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As backpackers share their gear experiences and talk about the weight of loads carried there are three or four gear load comparisons that are typically made: base pack weight, total pack weight, total base weight (sometimes referred to as "from the skin out weight"), and total weight. A common error made by backpackers is to compare weights that are not really equal in terms of the items compared.
The following is an attempt to clearly define what is meant by each of these gear load terms. The short definition of each of these terms is:
Base Pack Weight - Weight of pack and gear carried in the pack, but no consumables
Total Base Weight - Base pack weight plus weight of clothes worn and gear not carried in the pack
Total Pack Weight - Base pack weight plus the weight of consumables (food, water, and fuel)
Total Weight - Weight of everything, or total pack weight plus the weight of clothes worn and gear not carried in the pack, or the weight of everything you take with you whether worn or carried
As defined base pack weight refers to the weight of a back pack and all of the gear that will be carried in it, but does not include the weight of consumables - food, water, and fuel. It is a commonly used reference when comparing pack weights because it is the weight of all the gear that is carried that does not vary during the course of a trip nor depend on the length of a trip.
As backpackers share their gear lists it is generally for the gear that constitutes the base pack weight. Some backpackers also list the weight of the clothes that they normally would be wearing on the trail. If you add this to the base pack weight you have what we have defined as "total base weight" or what Colin Fletcher calls from the skin out base weight. But what concerns most people is the base pack weight because that is the foundation weight that they will be carrying as a single lump on their back, and even on the last mile of their hike when all of their food, water, and fuel may be gone the weight of this gear will still have to be carried.
To calculate total base weight or "from the skin out" gear weight simply add the weight all clothes worn and any gear carried in pockets to the base pack weight. This is a sometimes useful comparison because it eliminates differences between listing base pack weight based on more clothes being worn (long pants, insulating layers, etc.) vs. less clothes being worn (shorts, T-shirt, etc.).
The weight of clothing included in a base pack weight figure is usually for all clothing except the minimum amount of clothing normally worn while hiking in benign conditions on the trail.
Since total pack weight is the base pack weight plus consumables it is a less useful reference point for comparing pack weights with other backpackers because the weight of consumables will begin to vary as soon as you take your first drink and eat your first meal or snack, and the length of your trip or time between re-supply points will determine how many consumables you start carrying. If you want to know total pack weight you need to specify do I want to know total weight for a weekend trip in well watered terrain, or for a week long trip on the AT, or for the desert section of the PCT or CDT between point x and point y, and so on.
When backpackers do consider total pack weight it is usually calculated at the time when the consumables will weigh the most. This weight calculation of the heaviest load you will ever have to carry is useful in determining what type of pack you will need and how many miles per day you can expect to travel.
On most backpacking trips your total pack weight will be the heaviest at the beginning of your trip, or on longer backpacking trips right after re-supplying. So for most backpacking trips you can calculate total pack weight by figuring out how much your pack will weigh at the very beginning of your trip.
Here is how to figure your total starting pack weight. For most areas starting with a quart of water seems about right. That's 2 lbs. Food and fuel for most people will be about 2 lbs. per day probably not varying more than 1/2 lb. per day either way. So a formula for figuring total pack weight at the beginning of most trips for most backpackers would be:
How to Calculate Total Pack Weight from Base Pack Weight
Total Starting Pack Wt = Base Pack Wt. + 2 lbs. water + (Number of days * 2 lbs./day food & fuel)
Adjust the 2 lbs./day of food and fuel figure if you can get by with less (as you often can on a weekend trip) or if you like to eat more (as you might in winter or on an extended trip). What most hikers carry will be within ½ lb. either way of the 2 lbs. of food figure used here. A few hikers may vary this value by as much as 1 lb. either way. If your total food weight for a trip divided by the number of days your trip will last is less than 1 lb./day or greater than 3 lbs./day, reevaluate your choices. You may not be taking enough if it is less than 1 lb./day. If it is more than 3 lbs./day, you are either taking more than you need to or foods that are heavier than they need to be.
Generally your total pack weight will decrease from the beginning of a trip to the end of the trip because you are eating through your food supply, drinking water, and using fuel, but on trips where water sources are irregular your total pack weight could actually be more midway through a trip because you temporarily have to stock up on extra water for a long dry stretch.
It is useful to weigh your pack at the beginning of a trip to see how close your actual weight is to your calculated weight. They should be quite close. If they are not, the most likely cause is improperly estimated weights of individual items or failing to include the weights of everything. The best trip planning is done when you are working with real weight values. Wishful thinking at the planning stage will not make the load any easier to carry when you are out on the trail.
Total weight refers to everything that is carried and worn, or total pack weight (base weight plus consumables) plus the weight of all the clothes that are worn and the weight of any gear that might be carried in pockets. This number can be useful when gauging how much work your body must do to carry everything and consequently how far you can expect to travel each day.
Look at some of the gear lists to get a better idea of how these pack weights can help you plan your hiking trips.
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