RMU's take on a sport that takes trail running + backpacking to the next level
Welcome to Rocky Mountain Ultra's starter guide to fastpacking, a multi-day endurance sport that pits athletes against time and distance.
If you're new to fastpacking, this might be just the thing to read before blasting off into the wilderness with barely any gear and faith the size of a mustard seed. We've been there, we know what it's like, and we want you to experience fastpacking for yourself while having as much fun and as few problems as possible. Hence this guide.
Now, if we're going to be honest here, we should point out that we're not grizzled old adventurers with decades of experience and encyclopedic knowledge about every possible gear option. But we do have enough know-how and scars to point first-timers in the right direction, or at least away from the main dangers.
We hope you'll read along, and maybe at the end you'll share some of your own tips, tricks, and stories about fastpacking.
For all you "Show me the outline" types, here's what we'll be covering:
- Fastpacking 101: Brief overview, FKTs, plea for sanity.
- Making Plans: Quandaries, 20ish questions, Leave No Trace.
- Getting into Gear: Fastpacks, shelter, sleeping setup.
- Closing Thoughts: Thanks, dry run stuff, resources, please buy our products.
1. Fastpacking 101
Light and fast
Fastpacking is a glorified mashup of running, hiking, and survival, an adventure in traveling quickly and living minimally over the course of days, weeks, or even months. Speed and efficiency are key.
During a trail race, you can usually expect to find plenty of temporary course markers and aid stations every few miles. But fastpacking is different. A lot of popular fastpacking routes go through national parks and wilderness areas, where official events are off-limits. The only course markers you'll find are the permanent ones (think Colorado Trail) and the only aid stations are the ones your sympathetic friends set up or the ones you hallucinate. When night falls, there's no glamping going on, and depending on how ultralight you decide to fly, you might just be sleeping on the ground under the stars.
Since fastpackers are trying to cover a ton of ground quickly and efficiently, they pack very little gear and consider every item in terms of weight, utility, and function. It's typical to carry 20 pounds or less; an ultralight fastpacker will shoot for sub 10.
Even though most fastpacking routes aren't official, people still like to keep track of fastest known times, or FKTs. One of the main resources on this topic is the Fastest Known Time forum, which organizes records according to regions.
The 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail is a good example. In 2015, Scott Jurek set a new FKT for the AT, shaving about 3 hours off Jennifer Pharr Davis' 2011 record of 46 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes. (And then he got fined by a ranger for "littering" champagne, or something.) Not to be outdone, Karl Meltzer went and broke Scott's record in 2016, coming in at 45 days, 22 hours, 38 minutes.
FKTs can sometimes lead to a good deal of contention due to alternate routes, trail closures, and lack of documentation to back up claims. A case in point is Kaiha Bertollini, who claimed she finished the AT 16 hours faster than Meltzer in 2016—but her evidence was slim and she kinda came out of nowhere, which made verification difficult. If you're getting into fastpacking to set records, do yourself a favor by using a GPS tracker and telling as many people as possible what you're up to.
For more information about FKTs, go here.
Plea for Sanity
Fastpacking requires a lot of energy and mental strength. It's not something you should just dive into without a bit of experience and some physical stamina.
Most people who try fastpacking already have proficiency in the trail running, camping, and backpacking components that fastpacking combines. There's a natural progression from shorter events, to longer events, to supported multi-day events—to self-supported fastpacking. While it may be tempting to test your limits on your first trip, it's smarter to take smaller bites until you gain experience and get comfortable with the additional demands involved.
We're not trying to stand in anyone's way here, we're just saying—maybe build up to it.
Remember: Fastpacking, especially in the backcountry, can quickly become dangerous if you're not prepared.
Which brings us to:
2. Making Plans
Prepare to succeed
You never know what's going to happen, and it's impossible to plan for every possible scenario. But you can make smart preparations to minimize your risk in case of things like inclement weather, unexpected fatigue, minor injury, or major emergency. It's just a matter of planning ahead.
If you're tempted to skimp on planning and jump into your adventure, we've got a story that should convince you otherwise. It's a tale that may or may not have actually happened to certain persons associated with RMU who did not properly plan ahead.
In our story, two people had the bright idea of attempting a Tenmile-Quandary traverse starting in Frisco, Colorado, and following the Tenmile Range south to Peak 10 and then onward to Crystal Peak, Pacific Peak, Fletcher Mountain, and finally to Quandary, a fourteener. This looked like a fine idea on paper.
However, these two people failed to fully research the route south of Peak 10 and learned the hard way that the Pacific-Fletcher traverse is kind of nuts. By the time they made it to the base of Quandary, the sun was setting, but they decided to continue because everyone knows Quandary is an easy fourteener.
Six hours later, after cliffing out several times on Quandary's difficult west ridge, bailing down the south face only to cliff out near the bottom, skirting east and climbing 1,000 feet back up to the summit in the dark, and then finally following the easy east ridge trail down to Highway 9, these two tired and hungry people may or may not have hitched a ride back to Frisco in the middle of the night.
All of that adventure because two people said "This is a good idea, let's go" without planning ahead.
Need a good way to kick off your fastpacking plans? Try asking yourself a bunch of questions. Here are 20ish to get you going:
# What's my fastpacking style?
There are three main "styles" of fastpacking:
- Supported: A crew meets you at checkpoints along the way to help set up camp or replenish supplies. This style lets you travel lighter and move faster as a result.
- Unsupported: No crew or access to any supplies for the duration of the trip, except whatever water is available along the route. Carry all food, clothing, camping, and emergency supplies required for the entire time. This style is the slowest, but you get the satisfaction of being fully self-reliant out there.
- Kindasupported™, also known as self-supported: Store food on the trail ahead of time or utilize facilities, such as gas stations, along the way. This lets you travel lighter, but you better be sure those gas stations are going to be open when you need them.
# Where should I go?
Beautiful places. Desolate places. Where the wild things are. Where the sidewalk ends. It's your call, man. If hiking, running, and/or camping is permitted there, you can fastpack there. Most people fastpack in wilderness areas and national forests, but nobody's going to stop you from fastpacking through a metropolitan area if you really want to.
A good way to find inspiration is by searching for trip reports posted online. People have been fastpacking and writing about it for ages, so why not follow in their footsteps if you're just getting started? And if you happen to personally know anyone who's gone before you, go ahead and ask them for tips. You'll get ideas fast!
# Do I need permits?
On a scale of No to Yes, this is a Maybe. Some areas, but not all of them, require you to obtain a pass or permit before you can travel through. Many areas provide paper forms you can fill out at the trailhead or boundary.
# Are there any closures in effect right now?
Closures do happen, so check for alerts online or call the ranger station associated with your intended destination.
# What is the weather forecast for the days I'll be out?
Will it be hot, cold, wet, dry? You'll need clothing that can handle whatever elements are coming your way—but you can't pack that clothing if you don't know what's coming.
Do your research, and be aware of local weather patterns. For example, during summer here in Colorado electric storms can whip up out of nowhere, even if the forecast is for clear skies. There are weather apps that can geolocate you and send push notifications when lightning strikes within a certain radius, but educating yourself about the local danger is a huge step in the right direction.
# What about things like altitude and elevation change?
There's a big difference between 1,000 feet above sea level and 8,000 feet above sea level. High altitude comes with a whole new set of challenges, including altitude sickness if you're not properly acclimated.
On the other hand, a route with a lot of overall change in elevation will wear you out no matter what the altitude is. Make sure you account for both of these possibilities when planning your trip.
# What about navigation?
A fastpacker needs good navigational skills, especially if running unsupported, as even a small mistake could turn into a life-threatening situation. Or, worse, an embarrassing story that people will keep bringing up in social settings.
In order to safely and smartly navigate in most places, you need maps of your route plus a compass. You can get away with GPS devices, which often have their own built-in map sets, but even then a good rule of thumb is to have the old-fashioned map-and-compass backup in case GPS fails or is unavailable.
What this means is that regardless of how high-tech you plan on traveling, you should really learn how to navigate the old-school, low-tech way. You can start how we did—by watching a bunch of YouTube videos and then following people who knew how to navigate into the woods—or you can pay money and learn in a class setting.
However you do it, it's wise to at least know the basics of reading maps before you take the fastpacking plunge. Not all routes will require the use of a compass, but there's no route we're aware of that isn't easier and safer with a map.
If you're looking for map resources, the U.S. Forest Service has a lot of great stuff on its Maps page. There's also a treasure trove over at The National Map by the U.S. Geological Survey. We happen to really like the topo maps from Latitude 40 and National Geographic Trails Illustrated, but there are plenty of other options out there. Anything with contour lines should be sufficient. For a good introduction to reading topographic maps, check out this handy HowStuffWorks guide.
# What about emergencies?
Emergencies and the survival thereof could fill up a whole different guide, but the bottom line is to be prepared for things to go horribly wrong and hope they don't. You could find yourself lost, injured, hypothermic, or in any number of urgent emergency situations while wandering around the middle of nowhere.
If you skip everything else related to emergency prep, please at the very least do this:
TELL PEOPLE WHERE YOU'RE GOING.
Should something go horribly wrong against all hopes, your chances of getting out alive are drastically improved if people know where to start hunting for you. It's even better if you've selected and shared emergency exit points in advance, and it's by far the best for search and rescue if you're carrying a satellite communicator like InReach or SPOT. As long as you're in a satellite's shadow, these devices can pinpoint your location and send out distress signals.
But devices can run out of power, and emergencies can include situations where you're incapacitated and can't send out those distress signals. That's why it's so important to
TELL PEOPLE WHERE YOU'RE GOING!
Also, if something bad does happen,
That's not a cliché in this case. It's natural to feel afraid in the face of danger and uncertainty, but if you let yourself slip into panic mode things are going to get a whole lot scarier. You need all available brainpower to think carefully about your situation and decide what to do. That's not possible if you're sprinting through the woods and screaming.
It takes time to develop the skills and knowledge to survive emergency situations, but every hour you spend studying (and ideally practicing) emergency response is an hour well spent. While this guide isn't meant to be an emergency manual, we can point you at some decent resources:
- We're big fans of Colorado Parks & Wildlife's Guides For Survival With Mark Cousins. Mainly because we spend a ton of time in Colorado's backcountry, but also because Mark offers really pragmatic advice about survival.
- The National Outdoor Leadership School has a few handy wilderness medicine videos posted on YouTube.
- Here's a NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute practice exam with 50 questions and answers.
- Here's the Wilderness First Aid Curriculum and Doctrine Guidelines from the Boy Scouts of America.
- Want to test your knowledge? Try this free online WMI quiz.
# What about food and water?
You can get a lot of mileage out of calorie-dense foods like salted mixed nuts, jerky, or dried tuna. We've gone into the Sawatch and bagged a few fourteeners with just a single 16 oz. container of peanut butter, with calories to spare. Maybe you're a gel person. Or a Tailwind person who only does fluids. One dude we know actually packs hamburgers on his longer adventures.
The point is, if you're interested in fastpacking you probably already know what works for you—so keep doing that.
For water, plan to use sources that are available along your route. Creeks, snowmelt, and campgrounds with water spigots are all examples of common sources. Just be sure that you're filtering or treating any water that comes from the wild—giardiasis really sucks. Or so we've been told.
A note about any food and scented items you're carrying: If you're in bear country, get bearproof containers and/or learn how to hang a proper bear bag.
# Am I even in shape for this nonsense?
Only you know the answer to that one, sport, but in general you should be in pretty great shape before you give fastpacking a shot. Remember, a fastpacking excursion will require a lot more effort than your basic trail run. If you're planning to cover 15 miles per day while fastpacking, you should already feel comfortable covering 20-25 miles per day without the additional burdens of carrying a pack full of gear and surviving the elements.
# How much suffering am I prepared for?
Anyone with any experience in endurance sports will tell you that there are low points. It's no different with fastpacking. Just know that it might hurt sometimes, and there might not be anyone around to listen to you whine about it. You're on your own, probably.
# How much screwing around with the wild should I do?
If you're a fan of how humans have ruined nature to build their unhappy empires, then please stay away from the wild places we've still got left. We don't need people screwing around out there. Just like everyone else, fastpackers are encouraged to follow The Leave No Trace Seven Principles:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.
# Can I get away with one spare shirt instead of two?
That's probably close enough to 20 questions. Who's even counting, right? Let's talk about gear.
3. Getting into Gear
Take what you need and leave the rest
Since this is a starter guide, we're going to focus on a few essentials and gloss over the rest. A lot of the accessories you select will come down to personal preference anyway, and there are mountains of articles and reports out there for you to read and utilize. We've added a few resources in the Closing Thoughts section that should provide some helpful information about gear.
For now, let's stick with talking about the fastpack, shelter, and sleeping options.
Your pack is by far the most important piece of gear, and finding the right one is going to come down to experimentation. You'll want something that feels comfortable with up to 20 pounds of gear—and holds steady while you're on the go. Although many ultralight packs meet the first requirement, they don't always ride well while running.
Running fastpacks have recently hit the market with the capacity and support for carrying ultralight backpacking loads comfortably while jogging and moving quickly in the mountains. There are a couple features we recommend to watch out for when choosing your fastpack.
Front Gear Access:
Covering a large amount of ground while fastpacking means spending as much time as possible moving forward, and not stopped to dig out a water filter, arm warmers, hamburgers, or other crucial items.
That's why we've come to love packs that include ample front gear storage. The most efficient packs we've tested incorporate a front pack for all of our daily nutrition and anything else you might need on the trail. 2-4 front pockets just don't provide enough storage for fastpacking.
It's great if your pack can hold 30 liters or more, but what if it's only half full? Does it still carry the gear well? Pay attention to how well the pack can be cinched down with a smaller load. Look for good side compression so the smaller load won't just sit at the bottom of the pack, but rather ride against your back.
Volume flexibility goes both ways, though: Can additional gear be strapped to the outside? Does it have external stretch pockets and/or a good closure method, such as a roll top, for increasing the pack's volume?
The are a lot of fastpack options out there. Here are five we've tried, in no particular order:
WAA UltraBag 20L
The WAA UltraBag 20L was designed for the Marathon des Sables race in Morocco. It adapts well to fastpacking and provides additional storage in a 4L front pack and two .5L waist belt packs. The pack seems to do pretty well with a load of 15 pounds, but overpacking to 20 pounds makes it a bit uncomfortable.
- Modular accessories give you the ability to customize the pack for various activities
- Front pack adds storage for a third bottle and daily food and gear
- Front pack creates a very secure harness feel for running
- Comes with rain cover, poncho, bottles, accessory straps, and removable pockets
- Shoulder straps are too narrow and don't distribute heavy loads too well
- The main 20L compartment is not forgiving to overstuffing
- The included water bottles are not high-quality
- The main compartment is too narrow for larger volume items
RaidLight Olmo Ultra Raid Desert 20L + Front Pack
Like the WAA UltraBag, the RaidLight Olmo Ultra Raid Desert 20L also features a 4L front pack. Designed originally for multi-day stage races, it converts well to fastpacking. The straps have more padding than the WAA UltraBag, and there's additional storage on the waist strap as well as rear mesh pockets. Overall it has more features than the UltraBag, but comes in heavier and doesn't have the removable attachments.
- Removable front pack adds ample room for daily nutrition and holds additional hydration
- Front horizontal pole holder allows for easy access and storage
- Side pockets are very easily accessible when on the move
- More affordable
- The Ultra Raid's weight is on the higher side at 680 grams; tack on another 230g for the front pack and you're already pushing a kilo
- Doesn’t come with bottles or rain cover
RaidLight Ultra Raid Desert 30L
The RaidLight Ultra Raid Desert 30L is the same as the 20L version above, but with an extra 10 liters of volume. Great for carrying a little more gear, but the front pack is sold separately. At 710 grams it's also on the heavier side.
Ultimate Direction Fastpacks
The Ultimate Direction Fastpack series are streamlined vest-style packs with waterproof roll tops and roomy side and rear stretch pockets. These packs emphasize comfort, stability, and simplicity, and they get the job done.
- Light and simple; external rear mesh pocket provides lots of extra storage
- Front storage is a bust—you can barely carry two bottles, and the small pockets in front of the bottles are only good for a few gels and chapstick.
RaidLight Responsiv 20L
The RaidLight Responsiv 20L is a trimmed down, lightweight pack that comes with two 600mL EazyFlasks. It was tested during the 2016 Marathon des Sables by RaidLight athletes Elisabet Barnes and Nathalie Mauclair, who placed fourth and second respectively. The side buckle straps allow you to strap on some extra gear, like a sleeping pad.
- Front trekking pole/lightsaber storage
- Reachable side pockets on back
- Weighs in at only 260g
- Comes with two 600mL soft bottles with straws
- Side micro adjustments are easy to adjust on the go as your pack gets lighter
- Although it has larger pockets than the UD fastpacks, we would still like to see more front storage
- A larger external stretch pocket would also be a great addition
Shelter and Sleeping Setup
Moving light and fast typically means spending less time in camp, so as far as shelters go you don’t need to bring much. There are a few good options depending on how much shelter you want and what type of surface you'll be sleeping on.
Short of an actual garbage bag, a bivy sack is going to be the cheapest and easiest option to set up. It's pretty much just a waterproof bag that goes over your sleeping bag to protect you from the elements, and it doesn’t give you much room other than the space in your sleeping bag. There are many different types of bivy sacks, from super-basic emergency shelters to tent-like setups with a pole and stakes. Just pick one that makes sense for your situation and run with it.
One of the main issues with bivy sacks is condensation. As moisture escapes your body it'll hit the waterproof layer of the sack and condense on the inside. This typically isn’t a problem as long as you can drain the bivy sack and your sleeping bag the next day.
Also, if you're going somewhere with mosquitos or other dumb bugs, make sure you've got netting to cover up your pretty face, or maybe get a bivy sack with a built-in screen. If you don’t, well, you just might find yourself trapped inside a hot and humid sack all night, as happened to a certain person associated with RMU.
"I didn't take a mosquito head net and ended up lying in a sweatbox all night," he said, three seconds before ordering a mosquito head net online.
Tarp tents can provide great shelter at a very minimal weight. The lightest ones are made from super-light Cuben fiber fabric and pitched with one or two trekking poles and stakes. They can provide much more room than a bivy sack for nearly the same weight.
One of the largest issues with tarp tents is that they take time and skill to set up. The sides need to be tensioned properly, and the tarp should be positioned correctly considering whatever weather and wind you're looking at.
Also, since tarp tents require adequate staking, they can’t be used on just any old surface—you've gotta find ground that holds stakes well. There are different types of stakes available that can be used on everything from sand to snow, but this is a large consideration when choosing your sleeping structure.
It is of course possible to fastpack with a traditional backpacking tent. If you're going with a couple of people, it's easy enough to divvy up the parts to lighten the load. But still, let's say you want to travel with a two-person tent with a rainfly and floor—that's probably already 2 pounds right there, which is on the heavier side when weight is everything. Some tents do allow you to ditch the interior and only use the rainfly and poles to pitch it, which can offer a large amount of weight savings.
There are some ultralight options out there, but you're looking at a substantial cost increase, and they're not widely available. A full tent will weigh you down more, but hey, at least it's easier to keep all those mosquitos and other dumb bugs outside.
The lightest and cheapest option is to simply forgo a shelter if the conditions will be right. Just make sure the weather will hold or you might be in for a long, wet, and possibly dangerous trip. We always recommend carrying at least an emergency blanket, which can be used to protect yourself from the rain if needed.
Long live down! There used to be a large debate about down vs. synthetic sleeping bags, but in our humble opinion this is largely over. Down is a superior insulator for its weight, plus it's more compressible. Now, with the advent of hydrophobic down, even if you live in a wet climate you don’t need to worry about getting your sleeping bag wet.
Traditional sleeping bags
For fastpacking you want to shoot for a lightweight, compressible bag that meets your temperature needs. Check what the low temperatures will be during your trip and try to find a bag that will meet these. You can always get a lighter option and add a liner to make it warmer. Another thing to consider is that bivy sacks can trap heat as well, so using a bivy sack as part of your sleep system can help you stay warmer.
Nontraditional sleeping bags
A few companies such as WAA Ultra Equipment and RaidLight have made systems that are lightweight and double as jackets. Although these were originally designed for multi-day stage races, they can work well for fastpacking.
The WAA Ultra Sleeping Jacket
The Ultra Sleeping Jacket is a down jacket with a sleeping bag foot box that zips onto the bottom. It can help save weight because it performs double duty as a jacket and sleeping bag. With a package weight starting at 690 grams (1.5 lbs), it isn’t the lightest sleeping bag in the world, but it can keep you from also having to carry a jacket. A temperature rating right around 32 degrees Fahrenheit means it is good for most summer outings—and some in spring and fall depending on where you're located.
The one downside we've seen is that it doesn’t allow for the same type of movement as a sleeping bag during the night. Also, it's a good idea to have a pair of gloves or mittens if you'd rather not sleep with your hands in your pockets or armpits.
To blow or not to blow? Inflatable sleeping pads are more comfortable and can take up a lot less room, but they're heavier and risk puncture. It's largely personal preference whether you carry an inflatable pad or not. We'd suggest doing some research and checking out how big they are when packed up.
Personally, we prefer cut-down foam pads because they're simple and cheap, and you don’t need to worry about popping them on broken beer bottles the bears left behind. You can use some of your other gear to insulate you and protect you from the ground; many packs also have a removable pad that can be used as added protection.
Once you've got your fastpack, shelter, and sleeping gear set up, everything else is pretty much just lightweight versions of what you'd already use for regular old backpacking. Obviously, a two-burner propane campstove isn’t the best option to haul around for 30 miles a day. But, an ultralight canister stove with titanium pot really doesn’t add too much weight.
Leaving Gear Behind
Sure, getting the lightest gear on the market will make your pack lighter, but don't forget that you can simply leave stuff at home.
What can you comfortably and safely go without while you're on the trail? Ditching your sleeping bag probably isn’t the best idea, but what about that extra reading light for finishing up the encyclopedia set? Would you be okay with eating a few Kind bars for dinner instead of cooking? Should you maybe just leave the encyclopedias at home?
Go through everything in your pack or on your gear list and ask yourself: Can I survive without this? (Probably.) Do I need two of these? (Probably not.) You can cut out a lot of unnecessary stuff just by being willing to travel light.
And at the end of the day, that's the whole point, right?
4. Closing Thoughts
The Trial Trail Run
By now you should have a pretty good idea of what fastpacking is, what it isn't, and what you should and shouldn't do out there.
But before you start your adventuring, we've got one final suggestion: Go on a trial run. Better to test things now than discover a problem while you're out in the middle of nowhere.
Pack your fastpack by putting heavy items in the middle, close to your back, and then filling the empty space with lighter items. Calories, water, and other runtime essentials can go up front or inside pockets that are easy to reach.
Head outside, jog a few miles, and see how everything feels. Jog a few more just to make sure.
You might even consider participating in a shorter stage race while carrying your fastpacking gear—sort of like a dress rehearsal.
Whether you're planning to go supported, unsupported, or Kindasupported™, a trial run will do you a lot of good.
Here are some additional resources that might be helpful before you dash off into the woods:
- Backcountry – Tips for Lightening Your Backpacking Load
- Backpacking Light forums
- Backpacking North – Ultralight Makeover series
- Fastpacking Guy – Fastpacking: A Guide
- IRunFar – The Definitive Guide To Fastpacking
- Trail Runner – How to Get Started in Fastpacking
… for reading RMU's Starter Guide to Fastpacking! We hope you've learned a few things from us, or at least found a springboard for your future learning about all things fastpacking.
If you've got any questions, comments, complaints, or riddles, please leave them below.
And if you need some cool running and hiking gear, check out our products—we might have something for you. ;)
Have a good day, and we hope you find whatever it is you're looking for out there.
Well, we've got a few mountains to climb. Back soon.