The Easiest Way to Lower Your Base Weight
Almost all backpackers are obsessed with their base weight. During my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I was questioned about my base weight and the overall weight of my pack almost as often as I was asked my name. Pack weight comparison is, in my opinion, rather toxic. However, it is true that the amount of weight you carry can make or break your experience, so you shouldn’t ignore it entirely.
There are many factors that should be considered when determining what your goal base weight should be, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to discuss the easiest way to decrease the weight of your pack. And it starts with identifying the metaphorical monster under your bed.
Many backpackers don’t realize is that your fears can burden you not only mentally, but also physically.
There are five common fears that lead many beginner backpackers to overpack. By identifying what your primary fears are for entering the wilderness, you may be able to determine unnecessary items in your pack to ditch, lightening your load.
Fear #1: Starvation
- How it manifests: Carrying extra food
- Weight saved by overcoming fear: depends on how scared you were of being hungry
The most common fear I’ve seen hikers ward against is that of going hungry. As hikers, we need a lot of food to combat hiker hunger, but food is heavy. I support carrying a few extra protein bars just in case the hunger is stronger than expected, but rolling into town with two or more days of food left is just ridiculous. That could add up to four pounds of unnecessary weight that you carried every day since your last resupply. Think of how much faster you could hike without that weight. Or how much more you would enjoy hiking at your normal pace without it.
The reality is, the human body can last a long time without food. Medical News Today says that the average person can go up to three months without eating, but after that, the lack of nutrients begins to become fatal. Since a thru-hiker expends significantly more calories than the average person, I doubt one could last three months without eating. However, you could definitely last a few days rationing (or not eating at all) if necessary. Twice on my AT thru-hike, I had to ration to make my supplies last, and while it wasn’t easy, nothing out there is.
So go on practice hikes, determine roughly how much you usually eat. This amount will change as you hike further, but it gives you a good point to estimate from. Worst case scenario, you can survive without a full belly for a few days and then feast in the next town. Your back will thank you for leaving that extra two days of food on the shelf.
Ed. note: Yes, we know food is technically not part of base weight. Still, in reality, reducing the weight of consumables in your pack is one of the easiest ways to make your pack lighter.
Fear #2: Freezing
- How it manifests: overly warm sleeping bag, extra layers
- Weight saved by overcoming fear: ~30-40 oz
This is a fear that I personally carry with me. However, for me, it’s somewhat rational. I get cold very easily. I’m currently wearing my wool baselayer under my clothes to work daily, and the outside temperature is usually 30-45ºF. That’s one thing you’ll need to learn about your fear and how you’re packing for it: what is rational, and what is overkill.
For example, carrying a 0º sleeping bag on the Appalachian Trail during peak hiker season (March to September) is most likely overkill. (I believe it to definitely be overkill, but I’m sure there have been weather conditions on the AT during those months at some point during history to warrant a 0º bag). According to the 2021 Thru-Hiker Survey, the average sleeping bag temperature rating last year was 20-29º, which is consistent with the survey results from previous years. Knowing I get cold more easily than the average person, I carried a 15º bag during my thru-hike. Despite temperatures dropping to at least 17º, I never spent a single night cold.
Know yourself. Know the average weather of where you’re going. Take how easily you get cold into consideration and pack accordingly, but don’t let your fear convince you to pack four jackets and three pairs of pants if it’s not truly necessary. Once again, go on practice hikes in colder weather and see what you really need, and what stays in the bottom of your pack.
Fear #3: Getting Soaked
- How it manifests: high dollar, heavy-duty rain gear; dry bags for everything; extra set(s) of hiking clothes
- Weight saved by overcoming fear: 10-20 oz
On the AT there’s a saying: no rain, no pain, no Maine. I met many thru-hiker hopefuls planning to head into town whenever rain was forecasted, and I wonder how far they made it. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid the rain for the duration of an entire thru-hike, not on the AT at least. It doesn’t pass through any deserts—there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the Green Tunnel.
In my experience, no amount of money can buy rain gear that will keep you completely dry 100% of the time. You’re better off leaving the heavy Gore-tex at home and sticking with a cheaper, lighter alternative, such as Frogg Toggs. They rip easily, but they’re cheap, and they keep you about as dry as any other option.
Plus, for me at least, during a rainstorm, it’s much more important to stay warm than dry. I always got wet while wearing my (more expensive) rain gear if it rained for long enough, but the extra layer trapped heat very well, so at least I wasn’t wet and cold. In the cool weather, this was vitally important. In the summer, I never wore my rain gear. Rain was a free, on-trail shower.
READ NEXT – Why $20 Frogg Toggs Are the Ideal Rain Gear for a Thru-Hike
This means that whenever it rained, my hiking clothes got very wet. Some hikers fear this and carry an extra set of hiking clothes to prevent having to pull those soggy clothes back on the next day. But the truth is, it’s either going to rain again today and you’ll have two sets of wet clothes in your pack (adding even more weight because water is heavy), or your clothes will dry significantly faster on your body than in your pack. As much as I absolutely hate it, I force myself to pull on my wet clothes in the morning, placing my dry camp clothes safely in my pack.
Which leads me to my final tip for conquering the fear of being wet: trash compactor bags. Some hikers love dry bags and pack all of their stuff in them. And if that works for you, great. Though they do add weight, my primary issue with them is that your stuff, though significantly more organized, isn’t as compactable because it’s trapped in a certain shape determined by the bag. Instead, I use a trash compactor bag to line my backpack and put all of my stuff inside it.
When it rains, I always get completely soaked. But the stuff in my pack has always been completely dry.
Fear #4: Hiker Funk
- How it manifests: deodorant, biodegradable soap, wet wipes, extra clothes
- Weight saved by overcoming fear: 1-14 oz
This fear, though just as real as the others, is definitely much less impactful upon your base weight. However, it still contributes a few ounces if you succumb to it. It’s pretty self-explanatory.
Hiking for a day makes anyone start to smell a little, much less for days on end without a shower. By that point, the body odor almost has a mind of its own. I know mine does. I’ve met many hikers who attempt to combat this by carrying travel-sized deodorant, wet wipes, even extra hiking clothes to alternate wearing. But here’s the thing, they still smell anyway.
I don’t care how often you apply deodorant. On the rocks of New York, in August, six days since your last shower, you’re fighting a losing battle. The skunk within you is rearing its ugly, smelly head, and the deodorant is just going to mingle with the musk. Just give in. Befriend the skunk. Everyone else is! Trust me, you won’t be the only stinky one out there. And there’s (almost) always someone who smells worse than you.
Fear #5: Isolation
- How it manifests: heavy-duty external batteries, solar-powered chargers
- Weight saved by overcoming fear: ~5-10 oz
Most of the hikers I met didn’t struggle with this fear, so I’m not sure how common it is among thru-hiker hopefuls. But I did meet a few who definitely had it, so it’s worth mentioning.
Out on the trail, you’re away from your loved ones. It’s perfectly normal to miss them, to want to stay in contact with them. I did too. I’m very thankful for cell phones and rechargeable external batteries that make this possible. But like with the fear of freezing, you need to realize what’s necessary, and what’s just your fear talking.
On trail, I carried an Anker 10,000 mAh battery, which was the perfect size for me. It lasted ten days, charging my phone and inReach Mini every three days. I spent the night in town about every two weeks, giving me ample time to completely recharge it. Battery banks come in different sizes, of course, affecting the weight.
I’m not saying you should not carry a phone and battery charger—not unless that’s part of the joy of hiking for you. I’m just saying carry what you actually need, not what your fear leads you to think you need. You will be alone on the trail at some point unless you have a dedicated partner hiking every step with you. You’ll still have to face this fear of being alone. No amount of battery capacity is going to prevent a lack of cell reception way down in a holler in Tennessee.
I’ve seen these five fears impact the base weights of myself and others. And I learned that even if you do pack to prevent your fears, you will still inevitably face them. You’ll still go hungry at some point. Still get soaked to the bone. Still smell absolutely atrocious, lying absolutely alone in your tent. Or, even if you do avoid whatever suffering you’re packing to avoid, you’ll wind up experiencing other trials– most likely injury from carrying too much weight.
Don’t become one of the 75% of hikers who quit their thru-hike just because you packed out of fear. If you quit, let it be for another reason, one that’s harder to prevent.
Don’t let your fear win.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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