How to Get Started in Fastpacking

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Expand your trail horizons with an overnight adventure


Meghan Hicks surveys her domain while solo fastpacking California’s 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail. Photo by Rachid Dahnoun.

Every year, when the snow recedes and the backcountry becomes accessible, trail runners flock to the high-country singletrack trails. But they can only run so far with a hydration pack or a couple of bottles before they have to return to town. Hungry to maximize alpine miles, some trail runners have long sought gear that would enable them to stay out longer and see more. By carrying a little more and being prepared to stay in the mountains for at least one night, they turn trail running into “fastpacking.”

My introduction to fastpacking came a couple of years ago with a trip into the North Cascades. I’d been backpacking since I was a teenager and running ultras for a couple of years, but wanted to find a way to combine these passions. Fastpacking fit the bill perfectly. That first trip, to Whatcom Pass and Copper Ridge, yielded epic views and allowed me to relax and stretch out in the alpine after a day’s run rather than hustling back to the car and heading home.

Right Pack, Pack Right

Essentially, fastpacking is the intersection of ultralight backpacking and long-distance trail running. The crux, though, is actually being able to run with a light pack, which becomes tough as you approach 20 pounds of total pack weight (more on that later).

Your pack should feel reasonably comfortable while running the flats and descents and power-hiking the steeper climbs, and have room to carry what you need for at least one night out in the woods. Shoot for a max load of 15 pounds for optimal running efficiency.

For a two-night fastpacking trip, consider a pack capacity of 25 to 30 liters; for thrifty campers, a 20-liter model might work. Look for a pack that is durable and ultralight with ample, easily reachable pockets. Avoid packs that are meant for lightweight backpacking, as they are usually too stiff and heavy.

You can’t judge a pack until you load it up with about 15 pounds and actually run with it. For example, some packs have a great chest harness, but you can’t reach the water bottles on the sides. Some have a great bag in back, but are missing a waist belt and will bounce on your shoulders.

If you’re shopping at a local specialty store, bring along 15 pounds’ worth of gear and see if the shop will let you load up a few models for spins around the block. If not, consider buying online and make sure there’s a good return policy.

Photo by Rachid Dahnoun.
Route Planning

While it can be fun to be spontaneous, it generally pays to map things out ahead of time. When planning a route, read current trail reports online, and whenever possible consult with the local ranger station. Backcountry rangers are knowledgeable and can help plan a route that fits your needs.

I once learned that several bears were eating a dead horse halfway up the trail I’d been planning on fastpacking by talking to rangers ahead of time. Key considerations are weather and water sources. Average daily distance covered can vary widely, depending upon fitness, terrain and other factors.

Bon Appétit

Two schools of thought exist around eating on fastpacking missions: stove vs. no stove. Some say going with no stove saves weight, and simplifies the process. But others argue that today’s hyperlight stove/butane cartridge combos can ultimately save weight, since you can bring lighter dehydrated breakfast and dinner foods—plus a cup of instant coffee never tasted so good as at sunrise 15 miles deep in the high country.

Photo by Rachid Dahnoun

A Good Night’s Sleep

The other important decision is your shelter and sleep system. Don’t go overboard—bring just enough for the job. If it’s going to be rainy or buggy, bring a tent. Otherwise, consider just a tarp; cuben-fiber material is ideal for weight, strength and waterproofing.

Sleeping bags have become incredibly light and compact. Filled with treated down, many of the newer bags offer the warmth and weight savings of traditional down while repelling water. Wearing your clothes to sleep can allow you to carry a lighter sleeping bag.

Dry Runs

Once you’ve got your fastpacking kit assembled, take it out to your local trails and do a couple of runs. Finding out that your pack chafes your lower back on day one of your fastpacking trip is not pleasant. Approximate the mileage and elevation profile of your upcoming fastpacking route as much as possible.

Practice power-hiking the climbs for greater efficiency, and enjoy a moderate running pace. Brush up on your navigational skills and wilderness first aid.

Photo by Rachid Dahnoun

Assemble the right kit for your fastpacking missions

Before heading to the store and buying several hundred dollars’ worth of new equipment, research ultralight backpacking; the gear and lessons learned in that realm apply to fastpacking. A great online resource is A good print resource is Lightweight Backpacking and Camping: A Field Guide to Wilderness Equipment, Technique and Style, by Ryan Jordan.

Backpack (1.5 pounds)
25- to 30-liter pack with bladder or accessible bottle-carrying options.

Shelter (1.5 pounds)
Tent, hammock or tarp.

Sleeping System (1.5 pounds)
Sleeping bag
Torso-sized closed-cell-foam or inflatable pad. (Use your pack under your feet as a ground barrier.)

Cooking Gear (2 pounds)

Food (2 to 3 pounds per day)
instant oatmeal and coffee
Gels, bars, trail mix
Freeze-dried dinners, Top Ramen
Packaged tuna pouches

Clothing (2 pounds packed)
Assume you’ll be wearing a shortsleeve T-shirt, socks, shoes.
Shortsleeve T-shirt
Longsleeve T-shirt
Light down jacket or sweater
Rain jacket
Wind or rain pants
Hat, cap
Light gloves

Miscellaneous (2.5 pounds; be selective—every ounce counts)
Water purification
Toilet paper
Insect repellent
Basic first-aid kit
Duct tape (wrapped around a pencil or trekking poles)
Wisp tooth cleaners
Headlamp with fresh batteries
Firestarters, lighters
Whistle, cell phone with extra-small mobile Charger
Beacon (DeLorme inReach allows two-way texting from anywhere on the planet.)
Maps (waterproof if possible) and compass
Collapsible trekking poles

This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.

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