If you’ve always wanted to marry your love for running and backpacking, then we found your next go-to sport: fastpacking. This activity is an outdoor adventure devotee's dream. It gives you the perfect opportunity to cover more ground and explore more of the epic sights you can only access via your own two feet.
Whether you’re looking for a way to take your trail running adventures up a notch, you want more time exploring the outdoors, or you just want to clock miles beyond your usual route, fastpacking could be the answer to all of your adrenaline needs.
Before you hit the trails, though, you’ll want to learn a few key points about planning your route, packing your bag, and making sure your body can handle the terrain. Here’s everything you need to know before you head out on your first fastpacking trip.
What is fastpacking?
“Fastpacking blurs the lines between long-distance trail running and ultralight backpacking,” says Andrew Butterworth, a Backcountry Gearhead and experienced trail runner, backpacker, and fastpacker. “By taking the best parts of both trail running and backpacking, fastpacking allows you to cover more distance than you would trail running, and at a faster pace than traditional backpacking.”
The main difference between fastpacking and trail running is that it includes at least one night of camping. According to Meghan Hicks, managing editor of iRunFar and the author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, this is also one of the biggest pros of signing up for a fastpacking adventure.
“Your feet can take you to some pretty wild places and you can see some pretty special things, and in fastpacking you can do all of that plus spend the night outside and get to see what the stars look like in a place with less night pollution, see how the birds sing at the start and end of each day, watch the sunset and sunrise—all those special things that you miss when you’re behind all four walls in a house,” Hicks says.
While fastpacking trips can range from just one day and night, you can also extend the adventure to a full thru-hiking getaway on the Pacific Crest Trail, Butterworth notes. “It’s really a choose your own adventure!”
At its core, fastpacking is about exploring more terrain than you would get to in a single traditional trail run and stopping to set up camp along the way.
What do I need to bring on a fastpacking trip?
Of course, a fastpacking trip that has you camping for one or multiple nights requires a lot more planning than your average run. This is when it helps to approach the experience as if you’re packing for an ultralight backpacking trip. That means creating a packing list and planning your route ahead of time. These tips will help you nail down what you need—and what you don't.
Your fastpacking packing list
While you need to be stingy about weight, there are some essential gear items you’ll want to bring with you. Check out the 10 essentials of hiking that you should bring with you on any hike to stay safe. Below, a list of some specific items that you’ll want to focus on for fastpacking in particular.
- A pack. Ryan Krol, founder and owner of Boundless Coaching and official run coach for Life Time’s Leadville Race Series, suggests a good, comfortable pack around 25 to 30 liters that accommodates running and fast movement. He recommends the Ultimate Direction Fastpack line. (Also, check out these best running backpacks.)
- Trekking poles. They aren’t an absolute must, but a lot of fastpackers find trekking poles helpful for increasing support and stability on uneven terrains. Butterworth recommends Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles.
- Backpacking stove. This is what you’ll use to cook meals and make hot drinks when you’re out in the wilderness. The Jetboil Minimo is a fastpacker favorite for how compact and lightweight it is and how quickly it boils water.
- Water filtration system. Krol recommends a water bottle that has a filter built into it, so you don’t have to worry about running out of clean drinking water and can easily filter as you go. Try the Katadyn BeFree Collapsible Water Filter Bottle.
- Lightweight food. On a fastpacking trip, your approach to food should be utilitarian. Think: calorically dense yet lightweight foods. Some inspiration via Hicks’ packing list for a recent seven-day fastpacking trip: oatmeal, freeze-dried fruit, nuts, nut butter packets, fig bars, cheese sticks, energy gels, other various snacks like Honey Stinger Waffles, and freeze-dried meals for dinner. She also packs coffee and Tailwind Nutrition Rebuild Recovery Drink, which is a lightweight way to get in extra calories.
- Sleeping bag. You want your sleeping bag to be warm enough for the weather, but light enough that it doesn’t weigh down your pack. An ultralight sleeping bag—one meant for backpacking—will be your best bet on a fastpacking trip. Full disclosure though: These can get pretty pricey. This guide to backpacking sleeping bags can help you figure out what, exactly, you need so you don’t spend extra on certain features that aren’t really necessary.
- Shelter. Depending on the weather, you may just need an ultralight tarp—like this one from Snow Peak—to use as shelter. Or, you may need to tote a tent with you. The MSR Elixir 1 Backpacking Tent is a great option that balances quality and price.
- Layers. To make sure every ounce of clothing counts, Hicks brings layers that are meant to work together and can be used in more than one way. For example, she doesn't bring clothes meant just for sleeping or just for running, but both. Bringing a handful of layers that you can add or shed as needed during the day and at night, means you’re always comfortable, whether running, sleeping, or hanging around camp in the chilly mornings and evenings, Hicks says. Just make sure you don’t bring too many layers that it adds a lot of weight to your pack.
- Headlamp. You’ll want to have light of some sort for when you’re camping or if you have to start your journey before the sun comes up. A headlamp is the most convenient, hands-free option. The BioLite Headlamp 330 is ultra lightweight and rechargeable via a micro USB port.
- Satellite device. Both Butterworth and Krol recommend the Garmin InReach Mini, which will allow you to communicate with loved ones and call for help if you need it—even if you have zero cell service.
How do I plan a fastpacking route?
When planning your route, Krol suggests looking for loop or point-to-point options. “That way, you can drop a car off or coordinate a ride and it gives more of a sense of adventure because you don't have to double back,” he says.
Typically, any hiking trail that has established campsites or allows camping along the path would work great for a fastpacking adventure. Just check and make sure the route stats—including the miles, elevation gain, terrain, etc.—are in line with the type of challenge you're looking to chase. A lot of trail runners swear by AllTrails for learning about routes ahead of time. It helps you choose the right trip while learning the lay of the land from the reviews and downloadable maps.
Consider this as inspiration, too: “My first fastpacking trip was The Wonderland Trail, an approximately 93-mile hiking trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park,” Krol says. “The trail goes over many ridges of Mount Rainier for a cumulative 22,000 feet of elevation gain. The experience changed my life.”
Are there any safety tips to keep in mind?
Staying safe requires some planning ahead. “Make sure you know what kinds of hazards your fastpacking route might have, from inclement weather to animal encounters to navigation challenges,” Butterworth says.
Keep these safety strategies in mind when planning your trip, no matter where you're going:
- Be prepared for the weather. Always research the weather ahead of time, and make sure you’re prepared for whatever might happen. That means making sure you have the right layers, that your sleeping bag is warm enough, and that you bring some sort of waterproof shelter in case it rains, Hicks says. You really don’t want to get stuck being wet or freezing with no way to get dry or warm.
- Learn the wildlife. Before your trip, do some research on which wild animals you might encounter on your trip, and then make sure you’re prepared. For example, if you’re fastpacking in bear country, make sure you know how to hang your food in a tree so a bear can’t get it, carry bear spray in your pack, and never sleep with your food. “In other places, for instance in desserts, you might have to be careful about snakes and scorpions—if you leave shoes on the ground for a couple of hours, shake them out really well before putting your feet in them,” Hicks notes.
- Bring multiple forms of navigation. “Most people use a combination of navigation sources—a lot of parks will have maps of trails, and there are GPS apps on smartphones and GPS watches that let you upload a track,” Hicks says. She personally also loves to carry a good paper map. Not only is it satisfying to open up the map at the end of the day and see how far you went, but there’s no risk of it running out of battery power and crapping out on you when you need it most.
- Always tell someone your plans. Having friends or family aware of your trip itinerary—your route, departure date, and planned return date—is also really important, Butterworth says. This way, if something does happen to you, they’ll know when to seek help and where to send it if they can’t get in touch with you.
Do I need to train for a fastpacking trip?
You should train for a fastpacking trip the same way you’d train for any long-distance run or race: Spending more time on your feet to build a strong aerobic base, Krol says. On top of that, you’ll want to prepare for the terrain you’re going to encounter—particularly, the incline.
- Trapezius. These muscles run from the back of the neck, across the shoulders, and down the upper back. “They are usually the first muscles to get fatigued on a trip with a 15- to 20-pound pack,” Krol says. You can train this muscle group by exercising with a loaded pack or by doing exercises in the gym that specifically target them, like the Farmer’s Carry or rows.
- Quadriceps. Your quads will work overtime when you’re running and hiking downhill. “They have to be conditioned to handle the stress of eccentric or ‘negative’ contractions,” Krol notes. To target the quads eccentrically, check out this workout designed to help you conquer downhills.
- Ankles. Uneven terrain can do a number on the muscles surrounding the ankle joint. Krol recommends training them by doing balance exercises on a BOSU ball or dyna-disc.
Finally, practice, practice, practice. Pack your backpack and wear it while you run a shorter distance to get a sense of what carrying a weight while running feels like and to test what weight you can handle. Hicks also suggests doing mini trips to get ready for a longer one, so that you have a chance to work out your gear situation when the stakes are lower. By the time you’re ready to tackle a multi-night trip, you’ll know exactly what to pack, what you can leave behind, and how much you can carry while still enjoying your trip. That’s why we do it, after all: for the love of the endurance adventure.