Backpacking

Backpacking is easy. All you do is figure out every single piece of food, clothing, and equipment you might need in order to live in an environment and lifestyle entirely unlike your daily life at home, then pack it all into a backpack and head off into the unknown. No pressure there! If you get nervous or overwhelmed, just think that once you’re backpacking, you’ll have the bright sunlight and fresh air to brush all that excess stress off your shoulders. Of course, you’re trading all that metaphorical weight for a very literal one–backpacks are really heavy. But you’re outside and living with nature! Life is easy when it’s close to nature.

It’s also cold. And hot. And not actually very easy at all. The sun can be fierce and the nights brutal. Cooking is a totally different animal than in a normal kitchen, and cleanup becomes a running joke. Each mile hiked requires a lot more energy than normal, due to the backpacks, but don’t worry: they’ll get marginally lighter as your food supply runs low in the middle of the wilderness. Indeed, it’s hard not to relate to those runners who brag that they routinely run in a day routes that take backpackers up to a week. The freedom and agility of mountain running can seem particularly alluring when you’re loaded down with a big backpack full of gear.

The thing about runners who say that stuff, though, is that they’re elitist pricks. I’ve said something along those lines maybe three times in my life, and every time afterward have felt like a total loser. To be fair, I’m certainly proud of my ability to run far, but it doesn’t mean running is better than backpacking. It’s not like most of those backpackers couldn’t do the kind of running I do. A lot of them, in fact, are probably out there in such style for a specific reason. While I may be able to run long distances in just a few hours, in the evenings while I’m back home checking my Instagram account, the backpackers are still out in the wilderness, doing… something. What are they doing? What am I missing out on?

So I went backpacking. Last week P and I drove to the desert and spent a few days hiking and camping. We took big packs (for runners) because it’s winter, and we brought just enough equipment to be comfortable without excessive: stoves, spices, knife, lighter, tent, sleeping bags, and pads. I brought a book and a journal but didn’t bring them out the whole time. The rest was food and clothing. I quickly found that the reason I thought backpacking was as I described it above was because I sucked at backpacking. People who know what they’re doing have their routines down to a science and move through each step with practiced exaction. P and I quickly picked up several tricks that made life a whole lot easier: put the heaviest things as far down in the pack as possible; the hardest part of a whisperlight stove is simmering; on cold nights, layers are a good idea even in sleeping bags; a little water can go a long way when cleaning dishes; and never forget hand sanitizer (we did.) By the end of our short trip we had pretty well mastered the daily tasks associated with making camp life comfortable.

Backpackers envy runners only for their lightness. But backpackers could never be truly as light as runners without being forced to return home at night as well. So the goal must be to go as light as possible while still maintaining a backpacking style. This, I believe, is called fastpacking, if you need to differentiate between two ways of doing the same thing. The goal is to move fast and far, but to still make your home out of what you carry each day. This kind of activity will not cultivate the fitness required to win races, but the concept of racing is anathema to the purposes of spending time in wilderness. Fastpacking can be racing, but not always. Fastpacking is a backpacker’s attempt to bridge the gap between running and backpacking; it sacrifices certain comforts but still allows for the possibility of overnight trips. It’s backpacking lightened, or running extended.

The hard parts of my very-much-backpacking-not-fastpacking trip last week were the times between when we had things to do, like when we were done hiking and had eaten dinner and washed up. Then we had simply the sky and the canyon walls and the fire to look at, and this was harder than I expected. The earth and the air hung with a sort of emptiness that felt eternal and to which I am not accustomed. I couldn’t describe why. I can only describe the things that made me feel this way. The darkening evening sky and encroaching cold. The wavering fire and pure silence broken only by the occasional birdsong or tree branch. The stars seemed disconnected and lonely. I’m supposed to be comfortable in the wilderness. I want to be at home among the silence and the rocks. But I was distressingly out of place in that environment. My mind is attuned to distractions and the lack of activity was difficult to come to terms with. I realized that aside from a three-week trip climbing in Alaska two years ago, I haven’t really backpacked at all since I took an Outward Bound course in 2007. I’ve been a runner ever since high school, and the runner’s style is generally to be home by nightfall. But nightfall means really engaging with an environment, and it makes different demands on a person’s psyche which I wasn’t used to. I was almost afraid of it.

Afterward, of course, now that I’m not backpacking anymore, I’m proud of being down there and going through what I did. I feel it was good for me and I grew some as a person, but I don’t know if anything really changed. I’m back to looking at my Instagram account and the only difference now, really, is a new subtle relief at being home each evening. A relief tinged with regret, though. I guess the only thing I can really say for sure is that the people who brag about running whole backpacking trips in a single day are not so much elitist pricks as they are simply ignorant. To brag about missing out on such a meaningful experience is a shame, and I’m ashamed of myself for being among them.

But then I get all worked up about what really constitutes a valuable experience, and I think the only thing that really makes sense is that a truly valuable experience is not recognized until a long time after. Too often I try to take in the moment only to realize that instead of having an experience, I’m experiencing myself having an experience. And that one step farther away from the reality of an experience separates me as fully from the world as a house does from the cold at night. Yet I know I wouldn’t be able to have these thoughts while my mind were split by distractions, so I must be on the right path. But my backpack still weighs me down.

P.S. Outward Bound was the greatest thing that happened to me as a teenager, and you should all send your kids on their courses.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you backpack? What similarities and differences do you find between trail running and backpacking?
  • As Dakota said, backpacking allows you to not only get out but stay out, for a night or many more. How does that change the way you interact with and relate to the natural world?

There are 20 comments

  1. bmayberry

    A few thoughts, as they come:
    -Fastpacking is not "a backpacker’s attempt to bridge the gap between running and backpacking", it's what runners who don't backpack call backpacking. If you want to sound like an elitist prick, try telling other backpackers at some remote backcountry location that "Oh, no, I'm not backpacking. I'm fastpacking. Because I'm going fast."

    -Backpacking routes provide awesome inspiration for adventure runs! Runners venturing into the backcountry is a relatively niche and new occurrence but backpackers have been roaming the hills and canyons for decades, if not longer, and have long since found the best routes through them. Listen to them. Buy a backpacking guidebook. Yes, bragging about leaping tall buildings and running whole backpacking routes in a single day makes you sound like a prick. So does bragging about most any other thing that you've done. All of this doesn't mean that running backpacking routes in a day makes you an elitist prick. Dakota later switches to simply calling these runners ignorant, not pricks, but still seems to cast aspersions on those who run backpacking routes.

    -Speaking of ignorance, why is the guy who admits this is his first backpacking trip since one other one in 2007 writing an article about backpacking?

    -Outward Bound and similar programs are indeed awesome.

    1. wMichaelOwen

      ….quite critical! This is Dakota's column and he is writing about his experience backpacking from a runners perspective. No need to question why he is writing about backpacking.

      You seem to be saying Backpacking and Fastpacking are basically the same activity, by saying it is just what runners who don't backpack call backpacking?? Why can there not be a separate category or name to Fastpacking and Backpacking? That would be like saying everything should be called "Running" and that it would be offending someone by saying "Trail Running" or "Road Running."

      1. bmayberry

        He's using one recent backpacking trip to establish himself as some kind of moral authority who can judge other runners for their shameful and ignorant ways. Dakota has shown talent and promise as a writer; he deserves compliments for his hits and criticism for his misses. This is the latter. Shamelessly brown nosing him because he runs real fast doesn't do anyone any good.

        Re: "trail running vs road running" – that's a false analogy that doesn't support the need to differentiate "fastpacking" and backpacking. Road and trail running are easily differentiated by the gear and skills needed for each. A so-called "fastpacker" uses the same gear and skills as a backpacker but, I don't know, runs one mile of downhill out of a 15 mile day… or something.. it's not totally clear.

          1. Meghan Hicks

            bmayberry and Michael,

            Maybe how a person defines backpacking versus fastpacking, or not differentiating the two at all, is a bit of a personal preference? I spend a couple dozen nights each year ‘backpacking’ or ‘fastpacking.’ I was a backpacker for about 10 years before I knew what trail running was, and took up what I call fastpacking a couple years after learning about trail running. When I go ‘backpacking’ and ‘fastpacking,’ at least to me, I’m doing two very different things. When I backpack, I only hike. Sometimes I hike leisurely, sometimes I powerhike hard. Because I am hiking, I allow myself to take some luxuries like a sleeping pad, adequate calories, often some alcohol, maybe even a book, a couple spare pairs of underwear and socks. When I fastpack, I aim to run as much of the terrain as I can. And because I intend to run, I shrink my pack as much as I am able, using ultralight gear and no creature comforts, so my pack is as light as possible. I realize that there are backpackers who use the same ultralight gear I do for fastpacking (sometimes I use ultralight gear for backpacking, too, especially if I’m going on a very long trip and my pack weight starts to get up there), and I also realize that they (and I for that matter, when I’m backpacking) may cover the same or more ground than I do in a day of fastpacking. I also realize that some outdoor users would freely interchange the words, or not give much thought to the word fastpacking at all. And I know that some backpackers infuse a bit of running into their outings. But when I describe myself as fastpacking or backpacking, I’m mostly describing the mode of movement I’m choosing to do, running versus hiking.

    2. MikeTebbutt

      Whoa mayberry…seems to me you might be reading too much into Dakota's article here. This is just another well written account, from "his" perspective, of an activity he recently participated and his reflections and what he personally learned from it…
      I missed the part where he is "using one recent backpacking trip to establish himself as some kind of moral authority who can judge other runners for their shameful and ignorant ways" I will use Andy's comment from below to sum up my thoughts "Maybe it's just me, but I'm never offended by anything Dakota writes because, at least to me, it's 95% tongue-in-cheek. That's the beauty and humor of it: Poke fun at everything and everybody, including yourself, and no one should get offended. I don't think he 's taking himself too seriously, and I certainly am not taking him too seriously. If I'm wrong, well then I guess somebody really is a prick …"

  2. MOGBlogger

    As usual, Dakota, your writing style is superb, hilarious, entertaining, and even a bit educational. :) Honestly, one could learn more about what it takes to backpack from this short article than they would learn from the movie "Wild." :)

  3. Denzil Jennings

    Before I found running, and even trail running, I backpacked. I've backpacked and stayed a few nights in the same place, and I've also kept moving for multiple days and camped along the way until we reached our planned destination. I love backpacking. Time doesn't matter. The sun is up, or it's not. You're hungry, or you're not. Things are simplified when you're on the trail and living out of a backpack. I was never bored or uneasy with the idea of just sitting under the stars. I can sit by a fire for hours with nothing but the crackling of the wood to break the silence.

    Backpacking was my first exposure to the feeling of constantly moving; exploring; always wondering what's just around the next bend. It's at a much slower pace so you have more time to observe the local flora and fauna. The biggest problem with backpacking is that it's very time consuming. You probably aren't going to go out for an overnighter every weekend, and depending on where you live you may have to drive for a ways for a worthwhile multiday adventure. There are some that say you don't even get used to hauling your pack until the 3rd day. Either way, more adventure is always better than less adventure, and if you're going to plan a trip, you're going to make it worth it. Eventually life gets in the way, and these lengthy trips just stop happening.

    When I started running, and then several months later I was introduced to trail running, I was immediately hooked. I just love being in the woods and constantly moving. To me trail running is a more condensed and concentrated adventure. You can go out and get your fix in several hours, and you can do so at the same local trails without them ever really getting old. Trail running has been my way to rediscover the love I found when I was backpacking, and it fits into the weekend much easier.

  4. EricWhitbrook

    "Too often I try to take in the moment only to realize that instead of having an experience, I’m experiencing myself having an experience" – Very insightful, i can relate-

  5. Andy

    With reference to the bit of argumentation above: Maybe it's just me, but I'm never offended by anything Dakota writes because, at least to me, it's 95% tongue-in-cheek. That's the beauty and humor of it: Poke fun at everything and everybody, including yourself, and no one should get offended. I don't think he 's taking himself too seriously, and I certainly am not taking him too seriously. If I'm wrong, well then I guess somebody really is a prick …

    1. Jackson_B

      I appreciate that Dakota is willing to post his thoughts and opinions on iRunFar. People obviously have different views on how to use the terms backpacking and fastpacking (among MANY other things), and I enjoy that Dakota is willing to spend the time to share his personal ideas on these matters.

  6. @bigskyrun

    I've loved backpacking since I was a youngster. The freedom of carrying everything you need for multi-day outings and roaming about in the mountains, I find very primal. More recently I've discovered trail running and love it as well. I find running through the mountains very liberating and also primal. Last year I decided to combine the two loves and I can tell you it was a big hit! I carry a backpack (albeit trimmed extensively) and I run. Sometimes I hike. Sometimes I even fish- three loves in one adventure! Is fastpacking the right definition? doesn't really matter as all I know is I'm spending quality time in the places I love and that I will certainly be doing a lot more of it this year.

  7. banfftrailtrash

    There's something wonderfully about camping under the stars, but it certainly takes getting used to. I think everyone has a sort of primal Fear Of The Dark. For me, there's always an adjustment period for feeling comfortable in The Woods and losing the fear. Sometimes, it's days but sometimes it takes weeks to lose the fear and start feeling comfortable. In our busy world, reconnecting with the natural world takes time. Once that happens, it's all good. One of my favorite things about fastpacking or backpacking is re-engaging my senses. The longer the trip, the more in tune I become with my senses. You turn feral, in a good way. I become way more in touch with my powers of observation, the smell of things, the feeling of the elements on my skin, the sounds of nature and become way more present. It's not a feeling you get when you are wrapped up in the stuff of life.

  8. dotkaye

    one of the benefits of backpacking is the opportunity to feel real bowel-melting fear: when you wake up to hear the bear snuffling around the tent and remember the snickers bar you didn't take out of the pocket of your jacket, next to you in the tent..
    That's an experience you can't have while trail running. Of course the bear usually turns out to be some innocuous small mammal making far too much noise for a small mammal, but the fear was still real.

    The whole point of backpacking is to spend as much time in the wilds as possible, perfectly antithetical to trail running. I like to do it in a modicum of comfort, so fastpacking doesn't hold much appeal, except inasmuch as it lightens the load.
    The problem with 'wilderness' areas in the lower 48 is they are so very small. A good day's hike will get you close to the trailheads on the other side of the wilderness anyway, so why hurry ? might as well just potter along.
    Canada or Alaska trips are different, where there is actual wild still, fastpacking makes some sense.

    1. SeanMeissner

      Go check out the Frank Church in Idaho. I promise it will take you much longer than a good day's hike to get close to the trailheads on the other side.

  9. northacrosseurope

    A wonderful article. Entertaining and – in a light-hearted way – provocative. Thanks Dakota for taking the time to write it. I wish you many more backpacking nights!

    I was an obsessed backpacker in my twenties and thirties, and I mean obsessive: the longest trip I took lasted for 18 months. These days multi-month trips are on hold (at least until the kids leave for college) but trail running is a superb alternative, and definitely achieves many of the things backpacking used to (and still does, a few times a year). Both are great pursuits, similar in many ways, utterly different in others. But they complement each other wonderfully. Above all, both get us back out into our original home.

    As has happened before, an unimaginative hiker on a trail where I live recently told me to slow down. Not because I was passing at a dangerous speed, but because he thought I was missing out. So I stopped for a quick chat (which surprised him!) and I explained that I often walked at his pace too, sometimes even slower (especially when my kids are involved!), and that sometimes I climbed, sometimes I camped, and that sometimes I sat still in one spot and did bugger all for hours on end. I asked him if he ran, and he admitted he didn't. I think he got the point. There are so many different ways to approach the wild, and the more approaches you follow the deeper each individual experience – and the combination of all the experiences – becomes…

    Dakota, by adding backpacking to your repertoire you're definitely heading in the right direction. I hope you write about the subject again. :-)

  10. akopa

    That emptiness and silence in the evening that Dakota spoke about, and being somewhat uncomfortable with, is the same no-thingness that nearly all of us spend our lives trying to avoid. We're always doing, always becoming, always something. And when we're not doing, thoughts are still springing forth, urging to be identified with.

    Yet we are also drawn to this vast emptiness, because beyond the illusion of separateness created by our minds, that is what we are. And we cannot avoid what we are forever …. the nothing that is everything …. Consciousness, Spirit, The One.

  11. pbakwin

    "Fastpacking" is a term coined 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 Ultimate Direction founder Bryce Thatcher). Jim didn't explicitly define the term, but rather just gave a sense of it. To me, Fastpacking means that your focus is to cover the route as quickly as possible, and so you use the best techniques to that purpose. It may be that you simply run all night and don't take any sleeping gear at all. Or, if the route is too long to do without sleeping you take whatever will allow you to sleep just enough but not slow you down too much when you're not sleeping. On the JMT years ago Buzz & I simply put on all our clothes and lay down on the ground (I had a light pad) to sleep until we woke up shivering. Anyway, I do view Fastpacking as a specific thing different from Backpacking.

  12. senelly

    Thank you Dakota Jones for expressing stuff I want to say but don't want to be known for saying. My own usual wilderness experience is a daytime run on a somewhat hidden suburban trail… replete with signposts and fringe critters (no pumas or bears). It's faux wilderness… but better than no wilderness at all. Still, I hanker for a multi-day backpacking trip in a "real" wilderness, fully knowing that such a trip would not only challenge my outdoor skills, but probably scare the bejeebers out of me. Of course, even that is only faux fear. Civilization is ever just a few hours run away…

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