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Big 3 vs. Big 4?
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Jace Mullen
(climberslacker) - F

Locale: Your guess is as good as mine.
Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 12/29/2010 23:47:51 MST Print View

So we all know that the big three are shelter, sleeping and pack but the idea behind the big four is more confusing, at least for me.

From what I have gathered the 4th "biggest" item so to speak is a sleeping pad. And a lot of the time when we have people asking how to lighten out canned response is to focus on the big 3/4. However I feel that some of the biggest, and easiest weight to give up oftentimes is in the cooking system-oftentimes more then could be lost in a pad. Also I feel that a cooking system can be a great way to introduce those who are interested in UL.

For example:

A lot of people use a MSR whisperlight (11oz + fuel) with a relatively large pot (say ~1lb) which for most people's setups is somewhere in the neighborhood of two pounds. Now I know that a lot of us have cooking setups including cutlery (which I neglected in the "traditional" weight, easily another 1/4 lb) that weigh under 1/2 lb. This gives a potential for 1 3/4 lbs of weight reduction, a significant amount, and one that most will not achieve by changing pads.

Another reason why I believe we should count cooking as part of the "Big 4" when making recommendations to those new to the UL community and idea is because it offers the opportunity to learn really some of the fun parts of UL, and those are making things yourself and experimenting to save both money and weight. It is easy enough to make a pepsi-can stove that I think that many will do it and save themselves the cost of a already made one. Also, however, for those who do not wish to take that route, there are alternatives. Most of these alternatives will allow the new ULer to see one of my favorite parts of UL backpacking-the cottage manufacturers. Whether it be Minibull designs, trail designs or whitebox, they will get to see what we are all about.

Another thing though: We could always make the sleeping pad part of the "sleeping system". I feel that the big 3 should be broken down to three separate and distinct systems: Shelter (tarp, stakes, guylines et al), Sleeping (bag and pad) and Packing (pack and liner). This would leave room for the logical fourth to be cooking.

So I guess what I am trying to say is this: why not instead of focusing on the "Big three" for those new to UL, we focus on the "Big 4 Systems"? Another potentially beneficial effect that this nomenclature could bring about is the immediate focus on systems which I feel many would agree are key to going lightweight.

I feel that we could better help those new to our community lighten up if we implemented the "Big 4 systems" approach as opposed the the "Big 3".

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 12/30/2010 06:38:42 MST Print View

Semantics. FSO weight is the only truth.

Edited by kthompson on 12/30/2010 06:41:12 MST.

Ken K
(TheFatBoy) - F

Locale: St. Louis
Big 23? on 12/30/2010 07:08:33 MST Print View

When I first showed up here, I got plenty of valuable advice on the big three, and the other couple of dozen things I carrying. I thought that worked out well.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Big 3? Big 4?? Try one. on 12/30/2010 09:00:25 MST Print View

I agree that most pack weight is concentrated in the big 3. The 4th is less obvious and in many cases can be a pad, cookset, or even water.

These are just sementics. The biggest single weight savings, without changing gear and spending money and/or time to MYOG is a single system approach to hiking. This changes how you view every item you pack. For example:
I pack a 32 degree bag for 32 degree weather.
I have a pad, and shelter.
If I expect 25F weather, my choice would be another bag, possibly another pad. The manufacturors would love me.

Instead, I buy a set of Merino Wool long johns, a down sweater and a wool cap. I know I can easliy push the bag I have to 25F using clothing. Since, the day time temps will require a warmer base layer, too. The sweater around camp works when I stop hiking at 40F.

So, using my poor example, I saved a lot of dollars over a new 20F bag, saved likely no weight, though. I added several items to my clothing that double as day wearable. All and kept my existing gear running. But, I also extended my safe temperature range from 32F to 22F with a minor investment in weight, space and money. Perhaps this counts as that elusive fourth item?

Here is another diagramatic explanation:
Systems approach

By examining every item I am carrying, I can asses the lightest and best way to solve each camping problem for every camping trip. Probably some stuff I am missing...but I am sure you can follow this.

Edited by jamesdmarco on 12/30/2010 09:11:34 MST.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
depends on 12/30/2010 09:43:17 MST Print View

it all depends on yr current gear

you have to do a spreadsheet to figure out both yr greatest savings and the most cost effective purchases ... often a lot of weight is saved by not bringing stuff you dont need rather than replacing things

as you can see i got the OR helium because saving 17oz or so is much greater than any stove, or even a lighter down bag ... and at a lower per weight cost

Hikin' Jim
(hikin_jim) - MLife

Locale: Orange County, CA, USA
Big 3 vs. Big 4 on 12/30/2010 12:15:31 MST Print View

Jace, I agree with you. A Big Four is a good approach, particularly for the new person, in terms of where to begin to focus one's attention on lightening up. Adding your cooking set up to the Big Three gives you a lot of bang for the buck: easy to experiment with homemade alcohol stoves without taking out a mortgage on the house, and quite a bit of weight savings over things like the Whisperheavy and the JetBrick.

Ultimately though, it is about skin out weight, and I think the advice, "weigh everything," is the right advice. The spreadsheet approach makes sense to me. At a minimum, list the item and its weight, and get a total. A lot of things I hadn't really given much thought too have significant weight. Boxer shorts: quarter pound. Nalgene bottle, more than a quarter pound. A lot of gear that is pretty standard with the average hiker is pretty weighty. A scale can be a real eye opener.

So, sure, focus on the Big Four, particularly at first, but know the weight of every single item you're carrying. Get the data, and the answer will appear.


John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4 on 12/30/2010 12:40:14 MST Print View


Check out this thread and pay particular attention to Dale Wambaugh's take on this topic .

I have just about as much trouble keeping the weight of my clothes in my pack down as I do losing weight. :-(

Looking at your picture in your avatar though I can see that you don't seem to share my particular dilema. ;-)

Happy New Year!

Party On,


Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 12/30/2010 12:51:02 MST Print View


For many, shelter, pack, bag and pad are the four heavy items. If cookset qualifies as well, then methinks it should be considered as "Big 5" -- rather than kicking out the sleep pad.

Methinks that for most 3-season hikes, many UL hikers have embraced alcky stoves and personal-size ti pot/mug. For them, the cookset no longer qualifies among the "big heavy" items. Of course, when melting snow is required for winter trips, the stove can absolutely quality.

Edited by ben2world on 12/30/2010 12:52:11 MST.

Hikin' Jim
(hikin_jim) - MLife

Locale: Orange County, CA, USA
Re: Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 12/30/2010 14:44:00 MST Print View

Hi, Ben,

I don't think Jace was proposing that the pad be done away with. Rather, I think Jace was suggesting that the bag & pad be considered as one category, sleep system, which actually is how I have heard it described. His "Big Four" includes the pad.
1. Shelter
2. Sleep System
3. Pack
4. Cooking System


Ron Moak
(rmoak) - F
Forget about the Big 3! on 12/30/2010 16:16:01 MST Print View

With regard to ultralight backpacking, forget the Big 3 or Big 4. The concept of The Big 3 has been around since people starting taking about ultralight gear. Go to any website claiming to know something about ultralight and sure enough they’ll have a page on the Big 3.

Personally when I give discussions on ultralight gear, I don’t even bring up the topic of the Big 3 and haven’t done so for years. And I make my living by making and selling two of the Big 3 items.

What’s good about discussing the “Big 3”.
1) It’s easy and simple to define.

What’s bad about discussing the “Big 3”.
1) Virtually all Big 3 discussions completely miss the point of teaching anything useful about ultralight backpacking.
2) It’s a way too expensive a way to learn ultralight backpacking.

The problem is that the Big 3 is basically a substitution system of replacing a heavier piece of gear with a lighter version. For example a 5 pound tent vs. an 8 ounce tarp. It’s almost as if the two were functionally equivalents. However, the discussion rarely gets much beyond the simple replacement of tents, sleeping bags and packs with lighter equivalents.

Over the years, I’ve encountered too many hopeful ultralight hikers who took this advice to heart. Bought “the right” gear, and headed out in the wilds and into a world of hurt. Their main problem stems from only replacing their big three items while ignoring the rest of their gear. As a result they too often headed out of town with way too much gear crammed into a pack poorly designed to carry it.

Today when I talk to people about thinking about backpacking systems, I start by looking at everything in the pack beside the Big 3. Why, because is easier and cheaper for people to learn about the systems approach by concentrating on more manageable systems. We’ll discuss lighter approaches to cooking, clothes, first aid, and miscellaneous gear. All with the intent of trying to make gear both work together and also examining the potential for multiple uses.

One can work their way through several different cook systems without spending as much money as for a single shelter. All the while, they are training their minds to start taking a different look at how they conceive of their gear.

You can buy several outfits of clothes looking to find what works for you. If you decide that something you’ve bought for the trail isn’t as light as you’d like. You can always wear it around town. Tents, packs and sleeping bags don’t have much use in our normal day to day world.

Only when you’ve started to master the smaller items of gear in your pack should you look to replacing the Big 3. It is true that weight saving of replacing this gear is often not as dramatic as dropping several pounds on a single piece of gear. However, when you reflect on the total weight savings, it can be as significant as 10 to 15 pounds for some people.

Plus this can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost of replacing even one item of the Big 3.

Just another way to think about leaning ultralight hiking.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
risk assessment on 01/02/2011 07:28:35 MST Print View

ron's comments bring up a good point

IMO going lighter after a certain point (after getting all that fancy gear) become a matter of risk assessments ... same as anyone heading into dangerous terrain, or how much protection to bring on a long climb

i think once you do a spreadsheet you'll be surprised that yr greatest weight savings is simply not bringing stuff ... you just have to weight the probability of using the gear vs the possibility of being effed without it should you need it

Larry Dyer
(veriest1) - F

Locale: Texas
Throw it out on 01/02/2011 09:19:56 MST Print View

Fortunately the majority of the gear the average beginner wants to bring can be thrown out with little to no risk by simply learning to utilize other items they're going to have to bring to accomplish the same task.

These are examples, nothing more, and I'm fully aware their may be better ones and this is probably over simplified. You should get the point.

Take the bushcraft community for example. While this isn't necessarily relevant (in the sense that most of us here will start doing this) it is interesting to note. Besides being a bit finicky over knives and hatchets their gear lists are simple (and generally cheap!) and they seem to be heavily focused around technique. Many of them can reduce the weight of their shelter, sleep system, and cook system into the weight of something as cheap and simple as a Mora if they have to. This is all done with knowledge. They understand the unobtainium-mehrunes-964920cm-razor isn't going to make a bit of difference if they can't effectively wield it.

In similar fashion lightening up is really all about technique.

Yes you can ditch the french press and still enjoy great coffee. If you know how.

And you can amaze all your friends and make them wonder at your vast knowledge by talking about site selection for tents just like you would a tarp because that bathtub floor isn't going to be useful at all in the flat of that little depression if the storm gets as bad as it looks like it will. You'd better pitch on that slight rise and have a *gasp* uneven floor.

Ponder this - how often do experienced traditional backpackers cowboy camp and not even set up the tent they packed in? Being able to do that is derived from knowledge.

As was mentioned, those clothes you plan on lounging around camp in can be used to extend your sleeping bag instead of buying another one.

If we focus on technique and knowledge the inevitable result will be a lighter pack as people discover better ways to do more with less gear. At the same time, if this became the focus of lightweight backpacking, we'd be known as the smart ones instead of the lunatic fringe. Neither would people see it as dangerous because the emphasis would be on creating better backpackers instead of better gear.

Personally I enjoy reading gear lists and tweaking them but how often does someone respond to Roger with confusion at the thought of not bringing TP (or something similar)? Obviously these people jumped on the gear bandwagon and failed to read the articles or the rest of the boards (and then that discussion is started all over again). Instead they expect to cut their pack weight purely with money instead of technique and thus "going ultralight" is perceived as being all about how much money a person has to throw at their gear when a lot of weight can be cut for free or with little to no monetary investment since one of the easiest ways to cut a pound is still shaving an ounce in 16 places.

I guess what it all boils down to is people need to learn how to read.

And, yes, I fully agree that, once a person is there, it needs to be the big 4 as it relates to systems. However, at that point the term big anything should be outdated and it'll just be the sleep system, the shelter system, the packing system, etc. So throw that old piece of terminology out. In my experience it just makes it harder to explain things to people because of the tunnel vision they end up with.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Throw it out on 01/02/2011 12:00:47 MST Print View

Well said!

Knowledge is the cornerstone of everything we do as backpackers.

"And, yes, I fully agree that, once a person is there, it needs to be the big 4 as it relates to systems. However, at that point the term big anything should be outdated and it'll just be the sleep system, the shelter system, the packing system, etc. So throw that old piece of terminology out. In my experience it just makes it harder to explain things to people because of the tunnel vision they end up with."


I would point out that the Big 3 or the Big 4 are simply terms used to describe parts of a pack system used in the learning process for backpacking. The next step is to teach spread sheets and weights leading to teaching systems and system approaches. Once we start reaching beyond the old concepts, it is clear there are a lot of ways to do things. But, as in physics, you start with a simple model. Then you explain why it doesn't work all that well. Then you can present a new and improved version. Maybe you can present the better model?

Kat ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
nm on 01/02/2011 12:47:42 MST Print View


Edited by Kat_P on 01/02/2011 17:39:00 MST.

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
Big 3 vs Big 4 on 01/02/2011 13:06:18 MST Print View

+1 for the BIG 4

I have always thought along these lines that it should be be the BIG 4..They are your heaviest items in your system: Pack, Shelter, Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Pad. Some of my friends sleeping pads are THE heaviest things in there entire pack system. Sometimes I do not bring a cooking system but that depends on the trip..But I will always bring the Big 4 no matter what trip...
Big 4: Pack,Shelter, Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Pad


Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 01/02/2011 13:52:20 MST Print View

Thanks for the credit, John :)

I agree that you can get the Big 3 right and still have a lot of "junk in the trunk" and end up at the top of the hill with a load of stuff you don't use or need. You must weigh everything to get a real grip on pack weight.

As John and I both have mentioned, clothing represents at least as much volume, weight and cost as any of the Big 3, as well as comfort and safety. A good clothing system can be the hardest to understand and takes some trial and error to suit the user and the season/climate it will be used in. It means coordinating a number of items to work together efficiently, and there isn't much else in the UL gear universe that has as many components.

There are a lot of packs out there, but there are just a couple concepts to grasp: the weight and volume of the gear to be carried and the actual weight of the pack. Your gear fits and it is comfortable, or not.

Sleeping bags are warm enough and light enough or they aren't. You like quilts or you don't, and there are no rocket science concepts to grasp. You can argue over down vs. synthetic forever. Most of what you need to know can be gleaned from reviews; accurate weights and temperature ratings are much of the issue.

There are really just a few types of sleeping pads, and it comes down to user comfort and acceptability-- long or short, more or less padding, Spartan light or cushy and heavier.

Same thing with shelters: they keep you protected from the weather and are acceptably light, or not. You can handle Spartan tarps with no bug protection, or you want something more complex for the features you demand.

Cooking gear comes down to pots of appropriate size and a stove/fuel system that suits the altitude, temperature, and fuel availability. Lots of models, but all-in-all, the differences between the whole range of alcohol stoves is fairly small, and much the same with propane canister rigs. Take all the acceptable models and you won't have much more than a 25-30% difference. For a canister stove we're talking a couple ounces at most. The difference between a 600ml titanium pot and a 900ml one is really quite small; you need the volume or you don't.

Throw clothing in and you have seasonal variations, climate (hot/sun, cold/rain), and the metabolism of the user. You need shoes, socks, briefs, pants/shorts, rain protection, insulation, base layers, etc, etc. The biggest conceptual break for a lot of newbies is not having fresh underwear or socks every day-- wanting to have 3 of everything. From there it is more attachment to a particular garment that is already owned or an inefficient layering system. Windshirts and base layers can be a strange concept, with users still stuck on commuter/city-style wardrobe of button-down shirt and a mono-layer of insulated jacket, etc. At any rate, you can have something like a dozen items that need to layer and work as a system and not weigh more than 3 pounds or so.

And as many have said, there is the sneaky-weight that creeps up on you and that is where a good little scale can save you headaches. It is also a place to save a lot of money. Weight saved on extras is the cheapest area to control pack weight. UL insulation in sleeping systems and clothing is by far the most expensive item on your gear list, but shaving weight on stuff like toiletries and small consumables is comparatively cheap. I was surprised to check my spreadsheet and see what soap, bug repellent, sunscreen, ointments, and other personal hygiene items weighed in aggregate, even after decanting to smaller containers; "stuff" adds up. This is the place where people start sawing the handles off their toothbrushes. It costs nothing, where an upgrade to a truly light down sleeping bag will cost hundreds. Ad infinitum.

Finally, there is the snowball effect, where less and lighter gear with smaller volume allows smaller, lighter packs, lighter shoes, etc.

What is really important is that you know that you have control over what goes in your pack. It really comes down to what your acceptable comfort level is, and you make choices on it with every turn. The main thing is that you *choose* to carry a 20 pound load or a 50 pounder-- there is no "must." Ray Jardine points out that much of what we carry with heavier loads is based on a fear of nature and the outdoors. Once you get over that hump, you start leaving a lot of junk at home.

Edited by dwambaugh on 01/02/2011 13:57:27 MST.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 01/02/2011 13:58:21 MST Print View

Awesome post Dale! Really sums it all up.

Larry Dyer
(veriest1) - F

Locale: Texas
Re: Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 01/02/2011 14:02:46 MST Print View

Dale said, "Finally, there is the snowball effect, where less and lighter gear with smaller volume allows smaller, lighter packs, lighter shoes, etc."

This is something I've had trouble getting across to people in the past. The "snowball effect" is a pretty good way to describe it but sometimes I know it's not my explanation that's completely at fault. Sometimes they just can't seem to get it. I guess it's throwing to many norms out the window for them or something.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: Re: Big 3 vs. Big 4? on 01/02/2011 14:17:01 MST Print View

Larry, I left out "Rambo-itis," which is particularly a male trait, where carrying a big heavy load is more manly. Just plain stupid to me, but then you know, sometimes a backpack is just a backpack :)

There may be some Luddite factor too. Like in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," some folk hit the technical wall and just ram their head rather than to stand back and try to analyze and understand the issue.

It's that old adage, "you can take a horse to the hiking store, but you can't make him ultralight!"

Aaron Sorensen
(awsorensen) - MLife

Locale: South of Forester Pass
Big 3 and Other 3 on 01/02/2011 14:20:33 MST Print View

So the big 3 won't change.
How about using the "OTHER 3"

In the other 3 you have, Clothing, Cooking, and ?????, (I guess first aid)