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 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, 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 make decisions when setting target weight and gear shopping. 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 weight. A week’s worth of food weighs roughly 10lbs. 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. You cannot cut pack weight by changing your diet, only by eliminating luxuries with little caloric value, like tea, coffee, Crystal Light, et cetera, and not carrying more food than you need.
Since food and water weight are determined by trail conditions and distances between resupply points, you really only have control of your base pack weight. Recent advancements in materials and gear make it possible to achieve a base weight of 15lbs without sacrificing essentials.
On the PCT, Low Base Weight is a Necessity, not a Luxury
Desert heat and long stretches between reliable water sources force PCT hikers to carry 4-8 liters of water at a time, weighing 8-16 pounds. Once out of the desert and in the Sierras, hikers carry less water but are required to carry heavy bear canisters. The difficulty created by carrying all this extra weight have fueled efforts to go lighter and lighter.
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 Three 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 Three.
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 Three.
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.
The PCT has a reputation for ultralight backpacking, often attributed to the influence of Ray Jardine’s ideas— the “Ray Way.” In many ways, Jardine radically changed backpacking. By challenging convention and successfully hiking the PCT, CDT, and AT with his 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 wet and cold conditions.
Again, we believe the primary benefit of going light is safety, not simply doing more miles in less time. Safety is undermined by minimal protections from the elements provided by tarps and blankets.
Jardine is at his weakest when he advocates sleeping with your food rather than using a heavy bear canister. Putting weight savings and convenience ahead of the lives of bears is unethical. In Yosemite National Park, if a bear confronts a camper over food, the Park Service kills the bear, regardless of whether the animal actually attacked or injured someone. Canisters save the lives of bears in heavily-used areas where human-bear meetings are likely.
Due in part to Jardine, materials and technology have advanced significantly since his first PCT thru-hike in 1989 — and even since our editor Mike first thru-hiked 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. The advice on this website reflects this point-of-view.