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.

What twelve days in Maine without a shower looks like

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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Comments 19

  • pearwood : Feb 8th

    Thank you, Ms Monkey Toes!
    I had to bail out after carrying Way Too Much up the approach trail. Now I am on a quest to drastically reduce my pack weight.
    Blessings,
    Steve / pearwood
    https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/time-to-bail-rethink-and-replan-and-maybe-restart/

    Reply
    • Chuck : Feb 8th

      Despite reading the Trek everyday, I never comment. After reading this article I felt obliged to say well done. You have given very practical advice that all hikers can consider and learn from. Thank you.

      Reply
      • Ann Marie White : Feb 24th

        Thank you Chuck for taking the time to comment, as someone who also rarely comments on other people’s posts that means a lot.

        Reply
  • Andrea Horosko : Feb 9th

    Great read – and it underscores the reasons I will keep thru-hiking as a spectator sport! 😄

    Reply
  • Brian : Feb 9th

    Typical nonsense. First, carrying extra food is backcountry safety 101. I agree, you do not need to carry a ton of extra food on the AT, but delays and injuries happen. Second, Frog Toggs suck…you end up wetter through sweat…not to mention they get a hole in them just looking at them. I agree, a $600 Gore Tex shell is not needed, I certainly left mine home both times, but I was definitely dryer and more comfortable than my son, on my first AT, using high quality rain gear. Third, there is absolutely no reason to embrace the stink. Being hygienic is not a fear, it’s a way to promote good health. The amount of bad bacteria found on those who embrace the stink, is astronomical! Many true explorers discovered, good hygiene gives better chances of a successful expedition. Additionally, good hygiene does not require extra weight.

    Funnily, the fear of high base weights or pack weight, is actually a bigger issue…what most thru-hikers should be afraid of is not having the grit to be a thru-hiker, as lack of grit is the root cause of the majority of failed thru-hikes.

    Reply
    • David G : Feb 9th

      I was thinking pretty much the same thing. The fear of ounces is based on what — that people will judge your Strava segments? Gear pressure at the campsite by cool kids?

      Seems like a lot of this weight fear comes from sitting at a computer obsessively planning, instead of doing the training that will put you in the shape necessary to be comfortable with the weight of a prudent load. I can think of no better way to get discouraged from backpacking than to think that it has to be an ordeal of cold and hunger because grams.

      Reply
    • Richard : Feb 10th

      Glade you brought all that up. Everything said in that article was awful advice. Especially when thinking of the dangers. Food and hygiene are something you never skimp on.

      Reply
    • easydoesit : Feb 11th

      consider: a 50 mile segment between towns, on a national hiking trail loaded with tons of hikers going both ways. Why would I bring 2 extra lbs. of food just for in case? Its impossible to starve, there are people everywhere if you break your leg. I would say people who think they need to have lbs. of extra food on such easy trail segments have no grit in the first place.

      I would also say that people people who lament about stink have no grit at all.

      “frog toggs suck” no grit statement.

      Less weight is a good thing, easier to hike. 101 lesson for you there

      Reply
    • Sharmin : Feb 27th

      I’ve not been on the AP yet.. Planning.. My thought is to not embrace the skunk lol as she put it..
      My plan to do the best each day to not live in sweat and smell…
      Question how did you accomplish this? Thanks for any advice you can give..

      Reply
  • Hunter Smith : Feb 9th

    If you are willing to sacrifice or get less use out of your trash compactor bags, using your knife to make a few cuts will allow you to use it as an exterior pack cover. A wet pack is a heavy, uncomfortable pack.
    I used to require much more caloric intake
    (I once weighed myself after a long trip and realized at that weight I was probably burning muscle the last few days). As a result I always returned from subsequent outings with excess food. A good exercise to drive your point home is to weigh All the provisions that you “pack out” -a real eye opener.
    While wearing your wet clothes can be uncomfortable, especially donning them in the morning, if your shells are breathable (Goretex is actually not as breathable as claimed) you will ‘wear them dry’ as your body heat will essentially convect dry them. Fleece is exceptional at this. Obviously socks in boots are not.
    I always carry a small ‘bottle’ (old eye drop container works great. Just be sure to label it!) of wintergreen rubbing alcohol to freshen myself up. Admittedly a luxury but a little goes a long way. It does all your funk, can be used as a sanitizer/wound cleaner AND toughness your feet. An alcohol foot rub at the end of the day is not only delightful but also keeps your camp footwear clean the whole trip.
    The best weight to carry for warmer sleeping is actually in your sleeping pad, and you sleep more comfortably.
    Isolation??? -That is why I go!

    Reply
    • Ann Marie White : Feb 24th

      Excellent advice Hunter, sounds like you understand the balance I’m trying to encourage–not fearing the weight and carrying what you need to enjoy your hike, but not carrying extra simply out of fear of the uncomfortable. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • Harold : Feb 11th

    Thank you for sharing, most helpful.

    Reply
  • Sage : Feb 14th

    Most of the article’s advice is for the WRITER, not the readers. HYOH! It matters if you are hungry. Carry 3500cal per day and EAT. It matters if you lose weight. It matters if you carry WATER. It matters if you are cold sleeping. Haul a good air/mat to get a good nights rest. It matters if you are wet. Carry good rain gear. What matters even more, is training. Weight matters if you DO NOT train with a full pack as if you were hiking! Hiking 101…do not fear weight, fear a lack of training. Carry warm gear, carry good gear, gear food and water. Carry whatever YOU the hiker wants, not what other hikers WANT you to carry. PCT 2017/2019

    Reply
  • Freckles : Feb 16th

    While I enjoyed your article, please don’t discourage people from bringing SOAP! Hikers need to wash their hands with soap to prevent norovirus. Hand sanitizer does not kill the norovirus. WASH YOUR HANDS YOU FILTHY ANIMALS!

    Reply
  • Bob Churcher : Feb 18th

    Great post and good advice, I’m afraid the comments reeked of the usual keyboard warriors! Trash bags inside the pack are excellent, Frogg Togs are excellent value for money, and keep you as dry as most Goretex. Soap isn’t great in the back country, no matter how careful you are it somehow makes its way into the water. Plain water does a half decent job until you get to town. And carrying too much food is very common, and unnecessary – its easy enough to ration yourself, and the next shop is never more than a day or two away by the time you realise it may be a bit tight……..

    Reply
  • Sharmin : Feb 27th

    Thank you for posting this I love to read what different hikers do and the advice you each give! .. Really helps in planning and what to expect.,
    I’m still not wanting to embrace the skunk lol

    Reply
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    Reply
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  • Wolf of the Wind and Wood : Mar 31st

    Interesting ideas. Im not sure all of them play out, but it does give food for thought. Back when I was 18, I could jump onto the trail with an 80lbs pack. I packed ignorantly. I carried 2 stoves incase one failed. A full change of clothes for each day. Total overkill on food etc… Back then a 6 lbs tent was super light. Today, the easiest way to shed weight is simply packing smart and being mindful. Before you get to a long stretch take account of how much you have been eating. If you run out you arent going to run out by a lot before you get to where you can restock. You might be a little uncomfortable for a while but you aren’t going to perish. Water is by far the vastly more important thing to worry about. I dont like funk, so I carry a way to wash my clothes and plenty of soap to keep both them and me clean.
    I know ultralight backpackers who take the bare amount needed and save 5 lbs compared to me. But I am more comfortably sitting in a chair than on a rock. Having a plush air mattress to sleep on and things of the like. Theres no reason to get out if you cant enjoy it because you are not as comfortable as you could be.
    The EASIEST way to save weight is by forking out the cash for lighter stuff. Maybe not the most practical though.

    Reply

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