I’ve been working up towards my first solo backpacking trip, just starting with an overnight, and I’m struggling to decide upon a shelter. Being only 5 foot three and barely over 100 pounds, I am worried about overall bulkiness of my pack, almost more than weight. I was thinking about using a bivvy because they fold up smaller than a 1person tent, but Don’t want to sacrifice being able to have my pack inside with me. How do other smaller people find this balance when choosing gear to fit into your (smaller than a larger persons) pack?
+1 on lighterpack.com
Look at gear lists that people use for hiking the long trails. The average base weight for the PCT... (pack plus carried gear minus supplies) is around 15lb-19lb according to Halfway to anywhere surveys.
It is possible to get under a 10lbs base weight if you go ultralight...some claim "with full comfort". I like this guy's approach although I don't necessarily agree with his gear choices and it is not what I do so use your own judgment. I point it out only to illustrate what is possible.
As a rule of thumb you want to aim for a total pack weight of around 20% body weight maximum. Another rule of thumb is to plan on 2lb of food per day (based on 3200 cal per day and 100cal per oz) and carrying up to 2 Quarts of water (4lb). You can certainly be more weight/calorie efficient with food and with you small frame may need fewer calories.
Given your small frame and the fact that you may need to carry over the max guide weight at least at the beginning of your trip you probably will want a backpack with more structure which means not saving as much weight on the backpack. It is best to choose your other gear first then pick the right pack to carry it...generally the reverse of what most people do. If this is your first backpacking backpack, I recommend get fitted at REI or a similar outfitter with a good return policy. It sometimes takes a couple of iterations to find a pack that works for you. In case you don't know, torso length is the critical measurement for an internal framed backpack with a supportive belt. the padding on the belt should wrap around the the front of your pelvis...although you may have the opposite problem of finding a belt small enough.
As to shelters, the lightest for 3 season (at least for the money) is to use an ultra lite tarp and optionally a bug bivvy (if bugs are an issue where you intend to go). However this set up takes a certain level getting used to and gumption not to mention some technical skill to set up securely. Bivvies can be claustrophobic and are not for everyone. If you use trekking poles then you can use them to support the tarp and not carry dedicated poles. Probably a better ultralight choice for most would be a trekking pole tent. These are generally single wall so managing condensation can be a bit more of an issue than two wall tents since there is no mesh to keep you from touching the outer wall and how the ventilation works. REI sells the Flash 1 and 2 which may suite although I think the Flash 1 has some design issues personally. I use a 6 Moons Luna solo which I think is a better design but make sure to order it seam sealed (only available directly from 6 Moons) unless you are up for seam sealing it yourself. These tents are under 2lbs assuming you used trekking poles. There are lighter but more expensive tents from Zpacks and similar made from Dyneema that can weigh around 1lb but longevity is a question with dyneema. You can get a freestanding tent under 3lbs. I have a Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 2 person which is semi-freestanding (you have stake the body corners). There is a UL1 version. REI make a Quarter Dome SL2 and SL1..which are of similar design. Note the foot print is extra on these tents. I recommend the factory footprint but you can also make one from Tyvek or poly crow/window film.
You can also save weight on sleeping pads. The inflatable Womens Thermarest Xlite has an R5.4 rating, 66inches long and is only 12oz for example. It packs really small. There is also a less warm 8oz small size ( at 47inches a torso size for many but you may fit if you a side sleeper ). These may be hard to get right now but will give you something to compare against. Since you are light you may also be comfortable on something like a Thermarest Z-lite or NEMO switchback closed cell foam pad. which are around R2 and 10-14oz You can get small or easily cut down a regular. Though compact for close cell foam these are a bit bulky and are generally carried strapped to the outside of the pack which saves inside space.
For 3 season consider a down quilt which are available in various styles...you will need a warmer sleeping pad to use these. There are some mainstream brand versions but you can get them custom made for competitive prices if you can wait a few weeks. You will probably want a warmer bag/quilt but you can save weight and bulk with a smaller size. Enlightened Equipment, UGO and others are example manufactures of these and a full zip version provides the most flexibility.
A layered clothing system not only works better but is a good way to control bulk and weight in you pack...don't take "changes" except for underwear and spare socks.
For some going stoveless works particularly in summer. It means you don't need to carry a stove. metal pot or fuel. It's not for everyone but might be worth considering to save bulk and weight.
A couple of suggestions...
1) Any tent you think about buying, try to find someplace to pitch it and climb inside, first. My son did that at the REI in Denver, and it really helped with his decision.
2) The pack frequently goes in the vestibule, not actually inside. It's protected from rain, but it's not taking up precious space.
3) After hanging my food (or stashing the bear can), pulling out my sleeping bag and tent, there's frequently not much left in my pack.
4) Decide whether or not you care about freestanding or not. If you don't mind staking, you can get a perfectly serviceable tent under two pounds, without breaking the bank.
5) I've seen people take "children's" tents, replace the cheap poles, and use those. For someone your size, if you're not going anyplace with abominable weather, that might even work for you.
6) Compression sacks. I store my socks and other bulky clothing in a small compression sack and reduce the volume by probably 40%.
I’m in the same boat: single woman, solo backpacking, on a budget. But the answer to your question requires knowing a little bit more about where and when and for how long you’re going. For most of the year here in the mid-south, I can get by with a ridiculously featherlight bag I picked up on Amazon for $40. (Added virtue? It’s machine washable.) I also make my own dehydrated meals, which is a giant $$ saver. Years of experience have taught me not to stint on three things though: pack, shelter, and sleeping mat. Subpar in any one of those categories adds up to a miserable trip. But when I do drop the bigger bucks for quality ultralight equipment, I also aim for products with lifetime warranties. It’s less painful on the pocket when I know that I’m only having to buy that nifty, gossamer tent once. Once everything is tucked away in my bag, the heaviest item - and the largest part of my weight - is water.