What is Fastpacking?

What is Fastpacking?

Fastpacking is a hybrid form of backcountry travel—think of it like a combination between trail running and backpacking—which means there’s no simple, satisfying answer to this question. Fastpacking means the athlete can cover big miles in the backcountry with a combination of jogging, hiking, and power hiking.

If you’ve been around the backpacking world long enough, terms like “ultralight”, “thru-hiker”, and “cold-soaking” might mean something to you, or at least more to you than to someone who doesn’t hike. But every so often, a term gets thrown around that might seem new, or defy definition. We hear the term “fastpacking” when it comes to describing a type of backcountry travel, but what does fastpacking actually entail? Is it backpacking at a high rate of speed? Is it one level up from ultralight backpacking? What is the point? Is there more to it? What type of gear do fastpackers use? Let’s dive in.

Fastpacking doesn’t fit neatly into any one category, which is part of what makes it so interesting. On paper, fastpacking sounds a lot like a trail ultramarathon, where competitors cover ground with a similar combination of running and hiking. While the miles and strategy might look comparable, a major difference between fastpacking and ultrarunning is that the fastpacker is carrying ultralight backpacking gear so they can establish camp and sleep on the trail. In other words, a fasterpacker is self-sustaining. They have no aid stations like an ultra race and no long, slow days in the mountains with a heavy pack like a long-distance backpacker or section hiker.

Why Do People Fastpack?

The combination—and challenge—of ultrarunning and backpacking is what makes fastpacking so appealing. It’s a different way to challenge your body over big backcountry miles. The quicker nature of the endeavor means taking less time out of your life, and the physical challenge adds a certain allure. Since fastpacking also falls in the middle ground between ultrarunning and backpacking, you get the best of both worlds: you can cover more ground faster than you would on a normal backpacking trip, but since you’re camping in the woods, you’ll see more of the country you’re passing through than you would during a non-stop ultramarathon.

Fastpacking is also incredibly versatile. Distances can range from a 20-mile end-to-end trail to hundreds of miles across rugged, technical terrain. It’s as wide-ranging as backpacking itself, the only limit is the individual’s athletic and technical capabilities.

What Gear Do Fastpackers Use?

Putting together a fastpacking kit looks like an extremely pared-down backpacking setup.

Fastpacking Essentials

All of the essentials are there: shelter, sleep system, food, outer layer, water treatment, but only the bare essentials. Weight and efficiency are the name of the game with fastpacking, and every ounce matters. This means the items themselves are ultralight, and the decision to take each one is carefully considered. Fastpackers often take ultralight trekking poles as well, and if you’re looking to try this sport out, be sure you practice running with trekking poles, as it takes quite a bit of coordination.

The Mountainsmith Zerk 40 designed by the Hiking Viking has a vest-style shoulder harness suitable for fastpacking.
The Mountainsmith Zerk 40 designed by the Hiking Viking has a vest-style shoulder harness suitable for fastpacking.

Fastpacking Backpacks

Fastpacking packs are a hotbed of innovation by ultralight backpacking and trail running companies.  They are built with ultralight materials, thus have a lower load limit than a standard internal frame pack. They might be frameless, have a smaller capacity, and have a “vest-type” structure similar to a running-vest style pack. The vest structure allows for ample organization on the front pockets and a more secure fit with the wider shoulder straps. Since fastpackers are often trail running for parts of their endeavor, a vest-style pack stays closer and tighter to the body, which means less bouncing. If you’ve ever tried running with a backpacking pack on, you know what we’re talking about.

Different backpacking brands have started tuning into the fastpacking trend, offering ultralight packs that combine the capacity of a backpacking pack with the vest-type shoulder straps of a running vest. For example, Six Moon Designs has sold vest-style shoulder straps for several years, which are also available on their newest Swift X backpack. ULA, Mountainsmith, and Yama Mountain Gear also offer backpacks with vest-based shoulder strap designs. For even lighter setups, 15-liter race packs from Ultimate Direction, Black Diamond, or Salomon could have everything that the lightest of fastpackers needs.

Fastpacking sleep systems and shelters

The fastpacking sleep system and shelter look different than a regular backpacking setup as well. They might use the foam pad that came in their pack instead of carrying a separate sleeping pad. They might use an ultralight quilt and bivvy instead of a mummy bag and freestanding shelter. Accessing gear, snacks, and water on the move helps with efficiency, and small items are stashed in easy-to-reach pockets to minimize taking the pack off.

More and more ultralight backpacking companies are making packs for fastpackers
More and more ultralight backpacking companies are making packs for fastpackers

Should You Try Fastpacking?

Fastpacking is a way to get deep into the backcountry and explore some amazing places. If you enjoy trail running and ultralight backpacking, this might be the sport for you. Do you like backpacking? Trail running? Seeing new places and pushing yourself in the backcountry? Then yes! You are a good candidate to try fastpacking.

Like any new sport, start small with fastpacking. Experience in trail running as well as backpacking is recommended, and practicing with an ultralight setup is smart as well. Like we said above, practice trail running and moving quickly with trekking poles, and understand the limitations of your mileage and goals. If you’re an accomplished trail runner, be prepared to move slower than usual with fastpacking. No matter how ultralight your gear is, you’re still carrying a backpack, and there will be plenty of hiking between the trail running stints.

Above all, enjoy the experience, and get ready to be taken to some new and amazing places.

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About the author

Maggie Slepian is originally from the northeast and is currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Maggie has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, is *almost* done with the New Hampshire 48 4,000-footers, has developed backpacking routes in the Utah high desert, and spent the past five years testing gear and working professionally in the outdoor industry. Maggie spends as much time outdoors as possible, whether it’s backpacking, peak bagging, bikepacking, mountain biking, climbing, skiing, or kayaking. She is currently a full-time freelance writer and editor, and is always busy planning the next backcountry adventure. Get in touch at maggieslepian.com.

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