How I Found My Big Three on a Budget

Every hiker is horny for gear.

Thru-hikers even more so! I’m going to be walking from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail starting this March. Inevitably, my gear choices may be different from those who are more experienced hikers or are tackling other trails. Whatever the case, we count every ounce and look for the best options available. My gear journey has taken many twists and turns, many of which you will see in this post.

But first, some of you might be wondering.

What Is a Big Three?

A thru-hiker’s big three are the three things we carry that weigh the most*, are imperative to our survival, and cost the most*. If you choose wisely, you can shave off a lot of unnecessary weight. You’ll need to choose durable options as well. You’re ideally going to have these items for your entire thru-hike. Unless you decide mid-hike to shave some pounds off, you shouldn’t be preparing for these to be short-term items.

*generally speaking


“You’re going to be carrying everything? On your back?”

First things first, I need a pack to hold all of my stuff. I started off at REI and was fitted for a 65L pack, with an internal frame, weighing in at a whopping four pounds, 11 ounces.

I stuck with the monster for a while because I was exceedingly nervous to make the jump to a frameless pack. Frameless packs look like glorified sacks with straps and intimidate the hell out of me. Eventually, I became concerned with keeping my pack light and lovely and was looking to switch. Enter this monochromatic beauty.


This amazing pack is Hyperlite Mountain Gear and I’m wildly in love with it. I bought the 3400 Windrider in black (of course) on Black Friday for 20% off. You can also get it in white, but the black is DCH150, versus DCH50, which adds more durability to the bag. Bonus: They’re both constructed with 100% waterproof Dyneema® composite fabrics. The combination of minimal construction with less bells and whistles puts the weight of the pack at a deliciously low value of two pounds, three ounces. There’s a bit of a learning curve to packing frameless backpacks and I’m still finagling the best way to put my whole life in here. Stuff sacks have become my new best friends.


Do you know how expensive sleeping bags are? I sure didn’t.

All of the price tags for gear are consistently baffling me.

Shockingly, I didn’t buy an REI sleeping bag at first glance. During my research, I found that quilts are becoming more and more popular for thru-hiking. Primarily because when you sleep in a traditional sleeping bag, the side you sleep on is pressed flat, completely negating the need for down/synthetic to be there. By cutting off a third of the material, you can cut a lot of weight. Then I found Enlightened Equipment.

sleeping bag

This lovely quilt is their Revelation model and comes in at a feather light one pound, six ounces. This quilt has a footbox (the part of the quilt that wraps entirely around your feet to keep your feet warm) that can be unzipped to lay the quilt flat. I plan on keeping this quilt with me the whole time. Many people may balk at the ten degree temperature rating but I’m confident that the ability to unzip the feet will prove helpful in the warmer months.


“But, Melissa, where will you sleep for all these months in the wilderness?”

Ahhhh, shelters. The poor people at REI had no idea what to do with me. I went through three tent decisions before making my final choice. At first, I got a Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL 1 and loved how sturdy and voluminous it is. Then I realized it was heavy as a load of bricks and promptly returned it.

Next, I went to the other side of the spectrum. A tent that uses trekking poles for setup and is super lightweight. Of course. I ordered one immediately, had a disastrous experience setting it up in my backyard, had a little mental breakdown while yelling at it for being miserable, and promptly returned that one as well.

Now fully settled on having some kind of freestanding option, I bought the Big Agnes again. Then, eBay saved my life and I returned the Big Agnes for a second time (with some wary stares from the REI employees).

big agnes

I was eyeing up the Big Agnes FlyCreek HV UL 2 for the longest time but kept talking myself out of it because of the $350 price tag. My humble bartending salary prevents me from investing that kind of money on just one thing. Then, one magical day, I found it on Ebay for the bargain price of $200. I felt like I had won the lottery! I decided on a two-person tent because I personally need a little extra room when I sleep so my quilt doesn’t get pushed up into the sides of my tent. Weighing in at two pound, five ounces, she’s the perfect size for me.

Final Thoughts

When buying your very own big three, try to keep a few things in mind.

  1. Be prepared to spend some big money. That being said, always, always, look for sales. Continuously scan the resale pages, and stalk REI Garage Sales. You never know when you’ll find a gem and save some big bucks.
  2. Weight is important but so is comfort. You can sacrifice one for the other and only you know what your limits are. Trust your gut.
  3. Don’t be afraid to return things. If something isn’t working perfectly, I don’t care how many times you bought that tent from REI. You can return it.
  4. Be obsessed with your gear. I spend way too much time educating my friends and family about denier, fill power, silnylon vs. Dyneema, frameless vs. internal frame, and many other things they don’t give a shit about. But guess what? Us hikers are all in it together and I know y’all will talk gear with me. All. Day. Long.

Hey, “AT big three” rhymes. Someone trademark it. Quick!

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