Fastpacking is about traveling fast and light! Exploring wild places with a pack that’s small enough to let you hike at speed or even trail run. By keeping your gear and pack size to a minimum, you can cover more ground on multiday trips or over a long weekend. Think of it as backpacking with an extremely minimal amount of kit or trail running where you’re carrying enough supplies to camp out each night.
What you take with you will depend on the weather, the time of year and where you’re going. You’ll need an appropriate sleeping system, adequate clothing, navigational aids, a means to purify water, and enough food to see you through. Beyond that, it’s down to personal preference.
When you’re fastpacking every ounce counts, so think carefully about every item you take to avoid a heavy pack. Take only essentials and leave the luxuries at home! Read on for the lowdown of everything you need for your first fastpacking adventure…
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Trail runners have always been pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, but I like to think fastpacking started in the fell running/orienteering community of the UK.
Way back in 1968, a two-day competition known as the Karrimor was launched in the UK by Gerry Charnley. It quickly became a fixture in every extreme runner’s calendar and it’s still going strong today – renamed as the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM).
Held in the autumn of every year, in some of the wildest mountainous areas the UK has to offer, competitors in teams of two are completely self-sufficient – camping out overnight in the mountains and completing an arduous trail running course over rough terrain.
For elite runners, planning what to take is an art form. Your pack needs to be light enough so you’re still able to run, but you still need to carry a full list of safety equipment. There are no aid stations and the race kit requirements include a sleeping bag, tent, cooking system for a hot meal, spare clothing, first aid kit, and enough food to fuel your run.
Getting the sleep system right is always a challenge and I’ve spent many nights shivering in a cold damp tent waiting for daylight!
Where did the name fastpacking come from?
Jim Knight is credited with coining the term fastpacking after completing a traverse of the 100 mile Wind River Range in Wyoming with his running partner Bryce Thatcher in just 38 hours.
We were wilderness running. Power hiking. Kind of backpacking, but much faster. More fluid. Neat. Almost surgical. Get in. Get out. I call it fastpacking.Jim Knight
The name fastpacking stuck. It’s synonymous with light and fast – doing more with less. A hybrid of running, power hiking, and ultralight backpacking.
Fastpacking can be anything you want it to be.
For purists, a fastpacking trip is a self-sufficient excursion where you carry all your food, clothing, and shelter with you. But for many people, fastpacking is simply a way to go further and faster.
This could be trail running between mountain huts or remote bothies, buying meals along your route, or taking all your food with you. You get to decide.
Fastpacking is the speed record approach for long distances, and it’s ideal for self-supported thru-hikes. Last year Nika Meyers set a new fastest known time (FKT) for the Colorado Trail of 9 days 14 hours and 19 minutes by fastpacking the 485-mile route.
What should I take for fastpacking?
For your first fastpacking trip it’s best to start with something easy. A trip with just one overnight camp that doesn’t require too much gear.
The essentials for fastpacking are :
- lightweight trail running shoes or lightweight boots
- clothing for all weather conditions
- food and water
- water storage – water bottle or soft flasks
- a water filter system for a remote area
- an appropriate shelter, such as a tent, bivy sack, or tarpaulin (tarp)
- sleeping bag
- first aid kit
- sun protection
- map and compass (and GPS)
- lightweight pack.
For most fastpackers, it’s a good idea to take the optional extras of a sleeping pad, a cooking system, trekking poles, and a small wash kit for a longer trip. Taking only the essentials is a great way to have a light pack, but most people want to sleep well with a warm meal inside them after long days on the trail.
How do you train for fastpacking?
If you’re new to hiking or trail running, get some experience first. Learn to be comfortable navigating on day trips before adventuring into remote locations. This article about hiking for beginners provides lots of tips, and the safety advice applies to both running and hiking:
It’s best to train in advance for your fastpacking trip or pick a route that matches your running background and current level of fitness. A remote location is not the best place to test out your endurance.
I enjoy pushing myself to the limit on a fastpacking trip but that’s only from a position of experience. Years of trail running in the hills mean I can spot the telltale signs I need to rest, refuel and hydrate.
If you’re lacking experience, your trip can slide into difficulties quickly, especially if you’re going solo. Consider taking a course to learn the essentials, or joining an experienced fastpacker on their trip.
Prepare with long-distance trail running or power hikes, it’s hours on your feet that count – lots of long runs. You don’t want your longest run ever to be on your first fastpacking adventure.
It’s a good idea to train by carrying your full kit so you get used to the pack weight. You’ll soon quickly realize if you’re carrying too much weight – it’s better to adjust your gear before you head off on a multi-day trip!
Training over long distances will help you build the strength and stamina you need for fastpacking. The idea is to mimic your fastpacking route in training – so if you’re planning a mountainous route make sure you find some hills to train on!
Your running or jogging pace will be much slower than usual – you’re going further and carrying more weight. Plus the elevation gain needs to be factored in – steep mountainous terrain or rugged trails will slow you down considerably – so get used to covering long distances at a slower pace. A pro tip is to walk all the hills when you’re fastpacking – otherwise, you’ll tire out far too quickly.
Fastpacking For Speed
The whole point of fastpacking is being able to access inaccessible places you can’t reach in just a day, and without being slowed down carrying a heavy pack.
At least that’s my view. I also hate carrying heavy loads!
A lighter load and minimal gear will let you go further – there’s the chance to complete backpacking routes in less time. Want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail but haven’t got the time? Try fastpacking. The FKT is now less than 42 days! Amazing. Backpacking at a conventional pace takes 5 to 7 months.
Of course, most of us aren’t superhuman but fastpacking can still help you go further with minimal gear in a faster time.
The Fastpacking Planning Process
When you’re planning a fastpacking trip, you need to think about the following:
- What’s the primary goal?
- How far is it?
- What’s the distance you’ll cover each day?
- How long will the trip take?
- The logistics – where are the start and finish and how will you get to and from them?
- What’s the terrain like – mountains, desert, river crossings?
- Are there good footpaths or will you be thrashing through undergrowth?
- What weather can you expect? You’ll need to be prepared for sudden weather changes, especially in the mountains.
- Do you need any backcountry permits or visas if you’re traveling overseas?
- Can you resupply with food and camping fuel/other equipment on the route?
- Where are the water sources?
- Will you be camping out or staying in huts or other accommodation?
- What navigational aids do you need?
- How will you communicate in an emergency?
- What’s your contingency plan if you have to exit the route for any reason?
I’m sure this isn’t a complete list but it’s an example of the sort of issues affecting fastpacking trips. Plan ahead in as much detail as possible. I find you can never have too much information about a route.
Food For Fastpacking
There are a lot of decisions to make about food for fastpacking. Food can make or break a trip.
Personally, I’m in the “don’t carry a stove camp” if you want to cover big miles. I live with someone who thinks this is a sacrilege and can never start a day without a hot mug of tea.
Think about it this way. If you take a stove and food that needs to be cooked, you also need a pan to boil water for your hot meal or drink. You could eat straight out of the pan but you still need a spoon or spork to eat with.
You’ll need fuel for your stove and you’ll probably end up taking those freeze-dried or dehydrated meals that come in really chunky pouches. Suddenly you’re a long way from the fastpacking aim of carrying only the essentials.
For fastpacking consider eating only cold food you don’t need to cook.
If I am pressured into taking a stove my top choice is the Jetboil Flash. I’ve tried just about every type of cooking system over the years, even painfully waiting for solid fuel tablets to produce a lukewarm cup of tea. With a Jetboil stove, you can boil your water in under 2 minutes and the stove includes your cooking pot. It all packs away neatly weighing in at 13.1 oz but you need to buy canisters separately.
What food should I take fastpacking?
This will be a tried and tested personal choice but the aim is food with maximum calories per ounce of weight and adequate nutrition to let your body recover.
When you’re out trail running for a day, most people will get by on high sugar – high carbohydrate food such as gels and energy bars. For longer efforts, your body needs better nutrition.
If you’re covering long distances, your body will need a lot of calories. Some thru-hikers get through 8000+ calories a day and still lose weight!
High-fat foods provide more calories per ounce, so food like nuts, banana chips, trail mix, and trail butter are all good choices. Granola, chia seed energy bars, and vegan jerky add nutrition and my favorite find is blueberry power balls – a good way to boost vitamin C and antioxidants on the trail.
Sometimes you need to add a few things just because you like them. I try and take a few packs of lentil chips if I can fit them in my pack.
Fastpacking Gear Guide
Your fastpacking kit selection will have a lot to do with your route, the time of year, weather expectations, and how much you’re willing to rough it.
Fastpacking isn’t new. Back in the eighties, fell runners in the UK were adapting ultralight backpacking kit for fast and light routes. Robin Price still holds the unsupported FKT for the Pennine Way, 268 miles completed in true fastpacking style in 1989 in a time of 4 days 8 hours, and 39 minutes.
Just like then, fastpacking gear is still adapted from ultralight backpacking kit. The kit has improved over the years, but the philosophy stays the same. Lightweight kit is useless unless it’s reliable – so test everything before you take it on the trail. Having the right gear makes all the difference for the success of your trip.
Read on for a brief fastpacking gear guide:
A good pack is essential. It needs to be comfortable for those long miles, fit securely when you’re running – no bounce, and have fast and easy access to all the essentials when you’re on the go.
Running hydration vests are normally not big enough. They’re fine for running from hut-to-hut where you’re only carrying day food and a change of clothing, but you need something bigger for most fastpacking trips.
I find around 30+ liters is the right size pack. It’s big enough for my sleep system including an ultralight tent. Fortunately, in the last decade, running backpacks have improved massively. You can now get running-vest style packs that have all the fit advantages of a hydration vest but are big enough to carry all your gear.
I’m currently using the Montane Trailblazer 30L. I like the fit of this vest-style pack but the front hydration pockets could be bigger. It does have good side pockets. Other options I have my eye on are the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 and the Salomon XA 35.
Fastpacking Sleep System
Everyone needs to sleep – even fastpackers chasing their FKT. Your sleep setup – choice of shelter, (tents, tarps, or bivy sacks), sleeping bag, and sleeping mat depends on how light you want to go and the weather conditions.
This is where there’s a big difference between the UK and USA. Here in the UK, we can get terrible weather in the mountains even in Summer. You’d be pretty hardcore to fastpack without an ultralight tent or waterproof bivy sack.
In drier climates, it can be enough to camp with a tarp or just an inner tent for mosquito protection. I’ve even slept out under the stars with only an emergency bivy bag to hand just in case wet weather sets in.
A small one-person fastpacking tent like the Terra Nova Laser Photon or the MSR Hubba NX weighs around a kilo (two pounds). These tents are not cheap – the lighter the tent, the higher the price.
Bivy sacks are a cheaper option for fastpacking here in the UK. I use a Rab Ridge Raider for its 4 season weather protection. It’s short on space but I know I’ll still be dry in the morning.
In warmer climates, you have the luxury of choosing between a quilt that you just drape over the top of your body, or cocooning yourself in a sleeping bag to keep in your body heat.
For higher mountains or cooler climates, a sleeping bag is pretty much essential if you want to get any sleep. Sleeping bags vary enormously and my advice is to buy the best you can afford. A good sleeping bag will last 10+ years if you look after it properly.
I always buy down sleeping bags despite being mainly vegan for the last 2 years. Warmth for weight is so much better than synthetic and they pack down small.
Check the temperature rating before you buy and never think “I’ll get by” with an ultralight sleeping bag if the rating isn’t good enough for where you’re heading. For longer trips you need a good night’s sleep – you won’t get one if you’re lying there shivering in a lighter sleeping bag.
There’s an argument that synthetic bags work better when wet. Well from my experience trying to sleep in a cold soaking wet bag is miserable. It makes little difference if it’s synthetic. Just keep your sleeping bag dry!
Take one! It’s not on the essential list but it will keep you so much warmer and you’ll definitely be more comfortable. Even a good sleeping bag will feel cold without a pad.
You don’t need a full-length sleeping mat. A pad just long enough for your core from head to butt saves weight. I normally use my empty pack under my legs. I have a Thermarest NeoAir Mat and it’s brilliant but a closed-cell foam pad will do the job.
Just like your choice of sleeping bag and sleep system, the clothing you take will depend on the time of year and climate. I find when I’m running or power hiking, as soon as I stop I get cold – even in Summer. So it’s good to have a complete set of clothes to change into for sleeping.
This is my typical list for a 3-Season trip:
- Short or long-sleeve thin running shirt, (I regularly wear long sleeves for sun protection)
- Running shorts
- Socks and underwear – a good sports bra that won’t chafe for women!
- Waterproof rain jacket and waterproof pants with fully taped seams
- Thermal long sleeve top
- Spare short-sleeve running shirt, (on longer trips it just gets too smelly with only one)
- Synthetic insulated jacket or a waterproof down jacket (weight 8-12 oz)
- Running tights
- Hat & gloves
- Extra pair of socks and spare underwear
I know some guys are happy to run in the same top day after day – I’m not. Even tops with odor control can start to feel horrible to wear after a long day in the hills.
For running tops I prefer synthetic. I just find merino doesn’t breathe enough. Avoid cotton t-shirts at all costs. They get wet and stay wet, and will chafe under your pack.
It’s hard to believe that in 1987 when I broke the FKT for Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu with my friend Helene Whittaker, we both wore cotton tees for the entire 180-mile run. Times have changed.
Good socks are really important. Stick with tried and tested favorites and file down those toenails to avoid holes!
This is a personal preference but most people will prefer trail running shoes over lightweight boots. Find the brand that works best for your feet. I’m a big fan of Altra. You need comfortable shoes with a good grip.
Make sure you break them in properly. If you’re using resupply points for longer trips, plan ahead and don’t forget an extra pair – or two – or three!
Navigation, Head Torch & Communication
I always take a paper map and a compass. You never know when your GPS will fail to work and it’s always good to have a reliable backup system. For longer trips, you’ll need a battery pack to recharge your devices.
A head torch is essential. Consider taking two – especially if you’re planning on night running. The Petzl Nao is a good choice if you need a powerful beam and long battery life.
Your phone won’t always work in the mountains so it’s a good idea to use a satellite communicator such as the InReach Mini. It’s a lot of money, but you can communicate with friends, family, and if necessary, emergency services in areas without any cell coverage.
I only started using trekking poles recently and they make such a difference! Especially on steep ascents and descents. The trekking poles I use are designed specifically for running. They’re collapsible and super lightweight. Popular brands for trekking poles are Black Diamond or Leki.
Well, not quite everything else. A fastpacking gear guide could easily fill a whole book! For most trails you’ll need a water filter, plus means to carry water – I prefer a water bottle on longer treks, and it’s a good idea to take a toothbrush!
You’ll need a blister treatment kit, any medication, toilet paper, suncream lotion, and a basic first aid kit. I always decant lotion into a tiny sealed container – travel bottles are good – taking just the right amount for my multi day fastpacking trip.
Packing Your Bag
Even with a strict kit list to follow is funny how non-essential items creep into your pack. Check your pack weight before you set off on a long trail. I normally pack, weigh my pack, chuck out everything I really don’t need, and weigh my pack again!
Your pack weight depends on how much food you need to carry and the length of the trail. For a pure fastpacking trip, aim for your essential kit to weigh less than 10 pounds before you start adding food.
For lightweight backpacking and thru-hiking you’ll end up taking some extra gear and 15-20 pounds plus your food is more realistic.
Before You Set Off
Always check the weather forecast. Today’s mountain forecasts can be extremely accurate so it amazes me when people completely ignore them.
Fastpacking is weather dependent. You’re traveling with ultralight packs and minimal gear. In bad weather, such as a big storm, you could end up with cold soaking wet gear in a potentially life-threatening situation.
So check the weather, and if it’s bad pack more gear or better still delay your trip. Never be tempted to save weight at the expense of emergency equipment such as full waterproof clothing, a warm jacket, and a weather protective sleeping system.
Fastpacking can be so much fun, but it’s not without its dangers – so always be prepared.
I’ve been fastpacking most of my adult life and it’s taken me on some amazing adventures all around the world from remote treks in the Hindu Kush to closer to home on The West Highland Way. Traveling fast and light just adds so much opportunity for adventure to a trip.
Just make sure you learn the necessary skills before you give it a go – from navigating to pacing. If you have any questions just add them below…