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The Ultimate Guide for Fastpacking Success

Sitting halfway between ultralight backpacking and trail running, fastpacking is all about efficiency. Fastpacking allows you to pack what would usually be a five-day trek into just two days. You can explore further and faster than ever before. This lets you make the most of your days off, and your weekends suddenly take on a whole new meaning.

Experienced backpackers and trail runners will already have a lot of the equipment and knowledge needed for fastpacking. For a successful fastpacking adventure, you need a reasonable level of fitness and equipment that is lightweight enough to run with. There’s more to it than just having the gear and being able to run a long way though. Our guide for fastpacking success will help you prepare to go fast and light overnight.

A man with a trekking pole and backpack standing atop of a mountain, looking at a view of the forest

Get in Condition

With fastpacking, you’re trying to go further than you usually would hiking, and squeeze more into your day. You’re not going to be busting a lung the whole time — you can’t — but you will be run-walking for 10 hours or more every day. Sure, there’s no minimum distance for fastpacking, but you should do everything to ensure you’re physically prepared for your trip.

Once you step out of your hiking boots, you need to rely on ankle strength rather than external support and core stability to keep you moving steadily on the trails. Full-body workouts can help work those supporting muscles and leg strength for the hills, while regular trail running is necessary to build your aerobic base.

Mental toughness is at least as necessary as physical conditioning. This isn’t your quick-and-dirty 5 km lap around the park — you’re going to be on the trail for hours. You’re going to hurt. Positive self-talk, visualization, and short-term focus can all help keep you striding forward, and often we only find the key to our resilience through putting ourselves in those situations. Practice your mental strength as you do your physical strength and it will be there to keep you moving when your body is screaming for you to stop.

Fingers pointing to a topographic map

Planning and Navigation

There is no minimum distance for a fastpacking trip. It’s probably best that your first fastpacking trip isn’t a push to go as far as possible. A little like how backpacking differs from hiking, fastpacking is more than just running. There’s the bigger picture to think about — you’re carrying overnight gear, you’re going to be camping, and you’re going to run for multiple days. Until you’re comfortable running with the weight, consider shorter distances and less technical trails. Plan your trail time at a much more relaxed pace than you usually run at.

The more you know about your route before you head out, the easier you will find it to navigate efficiently on the trail. Starting out on well-marked trails helps limit potential mistakes and lets you focus on the journey. You should still brush up on your skills with a map and compass for tougher navigational sections and for when you get more adventurous in the future.

Trail running gear

Pick Your Crew or Fly Solo

There’s a well-touted proverb that gets attributed to trail running a lot — if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. The mental battle of fastpacking is often easier when you share it between two or three runners. A word of caution: Picking your crew in the mountains is like finding the right rock climbing partner or business partner. Relationships are tested to their core when you find yourself in mental and physical anguish.

Your fastpacking crew should be at a similar level to yourself, with similar goals. This stops anyone from tearing in front of anyone from the dejected feeling of constantly chasing the pack. You need to be able to dig each other out of mental funks, recognize when someone is lacking nutrition, and also occasionally give each other some harsh reality checks. On the flip side, you get someone to share in your success and stoke the fire for future trips.

Some fastpackers prefer the mindfulness that comes from a solo adventure. Shouldering full responsibility and facing the trial alone has its own benefits. Decisions are quicker — not relying on a committee — and you move, eat, sleep, and take toilet breaks as and when they suit you. With no one to bounce your internal struggles off of, it’s worth honing your mental strength to new levels if you plan to take on a fastpacking trip alone.

A lightweight backpacking setup including trainers

Prep and Pack

Once you’ve planned your trip and got yourself conditioned, you need to load up your pack. Fastpacking is all about moving fast and light and your equipment should reflect this. It would be great if every budding fastpacker had several thousand dollars to spend on the latest ultralight outdoor equipment, but sometimes you have to make do with what you have.

Deciding what you can do without is often the most efficient method of packing for a fastpacking adventure. A lightweight sleeping bag and tent should be high on the list, as these are usually the bulkiest items, and unless you’re a seasoned veteran, you probably won’t head out without them. Limit your spare clothing to essential layers, if anything at all, and consider just how important those extra sheets of toilet paper really are. The lighter your pack, the easier your journey will be.

Food and water will often make up the bulk of your pack. You’re going to be burning a lot of calories and sweating out a lot of liquid. Ultra marathons are often described as a long picnic with a bit of running involved and fastpacking is no different. Fueling yourself on the trail requires just as much practice as hardening muscles or making your mind a fortress. Try out different fuels on shorter runs to see what works for you and what you can stomach.

When you’re planning your trip, look for restocking points on your route, as well as water refill points. Every liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds, and if you can fill up along the way, you can carry less water. It’s more weight-efficient to carry a water filter and refill regularly than it is to haul the extra liters along with you.

A man running across a rocky mountaintop past a cairn made from old fenceposts

Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Don’t head out too hard. Even with your relaxed pace, start out slowly and you can always make up the time later on in the day. Heading out too fast leads to burnout early on.
  • Don’t plan for too much. It’s better to finish your fastpacking trip feeling as though you could have done more than limp your way to the end of the trail and wish you hadn’t come out.
  • Don’t forget to eat. Fastpacking is like an overnight picnic and you need to be consuming almost constantly on the trail.
  • Don’t forget about the overnight. Packing light is one thing, but you need to stay warm overnight. A spare jacket, a warm sleeping bag, and a decent meal are worth their weight on the trail.
  • Don’t forget to test your gear. The first time you pitch your tent shouldn’t be at the end of a 10-hour day on the trail.
  • Don’t forego every luxury. A morning coffee, a bar of chocolate, a whisky miniature. Give yourself a little luxury, but don’t go overboard.

It’s easy to get hooked on fastpacking. You find yourself cruising along the trail, eating up the miles, and covering twice the distance you usually can in a day — or more. The landscape changes quickly around you, but you can take the time to appreciate views, have a break by the creek, and eat your body weight in snacks as you go, and you still know you’re going to make it to camp that night.

The right lightweight gear sure helps, but a lot of fastpacking success is dictated by your planning, conditioning, and your mentality. Get out there and hit the trails as regularly as possible, train for the distance, and then load up and see where you can get to on your fast and light overnight adventure.

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Tom Kilpatrick
A London-born outdoor enthusiast, Tom took the first ticket out of suburban life. What followed was a twelve-year career as…
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