An Expert Guide to Fastpacking
Hiking and Camping Expert Andrew Forrest shares the specifics of fastpacking. He lays out how to plan, train, and gear up for a trip—plus some bonus insider tips!
Fastpacking is a fantastic sport for runners and backpackers looking to put in long and hard days on a trail. It can take you into places you would have never seen before—simply by running or backpacking. Fastpacking has developed from ultra running and ultralight backpacking into something that allows for more extensive and faster objectives. Carrying minimal gear and hiking long days challenges you mentally and physically while getting the most out of your time in the wilderness.
Route Finding and Navigation
You can fastpack pretty much anywhere you can backpack, so when researching trails, look for places you are able to stay overnight. Knowing how to plan a route or follow a route can take a bit of skill and time to get down the proper skills to venture far from a trailhead. Having multiple options for navigation are important for trips where your electronics may fail, and the map you built in your phone will no longer be available. Having a compass and a map of the area is an excellent backup if you know how to use them.
Food and Nutrition
When planning what will fuel your adventure, think about weight, packability, and convenience. Many fastpackers are sufficient without a stove, but others will not skimp on the hot meal, knowing they will be better fueled for the trail. Keep in mind that hot food not only takes more weight and gear, but it takes more time as well. Fastpacking is backpacking, but fast, simply put, and should be done as quickly as possible. Cold soaking or eating no-cook meals like bars, nuts, and other high-protein items can speed up your day and allow for fewer stops.
Typically during the trip planning, you will be looking at how far you will be traveling between each water source; doing so will allow you to know how much water you will need at each stop and can also help when packing your gear by knowing how much water storage you will need. If you are running through the desert, you may need a 6L capacity on certain stretches, making your pack much heavier. If you are in the mountains running and hiking close to glaciers, you may get away with a 1.5L capacity.
Many fastpackers go into the woods alone since it can be a real challenge to find a partner who is comfortable with your pace and gear selection. This sport is specific to those who like to push themselves to the edge. Camping under a small tarp with little to no mattress after running a marathon to do it all over again seems to really turn a large part of the human population away from the sport!
Understanding that many people help build a stronger, and healthier outdoors is important. When trees fall across trails and glacial melts wipe trails from mountainsides, there are crews who help to rebuild a safe outdoor traveling system. Your permits help fund this. Some of the trips you will plan will require a permit, which are often free; whereas some heavily trafficked trails require pre-season applications that can be hard to get and cost money, based on the area.
How do you get off the trail if something unexpected happens? Running outdoors can get especially tricky if you are used to running on flat pavement. Changing elevation can challenge you in ways you never thought; going up and down takes a toll on your body than standard running does not. Planning for bailout routes and setting a plan will make your trip much safer and can remove the stress from pushing yourself into something you can’t handle.
Running and Hiking
Planning your trips ahead of time makes figuring out hiking and running routines much easier. You can set goals and see how far you can go safely. Once you're out there, what you bring is all you have, so knowing you like it is important. If I plan a trip that will be 60 miles and I would like to run it in three days, I train for 25 miles a day. Training day after day is important for fastpacking, whereas it is less important for ultrarunners where they are only running for a day at a time and can exhaust all of their energy.
If you’re looking for a training program, check out Dynamic Training Routines For Hiking Season.
Compass and Map
Some people grow up learning how to orient themselves in the world the old school way. Most people couldn’t tell you which way is north! By not only having a map and compass but knowing how to use them, you can feel confident not relying on electronic navigation failure. Printing your map on waterproof paper or storing it in a plastic baggie is a great way to protect it from the elements so that it can be used when needed. I print maps of all my trips ahead of time and either draw the route with a marker or draw it in on the computer before printing. A map is much more useful when you know which way to go.
Check out these Expert Journal articles for tips on using a compass and reading a topographic map.
There are plenty of classes out there you can take to gain the skills to have what it takes to do wilderness first aid. If you can’t take a class or have already, it’s always smart to freshen up your skills before heading back into the outdoors. Packing a personal first aid kit with gauze, bandages, and other essentials you know how to use will make your experience much safer.
First Aid Kit
- Bandages: For cuts and scrapes.
- Gauze: For wrapping wounds.
- Various pills: For me, that is only ibuprofen and some allergy medication.
- Cutting tool: Micro scissors or a razor blade has worked great for me.
- Leuko tape: Sticks great to your feet for protecting blisters.
- O-rings: For my water filter since they fall out so easily.
After doing a handful of fastpacking trips, I understood I needed to be able to push myself further. It is hard to simulate a trip to understand what your body and mind will feel like after three days and 70 miles if you’re not already running or hiking every day! On my first trip, I knew I hadn’t quite trained for the mileage I was attempting, and towards the end, when I felt shin splints, I knew I pushed harder than I had trained for.
Knowing when to slow down is important; running on various surfaces throughout the day takes a toll on your body and though it may be easiest to run fast on the downhills, that can be the hardest on your legs depending on the surface.
Being able to push yourself for another hour or another mph faster is important when you have a set itinerary that you know is safe to follow. Getting cramps or taking too long of breaks can force you to sleep in exposed areas that your ultralight gear is not built for. Getting to your safe objectives in the amount of time you planned is important.
When starting out, understand that some options may not work for you; planning warmer, shorter trips and narrowing your gear selection in what some call shakedown hikes is a great way to dial in your gear to feel confident as you make your way further into the outdoors. Ultralight gear is not cheap and is also fairly fragile due to the weight-saving fabrics used. Be gentle on your gear and build out your kit slowly as you discover what works for you in different conditions.
When selecting a shelter, there are many options and sometimes it is truly daunting. Start with what you think you would be comfortable with for the trip you are planning. Many use tarps and bivy systems, while others opt for a lightweight tent. Both have their advantages; a tarp will be much lighter to carry yet harder to set up and might require a bit of skill to sleep under, depending on how tall you are.
Nowadays, there are so many options when looking for running and hiking packs; depending on your speed and kit, you will want to look at either traditional straps or running style vest straps like this pack. Load your pack at home with water and everything else you know you will need while Fastpacking to give yourself an idea of what a load will feel like. Going for runs with the pack fully loaded is the most effective training for a successful trip.
After 20+ miles in a day, you begin to not really need a sleeping pad. Pumping it up can be a pain after a long day, and they weigh quite a bit. If you are going to use a pad, I recommend what I and many others use, which is a torso length pad; I use this sleeping pad. It is super effective and can be used as the frame in an ultralight frameless pack.
Lightweight, packable gear is essential when pushing tons of miles; using a sleeping quilt rather than a sleeping bag can save weight. A quilt is basically a down blanket with no back that you use with a pad to get insulation from the ground. Tons of companies make quilts now, and they are a great piece of gear for really any type of camping and weather, making them much more versatile compared to a traditional sleeping bag.
If you have read this far, you know fastpacking isn’t about being comfortable all the time, and as you could have guessed, most of us don’t bring pillows. If it’s not too hot, you can always use your pillow or stuff your stuff sack with leaves or whatever leftover clothing you have to prop your head up through the night.
I bring one pole that I use mainly for my shelter, but it is also extremely convenient when crossing streams or climbing steep uphills. If you plan to use two, I would recommend practicing running with them before you go out on the trail and trip yourself up. They are really a good option for those who want to avoid injuries should you learn how to use them properly.
I believe most ultralight backpackers and fastpackers have made the switch to cold soaking or eating raw no-cook foods outside of high elevations and colder months. That being said, there are tons of ultralight options you can use if you feel the need to eat a warm meal at the end of the day. I personally use an old lightweight peanut butter container to rehydrate my noodles, couscous, and overnight oats. Cold soaking takes a bit more time than boiling water, but you can fill up the sealable container and let it ride in your water bottle pockets, and cook in the hot sun while running or hiking.
In general, lighting will depend on your trip, if you plan to hike deep into the night to push your mileage further, you may need something much stronger and brighter than the many ultralight style headlamps out there today.
Water Filtration and Storage
When choosing your water filtration system, you need to consider the weight as well as the types of water you will be filtering. If you are in the mountains, you may have amazing glaciers that hardly need treatment, while in the desert, the scarce supplies of water may be much harder on your filter. There are hundreds of options for water storage, and you can use 1L plastic bottles from the corner store with a compatible water filter. You can also use collapsible bottles similar to this Platypus System, which includes a filter that is universal to hundreds of store-bought plastic bottles. I like to carry a bottle on my shoulder strap so I can drink water constantly without having to remove my pack. Another way is to use a bladder with a hose that runs over your shoulder so you can drink water on the move.
Shoes are going to depend on your foot shape and the types of terrain you will be traversing; most fastpackers will choose a trail runner that is lightweight, comfortable, and semi-durable. Pushing tons of miles in a single pair of shoes over rough terrain really wears them out so, going with something with a lot of life left is smart. I wear various models of Altra shoes that all offer a wide toe box for my big feet; they are lightweight and can stand up to multiple trips.
- Long-sleeve shirt: want something that is light and comfortable.
- Running shorts: sometimes an athletic brief if they aren't lined.
- Wind pants: you can supplement these with tights depending on your hiking or running style.
- Down jacket: tons of options when it comes to down or synthetic insulated jackets. Finding out your own comfort levels is important when picking a down jacket.
- Wind/rain jacket: this is really trip-dependent for most, I use a rain jacket in the spring and fall, but in the summertime, an emergency poncho and a wind jacket work great if you watch the weather.
- Sun protective hat: this is almost not optional! Fastpacking is typically done in the summer months and sunscreen can get heavy if your trip is long. Wearing protective clothing can keep you from getting burnt when you forget to reapply.
- Running gloves: I use them for warmth, sleeping, and when it gets windy. They also work great as sun protection, depending on how exposed the terrain is.
Over the years, we have all tried tons of running clothes. Knowing what works for you on long-distance trips with a pack on will make things much more fun. I typically wear a shirt like this Exofficio Air for sun protection and breathability. Shorts are my typical go-to for the warmer months, but I always pack a set of wind pants or tights to protect my legs from bugs and the sun. When going out, watching the weather, and knowing what your gear can handle is important. A lightweight puffy is a great option to keep you insulated on peaks or hanging out in camp.
- Where are you going, and for how long will you be gone?
- How are you going to navigate on this trip?
- Have a bailout plan in case things are not going your way.
- Laugh and learn from your mistakes.
- Tell someone your plan!
Following this simple list backed by your training and wilderness skills, you will have an extremely successful first fastpacking trip.
Leave No Trace
The wilderness and humans need to coexist in a way that is healthy for the future of our forests and ecosystems. Packing out what you bring in is extremely important for the generations that come next. Most of the food you will be eating is individually wrapped, and the packages need to have a place to go when you are done; some newer ultralight packs have a bottom pocket that works great for stuffing trash into on the go.
One of the things not everyone wants to talk about, but maybe the most important thing to follow of the Leave No Trace principles is the way you use the restroom. Avoiding using the restroom near water and not burying your toilet paper with your business is the only way to truly Leave No Trace. I would love to help get you started on this journey—hit me up on Curated!
- Trowel for burying your business
- Bidet for cleaning up your behind
- A small amount of TP is not essential if using a bidet
- I use a doggie bag from the park to pack out the used TP
To leave no trace is to not remove or move the outdoors while you are recreating within it. Plants and rocks have been moved by the forces of the world and are meant to be left alone. Sleeping with ultralight gear can often involve a specific campsite selection. To avoid the elements, you want to look for something lush, comfortable, and covered in lower elevations. That does not mean sleeping on greenery or cryptobiotic soils that will be harmed by stakes or crushed by sleeping on them overnight. Finding sandy or pine needle beds can be a great way to avoid some of the elements and get a comfortable night's sleep.
To wrap things up, fastpacking is a multi-faceted sport that ties together elements from backpacking and trail running, putting you deep into the outdoors. The most important part when planning for a fastpacking trip is to train for the goals you are going for. Training and preparation can set you up for a trip where you are not thinking but rather just running, enjoying yourself and the views. Review the maps and know where to turn and when. Read about closures and weather in the area approaching your trip, and be fine canceling if the weather is not going to allow your objective.
Most importantly, you have to get out there and see for yourself what this sport has to offer scenically. Dial in your gear before you set out—if you are not comfortable with your gear, you will not have a good trip. Go out for a few overnights before you push it deep into the outdoors with gear you are not comfortable with. The bottom line is to be safe, have fun, and start small as you build into larger adventures. If you have any questions or want to find your perfect fastpacking setup, reach out to me or another Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated!