Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size

Posted by: HeikeDog

Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 02:00 PM

My 16yo son is interested in getting into multi-day backpacking. We have just barely started to do any research, but I have a question I'm just curious about. I know there are all kinds of situational differences, but is there any rule of thumb, a ratio, of body size to the loaded weight of a backpack? For example, my son and I are both in pretty good physical condition. I am 5'4" and 110 lbs; he is 6' and about 180 lbs. In general, how much weight might we expect to be able to comfortably carry? Thanks.
Posted by: Gershon

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 02:29 PM


The rule of thumb I think is often used erroneously is 25% of the body weight.

My son is 5'3 and weighs 97 pounds. This summer he carried 28-30 pounds without complaint. I'm 6'0, 187 pounds. For long distance, my comfort level ends around 35 pounds, but under 30 pounds is much more comfortable. But I ended up carrying around 43 pounds. It was too much for both of us.

The danger with using a percentage body weight is you son will end up with a 45 pound pack and you will end up with a 27 pound pack if the percentage is 25%. It will be too much.

Personally, and this is a strictly PERSONAL opinion, is I feel each should carry you own weight. A small person's clothes are lighter, they need less food, and their sleeping bag can be lighter if they buy a small size. If each carries their own weight, then they will be more strict on how much they carry.

Of course some things can be shared, and it's natural to have a little imbalance with the bigger person carrying more.

Hope this somewhat of a non-answer helps. I'll be interested to see differing opinions.
Posted by: lori

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 02:49 PM

How old are you? Are YOU interested in getting into multi day backpacking or is that all your son's idea?

I would suggest letting him carry everything and you taking a very light pack. smile

But seriously - have a read of my most recent thread about Killing the Newbie, if you are middle aged, and not backpacked for a number of years. I'm assuming you haven't been doing it a lot if you are asking the questions. If your only concern is your son's growing body vs. a big heavy pack, I'd have him try on some packs full of stuff - water is a good choice since you can dump it out if it becomes uncomfortable - and go day hiking to see what's comfortable for him. I'd guess no more than 40 lbs (he's a big guy) - and since it's perfectly possible to be comfortable with a base weight of about 20 lbs before adding food and water, not sure why you'd have him carry more than 40.

Welcome to the wonderful world of "everything's relative" and "hike your own hike." Start slow and have a great time. It's perfectly acceptable to camp in the back yard with your gear to try it out before actually going overnight. I highly recommend going backpacking for a few miles and one night, then increasing miles done for one night trips, then two nights, then more... and not just picking a week and death-marching it. You will be a lot more comfortable that way.
Posted by: Heather-ak

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 02:55 PM

Also some people (teenagers often) have more energy and have to be weighted down so other people can keep up with them. shocked

I carry as little as possible and put as much in my husbands pack so I can keep up. Though sometimes this backfires - his body changed and his old pack made a wear "hole" on his back after one day in on an overnight hike - I ended up having to carry his (heavy) pack out...
Posted by: Glenn

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 03:22 PM

Young kids, I'd try to hold at 20 pounds regardless of body weight; it's an issue of still-developing bone and muscle structure. Teenagers, I'd say 20 - 25% of their weight; maybe 25 - 30% for adults. However, there's a caveat.

Those percentages assume that you're in average condition and at or under your ideal body weight. If you're overweight, then take 30% of your IDEAL body weight, subtract your excess weight, and that's the most your pack should weigh. I've found this isn't exact, particularly with young, strong running-back types, but for most average folks, it's about right.

For example, my ideal weight is about 180; 30% is 55 pounds. When I weighed 210, and carried a 25 pound pack, at the end of the day, I felt about as tired as when (years ago) I weighed 190 and carried a 45 pound pack. At 220, even with a 20-pound pack, I was beat at the end of the day (and considering giving up the sport.) I've since lost some weight, and now weigh 190 again and carry a 20 pound pack - and feel great at the end of the day.

I've got no science to back this up; I've just noticed over the years that this seems to be a good rough formula in a lot of situations.
Posted by: skcreidc

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 03:56 PM

Honestly? This all goes back to the fit of the pack. With a comfortable pack it is easier to carry more. The 25% rule of thumb is just that...a starting point. Best to go as light as possible; better to think of it as base weight (the weight of everything but food and water) and have a goal of keeping the base weight under 25 pounds per person. If you can, shoot for 20 pounds or less. Make sure there is no duplication (only one tent, one stove, one first aid kit, ect). Double check this, you would be surprised what you can toss out. After you get this settled, then add the food and water.

When I was a kid, I would haul on trail. So when my dad packed the backpacks, he had weight goals for mom, my sister, and himself. Everything else ... on or in my pack. I think the most he ever gave me was 80 pounds when I was 16. I was 6'5" and 175 pounds. Come to think of it, I never did grow anymore after that... confused
Posted by: DTape

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 05:47 PM

If my memory is correct, and it probably isn't, the 25% of your body weight originally came from the Swedish? military. After conducting a series of tests they determined that at or below 25% of ones body weight there was not an significant change in ones physical performance. Over 25%, bagn a marked decrease in efficiency and performance. I wonder if there is a link to where I read about this. Even if my memory is correct, this would be for adults in military shape. Extending the conclusion beyond the research data increases the error.

A quick search yielded this:

A fascinating read. It doesn't verify my memory. In fact it somewhat contradicts it. So my memory, as assumed, was wrong. On one page there was a reference to 25kg for an in shape young male. (The research was done in 1977). I wonder if this morphed into 25% by the general hiking public?
Posted by: OregonMouse

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 06:04 PM

I've been using 15% for my grandkids (oldest getting close to 12). I wouldn't use more than 20% for a teenager who is still growing. A lot depends on physical conditioning, amount of body fat, maturity of joints and other factors.

20% of my ideal weight is about the maximum amount I can carry. Above that my knees and feet start screaming!
Posted by: twinmike

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 06:28 PM

What weight ratio per day would be for normal use for each item. Say for 4 days, three meals plus two snacks per day, what calorie per day is this good for. At 25% of body weight say at 84 kilos to pounds would be 185 lbs. but at 25 kilos that comes to about 50 lbs. Perhaps the military consider a 3500 calorie a day?? do they include water weight of 3 kilo (7lbs)in that number. how about tarp/blanket, or even a rifle
Posted by: twinmike

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 07:01 PM

This is a fascinating subject because it contains so many variables, the terrain, the altitude and weather, condition of hiker and most important the length of hike just to mention a few. But at 3 liters per day each for a four day hike would add, 12 liters or weigh 26 pounds. How about the food, and other essentials. U.S. Army uses 4500 calories a day as limiting. I think that comes to 2.76 mikes an hour for 8.5 hours
Posted by: skcreidc

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 07:11 PM


To be honest, I really don't remember where this came from. I know my dad was already using it as a rule of thumb for us in 1966. My sister, who was 3 years younger than me did not have that rule applied to her; for her 7 and 8 year old self it was all clothing and sleeping gear.

a general comment

I have hauled 100 pounds of equipment up mountainsides; for a specific purpose each time mind you. Not particularly pleasant, but it was for a worthy cause. I really think the better, and more enlightened, way to think about packing weight is less is more. Splitting your pack weight into base and food/water weight is one practical way to accomplish that. Throwing too much initially usually ends up in turning the person off to backpacking.
Posted by: HeikeDog

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 07:21 PM

Thanks for the information, everyone.

For whomever asked, I'm 44. I also would like to try backpacking, it's not just my son who is interested. We have done zero backpacking, but we do fairly lengthy walks (5-10 miles) without equipment. We live in San Antonio, and my son's eventual goal is for us to backpack in Big Bend. Not sure how safe that location is, given its proximity to the border ...
Posted by: balzaccom

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 08:11 PM

My wife and I try to keep our loads within 20% of body weight...and that works our pretty well. We can go for a week without passing that limit.

The list is on our website.
Posted by: oldranger

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 08:25 PM

I would emphasize a point made earlier - the fit of your backpack is crucial. I would recommend carrying a loaded pack on day hikes to get comfortable with the experience.

I think most of us acquired our backpacking expertise by going from day hikes to gradually longer backpacks, adjusting our gear and looking for lighter weight alternatives as we learned what worked for us. It is all about the three B's - backpack, boots, and bag - once you get those dialed in, everything else will fall into place.

From what I have been able to read, Big Bend does not have the border incidents to the extent that the Arizona parks, especially Organ Pipe Cactus, do. It would be instructive to hear from others on this....
Posted by: RHodo

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/07/11 11:38 PM

Hi HeikeDog!

Welcome to the board! I think that it's great that you and your son want to do this together.

I work in San Antonio and live nearby; Big Bend is perfectly safe, at least with regard to the type of incidents that you're likely concerned about. I regularly visit and can't recall any reports of problems. In fact, the community is very excited that they're about to reopen the border crossing at Boquillas. Anyone planning a trip to Big Bend can find a wealth of information and lots of very experienced, helpful and friendly folks at I recommend heading to the Chisos Mtns for your first visit to the park. It's well away from the border and has amenities (lodge, restaurant, store) if you feel that you need them. Here's a trip report with links to pictures from my last visit.

I don't want to hijack your thread so I'll shut up about Big Bend and get back to your original question now. Your original question asked "how much weight" so I realize that this isn't a very good answer from that viewpoint. At 110 lbs, your gear needs to be as light as possible. We live in a semi-arid area with limited water resources so there will be times when you'll carry as much water weight as gear.

I don't know how much gear you already have but with Christmas approaching, I feel compelled to say this. Many people don't fully appreciate the difference between backpacking and "camping with a backpack" and will, with the best of intentions, buy you stuff from Cabelas, Bass Pro, Dicks or Academy that you can't use because it's too heavy or otherwise inappropriate. Gently encourage them towards gift certificates and wait a bit before cashing them in, for you will find that your idea of suitable gear will change too as you learn more.

Posted by: HeikeDog

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/08/11 12:14 AM

Thanks for the Big Bend links, RHodo. Can you recommend any stores in SA that will give us guidance without trying to upsell naive newbies? You're right with Christmas approaching ... I have been thinking about what I could give my son regarding backpacking. I had in mind books and a gift certificate for shoes and another for a week's worth of my undivided time. I'd like to be able to pull ourselves together in time to make some kind of journey over spring break in mid-March. Our family runs at 100 miles per hour with work, school, activity after activity, and backpacking will be a great opportunity to slow down and catch our breath.
Posted by: finallyME

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/09/11 10:02 AM

SA has 2 Sportsman's Warehouses. When I lived there (graduated from UTSA) I would go to Bass Pro or Cabelas to "look" and then go to Sportsman's to buy. They were almost always cheaper. In fact, I do that here in Utah as well.

Anyways, here is my experience with 16 year olds backpacking. When I was 16 (and in SA by the way) my scout troop got a chance to go to Philmont for a week. This was a little while ago, so we all started out with 50 lb packs. However, there were 2 boys that had a hard time with the load, and one of the leaders as well. 4 of us that were in sports kept taking stuff from their packs so they would just walk faster. I started the trek at 50 lbs and came back with a 60-65 lb pack.
Fast forward to this last summer. I took a small group of scouts to hike 50 miles of the highest terrain in Utah. All were between 14 and 15. I had to keep putting weight in their packs so they would slow down.
Moral of the story, try and get him as light as you can, but don't worry about it. He will be fine. If you do go hiking with him, make sure he carries more weight than you. You will both have a better time. You will have an even better time if he doesn't know that you are lighter. smile

By the way, look at Enchanted Rock for a good beginner spot. You will only be able to camp 1-2 miles max from your car, but it will help with sorting out your gear, and be a great outdoor experience. Don't forget to check out the caves.
Posted by: RHodo

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/09/11 08:24 PM

I can't really point you towards a store in San Antonio. When I first started gearing up, I went in one (forget which) to grab some trekking poles before a weekend trip, they were only $15 more than I could've had them online but the weekend was coming fast so I went for it. Then they tried to sell me a $250 pair of boots on the way out the door.

If Austin's not too far; call the downtown REI in Austin and see when Katie will be in. She's a member of the Austin Backpacker's Meetup Group and went to Big Bend with me in late Sept. I'm sure that she'll steer you in the right direction without trying to empty your wallet. Let me know if you have trouble finding her, I've got her phone# and can call her directly but I don't want to give it out without permission.

Otherwise, I've gotten bits and pieces from various places. Your son would probably be fine on a Blue Foam Pad from Walmart, grab some waterproof stuff sacks and para-cord too while you're there. Other ideas might be GPS, compass and book on orienteering, a platypus hoser hydration bladder. I got a Magellan nylon poncho, windproof fleece gloves or windproof fleece cap from Academy.

I agree with finallyME, look a lot before you buy and make sure that you get the lightest version of whatever you buy that will do the job. Wait till you get everything else before you buy a pack and KEEP YOUR RECEIPTS.

By the way, send some money to finallyME, it really does tick him off. smile Merry Christmas.
Posted by: wandering_daisy

Re: Rule of Thumb for Backpack Load and Body Size - 12/12/11 06:36 PM

It depends on what you want to do while backpacking. If you are on flat trails, you can carry more. I do not find weight affects me much when I am just walking on flat ground. But if you are doing 3000 feet gain in a day, particularly at altitude, you have to lighten up. If you are going to cross-country travel over rough terrain or climb class 2-3 passes, you have to go even lighter or the load will throw you off your balance. Do you want to walk lots of miles each day? Then packs need to be light. Do you want short travel days and more time in camp and more camp comfort? Then you can carry more.

Whatever, it is much more fun to go as light as you can. Just because you "can" carry 50 pounds does not mean you "should" carry 50 pounds. With today's lighter gear, your base weight (weight of pack without food, fuel or water) can easily be around 20-25 pounds without breaking the bank on high dollar UL gear. Food should be no less than 1 pound per person per day and no more than 2 pounds per person per day. When I took my 17-year old daughter on a long backpack I carried more weight than her, even though she was bigger (taller) and weighted more. You do not want to get your kid hating backpacking. If your teen is reluctant, the worst thing you can do is load him down.

Not to exceed 25%-30% "lean" body weight is a good rule of thumb for me. I weight 115 and get very uncomfortable with packs more than 40 pounds. Not that I cannot do it, just makes the trip less fun. I aim for 18-20 pounds without food and water and 1.3 pounds (2,500 calories per day) food per day.