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the lightweight backpacker

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the mountain

weight is relative

There are several factors that affect a person's comfort level when toting a pack into the backcountry. The pack weight itself, the physical and mental condition of the packer, as well as the terrain and conditions within which one is traveling. When considering the topic of optimum pack weight, it is important to consider all of the above factors, holistically.

Each person is unique and should spend time discovering for themselves their optimum pack weight(s). For instance, my 27 pound, 7-day pack (and 18 pound, 3-day pack) are optimum for me. I invested the time to discover what felt best.


I am 5 foot, 9 inches tall and weigh 165 pounds. I do not smoke (anything) nor drink alcohol. I am not overweight and stay in good physical condition. I work out daily & carry a pack several times a week as part of the workout. I do most all of my packing in the mountains where significant elevation gains are routine and weather conditions run the gamut.


One of the factors that I considered when pursuing the optimum pack weight was % of pack weight to body weight. My 27 pound, 7-day pack is 1/6 (16.4%) of my body weight. That was my goal for a 7-day pack - 1/6 bodyweight.

Over the years, I've heard that 1/4 of a person's body weight is an optimum pack weight and even 1/3 is okay, if you're in good shape! In recent years, I've been aiming at 1/5 to 1/7 of my body weight. Currently, for 3-season mountain travel, I'm very happy in the 1/6 range. In the Winter, I add more food, more clothes, a beefier sleeping bag, extra sleeping mat, more fuel, heavier stove, heavier boots, snowshoes, and so on. In Winter, my pack weight is more in the range of 1/5 to 1/4 of body weight.

... but, actually, pack weight is relative! Depending on your weight, conditioning, terrain, etc., your optimum pack weight, at any given time, could be 1/4 or maybe even 1/6.

The main point is to figure out for yourself what is optimum - (and the pack weight to body weight ratio is just one factor to consider) !


A number of "big guys" have written to me "suggesting" that I publish a "lightweight" 7-Day Packlist for "big guys", because it's not likely that they will achieve 27 pounds for a week's worth of gear - given that most of their gear will be "bigger" and "heavier" - plus those dudes typically have a bigger appetite, which means, yes, more food, more fuel, MORE WEIGHT!! and, incidentally, big guys, if you send me your Big Guy "Lightweight" ??-Pound, 7-Day Backpack Checklist, I'll publish it!


Here's several emails that I received which further discuss the relative nature of pack weight:


From: Anonymous

".....I think it would be nice if you mentioned things with regard to bodyweight.

For example, I am a bit bigger than your average guy. I am 6'4" and 234 lbs. I think I read somewhere that the average male in the U.S. is around 160 lbs. Well, for the average guy, this means that your fabulous "27-lb 7-day pack" is at about 17% of his bodyweight. For me, I have done many, many things to reduce pack weight but I am still at a 42-lb 7-day pack. However, this amounts to only 18% of my bodyweight - and this feels great for me.

See, as a big fella, the only things that weigh the same as the "average guy" are the water filter, stove, cookset, and other similar "standard" items. But my tent or bivy, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pants, jacket, shoes, underwear, t-shirts, vest, etc. are all size XL or XXL or oversize, etc. Not to mention that I eat tons more, so I have to carry more food, water, and fuel - anyway, I'm very sure you are aware of this.

I just think that there might be some poor fella out there who's big like me and just can't seem to get his pack as light as yours and may be terribly confused. So perhaps a reference to % weight could be considered lightweight, not just a raw weight.

By the way, my 42-lb pack could be improved DRASTICALLY with a bit more dough, experience, and creativity - which will happen with time. Perhaps I'll get it down to 35 lbs (only 15% of my bodywieght!), but I just can't ever see it getting as light as yours - but if I do, then I am convinced that yours should be even lighter if you're close to the "average man"......"


From: Jeremy Loomis Norris

"On this pack weight is relative thing.....

My problem is even worse. I'm 5'8" and 110 pounds.... I still have to get Regular-size bags, even though I weigh less than most people who get Short ones. This also includes clothes, where I have to get Mediums. Not only that, I eat like a hog despite my weight.

Consequently, I can only realistically get my pack weight down to 1/5 my body weight, even when carrying sub-Jardine weights! aaaaah! I'm considering buying smaller stuff and just being a *tad* uncomfortable though, to save a few ounces."


From: Bob Richey

My thought on the body weight to packweight ratio is that the key is in reducing the terms to functional (muscle) as opposed to nonfunctional (fat) body weight, then consider the ratio to weight of pack.

My guess is that 110 pound Jeremy .... can scamper up trails like a gazelle compared to me at 170, even with a few added energy bars in his pack. This has led me to work somewhat more on reducing myself than my packweight in preparation for prime hiking season.

Not being a kinesiologist, however, I'm not at all sure how this all can be figured. It seems to me that there should be no appreciable difference between body fat and extraneous pack weight.


From: Jim Morrison

I have wrestled with the idea of how much my backpack "should" weigh for many years. I read once that you can carry no more than one fifth of your body weight and be "comfortable". When I was younger we often carried rope, crampons and climbing hardware and thought 55 pounds was normal.

The basis I use now is one-fifth body weight. I weigh 175 and consider a 5 pound difference significant. Hence, I deem the following to be my guide.

Extremely heavy      50 pounds and up
Very heavy           45 to 49 pounds
Heavy                40 to 44
Normal               35 to 39
Light                30 to 34
Very Light           25 to 29
Extremely Light      20 to 24

This keeps the terms from being subjective. What is high tec or ultralight for one person, may not be so for someone else.


From: Mark

You can drastically improve your pack weight percentage if you stop working out and get married. I also have an 18 pound 3 day pack including food. But I don't work out and have been married for 30 years.

Prior to marriage my pack percent would have been 10.5%. Now, thanks to three decades of sitting on the couch at night watching TV/movies with the wife and going out to dinner several times a week because one of us is hungry, I've improved my pack percent to 7.8% :)

Bottom line...if you want to backpack your entire life make some careful decisions.

Editor's Note: his tongue is firmly in cheek, me thinks :)