Backpack weight is a frequent area of concern for beginner hikers and backpackers. Do you get a big pack and overpack out of caution, or try to minimize pack weight and use a minimalistic approach? We hear this question a lot and there’s really no right or wrong answer! Lots of factors go into determining pack weight. So it’s hard to give an exact weight recommendation for every hiker, but we can give you a good goal to shoot for.
How Much Should a Hiking Backpack Weigh? As a general rule, a fully loaded backpacking pack shouldn’t weigh more than 20 percent of your total body weight and a day pack shouldn’t weigh more than 10 percent of your body weight. This can be hard for very petite backpackers since you can only get your pack weight so low. There are a few more factors that go into the equation like trip duration, personal preference, and season/weather that we’ll get into later.
There’s really no right or wrong answer when it comes to pack weight! It all depends on your personal preference. Just make sure you feel comfortable carrying your pack and you have all the necessary gear/supplies. I’ll go into a few rules that I use to help shed pack weight and go over a few tips for minimizing load.
Day Pack Weight vs Overnight Trips
Most of the tried and true rules about pack weight assume that you’re going on an overnight backpacking trip. You obviously don’t need to carry as much gear on a short day trip.
I rarely carry a full-sized pack on short 5-7 mile hikes. On hot days I might carry my hydration pack, but most of the time I stick to a small fanny pack that holds a water bottle. I like to use the same Nathan Hydration Running Belt that I take trail running. I put a few odds and ends in the zippered compartment, but I’m carrying less than 5 pounds.
On an all day hike I tend to bring my CamelBak Mule Hydration Pack, because I like to bring my camera, lunch, and a light jacket. Honestly, that’s probably overkill for most people. You can get by with a water bottle and small day back like the Osprey Talon 11. At most I’m carrying 10-20 lbs of gear depending on the weather.
On overnight trips you will need a larger pack to carry overnight essentials. This is where the 20% rule comes into play. Your tent, sleep system, and pack will make up more than half your total load. You can shave a few pounds here and there by ditching gear, but there are things like water/food, and cooking gear that you can’t shed.
A 60-70 liter pack is the perfect size for 99% of people going on week long backpacking trips. My 65 Liter Osprey Atmos pack is more than enough space for even the longest trips. 50 Liter packs are perfect for short weekend trips and 3-4 day excursions. You can usually get away with a 50 Liter pack on longer trips if you’re traveling in a group. At just over 3lbs any of the Osprey 50 Liter packs would be the perfect size for most people.
I recommend looking over your gear before the trip and taking out anything that doesn’t seem entirely necessary. You will still end up carrying a bunch of stuff that you never actually use. If you don’t use those items within the first couple of trips it’s time to consolidate and get rid of unnecessary junk.
I like to keep 2 storage containers in my basement. One of them has everything that I really need on each trip and the other has odds and ends that may be useful depending on the situation. You’ll eventually have a bunch of stuff that never gets touched that you can get rid of. The good thing is camping gear seems to hold its value so it can all be sold on Ebay to get money for useful gear.
How Heavy Should a Backpacking Pack Weigh?
Backpackers seem to fall into two camps. Some people think that you need to carry the least amount of weight possible to be a “successful backpacker”. That seems like a great approach, but it doesn’t take your needs and desires into account.
I lean towards the carry as much weight as you’re comfortable with and slowly shed anything that you don’t regularly use. There are a lot of factors that go into determining how much weight I plan on carrying. What are the demands of the terrain? How far is the hike? Who’s traveling with me? What’s the weather going to be? What are my goals? What’s my disposable income like at this moment and can I afford to spend the extra money on lightweight gear?
Buying lightweight/ultralight gear can be ridiculously expensive. I recommend focusing most of your budget on getting a lightweight tent, sleep system, and backpack. Those should be the heaviest items in your pack and you can fill in the gaps as your budget allows. I’ll go into minimizing the weight of each of these items in the sections below.
Ignore anybody that claims you shouldn’t go backpacking if you’re carrying too much weight. While lowering your pack weight helps, plenty of people have gotten into backpacking with cheap heavy gear that seasoned backpackers would scoff at. It’s all about having fun and getting out into the wilderness without going over budget.
Why Should I Reduce My Pack Weight?
There’s one major reason why it makes sense to reduce your pack weight. Carrying extra weight puts a heavy burden on your body. You will hike slower and be more fatigued by the end of the day. Arriving an hour late to camp isn’t that big of a deal, but you don’t want to be sore and blistered on day 1 of a week long backpacking trip.
As a general rule, 1% of your total body weight added to your pack will shave 2 minutes off your mile time. That won’t make much of a difference on short hikes, but it can be a serious drain of energy if you plan on going 15+ miles. It’s still worth backpacking with heavy gear, but you need to give yourself some wiggle room at the end of the day.
A Few Things You Need to Consider Before Settling On A Pack Weight
You can’t take one size fits all approach to backpacking. Some things might be the same, but every trip is different and people have different needs. I may need to take an ultralight approach with some of my friends, but I pack a completely different set of gear when traveling with my wife and son.
You’re the only person that can determine what you may need on a trip. So obviously, I can’t get into every little thing you may need on a trip, but I can go over a few factors that can influence pack weight.
- Personal Preference: This is a big one that’s entirely dependent on the person. Some people value comfort at camp over everything else. They’re willing to carry 5 extra pounds so they can have a nice dinner and have some of the creature comforts that make camping fun. Does carrying a cushy sleeping pad, bag liner, and comfy sleeping bag help you sleep at night? Than it’s worth carrying a few extra pounds throughout the course of the day. Some people like carrying extra socks and different clothes for each day. I fall into the rotating merino wool socks and wearing the same clothes for days on end. It all boils down to personal preference and finding the right balance between pack weight and individual comfort.
- Season: There’s no way to get around carrying extra gear in cold weather. You need a high R-Value sleeping pad, fluffy sleeping bag, and extra change of clothes. At 200lbs I like to keep my full-out pack weight under 50 pounds (25% of my body weight) for a cold weather weekend backpacking trip. This is where body weight really starts to get obvious. My wife’s short and only 140lbs so she has a hard time staying under the 20-25% rule in the winter. We try to share our gear and she still has a hard time dropping below the 35lb mark in the winter.
- Weather Conditions: This kind of falls into the seasonal category, but I’m talking more about rain/mud than cold weather in general. I tend to carry about 5 extra pounds of gear when the weather looks grim. You need to bring rain jackets and extra clothes so you’re comfortable at camp.
Experiment With Different Gear
Most backpackers will tell you that picking out gear and planning your trip is half the fun. I love getting out on the trail, but I don’t get out much in the winter. That’s when I take the time to research and save up to buy new gear. It’s like Christmas morning, once spring rolls around and I get to use everything.
Unfortunately, you can’t learn everything about backpacking from reading a book or asking people for advice. You have to get out onto the trail and start experimenting with different gear. It’s a trial and error approach where you learn from experimenting and trying new things.
Sometimes you miss the mark researching and buying gear. Experienced backpackers learn how to cope with adversity and deal with problems on the fly. You can still have a great time with crappy gear. It’s all about having fun, experimenting with gear, and varying your routine to suit your needs.
Backpacking would get pretty boring if I always stuck to the same routine, used the same gear and never changed things up. Every trip is different and your pack weight and contents should change as you get more experienced.
Tweak Your Load
If you need a ballpark figure to shoot for, I would aim for a total pack weight of less than 30lbs. Don’t worry if you’re carrying more than that. A few days on the trail will build up your muscles and you’ll get used to carrying the extra load. Plus you can always slow down your pace, take extra breaks, and reduce the total distance traveled. There are lots of ways to get over a few extra pounds in your pack. Enjoy the trip and don’t let a few extra pounds ruin the fun.
How To Reduce Pack Weight
It might not seem like it at first, but I can guarantee you’ll see the value in carrying less weight after your first long backpacking trip. Shedding weight will help you travel faster, farther and more comfortably.
Just keep in mind that you don’t want to compromise your safety by skimping on certain items. Ditching things like your first-aid kit, headlamp, knifee and navigation equipment is just plain stupid. With that being said there are a bunch of ways to shed pack weight without compromising. Here’s a simple guide to shed weight without negatively impacting your gear.
- Know Your Base Weight: Your base weight is how much your loaded pack weighs without necessary consumables like food, fuel and water. You have to exclude these items because there amounts will vary from one trip to the next and they also decrease throughout the trip which is a nice added bonus. Everything else that goes into your pack like the tent, sleeping bag, water filter, stove, clothing, etc. should be added up. Knowing this number should give you a consistent number to work on reducing as you buy additional gear. Most traditional backpackers will have a base weight under 30lbs, 20lbs for lightweight, and 10lbs for ultralight.
- Weigh Everything: This might be overkill, but I weigh everything and keep it on an excel spreadsheet. You probably already have a couple items at home like fleece jackets, underwear, shirts, that serve a similar purpose. Weighing everything and choosing the lightest items should shed a few pounds from your pack. I was able to drop 2lbs from my pack by getting rid of the cheap steel tent stakes that came with my tent and switching over to MSR Groundhog stakes. They work better and they were a cheap way to shed extra weight.
- Eliminate Unnecessary Items: You accumulate a lot of junk with any hobby, but backpacking is one of the few times all that extra stuff actually slows you down. I like to take a close look at everything and separate it into categories: items I use a lot, items I use occasionally, and things I rarely use. Try to consolidate all the occasionally used items and buy lighter replacements and get rid of anything you rarely use. Most people overlook the fact that they carry too much food and clothing. Do you really need to bring multiple pairs of pajama pants and extra underwear? Did I eat the entire box of energy bars or can I leave them at home?
- Meal Plan: Plan out all your meals so you don’t end up with leftovers. I like to choose staples that are easy to make and don’t require special tools. Take 30 minutes ahead of your trip to separate each days meals and limit your snacks. It’s wise to carry a little extra food, but make sure it’s calorie dense food that you will definitely eat along the way. Things like energy bars and beef jerky are great snacks while you’re taking a break. I like to stick to 2lbs of food per day on the trail, but I’m a big dude so you might need less.
- Replace Old Gear: It might seem like camping gear has stayed the same over the last couple of decades, but every year lighter gear hits the market. Think about it for a minute. Everybody was carrying steel frame packs when I first started backpacking 25 years ago. Focus first on the 4 heaviest items: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, and pack. Your pack and tent should weigh about 3lbs each (or less for a weekend trip) and then focus on your sleeping bag. It’s hard to give a definite weight for your sleep system, because it’s entirely dependent on the outside temperature.
- Repackage Everything: Put all your consumables in smaller containers and eliminate all the commercial packaging. All my food goes into ziplock bags sorted by the date, and I use travel containers for everything. You should also rethink how you package all your gear. Stuff packs are great for organization, but they add unnecessary weight to the pack. I like to pack anything that can get wet loose into the bottom of my pack. My pack liner (compacter bags work great) keeps it dry, but I don’t want condensation/rain soaking everything else so I still use dry bags for everything else.
- Share Your Load: Spread the load out among your hiking partners. A three person tent will always be lighter than carrying individual tents and you can also share things like cooking supplies, water filters, etc. Distribute everything among everybody in the group. Just make sure you take everybody’s body weight into consideration and let them know what you’ll be sharing before the trip. I still recommend carrying a backup water filter just in case, but I’m a planner. A cheap inline water filter (like the Sawyer Mini) can save your life if you’re separated from the group.
- Get a Gear List: Using a list while you’re packing helps prevent packing unnecessary items. You can find backpacking checklists online so do a quick google search. Just keep in mind that those are only suggestions so adapt the lists and you need. To really save weight, I recommend getting rid of single use items and find alternatives. When was the last time you used a folding camping saw? Maybe you can break sticks over your knee like everybody else.
Think About Buying Used
Backpacking/camping is just like every other hobby. People buy a bunch of gear, go on a few trips, and never think about it again. That sucks for them, but it leads to lots of gently used gear on the secondary market.
I always check on ebay and scout my local goodwill for high quality camping gear. You can save a lot of money and buy lightweight gear that you never would have been able to afford. I just found a used headlamp at Goodwill that would have cost well over $100 new.
Pack Heavy Items On The Bottom
It doesn’t matter how well you pick your gear. Haphazardly cramming everything in your pack without thinking is a recipe for failure. It will result in an unstable uncomfortable load that feels 10lbs heavier than it actually is.
I would start by getting a pack that’s slightly larger than your actual needs so there’s extra room to maneuver your gear. Just don’t fall into the trap of carrying unnecessary junk, because you have extra space. You don’t want to have to strap a bunch of stuff to the outside of your pack. That throws off your load and makes you clumsy on the trail.
Find Your Equillibrium
People tend to go crazy when trying to shed weight from their pack. It’s a never ending rabbit hole that can lead to going way over budget. If you do manage to get under 20lbs to be considered lightweight or 10lbs for ultralight, that’s great, but it’s entirely unnecessary.
Buying and accumulating gear is a marathon, not a sprint. Set your short term goals and try not to go over budget. Trust me, that’s easier said than done. I’ve been known to splurge on stupid stuff at the worst possible time. Looking back I probably shouldn’t have spent half my paycheck on a tent the week after my son was born. I may be stupid, but you don’t have to be.
After a few trips, you will start to establish a baseline and find easy ways to get rid of a little weight. You don’t even need to spend a lot of money at first. Weighing everything and getting rid of unnecessary items will get rid of weight fast.