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Home » What are the Big 3 items in backpacking? What to know

What are the Big 3 items in backpacking? What to know

What are the big 3 in backpacking cover photo

Backpackers, guides, and websites like this one like to make a big stink about all the different terms and concepts invented to describe what we do. Base weight, worn weight, sleep system, the list goes on… all terms invented to make backpacking sound more complicated than it is. One of those terms is “The Big 3” – so, what are the Big Three items, and why should you care?

What are the Big 3?

The big three items in backpacking are three of the most important, and heaviest items, in your gear list. The importance and necessity of these items is pretty obvious just by looking at what they are: your sleep system, shelter, and backpacking pack.

  1. Sleep system: what keeps you warm and comfortable so that your body can rest and recover each night.
  2. Shelter: What separates you from wind, rain, humidity, and temperatures so you can sleep safely.
  3. Backpacking pack: It’s your backpack, ’nuff said.

Below, we’ll get into a little more detail about the items in your Big Three, as well as a bit of discussion on what your big 3 items should weigh. Weight is a big part of backpacking, and it’s impossible to discuss any specific piece of gear without also talking about how much it’s going to weigh on your back.

1. Sleep System: Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, and Pillow

Painting of a sleeping bag inside a tent overlooking mountains
Image created with DALL-E 2

The first item in your big three is actually a few different items combined, because they’re kind of useless on their own. Sleeping bags are great, but they only do half the job of keeping you warm and they do nothing for your comfort.

Sleeping pads do a lot for comfort and warmth, but without a sleeping bag they are essentially just crappy yoga mats. A pillow is a pillow and it’s got its own job to do.

The point is: you need an entire sleep system, not just a sleeping bag, for backpacking.

Your sleep system will weigh anywhere between four and 9 pounds, depending on the type of gear you’ve got. The more you spend, the more weight savings you can expect.

Sleep Systems for hammock campers: the same idea with a few differences

Hammock camping is growing each and every year among avid backpackers because it can make you lighter, help you hike faster, and make your choice of places to make camp more versatile and interesting.

There is no fundamental difference between tent camping and hammock camping for backpackers. It’s just a different choice of equipment: a hammock for shelter instead of a tent. Sleep systems for hammock-based backpacking gear loadouts will look like this:

  • Hammock: doubles as a sleep item and a shelter item
  • Underquilt: a specialized sleeping bag that fits around the outside of your hammock and turns you into a warm and cozy Trail Tamale.
  • Pillow: Hammocks are great for relaxing, but not for sleeping without a pillow, unless neck pain adds to your enjoyment.

2. Shelter: Tents, Hammocks, Tarps, and More

Backpacking tent in the mountains at dusk

Shelter is a basic human need, even when you’re “roughing it”. Most often, your shelter will either be a lightweight backpacking tent or a hammock with a rainfly/tarp. I use a backpacking tent, but I’ve been itching to get the required gear to make my hammock a true backcountry shelter.

Backpacking tents look a lot like camping tents; they’re made from similar fabric and use the same fiberglass or aluminum poles to create a rigid frame. That said, backpacking tents are smaller and more “domed” than most camping tents, which helps maximize what little space you have. The average two-person backpacking tent will weigh less than 6 pounds, but you can find tents as light as 1.2 pounds if you’ve got the money to pay for it.

Furthermore, backpacking tents are designed pretty much exclusively for utilitarian purposes: they’re for falling asleep, not for hanging out in. Ultralight backpacking takes this philosophy a bit further – the tents used by ultralighters are tiny, often weighing under 2 pounds. Other ultralight backpackers use a simple tarp and trekking poles to make a shelter, while still others use specialized bivy sacks that save space and weight.

3. Backpack: backpacking gear for your backpacking gear

Man wearing a large backpacking pag

We’ve saved the most important for last; this is the item that the entire discipline of backpacking takes its name from. Choosing a backpack is difficult because so much of what makes one backpack right and another wrong is simply how they fit on your body.

That’s why worrying about weight, features, and price can only get you so far. The best way to choose a backpacking pack is to go to an outdoor store, find something that’s big enough for your trip, and test it out in person. Until you’ve done that, there’s not a great way to determine whether a certain pack is right for you or not.

How much should your big three weigh? Why going sub-12 can make a huge difference

Backpacking tent pitched in front of Big Bend

Often, you’ll see 12 pounds listed as the benchmark for weight on your big three. If it’s under 12 pounds, you will be able to make room for all your food and clothes without weighing yourself down unnecessarily. 12 pounds is a great number to shoot for, but not without considering your own body and situation first.

I weigh a lot more than most people, which means that most, if not all, of my gear is going to be heavier, too. There’s more of me to cover, which means all of my Big 3 items are going to be heavier than other people’s. In fact, my Big 3 weigh a solid 14 pounds, and that doesn’t really bother me.

On the other side of the spectrum, people who weigh less than most others will find it ridiculously easy to get under 12 pounds, which means they should look for a lower number, like 10 or even 8 pounds, to set as a target weight for their Big 3.

How your big three affect your base weight and pack weight

Base weight: The total weight of all your gear, minus food, water, and fuel

Pack weight: The actual number of pounds on your back when you’re on the trail

Your Big 3 are appropriately named in more ways than one. For instance, the Big 3 are the three biggest things that count as part of your base weight. If you’ve measured your base weight and found that it’s too high for your own liking, your Big 3 are a great place to look for significant weight savings.

Switching from a cheap backpacking tent to a full hammock camping setup, for example, can save you three or more pounds in an instant. An expensive instant, yes, but the point is that your big 3 are heavy items that should be selected with base weight and pack weight in mind.

Having a lower pack weight has a lot of benefits, most notably preserving your energy levels and lowering the demand on your joints. If you think you want to avail yourself of those benefits, upgrading your Big 3 items is a great way to do that without having to do a ton of work or research.

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