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Ultrafastpacker

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Ras Jason Vaughan shares what he’s learned from years of unique backcountry travel

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Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

Fastpacking can be about the pursuit of speed, but it seems most trail runners or backpackers enter the sub-sport realizing it’s simply an efficient way to travel. “UltraPedestrian” Ras Jason Vaughan, 43, of Seattle, Washington, is one of those people, and in the past several years has travelled thousands of miles while honing his craft. He specializes in what he has termed “Only Known Times,” a twist on the popular Fastest Known Times.

His firsts include a Double Wonderland around Mount Rainier, a Sextuple Grand Canyon crossing and a completely unsupported Washington Traverse via the Pacific Crest Trail. Ras also lists six 100-mile races and five 200-mile races among his 40-plus ultramarathon finishes, and has completed the Wonderland Trail 10 times by various forms of bipedalism. Herewith, Ras shares his fastpacking wisdom.

TRAIL TO FASTPACKING

“I don’t have a running background. I’m a backpacker who became a back-of-the-packer. I got into running as a way of being able to enjoy more miles on the trail in a single serving. And fastpacking is the perfect blend of the two. When I run, I do a lot of hiking. And when I hike, I do a lot of running.

I’m not hung up on running vs. hiking or identifying myself as one or the other. I like to use any means necessary to cover ground in an efficient, enjoyable and sustainable manner.

And on a personal level for runners, I think it’s absolutely crucial to break out of the narrow “racing” paradigm. It’s super fun to run through the woods and have friends hand you snacks and beverages every few miles, but a fully supported marked course is a very small taste of the huge possibilities that trail running and trail culture in general have to offer. Moving up from an organized race to a self-supported fastpacking trip is like taking off the training wheels and seeing what it’s really like to move along under your own power, with all of the payoffs and risks that it entails.

LESSONS LEARNED

In transitioning from traditional backpacking to fastpacking, my priority became to experience time moving on the trail, not hanging out in camp. A lot of the heavy, unnecessary traditional backpacking gear is for use in camp, so the less time you spend in camp, the fewer of those things you “need.” Nowadays, the only thing I do in camp is sleep. In the evening I’ll stop when I find a sweet spot and have dinner, then get some more mileage in before I find a spot to sleep. And in the morning I get up and get a few miles in before having my first meal. This has the secondary benefit of isolating your food prep area from your sleeping area.

Another huge mental shift to step up your fastpacking game is to view “doing without” as a skillset that you can develop and refine. The more you do without, the less you have to carry, and the greater a distance you can enjoy each day with less effort.

BEST FASTPACKING TRIP

My completely unsupported traverse of Washington State via the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail]. It was really a nerdy project, based on so strict a definition of “unsupported”—carrying all of my supplies from the very beginning and all of my trash to the very end, only getting water from natural sources. It was at the extreme end of “fast and light,” as I didn’t carry a tent or even a sleeping bag. I slept on an inflatable Big Agnes air mattress in puffy down pants and a puffy jacket, and some puffy down slippers I made out of the sleeves from an old coat. I had a few very cold nights, but I successfully expanded the boundaries of what I could “do without” on an extended trip.

It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but in the end it was completely within my abilities. My main fascination is still in finding the thing I can’t do. I look forward to finding that boundary.

FAVE GEAR

My “Soak-Eaze” container is my favorite piece of gear. It’s just an empty coconut-oil container that I use to soak my dehydrated food. I learned from Heather “Anish” Anderson and Clint “Lint” Bunting that you don’t have to carry a stove and pots and pans to prepare dehydrated food on the trail. You can just soak it in a container for an hour or two. It not only eliminates pounds from your pack weight, it also reduces your camp time and stopped time on the trail, so you can be eating food while you’re eating up miles. Eliminating two pounds of gear means being able to carry two more pounds of food, enough to fuel another day or more.

I’m a big fan of trekking poles (for example, the Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles), which are lightweight and small enough when collapsed that you can carry them in one hand or stow them away and not even notice them. But when you are facing a long, grinding climb, you can bust them out and shift down into your granny gear. Plus, I keep six feet of duct tape wrapped around each pole as a key part of my first aid/tool kit, which offers a number of possibilities for improvising. For instance, it could be used to splint a fractured limb.

Altra Lone Peak 2.0 trail-running shoes are another key piece of gear. I switched to hiking in running shoes long before I even became an actual runner. I had constant problems with the blisters and pain and outright injuries caused by heavy, stiff traditional hiking boots. If your ankles are weak, you need to strengthen your ankles, not bind them into boots that limit their motion.

TYPICAL 2-TO-3-DAY FASTPACK

The 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the base of Mount Rainier is perfect. It breaks down into roughly two 34-mile days bookending a 25-mile day, which gives you challenging daily goals, and allows time to appreciate the overwhelming grandeur.

TRAINING TIPS

• Bodyweight strength training once a week (squats, walking lunges, burpees, dips).
•  Weighted running and hiking, with a pack or weight vest.
• Speed work once a week.
• Spend time on your feet. For example, any physical labor that involves standing all day long counts as “lifestyle training” for your body and mind.
• Long runs, especially back to back (to back!). Learn how to get moving when you are already tired.
• Spend time in the natural world so that you feel at home there.

Ras and his wife, Kathy, write about their adventures at www.UltraPedestrian.com. This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.