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Like everything with backpacking, the decision on how much weight you should carry is personal and depends on your backpacking goals as well as each specific trip.
Most beginners will carry around 30 to 35 pounds for their first few trips (including the pack itself). As you gain more experience and upgrade gear, your weight will likely decrease to around 30 to 32 pounds.
Some backpackers stay around the 30 pound mark while others strive to get their weight as low as possible.
There’s a lot to consider when thinking about pack weight and it helps to understand some of the history.
A Bit of Background
When you think about how much weight you should carry backpacking, you have to understand a bit of backpacking history.
As a friend likes to reminisce, back in the day, packs were easily 50 to 60 pounds with external frames and stuffed with heavy equipment. Undeterred, backpackers made due and had great adventures, although many will tell you they now have bad backs and damaged knees.
Fast forward to today and through-hiking has become a sport with thousands attempting to tackle the Appalachian Trail every year, many of whom are vying to become the next big podcast or blogger. They highlight their new equipment and hint at the super-secret gear they’re testing.
Everyone is talking about how low they can go with weight.
“I’m down to 12 pounds with food and water.”
“Really? I made it to 10 pounds. I don’t need a tent or a sleeping bag.”
You start reading about the new gear and looking at your sleeping bag, beginning to hate it for being three pounds.
Visions of being an outdoor badass, sleeping under the stars with just your pack as your pillow run through your head.
“I can do this”, you think. “I can go out with nothing but the true survival essentials.”[Insert scratching record noise here]
You begin to realize that you’re looking at hundreds of dollars in updated equipment, you’re going to get eaten alive by mosquitos, and you kind of like your tent.
So the question remains, does pack weight matter?
The answer is yes. And no. Confused? So is everyone else.
What About the Rule You Shouldn’t Carry More than 20% of Your Body Weight?
Argh, the 20% myth. If I hear someone say that your pack should not exceed more than 20% of your body weight again, I’m going to lose it. That’s bunk.
Think about this for a second. This is saying a 150 pound healthy person should not carry more than 30 lbs., but it’s also saying that a 300 pound, not so healthy person can carry up to 60 lbs.
Like most everything else in life, you shouldn’t really use body weight when calculating what a person can and cannot do.
A Deeper Dive into Weight
Let’s look at what you’re really carrying up a mountain. For ease of math, say you weigh 150 pounds and are carrying a 30-pound pack.
That’s 20% additional weight you’re hauling up mountains and across rims. You’re effectively taking 180 pounds up that mountain.
If you drop 5 pounds, which isn’t that difficult to do, the pack decreases to 25 pounds. You’re now at 16.7% additional weight, less than a 5% drop.
You’ll notice the difference, but you’re still lugging 175 pounds up the mountain.
In order to get down to only 10% additional weight, or 165 pounds total, you have to drop 15 pounds from your pack, aka half the current pack weight.
That’s hard to do without specialized gear and no luxury items.
Pros and Cons for Going Light or Ultralight
The pros of lightening your pack include: Easier hiking and more fun with less weight to carry, less short and long term impact on your body.
The cons of lowering your pack weight include: Expensive gear upgrades, less luxury in camp (which some may say is a pro).
Should I Not Worry About How Much Weight to Carry Backpacking?
Now don’t get me wrong, even beginners with less expensive equipment should not be above 30 to 35 pounds.
I would question anyone creeping towards 40 pounds and want to take a look at their pack.
At the end of the day though, if they just had heavy equipment or were adamant they have to change their shirt every day, and they can carry the weight, then I say go for it.
The easiest way to sort out how much weight to carry backpacking is to ask yourself, what are my backpacking goals?
Who Are You and What Trip Are You Taking?
You enjoy weekend trips with less than ten miles per day with the goal of exploring, getting away, and hanging out at camp with a cup of tea.
Your mornings are slower as you savor your piping hot coffee.
The extra weight of a luxury item, or a heavier sleeping bag, or extra clothes, may be something you’re willing to carry.
You’re out to pound the miles and push yourself to the limit hiking 20+ miles per day.
At camp, you’re awake before 6 am and out on the trail by 6:30. You don’t have time to sit and enjoy coffee, you have miles to hike.
You don’t need the creature comforts, hanging out at camp isn’t your focus.
Investing in ultralight gear like a Hyperlite Mountain Gear tent to lower those pounds may be your preference.
Packing for a three-day trip will be different versus packing for a five or seven-day trip.
You’ll be carrying more food and will likely find yourself taking a hard look at whether that coffee cup is really needed or you’ll just drink out of your pot.
You may also think about using clothing for extra insulation at night if necessary rather than a sleeping bag liner.
What I do
I tend to be a bit in the middle, but definitely closer to backpacker 1.
While I can get down to 26 pounds, my average for a weekend trip is usually 28. This includes everything: water, food, electronics, wallet, knife, et cetera.
When it comes to differences depending on the type of trip, I’ll take my Helinox chair zero on shorter, easier trips like South Mountains State Park. If it’s a longer trip, more difficult terrain or longer miles, the chair stays home and I may take a long, hard look at the coffee mug.
I was at 32 pounds at the start of a five-day trip with 7 of those lbs being food, and I’m still not entirely sure how I pulled that off.
All that being said, through experience I know how much weight I can carry and I also know what pack weight makes me happy.
I know I can carry 40+ pounds. It’s a lot easier at 28, but knowing I can do 40 is helpful. My preference is to keep it under 32.
This information helps guide me as I pack for each individual trip.
There’s no magic weight you have to reach.
It’s all about balance. Know what you can carry, know what you’re comfortable carrying, look at the trip plan, and decide on a weight range.
If you’re over what you think you can comfortably do, look for items that can serve multiple purposes and think about what can stay home.
Don’t go crazy.
Enjoy the research into new gear and technology, it’s fun to watch the through-hikers and learn about what they’re doing and the newest ideas and gear.
Upgrade if you really want something, but know yourself and your needs.
If carrying 30 pounds makes hiking miserable and you’re in extreme pain every night, then investing in ultralight equipment may be the best option and don’t apologize for upgrading to the best gear you can find.
If weight isn’t an issue and the best sleeping pad for you is the 1 pound 4 ounce super insulated, 4 inches of padding, comes with a pump and you sleep all night with no pain or issues pad, then carry it.
I can tell you from personal experience that a casual backpacker (backpacker 1) and an ultra-lighter (backpacker 2) can co-exist, and even have a lot of fun, on the trail with a little compromise from both sides. It’s all about mutual respect.
Be honest with yourself and invest in the gear that works for you and provides the best experience.
It’s your hike. Hike it your way.