HOW MUCH WEIGHT SHOULD YOU CARRY BACKPACKING

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 do 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] 

The Reality

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.    

Backpacking requires you to be honest with yourself. If you struggle carrying over 30 pounds you have two options, lower the weight, or start a training program. Either option is fine. At the end of the day, it’s your hike, your trip, you’re the one that has to be happy.

A Deeper Dive into Weight

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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 of 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, and 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 have seen a lot of new backpackers on their first trip sporting 37 pounds. Generally, I don’t worry about this on a first trip as it will likely be your heaviest weight. You don’t know if you want a long or short-sleeve shirt to sleep in 50-degree weather yet, so you’re bringing extra items and testing. That’s fine. 

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 older, heavier equipment because they wanted to test the waters first, and they can carry the weight, then I say go for it.

I’ve also got some easy tips for lowering that backpack weight without going crazy.

The easiest way to sort out how much weight to carry backpacking is to ask yourself a few questions.

  • What type of backpacker am I?
  • What is the terrain for my trip?
  • How many days is my trip?

What Type of Backpacker Are You?

Backpacking to Enjoy the Location

You enjoy weekend trips with a max of 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.

Pounding the Miles Backpacker

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. 

What is the Terrain of Your Trip? 

Terrain matters. If you’re going to hike rough terrain, encounter difficult rock scrambles, and steep elevation gains, then you’re going to back differently.

If I know there will be several steep climbs on a trip, I may lighten my pack a bit. I do this by leaving the 1-pound chair, coffee mug, and a few other luxury items behind.

If it’s easy, relatively flat terrain, or somewhere I’m comfortable, I’ll pack on the comfort.

Packing for a Three-Day Trip versus a Five-Day Trip versus a Seven-Day Trip

Packing for a three-day trip versus a five-day trip versus a seven-day trip will have some difference, but not much.

The two main areas where you’ll be carrying more are clothing and food. Not only will you need food for more days, but as you hike for longer periods of time, you’ll need more calories than usual.

I try to keep the food weight low by carrying freeze-dried and dehydrated dinners and breakfasts. I often make my own food and dehydrate it. This way I know what’s in there and it’s good food.

Three-Day Trip

On a three-day trip, I don’t usually worry about emergency clothing unless it’s going to be cold weather and hypothermia is a concern. In most temperate weather, clothes can be fixed with a little duct tape or I’ll wear my sleep clothes out.

You’ll also find that as you eat, the pack weight goes down, and on a three-day trip that’s going to happen quickly. Since you’re toting less weight, you also may not need as much food.

Five-Day and Seven-Day Trips

With a longer trip, things are different. On these trips you may want an extra short-sleeved shirt and shorts, choosing the lightest shirt and shorts you own. They don’t have to be hiking clothes, these are emergency clothes. You can layer them under your rain gear if you need to, or wear them over your sleep clothes.

You won’t want to wear in-field repaired clothing for five or seven days, and you can’t risk your sleep clothes for that amount of time.

For longer trips, you’ll also need more food, and it’s going to take a while before you eat enough to feel the weight difference. As the days pile on, you’ll become hungrier, needing more calories which is also adding to your weight.

On longer trips, you’ll want to take a good look at your coffee mug, chair, air pillow, and electronics.

How to Weigh Your Gear

Please listen to this – Do NOT compare your pack weight to anyone else’s or feel bad that a friend is at 20 pounds and you are at 30 pounds. You have no idea what they actually weighed or how they weighed it.

The only reason to weigh your pack is for you to understand what weights are comfortable for the trips you go on. You want to become familiar with how much you’re carrying.

Ultimately, you’ll begin to understand your preferred weights for certain trips. That’s the goal. And that’s the only reason to weigh your pack.

Why You Can’t Compare Your Pack Weight to Someone Else

In a nutshell, you have no idea what weight they’re giving you or how they determined that weight.

Some people are giving you their base weight. This means their gear without food or water. However, they may still be missing a few things.

A few questions I love to ask people who say they’re at 20 pounds and declare that’s full weight.

  • Are you including water? What about food?
  • Did you account for the weight of the pack itself?
  • What about your phone, charger, wallet, lip balm, knife, and all the stuff you added after you weighed the pack?
  • Are you counting all the items you strapped to yourself that aren’t in your pack, like the camera around your neck and your fanny pack?

Then I like to know how they weighed their pack.

Calculating Weight Using a Spreadsheet

Some folks have a spreadsheet with how much each piece of gear weighs and they’re totaling it mathematically.

The problem with this is that you have to actually weigh each item to create the sheet. You can’t go by manufacturer information because that’s an average. Your gear could be slightly higher or lower.

You’ll also find that most people tend to forget things like the backpack itself, phone, wallet, charger, cords, headlamp, etc. You get the idea.

Using a Bathroom Scale

I’m guilty of doing this in the past. You weigh yourself, then put on your pack and weigh again. The difference is the pack weight.

Well, not exactly. The problem here is that a scale is designed to calculate weight assuming the platform is pressed evenly. The pack makes you back heavy, so the platform doesn’t depress evenly.

You can test this. Stand on your scale and shift your weight to your toes. Then shift to your heels. The weight is different.

The main issue with this method is you can’t even compare trip to trip. The more weight in the pack, the more off the output.

The Best Way to Check Pack Weight – The Luggage Scale

This is, in my opinion, the best way to weigh your gear. While it may not be 100% accurate, it’s consistent, allowing you to compare trip to trip.

I put everything in my pack before weighing it. This means food, water, Garmin inReach, my hat on the back, my wallet, everything. Then I weigh it.  If I think it’s too much for the trip, I’ll start paring down.

How an Experienced Backpacker Packs

I tend to be an “In it for the Experience and Location” backpacker.

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 also know exactly which clothes I need for the type of weather I’m encountering. Lastly, I found a windbreaker is the perfect lightweight item to keep the clothing weight down. Think of it as a technical long-sleeve shirt. They weigh almost nothing yet provide warmth on spring evenings, and insulate on cooler hikes.

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.   

Summary

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 all types of backpackers 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.

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11 Responses

  • Ah I have the travel bug so bad right now and it’s so hard since we can’t go anywhere. This definitely made me want to start planning my next big trip! Thanks for sharing

  • I loved that you talked about how to pack for a backpacking trip. Recently, one of my friends mentioned he’s organizing a getaway weekend for all the boys. They want to do some hunting and exploring, so I’ll be sure to read your piece carefully, and I know it’d help me get ready for the trip! Thanks for the advice on how much stuff to pack for an excursion.

    • Hi Andy — Good question. I assume 2 liters of water in the weights – so 4.4 lbs of water. When I first started, I had this insanely heavy sleeping bag at 3.5 lbs and carrying “camp shoes” that were heavy so I was at 37 lbs. I went to Target and got the lightest pair of teva knock offs I could find and switched to a down quilt. That dropped me to 33 easy. Then I streamlined clothing, started dehydrating my own food, and got a titanium pot. Overall, I’m usually at 27-28 for summer and 28-30 for winter.

  • Thanks for a realistic and practical discussion on pack weight. I’d googled “ideal pack weight” and got the “20%” rule 1st, then your article 2nd. Your’s makes much more sense, is far more realistic and shows the thinking that needs to go into packing, not a defined number. Having just returned from a 3 day trip with what I thought was a too heavy pack, but from which I used everything, your article was probably the ideal thing to read upon my return. Yes I could reduce the weight, but I shouldn’t do it if it reduces my enjoyment of my travels. My take away from your article is pack as light as you can to enjoy it as much as you can, which I think is a great guide to use, so thank you very much !! 🙂

    • Thanks Steve. I’m glad you had a great trip and felt you packed appropriately. The ultralight/golight crowd can really erode confidence and make you think you’re doing something wrong. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and hype of “getting down to 15 lbs”. Honestly – I’ve been in a 1 person single wall tent and did not like it. Saving weight wasn’t worth the bad sleep from continually trying to stay away from the wall which was full of condensation.

  • Great article, thank you! The voice of reason amongst so much online information that can sometimes deter rather than encourage newbies to get out there. I last backpacked 32 years ago & this weekend my dog & I a red off on our first adventure to Dartmoor, Devon, UK 😎

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