You hear this term all the time – but what does base weight actually mean? And, why does it matter in the first place? This guide will give you the answers you need to set a goal for your backpacking base weight and to lower it if you so desire. Let’s begin!
In backpacking, base weight refers to the total weight of your entire backpacking gear list, excluding food, water, and fuel. Many backpackers use base weight as a way to determine whether or not they are bringing too many clothes or luxury items. A good base weight for most people is 15-18 pounds.
What does “Base Weight” mean in Backpacking?
Your base weight is the total weight of all the gear you bring on every backpacking trip. It adds everything you bring that isn’t food, water, fuel, or clothes on your body (clothing inside the pack is counted). The reason it’s called “base” weight because it’s the standard weight of your pack, gear, and clothes; it won’t change from trip to trip, unless your gear list changes.
Items included in your base weight:
- Sleep system (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow)
- Tent, tent footprint, and rainfly
- Cooking equipment
- Tools, first aid kit, bear spray, and survival gear
- The clothes you’re wearing
Why does it matter?
Backpackers, especially those who are into the “ultralight” side of backpacking, use their base weight calculation to judge whether or not they’ve packed too much. The heavier your base weight is, the more energy you’re going to be spending with every minute you hike.
On the flip side, a lower base weight means you’re going to use less energy, which means you can go further without getting tired, giving yourself a more enjoyable experience. After all, it’s pretty tough to enjoy a gorgeous mountain vista if you’re about to pass out after lugging 55 pounds of gear.
That’s why ultralight backpackers are obsessed with lowering their base weight: the lighter your gear, the more fun you get to have.
Base Weight vs Pack Weight: Is there a difference?
Another term you’ll hear float around is “pack weight” – is this the same as base weight, or are they two different things?
When you get into backpacking, you will hear a lot of people use these terms interchangeably. On a technical level, though, they are different things:
- Base weight, as discussed, is the weight of all your non-food/water/fuel items.
- Pack weight is the total weight of everything you’re bringing, food and water included
The biggest difference between these two measurements is that base weight rarely fluctuates, while pack weight always fluctuates. This is why measuring your base weight accurately is super important, because it has an affect on every backpacking trip, not just the one you’re doing next!
Why base weight is a better measurement for backpacking
Pack weight might be the simplest concept, but it isn’t really the most useful. Think about it – you can have the same gear on a 3-day trip and a 6-day trip, but your pack weight will change substantially because of how much food you have. The difference in pack weight from one trip to another doesn’t really tell you anything useful.
This is why base weight matters more when you’re trying to gauge whether or not your backpacking gear weighs too much. It’s the weight that is always there, and it’s the weight you can always control. You have no control over how much water and food you need to bring on any given trip, so there’s no reason to be that concerned about your pack weight.
Base weight, on the other hand, tells you exactly what you want to know: are you packing too much, or just enough? Nobody’s going to fault you for bringing one too many granola bars, but packing a bulky camping chair and book you’ll never open is a great way to waste your energy reserves!
What base weigh should you aim for?
Okay, now that we’ve gotten our definitions and everything covered, let’s get practical: what exact measurement is a good backpacking base weight? Most people will say that 15 pounds is a good number to shoot for, and I agree. That said, you can get a lot more specific with your base weight if you really want to.
There are two things you should factor in when nailing down your ideal base weight:
- Your own size and weight
- How much money you want to spend
Let’s take a closer look at both of those:
Your body weight is a big determiner of your ideal base weight
I’m a few inches taller and a few dozen pounds heavier than the average person, which means that most every piece of gear I own is heavier than other people’s. My sleeping bag and sleeping pad weigh more, as does my backpack and all my clothing. For me, a 15 pound base weight is unattainable.
You may be in the same boat as me, or you may be on the other side of things: you may be small enough that a 15-pound base weight can be achieved by default. On top of that, because smaller people weigh less, each additional pound has proportionally larger effect. Whereas 15 pounds is only 5% of the weight of a 300-pound person, it’s 10% of the weight of a 150 pound person. You should increase your base weight goal proportionally with your own weight; otherwise, you’re just going to wind up frustrated.
These are the ideal backpacking base weights depending on body weight:
- Smaller backpackers (Under 160 pounds) might want to aim for a sub-10 base weight.
- Average sized (generously speaking, 160-230 pounds) should consider 10-15 pounds a good number to shoot for.
- Larger backpackers (anybody over 230, including myself) might be pretty lucky to keep it under 20 pounds, and 15 pounds is more of an aspiration than a serious goal.
Lightweight gear can cost you a ton of money
“15 pounds? Amateur!” said the ultralight backpacker in the corner of the room.
Ultralight adherents live for weight savings, even going so far as to whittle down their toothbrushes to save a handful of grams. It’s not at all uncommon for an ultralight gear setup to weigh a hair over 8 pounds. It’s also not uncommon for that ultralight setup to cost two or three times more than similar backpacking gear without the focus on weight.
For example, you could spend roughly $150 on a backpacking tent like this that, while light, is still middle of the road in terms of weight savings. Or, if you were really in an ultralight state of mind, you could spend over $700 on a tent that weighs 1.17 pounds. They’re both going to serve the same purpose; the only difference is that one of them is 2-ish pounds lighter than the other.
If you’re reading that and thinking, “why in the world would I spend an extra $500 just to drop a couple of pounds?”, you’re not alone. I feel the same way – ultralight gear is awesome, and it does make a difference, but it’s really hard to justify the price.
What does this mean for you as you try to decide your ideal base weight? Simply, this: the more money you have to spend, the lower you can get your base weight to be. If you don’t have a ton of money, it’s usually not even worth your time to figure out your base weight, because it’s going to be determined by your budget more than anything else.
5 Ways to lower your backpacking base weight
Looking for ways to drop a couple pounds from your pack? The following are the 5 most commonly used methods for lowering base weight:
Get a lighter sleeping bag
Sleeping bags are, in my opinion, one of the most diverse items in your gear list. They come in all sorts of colors, lengths, temperature ratings, and weights. If you want a lightweight sleeping bag, look for one that is filled with either genuine goose down or a lightweight synthetic.
Also be wary of choosing a sleeping bag that is rated for sub-zero temperatures unless you really need it. Four-season sleeping bags are typically heavier simply because they need to keep you warm in those super-low temps.
Your sleep system will typically weigh between 4 and 7 pounds, which means you’ve got a lot of room for weight savings with your sleeping bag.
Slice your sleeping pad
This is something I’ve never done, and likely will never do – because I value comfort a little more than keeping things light. That said, many ultralight backpackers and thru hikers will buy a closed-cell foam sleeping pad like this one:
Those sleeping pads are pretty light as is, but ultralight backpackers take it a step further: they cut the sleeping pad by about a third, so that the pad only supports their head, back, and waist. This saves a few ounces, but it makes sleeping a good bit more uncomfortable. Be careful if you go this route – your knees might not like it!
Upgrade your clothing
If there’s denim in your pack, get it out! Seriously – the easiest way to cut down on weight when backpacking is to pack only the right type of clothing. Wool, polyester blends, and other light, breathable fabrics will be your best friend.
Denim, cotton, and other heavy fabrics are better off being left at home. They’re cumbersome, they hold onto sweat and stink, and they just bog you down. I bring a couple of cotton t-shirts when I’m backpacking, but I try to keep everything else squarely in the “performance” categories. That means lightweight, stretchy cargo pants, wool shirts, and jackets designed for travel.
Consolidate your cooking equipment
The Instagram fantasy of cooking a complete English breakfast on the side of a mountain has given a lot of newbie backpackers the wrong idea about trail meals. Lugging a stove, pots, and cooking utensils 30 miles into a national park just sounds miserable to me.
That’s why I (and thousands of other campers and backpackers) use a complete cooking system that’s the same size as a Nalgene: the Jetboil Flash (read my review here). It’s a backpacking stove that boils water in under two minutes, perfect for making coffee, tea, or adding boiling water to a dehydrated meal pouch. Couple that with a few granola bars and a bunch of dried fruit and you’re good to go!
Refuse to overpack
This one, I’m not so good at. I’m a serial overpacker, no matter what kind of trip it is. If you’re an overpacker, too, you should be cautious when deciding which things go in your pack and which things stay at home.
The more you can go without, the less weight you’ll be putting on your back, hips, and knees during your trip. That means the novel you still haven’t opened might belong on the shelf, not during your trip, because are you really going to read a novel on a backpacking trip anyway? Similarly, your favorite hoodie might become the most annoying thing in your pack if you find out you don’t need it.
Yes – according to most backpackers, your base weight does include the clothing that you pack. It doesn’t include what you’re wearing, though – only the clothing that is placed inside your pack.
This one is a lot tougher to answer, but experts recommend keeping your pack weight under 20% of your total body weight. If you weigh 200 pounds, that means a 40-pound pack weight is the heaviest you’ll feel comfortable carrying.
Maybe. Having a lighter pack takes pressure off of your joints and makes it easier to hike on intense trails. That said, many people won’t even notice the difference between 10 and 12 pounds, but they certainly will notice the extra $500 it costs to cut that weight!
The easiest way to weigh your pack is to use a hook scale like the ones used for fishing. All you have to do is load up your pack and place it on the hook.