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How Heavy Should A Hiking Backpack Be?

A backpack is the most fundamental part of your hiking gear. What you pack needs to see you safely through your hike, regardless of its length. Many hikers pack as light as possible too, so their backpack is less demanding to carry, but there is a formula for how heavy your backpack should be.

You don’t want to carry a hiking backpack weighing more than 20% of your body weight. A backpack that is too heavy will slow you down and can lead to pain in areas of the body placed under additional stress. Try to pack as light as possible without compromising your comfort or safety on the trip.

Packing all the essentials for a successful hike while maintaining a manageable backpack weight can be a tricky balancing act. In the article below, we’ll discuss the weight at which a backpack may be considered too heavy, the problems this can cause, and how to pack lighter.

How Heavy Is Too Heavy For A Hiking Backpack?

Carrying a heavy backpack that’s uncomfortable to manage might not necessarily doom a hike, but it will certainly make for a less enjoyable experience. Packing as light as possible is the aim for most hikers, although not at the expense of safety. You want to pack all the supplies you need, but you must be able to carry the weight for many miles over potentially uneven terrain.

Therefore, someone off on a multi-day hike who weighs 175 lbs would ideally be looking to carry a maximum weight of 35 lbs. However, this is a rough guide as there are a number of factors that can affect how much an individual is able to carry.

Considerations

A slender hiker weighing considerably less than 175 lbs is likely to need to carry more than 20% of their body weight just to carry the essentials. After all, we can assume the essentials are the same for everyone on the hike and there is a limit to just how little essential supplies can weigh.

However, just because you weigh more does not mean you can easily stick to the 20% rule of thumb. Many people find they start to struggle when they are carrying a backpack that weighs more than 35 lbs. Therefore, it’s probably better for all hikers to think about packing their backpack with a weight between 10% to 20% of their body weight.

Fitness levels also play a role in how much you can comfortably carry. An experienced hiker used to the physical exertions involved is more likely to comfortably manage a particular backpack weight compared to someone who is a lot less fit. However fit and strong you think you are, it’s still best to avoid a backpack weight that is in excess of 30% of your body weight.

The weight of your backpack can depend on other factors, such as the duration of the hike and the weather. The longer the trip, the more food you need to carry. The colder the temperatures, the more layers of clothing required. To maintain a backpack-to-bodyweight ratio of 20% may mean leaving behind some non-essential items. However, this compromise should never be at the expense of safety.

Backpack Base Weight

There are certain essential items that you will always take on your hiking trips. The combined weight of these items forms your backpack’s base weight. Once you know this base weight you can plan and pack your other supplies. You can add other supplies until the total backpack weight is around 20% of your body weight.

For a hike involving overnight camping stops, here’s a list of essentials you may always pack:

  • Tent, which can weigh as little as two pounds
  • Sleeping bag, which can weigh between one and three pounds
  • Cooking stove            
  • Clothes           
  • Water Filter
  • Torch
  • Compass
  • Eating utensils
  • Water bottle
  • First aid kit

If these are the items you pack for every hiking trip, then you can work out a consistent base weight. If you don’t know the weight of any item, you can pop them on a kitchen or bathroom scale. Now, you have a base weight figure you know will not alter until you must replace an item.

With this base weight in mind, you can now add the extras and consumables you want to take. If we use the example from earlier, and you weigh 175 lbs and want to carry 20% of your body weight, then your base weight, consumables, and extras will add up to 35 lbs.

Consumables

Food is not included in the base weight because it’s a consumable item that lightens the weight of your backpack as it’s used. Your base weight should be the same at the end of the hike as it was at the start. Other extras not included in the base weight are sleeping pillows, sleeping bag liners, books, cameras, or anything you may take every now and then but not on every hike.

Pack A Balanced Backpack

Another consideration to be made alongside the weight of the backpack is how it sits on your back. A backpack needs to fit your body shape and not move about when carried. When you pack before a hike, you will also want to ensure you pack a balanced backpack, one that distributes the weight evenly across the back.

The bulkier items you won’t need during the day, such as a tent and sleeping bag, should be packed at the bottom of the backpack. The heavier items should ideally be in the middle section of the backpack, where they feel lightest against your back, making sure there are no sharp edges that could rub. Heavier items include all your food and water supplies, plus clothes and your cooking oven.

The top section of the backpack is the ideal place to put lighter items you may want to access during the day. This may include snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a lightweight rain jacket. Further light items such as a camera, phone, and water bottle that you will want to access quickly during the hike will go in the side pockets.

What Happens If Your Hiking Backpack Is Too Heavy?

A backpack that is too heavy will soon lead to a difficult hike. The excess weight will most likely mean you will hike at a slower pace and cover less distance than planned. The discomfort from carrying too heavy a load can take both a physical and a psychological toll and ruin your hike.

Carrying a backpack that is too heavy can lead to injuries as well, particularly when the weight in the backpack is not evenly distributed and favors one side or area more than another. Injuries you can sustain carrying a heavy backpack include:

  • Lower back pain
  • General back pain
  • Joint pain
  • Blisters
  • Sore hips
  • Neck or shoulder pain

A rarer problem is known as backpack or rucksack palsy, with weakness, numbness or pain in the shoulders, arms or hands some of the symptoms of this condition. The cause is the excess pressure placed on a network of nerves called the brachial plexus, which transfer signals around the upper extremities of the body.

Avoiding injury is why it’s so important to pack a weight you can comfortably manage, a weight that is evenly distributed across the back. Ideally, you want to pack your backpack as lightly as you safely can to avoid discomfort and injury.

What To Do If Your Hiking Backpack Is Too Heavy

1. Note Items You Did Not Use

When you return home from a hiking trip, empty your backpack and lay out all the contents in an orderly fashion. You want to look at each item and place them in one of three categories:

  • Items used most often
  • Items occasionally used
  • Items not used at all

Focus your attention on those items occasionally used or not used at all and reassess if you actually need them. These are the items you may come to realize added unnecessary weight to your backpack. Of course, items like a first aid kit will hopefully see very little use but are still essential and should never be left behind to save on weight.

Making a list of the items you need to pack before a hike can then prevent you from packing things you don’t really need. Packing superfluous and luxury items is more likely to happen with a spontaneous pack without a list to keep you to the absolute necessities.

2. Repackage Your Items

When you go shopping before a hiking trip, downsize on any items such as toothpaste and sunscreen you will be taking with you, or transfer the amount you want to take into smaller travel bottles. Downsizing or repackaging items is a simple way to save on space and reduce the weight of your backpack.

You can also remove any food that isn’t freeze dried from its original packaging and place it in lighter, plastic bags. With items such as tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats, you could remove them from the individual sacks they come with and pack them directly into the backpack. Therefore, as you pack ask yourself whether you are packing unnecessary extra packaging.

3. Plan Meals For The Whole Trip

Having enough food is obviously critical, but packing food on a whim is one of the main ways to over pack. By planning your meals for the duration of the hike you can avoid packing too much food that you will then need to carry throughout. You will get better at this as you gain more experience hiking.

You can write down what you will eat each day and shop accordingly beforehand. You should always pack a little extra food as a safety net, but meal preparation can save on the overstocking caused by quickly grabbing food from your store cupboards as you pack.

If you know you will be hiking close to a residential area with food stores, a planned restock could also prevent you from packing too much food at the start. However, you must be certain the stores will be open when you are due to arrive. You should only re-stock according to your original meal plan to avoid carrying unnecessary additional weight at this stage of the hike.

4. Update Your Gear

As and when your budget allows, you could look to upgrade some of your hiking gear, particularly if you have not done so for a few years. Advancements in fabrics and design have made ever lighter products available that can make for lighter backpacks and other gear.

Indeed, buying a lighter backpack could be your first upgrade even before you contemplate how to pack it. Other major items, such as tents and sleeping bags, could be replaced when you can afford to do so, ensuring you have the lightest options suitable for your personal needs and the weather in which you intend to hike.

5. Limit The Clothes You Take

Clothing can be one of the heavier loads in a backpack and there is an understandable desire to pack all manner of garments for all kinds of scenarios. However, limiting the amount of clothing you take can see one of the largest reductions you make to the weight you have to carry.

Pack clothing designed for outdoor pursuits with moisture-wicking properties to save having to pack umpteen shirts and leggings. For winter hiking, you will need some extra items as you will want to layer up to keep warm and dry. Good, specialized clothing such as base layers will again prevent the need for taking too many of the same items.

6. Spread Weight Between The Group

When you are hiking as a group, you can share some of the load between the members. Even if the tent, cooking oven, and water filter belong to you, sharing the carrying responsibilities will lessen the load in your backpack. This also includes any fuel for cooking. Ultimately, everyone in the group benefits from these items and should be more than happy to spread the load.

7. Time For A Kindle?

You may be a steadfast traditionalist when it comes to reading, but if reading is your prime entertainment method in the evenings on multi-day hikes, then it may be time to consider a Kindle. This can save you taking two or three books if you are an avid reader, a good weight saving ploy.

If you can’t quite bring yourself to go digital when reading, at least opt for paperbacks rather than hefty hardbacks. Two or three weighty tomes in your backpack can soon see fatigue set in faster than it otherwise would.

Final Thoughts

Try not to carry a hiking backpack with a weight exceeding 20% of your body weight. However, this figure is a guide, and some people will manage a higher ratio, while others will need a lower ratio. A backpack that’s too heavy can lead to injury. Manage weight by leaving unnecessary items behind.