Big Three

Outdoors people tend to be gear people. If allowed to run long enough, discussions about backpacking and camping will become discussions about gear. If allowed to run long enough, discussions about backpacking and camping gear will become discussions about gear philosophy and will eventually touch on the “Big Three.”

Google “backpacking big 3” and you will find much philosophizing and discussion. There are some that subscribe to other philosophies such as the Big Four, Big Seven, and so on. Within the group of people that agree that there is a Big Three, the items are as follows:

  1. Shelter
  2. Sleep System
  3. Pack

Erik, at points out that these are the three items which will be the biggest, heaviest, and most expensive gear that many backpackers will buy. We would add that these are also the three gear elements most likely to impact how much you enjoy your backpacking (or camping) experience.

We will delve more deeply into these topics in the future, but we thought we’d quickly touch on each item in this list.

Shelter generally refers to a tent, a tarp, or a hybrid of the two. A tent offers more complete protection from weather, bugs, and small mammals and reptiles, but at a cost of added weight. Wilderness backpackers tend to concern themselves quite a bit with gear weight. Variations of the hammock have also become popular in recent years, thought they require special considerations (trees from which to hang them).

Your shelter will determine how much you enjoy your sleeping experience while camping or backpacking. Its weight and bulk will affect how much you enjoy your hiking experience while backpacking.

Sleep System
This traditionally refers to a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag. The “Big Four” philosophy usually comes from separating these two items. For truly low-budget camping, in ideal conditions, one could substitute a blanket or two.

More recently, there has been a trend towards sleeping quilts, which are like sleeping bags without a bottom. This eliminates the need for a zipper, which adds weight and potential mechanical failure. Arguably, the insulation on the bottom a sleeping bag is compressed when a camper lays on it, so it is less effective and thus adds inefficient bulk and weight. With a sleep quilt, the camper lays directly on the sleeping pad, to insulate their backside, with the quilt draped over them.

A note about sleeping bag temperature ratings – they generally assume that a sleeping pad is being used. If you use a sleeping bag at the edge of its temperature rating without a sleeping pad, you might end up feeling cold.

Your sleep system will determine how much you enjoy your sleeping experience while camping or backpacking. Its weight and bulk will affect how much you enjoy your hiking experience while backpacking.

This is the bag in which other gear is carried. For car camping, a duffle bag will suffice, but for backpacking, as the name of the activity implies, a large, purpose-built backpack is used. These come in a variety of sizes, with a variety of features to suit the different hiking/camping styles of different users.

The weight and bulk of your pack and its contents will affect how much you enjoy your hiking experience while backpacking.

Our Big Three
Even for car camping, some members of the FamilyTrivium household have adopted relatively large (50L), inexpensive frameless backpacks. An inexpensive 20″ x 72″ x 5/8″ closed cell foam sleeping pad is loosely rolled and placed in side the main compartment of the backpack, forming a cylinder into which a sleeping bag is placed. On top of the sleeping bag go extra clothing in a stuff sack. Additional gear can, generally, fit on top of the extra clothing stuff sack. Except for water, the Ten Essentials (more on this later) and a stuffable daypack go in a separate zippered top compartment. There are additional side compartments with room for water and other “quick-access” items.

A backpacking tent could easily be lashed to one of the attachment points that each pack has. For car camping a larger group tent is more likely to be carried separately. With a backpack, rather than a duffle bag, our hands are freed up to carry additional items such as a group tent from car to campsite. Time will tell if we find these same packs ideal for actually backpacking.


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