The Definitive Guide To Fastpacking

Fastpacking is a brilliant sport. Simply said, it’s a sport where you strap a small amount of gear, food, and water on your back and go running and powerhiking for days at a time. Where you sleep under the stars wherever your feet have landed you. Where you cover big miles and earn even-bigger views. Where you develop and use your abilities in backcountry risk management and navigation in getting to places that would be hard to see in a day or more.

Bryon Powell fastpacking in Yellowstone National Park in winter. All photos iRunFar/Meghan Hicks unless otherwise noted.

The trail and ultrarunning community has talked long and hard in the last 10 years or so about this niche corner of our already-niche sport. Much has been written about athletes embracing multi-day fastpacking, yet we haven’t seen an in-depth how-to for getting it done. What follows is just that, the ins and outs of making fastpacking happen.

I’ve got several thousand backpacking and fastpacking miles and 18 years of experience under my belt. I’ve made a boat load of mistakes and learned a lot along the way. This article, what has turned into a biblical treatment of fastpacking, is my attempt to convey what I’ve learned. I’m not here to endorse products per se–though I’m not shy in telling you about the ones that work best for me–but I am here to endorse a methodology.

That said, there is no single right way to do most things in fastpacking. There are multiple means to the same end. You must test and re-test your own, personal methodology, and adapt your gear and approach through time. However, using this article as a jumping-off point should save you a lot of research, testing, and mistakes. Please enjoy!

My fastpacking methodology aligns with several principles:

  1. Less is more (except when it’s not) — You’re never going to be able run and cover good distance if you carry too much weight. We’ve got the whole history of backpacking to teach us that more gear isn’t always better. I am a gram counter who cuts unnecessary straps off my pack and tags from my clothing. But there has to be balance here. You need the right gear to take care of yourself, to be prepared for the elements you encounter. Carry exactly what you need to be happy and healthy, and nothing more.
  2. Occam’s razor — Simple is best. I’m a fan of simple gear, stuff that won’t break. You do not want to be 60 miles from another human being and have a crucial piece of gear go belly up! I’ll sometimes choose an item that’s a bit heavier than the most lightweight option available because it’s more dependable or efficient.
  3. Put in solid, recoverable efforts — If you’re going out for six days on trail, you need to be just as strong on Day 6 as you were on Day 1. Your route and distance covered should challenge you physically, but you shouldn’t take things to the very edge of your capacity. You’re already traveling ultralight in a remote location, and a good risk manager knows that getting physically extreme in that situation exposes you to even more risk. (In case you’re wondering my thoughts on where and when you can/should push yourself to the edge of your capacity, an ultramarathon with aid stations, course markings, medical support, and other runners is a good place. The backcountry could be a good place to push your limits, but it’s my opinion that you need to have years of experience of controlled efforts in similar situations beforehand.)
  4. No nonsense — On my gear and planning for backcountry trips, I am 100% no nonsense. Mistakes about either can be life threatening for me and the people I travel with, as well as other folks on the trail and search-and-rescue personnel who might have to help me if I have a problem. Thus, if my tone in the rest of this article is more direct than you’re used to me writing and talking with, don’t be surprised. Also, I don’t give two shits about aesthetics, how something looks while I’m using/wearing it in the backcountry. When you’re a day’s run away from help, it’s only about how something functions.
  5. Leave No Trace — Familiarize yourself with the seven Leave No Trave principles and how the LNT organization recommends you manifest those principles in the field. Even when you’re tired or wanting to move fast, always, always practice LNT. Simply said, if you can’t move yourself to care for the places through which you travel, you don’t belong in them.

Making a Plan

The point of fastpacking, at least in my mind, is to have a journey to a place you might not be able to get to in just a day, to sleep out under the stars, to become fully immersed in nature, and to experience self-sufficiency and independence. When I plan a fastpacking trip, these goals are my guiding forces.

I once had a mentor who taught me much about the outdoors and saved my heiny in it in more than one instance. One of his sayings is that all great outdoor adventures are won or lost in the planning process. That is, a well-thought-out plan more often than not leads to backcountry success. I’ve learned over the years that there are certain details about a trip that you can leave in limbo and others you should have your ducks in a row about before you head out. Before heading to the backcountry, you should always have your route, partners, approach, emergency plan, and gear sorted.

The first thing to choose is your route. As you plan your destination, think about the climate, terrain, access to water, remoteness, daily mileage, the kind of wildlife that will be along your route, and more. Before committing to a daily-mileage goal, take into account variables like weather, elevation gain and loss, altitude, technicality, and more.

Depending on where you’re headed, you may have to make reservations for a permit or for backcountry campsites, or get them on site when you arrive. In a few cases, there are lotteries for garnering backcountry permits.

It’s your responsibility to know the rules of the wilderness area, national park, national forest, and/or other public land you’re headed to. Do your research ahead of time.

Acquire the appropriate maps for your route, and make sure that the maps include your emergency/alternate exit points. (More on those below.)

If you’re doing an adventure with others, choosing your partners should happen contemporaneously to the sussing out of your route. Here are a couple factors to consider in choosing your partners:

  1. Experience — You can venture out with a group containing members of variable experience levels, but you should be 100% aware of your differences, and the trip should be suitable for all the group members. For instance, short fastpacking trips are great opportunities for less-experienced people to learn from those who are more experienced. But if the most-experienced person becomes injured or ill, the trip needs to be of the sort that the less-experienced group members can problem solve within. If you’re headed out on a true expedition, you and your partners should have near-equal, advanced experience.
  2. Interpersonal match — Fastpacking can be long and hard, and you will be together with your partners 24 hours a day. You better get along! I recommend testing relationships on day-long outings or time together in the real world before taking to the backcountry together. You should be aware of the dominant characteristics of your partners, as you’ll be exposed closely to those. Is your partner super organized? Do they like the leadership position? Are they a people pleaser? Do they get cranky if they don’t have snacks regularly? Do they like to run at night? Know your partners well before the heat of the moment.
  3. Fitness — Since a fastpacking trip is a physical event, you’ll need to be aware of the fitness levels of your partners. It’s alright if they don’t match so long as everyone in the group is aware that the group will be traveling at the pace of the slowest person. A pre-trip discussion about fitness, speed, and daily mileage is no place for ego. Have an honest conversation so everyone’s expectations are met in the field.

There is a daily rhythm to fastpacking. Wake up, boil water, sip tea or coffee, eat breakfast, pack up camp, put on running clothes, climb into your pack. Run, run, run, laugh, run, stop for photos, run, run, hike, hike, stop for a snack, run, run, run, hike, hike, high five your partners at a mountain pass, run, run. Search for a good camp, run, find a good camp. Change into camp clothes, set up camp, eat, eat, eat, laugh, eat, drink hot chocolate, sleep. Or some derivation of that. ;)

Everyone’s approach will be slightly different based upon their natural biorhythms and habits, however, so a group approach should be decided upon before the trip and reconsidered before the start of each day on trail. Will you rise early? How often will you stop for a break? Will you run into the night? Figure this out before you get yourself into a pickle of differing preferences on the trail.

Plan for an Emergency
Though the chances of an emergent situation are small, you must plan for them.

First, leave your itinerary with someone at home, and then stick to it. For long trips, designate planned check-in points, places where you’ll get enough cell service to check in, or times when you’ll turn on your satellite-based device (more on those ahead in this article) and give an all-okay signal to whomever is keeping track of you.

Next, have emergency/alternate exit points planned along your route so that, if you can’t complete it, you can still get safely out of the backcountry. Make sure the person keeping track of you at home knows these as well.

Discuss with the group what would happen in a variety of emergencies such as if someone becomes lost or gets seriously hurt or ill. Develop contingency plans for them. Be aware that you will need to be flexible in the field, but have your basic emergency-response framework in place.

Finally, approach your trip with risk aversion in mind. Thirty miles into the backcountry is the place to lower yourself carefully down a rock exposure, to take a break and recover if you’ve pushed a little too hard, and to use a knife with exquisite care.

Gear Selection

Once you’re out in the wilds, it’s just you and your gear. You better like everything you brought! In this section, I outline some of my theories on gear choices as well as some of the pieces of gear I’ve come to rely upon for fastpacking over the years.

Your pack is probably THE. MOST. CRUCIAL. gear piece you bring with you. You need a pack that’s comfortable, fits your body well, doesn’t rub you too much the wrong way (no pack is 100% comfortable all the time and anyone who tries to convince you of this hasn’t carried a pack a long way), and can hold the load you need to carry.

We’re at a cool time in pack-design history now, in that there are multiple ultralight to lightweight packs of moderate size out there that are made specifically for fastpacking. Even just 10 years ago, there were little opportunities for this kind of gear unless you were proficient with a sewing machine and could make and modify your own gear.

For fastpacking, I’m a fan of the Inov-8 Race Elite 24 (liter) pack as well as the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 (liter) and 30 (liter). I’ve also done overnight fastpacks with a couple packs made by Terra Nova. Six Moon Designs has the Flight 30 (liter) and Flight 40 (liter), which are designed specifically for fastpacking, but I haven’t tested them extensively yet. I’ve even fastpacked in the Osprey Talon 33 (liter) when my load was heavier and required a pack with more structure to hold it. You could potentially fastpack with the WAA Ultrabag 20 (liter), though I’ve yet to see it used much outside the Marathon des Sables race. There are more choices out there, for sure.

Bryon Powell runs with the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 in Canyonlands National Park.

I have found that volume-wise, I can use a 20- to 25-liter pack for up to three days solo and a week when with a partner with whom we share carrying the ‘group’ items like the stove, fuel, and sleeping accommodation, in fairly benign conditions. For a week solo or for a trip through cold or wet weather, I need 30 liters of space. However, 30 or more liters of gear, no matter how light each of the items is, adds up to significant weight. Even 25 liters of gear, if it’s food heavy for a longer trip, can be a challenge to run with.

I can’t tell you what pack to buy and no expert can. It’s a trial-and-error process of finding the pack that rides on your body the best. What I can tell you is that, for me, a fastpacking pack has to have several characteristics:

  1. Its back pad, the part of the pack that makes contact with my back, needs to be roughly the same height as my back from the top of my shoulders to the smallest part of my waist. If a pack’s back pad is much longer, it will either bunch on my back and be uncomfortable, or the pack will rise up behind my neck and head and be bothersome there.
  2. The pack should conform well to what you put in it, and should conform to your back. Ideally, for fastpacking, I want a pack with a soft back pad that will mold to the natural shape of my back. The more I can get the pack to act like a part of my body, the more comfortable I will be when running with it.
  3. If the pack offers a waist belt, this waist belt must sit comfortably around the smallest part of my torso. This is several inches higher than where people traditionally wear waist belts for backpacking. This will eliminate as much movement of the pack as possible when I run.
  4. Minimal shoulder padding is a must, as is an adjustable sternum strap. Some of the pack’s weight is inevitably going to rest on my shoulders, so comfortable and stabilizing strap-age here is key.
  5. There has to be very little motion of the pack against my back when I run, both in the horizontal and vertical directions. A pack working against me saps my momentum and can eventually lead to uncomfortable pack rub.
  6. A fastpack must provide me easy access to water, a day’s worth of food, my map and compass, water-purification chemicals, and my camera. Those are the objects I call upon over and over in a day of fastpacking. What this means is that I like some good pockets on the front of the pack.

Sleeping Bag
Your sleeping bag will also be a highly personal endeavor. Being comfortable while sleeping is of great import, as that’s when much of your recovery happens. I sleep a little cold, so I like to bring a sleeping bag that’s rated to 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the anticipated low temperature for wherever I’m headed.

I sleep with a down sleeping bag anytime, every time. They are lighter and pack down to a smaller volume than their synthetic counterparts. The whole argument about a wet down sleeping bag being more useless than a wet synthetic sleeping bag? Well, a wet sleeping bag sucks, no matter what it’s made of. There’s no reason to let your sleeping bag get wet. Never. None. Null argument. Sleep in down.

Buying a good, ultralight sleeping bag is NOT a cheap endeavor. The good news is that, if you treat them well, they last a really long time. My two go-to down bags have been around for 10 and six years respectively.

I’m a big fan of Western Mountaineering sleeping bags and MontBell’s ultralight down sleeping bags. Our household has several of them rated to different temperatures. Not cheap, but truly ultralight, and I am extremely pleased with their durability.

Sleeping Pad
You want to sleep with a sleeping pad while you’re fastpacking? That’s cute. Oh, I’m totally kidding!

Some fastpackers and ultralight backpackers sleep with little to no sleeping pad, maybe just something that pads their shoulders and hips. I’m one of those people. After hundreds of nights sleeping on the ground, I’ve adapted to up to 14 nights out with just a tiny pad for my shoulders and hips, and for trips of under six days, I usually take no sleeping pad. When I do use my mini-pad, it’s small enough that it goes in my sleeping bag, not under it. This is definitely an acquired taste, so go minimal with your sleeping pad for just one night first lest you be cursing me if you don’t like it!

My sleeping pad is a modified Gossamer Gear pad, the version that looks like an egg crate. There are tons of egg-crate-like sleeping pads on the market, and some that are cheaper than Gossamer Gear’s. (Not by much though, as Gossamer Gear’s pads are quite reasonable.) But I’ve had the pad for years and it still gives me the support I need. That is, its compression over time is minimal. Additionally, their pads are scored so you can fold them not roll them. Many ultralight packs these days have a square back compartment into which you put a folded sleeping pad into, like the Gossamer Gear pad, which becomes the pack’s back padding. Of note, I’ve trimmed the heck out of mine, cutting off extra width that my body doesn’t need and a hole in the center where the small of my back doesn’t ever actually touch the ground. Every gram counts!

My last couple trips have been with the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, which has a removable back pad that I can slide into my sleeping bag. It pads the ground a bit, but not as well as the Gossamer Gear pad.

Side note, if your fastpacking trip includes sleeping atop snow or frozen ground, these above recommendations don’t apply. You’ll need a sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold beneath. Because I already sleep cold at night, I need a sleeping pad that extends from neck to toes. In this case, I use an ultralight inflatable sleeping pad made by MontBell.

Tent/Tarp/Sleeping Accommodations
When do you need a tarp versus a tent when you’re fastpacking? Tents are for bad weather, bugs, and psychological contentedness. Tarps are for bad weather, bugs, and psychological contentedness, too. In the majority of situations you will encounter while fastpacking, you could sleep fairly happy with a tent or a tarp. It will largely come down to personal preference. The two situations that might influence your choice more than others would be a huge weather event and mosquitoes. There are also several other kinds of sleeping structures that fall between the tent and tarp ends of the spectrum, including tarptents and bivy sacks.

To be blunt, tents and tarptents that are lightweight enough to consider using on a fastpacking trip are expensive. We’re talking $250 to $600. Full disclosure, I’m not an expert on ultralight sleeping accommodations. I haven’t taken the time or the money to invest in becoming an expert in this realm. I’ve found a couple pieces that work well for me and I’ve stuck with them. I’ll use the rest of this section to explain why I like the sleeping accommodations I currently use.

When I’m fastpacking with a second person and we desire a tent, we carry a couple-year-old Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2. It weighs about three pounds for the whole package, including pegs for the ground, which means each person carries about 1.5 pounds. It’s a freestanding tent, meaning you don’t have to depend on ground pegs or tying things to trekking poles or trees to get it to stand up; this is good if you’re camping on sand or rock where pegs won’t hold. Also, it’s got full mosquito protection with a full tent, plus a separate fly. There’s a decent amount of floor space so you can hang out in the thing if you’re stuck in day of bad weather, its steep sides shed snow well, and it’s got great ventilation for camping in climates where condensation occurs.

Bekah Henderson Campbell in the fly-less Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 in the High Sierra of California.

I’ve also spent some time out sleeping in the Shangri-La 2 tarp made by GoLite (the brand is facing bankruptcy at the time of this writing), which is well-sewn tarp that even has a zipper door. At roughly 1 pound, 8 ounces including pegs for the ground, with the tent pulled taught and set up tight, the Shangri-La 2’s walls are steep and come down all the way to the ground, allowing it to stand up to all kinds of nasty weather, including snowstorms and thunderstorms. It’s a two-person tarp and it’s also fairly dummy proof in its set up; you don’t have to be a tarp master to get this right and you can do it quickly if bad weather is about to hammer you. You do, however, need two trekking poles to hold it up. Though you used to be able to buy a mosquito net/ground cloth combo insert to go with this, the Shangri-La 2 comes with no mosquito netting and no ground cloth. There’s tons of ground space underneath the tarp, room for two people, packs, a dog or two, probably more. The two trekking poles set up in the middle of the tarp underneath, so they briefly dissect your inner ground space.

The GoLite Shangri-La 2 after weathering a thunderstorm in the Uinta Mountains of Utah.

My other go-to sleeping accommodation is the Integral Designs Siltarp 2, which is 17 ounces including pegs for the ground and rope. This is a true tarp, a rectangle that you set up in whatever array best suits your needs. This tarp is meant to accommodate one or two people, but I’ve slept three people under it also. You can set up tarps with just rope, but many people find that one or two trekking poles are a good set-up addition. With a rectangle tarp and bad weather, you have to be quite careful with your set up. I usually go for clumps of trees that will help fend off precipitation, setting up a steep wall that goes all the way to the ground on the side where the weather is coming from, and overall keeping the tarp set up low to the ground. Using the Siltarp 2 for one person, you can get a couple cool configurations going and shut yourself in on all sides, keeping weather out. With two people and some finagling, you can get pretty close. It’s probably unwise to use a tarp when persistent bad weather is on your fastpacking schedule. There’s no mosquito netting or ground cloth.

The Integral Designs Siltarp2 being used without trekking poles at Canyonlands National Park.

Whether or not you use a ground cloth when sleeping under a tarp is a matter of personal preference and the climate you’re fastpacking in. For almost no money and weight, you can cut open one of those black leaf-and-lawn garbage bags to make a ground cloth. You can also buy quite fancy and ultralight cloths, too. Ground cloths are good if you’re fastpacking in climates where the ground is perpetually damp or if weather is expected while you’re out. You can often get away with no ground cloth in desert environments. Sometimes, I forgo a ground cloth and instead sleep on the rain kit I always have with me. (See below for more details on my rain kit.) You might get your rain kit filthy this way, but it saves weight!

Bivy sacks are another option. Most offer not only a waterproof floor but also a full waterproof tube into which you put your sleeping bag as well as a bug screen that goes over your face. Some bivies also provide a waterproof cover that goes over your face. So, you could use a bivy sack with a waterproof face cover in lieu of all other sleeping structures, or you could pair a bivy sack with a bug screen over the face with a tarp. The former just plain doesn’t work for my taste. If I know there’s a chance of a weather event, I prefer to have a place I from which I can shelter from the elements and still move around, like a tarp. In this case, I set up my tarp and have a dry place under which I can cook a meal, hang out with my partners and play cards, keep my gear dry, and more. If you only have a fully waterproof bivy sack, your mobility while sheltering and gear protection is limited. I haven’t tried the tarp and bivy with mosquito face-screen option, but my guess is that the face screen and a regular headnet are pretty similar in terms of evading mosquitoes, so the improved waterproofing of the bivy sack is the major attractor here. [Author’s Note: This paragraph was added on 12/26/14 to answer readers’ questions about my thoughts on bivy sacks.]

Make sure to find out whether or not your sleeping accommodation has been seam sealed at the factory, and do so if it hasn’t. Most commercially available tents have been factory seam sealed. Some sleeping accommodations will need to be re-seam sealed every few years.

Side note, there are many situations where sleeping with nothing over your head is perfectly enjoyable, like if you’re headed out to a warm climate with no anticipated weather, for example.

The kind of lighting you take with you on a fastpacking trip depends on what you plan to use it for. If you plan to do some night running and hiking, you’ll want a light with a powerful output for routefinding and obstacle identification on the trail. The most effective light I’ve found per unit of weight for night trail running while traveling ultralight are the products made by Zebralight. With one CR123 battery and with the included clip that allows you to attach it to the brim of a hat (and thus saving weight on the also-included-but-optional headlamp strap), they weigh in at under 90 grams.

If you only plan to use your light only in camp, all you really need is the Petzl e+Lite. It weighs under an ounce and puts off enough light to set up a sleep space, cook dinner, and read a map.

Always bring enough spare light batteries and consider bringing a back-up light.

Cooking and Eating Utensils
I’m a fan of hot food when fastpacking. That’s because it’s often chilly or it thunderstorms or you go a ton of miles and a hot meal makes you feel fantastic all over again. I’ve tried many of the ultralight stoves on the market including my own rendering of a homemade alcohol stove in a tuna-fish can. The lack of efficiency of some of this stuff makes me a little insane. Just boil me some water in the next couple minutes, okay?

The author using a Jetboil while winter camping at Yosemite National Park. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Thus, I love the Jetboil. You can get the stove, cook pot, and cup/bowl of the Jetboil Sol Titanium Personal Cooking System for 6.3 ounces plus a couple more ounces for a fuel canister that’ll yield enough fuel for one person for about four days. The Jetboil boils a couple cups of water in just a few minutes.

I carry one additional utensil, a Light My Fire Spork. They make them in kids’ sizes, in addition to adult-sized sporks. I will even buy the kids version if I can find them so save a few more grams.

Water Storage
Here’s my fastpacking water-storage set up:

Water Purification
Every year I know someone who gets giardiasis from drinking untreated water. And once I got amoebic dysentery from cliff jumping into a lake in a developing country, which probably forced tainted water into my sinuses and down my throat. Having seen the debilitating results of water-borne illness, I think everyone should purify/filter their water in the backcountry, every time. (There remains a very small risk of still getting sick from something that isn’t killed or eliminated by chemicals and filters, but I think we should do our best to clean our water.)

An old water trough is now a backcountry water source at Canyonlands National Park.

These days, my go-to water-purification chemical is Aquamira. I’ve used this stuff all over the world, including from water sources in East Africa that we shared with livestock, and–knock on wood–haven’t become sick with it yet. Aquamira, which is made up of two small bottles of chemicals and a small mixing cup, is easy and fast to use. You mix the two chemicals into the mixing cap, wait five minutes for one chemical to activate the other, pour the mixture into the bottle of water you want to purify, and wait 15 minutes for the purification to happen. Thus, you can be in and out of a water source and on the move again in just over five minutes for basically any volume of water you’d like to purify. (Note that Aquamira requires longer wait times for chemical activation and then purification of very cold or very dirty water.)

If you get a little squiggly about pieces of grass or dirt in your water, use the bandana or BUFF you’re probably carrying to act as a pre-filter for your bottle. You can also let a bottle of water with floaters sit for about five minutes–the same amount of time it takes Aquamira to activate–so the floaters sink and then decant the water sans floaters into a second bottle.

I recently discovered the LifeStraw, which is a straw with a filter on it. You nuzzle right up to a water source and suck water out of it to your heart’s content. I’ve taken it in the backcountry a couple times now and am pleased with its ease and speed of use so far. It weighs a little more than two ounces.

Bryon Powell using the LifeStraw at Canyonlands National Park.

There are many lightweight water filters out there should you want to go down that road. I’ve tried many over the years, and like the 3.5-ish-ounce Sawyer Squeeze the most of what’s currently out there for fastpacking.

A good map and compass. Enough said, right? I mean, what else do you really need to find your way around this good earth? In my opinion, a compass with two-degree precision is enough for almost all backcountry forays. There are many compasses out there with two-degree precision, and most range around an ounce.

There are a bunch of apps now for smartphones that are pretty handy. You can download topographic maps so you can look at them offline, and there are several GPS apps that’ll locate you on a map, even if you’re not in cell range. Finally, there are the innumerate tried-and-true GPS devices that can literally navigate for you.

I cannot emphasize this enough: learn how to read a map, use a compass, and navigate by landmark sight. Don’t rely on electronics to do this for you. At some point the electronics will fail and you will be required to use your own skill. Be ready.

Food is about as personal at it gets. The following are some of my preferred foods for fastpacking. Note, I keep all of my food in a stuff sack and I bring two gallon-size Ziploc freezer bags for every week of travel in which I double bag the garbage I produce. I store my garbage bag in the food stuff sack as well.

(Some of you might be noticing that my fastpacking methodology is heavy on the use of Ziploc bags. Indeed, and I recommend the use of freezer bags in situations where sturdiness is a factor. Also, used Ziplocs can be re-purposed from their life in the kitchen to a life on a trail, and they can be re-used for trips over and over. This methodology is still pretty environmentally friendly.)

The author’s food for a seven-day, 140-mile trip.

My fastpacking breakfast is a little non-traditional, but it fills me up, sticks to my belly, and makes me feel happy.

Trail Food
I plan to generally be on the trail for most of the day, eating on the go and stopping to sit now and then for snacks. As such, my food will be a mixture of that which you can eat while moving or relaxing. Also, I try to get my food choices high on the fat and protein scales for the satiation factor because you can never carry enough calories for what you’re burning on a multi-day trip, unless your daily mileage is quite low. Here are examples of what I might carry as trail food:

Just-Arrived-to-Camp Food
You’ve been hauling arse all day, workin’ it, and you roll into camp. You’re hungry but you’ve got to fuss with accommodations and gear before you can sit down for a meal. Here’s my camp appetizer:

Often I splurge and buy backpacking meals with 800-ish calories for dinner. There are innumerate varieties out there, and so many of them these days are really tasty. But these larger backpacking meals can be about $10 a pop!

If I do my fastpacking trip on the cheap, I can make about the same volume of food for $4 out of a ready-made box of couscous that comes with some sort of flavoring packet, a package of tuna or salmon (choose the kind in olive oil for the fat), and maybe a fresh vegetable chopped in if it’s early in the trip, like a tomato, avocado, or pepper. Even moist kale pieces can make it to camp the first day as long as it’s not too hot! Before leaving on the trip, I empty the couscous and flavor packet into a quart-size Ziploc freezer bag. Once I’m in the field, I boil my water in the Jetboil, pour the boiled water into the Ziploc, seal it, and let the stuff rehydrate.

Sometimes I make my own sauce at home to go along with a fast-cooking grain for my first night out. Something that’s based on tomato paste or pesto is quite lightweight. Bring along a fresh veggie or two to chop into it. Good eatin’ for a couple bucks!

Always eat dessert. ;) For me it’s usually a hot-chocolate drink and a nut-butter packet that’s mixed with chocolate or something sweet. If it’s a colder-weather trip, a chocolate bar.

Some just-arrived-to-camp and dinner food during a winter camping trip at Yosemite National Park.

Trekking Poles
Depending on the terrain, trekking poles can be a truly awesome addition to a fastpacking trip. I carry trekking poles when I’m in mountainous terrain that includes big climbs every day. I’ve tried so many pairs of trekking poles throughout the years, and I hope Black Diamond makes their Ultra Distance Trekking Poles forever because I’ve become a huge fan. I’ve used them on the rubble piles that are the Sawatch Mountains of Colorado and the Uinta Mountains of Utah, and I’ve used them for all 206 miles of the Tor des Géants in the Italian Alps. As discussed earlier, the use of at least one trekking pole is required with some sleeping structures.

Other Random Gear

The following is more gear that’s crucial on fastpacking trips:

Mosquito Headnet
It weighs a couple grams and can save your sanity if you get into mosquito-ridden territory or you’re sleeping with a tarp only and mosquitoes are around. The headnet is best worn with a brimmed hat to keep the netting (and therefore the bugs) away from your face. A rain kit (as discussed below) and a headnet along with mosquito repellent for your hands–the only skin exposed–is a pretty full-proof way of avoiding bugs. The best part about actually running while you’re fastpacking? Mosquitoes don’t pester when you’re on the move!

Your Jetboil has its own igniter and you’re not planning to have a campfire? Bring emergency supplies for starting a fire, and bring supplies that match the environment you’re fastpacking through. Spending time in a desert or mountainous environment where your fuel won’t be dripping wet? Probably a lighter and a set of waterproof matches will do. Fastpacking in the Pacific Northwest or places where a lifetime of rain keeps fuel sources so wet they are soft and where there’s a small chance of finding dry tinder? You will need some heavier-duty firestarting devices. I recommend the Ultimate Survival Technologies BlastMatch Fire Starter and some homemade tinder made of dryer lint and Vaseline.

I use an ultralight, small stuff sack as my toilet bag. Inside that stuff sack I keep paper towels, which have been cut in half. I budget four half paper towels per day, generally. Then, I bring one quart-sized Ziploc freezer bag total, and then one sandwich-sized Ziploc for every three days I’ll be out. I pack out all my used toilet paper and tampons in these sandwich-sized bags, which I then double bag for odor elimination and sanitation into the quart-size Ziploc. I also carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

Other toiletries I carry:

Of note, I carry out all my toilet paper and tampons, never burying or burning then. While I used to in the past, I no longer carry soap, even the biodegradable kind. Leave No Trace principles say you can use a small amount of biodegradable soap away from water sources, but I don’t personally think it needs to be in the backcountry.

Bear Bag/Rope and Canister
If you’re fastpacking in bear country, you’ll have to store your food and scented items (sunscreen, toothpaste, the bowl you eat out of, your eating utensil, your cook pot if you’ve cooked food in it, used toilet paper and tampons, etc.) away from them when you aren’t supervising it all, like when you’re sleeping. Depending on where you’re headed, some areas have regulations dictating how you store your food. In other places, you’re open to using your preferred method. Some locations provide a bear food-storage locker or a place from which you can hang your food at backcountry campsites.

Danni Coffman (left), Amber Steed (center), and Dave Chenault at a designated campsite in Glacier National Park. Note food stuff sacks hanging in the background for proper bear food storage.

A bear getting into your food is extremely dangerous for that bear, for you, and any humans who encounter it in the future. Don’t eschew proper food storage for expedience or out of laziness, ever. This might seem like an obvious statement, but I have unfortunately seen dozens of examples of improperly stored food in my backcountry career, with the most recent being twice this past summer in one morning in Colorado’s Maroon Bells Wilderness.

If you have to provide you own bear food-storage container, the most lightweight way to store food away from a bear is in a stuff sack hanging from a tree branch (or from a rope suspended between two trees in some circumstances) with a rope. This is an awesome food-storage method but it takes time to find an appropriate tree and to hang the food properly from it, as the food can’t be too close to the tree trunk, too close to the ground, or too close to the branch it’s hanging from. It’s a very delicate geometry equation. In my opinion, a good, safe hang takes loads of practice, and your first fastpacking trip is not the place to try it. I recommend practicing while out playing in the woods at least a half-dozen times before you do it for real. Of note, there are some environments where there literally aren’t trees accommodating of an adequate hang.

Bear food-storage containers are plentifully available. I use those made by BearVault, mostly because they are clear and I can see into them from the sides. Further, they make two sizes, one that works for one person for about three or four days out and one that works for one person for about a week out. Not only are bear canisters bear (and other animal) proof, but they are also idiot proof. You simply shut your food and scented items inside, and leave it some distance from where you sleep. (Local regulations usually dictate how far away you need to keep your food from where you sleep.)

Of note, in some locations, you’ll have to store your food away from rodents. Follow local regulations for this, as sometimes it will involve hanging your food or storing it in a rodent-proof container.

Medical/Gear-Fix Stuff
Don’t spend your money on one of those $50 adventure first-aid kits. Here are the basics of you’ll need, which costs a couple bucks and which weighs about two ounces:

More valuable than the gear you bring are the skills you have. In my opinion, you shouldn’t go to the backcountry without certifications in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. I’d also recommend taking a wilderness first-aid class. In a class like this, experts will teach you how to use the above-listed gear, what you find in nature, and the other stuff in your pack in emergent situations.

While I’d prefer you learn some of these skills via a wilderness first-aid class and not from some woman on a website :), the above-mentioned stuff/skills can be used in innumerate ways. The duct tape, dental floss, and needle can be used for on-the-trail gear fixes like repairing a broken pack strap; patching a rip in a tarp, rain jacket, or pack; or patching a rip of a shoe’s upper or a separation of shoe’s sole and upper. I once fashioned a whole new sternum strap out of duct tape when mine ripped off the shoulder strap. Address blisters with the needle and alcohol pads. Use the athletic tape and duct tape to support a bad sprain or to help put together a field splint for someone with a possible broken bone. The gauze, some clothing from your pack, and the athletic tape can be used to compress a major bleed. I used this method once when a backpacking partner severely cut their hand at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Acetaminophen for fevers and pain, and Benadryl for an allergic reaction. I once saw CPR used to resuscitate a lightning-strike victim who wasn’t breathing. [Author’s Note: This paragraph was added on 12/26/14 to answer readers’ questions about how I do/would use my medical/gear-fix stuff.]

I carry the Derma Safe Folding Utility Knife. It’s a bonafied, upgraded razor blade that folds into a plastic storage compartment. This knife costs almost nothing, weighs about seven grams, and is super sharp. (Be careful!) It is not made for heavy-duty cutting, obviously, but it’s done everything I’ve needed it to in the backcountry, including making wood shavings from a stick for tinder.

Comms with the Outside World
There are plentiful options for satellite-based communication with the outside world, satellite phones, SPOT tracker, DeLorme InReach devices, and more for safety check ins and emergencies. If I carry one, I prefer a satellite phone. You can rent one at low cost and it allows you to communicate fully with the outside world.

Of course you can carry your smartphone if the area you’re headed to has cell service.

Of note, I recommend ONLY using your phone for safety check ins and in an emergency. Being disconnected in the wild is a true gift and rarity. Embrace it!

It doesn’t really matter what kind of camera you carry, but bring one as well as a spare battery. Document the awesomeness! If you’re bringing your phone, it can double as your camera, as well.

Clothing Selection

The author with typical clothing choices at sunrise while fastpacking the Tahoe Rim Trail.

The basis of your clothing selection is going to be running clothes. There’s an approximately 100% chance you won’t be moving as fast as a regular run because you’re running with weight on your pack, but you may very well be working pretty hard and generating body heat and sweat because of that weight. I generally fastpack in the same clothes I’d wear for a long run in that particular climate.

Your shirt selection is super critical. You don’t want big seams that rub between your pack and skin. Sometimes seams are unavoidable, so choose flat-locked seams where the loose, material ends are tucked in or choose a shirt whose seams are minimally constructed. You also want to wear a shirt that will cover the entire surface area of your pack. Fastpacking in a sports bra or a tank top where the pack is in contact with your skin: this might sound awesome from a cooling standpoint or attractive aesthetically, but I can virtually guarantee you’ll rub your skin raw if you do this for more than a short time.

Your bottoms selection–shorts, capris, whatever the weather calls for–should be your go-to, always-reliable bottoms that are tried and true over much running before your trip. Let me be frank here, you don’t want to deal with chafing of your balls, hoo ha, or inner thighs in the backcountry. It’s bad enough when it happens on a regular run and you have to do some painful first aid afterward. Having a problem like this for multiple days in the wilderness could mean true trouble.

I’ve personally taken to wearing compression shorts for multi-day fastpacking trips for two reasons. First, they keep the dirt out of the, er, sensitive bits. There’s just no avoiding getting filthy, so adding a clothing barrier between my sensitive bits and that dirt/sand/whatever is helpful. Secondly, compression shorts provide support for muscles that tire on a fastpacking trip.

At the risk of stating the obvious since you should be wearing something you regularly wear for long runs, both your running top and bottom should be made of your favorite moisture-wicking material.

Sports bras, underwear, and socks? I can’t emphasize enough that you should wear whatever works back at home for your long runs and races. TRY. NOTHING. NEW. WHEN. GOING. INTO. THE. BACKCOUNTRY.

The choices for what layers to add for insulation from the cold and other-weather protection are entirely dependent on your personal thermometer and the climate you’ll be trekking through.

I recommend bringing a full set of separate clothes for camp. If you’re putting umph into your fastpack, you’ll roll into camp every day sweaty. Almost always my first priority is getting out of my damp clothes and into something dry. Usually my camp clothes are a pair of running tights (I choose running tights so that I can actually run in my pants if the weather is cooler) and a long-sleeve wool shirt, its weight depending on how low the nightly temperatures will be.

For the women here, I strip out of everything, including my underwear and sports bra, to put on camp clothes. I usually bring one sports bra for a whole trip and one pair of underwear for every three days out. I like to get out of these in camp!

I almost always bring an ultralight puffy jacket. My personal thermometer runs a little reptilian, so basically the only place I DON’T bring a puffy is the Sahara Desert. For certain climates, your personal thermometer might not require a full-on puffy, but some sort of insulation–a thin Primaloft or similar jacket–will be critical for time in camp.

I recommend bringing a rain jacket and rain pants, even if the weather forecast is benign. If you’re going to be out for several days, there’s always the chance that the forecast could change. When it’s not raining, a waterproof layer can block the wind and hold in your body heat. Sometimes I bring an ultralight rain kit, like on a fastpacking trip through a desert climate where there’s no rain in the forecast. If I am fastpacking through mountain terrain where I anticipate being in an afternoon thunderstorm or another more extended weather event, I opt for a more solid rain kit. I may opt for a more solid rain kit if I anticipate wearing it through close encounters with rocks, brush, or anything that can rip my thinner ultralight gear, too. Finally, as discussed earlier, a rain kit is a life saver in mosquito country, for time in camp and occasionally time on the trail.

David Chenault evades mosquitoes with a headnet and rain jacket in Glacier National Park.

That’s my basic fastpacking clothing kit. If the weather is chilly, I might option in two shirts total for running, both a long-sleeve and a short-sleeve shirt for an extra layer. While I don’t personally love arm sleeves, here’s a spot where they could be very useful for those who do. Sometimes I option in an ultralight wind shirt; you know, one of those things that weighs under three ounces. It blocks wind and holds in body heat, which can be helpful in innumerate fastpacking situations.

Almost always I bring a BUFF, which is infinitely useful beyond head insulation. And a brimmed hat is crucial for sun protection. I’ll bring a full, warm hat and gloves if the weather calls for it. Also, I might option in waterproof gloves for extended weather events.


Like clothing, your shoes will be a matter of personal preference. Personal experience as well as time on the trail with others has shown me that people who wear shoes with at least some protection and stability in the rest of their trail running can generally wear the same shoes while fastpacking. However, those who normally run in minimalist or lightweight running shoes will have to get themselves comfortable with a bit more supportive/protective of a shoe in order to be comfortable while fastpacking for more than just a day or two.

Also, based upon personal experiments on fastpacking with and without rock plates in my shoes, I recommend fastpacking with a rock plate, as rocks jab up into the soles of your shoes a lot more when you’re landing with the extra weight of your pack. Side note, you can actually make homemade rock plates and install them under your shoe’s insoles. Test them amply before your trip.

More Tips for the Trail

Here are a few more tips for the trail that haven’t been covered elsewhere:

Bryon Powell fastpacking with the Osprey Talon 22 in Canyonlands National Park.

Camping in a protected batch of trees and on a durable surface in Utah’s Uinta Mountains.

Meghan Hicks’s Favorite Fastpacking Gear

I’ve mentioned loads of gear throughout this article that I call upon on my trips, mostly to help explain the features of the gear that are useful to me. Here I whittle down the best of the best that’s currently out there for fastpacking for me:

Call for Comments

I’d love to get a useful discussion going in the comments section of this article that improves the information available in this guide.

As we all have our own preferences and favorites, for those of you who have fastpacked before, share the gear and tips that have worked best for you.

For those of you who are new to fastpacking, feel free to ask questions!

Tags: Fastpacking
Meghan Hicks :is iRunFar.com's Managing Editor, the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,' and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.

View Comments (66)

  • Nice article Meghan. It's wonderful to see the trend of ultrarunners using their fitness to explore the mountains. I first came across the term "fastpacking" somewhere between 2005 or 2006 in a Trail Runner article and I immediately found the term for what my friends and I were doing in the Sierra. We didn't call ourselves lightweight backpackers, or spend time weighing our gear, we just knew our packs had to be light so we could RUN in the mountains. i loved covering huge amounts terrain in a weekend, and everyone I encountered was always encouraging. I loved it so much, I subsequently opened a shop directly influenced by my fastpacking trips. Because the term was so new, we spent time defining it, here you go. http://www.sagetosummit.com/fastpacking/.

    • Someone in a forum at backpackinglight.com who was spitting venom at the concept of 'fastpacking' in response to a forum link made there to this article made the following unfactual remark:

      "...Fastpacking is a great marketing term with little value. Label for labeling sake to make people feel better about how they do something." Curious, I did a little fact checking. Here's a quote from a backpackinglight.com article on the origin of the term "Fastpacking":

      “Fastpacking” was coined as a term by Jim Knight during a 1988 traverse of the Wind River Range with Bryce Thatcher. In a 1988 article in UltraRunning Magazine, Jim wrote, “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.” They completed the 100-mile traverse in just 38 hours.


      I guess it took a while for the term to stick and evolve as a 'marketable' sub-genre of ultra-running. Maybe we should "stop making distinctions where there are none ,drop the term and just call it for what it is": *ultra-running* (haha). (You'll have to read all the comments here to get that joke.)

  • Wow - you really got into it - good job Meghan! Gotta fill these long winter nights doing something!

    Really glad you're liking the Fastback 20 - I'm lovin' it - and you'll see more of the Fastback 30 when Andrew, Peter and I complete the Wind River High Route this coming July.

    However, even though I'm in the gear business, I've always been annoyed by the endless discussions on equipment in the sport of backpacking. From Backpacker Mag to Backpacking Light, all they talk about is equipment. It's really quite interesting, because (in my mind) the definition of a great piece of gear is you forget about it. It works so well you can't tell you have it on.

    I agree with Andrew when he identified "skills" as one of the keys, and also agreed with you that you just couldn't write any more and still fit it into this blog. Skills, experience, and judgement should be developed more than equipment, but I would identify "friends" as being even more important, because when I do trips with Andrew, Peter, and Jared, I can just blow off everything else and follow them!

    If I were to offer one totally brilliant ;-) word of advise for Backpacking/Fastpacking/Multidays, it would be this: Get out of bed early. If one does this, everything else becomes a lot safer, easier, and quicker.

    Maybe we'll do a trip sometime Meghan!

  • thank you, good article and an interesting discussion too..

    Aaron mentioned Mountain Laurel design, that's where I am planning to start shopping for UL gear that actually works. Visit those FB links too, it's always funny to watch the religious wars about backpacking gear ;-)

    I like camp comfort. As a young strong man would simply load myself and my friends up: figured it was all a good workout, ten miles off-trail with 50lbs is a better workout than the same with a mere 20lbs. Ha. Now that leaves me too tired to enjoy the camp.

    As a lighter and more versatile alternative to the Jetboil, the Snow Peak Gigapower with a titanium mug for a pot, has worked very well for me.

    A thimbleful of whisky in the hot chocolate makes it much better.

    Food is a perennial problem. For the last elk hunting trip, which has pre-dawn starts and keeps going until well after dark, I came up with two fast light high-calorie breakfasts:
    1. instant grits with parmesan and bacon bits crumbled in, plus powdered milk. Add water, quite a tasty slurry.
    2. quick oats (not the instant prepackaged sugar bomb ones, just plain unflavored) with dried cranberries, raisins, cherries, slivered almonds, plus powdered milk.
    (Note: no elk were harmed). http://dkretzmann.blogspot.com/2012/11/elk-fortre...

  • Meghan - thank you so much for this post. It's great to see so much information specific to run-hiking.

    I hiked the Vermont Long Trail this fall with the Osprey Talon 33 pack with two resupplies (4-5 days between). I found it largely impossible to run with the load I was carrying (20-21lbs including food and fuel but not water) - I could hike pretty efficiently with it, but the minute I hit runnable terrain and tried to let loose, the weight and bounce would drive me crazy. However, I have had good luck running with that pack on shorter trips (2-3 days) on less technical terrain, as well as run-commutes and errand runs. I'm still looking for a good packing solution for longer trips when I want the ability to run - so I appreciate some of the suggestions here.

    A couple of items that work well for me:
    -Aqua Mira drops for water purification. Nice small size and weight, and unlike chlorine tablets, you can customize the dosing for the size of your bottles (and it tastes less bad, in my experience).
    -Small water bottles on the front of my pack (on the shoulder straps) - help counterbalance the weight on my back.
    -A 1L collapsible platypus reservoir - helpful for dry camping, and makes an amazing hot water bottle to put in the sleeping bag. (just don't roll over on it)
    -"Almond joy" for dessert: homemade hot chocolate mix with cocoa, sugar, coconut milk powder, and ground toasted almonds (or a nut butter packet as Meghan suggests). Coconut milk powder is amazing - you can add it to lots of things (turn your tom yum ramen into tom kha, etc), and it's fattier than most powdered dairy milk.
    -Poncho for rain - mine doubled as the groundsheet in my tent (ZPacks Hexamid), and I loved the ventilation, and didn't mind the wet arms. I wore a rain skirt on the really rainy days and loved the ease of motion it allowed.

    That instant mashed potato breakfast sounds amazing. A very kind hiker gave me a packet of instant mashed potatoes on my last morning of the LT, and I thought "why have I been eating oatmeal all this time?!"

    Buzz is totally right about getting out of bed early. For some reason I found it so much more fun to hike in the pre-dawn hours than the post-sunset ones.

    • Triboro,

      Gold nuggets from your response, for me personally: coconut milk powder and your 'Almond Joy' dessert. I love coconut milk in the rest of life so I'm sure I'm going to love it on the trail. Thanks for sharing the rest of your thoughts, too.

  • Meghan - Thanks for this Christmas present. After seeing pictures of you and Bryon's multi-day adventures over the past couple of years, I have been very curious of your gear selections and approach to these outings. This is awesome to read coming from an ultrarrunner's perspective. Your detailed article was truly a delight to find under the "virtual christmas tree".

    The timing of this article was perfect as I had just finished Andrew Skurka's book on Christmas eve. It's amazing how similar this article read compared to his book. If anyone here really enjoyed Meghan's article and wants more detailed information, I HIGHLY recommend Skurka's book. It is very well put together and reads like a helpful resource guide: http://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Hikers-Gear-Guide-...

    All though there may be subtle differences from a runner's perspective vs. a light backpacker's perspective you both nailed the 3 most important items:
    1. You need Skills
    2. You need the Right Gear
    3. You need CHOCOLATE!!!!!

    • Matt,

      Wow, I'm so stoked that an expert like you took the time to stop by and leave us your pack design. Right on and thanks!

  • It seems to me that fastpacking is what came from what Adventure Racers needed to do on there hiking legs.
    You don't want to hike, you want to run, but still have to carry a lot of gear with you.
    What came from the teams pairing down everything to be able to run more efficiently is when fastpacking (to me) was born.
    That was 15-20 years ago.
    Now ultra runners are trying to have there say in it what it is and after fastpacking for over 10 years now, it makes no sense to me anymore.
    I've been out helping others on some JMT attempts where they are carrying 8-11 pounds for the day and doing 60 miles that day. By all means they only have a regular larger size running pack on, but they are able to run at that weight.
    If you're able to get your gear nice and light with the overnight gear and still have a pack you can run with, isn't that when you be considered to be fastpacking?

  • Now that is a thorough workup, Meghan! Just saw Matt's comment and I have to mention that I fastpacked a bunch last summer with his sub60 pack and it is hands down the best, lightest pack I have ever used. It is innovative, highly functional, superlight, and downright brilliant.

    I also wanted to let you know that National Geographic makes a line of dehydrated meals (Live Prepared line) that are tasty and very reasonably priced. Something like 1200-1400 calories for around $7. The only place I've seen them is at Walmart and not even all of those but if you can find them they are a great economical lightweight choice. They also have a high fat content which is a plus in my book.

  • This was an interesting article, thanks for posting. As someone who has thru-hiked both the Continental Divide Trail and Appalachian Trail, there is a lot of directly applicable knowledge from the thru-hiking community concerning this topic. Super ultralight setups have been discussed at length on sites such as backpackinglight.com and whiteblaze.net. I would encourage anyone who would like more info on light gear to visit these sites. There are a ton of independent gear makers that tailor to just this idea - going light and fast, such as Zpacks.

    A couple of things I'd like to add about fastpacking/backpacking light/ whatever you want to call it:

    I switched from Aqura Mira to just using an eye drop bottle with bleach in it. 1-2 drops per liter of water will do the trick. Wait 30 min before drinking.

    I would also consider getting a large waterproof stuff sack (i have used sea to summit evac drysack, zpacks also has a cuben fiber version that is lighter) that rolls over to compress. It will keep your down bag/ clothes dry and compress everything to reduce volume.

    Personal prefference, but I would forgo cooking and just eat dry food or stuff you can hydrate with cold water (like mashed potatoes as stated in the article). Some people have a hard time with this but I didn't cook on the CDT and it worked out really well.

    Anyway, Happy trails everyone!

    • The CDC advises against the use of "chlorine" (bleach) to treat backcountry water as it is ineffective against cryptosporidium protozoa and only has a low to moderate effect on giardia cysts. Chlorine dioxide (Aquamira) is effective against giardia but only has a low to moderate effect against cryptosporidium.


      I initially liked the idea of bleach. It's light weight, cheap and widely available. I know Matt Kirk used it successfully on his AT record attempt. But he got lucky with his water. Probabilities have a way of catching up with a large population of samples in the long run. And the 'house' always wins in the long run.

      It's a cr*p shoot...quite literally. ; )

      You're safer with Aquamira, but I would recommend carrying a 2 oz Sawyer filter (along with the 1 oz syringe, if you plan to be filtering a substantial amount of water). Cheaper than a backwoods helicopter rescue and transit to an ER, and only 2-1/2 ounces more than a half ounce eyedropper bottle of bleach.

      Helicopter transit: $1000 per hour
      Emergency Room visit: $3000
      Rescue search services: $30,000

      The look on your face when you get the bill in the mail: PRICELESS

      Good sense--somethings money just can't buy.
      For everything else, there's MasterCard.

  • As a complete newbie to fast packing/SUL/etc this was, I think, one of the most informative articles I've found on the net so far. I haven't hiked or trekked for a long long while, kids, work etc.. In fact in the interim I've got in to ultra and mountain running. This year my partner and I would like to get back in to hiking and are coming at it from a running perspective. In the past we've very much been heavy weight hikers, but over the years realised the errors of our ways and are looking to radically decrease pack size and weight and embark on a few week long trips. Unfortunately for us we live a long way from any specialist store and as such will have to take a bit of a chance on ordering gear over the internet, my main concern is the pack - I like race vests for ultras but think the lack of a hipbelt on some of the larger UD packs may be a problem... Am I right in thinking this? I've also got my eyes on the SMD flight 30 has anyone had any experience with this pack, reviews are a little scarce. Thanks again for a great article Meghan, really looking forward to hitting the trail this summer!

  • I missed this cool article while I was backpacking the length of NZ's South Island. Anyway, a few of us have been discussing fastpacking over at backpackinglight.com: http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpacki...
    Particularly, what is "fastpacking"? Is it just backpacking with some running? I say no. The term fastpacking was first used by Jim Knight in an article he wrote for UltraRunning Magazine in 1988 about a 38-hour, 100-mile traverse of the Wind River Range with UD founder Bryce Thatcher. Knight didn’t explicitly define the term, but gave a good sense of it: “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.” Later, Knight used the same techniques to complete the 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT), from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley, in just four and a half days. To me, as Jim implies, fastpacking means that your focus is to cover whatever route you have set for yourself as quickly as possible, and you use the best techniques and equipment to that purpose. This definition makes no distinction between running and walking - the distinction is in your goals, your methods follow from your goals. Fastpacking is different from backpacking because your objective in fastpacking is to get it done as fast as possible.

  • Hello Meghan,

    I have been having a blast lately doing some smaller fast trips. This has me very interested in trying out a self supported stage race.

    It seems like fastpacking would be a great training/testing ground for a stage race, and that much of the kit would cross over well. I was curious to know if you use your Jetboil during a race like the MDS, or is that way to much weight and luxury to be competitive? If not, how do you prepare dehydrated meals during an event like MDS? I would assume there are many other subtle differences as well ex:sleeping pad, pack of cards.

    I have found that I prefer to spend as much time on my feet moving as possible while out on a trip. Therefore I am always looking for ways to be more efficient with my time. Currently I am trying to get a better balance of efficiency/weight/pack-space in regards to food and water and all things related.

    Thank you for your time and sharing your experiences,


    • Andrew,

      Thanks for reading! Yes, you are right that there is great crossover for gear, training, and racing with fastpacking and self-supported stage races. However, with self-supported stage races, I travel with a very, very minimal kit, no stove or anything, and with fastpacking, my kit is light but I carry extra things so that I can fully take care of myself in really remote settings. Many dehydrated backpacking meals just need water for rehydrating, not hot water. So, in stage races, I don't bring a stove. :) That makes my pack a lot lighter. I often don't carry a sleeping pad in both stage races and fastpacking, but that's definitely an acquired taste. I've put in enough nights sleeping outside on hard ground over the years that I can get a good night sleep even without padding. Sleep is so important for recovery in both fastpacking and stage racing that I recommend a little padding for those who will sleep better with one. Fastpacking makes excellent base training for stage racing, for me, but during a stage race, I'm running quite a bit faster than I am while fastpacking. Fastpacking also makes a great environment for testing gear/food/details for an upcoming stage race. I hope these couple details help. Good luck to you in your adventures!

  • Thank you Very much!

    It is deffinetly helpful to hear from people with so much experience.

  • The setup we've been using, with great success, is a mosquito net, hung from a tree, anchored with Thermarest Z-lite Sol sleeping pads (single or double for each as applicable). We bring along a Sol emergency blanket as ground covering (and added warmth) as well as a lightweight tarp in the event of rain. Pair that with a down, two-person quilt and you're good to go.

  • Meghan,

    I've been contemplating a headlamp purchase for fastpacking on the AT. My intention is to use it for many hours of running during the night on multiple night adventures. I could use some advice on your experience with headlamps.

    I've narrowed my choices down to a Zebralight H52w-NW, an H32w-NW or the Olight H1N-NW using the higher capacity lithium primaries. They all have plenty enough throw and intensity in the high modes for finding that missing white blaze off in the distance, and have economically appealing low settings for fetching water, reading maps/data and operating in camp.

    I guess what it has come down to for me is how much light is ideal for running at night while minimizing battery weight for an extended trip. I'd much rather run with a medium setting than a medium-high if I can get away with it, but I wonder if the 50 lm you get with the Zebralight models I mentioned is inadequate. The next option up is around 100-108 lm, which some trail runners seem to like, but seems sort of overkill to me. The Olight has 60 lm for medium, but the next option up for it is 180, a number that makes my back ache thinking about it. If I found the 60 isn't enough, the light would be a mistake in my opinion. Also, it's relatively new in production, so I'm not sure how much I can trust it out in the middle of nowhere.

    Do you do much if any night trail running with your CR123 Zebralight? If so, what lumen setting do you tend to keep it on most of the time for night running?

    • FM,

      I have run in a number of different settings and speeds with the CR123 Zebralight (neutral coloring for me), and have found light requirements variable with openness of vegetation, running speed, and technicality of substrate.

      In open, dry terrain with less technicality, and when running slower (fastpacking and similar) speeds, I require one of the two medium-level settings. Running in more closed-in vegetation, curvy and technical singletrack, I'll use the two higher-level settings.

      For instance, in 2015, I ran for about five hours at night at the Marathon des Sables, which has open terrain and is pretty nontechnical, using the medium-level settings. I can remember clicking up to the higher setting once in a while to spot a marker or see down some rocks or find the right line over a sand dune.

      And, just a couple weeks ago, I ran the first 90 minutes of a 50-mile race in wet rainforest with curvy but not technical singletrack at the lower sublevel of the high setting. I would have felt more comfortable if I could have used the higher sublevel but knew I needed to get at least 90 minutes out of the battery (and didn't want to change batteries in a race). I definitely would not have felt comfortable running 9-minute miles on that terrain with the medium-level settings.

      I should also add that my night vision is poor compared to my day vision. I should also add that it's a lot easier for me to use smaller output flashlights when I'm not around other people and their headlamps--just one lamp and my eyes adapt.

      I honestly have no idea if I'd take the CR123 Zebralight if I was planning to run regularly at night on an extended AT trip. I don't think I'd hesitate using it if my night travel was mostly fast walking, though.

      Hope this helps a little. Thanks for the comment!

      • Meghan,

        Mystery expanded...or not.

        It seems ZebraLight sold an ancient version of their 'straight shooter' configuration CR123 battery flashlights with a headband...the SC30 and SC31. I'd venture a guess you have the SC31 model (circa 2011) in either the 'w' or 'c' or 'Fw' version. (Picture Johnny Carson from the original Tonite Show in his swami get up reading letters still enclosed in their envelopes). I can't seem to make out if the lens is clear or frosty....the vision is too cloudy. (Pun intended).

        If I'm correct, I've narrowed down the 4 highest lumen setting possibilities from 7 to 3 variants:

        SC31w 189/103/37/21 lm
        SC31c 161/87/32/17 lm

        and the floody neutral white version:

        SC31Fw 180/98/35/20 lm

        I didn't realize how much of a pair of busy bees you and Bryon are, off interviewing famous runners, writing magazine articles and books, running marathons, often in the farest away of places, even winning an international title! (Congratulations on your 2013 MDS, by the way.)

        So obviously it might take a while for you to get back to me. That's okay. I'll check back every now and then to see if you've left an answer.


        • FM,

          I'm traveling right now (and for the next couple months :), and the paperwork and box for my Zebralight are at home. I may not be able to fully answer your questions, I'm afraid. I know I bought the light in early 2013 ahead of the early April Marathon des Sables, and I *believe* it's an H51w model. If I recall correctly, the highest 'high' setting is something like 170 lumens, and the higher 'medium' setting is 30-ish lumens. There are definitely only 2 medium settings. I honestly can't recall the lower setting(s) at the moment. An 80-degree spill/11 degree hotspot *sounds* just about right, but I can't verify.

          I do have the light with me traveling (I'm planning to use it at during the last hour of a race I'm running in a few weeks where we have mandatory kit and I'm trying to minimize the weight of it). I'll take a chance that the email you've been commenting with is one you can check so you can see it, too. A quick Google Image search makes it look like a match to the H51w in a couple little details, but I'll let you nerd ;) out on it.

          • You mean that's *not* a ZL in that pack pocket? Oh my, my psychiatrist is going to have a field day with this. That pleasure yacht he's been eyeballing has finally stepped out of his dreams and into his life. No more psychosis inducing cool white tint for me.

          • AHA. That is the H51w! I misunderstood what you said about using a CR123.

            So for those of you who came here to read this long boring thread, trying to learn something about how much light is needed for trail running at night according to an experienced, accomplished and decorated trail runner, the context of the medium and high settings Meghan was using under the various circumstances she described above is the following:

            Zebralight H51w headlamp (using a AA battery)

            H1:172 lm H2: 86lm
            M1: 26 lm M2: 7lm

            Those are the values of light mentioned in her response to me.

            See, there is closure. No need to commit harikari. Life is good.

          • Meghan,

            The H51w is a AA headlamp with a right angled emitter. The H31w is also right angled, but uses a CR123 like you mentioned using. It's the fatter, shorter, cuter version of this style of lamp.

            Here's the thing that was throwing me. I was looking for a photo online of you possibly wearing it during or after one of your marathons (then I could go away, and you could grow back the hair you pulled out). The search wasn't that complicated. Unfortunately, the one I found had it in the left pocket of your race vest, mostly obscured:

            http://kim.today/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/meghanhicks.jpg .

            The back end was sticking out, the part with the cap. There was a hole for a screw where the clip attaches. That design only exists on the straight shooter flashlights (like a traditional hand held), and since you said you used a CR123 battery, I had to conclude it was an SC31w. (or maybe I was just hallucinating and seeing olive green flashlights where no flashlights exist, you know, PTSD psychosis from using cool white headlamps for long hours on the trail at night).

            Anyway, I see you're sending a pic of the light to my email. I will definitely 'nerd out' on it, haha. : p I have an engineering degree, so I tend to see everything in numbers. That facet of me probably drives people batty. In fact I know it drives people batty.

            Sorry to burden you with this. Know that I deeply appreciate the time you spent helping me see trail running at night through the eyes of your experience. And thank you for the above article on fast packing. I find it all so fascinating.

          • FM,

            Well, I can see now that you being driven batty is partly my fault! I am just looking at my Zebralight, what I've written in this article and comments, and see how I've confused you (and myself). The Zebralight I use operates on AA batteries, all along I've been writing you about CR123 batteries, and I'm not sure why. I'm so very sorry!

            Side note, well done on the internet stalking with that photo ;), but the object you're looking at is actually part of a gray fleece glove that's sticking out of my pocket in that photo, rather than a Zebralight. I didn't have a Zebralight in my pack on that outing. :) I once saw a photo of me with the Zebralight in action from someone else, somewhere on the internet, but a quick search and I can't find it at the moment.

      • How many lumens your light produces in each mode depends on the model number. If you know the model number of your zebralight CR123 headlamp, as you can see from the wide variability of the data, it would help me tremendously.

        The 4 highest settings for each of the 4 warm versions of the H31 are:

        H31w 189/103/37/21 (80degree spill / 11degree hot spot)
        H31Fw 180/ 98/35/20 (90degree flood)
        H31c 140/ 80/30/16 (80degree spill / 11degree hot spot)
        H31Fc 130/ 76/28/15 (90 degree flood)

        F is the frosty lens version that turns the spot into a flood
        w is the neutral white (warm)
        c is an even warmer white

      • Meghan,

        Just to be sure we are on the same page, do you have the Zebralight H32w model or the older H31c model? The mode/lumen profiles for each are substantially different, and i had originally assumed we were both referring to the current H32w model. But then rereading your comment, I noticed you said "one of the two medium level settings", which now leads me to believe you have the H31c, as this older model has only TWO medium settings (roughly about 40 and 22 lm), whereas the newer H32w model has THREE settings (exactly 50, 22 and 8.5 lm). Knowing your specific model number will clarify the lumen intensity of the various high and medium settings you referred to.

      • Mehgan,

        The carefulness of thought and detail in your descriptions was incredibly 'illuminating'. My retinas have been thoroughly burned!

        I don't think I have to worry about any 9 minute miles on the AT with an average 13 lb carry, especially at my age, unless of course inadvertently stepping off a rock outcrop.

        I'm leaning to the H32w right now because of your input, but I'm holding out for the specs on the soon to be released H53c. If the setting options are anything like the preorder SC5c MkII Zebralight (79 and 40 lm medium-high settings) with the same advanced LED and reflector configuration, better CRI and ability to get to the high mode without needing a lithium-ion battery, not to mention the lower price, I think it will remove any remaining doubt.

        Thanks for your help!

    • I'm not Meghan, but if you're looking in the 50-lumen headlamp range, the newly upgraded Petzl e+Lite might be a good option. It's up to 50 lumen now and runs on two super-light CR2032 batteries. I ran the Marathon des Sables night stage with the original 25-lumen version back in 2009 and it was fine... but not as rocky/rooty as the AT. There are some long adventures on which I'd be more than fine making this my primary headlamp.

      • Thanks for the response, Bryon.

        I remember looking at this lamp when it first debuted many years ago. It's certainly improved with technology. Compared to the lamps I'm looking at, the kit is half the weight with extra batteries (amazing in itself) and half the initial cost (I'm smiling) but twice as costly to run. 50 lm and low weight really grabbed my attention, though!

        Unfortunately, I can see from the absence of a reflector and the shallow depth of the emitter that the e+Lite is a flood lamp. That means the intensity is spread thin in a wide angle and has no throw for distant objects. I had considered the Zebralight H502w-NW which is also flood and decided against it after looking at numerous photos of beam shots. I liked the pleasant evenness of the light, but it didn't seem to me to have enough throw at 50 lm to allow me to anticipate frequent obstacles or help me find distant white blazes, even at higher intensities, when it seems I've lost my way.

        Also, I'm trying to move away from lamps with cool white tint like the e+Lite. Neutral white to me is just so much more pleasant and soothing. Cool white seems to wash out color and make me feel anxious. I remember my first experience night hiking on the AT with that kind of light and 'hallucinating' that there was dark grey wet cement everywhere I looked.

        I'm afraid that it's not going to work for me. I did however have a fascinating time looking over the upgraded e+Lite. Thank you for calling my attention to it!

  • great article. interesting discussion.

    i'm a longtime UL backpacker/hammocker. my base weight is around 7 lbs. i also have an extensive background in road racing and multisports. i'm 53 now, and got the racing out of my system. i backpack all the time, including group leads.

    i just came across the term "fastpacking". after reading the article, i came to the conclusion that the "kit" described was pretty much my kit.

    politically, i fall into the skurka way of thinking. many, if not all the items/concepts discussed have been thoroughly vetted in the backpacking world, where the goals are synonymous if not identical to fastpacking.

    i saw someone mention being able to run a trail for 10+ miles. I'D LOVE TO SEE THAT TRAIL! in arkansas the ozarks and ouachitas simply won't allow that. when i'm not leading groups i average 3mph on my trips. this speed, as lame as it might appear here, is FLYING compared to many other hikers.

    UL packs are the rage right now. cuben fiber is the lite/strong holy grail at the moment. but the problem with these pack designs is, THEY SUCK. they are MOST uncomfortable. here's the pack problem as i see it, and ferreting it out is what caused me to stumble serendipitously upon this article:

    the lighter packs forego frames and hip supports, thereby plowing all the weight into the shoulders. however, they are still designed with strapping systems carried over from packs with frames and/or hip systems. this is fatal.

    looking for a solution led me to Ultimate Direction bags. if fastpacking has contributed anything to the backpacking world [and the two really are the same], then the shouldering system is IT!

    i haven't tried one of these bags but i will.

    my main bag for the last 10 or so years is the ULA ohm. it clocks in a 2 lbs. i have smaller and lighter bags, but the OHM is best for me most of the time. but, i'd like less "bag" and thus, the quest...

    thinking while i'm typing this, it occurs to me that fastpacking is backpacking without sleeping.

    cheers, everyone...cg-

  • I have been ultra running for about 8 yrs now, distances from 50k to 100mi, i am a mid pack 53 yr old. I did my first backpacking/fastpacking trip this week along the AT, completing Shenandoah National Park in 4 1/2 days. Awesome experience.

    I got most of my info from this article. Thanks SOOO much.
    Along the lines of Chuck's previous post. I used the UD Fastpack 25. Came in at 21lbs with food for 4 days, water etc.
    Ended up more hiking fast 20 min/mile while moving. Couldn't go any faster for any period of time because the
    1. Shoulder straps were uncomfortable
    2. Pack bounced a bit much for long term "fast packing"
    3. Ended up with chafing from the mesh on shoulder blades and lower back. Not awful but uncomfortable enough to have to cover w KT tape.
    4. I sewed padded shoulder straps from an older pack inside the UD's, but still not wide enough to cover the whole width of the strap.

    any suggestions on modifications of the pack when full for optimum comfort and moving fast.
    I think its great for loads of about 15 lbs or less.

    Happy Trails,
    Mark Leventer

    • Hi Mark,

      I'm guessing your food for this 100 mile trip came to around 10 lbs, maybe a little more if it had minimal water content. To get pack down from 21 to 15, the comfort point, you have to burn through 6 lbs of it, about 60% of the way through. Until then, I would have used a pair of my cushy socks folded under the straps, then used that pair on my feet for the next 40%.

      Now that you're back, consider getting a thin roll of closed cell foam sleeping pad and cutting them to size. You can vent them with holes and wrap them in performance shirt material to carry sweat to the topside for evaporation.

      You might also still be able to get your gear weight down to 6 lbs--some can get it down to 5 but I think that's sacrificing a lot of comfort and increasing safety risk. I also try to keep my packs below 18 lbs and trip length down to three days. If longer, I arrange for a mail drop or resupplying at certain points. SNP has several along the trail stores you can resupply at. I don't worry about the kinds of foods they stock...as long as they carry Snickers, I'm good! Eat like a humming bird, fly like a butterfly. Otherwise prepare to blow the tanks.

      Bounce is due to the ballistic nature of a running gait. We tend to walk up to 4-4.3 mph, then shift to a running gait starting at about 4.4-4.7 mph. Because fastpacking is running with a load, usually on difficult terrain, and also in your case, up inclines, the only place you might expect to need the higher efficiency in a running gait is when assisted by gravity going down hill and when your pack is close to empty. Most other times, a fast walk with no bounce is sufficient and more economical, especially in consideration of wanting to keep your heart rate close to an aerobic 65-70%MHR to minimize muscle dissolving lactic acid during your long term trips--otherwise expect to populate Sore City. Weak muscles can invite instability creating falls and increase the chance of tendon injury since more of the load will be transported through them when muscles aren't 100%.

      Bounce is also a function of mass and torque. Try to keep denser items like water close to your back while placing lighter items to the outside of the pack. You might consider using auxiliary front packs to bring all that weight closer to your body, both balancing your center of gravity and reducing the torquing action of mass father from your body center.

      Hope that helps.

      • thanks much,
        that was exactly my experience. and, its nice to know i am within the realm of normal. next up is the vermont section in september. i like the light and fast motto.

        • If you're passing by Killington, VT on the AT (right turn northbound), about a mile up the road there's a PO and a convenience store with a short order cook who makes hot sandwiches to die for. (Three ice cream sandwiches and a smorgasbord of Oreaos and candy bars was almost enough!) You could use those facts to your pack-weight advantage. Make sure the PO is still in operation before you go. There's been cutbacks at the USPS, both to hours and facilities.

          If you access VT from North Adams, Mass. (A likely starting point if you're desiring to cover the whole state), the AT access is tricky. Turn north off Massachusetts Ave and stay on a north heading even as it leads you up the driveway of a residence. Do not follow the road as it bends to the WNW.

          I'm sorry I wasn't able to help you with the specifics of the pack. I hope you'll return to check for any assistance the author of the article or the site blogger can provide on that.

          If all else fails, consider moving some of the weight off your shoulders and onto your hips with a fanny pack. Inov8 makes some very light weight units. I'm contemplating moving my 2L Geigerig bladder into a fanny pack and using a runners pack up top in conjunction with a front pack attached to its straps. Overloaded straps bite! I do get that.

          Good luck!

  • What a fantastic informative article Meghan. It's funny to have found the term fastpacking as my friend and I have been doing just this over here in New Zealand but we coined it "journey running"! Whatever the term, the freedom of running somewhere new in a self-supported way brings such a huge joy and sense of fulfillment. We love to explore but have limited time as busy working Mums and by running our journey we can see more, sweat more and laugh more than straight hiking.

    Thanks for the great tips on gear choice. We've certainly learnt a lot by trial and error but your article will help with planning our next journey.

  • I've read so much of your writing and even mimicked your TRT adventure but somehow I missed this excellent post. I recently spent ten days on the JMT and can attest to the wisdom you shared in the article. In case you're still tracking comments, I have one suggestion and one question.

    1. From a first aid perspective I would suggest bringing more gauze and medical tape than you describe. I had to care for a friend's wound this summer and it took multiple dressings before we could get him to the ER. Clothing scraps could have been an option if necessary, but much easier to pack a few extra squares of gauze and a full roll of tape, just in case.

    2. I don't bring a truly waterproof jacket in the backcountry (usually bring my Patagonia Houdini) and this summer I regretted that decision during one particularly unpleasant thunderstorm. Before my next multi day trip I'm determined to buy an ultralight waterproof jacket. Any suggestions?

    • Adam,

      Update: It appears Gore-Tex makes a new outer fabric shell that allegedly has a permanent beading capability that doesn't wet out. You might want to look into it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ttvyr2FVujc . This is new to me, so I don't know anything about prices or weight or how grease or dirt affects performance. Looks like there are a already few reviews posted on yourtube as well.

    • Adam,

      Once the DWR/fabric of a breathable Gortex type jacket "wets out", you lose the breatheability afforded by the expensive membrane, even if it is still working to keep rain out.. At that point, you might as well be wearing a $200 Hefty trash bag. If you are a fastpacker, you want some ventilation to carry heat away, and the poncho stands off the body to allow some circulation. Otherwise, you'll be soaked underneath anyway from trapped heat that causes excess sweating.

      I had a hooded Golite poncho tent, 7.5 oz, that I would gather up and tie at my waist so I could run with it. I liked the weight saving facet that it could also serve as a tent when combined with one or two trekking poles and a few feet of cord. I seem to have misplaced it since my last trip if not altogether lost it on the trail. Probably would have been a great tarp for my new Hummingbird Hammock.

      Unfortunately, Golite went out of business last I heard, but I've seen some vendors selling something similar for around $80.

      The best option for breatheabiity is a trekking umbrella (8oz or less). Works best in summer heat during intermittent summer showers that make even ponchos miserable. But best to slow down to a power hike and not run, or you could find yourself landing on it in a slip.

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