Ultra-light Backcountry Gear: The Basics

My next four posts are going to focus on the backcountry gear we use for our adventures. “The Basics” include tent, sleeping pad, sleeping quilt, and backpack.

In general, I’m of the belief that ultra-light backcountry gear shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. “The Basics” gear is the one caveat to this. So if some of this gear seems expensive (which it is), there are also cheaper options I’m including and the subsequent gear posts will be considerably more cost effective.

Tent

Current model: Zpacks Triplex Tent in olive drab ($714)

Our Zpacks Triplex Tent in olive drab, seen here set up with canoe paddles.
And for a slightly more impressive view, set up with hiking poles with the west face of Snowmass Mountain in Colorado in the background, July 2016.

Pros:

  • very lightweight (22 oz)
  • two side zippers for easy getting in and out
  • very waterproof, minimal condensation inside, dries quickly
  • does well in wind (very windy night in Glacier National Park and 10 nights in the Arctic)
  • made from dyneema fabric, also called cuben fiber, stays tightly pitched when wet

Cons:

  • crazy expensive
  • needs a relatively big spot to set up (i.e. big footprint), and up to 12 stakes
  • zipper seems a bit delicate near the top if the poles are too long and there is weight on the floor; that being said, we’ve slept in this tent over 60 nights now and the zippers haven’t broken yet

Special notes:

  • does not include any poles (need to either use hiking poles, paddles, or sticks)
  • does not include stakes either (hence making this tent even more expensive); we use these, also from Zpacks (just don’t hit them too hard into the ground with a rock hammer)
  • reviews noted that a 2-person tent (Duplex) was very tight and 3-person (Triplex) roomy; we spend a fair amount of time camping and so we decided to go for the 3-person and we haven’t looked back; this allows us to store some gear in our tent and based on how it gets set up (since there are no set tent poles) if we set it up taller then it really only is a 2-person tent.

Previous model: Tarptent Squall 2 (discontinued; updated model Motrail for $265)

Our old Tarptent in Yosemite National Park, circa August 2012.

Pros:

  • lightweight (34 oz)
  • sets up in small spaces
  • easy to use a tree instead of a pole

Cons:

  • requires seam sealing before first use
  • entrance only in front.
  • inside walls get wet from condensation
  • the silnylon fabric absorbs rain and condensation, causing it to sag
  • slower to dry out

Special notes:

Sleeping Pads

Current model: Exped Synmat HL DUO M ($279)

Hanging out on our Exped Synmat in our Zpacks tent in Banff in 2017 while it rained.

Pros:

  • double air mattress
  • good for side sleepers
  • uses an airbag (The Schnozzel Pumpbag) to blow it up (technique can be difficult to master)
  • lightweight (32 oz including The Schnozzel Pumpbag and packsack for 2 people)

Cons:

  • condensation builds up inside resulting in visible mold growing inside the pad despite always using The Schnozzel Pumpbag

Special notes:

  • having a double air mattress is pretty much essential if sharing a quilt

Previous model: NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad by Therm-a-Rest ($150-230 depending on size)

Not a photo of the NeoAir but rather of the sharp piece of wood that punctured a hole in mine!

Pros:

  • very lightweight (12 oz for regular size)
  • good for slide sleepers

Cons:

  • as the Exped rep told Erik, the NeoAir “sounds like a bag of chips”
  • very delicate- that sharp piece of wood in the photo above punctured mine

Special notes:

  • I still have mine for rare solo trips along with my old down REI sleeping bag rated to 35 degrees and that is not making an appearance in this post as its too old 🙂

Sleeping Quilts

Current model: The Accomplice by Enlightened Equipment ($420)

Trying out on new Accomplice sleeping quilt by Enlightened Equipment on our Synmat at home in 2018.

Pros:

  • very lightweight at 32.2 oz
  • warm (rated at 20 degrees)
  • sleeping quilts are way easier to get in and out of compared to sleeping bags
  • snuggles!

Cons:

  • a bit pricey but for two people
  • sized for two people of equal height (my side of the footbox is empty)

Special notes:

  • when it’s really cold, like in the 20s, I will sleep in my down jacket
  • my feet have never been cold in a sleeping quilt

Previous model: Ray-Way Alpine 2-layer Two-person Quilt Kit in Royal Blue ($177)

Killing 2 birds with one stone in this photo- our NeoAirs (tied together) and our Ray-Way quilt ready for a night of cowboy camping in Grand Tetons National Park in 2012.

Pros:

  • way easier to get in and out of compared to a sleeping bag
  • Weighs 42 oz, which is less than two similar sleeping bags
  • for short people like me no need to wear a hat- the quilt is big enough to cover our heads
  • warm down to 32 degrees
  • we sewed ours a little smaller than standard for a custom fit

Cons:

  • does not compress well
  • requires a few hours to sew together

Special notes:

  • Erik sewed the foot pocket higher than recommended for increased warmth
  • the only reason we upgraded is because I’m married to a gear fanatic who had to have the next best thing
  • we did not get the split zip (allows the quilt to be split in half for easier transport)

Backpacks

Current model: Zpacks Arc Haul Scout 50L Backpack in autumn orange ($299)

Me with my brand new Zpacks Arc Haul Scout 50L Backpack in autumn orange in Arizona’s Superstitions in November of 2019

Pros:

  • lightweight (weight 21.2 oz)
  • customizable so can choose outer pockets
  • carries weight incredibly well (30 pounds feels like 10)
  • fits lots of stuff

Cons:

  • the gap to keep the back cool doesn’t work perfectly
  • pricey- at least compared to my EMS red pack below (Zpacks gear is hand-sewn in Florida!)

Special notes:

  • Zpacks has both dyneema and gridstop fabric available; in general dyneema fabric is lighter and more expensive but doesn’t seem to wear as well in areas where it is rolled (such as the top of the pack)

Previous model: Six Moon Designs Swift 2010 (discontinued frameless ultralight pack)

About to eat a raspberry straight from the plant in Glacier National Park, August 2016, while sporting the Six Moon Designs Swift 10 backpack.

Pros:

  • very lightweight (weight 17 oz)
  • fits lots of stuff
  • packs down super small

Cons:

  • no frame so it does not carry weight well (I suffered in Glacier- photo- where I started with a 30 pound pack carrying about 6 days worth of food)

Special notes:

  • use sleeping pad as back cushion

Previous model: Ultralight Adventure Equipment OHM 2.0 in Original Green ($225-240)

Elk heard at dusk on our way to The Boulderfield campsite in 2013, Rocky Mountain National Park with the Ultralight Adventure Equipment OHM 2.0.

Pros:

  • weight 36.4 oz
  • large outside pockets

Cons:

  • see “special notes”

Special notes:

  • This pack was bought for my 6’2 brother and hence was way too big for me when I used it; therefore I can’t accurately analyze it

Previous model: ALDI ($10)

Sporting the ALDI backpack while hiking in Cinque Terre, Italy, October 2017

Pros:

  • super cheap
  • big enough for lightweight gear for about 4 nights out

Cons:

  • no frame so does not carry weight well (could use a partially inflated sleeping pad or foam pad to make it more comfortable)

Special notes:

  • in a perfect world, my backcountry gear would be sponsored by ALDI. They do after all, seasonally have tents and sleeping pads although they tend to be heavy. My upcoming food post will be brought to you mostly by ALDI!

Previous model: EMS Packable Pack ($32) in red

Hiking the John Muir Trail, August 2012. I have my red EMS pack and that’s my bro with the Ultralight Adventure Equipment OHM 2.0

Pros:

  • cheap
  • lightweight (9 oz)
  • top zippered outside compartment for stowing small things
  • 2 large mesh pockets on outside for water bottles, food, etc
  • big enough for our tent, sleeping pad, my clothes, 2 days food, water, and small items- essentially, if it doesn’t fit in this pack, you don’t need it

Cons:

  • small
  • no chest strap (Erik added an after-market model)
  • doesn’t carry more than 20 pounds well

Special notes:

  • this was my first ever “backpacking backpack” which is a bit ridiculous. Unfortunately it bit the dust in 2019 and is now used for grocery runs

Tribute to my red EMS pack- almost 10 years of glory!
Adirondacks, August 2011, hiking/climbing (because it isn’t a hike if using your hands is required) Blake Peak.
Teddy Roosevelt National Park, July 2012
Yellowstone National Park, July 2012
On the John Muir Trail 2012. And yes, I had the smallest pack of anyone we saw on the JMT:)
Hiking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon in October of 2014. Below the Indian Garden Campground we entered into a more intimate side canyon.
Hiking the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City, April 2016.
And slot canyoning! Bell Canyon in Utah, also April 2016
Maroon Bells, Colorado, July 2016
Backpacking in Banff National Park, June 2017
Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana, August 2017
Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico, September 2018 (yeah, I know, Erik is wearing my pack…he injured his knee so we switched packs)
And a grand finale, hiking hut-to-hut with via ferrata in the Dolomites, July 2019- what an amazing last trip for my little red pack!

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