Weight Range for Backpacking

Hikers with a wide weight range for backpacking.
Crossing the Shenandoah River

Connie asks the following question about a weight range for backpacking.  Connie will be participating in my upcoming Intro to Backpacking event at Harriman State Park.  The event is part of Hudson Valley Hikers and beginners will get to try out a variety of gear.

“Is there a specific weight range your backpack should be in if you’re very new to the activity, so that you don’t end up with a bad back?”

Weight Range for Backpacking

In short: you always want to go as light as possible.  These days, experienced backpackers actually carry less weight than novices. Beginners tend to worry more about what they may face out there and they’re not quite sure what they’ll need with them to face it. As you gain experience, knowledge replaces fear and you carry less weight.

Backpacking is different from other sports like Crossfit or GORUCK. The idea behind those sports is that as you get stronger, you can lift or carry more. The idea behind backpacking is that as you get smarter, you can carry less.

As you get smarter, you can carry less.

Specific Base Weight

When establishing a good beginner weight range for backpacking, we need to talk about two different weights.  Backpackers usually talk mostly about their Base Weight.  Your Base Weight is the weight of all the gear you carry in your pack, but it doesn’t include food or water. Your total pack weight includes consumables, like food, water, and fuel.  This is what your pack weighs when you first hit the trail.

A good way to control your base weight for backpacking is to carefully lay out your gear. This allows you to bring exactly what you need.
Carefully laying out my gear helps me to bring exactly what I need.

My base weight is about 11 pounds for 3-season backpacking trips (3-season means Spring/Summer/Fall). As a beginner, you may start carrying a few extra items that you’ll eventually learn you don’t need. If you’re cautious about weight while you’re shopping, you’ll probably start with about 15 or 16 lb base weight.  You can cut that down by spending a little more or doing a little more research.

Total Pack Weight

I typically carry about 2 lbs of food per day. Water varies, but I usually have about 4.4 lbs when I start hiking.  My total pack weight for most weekend trips is 19-21 lbs, depending on how much food I’m carrying.  As a beginner, you’ll probably carry too much food and this number may hit 30 lbs. It takes some time to learn how much food you actually need.

You can cut back your weight range for backpacking by carefully planning and measuring out your food.
You can cut back your weight by carefully planning and measuring out your food.

The Beginner’s Folly

The mistake most beginners make is that they don’t think weight matters. They want to save money because they’re not sure they’re really going to enjoy backpacking anyway.  Sometimes they think they really need a specific luxury item.   This may result in a base weight of 30 lbs or more, which will be uncomfortable. If you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to like it and that nice new gear will live in the closet. If you like it anyway, you’ll eventually exchange your original gear for lighter equipment as your thirst for adventure drives you towards longer days and higher mountains.