My ‘Big Three’ Gear Items: Backpack, Shelter & Sleep System

These are ‘big three’ items that I use for backpacking: my backpack, tent, and sleep system. My goal for the gear I use is to strike a balance between low weight and comfort. I think of it as being “comfort-light”. Everything here has been replaced (sometimes more than once) since I started backpacking.

For more info on lightweight backpacking, see my How to Lighten the Load of Your Backpack post.

Backpack

Osprey Aura AG 50 backpack

backpack: Osprey Aura 50 AG, small (58 oz) with top lid removed

I’ve always used Osprey backpacks, progressing from the Osprey Aura 65 to the Osprey Aura AG (anti-gravity) 65 in the first year. After replacing some of my gear with ultralight items and learning to take less gear overall, I downsized to the Osprey Aura AG 50 liter pack. This smaller pack has plenty of space for all of my gear without needing to strap things on the outside (unless I need to take a bear canister, then I carry my tent on the outside). If I need extra capacity, I use the lid, otherwise, I remove it from the pack to save weight.

The Osprey Aura is a heavily padded pack with a suspension system that hugs your body. In other words, supremely comfortable. The shoulder straps are thick and cushy to prevent rubbing on my arms and shoulders. The hip belt is constructed with mesh that connects it directly to the lumbar support and transfers the weight of the load to my hips instead of pulling on my shoulders. Overall, I find that the way the pack carries the load provides me with more stability on the trail without moving around on my back.

While I would like to be able to use a backpack that weighs less, I’ve tried several ultralight backpacks but find that the comfort of this pack is worth every ounce that it weighs. It doesn’t do much good to have a pack that weighs less if it is too uncomfortable to carry what you take.

For more info on what to look for in a backpack, see my Gear Basics: How to Choose a Backpack post.

Rain protection for my backpack

I use two methods for keeping my pack and gear dry, depending on the probability of rain in the forecast.

waterproof stuff sack: Schnozzel pump bag
On every trip, I use a waterproof stuff sack inside my pack for storing my sleeping quilt, puffy jacket and clothing items. Since this stuff sack is also used to blow up my Exped air mattress (see more info below under Sleep System), that makes my waterproof stuff sack a multi-purpose item and saves on pack weight by having more than one use. The Schnozzel pump sack is seam sealed with a roll-down and clasp top opening for keeping gear dry.

raincover for backpack: Osprey ultralight rain cover, large (3 oz)
When it is raining, I like using a rain cover so my pack doesn’t get wet (and heavier with water weight). Since I keep the backpack in my tent, this keeps the inside of my tent drier too. It has elastic cording to pull it tight on your pack regardless of the load or shape. I only take this on trips when there is a chance of rain in the forecast. Otherwise, I leave it at home.

Shelter

I have two tents that I use for backpacking, based on conditions. For most trips, I use the ultralight Tarptent Aeon Li. For colder weather trips, I use the double-wall Tarptent Moment DW.

backpacking tent: Tarptent Aeon Li

ultralight tent: Tarptent Aeon Li (16 oz)
This is an ultralight single-wall tent made with Dyneema fabric. It can be set up using a trekking pole, or with an additional pole available from Tarptent. After using several other types of tents, this is my top pick for almost every backpacking trip. I love how light it is, and the setup is easy once you learn how to do it. For a one person tent, it’s fairly spacious and has plenty of room inside for storing all of my gear, including my backpack. Vents on both ends of the tent and another at the top help to prevent condensation, and I love being able to open both doors for big views. This tent survived a night of heavy rain (1.5″!) and wind in the Olympics and stayed dry inside.

tent stakes: MSR Mini Groundhogs – 6 (1.5 oz)

backpacking tent: Tarptent Moment DW

tent: Tarptent Moment DW (2 lbs 5 oz)
The Tarptent Moment DW is a one person double-wall tent with two doors and two vestibules – great for storing gear outside of the tent while allowing for easy access in and out of the tent on the other side. An optional crossing pole (6 ounces) makes this tent freestanding, and adds four season capability with snow load support. The Moment DW can be purchased with a mesh interior or a partial solid interior. I have both and can swap them out as needed based on conditions. See my full review of the Moment DW tent

tent footprint: Gossamer Gear Polycro ground cover (1.8 oz)
I like using a ground cover to protect the floor of my tent. Polycro is a thin, clear plastic material that is strong and very lightweight. It’s the same material used to insulate windows and can be found at hardware stores. To use, lay it down before setting up your tent, making sure to tuck in the edges so they are fully underneath your tent floor so water can’t pool on it and flow under the tent.

Sleep System

Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt

sleeping quilt: Enlightened Equipment Revelation (1 lb 6 oz)
After purchasing three different sleeping bags, I’m now using a sleeping quilt. I was looking for something lighter in weight but still warm. I also wanted more flexibility: something more snug when it’s cold, and looser when it’s not. I really don’t like being confined in a traditional mummy bag. A quilt also has the advantage of being more flexible in terms of how it it used. See my full review of the Revelation Quilt


Exped UL Medium sleeping pad
sleeping pad:
 Exped Synmat UL M (16 oz) and Schnozzel pump bag
Extremely comfortable, lightweight, and quiet! The Exped Synmat has synthetic insulation and an R-value of 2.9 (updated in 2020). The raised baffles on the sides are perfect for keeping my arms off the ground, and I find that the vertical baffles are more comfortable than pads with horizontal baffles. I don’t feel like I’m falling off the edges. This pad comes with the Schnozzel pump bag for blowing up the air mattress, and it also doubles as a waterproof stuff sack so I used it as a pack liner to pack my quilt, down jacket, and other items that need to stay dry.

sleeping pad for cold weather: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm (15 oz)
With an R-value of 6.9, the Xtherm is the warmest pad available that is also lightweight. After spending too many cold nights on my Exped, I switched to using the Xtherm and haven’t gotten cold while using it yet. I originally bought this pad for winter snow camping and didn’t think I’d get much use out of it otherwise, but now this is my preferred pad whenever the temps dip below 40 degrees overnight.

 

Pillows

Not everyone needs a pillow to sleep well on backpacking trips, but I do. It especially seems to help if you have neck or back issues. I’ve tried several pillows and have settled on air pillows that are designed with an indented center so you don’t slip off of it. I recommend filling them only part-way to make it conform to the shape of your head better. An air pillow filled to full capacity is hard and tends to make your head roll off of it.

backpacking pillows

ultralight pillow (left): Massdrop x Klymit Pillow X, small (1.8 oz)
This air pillow has an X shape that cradles your head. Since the fabric is slick, I wrap my hiking shirt around the pillow and use the shirt sleeves to tie it to my sleeping pad.

ultralight pillow (right): Outdoor Vitals Ultralight Stretch Pillow (2.6 oz)
The fabric on this air pillow is softer than most and is stretchy so it’s super comfortable.

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for some items, which means that I make a small commission if a purchase is made. This does not change the price of the item. I am not sponsored by any gear companies and the items listed here are owned by me and are purchased with my own funds. All gear reviews are honest and not paid for by any company. Thank you for supporting this blog!