Mastering the Art of Thru-Hiking Gear: Balancing Weight and Comfort

Cutting base weight is key for thru-hiking success. Learn how to trim the pounds from your big three gear and upgrade to lighter, multipurpose items. The path to hiking bliss starts with a lighter pack.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

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Building out a gear list is vital to any long-distance trail hiking attempt. The issue for many is finding the balance between comfort and lighter pack weight. It would be best if you were as light as possible and as finances will allow.

Let’s jump into what thru-hiking base weight is:

Base weight refers to the weight of all equipment and supplies that a hiker actively carries in their backpack. It is the most essential component of planning lightweight gear as it determines how much you will have to carry and how long it will take to complete your trek.

Base weight is an excellent way to ensure your gear is ready for a long thru-hike and that you have removed all the unnecessary gear.

Getting your base weight low will also help you by making longer food and water carries easier on your body and back since they add lots of extra weight.

The Essential Components of Base Weight

Your base weight is made out of nearly everything you bring with you while you are out on a long-distance trek. This is made of many different gear categories.

  • Big Three (Backpack, Shelter, Sleep System)
  • Packed Clothing (Everything Not Actively Worn)
  • Electronics
  • Cook System
  • Walter Filtration

When you look at these categories, you will see that pieces of gear make up a large amount of your carried weight but that your weight of consumables like food and water isn’t a part of this calculated value.

This is why many thru-hikers learn to manage their clothing by bringing just the bare essentials like clothing to maintain warmth and typically a change of socks and underwear.

Does Base Weight Include Clothing?

As discussed above, clothing will be in worn weight, and then the base will be the extra carried clothing in your backpack; this is why you want to manage this excess clothing.

Clothing items like extra socks, underwear, rain clothing, puffy jackets, and similar carried items will be part of your base weight.

Though you can carry extra clothing to change into, many will carry only the most necessary items to help cut down this clothing weight.

There may be times when you start a thru-hike or will end a thru-hike in freezing temperatures, and then you would want to add things like warmer base layers that you would be possibly carrying until you reach that area.

Exceptions: What’s Not Included in Base Weight

As I spoke about above, the food and water are not part of your overall base weight, but this is because this is incredibly varied based on the trip you plan, so what is not included in base weight and why?

The weight of all your supplies is not included in the base weight. The things that vary depending on the length of your trip are called consumables.

Water, food, and fuel weight are examples of consumables. The weight of your worn and carried goods isn’t factored into the base weight like clothes, shoes, or trekking poles.

Food is generally between 1-2 lbs per day, so the length of the trip matters. Water is similar as its weight can vary based on the amount of water available on the trail. The last part is what you wear, as these aren’t carried inside your backpack.

Since both of these make your food and water weight change even by the hour on the trail, they are not counted in your base weight. This helps you compare like to like in gear that has no change based on carrying distance or days of the trip.

What is a Good Base Pack Weight for Thru-hiking?

When building out a gear setup for thru-hiking, you will want to weigh, pun intended, the benefits and needs of anything you want to bring, and the more multipurpose, the better, so what should my base weight be?

The best base weight for most thru-hikers would be around 15 pounds, as this will allow good gear selection but without an elite price tag. But with weight always going as light as you can afford is a strong strategy for 2000+ miles, so 10-12 pounds could give better trail longevity and less injury chance.

For most, this will strike a good balance between overall gear costs and keeping your weight manageable but avoiding costs frequently linked to an ultralight backpacking gear list, as the more weight you carry, the slower you will move(source) and the higher chance of accidental injury.

Why Choose Not to Be an Ultralight Backpacker

One thing you will see on YouTube often is ultralight gear and packed gear that they will say is 8 pounds or some other insane weight. The issue with this is typical: these are dialed in from years of purchase and trial and error, and most thru-hikers won’t have years of long trails and gear used to match their needs.

Most thru-hikers should instead look at and attempt to be a lightweight backpacker, someone who has all the gear they need without excess, looking at finding and adding lighter options through shakedown hikes and testing gear on the trail before the start of their long hike.

Instead of trying to have an ultralight pack , you should prepare to hike for yourself and what brings you comfort. This doesn’t mean carrying 60 pounds of random gear, but people did hike the trails in the old days with much more weight. Stop believing the hype of dropping everything.

How Heavy Should Your Base Weight Be?

With all this talk about what base weight is and what the typical backpack base weight will be for your long-distance hiking, you may want to understand your limit to backpack weight, as heavy packs do suck.

This will depend on whether you are a comfort backpacker who wants to bring a chair or other luxury item. While it may sound funny or extra weight, many long-distance hikers have completed trails while bringing along items that would typically be labeled silly or awkward.

In the end, it is you who needs to carry the gear; you need to understand your ability to carry the weight.

This is why you should always do shakedown hikes to find and remove useless items or find the heaviest items and find lighter options when possible, as everyone has a weight limit.

Strategies for Lightening Your Load

Now comes the part that, hopefully, you reached before buying too much gear beforehand.

You want to make sure your high-expense gear helps you drop pounds off your back and not ounces. Many focus on the trinket side, like cutting down toothbrushes, so let’s talk more about how to reduce your base weight.

Invest in Lighter Gear (Save Pounds, Not Ounces)

It can’t be said enough that almost all your base weight will be centered in the big three gear. This means your focus on dropping pounds will need to begin and focus primarily on these items regardless of your overall budget.

The big three are your backpack, shelter, and sleeping system. The last item you should purchase from these will be the backpack, as it needs to hold all the other items, and you will need to know the space required before purchasing or upgrading it.

Upgrading your Shelter

Your shelter is your home while out on the trail, and as such, it is a vital part of your enjoyment and ability to last through your thru-hike. For most thru-hikers, you will want to have a tent under 2.5 pounds. Most of these will be trekking pole non-freestanding tents .

You can find very lightweight freestanding options or semi-freestanding options, but your cost for the tent will increase dramatically to carry a similar weight or heavier tent.

If you want to drop into the sub-two pound area, you must look at DCF, also known as Dyneema, tents, which will be budget busters starting around $600 on average.

Upgrading your Sleeping Bag or Backpacking Quilt

The central part of your sleep system is your sleeping bag or quilt, if you are serious about dropping weight, then you will really need to look at choosing the right quilt with a temperature rating for your hike.

Quilts outperform sleeping bags in weight to warmth due to removing the zipper and the fabric and insulation that would make up the bottom portion. Anyone looking to lighten their gear system would want to look at high-quality backpacking quilts.

Upgrading your Sleeping Pad

Often underappreciated in the ability to keep you warm is the sleeping pad , your hammock, your underquilt.

The sleeping pad keeps you warm as most heat is lost to the ground, not to the air as you may think.

Spending a large amount on a sleeping bag or quilt and then going cheap on your sleeping pad will yield poor results.

This will then lead to poor sleeping conditions and cause heat retention issues, which may lead to you quitting your hike early or having to buy replacement gear on the trail at greater expense.

It is suggested to have at least an R-value of 3+ for a three-season sleeping pad, but if you are a cold sleeper, you would want to push that higher and go for a four or even five rating to ensure you stay warm all night.

Upgrading your Backpack

The last item to upgrade from the big three that can yield a good drop in your weight will be your backpack. There is a lot of arguing here on framed or frameless, but you are looking for something that can fit the needs of your gear from a space (liters) perspective and weight.

You want to make sure all your gear can fit comfortably and preferably without lots of additional space to help combat overpacking.

You also want it to ride comfortably when you are at your max weight, like when you leave town fully resupplied with food and water, possibly maxed out.

New fabrics are coming out that offer some fantastic ability to be near waterproof while also having the ability to hold tremendous weight and be abrasion-resistant, so keep your eyes open to new tech!

Trimming Ounces with Smaller Gear Upgrades

This is where the rest of your gear will reside. Swapping out the other items or dropping them from your backpack will only save some ounces, and while they can add up to pounds, you will need to replace multiple pieces of these gear to drop any serious base weight.

The biggest gains here would be to replace our heavier and cheaper rain gear with items like the Visp from Enlightened Equipment and items like the Torrid Jacket to replace your heavier puffy if you have a heavier jacket.

There will be some options for all this gear that can help drop ounces, but the costs will escalate fast to drop weight from the smaller gear in your pack. I would instead try to focus on replacing single-use gear with multi-use or multipurpose gear.

Leveraging Multipurpose Gear to Cut Weight

This is where you can cut down on pieces of gear but more than likely not more than a few ounces at a time. You want to look for items you carry that serve similar purposes and look to use one of the items for both purposes.

For many, this can be as simple as a cooking pot and a “coffee cup”, as you can probably see immediately. They both serve the same purpose: to give you a warmed-up drink or food.

So, in the example above, dropping the coffee cup is the start of focusing on multipurpose gear over highly specialized gear that can only perform one task.

This approach is why trekking pole tents are so prominent in the hiking community, as you will have trekking poles for hiking during the day.

So using them to set up your tent makes them into multipurpose items, along with dropping nearly a pound from having independent poles for a tent that have no additional benefit other than weight on your back.

Disadvantages of Dropping Your Base Weight

The most significant disadvantage to dropping your base weight is that you need something you didn’t decide to bring with you or something you cut down to be less than the original.

The other issues will be more personal. I know lots of my friends prefer to have a chair to sit in when breaks come as they are tired of sitting on hard and dirty ground or rocks and tree stumps.

Lighter gear can also be prone to easier damage and gear failures, so much of the time, you will want to treat them with great care, as replacing them on the trail can be quite expensive.

Key Takeaways for Reducing Your Base Weight

When you work to prepare for a thru-hike, you need to think through base weight and how to hike your hike. If this means bringing extra comfort items or some loved but inefficient gear, you should bring it regardless of what others say.

The intelligent way, though, to prepare yourself for six months of hiking is to cut down the weight where you can. Changing out your single-use items to multi-use can lead to significant weight drops without functionality losses. This is why I moved to trekking pole tents.

Finding your best gear possible will be vital to leaving and completing your thru-hike , as only 25% of people who start a trail like the AT ever finish.

It shows that all the preparation in the world may still not succeed, but being ready will increase those odds tremendously.

Inexperienced backpackers will frequently pack far too much weight and gear by packing their fears. Instead, get as many shakedown hikes done to get familiar with your gear while pruning out the gear you never use and you will be amazed how light you can get!

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