The question of how to find your ideal backpacking weight is one that many people ask themselves. It’s a difficult task, and there are many factors involved in finding out what you need for optimal hiking efficiency! In this article I will teach you everything from starting with an appropriate base level of gear (and why it’s important), as well tips on reducing all those pesky pounds once they’ve been packed away properly so we can get down some real numbers.
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What’s Your Ideal Backpacking Weight?
I don’t know about you, but when I go backpacking, I like to travel light. it doesn’t always work out that way though. Hey, I try! But what is the ideal backpack weight? That’s a tough question to answer, because what might be light for one person could be too heavy for another. So how do you figure out what’s right for you?
There are a lot of recommendations for the “ideal backpacking weight”. 20 percent of your body weight is a popular one. I feel like using a percentage as a hard number for your perfect pack weight is a good starting point but may be a bit misleading. Let’s look at it like this. Hiker 1 is an active, physically fit, gym goer who weighs 180 pounds. Hikers 1’s ideal backpacking weight, using the 20% rule, would be 36 pounds. Hiker 2 is not so active, rarely does “real” exercise, but is an outdoor lover who loves to backpack. Hiker 2 also weights 180 pounds. Their ideal weight is also 36 pounds.
With a 36 pound pack, both of these hikers would be hauling 216 pounds plus clothing weight on their adventure. Hiker 1 is probably going to have a much easier time carrying 20 percent of his body weight than hiker 2 is.
Using the percent rule is a good baseline, but you also need to take into consideration your fitness level. I started out like hiker 2. My pack was 1 pound over my 20 percent mark. I struggled so hard on my first backpacking trip. Going up even easy hills had me out of breath and struggling harder than I needed to be.
Try starting with the 20 percent rule, and wearing your pack on walks through your neighborhood, up hills at your local park, or even around your house while you’re doing chores. Pay attention to things like your breathing rate, your heart rate, and how you generally feel. Are your muscles getting tired after only a few hours? Are you getting out of breath easily? You may need to reduce your pack weight a bit.
Finding Your Pack Weight
The first thing you need to do when reducing pack weight is know what your current load looks like. There are a few different ways of weighing out gear, so choose whichever one best suits the needs for measuring yours!
Luggage Scale or Fishing Scale These are pretty popular for their ease of use. If your gear has a strap or hook or loop, just hang it on the scale’s hook to see the weight. If your gear doesn’t have anywhere to attach the hook, put the item in a bag and tare, or zero, the scale to weigh it.
Kitchen Scale Look for ones that have a large surface area. If you already have one and need to expand the surface area, laying a thin board across the top and zeroing works great.
Bathroom Scale. This is not the easiest way to weigh your gear and many times, each single item won’t weigh enough to register. But it’s a pretty simple way to weigh your final pack weight. You’ll weigh yourself, then weigh yourself again with your fully loaded pack and subtract to find the difference, which will be your pack weight. Example: Your weight: 150. Weight with pack: 177. So 177-150= A pack weight of 27 pounds.
Factors That Effect Pack Weight
Seasons. In warmer seasons, you won’t need heavy clothing like you would in the winter. Likewise, in winter, you’ll need a warmer, read: heavier, sleeping bag than in summer.
Length of Backpacking Trip. You’re going to want to more food and probably need more fuel for a 3 day trip than a single overnight. Same goes for water, though water can be worked around if you’re in an area with a reliable water source.
Weather. In dry months, you may not need to pack full protective rain gear. In the winter, you may need to haul along warmer, heavier clothes or wear heavier boots that keep your feet warm.
Level of Comfort. This is the weight that comes from items you may not need but want to take. Items such as a book, extra clothing beyond what the 10 essentials call for, or a coffee maker could all be lumped into this category. Comfort level also includes literal comfort. Do you need an extra thick sleeping pad to get a good night’s sleep? Do you need extra clothing to stay comfortably warm? Can you sleep without a pillow, or do you have to one? All these things can alter your backpacking weight.
Backpacking Base Weight
Starting with a good base weight will help build the foundation of a good pack weight. But… what is base weight? Simply put, base weight is the weight of all your gear minus the things you’ll use up or consume, so food , water, and, fuel.
Base weight shouldn’t be confused with the “Big 3” of backpacking ; shelter, sleeping bag, and pack. Though, the Big 3 will come up later in this post because it’s got a lot of potential in reducing pack weight easily.
How to Reduce Backpacking Weight
With so many factors weighing in on your pack weight, you may be asking “Where do I even start?”. It’s pretty simple to get started with dropping down to your ideal backpacking weight. If you followed the last paragraph and weighed your gear, you’re already started! If you haven’t yet weighed your gear, that is the first thing you need to do. Weigh each item and log the weights on LighterPack. This is going to be your most valuable tool.
LighterPack is a useful website for keeping track of your gear weight and packed weight. After adding gear and their weights, you get a nice chart showing how your weight is dispersed. This can give you a good idea of which categories you need to start reducing weight in.
Reducing Base Weight
As a backpacker, one of the most important decisions you make is what to pack in your backpack. Packing too much can be cumbersome and lead to a heavy load, while packing too little can leave you underprepared for the journey ahead. So how do you determine your ideal base weight? This is the weight of your pack without food, water, or fuel. To reduce your base weight, you’ll need to carefully consider each item you bring with you and what items you can do without. Here are some tips on how to reduce your base weight and hike with ease.
- The Big Three, pack, shelter, and sleeping bag, are most likely where a majority of your total backpacking pounds can be found. Reducing the weight of one or more of these gear items can shave substantial pounds off.
- Go for a lighter weight shelter. A tent that uses your trekking poles instead of tent poles could save you quite a bit of weight. Even better is using a tarp shelter. The Hilleberg Tarp 10 UL weighs just 1.5 pounds (25 oz) and utilizes your trekking poles to set it.
- Making your own tent footprint can help you shave a little weight. Painters cloth or Tyvek house wrap are popular options for doing this. Just cut the material a little smaller than the outline of your tent.
- Switch to a down sleeping bag. Down is lighter and compresses well to save on both weight and space. The NEMO Forte 20 is a synthetic bag, and it’s compressed volume is 11.7 liters, weight for a regular bag is 53 ounces. The Nemo Riff 15 is a down bag, with a compressed volume of 9.5 liters and a weight of 47 ounces, also for the regular sized bag.
- To reduce shelter weight, you can ditch the tent stakes and use rocks or logs to hold your tie outs.
- If you REALLY want to reduce shelter weight and the weather cooperates, you can try cowboy camping. Cowboy camping is sleeping under the stars with or without a sleeping bag, without a shelter.
- Repackage things like sunscreen, lotion, and toothpaste into a smaller container. Contact lens cases work wonders for this, and they’re really cheap.
- Remove food from it’s original packaging and use sandwich baggies.
- Try ditching the stuff sacks and “repackaging” your gear right into your pack. Just stuff it into the bottom of your bag.
Reducing Consumables Weight
- Drink up when you’re at a water source to reduce the water weight you need to carry. Figure out how far away your next water source is and carry just what you need plus a little bit extra to get you there.
- When packaging your meals, you can save some weight by not packaging each serving in it’s own package. If you’ll be eating the same thing more than once, keep it in the same package and take out what you need when it’s time to eat.
- If you use a water bladder, consider replacing it with a bottle or two. A Camelback Crux 2L Bladder weighs 7 ounces. Add the 2L of water weight (35.2 oz) and you’re at a weight of 42.2 oz. A 1L SmartWater bottle weighs just 1.2 oz when empty. If you carried two of those to match the Camelbacks water capacity, with water weight you’d be at 37.6oz. A weight savings of around a quarter pound!
- Plan meals you don’t have to cook. Cold soak meals make needing a stove obsolete.
- Plan to pack calorie dense foods. You won’t need to pack as much, and you’ll get the most bang for the weight in terms of energy.
- Look for food that’s in pouches versus canned foods. The cans and (usual) water inside adds a lot of weight.
- If you own or can borrow one, a dehydrator can help drop food weight. Dehydrating your own food is easier than it sounds, and the weight savings can be huge.
- Do a post trip inventory. Do you have a lot of leftover food? Now you’ll have a better idea of how much food you’ll really need and can save that weight on your next outing.
Your Camp Kitchen Doesn’t Have to Weigh a Ton
- Reduce the weight of your camp kitchen gear by leaving the bowls at home. If it’s just you, you can eat right out of the pot. This also means less dishes to wash 🙂
- Don’t bring a full cutlery set. Before I finally bought camp utensils, a spork from a take out restaurant was what I used. Seriously. They’re free and weigh next to nothing. You can wash and reuse like a “real” utensil from the outdoor store. In fact, I’m sure those sporks weigh less than the utensils I have now.
- Look for lightweight stove options when choosing your backpacking stove. Alcohol stoves are some of the lightest. Wood stoves can reduce weight by eliminating the need to carry fuel, but these only work if you’ll be hiking somewhere you can find the wood to fuel it.
- If you like your morning coffee, instant coffee can be made with just boiling water, eliminating the need for any other gear to prepare it.
Reducing General Backpacking Weight
- Try toothpaste powder instead of the regular stuff.
- If you’ll be going with one or more other people, split your load up between your group.
- Similarly, if you’re going with others, you probably won’t need doubles of some gear items, like a stove. Talk with your group and decide together what items you can share and then divvy them up between yourselves to save a little weight for everyone.
- Cotton holds moisture and it makes it heavy. Did you know cotton can weigh up to 5x more than synthetics? Ditch the cotton and opt for moisture wicking synthetics instead.
- Opt for a lightweight fire starter. Cotton balls dipped in Vaseline weigh little and work great. Dryer lint combined with Vaseline weighs even less but it can be a little messier.
- When planning your trip, check the weather. If there’s zero chance of rain, you don’t need to pack full rain gear. If it’s going to be all overnight low temps of 60 degrees, you probably don’t need to lug along your puffy coat.
- Go for lithium batteries when batteries are needed. They weigh less than other types and last longer.
- If you use a closed cell foam sleeping pad, you can save a few ounces by cutting your pad down. If you want a full length pad, try using your pack under your lower body and the sleeping pad under your torso.
- Reduce the amount of clothing you take. Many thru hikers say to not take doubles of anything except socks. You only need the clothes you’ll hike and cook in and the clothes you’ll sleep in. Air out the clothing you’re not currently wearing for a while or overnight while you sleep.
- Use a trash bag as a pack liner
- Dry out your gear before packing it up. That little bit of condensation can add up to a few ounces of extra weight. take the time to dry off your tent/tarp and any other gear that may have gotten wet before packing it up.
- Think of the little things. Those carabiners might not seem like they weigh much, but add them all together and you could have a few extra ounces you don’t need. The same goes for lighters, a BIC mini weighs less than the full size, and many other small pieces of gear you may not even think about.
- Cut the excess off straps. The adjustable straps on your pack and excess strap on compression sacks can save a couple ounces.
- If you plan on bringing a guidebook, you can save substantial weight by only bringing the pages you need, or by making some copies of those pages.
- Reduce the weight on your feet. There’s a saying that says one pound on your feet is five pounds on your back. Opting for lighter boots or trail shoes can have a big effect on what your ideal backpacking weight is.
- Look for multi use gear items. A bandana for instance has many uses. It can be used as a coffee or water pre-filter, a buff, a sun shade. If you can get multiple uses out of one single item, you’ll have less items you need to pack
- Limit your luxury items. Try to limit yourself to just one thing you don’t actually need on trail.
- Make your own first aid kit. Most commercial kits come with so much stuff you’ll never need or use on trail. Making your own kit will save weight and sometimes money too.
- Instead of bringing whole rolls of tape, like duct tape and medical tape, try wrapping a few strips around things like your trek poles or water bottles.
Some hardcore thru hikers stretch lightweight backpacking to the ultimate limits, doing things like cutting the toes off their shoes. Kudos to them for their creativity, but I don’t think I could go that far to save a few ounces. It got me thinking though, and now I’m curious how far are we really willing to go? How much comfort would you sacrifice to drop your backpacking weight? Let me know in the comments.