Fastpacking 101: What You Need for This Running-Backpacking Hybrid
Get ready to cover more ground, more quickly
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I have to confess, I find backpacking quite boring. And not for a lack of trying, either—I grew up backpacking with my parents and high school friends, and was even a guide on youth trips in Montana. I still get talked into a trip once in a while, but besides the camaraderie, backpacking feels monotonous, slow, and more complex than it needs to be.
Fastpacking—or “shufflepacking,” as my friends and I call it—is the next evolution of wilderness trips for those who want to go farther and faster. Practically speaking, such an endeavor entails jogging the descents, shuffling the flats, power-hiking the hills, and eating a lot of snacks, all while carrying a minimalist pack.
To be clear, fastpacking is different from ultrarunning. It’s not a race, and you carry everything necessary to camp in the backcountry. It’s not exactly backpacking, either, but ultralight backpacking might be the closest analogue, since you pare down your kit to the absolute essentials in order to travel fast and light. Simply put, the biggest difference between backpacking and fastpacking is how you’re moving: by jogging instead of walking.
How to Get Started
Generally, my life philosophy for attempting new activities is “Just wing it, learn from the mistakes, and do better next time,” but that’s terrible advice for fastpacking. Most of these trips go deep into the backcountry, and being so remote is inherently risky. You’re as likely to get into life-threatening trouble fastpacking as you are hiking or running, so take similar precautions. It’s important to understand your route, watch the weather, plan out your meals, and pack the right gear. And be ready for problems to arise—a sprained ankle 20 miles from the trailhead is not a headache to be underestimated but addressed with a first aid kit, layers, and a means of contacting help back home.
If you’re not already a proficient distance hiker and trail runner, fastpacking might feel like learning two or three sports at once. It’s possible to jump right into the deep end, but expect some miscues along the way. For example: on my first trip, I overpacked, and my shoulders paid the price. Hopefully, this guide will help you get started and avoid the most common mistakes. Most of it focuses on three main knowledge buckets—gear, nutrition, and fitness—plus some suggestions on where and when to fastpack and why you should consider it.
Few brands make gear specifically for fastpacking, since it’s still a niche sport. But with a mix of ultralight backpacking equipment and trail-running apparel, you’ll be ready to tackle your first shuffling adventure in no time. The goal is not to buy the lightest or smallest pack (even though more weight and bulk are generally not your friends). Rather, think about bringing only essential items worth the weight and comfortable to wear while running.
The most crucial piece of gear is your pack. If you’ve ever tried to run with a heavy, traditional backpack, you know it can be uncomfortable, awkward, and cause injury. The ideal shuffling pack should be snug while running and should not restrict your form. It should also have enough storage to carry your gear, without dangling pots and pans like Frodo Baggins. A good target weight for a fully loaded pack is 15 pounds, give or take.
This 30-liter Ultimate Direction pack ($180) is the best I’ve tried, because it has large front pockets, weighs just 1.5 pounds, and proves to be very stable on my back. You might notice that it doesn’t have load-bearing hipbelts, which actually is normal for shuffling packs, as it’s harder to run with weight on your hips; instead, packs employed by fastpackers are similar to packs and vests for running, putting the bulk of the weight on your back and shoulders.
The next riddle to solve is clothing, which will vary somewhat depending on the conditions. Unless the forecast calls for extreme weather (in which case bring additional appropriate gear or consider rescheduling), keep your pack light and stick to just one set of clothes. I always bring an athletic shirt and running shorts for the daytime, then thermal base layers, hiking pants, and a puffy for at night, and an extra pair of socks. When it’s cold or wet, add in a rain jacket, hat, and mittens or gloves. As with most backcountry trips, avoid cotton, which will chafe when you sweat and doesn’t keep you warm when it gets wet. And don’t take this list as gospel—if conditions change, so should your gear.
Trail-running shoes with good grip and a high stack height make for ideal footwear, because the pack’s weight adds impact to each step. I like the Hoka Speedgoat ($145), because it’s well cushioned and light yet durable. Hiking boots are less than ideal, because they aren’t designed for the agility and movement of running. Of course, your own ideal shoes will vary depending on foot shape and running style, so test a few pairs before bringing them on a long trip in the backcountry.
Other essentials include a first aid kit, bear spray if you’re in bear country, a small knife and spork, and cord. Lastly, lightweight poles—I use the Black Diamond Distance Carbon ($150)—will protect your knees and help you climb up steep passes faster.
There are a few electronics you should always bring, such as a headlamp, satellite phone or other backcountry communication device, and cell phone. You’ll want the headlamp not just for nights around camp—in the spring and fall (or on any trip ambitious in length), you’ll likely start or end at night. A Garmin InReach satellite phone helps provide communication from nearly anywhere, so you can bail out if things go wrong. And apps like Gaia GPS turn your cell phone into the best navigation tool out there. For long trips, an external battery to recharge your devices is handy to ensure that these crucial safety devices remain functional.
Last but not least, give some thought to your sleep system: a light tent, bivy, or tarp that will keep you sheltered and warm at night—but that doesn’t fill up your pack and weigh you down—is critical. I’m a big fan of the MSR Front Range ($320), which can fit up to four friends fairly comfortably. With an inflatable pad like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite ($190 and up) and a seasonally appropriate sleeping bag (a light bag or quilt for summer, and something rated down to 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit for the shoulder seasons), you’ll be ready to go.
Eat, Run, Repeat
Like all long-distance activities, the name of the game is caloric intake. As we know, not all calories are created equal. For races like a marathon or a 50K, you can and should focus on foods high in sugar and carbs, because they are easy to digest and burn quickly. But this strategy omits the fats, proteins, and other nutrients necessary for multiday outings. When you’re out for hours and hours, you need to give your body a chance to recover each night, so fast-burning foods are only half the game plan.
While on the move, carb-heavy snacks like gels, chews, stroopwafels, and electrolytes are key to avoid bonking. Balance these with calorie-dense fatty foods, like nuts, peanut butter, seeds, cheese, and meat, which burn longer and help you recover. Bringing dehydrated or freeze-dried meals for dinner will help keep your pack light and manageable.
While some fastpackers go without a stove entirely, I am not such a masochist. The MSR Pocket Rocket ($80) weighs just three ounces and enables hot meals at night and hot coffee in the morning, making its inclusion worth the weight.
For hydration, I bring the easy-to-use Katadyn BeFree filtration system (from $45), which screws onto most flasks. You may be able to get away with drinking straight from the source, depending on the environment and water quality, but if you’d rather not risk it, bring along something like the MSR Guardian Purifier ($390) to filter out any bacteria or parasites.
You technically don’t need to train before you go fastpacking, but it’ll make the trip much more enjoyable if you’re in sufficient shape for your itinerary. Start by running and building up your aerobic endurance, prioritizing distance over pace. You’re training to spend a full day on your feet without being completely wrecked at the end of it, not to win your local 10K.
Consider tailoring your training plan to your exact trip and the terrain you’ll be shuffling across. For example, if your route has a lot of vertical gain, do some weighted hikes and strength training. For my first trip, I followed an ultramarathon training plan and swapped the tempo workouts for hikes up the local ski hill. Just like running, the ramp-up for fastpacking should be slow and steady. To mitigate chances of injury, increase your mileage by 10 percent per week at most.
It’s easy to get started fastpacking; a trip can happen on any trail and at any time of the year. (I personally don’t necessarily recommend winter fastpacking trips, because cold and stormy weather requires more gear and thus a heavier pack, but they aren’t impossible, either). For first-timers, picking an established backpacking route and doing it faster and lighter, in mild weather is a great way to begin. This will help you nail down the basics while keeping it safe. Fastpacking trips don’t have to cover incredibly long distances, and they certainly don’t have to be in the backcountry. They’re just a way to unlock a new type of adventure—the rest is up to you.