Backpacking Guides

Weight is your enemy when backpacking

No, I’m not talking about your’ weight (although backpacking is a great way to get into shape). The weight of your gear is one of the most important factors. In fact, it is one of those things that can literally ruin an otherwise perfectly planned trip.

Packing gear for a trip – whether it is a two-day outing or two-month adventure – requires as much, if not more, planning than the rest of the trip combined. When you take into account the often high costs associated with quality1 backpacking gear, it only makes sense to take your time selecting equipment.

Every ounce saved matters and there are quite a few accomplished hikers who subscribe to the ultralight philosophy of backpacking. That is to say, they become so fanatical about the weight of gear that they often forgo certain comforts in an effort to keep their packs as light as possible.

That’s not what I suggest you do, however. While ultralight backpacking can be a rewarding experience, most of us will do well to find a good balance between weight and comfort. Your hiking experiences will be much more enjoyable and the extremely high cost associated with much of today’s ultralight gear are enough to send most of us running back to our couches and TV sets without giving backpacking another thought.

Although we will discuss gear in detail throughout this book, there are three things you should consider whenever shopping for a new piece of gear: performance, durability, and weight.

Performance refers to a piece of gear’s ability to perform as intended. A rain jacket isn’t any good if it isn’t waterproof just as a stove isn’t worthwhile if it doesn’t cook food, right?

We always want to select items that work well. Online product reviews are an excellent way to learn about how a product actually functions compared with what the manufacturer claims it does.

Likewise, durability is also important. If you’re forking over $150 for a good internal frame backpack you want to be assured that the equipment is constructed in such a way as to provide years of faithful service.

When it comes to durability, online reviews can also be helpful. Purchasing name brand items with a proven reputation for quality and durability is also a good idea, especially when it comes to essential items such as your pack, sleeping bag, and tent.

Finally, the weight of every item in your pack needs to be considered. A difference of one ounce may not seem like a big deal, but let me tell you, those ounces add up! A few ounces here, a few ounces there and next thing you know the pack weighs 70 pounds when it could have weighed 50 pounds had you spent the time researching product weights before the purchase.

Also, don’t always believe the manufacturer when they tell you what a product weighs. Although these estimates are usually accurate, there are exceptions. My recommendation is to bring a small scale to the sporting goods store with you and weigh any item you are considering.

This may seem like a lot of work but a difference of only 10 pounds on a long walk can be a huge difference, especially when traversing rough terrain and near the end of the journey.

How much weight you carry depends on how long you will be gone, whether or not you go alone (multiple people can split the weight of essential items) and how many comfort items you decide to bring.

Before even considering gear remember this: you must add approximately two pounds of weight per day for food and fuel and one pound for every pint of water carried. Especially on long hikes, food, fuel, and water are likely to be most of the weight so it again makes sense to keep the weight of other gear to a minimum whenever possible.

As a general rule when solo hiking, total gear weight should be no more than 25-30 pounds. Once food and water is added to this, the pack should come in around 50 pounds assuming a two-week trip. Although this isn’t an extreme amount of weight (when properly distributed with a good pack), 50 pounds is still a lot of weight, especially for a novice backpacker. Of course, a weekend trip should allow for much lighter pack weights and more importantly, these weekend trips allow you to experiment with different gear combinations to find that perfect balance between functionality and weight on the trail.

Pack Rat Syndrome

One of the most rewarding parts of backpacking is that we learn how little we actually need to survive. No TV, no comfortable couch and no refrigerator full of goodies.

The human race is a bunch of pack rats. I’m not singling anyone out here — we are all guilty of it. From storing unnecessary items at home to trying to fit too many things into a backpack, it’s human nature to store things that we think we might need at some point. While it’s important to think ahead when planning gear for a trip, it’s important to realize that we cannot take everything we need for every possible situation we might encounter.

What we need is a solid base of equipment (see Appendix I). From this base, we can add and remove items depending on the area of the hike and the weather. You likely don’t need a heavy winter coat if hiking at low elevation in the summer, for instance. But if you plan on hiking in the desert you’ll need to carry more water than you would in an area full of natural water sources. Again, experience and proper planning are the way to learn what works and what doesn’t firsthand.

Humans are pack rats for another reason too. It’s an unspoken truth within the backpacking community that you will fill your pack no matter how big or small it is. This is important because a weekend hike doesn’t require a massive internal frame pack but rest assured that if that’s what you’re using you will find a way to fill it.

For this reason, it’s usually a good idea to purchase a pack just large enough for the type of backpacking you plan to do. Most experienced hikers have multiple packs depending on the amount of gear they need to carry and how long they plan to be gone.

If all you have is one pack, shoot for something in the 40-60L range. While most people would agree that this is overkill for a weekend excursion, it is large enough for distance hikes without being overly large and heavy thus providing a versatile pack that can be used for a variety of hikes large and small.

In the following chapters, you will learn about specific types of gear and various options within each category. Please remember to always choose the lightest options available within your budget (most of the time lighter means more expensive in the backpacking world).