Lightweight Backpacking: What is the Big 4?

Lightweight backpacking - what is the big 4?

The goal of lightweight backpacking is to reduce the amount of gear weight you carry on backpacking trips without compromising on comfort and safety. The best way to approach this is to weigh your existing gear on a postal or kitchen scale to determine the heaviest items on your backpacking gear list. While every ounce or gram matters, you can usually get the greatest gear list weight reductions by focusing on the four heaviest items in your gear list, called the Big 4.

Big 4 on the ground - backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad
Big 4 on the ground – backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad

If you sleep in a tent or on the ground under a tarp, your Big 4 will probably include:

  1. Backpack
  2. Tent or Tarp
  3. Sleeping Bag/Quilt
  4. Sleeping Pad
Big 4 in a hammock: backpack, hammock and tarp, top quilt, underquilt or pad
Big 4 in a hammock: backpack, hammock and tarp, top quilt, underquilt or pad

If you use a hammock, your Big 4 will probably include:

  1. Backpack
  2. Shelter (tarp and hammock)
  3. Top quilt
  4. Underquilt or foam pad

Two Gear Weight Reduction Approaches

There are two approaches to reducing the weights of your big 4 gear items.

Buy It Down

The first is to replace them with lighter-weight alternatives if and when you can afford to do so. In other words, buy it down. There are plenty of options these days to buy lighter weight gear new or used and to sell your existing gear to help bankroll it.

Narrow Your Objectives

The second, which requires more trip planning, is to narrow your objectives by reducing the temperature range and weather conditions that you intend to backpack in, so you bring lighter weight gear that’s not as general-purpose as what you may have carried before. For example, if you only intend to backpack in summer, you can often reduce the temperature rating of your sleep insulation and significantly reduce the weight of your gear. Lighter weight sleep insulation is usually smaller in volume, letting you use a smaller and lighter-weight backpack, carry lighter weight clothing, go stoveless, and so on.

There’s a big difference between sleeping in 20 degrees and sleeping in 40 or 50 degrees, that you can exploit to reduce your gear weight. This approach is often less expensive than the outright replacement of more general-purpose gear intended for a wider range of conditions.

Big 4 vs Big 3

The Big 4 and the Big 3 are used interchangeably by educators to explain how to reduce the weight of backpacking gear lists, although the Big 4 is the more recent adaption of the concept. The Big 3 included a backpack, shelter, and sleep system (sleeping bag and sleeping pad) as a single unit.

Many people had a hard time comprehending what a sleep system was, so the big3 became the Big 4 and now includes a backpack, shelter, sleeping bag/quilt, and sleeping pad if you sleep on the ground; and if you sleep in a hammock the Big 4 includes a backpack, shelter (including hammock and tarp), top quilt, and underquilt/sleeping pad.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of approximately 2500 miles, completing a second round in 2021. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

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11 comments

  1. I think I’ve seen that tent before…

  2. 6 or 7 years ago, after a 20 year hiatus, I rejoined the backpacking world. In my late teens and through most of my twenties I tramped through most of the White Mountains highlighted usually by an annual multiday trip of at least a week. It wasn’t unusual for my pack to come in at 60 plus pounds.

    I’m so grateful for the UL evolution as I’m fairly certain my 50 plus year old self may not have the stamina to carry my old kit from yesteryear. Even though I still had all my old gear i outfitted myself with new gear happily. Exos 48, TT Notch (sil poly) EE Enigma and a Neo Xl add up to about 6 and a half pounds. My base weight comes in at close to 10. I can’t imagine doing what I’ve done the last few years humping those old packs.

    Much of the info I gathered before purchase came from this site, and others too of course. The rise of social media has had such an impact on everything of course but on backpacking too.

  3. I like your strategy about narrowing your objectives. Case in point, You don’t see many ultralight backpackers when the weather gets colder.

  4. I’m one of those you don’t see – not because I don’t want to carry the weight, but because at 71 I just don’t have fun camping in below-freezing weather any more. (My limits are no trips where predicted highs are over 80 or predicted lows are below 35.) My summer load is about 14-15 pounds; if I add adequately warm clothing and sleeping gear, I’d probably still only hit about 21 pounds, so it’s definitely not the weight.

  5. Big 4 are: BACKPACK-TENT-SLEEP SYSTEM-COOK KIT.

    • Actually – they’re the 4 heaviest items in your backpack…that’s why I say that the items I list are PROBABLY your big 4.

      Since a lot of people don’t use tents or stoves, your definition is too specific.

  6. I think the “sleep system” is the best way to look at weight in that particular area as more and more people are hammocking and tenting is not the only choice out there. I personally do both depending on terrain that I expect on any hike.

  7. Nothing like team back packing. One with the big 4 comforts of home and the other with grub/stove clothes.
    That extra heat comes in handy too. Hardest part is the compromise of non solo hikes but then the trade off is worth it.

  8. Pretty happy at 30# with the big three, six days of food, 1.5L water, and able to camp at 20° and 750 ml of whisky. I am to the point at 53, I use everything in my pack, don’t want to spend more money to save an ounce, and keep in shape too carry what I need.
    Your articles carry a LOT of weight in my group and are the trump card when arguing about great or technique. “What was the section hiker review?” Can’t argue because we know the research was done.

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