It was a revelation once I started reducing the weight of my rucsac.  As I bought increasingly lighter weight gear, my pack became easier to carry.  I went further and was less tired at the end of the day.

Many people, especially those new to hillwalking and backpacking, are unaware of the benefits of lightweight gear.  And even that lightweight gear exists.  Go into your typical High Street outdoors shop and you’ll be faced with clothing, rucsacs and tents from the dominant brands where – unfortunately – price trumps all other factors.  You’ll struggle to find the weight of gear mentioned anywhere on the product labels.

I was reminded of this earlier this year when I started volunteering to help with the Duke of Edinburgh bronze award expeditions at my local high school.  Without exception, these 14 year olds all turned up laden with huge rucsacs that they could hardly lift.  Some even had to jettison spare clothes in the school car park since they couldn’t fit everything into their 60-litre rucsacs.  They had come prepared for every eventuality and many had faithfully bought the gear labelled “DofE Recommended”.  This includes the Vango Contour rucsac that weighs a criminally heavy 2.45 kg – even before you’ve put anything into it !! (Don’t get me started on the DofE kit list … seemingly sponsored by Vango, Lifesystems and Craghoppers).

Cheaper materials often weigh more but certainly don’t have the performance advantages of lighter, more ‘technical’ gear.  Most people assume that heavier stuff is more robust – leather boots being the classic example.  As long as you look after good quality gear this just isn’t true.  It’s a false economy when you consider all of the wider benefits of lighter weight gear such as performance and the ability to go further and faster with less effort.  Lightening your load really does make a big difference.



The Big 4 under 4kg

Philip Werner, on the excellent Section Hiker blog, has written about the ‘Big 3’ heaviest items that should be the focus of attention if you’re keen to go lighter – your tent/shelter, rucsac and sleeping bag.  His guideline (being American) is that the Big 3 shouldn’t weigh more than 3 pounds each – that’s 1.3kg in our money, or 4kg in total.

I’m going to go one further and suggest that as a guideline, the ‘Big 4’ – that’s your tent/shelter, rucsac, sleeping bag and footwear – shouldn’t be more than 4kg in total, and that you should aim for each one to be less than 1kg.

Having recently bought a new pair of boots it seems pretty obvious to me that footwear should be considered alongside the other heavier items.  In fact, it’s estimated that the weight on your feet needs about five times as much energy to move than the equivalent weight on your back.  Minimising the weight of your footwear is therefore a very efficient way to optimise energy use, making you less tired and more alert.

Let’s consider the typical weights of gear against these four categories.  A browse of various websites indicates the weights of the lightest gear currently available, while I’ve suggested an upper limit based on my knowledge of popular gear used by many backpackers.  (I’ts important to note that the latter is what I’d consider to be a reasonable upper limit and certainly doesn’t include the heaviest available such as the offending Vango Contour rucsac !).  For the avoidance of doubt, I should point out that I’m talking here about 3 season gear for a solo hiker in the UK, and certainly not gear to be taken on winter mountaineering expeditions.

Sleeping bag            0.4 – 1.6kg

Rucsac                       0.4 – 1.2kg

Tent/shelter            0.6 – 1.5kg

Footwear                   0.6 – 1.3kg

As you can see, the ratio between the lightest and my upper limit is between two and four.  Put another way, if you bought the lightest gear available (weighing 2kg in total) it would be almost one-third of the weight of popular gear used by many hillwalkers.

Ah, you might say, but what about cost, durability, comfort, safety and warmth ?

Certainly, these are all important considerations – but what I’m saying is that the ‘big 4 under 4kg’ should be taken as a guideline by experienced backpackers.  Individual choice is clearly paramount and knowledge of the capabilities of different kinds of gear in different conditions is essential.

Even if you can’t afford the best and lightest gear just now, you could replace your current gear for something lighter when it wears out.  Even if you could buy a featherweight pertex/down sleeping bag at 400g there’s little point if you’re going to freeze in the Cairngorms at Easter.  Far better to take a thicker sleeping bag for the Easter trip and save the lightweight bag for mid summer.  But overall, there’s no reason why you couldn’t aim to reduce the ‘big 4 to under 4kg’ – and for your overall baseweight to be well under 10kg (excluding consumables of food, water and fuel), the guideline for lightweight backpacking.


Vango Viper 500 sleeping bag

Lightening your load

Many people suggest the following steps (in order of weight and least cost) to reduce the weight of their backpack (adapted from this Wikipedia article):

  1. Reduce each item’s weight. Modifying items to reduce superfluous weight, replacing items manufactured using heavy materials with items made from lighter ones, and exchanging fully featured items for minimalist (and therefore lighter) items.
  2. Weigh everything. An implied but often overlooked necessity is to first weigh every item and record its weight. Only with precise before and after weights can one optimize total pack weight.
  3. Carry less stuff. Omit unnecessary items such as camp chairs, coffee makers, electronic gadgets, multiple items of clothing, etc.
  4. Share gear with others. For example, four people sleep in a four-person tent, one stove for 2-4 people, etc.
  5. Swap gear for skills through reading and practice. The greater one’s skills in using the environment and gear, the fewer tools one needs to carry. For example, by knowing where exactly to find water, one needs not carry as much.
  6. Lighten your feet. Trail shoes are often cheaper and lighter than hiking boots.
  7. Rethink, Reduce, and Repackage. Carry only what you’ll need for that trip of fuel, sunblock, string, batteries, food etc. This often means repackaging items.
  8. Multi-purpose. Try to find items that work well for different tasks, for example a buff, walking poles that double as tent poles, a pan you can also eat out of etc.
  9. Replace gear. Only at this last step, purchase/borrow lighter weight gear. Start with the shelter, sleeping, and rucsac (commonly called the Big Three).


My 3-season kit list

I’ve been thinking about Big 4 while preparing for the second of my Mountain Leader training weekends, which includes an overnight wildcamp in the Lake District (in early November).  The combined weight of the Big 4 I’ll be taking is 3.8 kg.

My kit for this 3-day backpacking trip is listed below.  Among the newer gear I’m taking are an Exped Synmat inflatable sleeping mat, an Alpkit Muon headtorch and a new pair of lightweight Salomon goretex boots to replace a similar pair that started leaking.

There are only a few differences between this and my summer backpacking kit list.  In summer I’d leave the down jacket and extra hat/gloves at home, and would swap my 4-season Goretex jacket for my new superlight Montane Minimum Mountain Jacket.  I’d also swap the heavier Vango sleeping bag for my lightweight down Cumulus bag (weighing just 625g, bringing the combined weight of my Big 4 down to just under 3.2kg).


Worn stuff:

Salomon Hillpass GTX walking boots with goretex inner (780g)

X-Socks Trek Exped socks (55g)

Mountain Equipment Goretex XCR waterproof jacket (695g)

Icebreaker 200 merino wool long-sleeved shirt (240g)

Montane Terra walking trousers (320g)

M&S pants and socks (80g)

Mountain King Trail Blaze walking poles (240g)

Weight: 2,420g



GoLite Jam 2 50l rucsac inc. bin liner (600g)

Foam sit mat (35g)

Weight: 630g



Terra Nova Laser Competition 2 tent

6″ Titanium pegs – additional 6

Weight: 1,375g



Vango Viper 500 sleeping bag (1210g)

Exped Synmat Winterlite 7 (410g)

Weight: 1,620g



MSR Pocket Rocket gas stove (in plastic case) (110g)

Gas canister

Matches (20g)

MSR Titan titanium pot & homemade pot cosy (165g)

Fossilz foldable plate (75g)

Plastic mug with internal cafetiere-style coffee plunger (180g)

Spork (10g)

Weight: 550g (excluding gas)


Carried gear

Mountain Equipment Firefox Goretex trousers (235g)

Mountain Equipment Helium down jacket (425g)

Extremities windstopper gloves (180g)

Trespass fleece gloves (80g)

Exremities ice cap (60g)

Woolly hat (50g)

Buff (35g)

Mountain Equipment fleece (160g)

Spare pants and socks (130g)

Spare walking socks (90g)

Merino base layers (sleeping) (315g)

Weight: 1,800g



Ortlieb waterproof map case and map (190g)

Silva compass (40g)

First aid kit (310g)

Wash kit (100g)

Alpkit Muon headtorch (90g)

Inov8 2l water reservoir (180g)

Cascade Designs packtowel (80g)

REI ‘Ezee’ toilet trowel (55g)

Foil blanket (70g)

Debit card and money

Plastic bags for waste

Weight: 1,115g



iPhone (155g)

Anker portable phone charger (125g)

Weight: 280g


Total baseweight: 9,870g

Note:  The baseweight includes everything carried in a rucsac or on your person but excludes clothing and boots worn and consumables (food, water and gas).  For a 2-day trip away the consumables are typically around 1,300g.


Total weight therefore includes:

Baseweight                                             7,340g

Clothing and boots worn                    2,420g

Consumables (food, water, fuel)      1,300g

Total =                                                   11,060g


10 Comments on “Lightweight backpacking – The Big 4

  1. This is really helpful so thank you for taking the time to write it. When my son started his DoE journey (he is just about to start the Gold award now) we faithfully followed the list we were given because we didn’t know any better. Even as we were buying everything we were wondering how the hell he was going to carry it all or even fit it into his rucksack. Our daughter is just about to start her DoE journey so your advice and recommendations have come at a good time. My personal bug bear about the whole DoE scheme is how expensive it is to kit a young person out for their first expedition, making it unlikely that those kids who might most benefit from it are going to be able to afford to access it – we spent over £400 and our son already had a fair bit of kit. But enough rambling – many thanks for putting your guide together.

    • Thanks, you make a really good point about the cost of buying kit. It really does add up, particularly if young people can’t borrow from friends, family or relatives. I know that some DofE groups have some of their own kit (young people aren’t always that keen to have ‘old stuff’ of course …). Sharing kit is maybe one part of the solution, buying second hand (eBay, Gumtree etc) another. I think the point I’d make is that ‘better’ kit (more durable, lighter weight, higher performance) needn’t cost much more than the ‘DofE Recommended’ kit – but the guidance isn’t particularly good. Much better to have more durable and better performing kit that you’re going to want to use again rather than heavy, poor quality gear that’s used once only.

  2. I pour over dozens of pack lists. This is definitely a top tier list and writeup. Thanks!

  3. Hi
    I’ve just purchased a golite Jam 50L but your one seams to be very light weight at 450g?
    Have you modified it at all?
    Mine weighs 878g

    • Hi there, That’s very puzzling … I weighed mine again and it’s 600g, so I don’t know how I’d initially weighed it at 450g. But it certainly isn’t 878g. I *think* mine is the Jam2 so maybe yours is the original version and a slightly different design?

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