Fast and light overnight: a beginner’s guide to fastpacking

You may have encountered a member of the elusive “ultralight” gang while you were on the trail. These backpackers will be very proud to tell you how they cut off their toothbrush handles to save those precious ounces and how they streamlined their packing with the best ultralight gear. The next time you come across one of these hikers, check their feet. You may be talking to a member of the fastpacking community.

Fastpacking isn’t a new concept, but ever since it got an official name and became mainstream, it’s started to take off. Fastpacking blurs the lines between ultralight backpacking and trail running and is best summed up with the mantra that most fastpackers live by – fast and light overnight. Fastpacking allows you to hike a trail that should be hiked in five days, in just two to three days, so you can travel farther and explore more. However, it’s not all about speed, so let’s see what it is and what it isn’t, with our guide to fastpacking.

What is fastpacking?

Fastpacking falls somewhere between ultralight backpacking and trail running. Where it sits on that sliding scale is entirely up to you. There are fastpackers out there who set out to smash the self-sufficient FKT—the fastest known times—like Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy did on the Appalachian Trail. While your average hiker would take about five months to complete the hike, Joe packed it fast in just 45 days.

You don’t need to be a record holder. Fastpacking is about efficiency, not absolute speed. Push too hard, too soon, and you’ll burn out with a long track ahead of you. Most fastpackers will find themselves hiking the climbs, running the descents, and regularly changing between the two on the flat terrain.

A man with a hiking stick and a backpack standing on top of a mountain, looking at a forest view.

How to plan a fastpacking trip

The good news is that fastpacking has no minimum distance. It also doesn’t have a speed, elevation or anything recommended. How far and how fast you go is entirely up to you. Like most outdoor sports, however, it pays to start easy. Your first trip probably won’t be a 45-day spurt on the AP trail, but more of a fast and dirty overnight close to home. That way, if you mess up, as is sometimes the case, you have time to find a solution for the future.

Calculate your track time at a more relaxed pace than you normally run – remember you’ll have a backpack and aim to run for consecutive days, so don’t get out too fast. Think about the water fill points at the time of year and the weather. Strong winds and intense heat can affect the speed at which you move, while cold weather and heavy rain may require you to carry more gear with you.

Two trail runners climb a dusty path.
Brian Erickson/Unsplash

What equipment do you need for Fastpacking?

Fastpackers thrive on minimalism. It’s not Marie Kondo’s approach to making your life more joyful, but rather it’s a constant battle between weight and essentials. Some experienced fastpackers pride themselves on running hard and sleeping hard, which basically means they don’t pack all the essentials for a comfortable night’s sleep. Sure, you might be able to do without a camping tent, and your sleeping pad might be so light it barely exists, but is that the kind of experience you want?

Over time, you will streamline your equipment. You’ll remove what you don’t use, add what you missed, and find yourself making small tweaks based on weather, trail, distance, and any number of other factors. When you’re heading out for multiple days on the trail, we always recommend sticking to the hiking essentials, but these can all be found in lightweight and ultralight models.

A lightweight backpack setup including sneakers, on a plain background.

Here’s our list of fastpacking gear you need to go on a fast and light adventure.

  • Trail running shoes: There is a limit to how fast you can move in hiking boots, no matter how light. The best trail running shoes will give you grip and dexterity on the trail and dry out quickly if you cross rivers or get caught in a downpour. Fit is crucial, as you’ll be pounding them against the trail for hours at a time.
  • Absorbent layers: You probably already have your favorite outdoor gear or running gear, which might work for fastpacking. You’re going to sweat a lot on the trail, so your layers need to wick moisture effectively to keep your body dry and regulate your body temperature. As with all hikes, no cotton is allowed!
  • Lightweight backpack: These won’t be your usual hiking packs. In fact, you could be mistaken in thinking that fastpackers run with daily packs. Fastpackers will do everything in their power to avoid going over a 35 liter backpack, with most keeping their gear below 30 liters. You need a well-fitting and stable backpack that you can comfortably run for several hours at a time.
  • Alternate Layer(s): When you walk into camp, you’ll want a layer you can put on to stay warm. Most fastpackers will wear an insulated jacket that uses either down or synthetic insulation. These offer a good warmth-to-weight balance, but a layer of fleece might suffice. If you have the space, a spare pair of hiking socks can be a game-changer on an overnight trip.
  • Sunscreen: If you’re running in the summer, it’s always worth packing a lightweight running hat or visor, as well as outdoor sunglasses and super-protective sunscreen.
  • Hat and Gloves: The weather and temperature can change within minutes on the trail. A pair of lightweight gloves and a hat are worth their weight in gold when the temperature drops overnight. Many runners will choose to use a more versatile neck warmer rather than a hat. These can be worn over the head for sun protection or to keep warm, and can also be used to create a baffle to prevent hot air from escaping from your waterproof jacket.
  • Waterproofing: Unless the forecast guarantees you won’t encounter rain, you’ll need full waterproofing with you. We’re afraid your budget has a direct impact on how light you can go, with some jackets and pants weighing just a few ounces each.
  • Sleeping bag: First and foremost, your sleeping bag needs to be temperature rated to keep you warm. Then you can think about size. If you’re not warm, you won’t sleep well, and if you don’t sleep well, you won’t want to run the next day.
  • Mattress: When you lose weight, it can be tempting to leave the mattress at home. Don’t. You lose a tremendous amount of heat to the ground when camping and without a sleeping pad you are going to be cold and uncomfortable.
  • Sleeping system: Whether you choose to sleep under the stars, in a camping hammock, bivy sack, under a tarp, or opt for the full protection of a tent is up to you. There are benefits to each system, and all are available in lightweight options. This will be the biggest kit in your bag, so aim for packability wherever possible.
  • The furnace: Some purists will survive on purely cold, dry foods. Unless you are a real masochist, we recommend a light camping stove to be able to eat well at the end of the day and of course, a coffee in the morning. Don’t forget your lighter!
  • Food: Food can be tough. You’ll burn a lot of calories, but you don’t want to carry too much weight. We recommend dehydrated meals and plenty of hiking snacks to keep you going. Try to eat little and often.
  • Water: You won’t want to carry all the water you need for several days. Pack enough to keep you going and use either a lightweight water filter or purification tablets to ensure you have plenty of clean water available.
  • Headlamp: The best headlamp you have, and maybe a spare headlamp. You can never have too much light when you need it.
  • Navigation equipment: A map and compass are preferred and should always be carried. A lightweight GPS could also be used, but don’t rely on them alone.
  • Communication: A mobile phone or satellite phone with battery and signal is essential.
  • First aid kit: You won’t want to pack a full kit, but try to include a few essentials and don’t forget blister bandages.

Ultralight kits aren’t without price and we’re not advocating that you go to the stores and buy it all outright. You can start fastpacking with whatever you already have and over time you can lighten your load. As long as you have the right attitude and a pair of racing trainers, you can hit the trail and call yourself a fastpacker.

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