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How to measure base weight for backpacking

How to measure base weight cover photo

Base weight, a term that describes the total weight of your backpacking gear, minus food and water, is an important measurement. It can tell you whether or not you’ve packed too much, and it can help you avoid injuries or fatigue due to carrying a load too heavy for your body weight.

In this brief guide, I’ll show you how to measure your backpacking base weight and give some recommendations on what to do with your results!

What do you include in your base weight measurement?

Backpacking base weights are generally considered to include the following things:

  • Sleep system (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc)
  • Tent (tent body, poles, and rainfly
  • Cooking system and dishes
  • First aid kit, tools, and other gear
  • the clothing you’re putting inside your pack
  • Anything else that isn’t food, water, or fuel

How to measure your base weight with a luggage scale

Digital luggage scale for measuring base weight
Step 1: Grab a luggage scale like this one

Luggage scales are by far the best way to measure a backpack (go figure!). They cost about $15 and they come in handy for a lot more than just weighing your pack. It’s as simple as putting your gear in your pack and hanging it on the scale. You might have to wait a few seconds to get an accurate reading, but that’s all there is to it.

Backpacking pack on a luggage scale
Step 2: Toss your backpack, with all your gear inside it, on the luggage scale’s hook.

This is the luggage scale I use. It was cheap, it works well, and… um… it was cheap! There’s really nothing special about this luggage scale, but that’s kind of the point. It makes measuring your base weight incredibly easy, and it only costs you a few bucks. It can measure in pounds, ounces, kilograms, and grams – there’s no unit left behind.

Just take your backpack, fill it with the items you’ve included in your base weight for backpacking, and toss it on the hook:

Luggage scale weight reading
Step three: take a weight reading. (Obviously this one isn’t real, I could never get my base weight that low!)

Two ways to measure base weight with a body weight scale

What if you don’t want to buy a luggage scale? Are there any other ways to weigh your pack accurately?

There are two ways to measure base weight using a bathroom body weight scale, but neither is quite as accurate as using a luggage scale. That said, if you’re not interested in becoming a true ultralight adherent and measuring down to the gram, using a bathroom scale is more than good enough.

The first way to measure with a bathroom scale is to put your gear in your pack, and put the pack on your back. Then, step on the scale and get a reading:

Woman using a bathroom scale to measure backpacking weight
Hopping on the bathroom scale is the easiest way to measure base weight, but it isn’t the most accurate.

Next, weigh yourself on the scale without the pack, and then subtract that number from the first reading. Boom – there’s your base weight!

The second way to measure base weight with a bathroom scale is to simply balance the pack on the scale itself:

Backpacking pack sitting on a bathroom scale
This is not how you should measure your base weight. It’s the unrecommended, quick-and-dirty method for people who don’t care if they’re a couple of pounds off.

This is the least accurate way to measure, but so long as you get a nice balance, you can still get a reading that’s accurate enough to work with:

Scale reading

Is it perfect? Not even close. In fact, it’s pretty much useless for things like ultralight backpacking measurements and decisions about what’s too heavy. But, if you want a really basic “good/bad” assessment of your backpacking base weight, it’ll (barely) get the job done.

How to Measure Base Weight Using a Digital Food Scale

This is the final method for measuring base weight, one favored by ultralight backpackers because it is the most accurate. You can measure down to the gram by weighing each item individually on a small food scale. If you already measure out the weight of your coffee for the best possible cup, you have one of these scales. If not, they’re relatively inexpensive (usually less than $20) and they’re super handy for all sorts of cooking.

Ultralight pillow on a digital food scale
This is the best way to get a base weight measurement that is highly accurate and useful. My scale is set to ounces for shipping, but grams are more useful.

Just take each piece of backpacking gear a that is included in your base weight and stick it on the scale. You’ll get a highly accurate reading, which you can note down and add to the total.

Lowering your base weight with a digital scale

Using a digital scale is also very helpful for lowering your base weight. You can easily see which items in your backpacking gear checklist are weighing you down the most, and identify the areas where you can reduce your base weight in the most effective way. You can also easily compare the weight of your gear to the weight of new gear you’re shopping for, so you can make the best purchases possible!

Sleeping pad on a digital food scale

For example, after figuring out your sleep system weight, you might find that your sleeping pad is way too heavy. If you were already planning on upgrading soon, you have now justified a trip to REI! Anytime you can convince yourself to go to an outfitter and buy new gear is a victory. You can easily weigh all of your Big 3 backpacking items this way, save for your pack itself.

Why measuring base weight is important

So, why bother with all this measuring and weighing in the first place? Base weight, and, to a lesser extent, pack weight (the total weight of all your stuff including food and water) can help you in the following ways:

  • A lighter pack weight means you use less energy during each mile of hiking, allowing you to go further, faster, and with less exhaustion.
  • A lighter base weight means you can bring more food, more water, and maybe even a luxury item or two.
  • Having a pack weight between 10-20% of your total body weight can help you reduce load and strain on your knees, ankles and hips.
  • You will feel smug and superior when looking at other backpackers who are carrying way, way too much (your actual feelings may vary).

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