37

For a multi-day backpacking trip, what is the ideal weight of a backpack?

And what is that max weight that no sane human should go over?

  • 10
    that depends on so many factors... – njzk2 Sep 22 '15 at 21:48
  • 6
    If you have the money, hire someone to carry it for you. Frodo wouldn't have got very far without his Sam, after all. – corsiKa Sep 22 '15 at 22:28
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    @corsiKa - And those pots and pans he carried were made out of iron too. – ShemSeger Sep 23 '15 at 5:58
  • 5
    I used to not worry about 20-25 extra pounds because I could easily handle it. Then I got sick during a hike out of a canyon and suffered from every ounce. I went online the very next day and bought the lightest gear I could afford. Don't do what I did. Plan for your worst case, not your best. – Karl Bielefeldt Sep 23 '15 at 20:32
  • 1
    @Tullochgorum I'd like to see them compared in an actual field test during a winter storm in the mountains of Scandinavia, or during a calm summer night in the mountain birch forests of northern Finland (when one might wake up with the inner mesh covered black with mosquitoes). It looks like this tent you mention doesn't come with poles or even a floor. I can't imagine how well that will fare in wet terrain, or one has to carry a host of extra stuff along to be safe and comfortable, which means comparing mass directly between a complete and an incomplete tent is unfair. It's not California... – gerrit Mar 3 '16 at 11:18

10 Answers 10

29

The ideal weight is zero. The less weight you carry the more you will enjoy your outing.

That being said, one should try to minimize their weight within reason. There exist different schools (Ultralight, super-ultralight, etc.) on what one should carry and how much it should weight.

REI suggest the following categories:

  • minimalist - Under 12 pounds (~5.5kg)
  • ultralight - Around 20 pounds (~9kg)***
  • lightweight - Up to 30 pounds (~13.5kg)
  • plush/deluxe - Over 30 pounds

*** Typically, in the UL community ultra light is defined as under 10 pounds (~4.5kg). With the popularity of the ultra light movements some big manufactures and stores started branding certain equipment as ultralight although they would be considered too heavy by many UL backpackers.

It is easier to compare packing weights by dividing the weight of items which will remain constant over the course of the trip and the ones who will vary such as consumable items (food, water, etc.).

The constant weight is called the base weight. Super Ultralight (SUL) backpackers aim for a base weight of under 5lbs (2.3 kg). Often this is very dependent on the trip location and weather.

On the other extreme, soldiers can carry from 40-90+ lbs (~18–40+kg) on missions.

My subjective suggestion is the following: I would aim for a base weight of under 15 lbs (~6.8 kg). With food and water included I would aim for under 30lbs (~13.5 kg) and at 20 lbs (~9 kg) I'm a happy hiker heading to town.

It's important to bear in mind that water weights 2.2lbs (1 kg) per liter and is a big factor in the total weight. Depending on the availability of reliable water sources your total backpack weight may be greatly affected. Food usually is about 2 lbs (nearly 1 kg) per day. Food and water should make for 50%+ of your weight.

  • 16
    +1: Although I do disagree with the "Less weight more enjoyment" - Speaking from experience, knowing you will be spending another night in a thin sleeping bag on the verge of hypothermia with an empty stomach is much less enjoyable than looking forward to a warm night with a full belly and extra few pounds on you back. – user5330 Sep 22 '15 at 21:37
  • 8
    I presume that statement was strictly from a weight carrying perspective. The most enjoyable walking is going to be with no weight on your back. But in order to walk multiple days, you're obviously going to have to have some weight for the rest of it to be enjoyable. – Jonathan Patt Sep 22 '15 at 21:47
  • 4
    As I get older I find it even more necessary to carry more on a trip. I think a good nights sleep is probably one of the most important things to bring with you while backpacking. You're not going to benefit much from a lighter bag if you don't start of the day well rested. Also, my monarch chair is always the most fought over item on every camp I go on. I literally trade minutes sitting in my chair for food stuffs and favours. (Sometimes the favour is, "Carry my chair tomorrow and I'll let you sit in it for a bit tomorrow night.") – ShemSeger Sep 23 '15 at 5:21
  • 3
    I don't think we can use a table like that at all. Summer/Winter, Overnight/Day trip/Week long, Hiking/climbing/mountaineering... There are so many factors involved to drive the weight of your pack that becomes really hard to have an idea without more details. I carry just under 10kg for a Summer overnight trip. It can easily go up another 5kg during the winter. I've had a 32kg pack during a 15 day trip and all the overweight was due to food for all those days. – Desorder Mar 6 '16 at 22:05
  • 1
    I want to point out what is often looked at as a major difference in backpacking, and camping. In camping (with a backpack) - comfort and a destination is the goal, the hiking is the necessary evil. You suffer a little more physically during the hike to enjoy the comfort of the items you packed along. In backpacking, you forego a little more in the way of weight, and potentially comfort during the camping portion, to enjoy the act of backpacking more during the day. The hike itself is the desired pleasurable part, the camping is a necessary evil. ( Although, it's preferable to enjoy both) – Ramrod Jan 10 at 2:37
28

The general rule of thumb is to carry no more than a third of your body weight. That should be your max, so the answer is to carry less than that. Make your bag as light as you can.

Aside from that it largely depends on your level of strength and fitness, and what you feel comfortable carrying. I tend to carry a heavier bag than most people I hike with, but that's because I like creature comforts like my thicker luxury mattress, a pillow and my camp chair, as well as extra clothing items. Since I'm a faster hiker to begin with (except on the downhill) the extra weight kind of balances me out with the rest of my group.

The big thing nowadays is ultralight backpacking, which modern technology is making real easy to do without sacrificing any comfort. With today's gear it's real easy to keep your bag well under a third your body weight.

The trick is to find the balance between weight and comfort that agrees with you. Sure, these ultralight nuts have happier legs on the trail, but I guarantee I'm much happier sleeping at night. I do try to keep my bag as light as possible after I pack what I consider to be the bare necessities, and at the end of every backpacking trip I always re-assess everything I carried, and if there was anything I didn't use, or I decide I could have done without, then I don't pack it on my next trip.

What you need to carry also changes with where you're going, what the weather is going to be like, and what you're going to be doing. When I go caving my bag tends to get heavy, because I need to carry all my ropes and caving gear on top of my camping gear. If I go early in the season, I need to carry even more gear, because there's still snow on the tops of the mountains, so I need to bring crampons and ice axes too, as well as extra warm layers for at night and in the caves.

So I guess the "ideal" weight, is as light as you can make while still having fun on your trip.

  • 5
    I think many people will have an uncomfortable trip using this rule of thumb. – ppl Sep 22 '15 at 18:37
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    @ppl I think the rule of thumb is answering the max-weight part of the question. – Roflo Sep 22 '15 at 18:44
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    Wow -- I weigh about 145 lb (66 kg), and a third of that would be 48 lb (22 kg). That's just absurdly heavy. I could only imagine carrying a pack that heavy if I was carrying heavy rock-climbing gear or doing winter mountaineering. – Ben Crowell Sep 23 '15 at 5:06
  • 1
    @BenCrowell I think one of my problems is that I have an old 85L Serratus single compartment expedition bag that I really like, it's really easy to over pack when you have that much room. – ShemSeger Sep 23 '15 at 5:24
  • 2
    I usually haul a pack of 25-28 kg when I am out for a 4-day thing. I weigh about 67 kg. – WedaPashi Sep 23 '15 at 9:22
15

First, what are your priorities?

At one end of the scale you have fastpackers who aim to cover as much ground as possible and damn the discomfort. At the other end, you have people who want to hike a few miles and sit around a fire in their camp chairs cracking open ice-cold beers. These two groups have very different priorities. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and that's what I'll discuss here

What's a realistic base-weight to go light but comfortable?

Let's take a long Alpine trip where I might encounter -5c and 70mph winds.

I can be safe and comfortable with a 6kilo/13lb base weight.

Edit - these days I've refined my gear a bit and would have a 10-11 lb baseweight for cold alpine trekking. In more clement weather I could drop that by a pound or two. This is still for a pretty comfortable setup - hardcore minimalists could shave a little more off their weight.

This includes a specialist bivy tent or shaped tarp with nest (around 750 grams), a winter-grade sleeping mat, inflatable pillow, autumn-weight quilt with sleeping clothing, ice cleats, water purifier, a Kindle, MP3 player, smartphone, PLB, camera, and battery pack or solar charger. So I'm hardly slumming it. This requires 15-20 liters of pack room depending on how much I compress my down. Modern equipment really does make a huge difference!

Achieving these weights just takes a bit of experience and a reasonable budget to buy the best specialist equipment.

What about food and water?

If you're a medium sized guy on a tough walk you'll be burning 5000-6000 calories a day. On short trips you can undereat, but on longer trips you should be budgeting around 1 kilo per day for food. This assumes that you're selecting foods with a high calorie to weight ratio.

These days I mostly go stoveless. This would be a step too far for most but I like the simplicity, and it saves on weight and the hassle of finding fuel on the trail.

Where are the areas you shouldn't be cutting corners?

I have a very strong recommendation here. If your pack weight is going to exceed 10 kilos or so, don't go for an unstructured pack to save weight. Over a long day, a good carrying lightweight pack beats a super-minimal pack every time despite a couple of ounces of additional weight.

Personally I use Aarn packs, a little known New Zealand company that have re-thought pack ergonomics from the ground up. It's the best balanced and most stable pack I've used, and only weighs 1.5 kilos for 50 litres. You wouldn't believe how much difference this pack makes as the miles rack up.

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I'd also counsel you not to skimp on warm sleeping gear. On long trips, cold and discomfort at night can become exhausting and demoralising.

Where are the key savings that many people miss?

Not everyone understands that what you put on your feet is just as important as what you put on your back. On difficult ground, a lb on your feet is equivalent to around 6 lbs on your back. Transitioning from heavy leather boots to lightweight trail shoes can save the equivalent of 15 lbs from you pack. These days all the long-distance walkers are using lightweight footwear. The idea that heavy boots are safer for mountain walking is a myth, but that's another discussion.

The take-home message

Provided you can afford a bit of a premium for the best kit you can venture out in tough 3-4 season conditions with a base weight of under 6 kilos and a food allowance of 1 kilo per day. The days of huge packs are over - if you're prepared to go simply but comfortably you really shouldn't need more than this outside of very cold conditions.

For shorter trips and clement conditions, you can go even lighter. Experience will show what you can leave behind.

  • Most of this answer is pretty good, but something is wrong here: If you're a medium sized guy on a tough walk you'll be burning 5000-6000 calories a day. On short trips you can undereat, but on longer trips you should be budgeting around 1 kilo per day for food. Experience shows that a 70 kg person eats about 2700 calories a day on a backpacking trip. (For long-distance through-hikers, this goes up to about 3800 calories/day.) This is based on online polls and experience of professional guides. For typical foods, 2700 cal is about 700 g. – Ben Crowell Mar 3 '16 at 2:30
  • @BenCrowell Estimates appear widely variable. Ref: equipped.outdoors.org/2013/04/… Would you cite your source for 3800kcal/day for through-hikers? – Mr.Wizard Mar 3 '16 at 8:18
  • 1
    Well, the tables show 400-500 cals per hour for a medium guy packing in steep country. If you walk 12 hours a day plus, you're burning at least 5000 calories on the hill. Plus 100 calories or so per hour base rate while resting. If you're lean and eating 2700 per day on a tough trail you're undereating for sure - that's just over base rate. Not at all wise. A palatable dense diet offers around 5 calories per gram. So 5000 calories is about 1kg, and you make up the rest by overeating on rest days. See this: andrewskurka.com/2010/the-5000-calories-per-day-wilderness-diet – Tullochgorum Mar 3 '16 at 9:41
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    I appreciate your stats and refs. But i wondered what that actor was doing in the wilderness. It's actually Ranulph Fiennes. – Martin F May 10 '18 at 22:46
10

How many days is "multiple"? In what environment? Can you sleep out in the open or do you need a tent? Can you share the tent with other people? Do you need to bring all food? Water (then you're screwed)?

All of this influences how low you can get the weight, but in general: the ideal weight is as heavy as necessary to bring the stuff you absolutely need, and as light as possible by leaving out everything else. Unless you are used/trained to carrying heavy weights, a heavy backpack makes for a shitty hiking experience - and I consider 1/3 body weight to be insanely heavy, would not go above 1/5 if I can possibly avoid it. If in doubt, do a test run, pack everything you think you need and go on a one-hour walk. Then rethink what you really need.

The area where it's usually easiest to cut weight is food (and cooking/eating utensils), at least in areas where drinkable water is available. You don't need gourmet foods - after a day of hiking anything will taste great. No tins. Freeze-dried stuff is where it's at. Nuts, Dried fruit (it's called "trail mix" for a reason), beef jerky. Most importantly: take only what you need, actually calculate that, and add only a modest safety margin (and for that take only the most energy-dense stuff, i.e. extra nuts).

  • 2
    Be careful with too modest a safety margin. In September 2014 I got stuck in the Canadian Rockies during a freak September winter storm with snowfall down to 1400 metre that didn't melt for a week. It took me three extra days to get back to safety. I was happy I had several extra days worth of food and fuel (water is plentiful there). – gerrit Oct 14 '15 at 16:16
6

It's fairly easy, with modern gear, to be around one third to one quarter of your body weight, including food, water, and camera.

Some tips applicable to Colorado (and thus most places):

Bring a tent. It rains, water flows, there are bugs. Tarps and hammocks are lighter, but not nearly as fun in these conditions.

Use a sleeping bag and a pad. The pad isn't so much for comfort, it's for warmth. At altitude, it's easy to be cold. Decide how warm your bag needs to be by trying some out (near a car!)--the ratings are survival not comfort. Colder ratings are heavy--you can bring some long underwear. Down is expensive, but lighter/smaller.

Get a Jetboil or similar and use (sadly expensive) dehydrated backpacking food. If you're awesome, you can make your own and save money, but the idea here is the bulk of your food is extremely light and rehydrated on the trail. The Jetboil is used exclusively for heating water which is poured into the bags for "cooking". No pots, no pans, no cleaning. I bring one, long, plastic spoon. I eat right out of the bag. Only utensil? I small plastic cup for oatmeal, tea, whatever...

Bring a water purifier pump. Even clean, glacier-fed water at high altitude is suspect, because other people before you are pigs, and probably did their business somewhere--it's a bit dangerous to drink their poo run-off (giardia sucks). Water can be impossible to find in many areas, be very prepared, but in most of non-desert Colorado, it's little trouble...your weight has just significantly decreased, you refil whatever bottle/bladder you prefer as needed for drinking while hiking or for rehydrating.

Nylon/polyester clothes (even wool!). Lighter, not cold when wet. dry easy. Don't bother with much. Just stink a little. Headlamp. Plastic trowel for your poo, and ziplock bags to carry out your TP.

Skip the first aid kit. Nearly everything that can happen to you is either small enough to ignore, or too drastic to treat in the field. Bring athletic tape and get a Spot transmitter to get you out when horror strikes.

That's it, virtually everything else is either details or luxury. Get whatever makes your day happy and lovely, but with this method, my minimum weight is around 25lbs or less and food scales per day, but it's less than a pound/day mentioned above.

  • 1
    Dehydrated meals needn't be expensive. I buy them from Amazon and spend less than €1.50 per meal. The only downside is that I use slightly more fuel than others, as it needs to boil for several minutes, but I pay that happily. – gerrit Oct 14 '15 at 16:18
  • It's fairly easy, with modern gear, to be around one third to one quarter of your body weight, including food, water, and camera. This is far too much. For a one-week trip without resupply, I would carry about 1/6 of my body weight. For a weekend trip, about 1/10. it's a bit dangerous to drink their poo run-off (giardia sucks) This is a myth. lightandmatter.com/article/hiking_water.html – Ben Crowell Mar 3 '16 at 2:23
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    -1 for "Skip the first aid kit." – Martin F May 10 '18 at 22:57
  • I standby my "skip the first-aid" kit comment. I've since read about giardia etc. being a myth, but that one link is hardly authoritative...this topic is still quite debated, and while it's likely quite rare, it would still suck more than it's worth not to bring a purifier. I think boiling my meals for a time winds up using too much fuel, which means bringing more heavy cans. Finally, I regularly bring about 11.5 to 12.5 kg, including ~2+ liters of water. I weigh 66 kg, so in deed, a third would be a crazy amount...but then I've been backpacking for a while, and have a light bag etc... – Chuha Sep 5 '18 at 14:43
5

The Swedish tent company Hilleberg has packing lists with masses on their website. Their itemized list includes a lower and upper range for a list of items, leading to a very large range of masses:

Their summer list has:

  • Personal items (backpack, sleeping mat+bag, clothes, map, etc.): 4.0 kg-19.1 kg
  • Food per week, including water: 3.3 kg-14 kg
  • Shared equipment for two (tent, kitchen etc.): 1.2 kg-5.5 kg per person
  • Possibly optional items (camp shoes, binoculars, rope, camera, etc.): 3 kg-16.3 kg

In total, this leads to a range of 11.5 kg – 51.4 kg. I suppose not many people carry 51.4 kg around, but I do know people with backpacks close to 40 kg (including things like a tarp for swimming across a lake with a backpack). For a 2-week hike my own backpack usually starts in the 20–30 kg range (on the heavier end in bear country — those Garcia Machine bear containers add up).

They also have a winter list which is somewhat heavier, but depending on the terrain you might be able to carry it on a sledge.

  • 1
    Sweden is the last refuge of the old-fashioned heavyweight hiker. These Hilleberg estimates are simply daft in the modern context. If I'm going to camp on the icecap, I want to be in Hilleberg. But I'm going to ignore their advice on pack-weights! – Tullochgorum Mar 3 '16 at 1:17
  • I don't think they're daft at all, and I don't think there's anything old-fashioned about comfort and safety from the elements. It doesn't even include some things needed in North America, such as bear containers (which I haven't seen in ultralight versions). I like a good night's sleep. Better safe than sorry. – gerrit Mar 3 '16 at 11:20
  • Hi gerrit. You're making the assumption that going lightweight implies cutting corners with safety and comfort. What I'm arguing is that with modern equipment this no longer holds. In anything short of full arctic conditions I can hike the hills with a 6 kilo base weight and be prepared for pretty much anything. I'm secure, comfy and toasty at night, have plenty to read and listen to, never get chilled, have traction for moderate ice and snow, bring back great photos, and can call in the rescue from anywhere. What more do you need? – Tullochgorum Mar 3 '16 at 12:11
  • @Tullochgorum What I need more is evidence that this is actually the case, such as referred to in the other comments. I admit that my own experience is limited to Big Agnes, which a salesperson at MEC Toronto claimed to be expensive/high quality. I'd like to see and test the material you are referring to before I am convinced, ordering custom-built equipment adding up to probably over a thousand pounds/euros/dollars before knowing if I like the equipment appears financially risky. Perhaps I am conservative in sticking to what I know to be good, even if the mass is a couple of kg more. – gerrit Mar 3 '16 at 12:23
  • Hi gerrit - just do some googling. These materials and designs are widely tested and reviewed - there's over a decade of experience in all conditions. This is the approach of all the serious long-distance trekkers like Andrew Skurka, Chris Townshend and Colin Ibbotson. These people know their stuff and trust their lives to lightweight gear. I have experience in pretty hostile conditions and have never had issues. On the other hand, I don't think there's anything safe about carrying unnecessary weight: it's tiring, impacts on your balance, and leaves you more vulnerable to strain and injury. – Tullochgorum Mar 3 '16 at 12:34
2

To put the upper limits into context 25kg comes up a lot in a military context and is often quoted as a standard combat load. For example 25kg is the load for the hill phase of British special forces selection, albeit held over very severe terrain distance and time constraints and for the infantry annual fitness test. Both tests require a pace a bit above normal walking pace.

25kg is also often quoted for historical examples from roman legionaries to medieval knights.

It is also certainly possible to carry much greater loads over moderate distances and it is entirely possible to hike with a pack that you can struggle to pick up.

However what is actually sensible and practical very much comes down to personal preference in the context of your general level of fitness and conditioning as well as the terrain you are moving over. A load which is comfortable on a proper trail can be crippling on hilly or broken ground.

As with al things it comes down to finding the compromise which works for you, lighter kit makes for easier and more comfortable walking but you might find that a little extra weight in terms of a bigger tent or nicer food is well worth it.

My experience is that you have an upper limit of what is reasonably comfortable and you tailor that to get the balance of comfort, speed and range that you want for your trip.

  • It's worth pointing out that the UK army has experienced an alarming number of deaths during their hill training that have been attributed to fatigue and heat-exhaustion. So their figures should be seen as an upper limit, to put it mildly. With modern gear there is no need to carry anything approaching 25kg for normal hiking, even if, say, you are walking 10 days between resupply points. You can be perfectly well prepared for severe weather and cold with under a max of 6 kilos base weight, plus a max of 1 kilo per day for food. – Tullochgorum Jul 15 at 15:12
2

Save your knees! How ever heavy or light you must train to carry the load. Prepare your body, especially your knees. As a 145 lb 20 something year old I hiked with a 35 lb pack in NM going up and down Canyons for a two day trip and on the way back my knees became so painful I had to hand over much of my load and barely made it back to base. I'd put too much pressure on my knees and did some permanent damage. Also remember, coming downhill is much more wearing than going up. Train by building up your load slowly and make sure your leg muscles are strong enough that your knee joints aren't grinding cartilage.

2

The most important aspect is the level of training. The human body is extremely good in adapting to carrying weight. You easily find two guys who are the same height and can walk the same distances, even though one of them weighs 30kg (66lbs) more than the other (And no, the extra muscle mass of the heavier guy does not help. Muscle mass has little effect on endurance.)

If you go on a multi-day mountain hike carrying 15kg without any prior training it can easily crush you. But if you slowly build-up your strength and endurance to get used to the weight, these 15kg will barely reduce your performance nor cause much discomfort.

Usually, I go hiking from April to October. At the start of the season, I make sure to do a few lightweight day hikes followed by a at least a couple of 3-day hikes with moderate weights through mountainous, but not extreme territory. Only then do I go on long tours into high territory. Personally, I find this is enough to build up the endurance I lost over the winter. But for people who are completely new to hiking, I would recommend to increase difficulty, duration and weight even more slowly.

-4

Kristin Hostetter on backpacker.com writes:

I never pack a clothing item that doesn’t work within my layering system. Always bring long john bottoms for chilly nights, a pair of waterproof/breathable rain-pants...

As for food, the best thing to do is keep notes on how much you packed and how much you ate versus threw away.

These all care and things will help you to pack less and feel more comfortable. The one Simple equation of backpacking:

Less weight = More Fun!!

  • Sorry, but this is worth a downvote. I agree with your conclusion, but you need to provide a more comprehensive and coherent argument to back it up... – Tullochgorum Aug 23 '16 at 0:35

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