Stop worrying about how heavy your pack is

Long time readers of this blog will know that my bank account contains, on average, zero dollars. However, long time readers will also know that I love buying new things. Like, really, really, really love buying new things. And, because I am a backpacker this usually means buying expensive outdoors gear.

Rewind a few days, and I found myself at REI looking at a sweet new tent. At 2lbs 12oz, it would save me almost half of my tent weight, and I wanted it very badly. Twenty minutes of day dreaming about all the very tall mountains I would be able to climb with my awesome new tent, I did some math. This math made me sad because it suggested that the tent probably wouldn’t lighten my pack enough to justify spending $399. In fact, it suggested that, at this point, worrying about lightening my pack was pretty dumb all around. Worst of all, this is probably true for you too.

DANGER: Math ahead

Lets start by assuming that if you are reading a hiking blog you have already taken the kitchen sink out of your pack. If so, we can probably agree that cutting 5lbs out of your pack is hard. Either you are leaving something important at home, or spending lots of money on a new tent/sleeping bag/pack. For example, think about this hiker:


(Spolier alert, it’s me)

In that picture I weigh something like 180lbs (those were the days!) and am carrying a 35ish lb pack. Now, lets say I go to the store, spend Baby Jack’s college fund on a new tent and sleeping bag, and in the processes cut 5lbs of pack weight. This is a pretty big sacrifice, so the rewards need to be big to justify my glorious spending spree. Unfortunately, the math speaks for itself:

My weight: 180lbs

Original pack weight: 35lbs

Total weight on feet: 215lbs

Difference caused by spending Jack’s college fund on cool, light gear: 5lbs

Percent change in total: 2.3%

“But Max, you’re fat. What about skinny people?” Valid point. Unfortunately the numbers still don’t work as well as you’d think:

Skinnier person’s weight: 115lbs

Original pack weight: 35lbs

Total weight on feet: 150lbs

Difference caused by spending Jack’s college fund on cool, light gear: 5lbs

Percent change in total: 3.3%

Do the math however you want, but until you get down to a 65lb backpacker cutting 5lbs off your pack wont save more than 5% of the total weight. And again, cutting 5lbs off an already light pack is hard. With this in mind the question quickly becomes, would you do 5% more work every time you go hiking to save hundreds of dollars?

THE DIRTY SECRET: There is another way to lose five pounds

It’s also probably worth noting that if you are the average backpacker there is another way to take those 5lbs off your feet: losing 5lbs off your gut. I don’t mean this in a judgmental way– I could stand to lose more than 5 myself– but rather to point out that most hikers are not elite athletes. The best part of this plan? Instead of spending money on new stuff you will save money on food, feel better, and live longer. You will also be less happy because you are hungry.

If you want to spend hundreds of dollars to save less than 5% of the weight on your feet, go for it. You’ve got to spend that tax refund somehow, and in the words of the immortal Biggie, mo money, mo problems.

Plus, there are some obvious exceptions. If you are carrying a 65lb monster pack, stop right now, take half of that shit out, and leave it at home. If you are thru-hiking, and you are literally going to be doing nothing but walking for the next three months, by all means, spend the money and be more comfortable. Pro-photographers, since glass is heavy you are going to have to save pack weight somewhere. Hunters, you might have to carry out a dead animal, so you need that pack to be as light and empty as possible. The list goes on.

But lets be honest, most of us aren’t thru-hikers, pro-photographers, or backpack hunters. We are weekend warriors that like hiking. Weekend warriors, if they are lucky, backpack 6-12 times a year for trips of less than 20 miles/day. For people like us the amount of weight you can save on the margins, usually at great cost, just doesn’t really matter.

Then again, buying the latest and greatest is fun. I like fun.

Disclaimer: This post, and all posts on LesserPlaces, may contain affiliate links– links that allow me to receive a small kickback at no additional cost to you when you shop through them. This is how we keep the lights on. 

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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He write here at Lesser Places, occasionally for, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

14 thoughts on “Stop worrying about how heavy your pack is

  1. For the average person who only gets out once in a while you are spot on. I often see over sized folks carrying expensive, ultra-light gear as if spending money could make it easier. If you go often being in shape is important, but if you go infrequently it is even more important 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks– I’m glad you liked the post! I used to road bike a lot and we were always amazed at the number of people who would spend thousands and thousands of dollars to cut a few ounces off their bikes and forget about all those ounces in their gut. Same story here. Then again, its A LOT easier to buy 5lbs of weight savings than to do the terrible work of losing weight.


  2. What a great post. I’m not one who brings unnecessary stuff on a backpacking trip, but I also don’t spend money for the lightweight gear. I have often felt a tinge of guilt for not purchasing the lightweight stuff, but now you put it all into perspective for me. I really don’t need it. I’m fine (except for that extra body fat I carry with me wherever I go). 🙂


    1. Thanks, Janet! I think it’s just human nature to want to latest, greatest, lightest piece of gear. Sure, when you wear something out buy the best thing available, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been tempted to replace a piece of gear that works fine just because there is some option that is a few ounces lighter…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Max! Enjoyable read, and thanks for making the math easy for my right-brained bias.

    If you are taking into account your body weight plus total pack weight including food, water and fuel, then I’d agree that the numbers will never add up. But that’s why ultralight and lightweight backpacking advocates remove those variables from the formula and opt for a more consistent and measurable “base weight.”

    Your “base weight” is the weight you carry that, under normal conditions, will never change regardless of how long or strenuous your trip may be.

    If we recalculate using “base weight” as your metric, then…

    The base weight (all carried items minus food, fuel and water) on your 35lb example pack was probably around 20lbs. Cutting 5lbs from a 20lb pack amounts to a 25% total weight savings, and that number would be the same for anyone, regardless of their body weight.

    If you look at it from this perspective, a 25% weight savings starts to look pretty attractive.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Robb- Or even if you just think about it as pack weight, 5lbs is still 14% which is a lot!

      I think you’ve hit on my exact problem with this way of thinking, though. A little background that’s not on the blog, I taught anatomy and physiology for years and years at ASU. One of the things we know from the experiments that have been done on this topic is that, roughly speaking, for any given person its really the total weight on the feet that matters– after all, that’s what you have to move to walk!

      That being said, I fall into the same trap of thinking about pack weight or base weight all the time. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat at REI telling myself, “Wow, if I just do this, this, and this, I can save 25% of my pack weight.” I think the reason why is that when I first started cutting pack weight it really made a huge difference in total weight– cutting from my old pack weight 50% took 14% total weight off my feet (65lb pack to 35lb pack, 180lb me). And wow, life was way better carrying 14% less total weight. Now that my pack is lighter though, cutting 50% off my pack only saves 8% off my feet (65lb pack to 17.5lb pack, 180lb me). This 17.5lb pack is way better than my 35lb pack, but the quality of life difference isn’t as big as that between 65 and 35. In fact, if I wanted to make that same awesome 14% change in total weight I would have to cut all the way to from 35lbs to 5lbs.

      So, my early experience taught me that pack weight was the key to changing everything when really it was some other variable I was never thinking of, in this case total weight, which also changes with pack weight (not to get all scienctist-y, but we call this causal confusion). Social science shows that once we learn rules like these they are really, really hard to unlearn. And that’s why, even me, a scientist who has taught over and over again that total weight is all that matters, still ends up at REI thinking about pack weight.

      I hope all that makes sense. Thanks again for the great comment!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks for the response, Max! I am by no means a scientist, nor am I a mathematician, but your arguments make perfect sense.

        I had the same experience when I first started cutting weight. Going from overweight to a more practical and comfortable weight was the hardest cut to make. I had to get rid of things that I was emotionally attached to and get real with myself about what it was I would actually need in order to be both comfortable and safe while hiking. I am now infinitely more comfortable when backpacking and I don’t feel like I’ve made any unnecessary or compromising sacrifices to get there.

        Now I’m at the same point of “casual confusion,” I think, as you are. A point where cutting more weight really won’t do anything but boost my street cred and dent my wallet. It’s tempting to keep trying to squeeze every extra ounce out of my pack, but there’s a point where dollars matter more than winning the gram counter trophy.

        Thanks again!


        Liked by 1 person

  4. I never thought about the total weight on the feet until this post. Maybe this explains why my knee hurts during a hike with high elevation gain. I should pay more attention to the total weight from now on. Thanks for the post!!

    Liked by 1 person

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