Backpack weight is a frequent area of concern for many day hikers and backpackers, especially for beginners who tend to overpack out of caution. But there’s no right or wrong answer in terms of the ideal pack weight because it depends a great deal on where you’re backpacking, how long you plan to be out, what you’re goals are, and how much money you want to budget on gear and supplies.
While people who tell you that “successful backpacking depends on carrying the least amount of weight possible” are trying to be helpful, they never seem to take into account your needs and desires, the demands of the terrain and weather where you plan to hike, trip length, what your goals are, or how much disposable income you have to spend on gear. Ignore them. While a lower weight pack weight helps, plenty of people have been very successful backpackers when carrying heavier pack weights.
You can’t learn backpacking from a book, asking for advice on Facebook, or by watching youtube videos. It’s a trial and error process, where you learn by doing and experimenting. Sometimes you miss the mark, but that’s all part of the experience. Good backpackers learn how to cope with adversity and still have a good time. If I always had the same objectives, carried the same gear, and never varied my routine, it’d get pretty boring. Every trip is different and your pack weight and contents are bound to vary between trips as well.
If there’s one piece of sage advice I’d impart, it’d be to do some low mileage shakedown trips when you’re just getting started, either day hiking or backpacking, that are less strenuous and where you can bail if things don’t work out. While it’s human nature to bite off way more than one can chew, try to be kind to yourself. Plan a shorter route, work on your physical conditioning, practice using your gear or making camp, and smell the roses. You can build on those early experiences and establish a good foundation for moving forward. You may even save a lot of money by figuring out what you like and don’t like before you pour money down the drain.
Tweak the Variables
If you need a ballpark number to shoot for, aim for a total load of 30 pounds including all your gear, water, and food. If it’s more than that don’t sweat it. You can get stronger and carry that weight, hike slower or cover less distance, jettison things you don’t need before your trip, or buy down your gear weight if you can afford it. There are a lot of variables to tweak.
If you do manage to get your gear weight (minus water, food, and other “consumables”) down to the 10 lbs that ultralight backpackers aim for, that’s fine, but it’s certainly not a necessity. It really depends on your goals, your route and its demands, and your financial means. After a few trips, you’ll begin to establish an equilibrium between those variables that will determine the weight of your backpack for any given trip. That is unless you win the lottery. Then you can hire someone to carry your backpack for you!
Very good article !!!
I help an accomplished backpacker (he completed 4 – or is it 5? – thru-hikes, plus other major trails) teach beginner courses. He asked me to write down my “rules” for gear selection for a handout we use in that course, I think they’re remarkably close to your comments. Here’s what I came up with:
When choosing gear, remember: it’s the trip, not the gear, that matters. Your gear should become so convenient that its use becomes second nature.
The first (and maybe only) rule in selecting gear for a specific trip is, “If you really need it, take it.” As you choose your gear, you should ask yourself 3 questions about everything you consider taking:
1. Is it essential to keep me safe? Putting yourself at risk is not the way to lighten your pack. Your gear must keep you warm, dry, fed, and hydrated under the worst conditions you expect.
2. Is it functional? The lightest piece of gear may not be the one you need. For example, I once had a mini-tool that did a number of things poorly. I replaced it with a knife, scissors, and tweezers that worked.
3. How much does it weigh? Weight is the last question in the list on purpose and is considered only after you’ve determined that you really need (or want) that piece of gear, and that it functions for the situations you’ll be in. Also, you need to decide if it fits into your budget.
Our packs represent the sum of our fears, in the form of the “just in case” items we carry in them. Next time you unpack, put the things you used (and unused essentials like rain gear and a first aid kit) in a pile. Put the things you didn’t use (your unrealized fears) in another pile – and don’t take that pile next time. Then reduce the first pile by removing luxuries or modifying your technique.
Your gear selection should be driven by the way you backpack: where, when, and how. For example, I’m a recreational hiker, not a long-distance hiker. I rarely backpack for more than 3 nights at a time, don’t go when prolonged rain is forecast, and don’t go when temperatures below 30 degrees or over 80 degrees are forecast. I’m in my 70’s and can’t comfortably handle the 30-45 pound loads I used to carry. I want to hike into my 80’s, so I need to minimize stress on my knees and hips whenever possible. Therefore, I tend to select gear that is very much on the light side, but I’m not hard-core “ultralight.” Andy is a thru-hiker, with different goals and needs – and his gear not that different from mine, but his load is much heavier because he hikes in all kinds of weather and needs to carry a lot more food than I do.
Your goal is to strike the balance of function, weight, and cost (in that order) that’s right for you. If you need a shopping rule: “Light, inexpensive, good – pick 2.”
Pack weight is just a way to quantify pain – but carrying a load doesn’t have to be painful if you pay attention to how much you can comfortably carry. Most people can carry a fourth of their “normal” body weight comfortably. You can find Body Mass Index (BMI) charts that classify your weight as “normal” or “overweight” on the Center for Disease Control website (www.cdc.gov) by searching “Body Mass Index” Your real load includes your gear, supplies, and excess body weight. For example, my BMI normal weight is 170 pounds, so I shouldn’t carry more than 45 pounds. I’m 5 pounds over that normal weight, so my pack shouldn’t weigh more than 40 pounds. (I usually carry no more than half of that.)
There’s some oversimplification there (a lot, actually), but it seems to help the beginners we teach.
An interesting discussion. I have been skinny all my life and every BMI plot shows me right on the line between normal and underweight, yet I can carry an average pack weight. Logic might suggest that my unimpressive muscles should manage less than average weights and that lower than average body weights ought to be put into the calculation.
I think that “formula” for pack-weight-to-body-weight is an antiquated folk tale. Hunters, trail crews, smoke jumpers, firemen, construction workers, and the military carry much heavier loads all the time. I wouldn’t take it too seriously.
Keep in mind that BMI was developed as an average of people’s weights not as a prescription for what people’s weights should be (a very common misconception). Insurance companies ran with the idea that BMI is prescriptive but that is in fact very much not true.
One thing that has been forgotten in the conversation is the size of the pack and related to that what weight the pack is designed to carry. Its one thing to have a 60 liter bag carrying 25 pounds and another for it to carry 50 pounds. As bags reach and exceed their design capacity the way they ride on your shoulders and back changes. Sometimes adjusting straps will help and sometimes not. At least this is what I’ve found.
I agree Pete. A 35L pack with a hip belt and rigid back for support will be able to carry much more weight than a 35L pack that is just straps and has poor back support. Yes, the hip belt and back support add weight, but it is critical infrastructure to support even more weight.
Hi Philip! Awesome article, I love the breakdown. It really is a personal choice. I get a lot of criticism and questions about my pack weight since I pack heavier than most.
The most recent comment I received was about joint pain. It was suggested to me that carrying a heavy backpack (30 lbs) might result in knee pain later in life. You’ve met hikers of all sorts, do you think there’s any correlation between heavy packs and knee pain? Is this something I should be worried about in my early 30s, with so much hiking yet ahead of me? What can be done about it without breaking my budget?
Hope to run into you out on the trails again soon!
That’s crazy. First off 30 lbs isn’t a huge amount of weight and second, there are a lot of other ways that people use to screw up their knees. Strong glutes, hamstrings, and quads are actually preventative of knee problems later in life.
I think it’s a personal thing. When I was young, I never learned to ride a bike and so I walked everywhere. I give that partial credit for me still walking on original-equipment knees at 71, after almost 40 years of backpacking – although the last year or two I’ve been getting occasional complaints from them. (And, due to work and family life, my later years were still active, but not as active as my youth.) I always tended to pack lighter than my buddies, but I still remember carrying 40 pounds for a weekend and 50 for a week. Now lighter weight gear (a pack between 15-20 pounds) is just a way to squeeze a few more miles out of the original knees and joints (including shoulder joints – heavy loads (above 60 pounds) can also lead to rotator cuff issues, according to a couple of books I’ve read.
If you want to reduce your pack, start by analyzing your technique. If you simplify from a simmer-and-stir, multi-dish menu, you don’t need two pots, a cup, a mixing spoon, an eating spoon, and a plate. Stick with quick-cook, single pot meals, and you can quit carrying most of the kitchen kit. If you use a filter, and “camel up” at water stops, you can carry one liter instead of two (or two instead of three), and save 2 pounds. Do that kind of thing first – you’d be surprised how much weight you can save without spending a cent.
But never, ever let anyone make you feel bad about your pack’s weight – you need to carry what is needed to keep you warm, dry, fed, and hydrated in a way that’s functional and convenient for you, not for someone else.
Mostly, though, I agree with Phillip – 30 pounds isn’t that heavy, and at 30, I can’t see that it will do any significant long-term damage. If you’re lucky enough to hike often and keep your leg muscles in shape throughout your life (I couldn’t), you should be fine.
I forgot to mention: my pack weight recently increased by a pound, when I added a Helinox Chair Zero to my standard load. Why would I do that? Because my first trip after my 71st birthday rudely convinced me that I can no longer sit comfortably on rocks, logs, or hard ground or leaning against a tree – I decided a true chair had moved from the category of “luxury” to “necessity,” and I’ve been happily carrying that chair ever since.
I will be 80 in May and still carry a 35 to 40 lb pack without it being an issue. I have had a knee and hip replaced due to over 30 years of long distance running. While those joints are not as good as the original equipment, they work pretty well. I am working on lightening my load a little, but I always want to be warm and comfortable. I have yet to find a really lightweight pack that feels as comfortable as my Osprey Aether with the weight I carry. I am not a thru hiker.
I met a fellow out hiking today who said “people are always complaining about how much their pack weighs, but the reality is that carrying it will make you stronger. Isn’t that the point!”
While I like lightweight gear and promote it, I often carry more weight than the minimum necessary. It’s not a big deal as far as I’m concerned. It might be if I had to carry 20 more lbs, but really a 25 lb load isn’t going to kill me.
Great article Philip–and Glenn, thanks for your comment, which is virtually an article itself: a two-fer. I appreciated that you basically countered ounce-shaming. Quantifying pain is also quantifying pleasure. Over about 10 years I’ve cut my pack weight in half, just working along on it, doing the kinds of things you’ve mentioned. Packing my own pack, so I can hike my own hike!
If you hike alone you need to carry all the gear you need. But if you hike with a friend or group you can share equipment. How many tents, first aid kits, cook pots, stoves, water filters, batteries, etc does a group need. Sharing can save a couple of pounds per person and builds camraderie.
You’re right, although I’ve rarely, if ever, done that – and neither have any of my friends. Our trips end up being solo trips taken together, with each carrying his own complete set of gear. I suppose I could claim to justify the practice by saying that it provides redundancy in case of gear failure, or means that if anyone gets separated from the group, that person has a complete set of gear – but the real truth is that we just like to play with our toys. :)
And yes, this is contrary to reducing consumerism which is a worthy goal. I’ve gone through a lot – a whole lot – of gear in my life; my only “justification” is that I’ve lowered other people’s consumerism because my lightly-used, nearly-new discard gear has all gone to other hikers, who didn’t then have to buy new gear. (Rationalization, along with compound interest, are two of the most profound human inventions!)
Terrific advice on taking it easy on your first couple of overnight trips!
I’d like to also make a plug for borrowing, renting or buying used gear before spending anything on new equipment. Leave No Trace can start at home with lowering your impact on the environment through reducing consumption. I’ve rented bear cans from REI and picked up perfectly good stuff from GearTrade, eBay and REI’s used outlet. Consider giving second hand gear another trip to the mountains. You’ll likely save a few bucks in the process too.
I love it when experience, practical knowledge, outdoor wisdom, and honesty all come together, in one place…very nice work.
It seems obvious, but deciding if you want to be happier while hiking or at camp can greatly affect your decisions on what to pack
Not sure happier is the right word.
The second paragraph is great. The ultralight movement has really helped me lighten my load significantly, but I have good reasons (I think) for ignoring the lightest options sometimes. A wider pad, a warmer quilt, a modular (double-wall) tent, a decent layer that will actually keep me warm etc etc. Some of these “ultralight full comfort” load outs would not be full comfort for me, and might not be comfortable for many in my neck of the woods.