The Big 3! The most intriguing, most expensive and by far heaviest of items a hiker carries on their back … and the ones that can cause the most anguish if done wrong! What we’re talking about here are the items that make up your Backpack, Shelter, and Sleep System. There is no shortage of options to mix and match a great setup for each, but you have to be content with what you decide – replacing these will be costly, frustrating, and limited on the trail. Oh, and they damn well better hold up in the rain!
In this post, I’ll break down each item, why I chose it, and other variations I considered. The Big 3 are the foundation of your entire setup, and can “make or break” a good night’s sleep – meaning, it’s a good idea to test everything and be very confident with it in all weather conditions. Keeping these items as light as possible is a constant negotiation between comfort, weight, cost, and technology innovation, so getting it right can sometimes feel like an expensive moving target. I feel good about my setup and am confident it will last me all 2,190 miles comfortably.
But first, 2 political questions for the unfamiliar or morbidly curious:
Hammock or Tent?!
This question comes up a LOT in the whiteblaze.net forums and facebook groups. There is no right answer, it is simply personal preference. There are some great light-weight tents out there, especially the ones that use hiking sticks as poles. But I tried hammocks a few years ago, and can’t go back to the ground unless I have to. It is a much more comfortable sleep, and allows for some creative modification of components … a great thing on the AT, because if one thing breaks, it’s easier to replace the component without needing to replace the whole tent.
Ok so hammock, why not mummy bag and pad?!
I thought I could get by with this, but I was wrong. Technically you can sleep on a pad in a hammock and avoid the need for an underquilt, but it’s really hard to stay warm. The pad does not stay put without a double-layer hammock or other modifications, and if you move around in your sleep a lot like I do, no parlor tricks will keep it under you. I tried everything to make this work, as I really wanted to have the option of a normal bag and pad for shelters/hostels, but going with a standard Top Quilt and Underquilt is a much better plan. It adds a new luxury item dilemma to consider, but more on that later…
Ok, with that, here are my Big 3 items! Combined, they add up to 7.5 total pounds, which is a great place to start for a 15 lb goal base-weight. Anything under 9 pounds for the Big 3 is a reliable strategy, so this should hopefully work out very well.
I love my Osprey Talon 44, it’s been my go-to pack for years. Although it is heavier than most UL packs at 37 ounces, it packs great features: Solid back air ventilation, a soft hip belt, bottom-entry pack access, mesh back pocket, easy-access side pockets, quick access hip-belt pockets, and many other bells and whistles. The biggest perk to this pack is its size at 44 liters capacity, which will fit a ton but force me to minimize what else I bring. Other considerations I really like are the ULA Circuit and GG SIlverback.
The Dutch Chameleon is a premier modular bed. And with the added dyneema straps and whoopie slings, it can stretch 30+ ft between trees. The Hexon 1.6 material is lightweight but durable at 21.6 oz (with bug net). For rain cover, the UGQ Winterdream is heavier than a rectangle tarp, but those doors will be clutch to stay dry, comfy, and cozy in heavy rainfall. I heavily considered going to the ground with the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent, but the AT is easily hangable all the way to Mount Katahdin, so why not!
As prefaced earlier, hanging requires a Top Quilt above & Underquilt below the hammock. For the cold start and end of the trail, the Enlightened Equipment Revelation and Revolt 20-degree 850 fill down quilts will keep me warm (#minnesotamade). Between Damascus and the White Mountains though, I’ll swap these out for 40-degree quilts I made from cheap Costco down blankets. Other alternatives were the Hammock Gear Econ line or the REI Igneo 25 mummy bag.