Pack Weight and Total Carry Weight are sure to be on your mind regardless of whether you are a seasoned backpacker, or new to this type of adventure.
Reducing Carry Weight, while gathering gear, food, and necessities for a trip is probably the most important goal to be working toward. Way in advance of any upcoming trip.
Also see our article that compares packs and what to look for.
I have gone pack heavy on some previous backpack trips. I can assure you, overloading your pack can really ruin, or at least dampen your thoughts, of ever backpacking again.
Here is a comical video reminder. Titled “Gator and the Chair”. Our friend is a good sport and always has us laughing. This video is for you that want everything along on your back. We may laugh, but we have all been right here. At one time or another. Or to some degree.
in the making of this video!
We [“we” meaning the opinion of a wide range of backpackers considered well experienced] have learned a lot of creature comforts are not worth carrying. That comes with experience to some degree. Make everything do double duty. Share and split the weight between co-backpackers for common gear such as stove, fuel, etc. Go Ultra-light with all gear and clothing.
You can fast track your knowledge if you listen to those that have worked through those experiences.
The average person spends 2 or 3 nights camping on a typical trip. You can pretty much do it without any of the comforts!
Some people like to say you shouldn’t exceed 25% of your body weight when trying to calculate your Backpack weight. For many, should you apply that theory I think you would find you will have a miserable trip. That is.. should you push the weight limit, and max out at that figure.
People that are experienced backpackers are exceptions. They may have worked up to levels that take numerous trips, over numerous years. They know what their body can handle, and how many miles they can push it without injury.
If you go overweight you will most likely fall into the group of people that come away with injuries or a bad experience. The low end of the injury list is foot blisters. The result of being overloaded with weight and possibly improper or improperly fitted footwear.
The high end of the injury list and be a trip/fall, sprains or fractures, heat stroke and more. All that might result in expensive medical assistance or air transport. All of which you will be financially responsible for.
The everyday person, maybe trying backpacking the first time, needs to learn to reduce the weight. Then reduce more. The tendency is to go way too heavy. The less bouncing and hanging on your back, the better. Remember the water you need to carry daily can add an additional 7.5lbs or so.
The 25% rule will not work well for light/petite people, or overly heavy people. Or overly inexperienced people.
Carry weight to us, means exactly what it states. Though we do not include water in our initial weigh-in for a backpack trip in general. Water can vary depending on the trip location. It also does not include the basic clothing and footwear you have on.
For actual Carry Weight calculations, extra layers of clothing, sunglasses, camera/phone, GPS device, maps, hats, gloves, and all other paraphernalia, needs to be included. All that junk in your pockets, on your head, around your neck, and dangling off your pack……and that water+container you will be hauling!
So Carry Weight when talked about here, is your pack, all gear, food, extra clothing, anything carried in your pockets or clipped in your belt or person.
We generally recommend limiting Total Carry Weight to 20lbs, before including water. Literally pile everything on a scale while you are preparing. Every band-aid, stove, shirt, etc. Start eliminating based on “can’t go without” mentality. Bear in mind 5 lbs too much seems like a lot. 10 lbs too much will have you wishing you didn’t have it on your back well before you end your trek.
Many scratch a stove and fuel. For three days, two nights, they use high energy, high calorie foods or bars, that require no cooking. Their pack weight reduces everyday until departure day. They aren’t backpacking out a stove and fuel container…..just some paper waste they have accumulated.
Remember….on many trips the worst part of backpacking is ascending or descending switchbacks. You won’t find many trips that are all on flat terrain.
Drinking water requirements can add “some” weight, or “lots”, depending on trail conditions, climate, temperatures, and water availability along the trail. To be safe on this trip you better factor a minimum of 1 gallon.
My body weight is well over 200 lbs. If I trek in desert terrain I carry at least 1 gallon of water in bladders (empty bladder weight included in the 20lbs). So my total carry weight objective with water is 20 + 7.5 or 27.5lbs. Using the 25% rule I could go over 50lbs. No way!!! Cold weather and Camera gear often pushes my 20lb objective up 5 or six lbs.
Desert trekking also requires you to know where your next safe and definitely available drinking water will be. At times 1 gallon of water may be inadequate.
I am not a happy camper once my total carry weight hits 35 lbs.
I can assure you that at 35lbs on my back going up switchbacks ….. I always wished I had cut more weight.
As eluded to above, when Younger & Dumber, I packed 70lbs on a Pacific Crest Trail solo trip. But that was planned for on a much longer trip in both miles and days without resupplies. That weight was miserable.
As indicated my personal goal now is a total carry weight of 20-25lbs, not counting water.
I have found I have to plan trips that are about a maximum of 3 nights to maintain this goal. That includes packing out all my waste and depleted supply containers. Practicing “Leave no Trace”. I have found this 20-25lb carry weight to be ideal for me to hike at a good pace and not suffer muscle & joint pain, or develop foot blisters, because I am overloaded.
Once I try to push the trip to 4 nights or beyond, my carry weight starts climbing. Now I need more food, more cooking fuel, and “pack out” waste weight starts accumulating. Remember carried water weight also has to be factored in too.
I mostly backpack desert terrain, or at least area’s where water can be sparse. Desert climates requires about 1 gallon of water a day for drinking and preparing dehydrated foods. Remember each gallon adds about 7.5lbs to your total packing weight, not counting the container. Two days out without a water source would up your water weight to 15 lbs. Depending on the season you are trekking, 1 gallon may even be cutting it close.
Listed here are the 5 top items that weigh you down. We are going to assume you know enough to carry high energy, dehydrated, low weight food. Clothing is another factor but lets discuss and comment on these top 5.
* Sleeping pad
* Sleeping bag
* Cooking gear
BACKPACK (The pack itself)
Just changing backs can be a big weight reducer. I am no stranger to backpacking. Years ago I did part of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) on a solo adventure. I left the trail head carrying close to 70lbs. My original pack weighed 8.5 lbs empty. Younger & Dumber! It was super comfy carrying a heavy load starting out, but that load takes its toll in miles carried. Your hip joints, back, ankles, feet, and neck, all start telling you that your are doing it all wrong!
My current pack is under 2lbs, empty. My objective any more is to reduce overall carry weight as much as possible. It makes for a much more enjoyable trip. My total carry weight objective is to be 20-25lbs or less (not counting water). The closer to 20, the better. But that weight does include anything clipped or hung on belts, in pockets, hat, camera, and sunglasses. It’s tough to get there.
I have backpacked with someone that gets his to 18lbs.
My current personal recommendation on backpacks is a GossamerGear Mariposa 60. They have a unisex ergonomic harness for both men & women. The pack itself is less than 2 lbs. It is capable of carrying gear for 3 to 7 day trips. They also make a small version for kids. See the GossamerGear website.
If you allow your weight to get up to the 35lb range, this recommended pack can get uncomfortable fast! The stock shoulder straps, and hip straps are un-padded and dig in.
I have changed tents several times for backpacking trips. Always reducing weight. There are some high end tents out there in the 1 lb range. There is also a hefty price tag on them. I use a high end tent for long treks such as the PCT. Some common sense has to prevail. As well as how much you have in your wallet.
Don’t carry a two person tent if you are the only one using it. Are you the type that likes to use trekking poles to hike? Check out tents that incorporate those trekking poles, rather than packing additions tent poles. Or modify yours to work that way. Get free standing tents, don’t carry stakes. Instead find pouches made for the purpose of filling them with something found locally like sand or rocks (make your own if need be).
I just keep gear in my tent and no type of tie downs or stakes. Without tie downs or stakes you have to be mindful of wind blowing your tent away though. In a pinch….some rocks inside?
One year I used a kids tent I found at Walmart in the $20 range. Its foot print was slightly less than the 6ft I am. But it worked sleeping diagonally. It was cheap, had a floor and rain fly, and was light weight. I just had to pick through and find a plain one. I wasn’t going with the Cinderella print! LOL
For something cheap, under 5lb check out the Wenzel Starlite on Amazon. If you want to get in the 2.5 to 3 pound range expect to pay more. If you want in the 1lb range expect to pay a premium. Check out “The One” by GossamerGear.
Then there are those that don’t use a tent and sleep on the ground. Or those that opt for a hammock. Though a hammock can often come in at the weight, or exceed the weight of some tents. Then do you add a rain fly and bug net to your hammock?
Sleeping pads differ wildly too. Some people can sleep without them. I can not. In fact I am considering upgrading to a thicker self inflating type. I have one of the thinner Therm-a-rest. Therm-a-rest and others carry thicker ones. One way to reduce is to use shorter sleeping pads rather than full length. This is one item I sacrifice weight for comfort. I have a full length one so I can “cold” camp as well as warm camp. I have used the same one for years.
It pays to buy high quality if you want long life. I have also used the “blue” rolled up cheap foam type pads.
My sleeping pad actually integrates with my Mariposa Gossimer Gear pack to provide back padding from other gear. If you are going on a one time trip. For example flying to a nearby airport, and not bringing all of your gear. A “Blue” foam pad will suffice for this trip. You can sacrifice it after your backpacking trip has concluded.
If you really can put up without a sleeping pad, that is another option. But I sure can’t do it.
Sleeping bags are another items with so many choices. I have used a variety of brands and styles over many years. This is another item that seems to go up in price as the weight goes down. They also go up in price as sleeping warmth goes up….or should I say as the comfortable temperature rating goes down.
My personal observation is the ratings in degrees is off by 20°F. This opinion is coming from someone that likes the cold and doesn’t easily get cold. IMO if you are camping in night time temps that dip into the 20s, you better get a 0°F rated bag.
I can’t stand confining mummy bags but have used them if that is what it takes to meet carry weight objectives. I just don’t sleep as well. I can force myself to put up with it a few nights though.
Do you really need it? Many backpackers scrap cooking anything to reduce weight here. You can live off high energy bars for a few days.
If you can’t do without your hot food, or hot cup of coffee.
Cooking gear and the fuel that fires them can be another place to save weight. I have used the small folding pocket stoves in the past with additional titanium pots. With these small fold up or pocket stoves, I hate the way pots slide off or dump your pot…plus no screen to block wind. But……its all about weight! Often when you carry a micro stove, and a desperate pot, the combined weight is real close to an integrated unit such as a smaller model Jetboil.
I personally use a Jetboil PCS (they have an even smaller unit now). Don’t go for the group size!
They are integrated into one unit that over comes many issues I don’t like with other products. They also store in a compact unit including the fuel canister that fits inside. They have their own ignitor eliminating the need to carry matches. I haven’t found anything to beat it when you compare performance and weight, and factor in pot, cup, something to pour a hot pot such as a pot holder or pot grabber, etc. All of that is inclusive with the Jetboil.
My Jetboil PCS is my stove, my container for boiling water, and my drinking cup or cereal bowl. No food ever goes into the pot portion. Only plain water. I boil water and pour it into dehydrated food bags or instant hot drinks. I have gone to zip-lock bag cooking. That way there is no pot clean-up which requires other weight items such as dish soap.
Clean-up on the include plastic cup/bowl, and my eating utensil (titanium Spork) is done with remaining hot water in the Jetboil pot.
Then think beyond cooking. Some hard core backpackers won’t even carry a stove, utensils, or fuel. They use high protein, high calorie bars. For several days they can do without normal food. Toward the end of their trip they have eaten that portion of their pack weight. They will also be the ones running by you on the trail! Its not my type of fun though.