Fastpacking: Carry Less, Go Further

If you're looking for the absolute newest trend in backpacking, search no further: fastpacking is quickly gathering steam as more and more people embrace speed hiking as their primary technique in preparing for a weeklong or shorter outdoors excursion. Beware, however, as fastpacking is not for everyone; in other words, don't expect a solar shower or shatterproof plastic wine glasses. This cult (most who partake would bashfully agree with that label) revolves around minimalism.

Fastpacking takes the idea of ultralight one step further. Essentially, speed hikers seek to cover as much distance in as little time as possible, with one key factor making this possible. These hardy souls carry the bare essentials, limiting gear to sleeping bag, tarp, food, and water. Though definitions vary, most backpackers agree that fastpacking involves running rather than hiking. Most hikers using this technique wear running shoes. On long distance trails like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest, you'll see many thru-hikers wearing regular New Balances! There's an obvious disadvantage, however: Backpackers carrying full loads will gleefully splash right by while fastpackers carefully find stepping stones across creeks and rivers.

Like Ultralight itself, the exact definition of fastpacking is open to interpretation. Obviously, the name implies an emphasis on speed, but there's more involved. At the top of the list is gear. While those practicing Ultralight carry a fairly standard load of equipment, including water purification and some kind of cooking system, speed hikers might use iodine in areas prone to contamination. As for a stove, forget it; you'll be subsisting on Clif Bars and cous cous soaked in cold water.

And therein lies the whole idea: "let's carry a light enough load (under 10 pounds), so we can finish the entire trail in two days instead of four."

This kind of backpacking involves an incredible amount of discipline. Fastpackers deny themselves even the basic creature comforts that standard backpackers enjoy, like a hot meal and a comfy sleeping pad to take care of the bumps and divots in the ground. To be sure, an enormous amount of self-control and mental endurance is necessary for this specific subset of the backpacking culture.

Fastpacking also involves much more planning. With minimal extra food and clothing, getting stuck in the backcountry for an extended period of time can quickly become a dangerous proposition. This limits fastpackers to established, well-traveled trails.

Another thing to consider -- why are you out in the woods in the first place? If you're into stopping and admiring scenic landscape and picking flowers every once in a while, fastpacking probably isn't for you. On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who relishes a challenge, this may be the perfect opportunity to pursue your specific brand of "pleasure". Take Michael Popov, for instance: he finished the 220 mile John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada in California in 4 days, 5 hours, and 25 minutes (without resupply).

One final thing worth mentioning: there's no clear-cut winner when it comes to which technique is faster over the long run. The record on the Appalachian Trail continues to switch from proponents of fastpacking back to "standard" backpackers carrying a full load and hiking at a slower pace for more hours per day. Only time will tell (and perhaps it never will) which style is top dog.

All pages on this topic:
Ultralight | Fastpacking: Carry Less, Go Further | Top 10 List for Lightweight Backpacking Gear | Ultralight Backpacking Gear: For the 21st Century Hiker | Ultralight Backpacking Shelters | Ultralight Backpacking Shelters
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