How Heavy Is Too Heavy For Backpacking? (We Asked Real People and Got 80 Comments)


It’s impossible to know how heavy is too heavy to carry while backpacking from just one person, that’s why I decided to ask 80 other backpackers how much they were willing to carry.

According to the survey, you should stick to between 16% and 25% of your entire body weight while backpacking. Any pack over 35 pounds was generally deemed too heavy for both men and women who backpack long distances.

However, you may decide to carry more or less depending on how long your daily hikes will be as well as where and when you were hiking. Further, your physical fitness, age, and health also play a factor in determining how much you want to backpack.

If you want to figure out exactly how heavy is too heavy for backpacking, read the responses to our survey below and see what the most current research is saying about this maximum amount of weight.

Additionally, not everyone knows what a heavy backpack can actually do to your body. We found an awesome article that goes into detail about the downfalls of a heavy backpack. In the sections below, we summarize these potential injuries as well as what seasoned hikers say you can do if your backpack is too heavy.

Survey Says: This Is Too Heavy For Backpacking

As you can see from the results, most people tended to be you within the 16% body weight to about 25% body weight category. So, regardless of if you are a man or a woman, staying in the 16% to 25% range is a really good range to stay in.

Many of us have heard that you should never exceed 30% of your body weight when packing your backpacking backpack. However, it’s hard to determine whether or not this rule of thumb applies to everyone or if there is another percentage that most people tend to go by.

Further, REI even claims that you shouldn’t go more than 20% of your body weight and military standards (5.11.1.2.2) claim that packs that body weight percentages of 30% for combat and 45% for marching are acceptable. With all of these numbers and percentages, it can be tricky to figure out how heavy your pack should be.

To figure out exactly what people are carrying on their long backpacking trips, we sent out a survey to the hiking community. Even though we got over 80 responses from seasoned backpackers, the responses were across the board. Even though we see different responses from men and women, the percentages of weight that both men and women were comfortable carrying had a similar trend. Out of those, we got 32 solid responses.

When analyzing this data, we did break up the differences between men and women. Yet, we did get significantly more responses from men than we did from women. For example, we got 23 bodyweight percentages from male hikers and only 9 bodyweight percentages from female hikers. We will make some assumptions here, but in the future would be beneficial if we could get more female backpacker responses.

It was also difficult to actually analyze this data because not everyone gave us their actual body weight. Instead, they simply told us what amount of weight they considered too much to carry. However, this did not stop us from trying to analyze this data and see if we can find any trends that made sense.

Below you will find a chart of the percentages that people reported they would carry. The data below represents the maximum weight someone was willing to carry. While many people gave us a range of weights that they were comfortable carrying, others told us what they considered to be too much weight and what they considered to be the amount that they tried to bring.

% of Bodyweight<15%16-20%21-25%26-30%31-35%36-40%41% and Up
Men (23 Respondents)17% (4)26% (6)22% (5)4% (1)22% (5)0% (0)9% (2)
Women (9 Respondents)0% (0)33% (3)44% (4)11% (1)0% (0)0% (0)11% (1)
Total % (32 Men and Women)13%28%28%6%16%0%9%

Many people reported that anything over 35 pounds was too much to carry. However, there were some hikers that were adamant that between 50 and 60 pounds were doable for shorter hikes or if you were in fit condition.

Yet, these more extreme responses do not come from the 6’5 250-pound men. Instead, both men and women reported that they would be willing to carry 40 pounds or more while hiking long distances. And, a few men even said that they’d be willing to carry up to 70 pounds or around 50% of their body weight with little problem.

Heck, my dad is even one of those people who say that 30% of your body weight is totally fine. Like some people we saw in this survey, he consistently carries those 50 to 60-pound packs. Plus, we once met this guy on the trail who had 80 pounds on his back. The guy was most definitely lighter than my dad, yet he carried that heavy pack with pride.

You’ll have to find out what works for you–but if you are inexperienced, shoot for 16-25% of your body weight and you should end up okay.

Is It Bad To Carry a Heavy Backpack?

Besides being uncomfortable and having to hike at a slower pace, carrying a heavy backpack can have some impacts on your health. In fact, there are many injuries that are backpack-related that you may not even know about.

This is my dad with classically way too much stuff in the High Uinta mountains

A study done in 2013 by Anthony Thomas, a researcher from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, looked at the effects of backpack weight on the endurance of hikers who travel long distances. With his study and analysis, Thomas did show that a heavy backpack has an impact on the miles you will travel in a given day. He found that, generally, the heavier the backpack, the fewer miles the hikers were able to travel in a day.

Within his article, Thomas outlined some of the common injuries that people experience well hiking and backpacking. Some of these injuries include:

  • Blisters on your feet
  • Lower back pain
  • Chronic joint pain
  • Rucksack palsy (compression of the cervical spinal nerves)
  • Paresthesia

Additionally, backpackers who carry heavy backpacks also complain of neck pain, shoulder pain, and general back pain. Further, others had sore feet, sore legs, and sore hips from carrying heavy backpacks.

I can personally attest to this–when my pack is too heavy, I feel really rough hip pain. Walking all day inevitably can cause bruising on your hip. Once your hip’s bruised, you’re going to feel sharp pain every time you put on your backpack.

You should try to pack your backpack as lightly as you can. If you’re looking for some ways to do so, check out the tips we have in the next section.

What To Do If Your Pack Is Too Heavy

Some people did give recommendations on how to tell if your backpack was too heavy. Mostly, these people said that if you hiked with your backpack on and started to fatigue even with little effort, your backpack was probably too heavy. But if you were able to hike and maintain a generally good pace, your backpack was probably at the perfect weight.

While some of the more expensive equipment will be lighter to carry in your backpack, you don’t always need to invest in the nicest and lightest gear. Of course, some of that later gear can help and make your backpacking trip more manageable.

If you do plan to do plenty of backpacking trips, it may be worth it to invest in some added equipment. Yet, if you are still deciding if backpacking is for you, it might be best to simply be mindful of what you pack.

Watch Your R Value

Instead of bringing several large blankets or a bulky sleeping bag, you should choose a sleeping bag and sleeping pad that are well insulated. When it comes to this equipment, the R-value matters. When it comes to R-value, the higher the R-value the more insulated the pad is.

Sleeping pads generally range in our values from less than 2.0 to 5.5 or more. The type of sleeping bag and sleeping pad that you buy will depend on your climate while backpacking, but if you do expect cold weather check out those that have an R-value of 5.5 or more.

There are some lighter weight alternatives to sleeping bags–I write about some of them in my article here!

Limit Your Clothes

In fact, the easiest way to cut weight is not to bring so many clothes–it’s a huge temptation to take a lot of clothes. You can wear the same shirt and pants for days. Use that to your advantage.

You do not need 4 pairs of pants, 7 sweatshirts, 10 shirts, and 15 pairs of socks (learn how many socks to bring backpacking here) for your week-long trip. Too much clothing can easily become way too heavy. So, you should pack as lightly as you can with clothing that is meant to remain stink-free and dry for the entire trip.

Most of the time, some of the better clothing to wear for hiking and backpacking are materials that are moisture-wicking. As for winter clothing, you will need to pack layers, but be mindful of which layers you pack. You’ll want to ensure you have a good base layer, middle layer, and outer layer.

Ever wondered if you should wear a base layer in the summer? Check out my article, here for more details.

Plan Out Your Food (And Weigh It)

One way to cut weight is to be very careful about what you plan for food. because this is easily the heaviest thing you’ll pack. One tip is to pack your heaviest food on the first day and second day but save the lighter food for later in the trip–this will make the walk home a lot easier.

You can also cut down on the amount of weight that your food weighs by bringing dehydrated food, throwing away excess packaging before you hike, and eating foods that are high in calories and protein. Basically, you should avoid foods that have lots of water in them or meals that are heavier to bring. Sure these meals won’t be the most extravagant of food, but your back and neck will thank you later.

Train for Your Trip

Of course, you could always prepare for your backpacking trip by doing smaller hikes with your full backpack. You can also lift weights and try to increase your overall strength and physical fitness before a long backpacking trip.

If you do not have access to trails, you can easily walk on a treadmill with your backpack or walk around your neighborhood with your backpack on. We will acknowledge that you might look a little silly doing this, but keep in mind that the more you train for your trip, the easier the backpacking trip will be.

Me and my wife had a 10-mile hiking trip in New Zealand and we did great because we went on weekly hiking trips around local parks for months before we left.

For those of you who may not have enough time to train for your trip, just make sure you take plenty of breaks while you’re hiking and drink water so that you stay hydrated. Most of the time, your group will accommodate for breaks and may even want to take a break themselves. (but not always, to be honest)

Try Out Different Packs

I had a friend that would hike around their neighborhood with a backpack full of canned food–this is not a bad idea at all. Trust me, you want to figure out if your pack is going to work for you before you’re out in the wilderness and getting out is a lot more difficult.

Sometimes, the backpack that you buy may be the cause of your aches and pains. Some backpacks also do weigh a lot more than others and simply might not be the best for your body shape. So, when you’re in the store trying to find the perfect backpacking backpack, don’t be afraid to wear that backpack around the store for a while and see where the pressure points hit your body.

You can fill up your pack with random store items (make sure to ask the associates there, first) to get the feel of a full pack.

Keep Your Books Light

One recommendation that I have constantly heard from hikers is to always be mindful of the books you pack. While reading in the tent is a great way to end your day, packing several heavy or hardcover books is something you’ll likely regret. Instead, you may want to invest in a kindle or a lightweight e-reader that you can keep your books on. Or, just be mindful of the book that you pack and pack a lighter weight paperback book.

We also caution against using any heavy trail guides or outdoor guides because these tend to be really heavy, and you may not use them as much as you think you will. Also, really search yourself and ask if you do you intend on reading that book or if you’re going to bring it and might not read it. Most experienced backpackers claim that you rarely use their personal items, so keep that in mind!

A local guide explaining the terrain and a map is indespensible–don’t skimp on these–but you won’t need an atlas or anything like that.

Fewer Dishes

When it comes to packing light, having a bowl, plate, spoon, fork, and knife along with all of your cooking equipment can get really heavy really fast. Instead, you should invest in a multipurpose silver option, such as a spork, and bring only a bowl to eat out of. You could even plan to eat out of the same dish that you use to cook from to save even more weight.

As for hot beverages, you should choose between bringing a tin mug or a thermos. Mostly, you should ask yourself which you would probably use more and then go from there. Your water bottle may also be a source of heavy weight. So instead of using those heavy hard plastic water bottles, use a lightweight water bottle that won’t take up too much space or weigh too much.

A water bladder (such as made by Camelbak) are fantastic options for carrying water since you’re able to carry a lot of water without heavy plastic. To be fair, I like to bring my Nalgene (thick heavy plastic) because it is really useful to be able to pour water into other things, and that’s actually difficult to do with a water bladder… so it’s a judgement call based on what you’re doing.

Use Trekking Poles

One way to help with the weight of a heavy backpack is to use trekking poles. When you use these hiking poles, you are able to use the muscles in your upper body with your lower body. The trekking poles also help keep your balance because they will assist you in walking over loose or uneven ground. Balance is super important with a pack.

If you don’t believe me, try leaning over with your pack on your back–it’s hard to do! Your body spends a lot of energy not toppling over with a backpack.

Not only that, the poles will help you keep your balance in tricky balancing situations because you have an extra leg (so to speak) on the ground. Not only can these poles push up objects, but they can protect you from falls and help you hike downhill by reducing the amount of muscle activity in your lower joints. Plus, they also help lessen the load on your hips.

Distribute Your Backpack Weight

When you pack your backpack, make sure you distribute the weight evenly. Otherwise, you might find that your right side is drastically heavier than your left and it will mess up your entire posture and start to give you a nasty backache. Experts say you should make sure that you place all bulky items at the bottom of your pack, this includes your sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Additionally, make sure that all the heavy items are higher in the pack, such as your food and water.

Why is a distribution important, you ask? If you’re traveling uphill or downhill, the weight of your backpack may shift. For example, if you travel uphill, the weight of your pack tends to go towards the higher part of your backpack. If you already have the heavier objects higher in your pack, your workload will likely be less.

Additionally, some evidence shows that having the center mass (heavier equipment) higher on your back will cost less energy to move. However, watch your balance because having heavier items higher in your pack may make it so that you are less balanced on uneven terrain.

Keep Track of Unused Items

If you are just going into backpacking and want to make your backpack weigh less, it may be worth it to keep track of the items that you don’t use. You could bring just a piece of paper and a pencil and write down which pieces of equipment you didn’t use on the trip. That way, you will know exactly what you will likely need for your next trip.

When we say unused items, we simply mean accessory items that you probably didn’t need. You should always, of course, have a first aid kit and safety gear on your trip. Even though the name of the game is packing light, you should always make sure you’re prepared just in case an emergency happens.

Analyzing the Survey Data

When going through all 80 responses and additional comments, I did notice some trends and patterns in many of the comments. Overall, the trend typically was that the lighter you could pack, the better your hike went.

Unfortunately, some of the lightweight equipment is expensive and not everyone can afford this type of gear. However, I do have some tips on what to do if your backpack is too heavy. You can read those tips in the last section.

The “Ultralighters”

We have all heard of those backpackers who consider themselves to be ultra-lighters. Mostly, these are the hikers and backpackers who invest in camping and backpacking equipment that is lightweight so that they can carry as little as possible on their backs.

There were some people who responded to the survey that we could consider to be ultra-lighters. Typically, these individuals reported that they don’t want to carry anything more than 15 pounds and preferred their backpacks to stay under 15% of their body weight.

Yet, this is not an easy task to achieve. Because you have to carry food, equipment, clothing, and more, keeping your backpack this light is really hard. And, they admitted that this fact is true (if not a challenge they look forward to taking on). However, those who were able to keep their backpacks at this lightweight could likely travel further each day and not tire out as much.

Are you an ultralighter? Be prepared to work a lot to pare down your gear to exactly what you need.

Comfortable Vs. Doable Vs. Too Much

When people responded to this survey, we generally got responses that labeled their weight limit, a doable amount of weight, and a weight that was the most comfortable and desired. Generally, the too-much weight was between 40-60 pounds. Some others said they tried carrying upwards of 70 to 80 pounds and were incredibly uncomfortable.

Both men and women said that carrying between 35 and 50 pounds was within a doable range, but would have shoulder and neck aches by the end of their 5-10 mile hike. Others claimed that they could easily do 50 pounds if their hike was under 5 miles. In this regard, everyone does have their limit and you may want to try backpacking with a full backpack on a shorter hike if you or unsure how much you want to carry.

As for the comfortable range, many people reported bodyweight to backpack weight percentages that were between 15% and 20% of their body weight. Yet, more people preferred 15% or 17% of their body weight which was generally around 20 to 30 pounds total.

TL;DR: If you are of average size and build, then 20-30 lbs is a great backingpacking weight to shoot for.

Start Out Heavy, Transition to Light

Whether it’s age, or if it’s that we cannot maintain our 22-year-old fitness forever, most people tended to start out heavy in their early years of backpacking and transition to lighter weight backpacks as they got older or got more into backpacking.

There are a couple of reasons for this, and it really can depend on the individual person and their habits as to why people start out with heavier packs and then get to lighter backpacks.

First of all, most of us don’t invest in incredibly lightweight equipment for our first backpacking trip. It’s a learning journey to find out what exactly you need and what you don’t. We’ve all overpacked, before. Plus, we probably don’t want to drop hundreds or even thousands of dollars on expensive backpacking equipment if we’re not sure we’re going to like backpacking in the first place.

Backpack Weight Depends on the Season

Another interesting comment was that the weight of your backpack will depend on the season. When you think about it, this makes total sense. In the wintertime, you will need more clothing to stay warm, heavier sleeping bags to keep your body temperature warm, and probably more food and fuel if you are going to survive (or at least be comfortable) in the cold.

However, if you backpack in the summer, you won’t need as heavy of clothing and can keep your backpack lighter because of it. So if you really want to get the weight of your backpack down, you should hike in the mid to late summer if you are in the mountains, or in the spring or fall time if you are hiking in really hot conditions (read: Texas, Arizona, etc.)

The “Physically Fit” Exception

Many people made comments on the fact that those who were considered to be more physically fit could, in fact, carry more weight. While we are not claiming this is false, your physical fitness does play a role in how much you can carry. Some hikers claimed that carrying between 20% and 40% of their body weight was perfectly doable if they were in physically fit condition.

One hiker even claimed that he can carry as much as 50% of his body weight or more with little problem when he was in peak condition. Of course, we did not know exactly how long he was hiking or how many days he was out hiking, but that is a rather impressive number and not one we would recommend for the majority of hikers.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

Recent Posts