How Much Should A Hiking Backpack Weigh?

Venturing into the backcountry requires bringing along the correct gear. When it comes to packing for a day hike, even an experienced hiker can get carried away with bringing unnecessary items. However, knowing how much a hiking backpack should weigh can help you prevent pain and injury.

A hiking backpack should weigh 10% of your bodyweight for a day hike. This should include water, food, protection from the elements, and first aid. How you pack these essentials depends on how long you plan on hiking and the place you plan on hiking. 

Although packing these essentials seems relatively straightforward, it can get tricky. Different terrains require creative packing to make sure you have everything you need. Below we will discuss how to alter the contents of your backpack for different environments, without changing its weight. 

Must Have Items For Hiking

No matter where on earth you are hiking, how long you are hiking for, or what the weather is doing, there are a few items you should always carry when stepping onto the trail. These include:

  • A backpack
  • A topographical map and compass
  • A knife
  • A lighter
  • A first aid kit
  • Duct tape

The items mentioned above should only take up a few pounds of the weight of your backpack. However, I consider these the most lifesaving items. They have gotten me out of some sticky situations, and I never head into the backcountry without them. Below I will describe why each of these items is of the utmost importance!

A Backpack

This is the most obvious and the heaviest of the must-have items. Your backpack will take up a significant portion of the weight, weighing anywhere from 3 lbs to 6 lbs. Some are more lightweight than others, but you want to find a backpack that feels comfortable while offering organization inside.

Topographical Map And Compass

I know these are two things, but they function more like one system. No matter how well you know a trail, things can happen. Trails can get washed out, or a previous hiker can move a log that was critical for understanding a trail’s turn. When in doubt of a trail, it is always wise to have a topographical map and compass to determine your location accurately and proceed accordingly.

A Knife

Having a medium-sized sharp knife has helped me out in the backcountry more times than I can count. It can aid you in gear repairs, and worst-case scenario it offers you a weapon against unwanted animal attacks. It’s also useful for cutting things like string, and even items of food.

A Lighter

Having a lighter as one of your most essential items might seem like a strange choice but trust me, it’s not. A lighter is there to provide you with warmth if your day hike turns into sleeping out in the wilderness.

Thousands of people get lost hiking each year, and in many places temperatures dip into dangerous levels when the sun disappears. When lost, making a fire is an excellent way to keep yourself warm, alert Search and Rescue to your position, and keep up morale. 

A First Aid Kit

Even when you are taking a gentle grade on a familiar trail, anything can happen while hiking. From bee stings to rolled ankles, a proper first aid kit should carry the basics for trailside emergencies. The size and contents of the first aid kit can be determined by how strenuous the trail becomes, but all hikers should carry a basic first aid kit.

Duct Tape

Duct tape has saved me so many times in the backcountry. I once had the sole of my shoe completely separate from its top. I duct-taped it back together and was able to hike 14 additional miles comfortably!

Another time I broke a backpack strap and fashioned it back together with some duct tape. It is tough and durable and can hold things together in wet weather or scorching heat.

Where You Plan To Hike

Where you plan on hiking makes a massive impact on how you choose to weigh your pack down. For example, a long hike requires a full-on lunch, whereas a short hike only requires some trail snacks. Next, we will explore how different climates force you to get creative about packing your bag without exceeding 10% of your body weight.

High Elevation Peak Bagging

High elevation hiking is one of the most popular forms of day hikes out there. It requires careful packing of your backpack as each pound can feel like 30 above 10,000 feet.

After the essentials mentioned above, the next heaviest component of your pack will be your layers. Lightweight rain clothes and warm base layers are items you don’t want to be without, even if temperatures at the trailhead seem unbearably hot.

High mountains have their own weather,and at the summit, clouds move almost faster than you can observe them. Therefore, it is vital to prepare for anything. Bringing layers that are high-quality and water wicking will serve you best. Try and avoid any layers made of thick and heavy wool or cotton.

Water, an important necessity, doesn’t have to be the heaviest part of your pack. In most high elevation peak-bagging situations, mountain streams run all around, even late into the autumn months. Of course, it is always good to have at least a liter of water to start the hike, but packing a lightweight water filter will save you from making your pack weight 90% water.

Food fills the last remaining weight of your pack. Hiking at higher elevations burns calories faster, so you will want to pack extra snacks and probably a full lunch. Also, hiking at intense elevations is dangerous, so it’s always good to have extra food in case of an emergency.

Hot Desert Hiking

When hiking in the desert, water is life. Dying of thirst is the number one killer of desert hikers. We, unfortunately, ditch the water filter in this climate because we will most likely not be encountering any harvestable streams. Because of this, water will take up a ton of your pack weight. At the very least, you should have 3 liters of water for a day hike, weighing about 7 lbs.

You can ditch the heavier layers used at high elevation but be sure to bring some sun protection via a sun shirt and cap. I would still keep the lightweight raincoat in your pack because desert storms do happen from time to time and tend to be short and intense.

When I am hiking in intense heat, I’m not particularly eager to eat as much as I do at higher elevations. Some trail snacks, and if I am going a longer distance, a light lunch seems to keep me from feeling sluggish in the heat.

Rainforest Hiking

When hiking in the dense rainforests, you will need heavy-duty rain gear. A backup water wicking base layer adds minimal weight and is nice to have to change into if needed. A torrential downpour can last for days on end and result in hiking up to your knees in water. Packing heavy-duty gaiters that strap around your boots to keep your feet dry is a must.

Something I have learned the hard way with hiking in the rainforest is to bring a couple of pairs of socks in case your feet do get wet. Having wet feet while hiking can quickly lead to blisters, and you will want to remedy the situation the second you feel any moisture in your boots.

In some situations, it’s impossible to keep your feet completely dry, but hiking through a murky area and then changing your socks at a drier point makes the whole experience more enjoyable.

Other Precautions

Depending on what rainforest you find yourself in, the oversized Leech Socks might be a recommendation. They cover the space between your gaiter and your thigh to prevent leeches from accessing your skin. Strong bug spray and even hats with face netting are helpful in these dense forests.

Water is even more plentiful here than in high elevation areas so water weight can be nearly eliminated. Filter water as you need, although I highly recommend getting a quality filter and finding running water as opposed to stagnant ponds.

Similar to the desert areas, eating light is the best way to go in the rainforest. Bringing a sealable bag for food waste will also help to keep the bugs away. There are great lightweight reusable Ziplock bags they make for this exact purpose that you can find at your local store.

Final Thoughts

Keeping your pack weight at 10% of your body weight can be challenging when you don’t know what you’ll need. Carrying a heavy pack due to overpacking is uncomfortable and can make something supposed to be fun a miserable experience.

Once you have packed the must-have items for any hiking trip, it’s crucial to know how long your hike is and the environment of where you plan to hike. Then you can creatively craft a backpack that is comfortable while still containing potentially life-saving contents!