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The Ideal Backpack Weight

Are those waders and a fly rod? Why is this guy smiling? Photo by Mary Reed.

“The lighter the pack, the more enjoyable the journey” is the mantra of many seasoned hikers. Hiking gear has lightened up significantly since I walked the Appalachian Trail 10 years ago, making it possible to hike lighter than ever. But how can you trim your pack weight down without chucking essential gear and jeopardizing your safety?

“You should carry the 10 essentials, originally assembled in the 1930s by the Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers” says Peter Greninger, National Outdoor Leadership School alumnus, Pittsburgh REI outreach specialist and wilderness first responder.

The 10 essentials:
1. Map & Compass
2. Sunglasses & sunscreen
3. Extra clothing
4. Rain protection
5. Flashlight
6. First aid kit
7. Fire starter
8. Matches
9. Knife
10. Extra food

In a quest to see if I could comfortably lighten my pack, I cross-checked my gear list with Peter’s 10 essentials and with the pack list of ultra-light thru-hiker Matt Roane. Matt’s base pack weight before food and water is 10 pounds. My base pack weight is 25 pounds. We had a comparable number of items on our gear lists, including the 10 essentials. I picked the six heaviest staple items from each of our lists to compare.

Item: Matt’s gear weight
Backpack: 19.8 oz. frameless
Tent: 25.4 oz. tarp tent
Sleeping bag: 19 oz. 32-degree down bag
Stove: 2.1 oz. homemade stove
Fuel: 8.0 oz. tablets
Water filter: 2.3 oz. liquid drops
Total: 4 lbs., 8 oz.

Item: My gear weight
Backpack: 109 oz. internal frame
Tent: 67 oz. 2-person tent
Sleeping bag: 32 oz. 20-degree down bag
Stove: 8.5 oz. liquid fuel stove
Fuel: 39 oz. liquid fuel & bottle
Water filter: 11 oz. pump water filter
Total: 16 lbs., 7 oz.

Matt’s six items were 12 pounds lighter than mine.

You give up some creature comforts with lighter gear. “When it’s raining, I miss the comfort of a dry roomy tent and my Teva sandals at the end of the day, but the temporary comfort doesn’t warrant the discomfort of lugging them around all day,” Matt says.

Combining the wisdom and experience of these seasoned hikers yields the following tips for packing light:

• Clothing: No cotton. Limit yourself to two outfits. Wear one, pack the other. Limit your socks to three pairs. Peter from REI recommends bringing clothes that have multiple functions like pants with zip off legs.
• Matt says “you should weigh and list each piece of gear you intend to take. Heavy items will jump off the page. Use the Internet to find lighter alternatives.”
• Carry a smaller backpack like the REI Cruise UL 60. This will help you conserve what you pack says Peter.
• Footwear: Trail shoes or light weight boots will make each step lighter.
• Food: Don’t skimp here. Two pounds per day, and pack an extra day’s worth.

Weigh the pros and cons when giving up creature comforts. Never compromise safety. We each have different levels of comfort (e.g., I like having a tent that allows me to zip out the bugs at night so it’s worth the weight to me). We also have different physical capabilities. I’m accustomed to carrying a forty-five pound pack, but others may find this weight cumbersome. Will you sacrifice your Teva sandals for a lighter pack? Only you can answer the question of what is the ideal pack list and weight for you.

Jeff Alt is an expert hiker, adventure planner, and author of the award-winning A Walk for Sunshine. He is presenting lectures around the country about the Appalachian Trail and hiking with children. To learn more, log onto his website at