Intended for traveling long, fast and light, fastpacking lets you cover more ground than backpacking...
- - -
While ultra running has rocketed into the mainstream, and thru-hiking books earn places on the bestseller list, fastpackers can be found loping along a distant trail, far away from the crowds.
“Fastpacking exists in the space between ultra running and backpacking” says experienced fastpacker and adventure runner Justin Simoni. “Like backpacking, you bring along a pack filled with essentials for an extended trip like food, extra clothes, and maybe a simple sleep system. This gear allows you to travel over a longer distance than you could by just running unsupported, while keeping the gear light enables you to move quickly and efficiently, similar to running.”
The beauty of this activity lies in its simplicity: load a small amount of gear, food, and water on your back and tackle a multi-day route in the backcountry through a combination of hiking and running.
Justin Simoni standing on Jagged Mountain during his Highest Hundred Tour.
“Fastpacking isn't for every outing though. Sometimes you want to take it easy, set up camp, and enjoy a particular area. That's when backpacking shines. Sometimes you just want to crush through a workout. That's when you want to go for a really fast run.” Says Simoni, adding that he opts for fast packing, “when I want to tag multiple mountain summits in an area at one time, without needing to take multiple trips. If you're squeezed for time, fastpacking can really help maximize an adventure. I find it very rewarding to cover so much distance with minimal gear.”
Packing ultralight means there’s no room for error. Fastpacking is not for the novice—you’ll need the skills necessary for backcountry travel and, more importantly, navigation. The right physical preparation, knowledge, and gear can be the difference between an Instagram-worthy epic, and a brutalizing slog.
Here are a few tips to get more comfortable fastpacking.
When traveling fast-and-light, safety needs to be a top priority. Always carry a map, a real-time gps device, and be knowledgeable about the terrain, wildlife, and access to water along your route.
Leave your itinerary with a reliable friend or family member, and let them know once you’ve made it safely back to your car. Plan your route in accordance with your skill set, and be willing to bail if conditions go south.
Don’t skip basic safety gear. A fire starter, compass, and first aid kit should have a permanent home in your pack. In addition to these, many backcountry travelers choose to carry a personal locator beacon.
Aspiring fastpackers should use running and hiking as a means for building fitness, and as practice to get your gear kit dialed. Get out for some trail running and hiking (with a pack) a few times a week, with one of those days being dedicated to a long run, or hike with a heavy pack. Simoni advises entry-level fastpackers to test the waters with “a few long, all-day packs with your chosen gear—allowing you to dial in your sleep system, food preference, and gear choice.”
Once you have your gear dialed, “Try your setup on a long out-and-back route you're familiar with, so that you can turn around and head out if something's not working properly or if the weather turns into something you're not ready to deal with safely. I prefer hiking up a mountain, as the return is always faster! Grab a buddy and set up a shuttle between two segments of a long-distance trail (like the Colorado Trail) and try an overnight fastpack between the two trailheads you've parked at. That'll give you a good idea of how compatible your gear is with your running and hiking style, how well you're sleeping, what foods are working out for you, and how your body is holding up to back-to-back long, hard days.”
If you don’t live in a mountainous area or have limited access to trails, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to build up your fitness for fastpacking, the first of which is running uphill. Hill repeats will supercharge your cardiovascular system, and are great for building strength in the glutes and hamstrings. To start, find a hill at least a quarter of a mile long. Run to the top and then jog or walk back down to the bottom. Start at five repeats per workout. As you build your fitness and strength, look for longer hills or add more reps (If you’re truly a flatlander, running up parking garages is a great way to simulate hilly terrain, or set your treadmill at an angle).
In addition to running uphill, a regular gym routine can help. Weighted strength training is especially important if you have a running background (vs. a hiking background) since you are less accustomed to carrying a load over many miles. Using a few key lifts, such as squats, deadlifts, and lunges will help build valuable leg and lower back strength. Focus on moderate reps, (6-10 per set) with loads around 30-60 percent of body weight. Even two, 30-minute sessions a week can dramatically increase your strength, resulting in less fatigue and reducing the likelihood of injury.
It’s hard to go fast if you’re weighed down by extra gear, but you still need to be prepared to face the conditions you’ll encounter. By eliminating duplicates and learning what you can go without, you can drastically downsize your load.
•Pack Your pack choice depends on how prepared you feel, the distance and expected duration of your route, and how much you think you need to bring. Most fastpacks range from 15 to 40 liters, and as fastpacking has become more popular, more ultralight options are available. Most packs designed for fastpacking do not have hydration bladders built it, but you can easily add your own into the bag. They also don’t have a structured frame like most multi-day backpacks, but some have at least a (removable) foam frame.
When it comes to fitting a pack, Simoni says it’s important “to see if you're pack is runnable since, even if you're loaded down, you should want to try to run some of the easier parts of the trail. A pack that rides too low, or sways too much with weight in it just won't work out well, and you'll be miserable.”
•Clothing Layering is key to accommodating the changing temperatures from morning to night, and managing body heat. During the day, Simoni sticks to typical trail running attire but makes sure to bring along “a rain jacket and some layers for when it gets cold at night. I usually bring a wool base layer and a puffy jacket at minimum.” For socks, look for wool or technical fabrics. For shoes, there are plenty of lightweight options that also offer waterproof protection, such as the Blade GTX. (Always wear your shoes on shorter hikes or at least around the house a couple times before going for a multi-day trip!)
•Sleeping System and Shelter Your sleep system excompasses your sleeping pad and bag combo. Many fastpackers opt for quilts instead of full bags (depending on the weather) in an effort to shave ounces, and if you’re serious about getting pack weight down, go for a short or half-length sleeping pad, using your empty backpack to rest your legs and feet on while you sleep. If you’re confident cowboy camping (i.e., sans shelter) and have a clear weather forecast, just bring a ground cloth to sleep on. Conversely, if there is a chance of rain during your trip, you can sleep under a tarp. Simoni’s sleep and shelter system includes, “a lightweight 800 fill down bag, a warm but light pad, and a bivy, like the Ultimate Direction FK Bivy.”
•Water As with any outdoor adventure, hydration is essential. A good rule of thumb is to start with two liters each day. You will not be able to bring enough for the entire trip, so you’ll also have to plan to replenish your water supply. Look for towns along your trail to refill at, but most likely you’ll be refilling water from a stream or snowmelt, using a filter or purification tablets.
•Trekking Poles Many fastpackers use poles to help reduce fatigue during long days—they’re beneficial in helping you power up steep climbs, and protecting your knees on gnarly descents.
Gear choices are also highly personal and location dependent. Only you can know how many layers you need to stay warm at night, if you require a stove for warm food or can go without, and if the weather calls for a down jacket or not. Purchasing lighter gear when possible will help keep your pack weight down. You should also look to eliminate small comforts that add up to extra pounds on your back (leave your camp shoes and e-reader at home!)
When making route decisions, consider the amount of time you have, the distance you feel comfortable covering and your fitness level. A good place to start is a well-maintained trail that you’ve hiked before and are familiar with. Factor in seasonal weather patterns (i.e. Colorado is known for summer lightning storms in the mountains) the elevation gain, and altitude (in some cases). Last, but not least, always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back.
Preview Photo & Photo 3: © Anna Papuga
Photos 1 & 2: © Justin Simoni
Written by Kara Kieffer for RootsRated in partnership with La Sportiva.