What is meant by “lightweight" backpacking? By “ultralight” packing? These phrases are best understood or defined in four ways: terminology used, gear carried, techniques practiced, and motivations held. This article focuses on commonly used terminology. For the other three types of understanding, click on these two links, Gearing Down to Ultralight and The Challenge of the Lightweight Backpacking Movement.
Definitions Focusing On Base Pack Weight
The most common way of defining Lightweight Packing (LWP) is to focus on base pack weight. Even though there are no universally accepted definitions, following is a typical breakdown for three-season backpacking that includes the pack but excludes consumables (water, food, fuel):
The above base pack weight computations probably originated from long-distance hikers who have to replenish food and other consumable items as they progress. Regarding this approach, note how much the backpacking culture has changed! Years ago it was common to find heavyweight backpackers (“iron men”; “mountain men”) carrying 60 pounds or more. Himalayan porters reportedly carry loads in excess of 100 pounds.
Definitions Focused on Pack Weight and Body Weight
A second common way to define these concepts is by using the ratio of total pack weight to body weight. For example, a common definition of LWP is a total pack weight of 15% or less of one’s body weight. With this standard, a 175 pound person could carry and wear 26 pounds (total packed weight) and be classified as LWP. In contrast, a conventional or standard weight pack is often given as 20-30% of ideal body weight. This equates, on the 30% end for a 175 pounder, to 53 pounds total pack weight. A heavy weight pack is then anything over 30%. Note that these ratios usually are interpreted to apply to the lean or ideal body weight of a person who is reasonable fit. The more body fat one carries, the lower the percentage. Then there is the consumables factor. If this second method is used, consider calculating the average percentage on a specific trip with gradually reducing consumables. For example, in the beginning it could be 20% and end with 10%, giving an average of 15% of body weight (the upper end of a LWP).
Note that this second approach uses “total pack weight” compared to “base pack weight” in the first approach. This second approach is quite problematic on several points. For example, what method should be used to determine ideal, lean body weight? What does it mean to be fit and in shape? Should age, body type, frame size or gender be taken into account? What standards should be applied to the person who spends weeks or months in the backcountry humping heavy loads?
Modifications to Above Definitions
Sometimes the LWP will fudge the definitions (thereby distorting the results) by not including clothing worn, items carried in pockets or in the hands (e.g., trekking poles). This distortion has led many LWP proponents to expand the definitions by dropping out the word “pack” and replacing it with “from-the-skin-out” (FSO) weight. With this expansion, the two standard approaches then become “base weight carried from-the-skin-out” (without consumables) and “total weight carried from-the-skin-out” (including consumables). This expansion makes sense because all of the carried weight must be transported up and down the hills, not just what is in the pack. Another modification to the two standard approaches would factor in carried body weight or body fat. This factor is important and needs to be acknowledged, but it complicates the whole business so much as to not be useful.
Another distortion of LWP definitions is the advocate who regularly attempts to borrow gear, food, water, fuel, or guide pages from others. Instead of LWP, the better descriptive phrase is “parasite.”
All approaches to defining LWP are somewhat arbitrary. This is partly because there are no universally accepted definitions and partly because of the fluid cut off points: for example, is a “light” base pack weight under 20 or 15 or 10 pounds? Even though somewhat arbitrary, these two ways of defining LWP—Focusing on Base Pack Weight or Focusing on Pack Weight and Body Weight—should be useful starting points, both in this article and with your own pack weight analyses and comparisons.