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Fastpacking ins and outs in Canyonlands National Park
Photos by Matt Vukin
“The Needles District?” he asks. The puzzled look on his face makes me think he is envisioning a vacation in a sewing-machine factory. I’m trying to convince Bryon Powell, my 32-year-old boyfriend, to fastpack with me in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.
A decade ago, I car camped with friends in the northern portion of Canyonlands. We stayed long enough for red dirt to stain my tent’s floor and for gravity-defying rock formations to etch into my memory. Now, with Bryon and an ultralight pack, I want to return and experience more.
I open up the computer to the park’s website and wander from the room to let the Internet do the persuading. I know Bryon about as well as I know the back of my hand and its crisscrossing veins. I expect that he will navigate first to the website’s photos, to check out the spindly spikes of red and yellow sandstone for which the Needles District, the southeast quadrant of Canyonlands, is named. I know he will probably click to the district’s map and let his eyes trace the dashed lines representing trails. And, I expect, it will take just a few minutes for him to decide that, indeed, we must go.
Bryon pours from the door of his home office, the tiny headquarters of iRunFar.com, and says, “I’m in.”
Backpacking’s Svelte Sister
Consider backpacking, the activity in which you pile one or more night’s worth of camping gear, food and clothing into a pack and carry it with you into the wilds. While there are as many backpacking philosophies as there are folks who heave packs into the mountains, backpacks are often quite heavy. A 50-pound load for a three to four-day trip is average, while the same trip done in fastpacking style might only require a 15-pound pack and will likely take half the time.
“A heavy pack for anything except a multi-week expedition, I don’t get it. It’s unpleasant; it limits your movement; and you’ll never use all that you bring,” says 37-year-old, Anchorage, Alaska, resident Jill Missal. The founder of Geargals.com, a women’s-gear website, Missal spends her free time fastpacking the Alaskan wilds. Derrick Spafford, 45, of Yarker, Ontario, is another fastpacking fan. “At the end of the day, I’d rather see more than carry more,” says Spafford. “Fastpacking allows me to enjoy nature in a deeper, purer way.”
These two fastpacking proponents get to the heart of the sport’s theoretical intent: to trade things for wilderness distance. In actuality, most “fastpacks” are roughly half the volume and weight of a backpack. Bryce Thatcher, 48, of Saint George, Utah, founder of Elite Creators, a company that produces various kinds of carrying devices, including UltrAspire hydration packs, knows fastpacking. He and his friend Jim Knight invented the sport in Wyoming’s Wind River Range during the late 1980s because, “We couldn’t take a week off of work,” says Thatcher, laughing. “We got this idea that if we could go light, we’d be able to go farther without expending additional energy.”
I descended from a backpacking lineage, having spent my late teens and early 20s carrying packs that weighed almost half as much as I. A workhorse by nature, I didn’t mind the difficulty. What I didn’t care for, however, was that I worked hard and still saw little wilderness.
By sheer instinct, my friends and I did the same thing as Thatcher and Knight, only 15 years later. We lightened our loads with the intent of seeing more. About the same time, I discovered trail running as another means to wild-place ends and left behind my road-running history. Fastpacking married all this together into a sweet recreation package.
Go Light or Go Home
While some couples bicker over bank statements and political preferences (OK, we do that, too), Bryon and I are bantering about whose fastpack will be the sleekest. At the moment, we’re selecting gear from the contents of our car’s trunk, which has vomited itself onto a picnic table at the Canyonlands National Park visitor center.
We’re packing for three days in the Utah desert. This November morning is yielding ideal fastpacking weather: chilly air and bright sunshine. Typically, water is a limiting factor in an extended desert outing, but the park ranger who writes our backcountry permit solves the issue, “I know of one running spring. Treat that water and you’re good to go.”
In the process of resolving one problem, she invents another when she says, “Bad weather—lots of rain—is on the way.” The ranger recommends two courses of action, to shorten our trip by a day to avoid the bad weather or to camp on the near side of a drainage about four miles from the trailhead. “That gully turns into an impassible stream for several days during big storms. Don’t get stranded on the other side.” We decide on her latter recommendation, to return each night to the safe side of the drainage.
By early afternoon, we are at the Elephant Hill Trailhead and surrounded on all sides by mushroom-shaped rocks a couple-hundred-feet tall. “Smurf houses,” I say, because the rocks look like the homes of my favorite cartoon characters. “When I was a kid, I dreamt of living in a smurf house.” Bryon just grins.
Even though we make last-minute additions of rain jackets and a tent fly to combat the expected rain, our packs still weigh only 13 or 14 pounds each. I can hoist mine with one finger and, now that we’re zipping along the trail, easily running most of the terrain, I barely notice it.
We are propelled forward, too, by the anticipation of the needles ahead. We glimpsed them in the distance as we drove into the park this morning, a long line of smokestack-shaped rocks the colors of sangria, safety cones and saffron. After an hour or so, we’re standing face-to-face with them.
In the company of inspiring scenery, I sometimes yell, roll on the ground or run in gerbil circles of excitement. In the shadow of these needles, I gallop across yellow slickrock and Bryon says, “Lookin’ light already.”
Fastpacking for First-Timers
Whether you intend to run or hike fast, the only way you will find your personal high gear is with minimal weight on your back. For reformed backpackers who have previously brought kitchen sinks along for the ride or for those who are acclimating to the idea of camping in the backcountry, packing light may be challenging.
Thatcher summarizes fastpacking’s primary principle, “Bring only what you plan to use and use what you bring in multiple ways.” As Thatcher speaks, I mentally peruse my own fastpacking supplies, wondering if they would pass his muster. My kit includes a single large cup, which also functions as a bowl, a pair of tights for running and sleeping in chilly weather, and a 3-foot-by-18-inch foam pad that gives structure to my fastpack by day and serves as my sleeping pad at night.
Spafford states that first-time fastpackers should exercise caution in the adaptation process, “Slowly dial in your gear over multiple trips. Take short, overnight fastpacks to increase your confidence level with choosing and using gear.” Says Missal, “People assume they need a tent, cooking kits, pots, pans and all kinds of other stuff because that’s what we see in ads. If you return from a trip with an item you didn’t use, you probably didn’t need it.”
At the same time, it is better to err on the side of bringing a bit too much than too little. Missal says that no matter how light your pack is, “Don’t leave home without safety equipment.”
We arrive at our designated campsite, which is east of Chesler Park and on the edge of the dangerous-during-storms drainage, just as evening shadows swallow it whole. Lickety split, we set up the tent on a flat swath of red sandstone one hundred vertical feet above the wash’s sandy bottom.
We have an hour of daylight and an “X” marks the spot on our map where we should find the spring. We combine an outing to Druid Arch with fetching water, feeling even lighter as we leave our packs behind at camp.
The trail isn’t really a trail, more an obstacle course over slickrock steeps requiring the use of all four appendages, around sharp shrubs and through energy-sapping sand. We find Druid Arch, a sky-high ring of rock through which a giantess could slide her finger. It’s a beauty, but we move on, chasing sunset to our water source.
Once in a while the rock wall blocking the sun breaks, illuminating the small canyon with blinding, orange light that warms my arms and legs. Soon, we locate the spring, a tiny faucet of crystal-y water trickling out of the rocky edge of a drainage, and fill our container.
When we arrive back at our campsite, it is astronomical twilight and, essentially, dark. Using an ultralight stove, we heat water and rehydrate two backpacking meals, a hot, belly-filling dinner. The chill of fall in the desert settles in, so I peel off my running clothes and shrug into tights, a wool shirt, a down jacket and a windbreaker. After dinner and under a million-trillion stars, I slip into my sleeping bag and fit a buff around my head to keep the heat and today’s good feelings inside.
The Need for Speed
Many fastpackers step up the sport’s difficulty by focusing on speed. When I ask Thatcher why speed is sexy, he explains, “I like challenging myself to do things I’m unsure if I or others can easily do.” In the 80s, Thatcher and Knight challenged themselves by fastpacking the length of the Wind River Range via the Highline and Fremont trails, a distance of just under 100 miles. They finished in 38 hours, a record that still stands.
Perhaps the best example of taking fastpacking to the extreme is the current Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) self-supported speed record. In the summer of 2009, Scott Williamson and Adam Bradley fastpacked the trail’s 2655-mile distance in 65 days 9 hours 58 minutes. For anyone keeping track, that’s over 40 miles of hiking each day. These guys beat ultrarunner David Horton’s 2005 supported speed record on the PCT by about 21 hours, but without the outside assistance and crew that Horton used.
In 2011, Williamson headed back to the PCT, fastpacking his way to another self-supported speed record of 64 days 11 hours 19 minutes. Indeed, the need for speed can run deep in fastpackers.
My eyes snap open to a thousand monster claws scratching black silhouettes into the pre-dawn sky. Consciousness overtakes the creativity of dreams long enough to realize where I am: the heart of Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District. I lapse back to sleep.
Ninety minutes later I awake to the same rocks, but with sunlight sweeping across their tiptops. I love coffee, no matter where on Earth I am, so I sip the French-pressed good stuff while watching the sun brighten the needles.
With tiny fastpacks and little to put in them, we are on the trail in no time. The sky gives no warning of an impending storm, so we set off on a 14-mile loop that includes singletrack and a few miles of 4×4 roads. We’ll return to the same sleeping spot tonight, on the safe side of the giant gully and a short jog from the reliable spring.
Our travels are soon intersected by the tracks of a small mountain lion. They are pressed into the trail’s long-dried dirt, indicating that this feline passed by quite some time ago. We look closely at the trail and find more non-human tracks. “Hoof prints here. Mule deer?” Bryon says from about 50 meters down the trail. We also note a wrinkled “S” sign that a snake slithered through. I find these prints contrary to my instinct that little can survive in a desert. With the aridity, the heat and the scarcity of food, what would even want to? Then I remember that I am doing just fine, so perhaps my logic is illogical.
Another of the day’s highlights is playing like kids on the Joint Trail. For a mile, singletrack passes through a couple of different joints between rocks that are, in some places, just hip wide. Though it’s the middle of the day, the joints are shaded and the rock is cool. While I wouldn’t want to be in these deep slots during a raging rainstorm, with Bryon’s company and stable weather, it feels like the perfect spot for now.
Chesler Park, an almost-circle of waist-high grasses surrounded by rock needles, wows us along the last couple miles back to our campsite. The contrast of hard rock and soft grass is striking, stark. “It’s a playground for the eyes,” I say to Bryon, but the breeze carries my unheard words into the wilderness. When we arrive back to our campsite, we lie on the slickrock and snack on soy jerky. We re-set our camp, too, including our tent’s fly after noting the first incoming clouds. Then we take a pack-less jog to and from the spring for a resupply of liquid gold before settling into a silent Canyonlands night.
Our third day is a 10-mile, circuitous jaunt back to the Elephant Hill Trailhead. The route flips eastbound for a few miles before hooking north, and we leave the needles behind. Here, the view grows wide and long. We can see for 50 or more miles and the rock on which we run seems to platform itself from here to way over there. With this space and perspective, as well as the knowledge that I have everything I need on my back, I feel the lightest yet.
The clouds have been thickening all morning, tumbling rain onto us in spells. When they fall, the raindrops splat audibly on the slickrock. The storm arrives in full force just as we catch sight of the car. We toss our fastpacks into the backseat and drive away from one adventure and toward the next, carrying with us a lightness that makes me certain we can go anywhere and do anything.
The Fastpacking Need-to-Know
Pack. Most ultralight packs provide few ways to adjust for fit and comfort. So, choose a pack that feels good the moment you try it on. If running is a part of your plan, keep size on the small side (25 liters maximum for ladies and 30 for men is a good standard). My favorite fastpack is the Inov-8 Race Pro 22 (inov-8.com).
Tent. While mild-weather trips may not require a sleeping structure, an ultralight tent is welcomed in the cold, rain and snow. Ultralight tents often sacrifice living space and breathability for weight, so shop wisely. We use Big Agnes products, the Copper Spur UL2 for spring/summer/fall and the String Ridge 2 for winter (bigagnes.com).
Stove. Some fastpackers save weight by leaving the stove at home, but I enjoy both hot food and drinks in the backcountry. A plethora of ultralight stoves exist, but I have found the lightest to sometimes be the most inefficient, requiring extra fuel. I rely on the Jetboil Flash Java Kit for its fast work, reliability and included coffee press (jetboil.com).
Sleeping bag. Choose a down bag that is as light as you can afford and rated to about 10 degrees cooler than the temperatures you expect. I love Western Mountaineering’s ExtremeLite series (westernmountaineering.com).
Sleeping pad. In mild weather, you may need only a little padding for your hips, vertebrae and shoulders. I use a custom-cut foam pad with just enough room for my torso. If you’re headed on a cold/snowy trip, an ultralight inflatable sleeping pad will insulate you from frozen Earth. We like Montbell’s U.L. Comfort System Pads (montbell.us).
Water purification. Filters, UV lights and chemicals can all be used to filter or purify water in the backcountry. In fastpacking, weight is everything, so I use Aquamira Water Purifier Tablets (aquamira.com).
Backcountry Beta for Canyonlands National Park
Permit. A backcountry permit is required for overnight travel in Canyonlands. Obtain one at any visitor center or by advance reservation (435-259-4351, www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/backcountrypermits.htm).
Trail options. Canyonlands National Park is divided into three districts divided by un-bridged rivers: Island in the Sky in the north, the Needles in the southeast and the Maze in the southwest. For a three- to five-day visit, stick within one district. Due to its remoteness, topography and the fact that all trips require technical, off-trail travel, skip the Maze until you are an expert desert fastpacker.
Climate. Fastpack anytime except summer when temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Expect below-freezing nights on trips between early December and late February. Beware of summer monsoons and fall or winter rainstorms that cause flash floods.
Water. You won’t find much of it. Enquire at a visitor center about water sources, bring enough bottles/bladders to carry at least one gallon of water and treat it all.
History. More than 10,000 years of human history is recorded in Canyonlands. Multiple Native American tribes left behind petroglyphs and pictographs on the sandstone. Follow federal regulations and look but don’t touch.
Supplies. Moab is a convenient supply point for Island in the Sky outings. Moab or Monticello, Utah, both serve as ample stock-up outposts for a trip into the Needles. Once you are out of these towns, prepare to be self sufficient.
Meghan M. Hicks, a writer from Park City, Utah, has seen it all come out of a backpack, including an axe with a three-foot-long handle, a stack of British girlie magazines and a 24-pack of Milwaukee’s Best.