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?
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!