Lighten Your Load: Crafting the Ideal Base Weight for Backpacking

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Choosing to start backpacking leads you to many more questions about preparing, the most frequent questions I had centered around understanding backpack base weight. This weight is at the center of most thru-hikers discussions and I thought I should dive in to better understand before buying a backpack to ensure it was the right size.

What is a good base weight for backpacking? For a normal adult, you will aim to be around 20% of your body weight. This can be a little more depending on trip duration, season, and preference in bringing luxury items. If you are aiming for a day hike this is recommended to not exceed 10% of your body weight.

Since this now gives you a good idea of the weight you should be aiming for we can look into what items are included within your base weight to start figuring out what you need for your backpack along with what you should aim to buy that costs more but can drop your weight significantly.

Body Weight (LBS)Maximum Weight (20% BW)Moderate Weight (15% BW)Light Weight (10% BW)Ultralight Weight
Base Weight (In Lbs) By Percent of Body Weight

You may notice that the ultralight weight column is ten pounds for everyone, this is more that some items like your big three, shelter, backpack, and sleep system have a minimum size that getting below becomes extremely difficult to achieve.

What is Included in Base Weight For Backpacking?

What then is included in my base weight you may ask, since most would expect this to be everything in your pack but this is incorrect. Your base weight and your overall pack weight are two different values based on the split of gear in your backpack.

What is included in the base weight for backpacking? Your backpack base weight is the goods that don’t change in your pack for the trip, this would *NOT* include your food, water, cooking gas, and the clothes you are wearing on your back. These numbers may change depending on travel days, season, and the environment.

This means that you have basically two sets of gear, your base gear (base weight) and consumables (water, food, gas). So what gear is going to make up the greatest majority of your packs base weight?

Let’s take a look inside the gear and how you can learn to lean out your gear and where you should focus.

Your Big Three Influence Weight the Most

The big three will include your backpack itself, shelter, and your sleep system. These three items will typically cost you the most when building your backpacking gear out and influence your overall base weight the most of any gear you will purchase.


There is a super wide range of backpacks at different sizes and costs but most will require a significant upfront cost. Making a quick choice here could cost you in the long run, you want to find something that fits your budget but also has enough size (liters) and weight capacity to handle your hikes.

Most backpacks will range from 1-5 pounds in overall weight for the backpack alone, so when you are looking to keep your overall base weight down you would want to find the lightest pack for your needs and the trip you plan.

Example Packs:

As you can see from the above options you have a great many options available and each may or may not fit your need. I prefer HMG bags as they are popular on the trails for their durability and comfort to carry.

Shelter System

The shelter you choose will typically fit within the options of a tent, hammock, or a tarp only top cover. Each of these has their own distinct pros and cons as to why you would choose to use them for your hiking trips .

A tent sits on the ground but provides you an enclosed space where you can set up your gear and clothes and change in private. This is the most common form of shelter on almost all trails and in most campgrounds.

Hammocks are typically either loved or hated as they require more understanding of the terrain to work right, like the distance between trees you need for your cordage, etc. Though they can be exceptional when you are hiking through places known for low laying water within camping spots.

I currently use a 3F UL Gear Lanshan 2P tent for myself when I am hiking as the total weight is super small and the impact on my wallet was also smaller than most other 2 person sized tents. Though if aiming for an ultralight gear setup you would need to look into the Dirigo or Duplex.

Sleeping Bag / Sleeping Pad and Sleeping Pad

I am fairly certain everyone has experience with sleeping bags as they are used even at home or in sleepovers. Sleeping quilts are typically a more closed toe box but open into a more blanket like flow which gives you more freedom and mobility.

Sleeping pads are typically overlooked and hikers try to get by on the old blue flat pads, the issue with these is they aren’t always very insulative and they don’t provide much padding. Due to this you feel cold and wake up achy and have that all over soreness.

Since I roll a lot and am a serious side sleeper I have chosen and love the sleeping quilt option as it adjusts as I flip and flop around. I grew up on sleeping bags but they always felt constricting and I got poor sleep, changing to a quilt has been marvelous!

Determining Pack Weight By Body Percentage

This will vary based on the length of your hike, season, and what luxury items you intend to bring with you. This will be different for every hiker on the trail as each persons level of fitness and skill will change this weight requirement.

How much weight should you carry backpacking ? The most weight any backpacker should hit will be about 20% of your body weight which is easy to carry without more extreme body fitness. A less experienced hiker may want to have their pack closer to 15% of their body weight to be more comfortable while hiking.

Most of the time you will be able to make an informed decision yourself on what is too much weight by just carrying it around your home or neighborhood.

When it is too uncomfortable for 30 minutes you probably have too much in there, where you may need to watch the scale more is if you are bringing kids along.

How Much Weight Should a Child Carry Backpacking?

Well now that you have figured out your pack weight what is the best way to manage getting my kids packs ready and what weight should they be carrying themselves on the backpacking trips we take.

How much weight should a child carry backpacking? The AOTA recommends no more than 10-15% of a child’s body weight which means a 100 pound kid would have a pack weight of 10-15 pounds.

This means they can easily help carry the load for a family hiking or backpacking trip and it will help them gain some feeling of being able to help with the carry in and being part of the family!

How to Lower Your Backpacking Base Weight for Hiking

Evaluate your big three gear choices first as you can easily cut up to ten pounds out of your backpack for most hikers by buying lighter weight gear . This is the gear that can give you a solid weight drop for every single piece upgraded, but they will also come at a cost.

  • Sleeping Bag / Quilt – You want to find a bag or quilt that that weighs less than 1.5 pounds. An example would be the Enlightened Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt.
  • Shelter -You should take a shelter that weighs less than two pounds to maximize weight drop. An example is the Zpacks Duplex
  • Backpack – You should find a backpack that weighs less than two pounds, something like an HMG Southwest 2400 is a good example.

Additionally, you will want to manage your food and find what foods can give you the most caloric energy to weight possible, this may mean coming up with ingenious food mixes and help drop the weight needed from your food.

What is Ultralight Backpacking Base Weight?

Ultralight as a philosophy has grown over time due to the availability of materials that lends to a better hiking experience . The ability to stop at places on the route to resupply has also increased the ability to look deeper into an ultralight travel methodology.

What is ultralight backpacking base weight? Ultralight backpacking base weight is when your backpack weight in under 10 lbs without food and water counted in the total. This weight class helps give thru-hikers and long-distance hikers, in general, less wear on their muscles and joints.

There are other things that can help you lower your base weight and get you in that “ultralight” category. Worst case these are methods you can start instituting to start a progression in knowledge and gear towards getting to lighter pack weights and learning the amount of enjoyment it provides!

What is the Difference Between Trail Weight and Packed Weight?

Trail weight is everything in your pack including food and water. The average food carried is 2 pounds per day in-between your resupply points. Your weight in water is measured based on the liters you carry, one liter will weigh 2.2 pounds.

This is why as an ultralight backpacker you want to weigh the distance you are hiking with the food and water weight to make it through the current section.

Many times this will be less water weight as you can bring a filter to get additional water when you reach additional available places along the trail.

How Can I Lower my Backpacking Base Weight?

The best way to lower your base weight is to shakedown your gear and remove the unessential items as your first priority as this has zero incurred costs. This process of completing shakedowns should be done as trial shorter hikes meant to get out and evaluate your gear and needs in the field.

The next method will help you drop your weight the fastest, this method is to aim at purchasing replacement gear for your big three gear.

Your big three include your tent, backpack, and sleeping bag/pad. These will typically amount to 1/3 to 1/2 your base pack weight and are the simplest way to dramatically lower weight efficiently.

What Are Gear Shakedowns?

A gear shakedown is when you fill and pack your backpack like you would for your long-distance hike. The point of this is to go take a hike from a day to a week and validate the gear in your pack is necessary.

Many times you will believe that the items you pack are invaluable and necessary for your thru-hike. What you want to do is look to eliminate these extra items from your pack, please don’t drop safety items without a decent amount of real validation to need.

What you are looking to learn is that most thru-hikes are really a series of 5-10 day hikes with resupply points in-between. Much of the items you pack will be something you can get down the trail if you find a need, you are aiming to remove as much of this useless crud as possible at the start of your hike.

Man laying down on his overly stuffed backpack - post covering What is a Good Base Weight for Backpacking
Ultralight Backpacking Base Weight means less being carried on your back

Aim for Sub 2 Pound Shelter and Sleep Systems

This is more than likely a large point of focus in getting your base weight down. What you should be looking for is a tent which should weigh no more than 2 pounds, though lighter options are available the cost will tend to rise in parallel to weight drop.

This is why many in ultralight backpacking will start to look into alternative sleep systems, for example, hammock or tarps. Hammocks and tarps have their drawbacks and issues but depending on hiking could be a good fit.

Hammocks, for example, require trees or similar methods to support hanging correctly to get them off the ground. Tarps meanwhile, have open sides and front typically leaving you exposed to critters and wildlife. Both can drop your base weight, but you need to find the right tool for the trip.

How Much Should Your Backpack Weigh for Ultralight Backpacking?

For your backpack itself, you would like to aim for under 2 pounds as this allows you to almost halve the weight of a typical hiking backpack. This will mean much less on your shoulders and hips over the course of months which should help you thrive in a thru-hike.

Make sure when finding the backpack you want to take that it has all the pockets and extras you need. There are many very lightweight backpacks that eschew these outer pockets and strap areas that may impact you carrying all the gear in the easiest way possible.

How Much Should Your Sleeping Bag Weigh for Ultralight Backpacking?

When looking into sleeping systems most people are familiar with sleeping bags but sleeping quilts are growing in popularity due to being open on one side and allowing for better airflow. I have always used mummy bags and similar sleeping bags, although lately, I have been looking for a quilt that won’t bust the bank.

Sleeping pads though come in many different forms depending on the need you are trying to fill. If you are going to be in the snow and ice where insulation value is of more a concern then aim for the high R-Value of this pad.

If more of the hike is from summer into fall and winter weather isn’t as large of a concern then you can seriously dump weight by looking at the Uberlite.

Overall Thoughts on Running Ultralight Backpacking Base Weight

When looking to start hiking on a long distance you want to lose as much excess weight as you can without impacting your personal safety. Many times this won’t be done ahead of the hike and only happens after the first section is completed and you find a list of things you don’t want to carry any longer.

Instead, I would recommend you start this process well before you begin your thru-hike as a means to be better prepared for your thru-hike. Doing short hikes and dropping useless gear will help you know your limits and the limits of your gear along with finding any needs you may have forgotten prior.

Prior to your hike is also the best time to replace any heavy gear with lighter alternatives as once you are out on the trail you will be limited to choices in the shops along the route and any imposed price hikes that come with it.

What Base Weight is Right For You?

Take the time to understand how long you will be hiking and if long distance hiking, additionally, how much time between towns to resupply. Then check into the weather and conditions expected for the time you plan to hike, this will give you a good feeling as to the base gear you will need.

For many this will be in the 15-25 pound range when you add in consumables your backpack may be up to 40 pounds, this is why you want to always be evaluating gear that weighs less but provides you a quality experience when out on the trail!

Final Thoughts on What is a Good Base Weight for Backpacking

There is no miracle number for your personal base weight and what is perfect for one person may. not be the best for another. Additionally, when you are looking to do a day hike these numbers can change to be less, each type of hike, distance, and the season will impact your backpack.

As I get older though I do try to minimize my backpack weight as my back, knees, and feet get achy with time and the beatings a lifetime has done to them. This is always best, in my opinion, to lower as low as you feasibly can while maintaining all your safety, never cut weight if it impacts your health and safety.

If you know that, for example, winter storms are coming which could feature snowfall you need to have a high R-Value sleeping pad, 0 degrees or better quilt or sleeping bag, and a 4 season tent or similar shelter. Please don’t put yourself in harm’s way!

3 thoughts on “Lighten Your Load: Crafting the Ideal Base Weight for Backpacking”

  1. MAJOR typo… “Your backpack base weight is the goods that don’t change in your pack for the trip, this would include your food, water, cooking gas, and the clothes you are wearing…” Base weight never includes consumables. The quote should read “Your backpack base weight is the goods that don’t change in your pack for the trip, this would ***NOT*** include your food, water, cooking gas, and the clothes you are wearing…” Otherwise, great info. I liked the chart; even though the weight you carry should not be based solely on body weight, the chart does provide a good reference point.

  2. Thanks for the excellent info. I’m using the Atmos 65 for my solo wild camping, with a base weight of about 6kg (13.2 lbs). Would it be possible to lower it even more? Of course, but at a (very high) price. Most of the ultra-light tents are incredibly expensive, and there’s also the fact that vegan backpackers won’t be willing to use a down’s sleeping bag, preferring instead the heavier but more ethical choice of synthetic materials. I found the base weight chart very useful too.


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