Backpacking is one of the best ways to enjoy some quality time in the great outdoors. But if there’s one thing that all backpackers struggle with at one point in their hiking careers, it’s the base weight of their packs.
But what is a good base weight for backpacking, you might ask?
A good base weight for backpacking will range from 5 to 30+ pounds depending on the style of backpacking you are participating in, your body weight and level of conditioning. For more traditional backpacking, you might have a base weight of around 20 to 30 lbs while some ultralight hikers have sub-10 lb base weights. If you want a good mix of comfort and weight savings, a base weight of between 15 and 20 lbs is often ideal.
However, as is the case with all things pack weight-related in the backpacking world, the concept of a “good” base weight is the source of much debate. Thankfully, we’re here to help. We’ve put together this quick article to introduce you to the basics of determining your target base weight so you can find the right packing solution for your backpacking needs.
Calculating Your Base Weight for Backpacking
Your base weight refers to the weight of all your gear minus any consumable items (like your food, fuel, and water) and your “worn weight,” which is all of the clothing that you wear while you hike. Keeping your base weight at a minimum is ideal because it reduces the amount of weight that you have to haul around on the trail.
Base weights are also used to differentiate the different kinds of hiking. These include:
- Conventional Backpacking – Base weight of more than 20 lbs
- Lightweight Backpacking – Base weight of 10–20 lbs
- Ultralight Backpacking – Base weight of 5–10 lbs
- Super Ultralight Backpacking – Base weight of less than 5 lbs
However, it’s important to remember that the concept of a base weight is somewhat arbitrary. It was primarily designed by members of the lightweight backpacking community to define different kinds of trekking—not to give you an idea of how heavy your pack will be as you hike.
That’s because, when you’re on the trail, you’re going to carry the entire weight of your pack, including both your base weight and the weight of all your consumables. Assessing your pack weight solely based on your base weight doesn’t necessarily mean much, especially if you’re going to be carrying around a lot of heavy food, fuel, and water.
For example, imagine that you have an ultralight base weight of 7 lbs, but you’re carrying 20 lbs of food, water, and fuel for a week-long camping trip. In reality, your actual pack weight won’t be much different from that of someone with a 20 lbs pack weight that’s headed out with 7 lbs of food and fuel for an overnight trip.
All this means is that, while your base weight is an okay measure of how much weight you’ll carry as you hike, it’s not the end all be all of your backpacking experience as there are other factors at play.
Defining a “Good” Base Weight
A good base weight for backpacking is whatever weight you’re comfortable with carrying as you hike.
For some ultralight hikers, a sub-10 lb base weight is the goal. Meanwhile, for others, keeping their base weight under 20 lbs is a huge challenge and a 25 lb or even 30 lb base weight is more realistic. Neither of these strategies is inherently better than the other, as it all depends on what works for your backpacking style.
As a general rule, most conventional hikers strive for a base weight of 20 to 30 lbs. This is a good base weight if you want a mix of comfort, affordability, and convenience in your gear. Once you start getting your base weight below about 20 lbs, you may find that you need to sacrifice some more luxurious pieces of gear from your packing list or that you need to invest quite a bit of money to get lighter equipment.
The key point here is that there’s no one “good base weight” that will work for everyone. If you want to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in record time, you might need an ultralight backpacking base weight of 5 to 10 lbs. But for casual backcountry getaways with your friends, a base weight of around 15 to 20 lbs is normally just fine.
How Heavy Should a Backpacking Pack Be?
There’s no such thing as an ideal backpacking pack weight as everyone’s hiking style is different.
Conventional backpackers normally end up with pack weights of around 30 to 40 lbs, but this depends quite a bit on the length and location of your trip. Meanwhile, lightweight backpackers often have pack weights of about 15 to 25 lbs while ultralight and super ultralight trekkers can have pack weights (including food and fuel) of less than 15 lbs.
Also read: Can You Backpack Without a Stove?
From an injury-prevention standpoint, it’s usually best to avoid carrying a pack that weighs more than about 20% of your body weight. If you weigh 150 lbs, you should generally try to keep your pack weight under about 30 lbs.
But everybody is different and, instead of striving for an arguably arbitrary pack weight, you should work to reduce your packing list so that you’re not carrying more than you’re comfortable with on the trail.
Backpacking Base Weights: Find What Works for You
If you spend enough time with avid backpackers, you’re bound to find yourself wrapped up in a discussion about pack base weights. However, while most people do well with a target base weight of between 15 and 20 lbs, these weights aren’t right for everyone.
For some people, getting their base weight down to 20 lbs is inaccessible financially or it’s just not practical from a comfort and convenience perspective. Alternatively, for many lightweight hikers, a base weight of 15 to 20 lbs is inconceivably heavy and a base of 10 lbs would be more appropriate.
So the point here is that you shouldn’t chase after some arbitrary ideal base weight if it’s not going to improve your overall hiking experience. The key is to determine what base weight works for your backpacking style so you can make the most of your time outside.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.