Our Big 4 Gear Breakdown & Hiker-Trash Thoughts


If you’re preparing for a long-distance hike, you’ve likely heard the term “Big 4.”

But What Does It Mean?!

I remember asking myself this question as I was preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – my first long-distance hike. This term refers to the larger gear purchases most long-distance hikers make. Items that could (more dramatically) elevate or complicate your experience in the backcountry. Purchasing these items are good opportunities to cut weight most effectively off of your base weight (you know, if you’re into that kind of thing). Hello ultralight (UL) hikers! But that’s a subject for another day. In this post, we’ll break down the Big 4 items and help you choose the right gear for your next backpacking adventure.

When going over gear in any capacity, it’s imperative to note that choices are extremely personal. Gear that works great for one person may not work for everyone. Each hiker on trail is unique and different brands, structure, specs, attributes, etc. may appeal to one person, but not another.


Hiker Tip!: Testing Your Gear

Testing gear is really helpful in figuring out what works for YOU. Before my first long-distance hike, I went on two shakedown trips and ended up swapping out my tent and backpack as a result of actual use in the field. Both brands I switched to served me well through 8,000 miles of hiking to the Triple Crown. If I didn’t start with those simple and shorter shakedown hikes – I would have had a harder time at the beginning of my long-distance hiking journey. Swapping out gear and/or returning gear, re-testing, and making a final decision is far easier off trail, before starting. It’s also a good idea to avoid testing anything on trail if at all avoidable.

Okay, back to gear! You can find some of the more popular gear choices on Halfway Anywhere, which publishes annual survey results from Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Continental Divide Trail (CDT) hikers. In the survey results hikers cover top gear choices, the most popular resupply box locations, technology, best advice, and so much more. Definitely worth a look if you’re planning to hike a long distance!


Big 4 – A List & Some Common Brands/Models

So without further ado, here are the Big 4 items hikers take on their long-distance treks, and some common brand choices:

1. Backpack

Your backpack is your trusty companion on trail, carrying everything you need for the journey. Consider the size based on the length of your trips. A 50-65 liter pack is usually ideal for beginners, and experienced hikers/ultralight hikers can sometimes go with 35-45 liters. Look for features like adjustable straps, multiple compartments, and durable material for a comfortable and efficient backpacking experience. In the thru-hiking world, favorite brands and models include the  Hyperlite Packs, ULA Circuit, Gossamer Gear Mariposa, Osprey Exos, Lite AF Gear Curve, Atom Packs Atom +, REI Flash, and Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra.

2. Shelter

Your shelter is your home away from home, providing protection from the elements and a cozy restful space after a long day of hiking. Tents (freestanding and non-freestanding) are a popular choice for their versatility, but hammocks and tarps are also great options for certain environments. Consider the weight, ease of setup, and weather resistance when choosing your shelter. Some common shelters currently in the thru-hiking world include Durston X-Mid 1, Zpacks Duplex, Big Agnes Copper Spur, Big Agnes Tiger Wall, Tarptent Double Rainbow, Tarptent Notch Li, Gossamer Gear The One, and the Nemo Hornet.

3. Sleeping Bag Or Quilt

A good night’s sleep is crucial for an enjoyable backpacking experience. Choose a sleeping bag or quilt based on the expected temperature range of your trips. Look for a lightweight, compressible option with a temperature rating suitable for the climates you’ll encounter. Popular sleeping bags and quilts include the Enlightened Equipment Enigma, Enlightened Equipment Revelation, Katabatic Flex, Katabatic Alsek, Zpacks Solo, UGQ Bandit, and Western Mountaineering Versalite.

4. Sleeping Pad

Don’t underestimate the importance of a comfortable sleeping pad! It provides insulation from the cold ground and adds an extra layer of comfort. Choose an inflatable or foam pad based on your preferences and the terrain you’ll be sleeping on. Some thru-hiker favorite brands include Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite, Therm-a-Rest XTherm, Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol, Nemo Tensor Insulated, Nemo Switchback, and the Sea To Summit Ether.


How to Choose

Remember, the goal is to find the right balance between weight, comfort, and durability. Test your gear before hitting the trail to ensure everything works seamlessly together.

When selecting your Big 4 items, consider your personal preferences, the climate of your destination, and the duration of your trips. Research different brands, read reviews, and don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations from experienced backpackers (like us here in the THRU-r community!). We have special events including new and experienced hiker Q&A’s, Hiker Happy Hours, and more listed on our Events page – so feel free to enter the conversations. We also have an exclusive online membership (free for new and experienced long-distance hikers) with a forum – like a nice version of Reddit – and some unique ways to connect with other long-distance hikers in your area.

So what do you think?! Let us know your thoughts by commenting here in the blog, on Instagram, on Threads, on our YouTube, and/or write us at info@thru-r.com – we always love to hear from hikers.

Happy trails, and may your adventures be filled with breathtaking views and unforgettable experiences!

– Cheer

THRU-r founder and Triple Crowner, Cheer, in Colorado along the CDT

(Connect with me @cheer in our private member area or comment below if you have any questions!)