porters, death defying rapids and impenetrable passes and it makes for an intriguing story. 

Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance by Alison Espach: A book about a teenage girl who loses her sister in a horrible car accident, and then struggles with the grief of it. To make things worse, the only person she feels a connection to is the sister's boyfriend who was driving the car when it crashed. It is a story of emotional struggle but still manages to not get too maudlin while still sparking interest. 

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett: I really love Patchett's writing style and especially her personal essays. She makes you feel like you are sitting right next to her in her living room listening to her stories. My favorite story was one during COVID where she befriends the assistant of Tom Hanks and invites her to stay at her house during the pandemic, striking up an interesting friendship. 

And that was five. 

What was your favorite read over the last few months? Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?