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Backpacking base weight. Ultralight backpacking. Lightweight backpacking.
What does it all mean anyway? And does all this talk about base weight even matter?
When you’re 3 miles into a climb that feels like it might as well end at your grave, does base weight make a difference?
Base weight actually has a pretty big impact on your backpacking trip and how much you enjoy it.
What Is Base Weight
When backpacking, base weight refers to the total weight of your fixed-weight items. These are the items that you will be carrying for the duration of your trip and will not change weight.
It sounds funny, but there are items that you carry that will change weight throughout your trip.
Items such as food, water, and cooking fuel will fluctuate during your trip. Your total food weight becomes lighter as you eat, as does your fuel as you use it for cooking. Water weight depends on how much you carry for any stretch.
The contributing items to your base weight are often broken down into “The Big Three” or sometimes Big Four, depending on who you talk to and other gear you bring.
The Big Three (Four?)
Sleeping Bag (Sleep System)
Some people count the sleeping pad as part of the base weight, while others do not.
Personally, I lump the sleeping pad in with the sleeping bag, and presto, sleep system! This way it accounts for everything attributed to your sleeping comfort. (including an inflatable pillow if you use one)
Other than that little debate, everything else is fairly self-explanatory.
Your backpack and tent (tarp or hammock, if that’s your thing) are necessary items and contribute big time to your base weight.
Packs can range from around 1 pound to around 5 pounds. I have used both ends of this spectrum, and your backpack is probably the most underrated item contributing to your base weight.
Your tent, or shelter for you tarp and hammock folks, is also a sneaky contributor to weight. A tarp can add under 1 pound to your base weight, while a 2-4 person tent can tip the scales at over 5 pounds in some cases.
This is not to say those items are a waste of money or you should not use them or anything like that.
It highlights how easily some essential items can start to add up.
Gear Contributing To Base Weight
This category is where there is a lot of variance from hiker to hiker.
These items include anything outside of the Big Three and your consumables.
Any extra clothing that you have packed is included here. As is your electronics, maps, cookware, books, literally anything else you bring.
This is the category that fluctuates over time as you start hiking more and more. You start to realize that your camp chair just isn’t worth the extra weight, or going without earbuds just isn’t worth the weight savings.
The gear that I bring in this category changes almost every trip that I go. Trail conditions, weather, distance, and everything else can impact what you will want to have on trail.
These items are not counted toward your base weight because they can change while out on trail.
The weight of your food is drastically different on day 4 versus the start of your backpacking trip.
Likewise, refilling your water bottles or water bladder will add a few pounds to your back.
Cooking fuel is the least variable of these options, but it still gets lighter as you use it.
Difference Between Base Weight And Pack Weight
Base weight is generally considered your Big Three + any other backpacking gear you bring – consumables.
Hardcore ultralight backpackers focus heavily on base weight, while conventional backpackers may or may not be aware of what their base weight is.
As you are starting out, I would not recommend becoming obsessed over what your base weight is. Rather, be familiar with what your base weight is, decide if it feels too heavy and if so, make changes to make it lighter.
Your pack weight is simply the total weight of your pack. (food, water, and fuel included)
If you took your pack and placed it on a scale, that is your pack weight.
Because of the variability of things like how much food you have, when you last filled up on water, and how much cooking fuel you have used, this number will change throughout the hike. Whereas your base weight only changes when you change up your gear list.
What Is A Good Base Weight For Backpacking
Starting out, I would target the 15-18 pound range.
This is a fairly common range for a backpacking base weight. My first few trips were in this range, and I have worked down closer to the 10-12 pound range, depending on the trip.
I wouldn’t get too caught up in your base weight when you are getting your backpacking legs underneath you.
A good backpacking base weight is the weight where you feel that you have everything you need to be comfortable out there without feeling like your trip is diminished because of the weight.
For some, this is 10 pounds, while others may prefer 20 pounds. There is no objective “right” or “good” backpacking base weight. Chances are you will encounter someone out on trail who thinks you’re packing light. Within the same day, you will come across someone who will give you tips on how to lighten your pack because yours is too heavy.
Don’t stress base weights too much, instead, focus on having a great trip in the outdoors!
Ultralight, Lightweight, Standard Backpacking Base Weights
When it comes to backpacking base weight, hikers generally break it down into 3 main categories:
Ultralight backpacking is generally considered having a base weight under 10 pounds.
Ultralight gear is amazing because it is really lightweight, and having a lower weight makes it easier to hike up and down mountains.
The drawback to ultralight backpacking is that the gear is expensive, and you may have to sacrifice some of your “luxury” items. (bye bye journal and headphones)
Ultralight backpackers tend to enjoy putting in big-mile days and finishing long hiking trails quickly. Some criticize them as “not enjoying the scenery,” but as the ole motto goes, “Hike Your Own Hike.” There is no right or wrong way to hike.
Lightweight backpacking is considered to have a base weight of between 10 and 20 pounds.
I would say this is the most common range to be in, mainly because the range is quite big. You can find equipment to put you into this base weight range without breaking the bank.
Lightweight backpacking affords you the ability to bring some “luxury” items without having to haul a 50-pound pack up and over some mountains.
Standard weight backpacking (sometimes called traditional backpacking) involves having a base weight of over 20 pounds.
Depending on the specifics of the hike, this could make a lot of sense. If you are backpacking in super cold conditions, the extra cold weather clothing and extra insulation for your tent can add quite a bit of weight.
If you have older gear that weighs a lot and you don’t mind it or don’t have the extra cash to purchase newer gear, by all means, use it.
Your backpacking experience is what matters, not your base weight.
Should I Try To Lighten My Pack
In my opinion, you should try to lighten your pack.
I was surprised how much more I enjoyed backpacking when my pack wasn’t so heavy. And after all, backpacking is all about enjoying time in nature.
That said, don’t feel like you have to have a super light pack weight and sacrifice everything in the name of weight savings.
Just consider if the thought that your pack is heavy keeps creeping into your mind while on your trip. If so, you may not be getting the experience that you are hoping for, and having a light pack can be a real morale booster.
How To Lighten Base Weight
There are two main ways to lighten your pack weight: get new gear or leave some gear at home.
Getting new gear involves spending money on lighter gear. Whereas leaving some gear at home means you don’t have everything that you want.
It is a trade-off and which route you go may depend on your financial situation. Not everyone has a couple of hundred dollars to spend on new gear.
I would say analyze every piece of gear you bring and consider some low cost options to get lighter.
Water bottles are an often overlooked contributor to weight. I have seen people lugging around multiple stainless steel water bottles in the backcountry. Those things weigh close to a pound, and a plastic water bottle weighs almost nothing.
Does Body Weight Impact Base Weight?
Yes, your body weight does impact how much your base weight should be.
Generally speaking, around 15% of your body weight is the maximum base weight you want to carry.
Carrying a 30-pound pack is different for a 120-pound person versus a 200-pound person.
Ideally, you can keep your pack weight around 10% of your body or under. In my experience, this is where you really start to feel the benefits of the weight savings.
Backpacking base weight is something some hikers obsess over (ultralight hikers), while others are oblivious to how much easier (and more enjoyable) their hike would be with less weight.
I have run the spectrum from ultralight to standard, and in my experience, lighter is better.
I have more energy on the uphills, the downhills don’t feel as hard on my joints, and my overall experience is just better.
We all have preferences, and there is no right or wrong way to hike.
As long as you can have a smile on your face the whole time, pack weight is just a number. Don’t let it stop you from getting out there on your next outdoor adventure!