"Base Weight—How Light is Too Light?"
In 2015 I met another thru hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail who had taken the trail name “Seventy-Five.” For weeks I’d been hearing rumors about him from other hikers, how he was so proud of all the weight that he’s carrying in his pack that he took a trail name from it. If he was going to carry seventy-five pounds of gear from Mexico to Canada that year, then he was going to have a trail name to commemorate it.
I have no way of verifying if he was actually carrying a full seventy-five-pound base-weight, but I will say that he was carrying a lot. Things that no rational long-distance hiker would ever even dream of were packed snuggly away in his massive pack next to the frying pan, candle-wick lantern, and hatchet. He carried most of it not out of necessity, per se, but for the sake of proving some point that may or may not have ever been proven through the work he had to put in to lug that much equipment around.
By comparison to “Seventy-Five”’s enormous base-weight of 75 pounds, most thru hikers cut their gear down to around 10-20 pounds. Then there are even the super-ultra-light hikers who manage to make it for months on end on sub-10-pound base weights!
Since even before getting into hiking I understood the cost/benefit analysis that goes into selecting what gear to carry on trail. My dad was a big game hunter and sometimes would go for more than a week at a time living solely out of his pack while hunting moose, bear, dhal sheep, or mountain goat. When I was young I remember him laying his gear out on the living room floor before each hunt. He’d weigh each individual item and meticulously whittle everything down to the absolutely necessities before setting off for into the Alaskan wilderness. I remember him waxing poetic about the virtues of lowering pack weight and the stories he’d tell of cutting the handle off of a tooth brush and peeling labels off of medication bottles just to save grams off the weight that he’d be carrying during the hunt.
It seemed strange and distant to me at the time. I was still in elementary school, and although I’d done a lot of overnight camping trips with my dad over the years, the prospect of doing anything on my own was so far off still that it was basically inconceivable. So instead of imagining myself out in the wilderness, living only off of what I had in a pack, I watched my dad like he was some kind of animal in a zoo—living such a different life than my own that it felt like there may as well have been a glass wall between us.
After the years passed and I began pursuing overnight solo trips of my own, I began to understand what all the fuss over base-weight was about.
Something fascinated me about being able to go out into the wild and have the things that I’d need to keep myself alive. Maybe it was an admiration for my dad, my grandfathers, and my great-grandfathers, who had all been avid, independent outdoorsmen. Maybe I felt like I had to live up to the examples that they’d set, and my leaving civilization for a few days at a time, then returning with stories of surviving the unforgiving wilderness made me feel like I was accomplishing that goal.
Needless to say however, the moment I started taking overnight trips, I was introduced to the hiker’s dilemma: The more gear you carry, the more comfortable you camp. But at the same time, more gear means a heavier pack weight, and a heavier pack weight means harder miles because of the stress on the shoulders, back, and the soles of your feet.
In other words, there are pros and cons to a heavy pack weight and there are pros and cons to a light pack weight. And from what little I’ve learned over the years and miles that I’ve spent thru hiking, it’s up to each individual hiker to figure out what works for them in any given situation.
Anymore the thru hiking community has pretty ubiquitously gravitated in the direction of lighter and lighter base weights. Whereas our thru hiking pioneers from the seventies and before had no choice but to carry conventional “heavy” gear, with the advent of the twenty-first century, any hiker today has access to ultra-lite down jackets, cuben fiber backpacks, dehydrated foods, carbon-fiber tracking poles, and a whole myriad of other high-dollar, low-weight alternatives to the gear of our grandfathers. I’ve met hundreds of thru hikers over past ten years, and with the one exception of “Seventy-Five,” basically all of them are carrying light weight gear that would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago.
But with the advent of light-weight and “ultra”-light-weight equipment comes another hiker’s dilemma: determining the cost and benefit of every ounce of gear in deciding how much gear they’ll ultimately carry on the trail. The trouble is that there’s no definitive “right” answer to this question. Some people are going to carry packs that weigh seven pounds, while others are going to carry base weights of twenty-five. Both of these hypothetical hikers could very well make it from Mexico to Canada, given the proper motivation. But if it’s all about miles, then you cut your pack weight down. Or is relative comfort a high enough priority that you’re willing to carry the extra weight for however long you’re going to be on trail?
The game isn’t so complicated when you’re dealing with a weekend trip. If you’re only hiking twenty or thirty miles at a time, then your body can take a beating from carrying a heavy pack and then you can spend the next three days soaking your feet in a hot tub or sleeping in a soft bed. On a thru hike however, every single ounce impacts your overall experience on the trail. You’ll hear it over and over again: “Every ounce counts.” It’s become a motto of the thru hiking community over the years. On a thru hike there’s no chance for the body to heal at the end of the 30-mile day because the next day will be 30 miles long too, and so will the next, and the next, and maybe even the next. Thru hiking means putting the body through long-duration physical stress, and every ounce of extra weight in a thru hiker’s pack is going to contribute to that long-duration wear and tear. Less gear means easier miles; more gear means more comforts.
And based solely on the variables that I’ve introduced thus far, it probably looks like I’m all about the sub-ten pack weight, but everything in life—thru hiking included—is about cost/benefit analysis. With light weight gear come big time problems in some situations. For example, think of how much weight and space in your pack a hiker could save if they just ditched their rain gear, umbrella, and tent! They could potentially cover a lot more miles each day than their peers who are hauling all that extra weight around, and so long as the weather doesn’t go bad, they’ll be the last ones laughing. Trust me—I’ve hiked through hundreds, if not thousands of miles of trail carrying cold weather gear that I didn’t end up using, and it sucks to be in the midst of a bright sunny day and realize that you’re having to bear the burden of equipment that isn’t getting used. That all changes the moment that the weather goes bad though. Suddenly the hiker who opted to lug the extra weight of heavier rain gear for all those miles is the one who’s staying comfortable in heart of the blizzard, monsoon, or hailstorm.
What it really comes down to then is risk aversion. More gear may be more weight, but it also has the potential to provide more safety from the elements if the sunny skies turn dark with storms. Are you a “gamblin’ man”? Well then maybe it’s worth foregoing that extra thermal layer; so long as it doesn’t get too cold then there’s a possibility that you may not need it. Or are you risk averse? Lord knows that I’ve carried gear for thousands of miles in a case or two that I only ever used once. But that one-time use very likely saved my life, so in the end it was worth having.
It was August 7th, 2008.
My dad and I had been embedded in the rugged Chugach Mountains of southcentral Alaska for ten days and hadn’t seen another human being since being dropped by bush-plane at the watershed of Spur Glacier a week and a half earlier. It was my second time hunting dhal sheep, but my first success. A lot of people consider dhal sheep hunting to be some of the most challenging hunting on the planet. It’s an animal that lives in extremely inhospitable environments, their eyesight is impeccable, and killing a sheep means having to then pack it out for days on end through terrain that is some of the harshest on earth.
Looking back on it now, having a dad who could introduce me to things like this no doubt had a lot to do with why I ended up falling in love with thru hiking later in life.
Over the course of the 11 days that we were on that hunt in 2008, we covered a mere 40 miles. Eleven days. Forty miles. That’s fewer than four miles per day! By comparison, as a thru hiker I aim to cover a minimum of 20-30 miles per day and have had several days on trail where I was able to walk over 40 miles between first-light and the sunset.
There are a lot of fallibilities in the comparison of the miles that I hiked as a sheep hunter in 2008 with those of a thru hiker in 2019 but I bring it up as a demonstration of the extremes of my personal experience with base weight. I use it to show you that I’ve carried packs that were ten or twelve pounds, and I’ve carried a pack that was literally over a hundred pounds (there’s nothing ultra-lite about a pack full of game-meat on a successful hunt). I’ve suffered through days where every single step under the weight of my pack was like its own little saga—days when it was like giving up my soul just to move four or five miles. And I’ve toted around a little eighteen-liter pack with a hammock, some dried bananas, and a water bottle during summertime weekend trips where walking thirty miles in a day felt casual.
And what I’ve learned over the years is as simple as this: I don’t have the answers. But then again, neither does the guy on YouTube who has that one video that talks about his pack weight and has ten million views. To that end, nobody has the answer to how much a pack should weigh on a thru hike, because for every hiker and for every trail, there is a different “right” answer.
I’ve met the guy who’s walked across the country multiple times carrying a pack so light that it looks like it’s going to float off if he doesn’t weigh it down, and I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with a guy so proud of his 75-pound pack weight that he took a trail name to match it. Neither of these extremes are right because it’s all a subjective game of choosing what’s right for you.
Furthering the difficulty of deciding what pack weight might be right for you is the fact that different conditions are going to demand different gear which is then going to affect the weight of your pack. There’s no need to carry winter gear in the desert, for example. So it’s not even a game of finding what gear right is right for you; it’s about finding what’s right for you in the given situation. And being that a thru hike is, at its core, all about changing the environment around you as you walk, you’re likely going to need to continue to reassess the contents of your pack as the trail evolves. Add micro spikes, snow shoes, and a sleeping bag liner for the mountains of Colorado, and then get that stuff out of your pack once you’re basking in the hot sun in the Great Divide Basin.
Therefore, in my experience, figuring out what to bring and how much gear you’ll need to make it through the hike is analogous to walking a tightrope—constantly adjusting what’s important enough to carry and when to add or subtract from that base setup.
My personal approach to packing for a thru hike can be boiled down to this: I carry more gear than the average thru hiker, but I train for it and I appreciate it once I’m out there.
Whereas the “average” thru hiker (whatever that means) is going to aim for a total pack weight of 10-20 pounds, I push a little bit higher and carried around 24 pounds as my base weight for the Continental Divide Trail as well as for the Colorado Trail. That number (24 pounds) was mostly a secret that I tried to hide from other hikers, for fear of criticism and ridicule, but it was still obvious just from looking at the size of my pack that I wasn’t what most people would call “ultra-lite.” I carried a stove (a lot of hikers go stoneless these days), an extra pair of shorts, two extra shirts, more warm layers than I probably needed, camera gear, backup battery banks, a full tent (many thru hikers now opt for a tarp as a shelter instead of a tent), and a much warmer sleeping bag than I needed for most of the trail. Honestly, that list could stretch on for several more lines, but I think that the point’s been made.
In order to prepare for carrying that much extra equipment for the entirety of the 3,000 miles that I’d be hiking over the summer, I trained more than other hikers I encountered on the trail. I intentionally descended and then climbed the Grand Canyon a dozen times in the couple of months before setting off from Crazy Cook. I knew going into the CDT that the extra weight, though nothing in comparison to “Seventy-Five”’s monster of a pack, was still going to make walking from Mexico to Canada a more physically challenging endeavor than it would be for my ultra-light peers. But I had a rhyme and reason for every piece of gear that I carried. Every little thing had been given time and consideration. I would love to have been at a sub-twenty-pound base weight, but I had good reason for the extra few pounds.
As the trail went on there were some pieces of gear that I mailed home—deeming them unnecessary for making it to Canada—and there were pieces that I added. Namely, during the snowy sections of Colorado and Montana I ended up with a lot more gear to navigate through the snow and then survive the cold temperatures at night. At its heaviest, my pack’s base weight was probably around 36 pounds going into the Bob Marshal Wilderness. With food and water, I carried a total weight of over 50 pounds into “the Bob.”
If you asked my philosophy of thru hiking base weight, I’d tell you that I’d rather work a little harder in the day and then sleep a little more comfortably at night on account of having the extra gear than to be uncomfortable during the day and night for months on end. I like to approach thru hiking in such a way that even through the physical struggle of walking thousands of miles across the country, I can still find some comfort and safety in the equipment that I chose to carry in my pack.
I’ve looked at the base weight benefit of cutting the handle of my toothbrush in half or leaving my camera at home, but in my mind they’re worth the cost of carrying the extra weight. That may or may not be the right answer for you, but if you needed a place to start and I had to impart some advice, I’d say to air on the side of caution, carry the little bit of extra equipment for the sake of safety, and once you deem it no longer necessary, let it go. It’s better to start with too much and pare down than to start with too little and get yourself killed in a blizzard four hundred miles into your walk across the country.
My advice is only as good as my experience, and moreover only applies directly to me. All the same, I can look back to a time when I didn’t know how to approach packing for a long trail or how light my pack should be once I set out. Even now I benefit greatly from the advice and opinions of others—both those I agree with as well as those that I don’t, and so it makes sense for me to throw my voice into the conversation for a moment and share my personal approach to the subject.
With all that said, I figured that it might be appropriate to end on a note of exactly what gear makes up that 24-pound base weight that I mentioned earlier in this essay. Though not exhaustive (an exhaustive list of my CDT equipment can be found on my website in spreadsheet form or on a video breakdown at www.wormwoodhikes.com), these are some of the main pieces of gear that I carried on the CDT that made up the majority of my base weight.
Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 (37 ounces)
Sleeping Bag: Marmot Plasma 15 (34 ounces)
Pack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 (32.5 ounces)
Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir (9 ounces)
Hiking Poles: Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles (11 ounces)
Cooking System: Jet Boil Stove (12 ounces)
Shoes: Salomon XA Pro 3D (32.5 ounces)
Camera: iPhone 11 (8 ounces) & GoPro Hero 7 (4 ounces)
Battery Banks: Two 10,000 mAh (12.5 ounces)
I know that this doesn’t all add up to 24 pounds, but those are some of the heavier items that make up my base weight. A more complete list is posted at WormwoodHikes.com.
As for a take away—as if there’s some obligation for one to exist—I guess that I leave you with the same adage that thru hikers have been throwing at one another for as long as thru hiking has been around: “Hike your own hike.”
I have no interest in molding future hikers from the example that I’ve set myself, but if my experience can do even a little bit to aide someone who is new to the world of long-distance hiking, then it feels worth putting this out there. If anyone does want to follow my model however, I can only advise doing so until you can figure out what works best for you. The things that work best for me today are much different than the things that worked for me back in 2011 when I walked the Arizona Trail; the things that will be best for me in the future will be far different than what works today; and the things that worked for me on the CDT won’t necessarily be what’s best for you. You have to sort of figure it out for yourself as you go and continue to balance along that tight rope. Carefully add or replace the gear that you have and subtract things as you realize that lighter weight options are out there.
Beyond that little bit of over-generalized advice, I feel like I’d be walking on over-trodden ground to say anything more. The Internet is riddled with advice from other hikers on what you should wear and what you should carry, so I’ll refrain from shouting amongst the other voices and tell you to go out and look for yourself. See what other hikers are using. See what’s working and what’s not. Read into the product reviews and YouTube gear analyses. Then, once you’ve carried your own pack for a stretch or two, see if you can contribute to the conversation as I hope that I have done here.