My Top Five Essentials for Lightweight Camping
Updated: May 27, 2021
There's one thing that I am constantly reworking and scrutinizing when it comes to camping: how to pack as light as possible. Packing light may seem simple enough, but it takes practice, trial and error, and a lot of consideration for sacrifice versus reward.
One of the clinics I used to teach at MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) involved a piece-by-piece guide to packing as light as possible for a thru-hike. For those of you unfamiliar, a thru-hike is when you hike a distance over the course of multiple days, camping at waypoints along the trail. Of course, you can use these gear suggestions for regular camping trips as well; as you'll see, some of these tools are incredibly useful, reliable, and versatile. There are, however, some sacrifices that come with packing light, but we'll discuss that along the way. After many tries, I feel like I've found the perfect (or good enough) balance between comfort and minimalism. Here are my base essentials for packing light for backcountry camping and thru-hiking purposes.
Spark 2 by MEC
Weight - 3.5 lbs
The first thing to consider is what kind of trip you're taking, and what kind of shelter you're going to need taking into account possible changes in weather. Are you camping in one spot? How far in do you need to hike to get to your destination? Are you thru-hiking and camping in multiple areas? And most importantly, what kind of weather can you expect?
My go-to tent is the Spark series by MEC, and I usually take the 2-person version for comfort over the much "cozier" 1-person tent. The Spark 2 has two doors and two vestibules, as opposed to the one of each on the Spark 1. However, if I know I'm hiking deep in to get to my campsite, or if there are going to be miles in between multiple sites, I will opt for the ridiculously light and compact Spark 1, clocking in at 2.95 pounds and small enough to fit into the water bottle holder of my backpack.
This tent has seen me through many ups and downs, literally, and most impressively I have used it in intense rain without issue. Okay, there was an issue one time, but that was my fault for setting it up in a slight dip in the ground. Water started pooling on the tent floor while my shelter area became a light soup of dirt and pine needles. I simply got out, braved the storm for all of five minutes while dragging the tent to a flatter spot - this is the beauty of a light freestanding tent, you just pick it up and go.
Now, I've heard people complain about these tents before, but I've never heard a complaint about the quality, only the size, and if you're going lightweight backcountry camping, you need to be prepared to sacrifice the luxury of a spacious tent. The reason this tent beats all other lightweight tents as far as I'm concerned is it's strength and waterproofness - at double the waterproofness of many other lightweight tents, and it's relative strength in the wind, this is by far the most versatile choice.
FreeLite 2 by MSR
Weight - 2.93 lbs
Right now you can't actually get a new Spark series tent, and I have no idea when they're re-releasing them, so in the meantime this is the next best thing. There are some pros and cons compared to the Spark: it's lighter weight, not as much waterproofing and it's a little less sturdy than the Spark, but MSR is one of my most trusted brands, and their tents are reliably well made.
Insanely Light Alternative for Moderate Weather
Fly Creek HV UL 1 by Big Agnes
Weight - 2.12 lbs
I love this tent. The lightness and extraordinarily compact pack size make it exciting to use, but I only use it if I know I'm going somewhere with little to no rain or wind. The above photo is from the Portola Redwood forest, where the canopy was so dense and high that even though it rained the whole time I only felt a light mist and no wind.
The Sleeping Bag
Talon -3 Down Sleeping Bag by MEC
Weight - 1.75 lbs
Packed Volume - 5L
This is the most versatile sleeping bag I have in my collection, and even though I should probably hold off on using an expensive down bag as often as I do, I simply can't help myself it's my favourite! The down is ethically sourced, and 800 fill power, meaning that the feathers are the little light and fluffy snowflake-looking feathers that trap warm air in their tendrils, keeping you warmer than a bulkier synthetic bag at twice the weight.
The Sleeping Pad
Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad by Therm-a-Rest
Weight - .9 lbs
R Value - 2.6
If you're thru-hiking, this is the absolute best choice for ease of use and lightweight packing. My favourite thing about this sleeping pad is that there's no set up and take down, you simply unfold it when you want to sleep, and fold it back up when you're ready to get on the move again. And because it's not a blow-up mattress, there's no chance of a leak.
The drawbacks? You can probably tell just by looking at it that it's not exactly as comfortable as its inflatable cousins. For this reason I would only recommend it if you feel like you're a heavy sleeper or not too particular about sleeping on a soft surface. I've encountered more than a few people who suffer from a Princess and the Pea affliction, as in, they feel every little bump underneath then, making it impossible to sleep. The other downside to this is that since it doesn't require deflation, it also doesn't pack up too small. As a remedy to this I usually carry it on the outside of my pack, attached with some paracord so as not to take up valuable space within my bag.
Finally, with an R value of 2.6, I wouldn't take it out any time besides the summer, but that's a personal preference, I hate being cold.
Alternatives for Light Sleepers or Cold Weather
Weight - 1.27 lbs
R Value - 5
Weight - .83 lbs
R Value - 2.8
If you don't have a lot of room for clunky items among your packed gear, or if you know yourself well enough to know that you need a bit more comfort than a thin layer of foam in order to get through the night, then the VectAir series strikes the right balance between comfort and lightness. I have heard complaints of discomfort due to the narrowness, mostly from people with broad shoulders; but if you can deal with the compact size, I would highly recommend either one of these mattresses.
The PocketRocket 2 Stove by MSR
Weight - 2.6 oz
Boil Time - 3-5 minutes
For me, there is no alternative to this stove. It weighs less than two golf balls (I did the math) and takes up about as much room as a pair of sunglasses. It doesn't do anything fancy, it just simmers or boils water, but if you're aiming to go minimal and efficient, your cooking needs should only require boiled water in the first place.
Pro tip: if you're trying to use this in the wind, make a little windscreen for it out of nearby rocks or the rest of your gear in order to keep the flame going strong.
The Cook Set
Trek 900 Titanium by Snow Peak
Weight - 6.2 oz
As you can see from the photos below, I take this thing everywhere. I like to pack my PocketRocket inside the pot along with a lighter and a bag of waterproof matches, and then simply boil water as I need. You can use the pot to boil water and then rehydrate a bag of food without ever getting the pot messy, you can prepare food for two people using the pot as one person's dish and the lid for the other, you can use the pot as your cup and the lid for your plate... you get the idea.
The downside? Its thin walls don't allow you to actually cook food without scorching it. This pot is for boiling water or for very slowly rehydrating homemade dehydrated food. Pour boiling water into a bag of store-bought camp food, or place the pot full of your own homemake dehydrated food over a camp fire for twenty minutes to let it plump up before boiling it.
I could go into greater detail about making your own dehydrated meals, but that's for another day. For now I'll just say that this little lightweight cook set is so light you won't even know it's there, and practical enough that it should easily become your favourite set too.