After checking something's price tag, a backpacker always looks at its weight. Day after day, mile after mile, for hundreds of miles, you feel every ounce of your pack’s weight. Some hikers want light packs so they can do more miles every day and finish the Trail in less time but we are more concerned with injuries. Pack weight is responsible for most hiker injuries: tendentious, stress fractures, rolled ankles, and falls.
Lightweight = Safety
The primary benefit of going light is safety, not simply doing more miles in less time. A light pack helps prevent repetitive stress injuries. It makes keeping your balance easier and prevents falls. It alleviates shoulder and back pain, and mitigating fatigue helps keep you mentally sharp and prevents accidents.
So how do you determine a target pack weight and evaluate whether a piece of gear is too heavy or just right? Here are some of our ideas:
First, a few terms:
Base weight = backpack + gear in pack
Total weight = backpack + gear + all water bottles filled + a week’s worth of food
Neither figure includes the weight of the clothes you are wearing, your shoes, or your trekking poles. Consider them part of your body weight.
Obviously, some people are bigger and stronger than others, and hence can carry larger loads. Therefore the total pack weight that can be carried safely and comfortably differs for each individual. An often-repeated rule of thumb is that your pack weight should be no more than one quarter of your body weight.
For example, for someone weighing 200lbs, their total pack weight — when leaving town with a full week’s worth of food — should be no greater than 50lbs. For a 160 pound person, 40 pounds. For a 120 pound person, 30lbs.
However, these numbers don't really help us make decisions about target weight and gear purchases. First, just because you can carry 50lbs doesn't mean you should. Secondly, food and water weight remain constant between most hikers, regardless of their body size and weight. A week’s worth of food weighs roughly 10lbs and a liter of water, 2lbs. Since most thru-hikers take roughly the same number of days to hike between resupply points, everyone carries the same amount food. There aren’t really ultralight food options and you shouldn't cut pack weight by going without food.
Target Base Weight = 15lbs
Since food and water weight are determined by trail conditions and distances between resupply points, you really only have control of your base weight. Recent innovations in materials and gear design make it possible to achieve a base weight of 15lbs without sacrificing any essentials. The advice below and on the following pages will show you how to do it.
Your backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag are your most important pieces of gear, the most expensive, and the heaviest things on your back. You will need them to be both high-quality and lightweight, and that combination is not cheap. Read our advice about saving money of these big-ticket items.
Making smart choices about the Big 3 saves more weight than anything else you can do. Trimming ounces from everything else in your kit — stove, sleeping pad, clothes, stuff sacks, water filter, et cetera — will never equal the weight savings possible from making the right choices about the Big 3.
Rule of Thumb: 3 Under 3
Keep your backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag under 3 pounds each (for a total of 9 pounds) and you are on your way to achieving a base weight of 15 pounds or less. This is very easy to do without sacrificing quality, durability, comfort, or features. Keep in mind that while “three under three” works great as a mnemonic device, you can and should go even lower. Quality, full-featured backpacks and tents weighing around 2 pounds are available, and 3-season sleeping bags can weigh just a pound, for a combined total between 5-6 pounds for the Big 3.
Shopping for the Big Three
When shopping for the Big Three always shop at specialty outfitters or buy directly from the manufacturer. Avoid big box stores like Wal-Mart, Dick's Sporting Goods, Cabela's or Big Five. Their products just aren't suited to backpacking. Even if the package says "great for backpacking!" it's not — it's heavy, bulky, low-quality, and probably overpriced considering how lousy it is.
A Warning to Floridians
There aren’t many backpacking outfitters in Florida and none of them is an REI. While we hate to say it, those few around have not kept their shelves up-to-date with gear trends and innovations over the last twenty years. Florida outfitters are behind the times.
If you live in Florida, we suggest shopping for and buying the Big Three online. You likely won’t find the packs, tents, and sleeping bags we recommend, or their near equivalents, at Florida outfitters. However, if you are buying a backpack for the first time, we recommend getting measured in-person at an outfitter. Proper measurements are essential to choosing the right sized pack and getting the right fit, and an outfitters has the experience to do it right.
The ultralight backpacking revolution is often attributed to the influence of Ray Jardine and his “Ray Way.” In many ways, Jardine radically changed backpacking. By challenging convention and successfully hiking the PCT, CDT, and AT in the Ray Way, he showed hikers that going light was possible and that it had many benefits.
In 1992 Ray Jardine published the Pacific Crest Trail Hikers Handbook, his first book about ultralight backpacking and a radical challenge to conventional wisdom. A second, revised edition came out in 1995. In 1999 the book was revised and re-released as Beyond Backpacking. In 2009 it was revised again and released as Trail Life. These groundbreaking and popular books are included on our reading list.
Dissatisfied with the retail options at outfitters, Jardine made his own ultralight gear and advocated that others do the same. They did, and gear designers and manufacturers took notice. New products came on the market. New companies formed that catered to ultralight interests. An arms race had begun to see whose products were the lightest.
Jardine’s proposals like using homemade lightweight gear, starting later in the year to avoid cold weather, and high mileage days at a slow pace have been embraced by many thru-hikers. However, our editors have seen very few thru-hikers follow his most radical suggestion to cut weight: go without.
Jardine advocates using a tarp & blanket instead of a tent and sleeping bag. He admits that tarps and blankets can only be used safely if you also learn new skills like how to choose a low-lying, sheltered campsite. Even if these skills are learned, our editors feel the tarp & blanket method does not allow for contingencies and emergencies, particularly the wet and cold conditions on the Florida Trail.
Again, we believe that the primary benefit of going light is safety, not simply doing more miles in less time. A thru-hike is not a race. Safety is undermined by the minimal protection from the elements provided by tarps and blankets.
Jardine is at his weakest when he advocates sleeping with your food rather than securing it outside the tent. Putting weight savings and convenience ahead of the lives of bears is simply unethical. Bears suffer the most from skirmishes with people. In Yosemite National Park, a bear is killed if it challenges a person for food, regardless of whether the person was injured. In the Orlando area, suburban development encroaching into black bear territory, combined with poor garbage storage, has led to confrontations between bears and people. These confrontations were cited in a 2015 decision to reopen bear hunting in the state of Florida.
But thanks in part to Jardine, materials and technology have advanced significantly since his first PCT thru-hike in 1989 — and even since our editors’ first thru-hike in 2007. Each year gear becomes lighter and lighter. Today, it’s possible to have a base weight of 15lbs or less and still carry a full complement of gear. There is no need to go without. Our advice on the following pages reflects this point-of-view.