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  1. #1
    Trail miscreant Bearpaw's Avatar
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    Default Not So Random Thoughts on Pack Weight

    There are, within the backpacking community, (much as there is within any sport where the truly passionate border on fanatical), various subcultures. One of the biggest criteria amongst these subcultures is packweight. Thus, I begin an expository journey upon the virtues and vices of the various camps of backpacking based on pack weight.

    First, a few precautionary notes. I proudly claim that I am a member of the lightweight snob camp. With envy and determination, I sometimes even dip down into the ultralight ultrasnob community. (I doubt I will ever delve into the superultralight supersnob fringe, but that's just me.)

    Second, the ideas I here espouse are by no means original. They are stolen, swiped, and foraged from a host of other sources, including a plethora of other websites as well as the hard copy book Lighten Up! by Don Ladigin (with awesome and hilarious sketches from Mike Clelland, another NOLS instructor whom I had the privilege to work with while I too was an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership Schoola dedidedly NON-lightweight institution).

    Last, I obviously feel there is a great deal to be said for the lightweight and ultralight communities, since this is where I dwell, but the most important thing to remember is that what works best for you is what gets you out there enjoying the backcountry. When you try various weight categories and find the one that works best for you, you'll know what I mean. As wise hikers often say, "Hike your own hike", hereafter referred to as HYOH, and "Your mileage may vary" (YMMV).

    First, we need to determine how to weigh our gear. There are three ways to do this.

    Base Weight
    This is a great way to compare apples to apples. Base weight is the weight of your pack minus consumables such as food, water, fuel, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, etc. It allows the most fair comparison of basic gear rather than comparing a pack with 2 days of food versus one with 5 days and a gallon of water.

    Pack Weight
    This is the weight of your pack with every thing you have in it. Food, water, the rock your "buddy" snuck inside, etc.

    Skin-out Weight
    This is how much every thing would weigh if, in addition to your pack, you stripped "plumb nekkid" and added your shoes, clothes, pocket items, trekking poles, etc to the scales. It isn't used that often, but is a great way for ultralight ultrasnobs to point out their superiority in planning by hiking in trail runners instead of boots. It really IS a good point to consider, however, when you look at your overall gear weight. Just make sure no one else is peeking when you weigh in.

    SO, with these in mind, let me submit to you the basic communities of pack weight.

    Expedition
    65 lbs or more of pack weight at beginning of resupply.

    This class is better known to mountaineers/hardmen/hardheads than backpackers. It often includes climbing gear or photographic gear in addition to "bombproof" tents to deal with serious mountain storms and more than a week of food. When I was a NOLS instructor, I usually sufferred under such loads as I stepped off after a 10-day reration of food along with climbing gear. I have since evolved from pack mule to mere horse's ass.

    Traditional
    More than 20 lbs base weight OR more than 35 lb pack weight at the start of a resupply.

    This is where many new backpackers begin, with 6 1/2 pound empty packs filled with 6 pound free-standing tents, 3 pound synthetic sleeping bags and 2 pound thermarests. As an REI employee, I try to offer my customers lighter solutions, but many of my customers are so convinced that their lives and camp comfort depend on such gear that they insist on buying these more expensive, heavier items. "HYOH" I think to myself as I load them up (literally). "YMMV" I add, but I'm fairly certain their mileage will be less than mine. Still, I was in this group on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike of 1999, so it IS possible to make big miles if you are in good shape, even in this category. I also call this the "Backpacker Magazine Group", since most of their gear recommendations tend to weigh down your pack and lighten up your wallet with this sort of gear.

    Lightweight
    Base weight of 20 lbs or less.

    There is where I pretty much live now. With modern lighterweight gear, it is EASY to obtain the camp comfort of 10 years ago with simple gear selection, even from mainstream gear companies. With the advent of ultralight cottage companies, it is even easier. I believe this is the best balance of comfort on trail and comfort in camp, though I lean toward the lower end of this group most of the time (11 to 15 lb base weight). YMMV.

    A great way to move into this category is to look at your "Big 4", your pack, shelter, sleeping bag/quilt, and pad. If you can get these below 10 lbs, you'll probably make it into the lightweight category. Below 8 (and this is relatively easy), you are pretty much assured of such success.

    I took my heavier load of gear on the John Muir Trail this summer - my ULA Catalyst Pack (2 lbs 15 oz), Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo E Tarptent (29 oz with stakes), Homemade 25 degree Down Quilt (26 oz) and my Gossamer Gear Nitelite Pad (8 oz). Total 110 oz or 6 lbs, 14 oz. Even if I had beefed up my comfort and replaced the GG Nitelite with my REI Short Lite-Core Pad (18 oz), I still would have weighed in at 7 1/2 lbs. Even with a required 3 pound bear cannister among my other gear, I easily managed a total base weight of only around 17 pounds, and I was geared and clothed for temps down to freezing in perfect comfort. Just an example of what lighweight can do for you.

    Ultralight
    Base weight of 10 lbs or less.

    This is possible with careful gear selection, solid techniques in hiking and camp selection, and maybe a small sacrifice in camp comfort. I've done this for overnight trips and three-day weekends, but not for the multiweek thru-hikes I tend to favor.

    Signs of an ultralight hiker include a preference for lightweight footwear such as trail runners, use of tarps or tarptents, cut-down ¾ or ½ length foam pads which double as pack frames in sub-1-pound packs, small quilts instead of full sleeping bags, chemical treatment of water versus filters, and a scrupulous appraisal of all gear so that nearly everything carried will be used and usually serves multiple purposes (such as a large titanium mug that serves as cook pot, cup, and dipper for drawing water from sources). Clothing is minimal and typically designed to be worn while sleeping so a lighter than necessary quilt or bag can be used.

    Disclaimer: It should also be noted that using an alcohol stove does not make one an ultralight ultrasnob. It makes you an alky stove user. I know of many in the traditional or lightweight camp who have made many alky stoves. This isn’t ultralight. It is a tinkering obsession. Like the greats before them such as Edison, Da Vinci, and Ugg the Neanderthal (who created the wheel), when you encounter an alky stove builder, your best course of action is to step quietly away without disturbing the nice man or woman busily working over a heap of aluminum cans with tin shears, tape, and ice picks close at hand…

    Superultralight
    Base weight of 5 lbs or less.

    This is a category that requires tremendous discipline, experience, likely some tailor-made/homemade gear, advanced techniques, and a definite sacrifice of some camp comfort. The trade-off is the ease of dayhiking with an etherweight pack. Tremendous comfort on trail vs less comfort in camp. Oh yeah, and the "small" disadvantage of the inexperienced winding up like the kid in John Krakauer's Into the Wild .


    Signs of the SUL hiker include many of the hallmarks of the UL’er, only more so. Tarps are quite small and likely made of Cuben or Spinnaker fabric. Quilts are sometimes specifically made to double as a jacket worn poncho style. Half-quilts with feet tucked into a pack are sometimes used. Packs themselves are rarely more than a few ounces when empty and usually dispense entirely with any attempt at a frame since overall pack weight is typically so small.


    This category is often a hallmark of trail runners and record setters. It tends to attract a crowd that thrives on the opportunity to see what one “can get away with”. In some areas, like the southeast outside the Appalachians in summer (where nights tend to be quite warm, despite precipitation), or the Sierras in summer (where cool nights are rarely disturbed by precipitation), this style can mean hiking virtually unimpaired by noticeable weight. When I encounter someone who claims to be superultralight in cold wet settings, I wonder if they mean they are SUL on dayhikes. This is not a category for the inexperienced or the crazy brave.


    SO:
    Where do YOU fall? If you honestly have no idea (which is the case with most casual backpackers IMO), you are probably somewhere in the traditional range of backpacker. With a little effort and education, it is not hard to move into the lightweight category, and likely enjoy the experience of more miles for the same effort or the same miles with less soreness and fatigue.

    In my summers off (I teach), I often average about 14-17 miles a day, with a number of 20+ milers, in reasonable comfort thanks to lighter loads. A lightweight or ultralight pack can make a real difference in this setting.

    Conversely, if your main goal is to hike 6-8 miles in and set up a base camp for a week, the creature comforts that can be carried in a traditional pack may be worth the grunt work of carrying it. I have spent much more time in the last year on the upper end of lightweight, approaching traditional, with my new wife who enjoys some camp comforts on our 6-10 mile days.


    My personal opinion? It's better to be out there with a heavier pack that has what you need than not out there at all. My best advice? HYOH and YMMV.
    Last edited by Bearpaw; 09-22-2008 at 18:36. Reason: typo
    If people spent less time being offended and more time actually living, we'd all be a whole lot happier!

  2. #2
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    Nice explanations for often confusing terminology...guess I'm a lightweight! Thanks for the article Bearpaw.

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    Very nice

    As a wise man once said

    Stealing one man's work is called plagarism

    Stealing from many is called research :-)

  4. #4

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    Very nicely written. I especially like your term "Backpacker Magazine Group." It is easy to be misled by the marketing glitz of magazines and stores, regardless of whether one is buying hiking gear, cars, or groceries. I imagine most backpackers start there, and move toward (if not beyond) the lightweight group as a function of age and experience.

    I find the lightweight range to be the best balance (for me) between hiking comfort, camping comfort, and cost comfort.

    There is room for all the groups. Just avoid membership in the Couch Potato group!
    The necessities of life weigh less than 20 pounds. Everything else is a luxury.

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    Registered User greentick's Avatar
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    Nicely done Bearpaw. I am UL with base wt but after throwing in a nice camera and some other not so light essentials I occasionally slide into the LW catagory.
    nous défions

  6. #6
    LT '79; AT '73-'14 in sections; Donating Member Kerosene's Avatar
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    Bearpaw,

    Looks like you tried to embed a link under the Traditional section but the tags didn't work.
    GA←↕→ME: 1973 to 2014

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    Registered User hopefulhiker's Avatar
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    I liked the article, I would add that with enough money it is now possible to go ultralight without sacrificing too much comfort..

  8. #8
    Trail miscreant Bearpaw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kerosene View Post
    Bearpaw,

    Looks like you tried to embed a link under the Traditional section but the tags didn't work.
    Thanks, I'll try to clean it up. It was just quotation marks from a copy and paste that I missed.
    If people spent less time being offended and more time actually living, we'd all be a whole lot happier!

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    Just Hikin' Along
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    I went from UL to SUL about 18 months ago. I felt OK with going with the gear that would get me that low since I've been hiking for 54 years. My summer weight is right at a 3 lbs base, spring and fall at 4 lbs. It sure makes life easier at my age to be carrying a pack under 15 lbs after resupplying and with water.


  10. #10
    Lazy Daze Zzzzdyd's Avatar
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    Default Nice stuff...

    Bearpaw.

    I wish we had weighed some of the stuff we made when I was with the 82nd

    and 101st Airborne back in the mid sixties. We just picked it up after we

    made something and said thats light, or thats lighter. Although weight was

    always considered, our primary concerns were durability( as in would it hold

    up in parachuting), and comfort( as in could we walk forty miles in a day and

    still feel like doing something when we got there...lol. The parachute riggers

    seemed to be the best at creating some nice light-weigh but usable stuff.

    I guess this gear stuff is like Ties, keep it long enough and it comes back in

    style.

    Just don't go get the pack first !

    Nice to know I have went from ultra in the 60's to more than traditional, but

    less than expedition over the years, and now come in at the lightweight

    section while feeling comfy and safe.

    Other than someone might tend to overfill it, do you believe the CI's of a pack

    make much difference ? I have a old style Breeze,15 oz., and a ULA, 32 oz.,

    that are both over 3000 CI's.
    Some Days Your The Bug , Some Days Your The Windshield

  11. #11
    Trail miscreant Bearpaw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zzzzdyd View Post
    Other than someone might tend to overfill it, do you believe the CI's of a pack

    make much difference ? I have a old style Breeze,15 oz., and a ULA, 32 oz.,

    that are both over 3000 CI's.
    Personally, I think thru-hikers on truly long-distance trails like the AT or PCT have some different considerations than the weekend hiker or even the thru-hiker on a shorter like the Long Trail or John Muir Trail.

    Durability counts. A silnylon pack simply isn't likely to last daily usage for 5 months.

    Little extras DO add up. But on a thru-hike, the amount they add just isn't enough to make ultralight efforts worthwhile in most cases. If you buy a pack of 8 AA batteries, it usually isn't worth carrying just enough for that next week while dumping the rest in a hiker box. A wallet, which I would never carry on a weekend trip, is worth considering on a multi-week (or month) endeavor. Most importantly, your level of conditioning after a few weeks on the trail is such that a few extra pounds are unnoticeable compared to the utility of carrying the stuff that makes daily nutrition and sleep sustainable.

    Look at those that thru-hike long trails. Most are in the lightweight or the lower end of the traditional group. Few are in the UL bracket and even fewer in the SUL or expedition range.

    My opinion is that packs in the 3000-4000 cubic inch range are the best options for a long-distance thru-hike. Smaller packs are possible for shorter hikes (a few weeks in warmer temperate conditions). But most folks I saw on the PCT in 2007 were probably packing mid-3000's. They were fine for flexibility of carrying extra water weight for dry stretches, but mostly could do a week without resupply with no problem.

    HYOH always applies, but my advice for a thru-hike is go light enough to hike in reasonable comfort but still get solid meals and the best sleep possible. For most folks, the UL camp and tiny packs aren't viable options after weeks on the trail.
    If people spent less time being offended and more time actually living, we'd all be a whole lot happier!

  12. #12
    Hike smarter, not harder.
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    Love it. Stealing a lot of the terminology.

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    Thank U Bearpaw for clearing up any confusion in order to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. I am an UL'er on the verge of SUL but I was beginning to wonder with all the different conflicting talk I've heard lately. Nice article!!!

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    Registered User Wolf - 23000's Avatar
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    Default Reply: Base weight of 5 lbs or less.

    Superultralight
    Base weight of 5 lbs or less.

    This is a category that requires tremendous discipline, experience, likely some tailor-made/homemade gear, advanced techniques, and a definite sacrifice of some camp comfort. The trade-off is the ease of dayhiking with an etherweight pack. Tremendous comfort on trail vs less comfort in camp. Oh yeah, and the "small" disadvantage of the inexperienced winding up like the kid in John Krakauer's Into the Wild .


    Please don’t comment on things you know nothing about. Your category of the Superultralight has several major errors such as the “tailor-made” which anyone with some knowledge of backpacking can buy in the stores.


    Signs of the SUL hiker include many of the hallmarks of the UL’er, only more so. Tarps are quite small and likely made of Cuben or Spinnaker fabric. Quilts are sometimes specifically made to double as a jacket worn poncho style. Half-quilts with feet tucked into a pack are sometimes used. Packs themselves are rarely more than a few ounces when empty and usually dispense entirely with any attempt at a frame since overall pack weight is typically so small.


    No. A responsible superultralight would not carry a “quite small” tarp. Let’s think about how dumb that is. If a hiker has a small tarp in a rain storm, he/she would end up remaining in the fetal position all night long and most likely going to get wet. That means, they need have to keep their sleeping bag dry. Would someone rather carry an extra 2-3 oz in a bigger tarp and being about to use something like a down sleeping bag or skim on their shelter and needing extra weight in a sleeping system that can handle water better than down. Hum … think about it. And by the way I do carry a jacket.

    This category is often a hallmark of trail runners and record setters. It tends to attract a crowd that thrives on the opportunity to see what one “can get away with”. In some areas, like the southeast outside the Appalachians in summer (where nights tend to be quite warm, despite precipitation), or the Sierras in summer (where cool nights are rarely disturbed by precipitation), this style can mean hiking virtually unimpaired by noticeable weight. When I encounter someone who claims to be superultralight in cold wet settings, I wonder if they mean they are SUL on dayhikes. This is not a category for the inexperienced or the crazy brave.>>
    > >

    No. Did you ever think that someone traveling SUL might be doing it because they don’t want to carry that much. Traveling SUL might get them closer to nature rather than carrying everything but the kitchen sink. Any while hiking the JMT through the Sierras in the summer, I had 3 days of rain and 1 day of snow

    I’m sorry everyone for being like this but it really get annoying when someone tries to play an “expert” for something they no nothing about and then make-up non sense and some people are gullible enough to believe it.

    Wolf

  15. #15

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    Right now I am hovering in the "Traditional" category of pack weight. After loading myself down with probably 55-60 lbs back in march to go to SNP in freezing weather I decided something had to be done. To my credit, I brought lot's of creature comforts because it was only supposed to be 6 miles of walking over the course of 3 days with 3 days stopped doing nothing.

    Plans change sometimes. So by the time my 3 days and 30 miles of hiking with 3 days rest in between was complete, my shoulders begged me to go lighter the next time. Few months later I found WB and have been lighter on every consecutive trip this summer. I currently have a Base weight of 27 lbs in order to go out for a 5-7 day hike with 1 other person, Marje, who carries much less weight. Her base weight should be around 15 lbs because I carry the tent, and the food. Always. ( And filter, and headlamps, extra batteries......... you know.)

    My biggest problem with getting under 20 lbs is the weight of my tent, and REI Dome tent that probably weighs 7 lbs to start and abolut 8 lbs with condensation and crap in it when I get back. To combat this problem I have looked into the Eureka Spitfire II to bring the weight down to 4 1/2 - 5 1/2 lbs for my shelter. That 3 lbs should really make a difference.

    My second problem is my pack. I have not weighed it on a scale per say but I know it's way heavier than new packs. I got this pack when I was a kid, and it's always been great for me, it's an REI Traverse New Star... Blast from the past for some folks... It IS an internal frame pack with a detachable day pack top. It has WAY too many straps, buckles, clips etc... which means....too much weight. Time for a new pack. I am looking for a pack with a water sleeve for my camelback so I don't have to carry the nylon sheath that comes with that, in order to attach it to the pack. Save me 4-6 oz just on that. I like other conveniences of newer packs, like the verticool back systems to channel heat away from your spine, my back could fry an egg at the end of a long day. So if my pack weighs 4 1/2 lbs and I can cut out 2 lbs now my base weight is down to 22 lbs with 5-7 days of food for 2 people. I can live with that. HYOH YMMV

  16. #16
    Garlic
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    Good article, I totally agree. fficeffice" />>>
    >>
    I'd like to add my opinion that generally, going lighter is going cheaper. You alluded to that with the priceless "Backpacker Magazine Group" comment. Frameless packs can be found for around $100, tarptents for $200, Z-rest pads for $30, shoes and raingear can be cheap, stove can be free or not needed. The only exception I've found is the sleeping bag. I made my major investment in a Marmot Helium bag, but man is it worth it.>>
    >>
    I heard an AT hiker this year say that her outfitter told her that it would cost an extra $100 for every pound she dropped from her pack. So to go from a 30 pound to a 20 pound pack would cost her an extra $1000! It seems there are a few misconceptions out there in Backpacker Magazine world.
    "Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence." John Muir on expedition planning

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    Default Going light on 1st AT thru hike

    I started planning my March of 2009 Thru Hike over a year ago. After hundreds of hours of research and reading it is apparent that the weight is as important as conditioning and that we each have our own list of priorities. The one thing that is common in everything I have read is the need for maintaining your energy level throughout the day by eating several small "snack type" meals. I have looked at the energy bars and various trail mixes but cannot find anything that is ......
    1- inexpensive
    2- light weight and semi perishable.

    I will be 65 when I start my hike and consider myself in good shape for my age. My doctor also hikes and he suggests 20-25 lb pack weight and eating all day to maintain the required level of energy
    Any suggestions on Light weight, inexpensive trail snacks?

  18. #18
    Trail miscreant Bearpaw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gator 65 View Post
    I started planning my March of 2009 Thru Hike over a year ago. After hundreds of hours of research and reading it is apparent that the weight is as important as conditioning and that we each have our own list of priorities. The one thing that is common in everything I have read is the need for maintaining your energy level throughout the day by eating several small "snack type" meals. I have looked at the energy bars and various trail mixes but cannot find anything that is ......
    1- inexpensive
    2- light weight and semi perishable.

    I will be 65 when I start my hike and consider myself in good shape for my age. My doctor also hikes and he suggests 20-25 lb pack weight and eating all day to maintain the required level of energy
    Any suggestions on Light weight, inexpensive trail snacks?
    Keep it simple. Snickers bars are actually very good for both short and longer term energy. You can mix it with other candy bars which offer some sort of protein rich nuts like Paydays, Baby Ruths, peanut M & M's, and Reese's Cups. Another good option is fig newtons. Four of them provide almost identical energy to a PowerBar, except the newtons have more fat, a big plus on the trail, taste better, and are easier on the teeth.

    For the price of a Clif Bar, you can nearly buy 6 snickers in a pack at a grocery store. And for just walking, they perform just as well as Clif and PowerBars.
    If people spent less time being offended and more time actually living, we'd all be a whole lot happier!

  19. #19
    Registered User Wise Old Owl's Avatar
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    Some thoughts on going SUL - I have gone UL with only a decrease in pain, to think about going SUL - is going without comfort.
    Dogs are excellent judges of character, this fact goes a long way toward explaining why some people don't like being around them.

    Woo

  20. #20
    PCT, Sheltowee, Pinhoti, LT , BMT, AT, SHT, CDT 560 miles 10-K's Avatar
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    Nice article.

    The only thing I think you might add is how pack weight varies according to season. My winter pack is several lbs heavier than my summer pack and but both would be considered "lighter than average" if not UL.

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