Need for Speed
Fastpacking’s Rapid Rise
A toothbrush weighs 0.4 ounces. If you break that toothbrush in half, it weighs 0.3 ounces. How do I know this? I’ve done it. Why? Because I needed to carry said toothbrush 2,184 miles along the Appalachian Trail, and on a journey like that, every 0.1 ounce counts. While these minimalist measures may seem a bit obsessive to most, it’s what fuels a growing number of folks who fastpack.
Fastpacking is an increasingly popular form of backpacking in which the hiker makes decisions about gear, physical fitness, and mental stamina with the goal of completing a trek as quickly as possible. Born from a few eccentric hikers—known to cut zippers from sleeping bags, labels from clothing, and toothbrushes in half to lighten their load—fastpacking has been adopted by a growing cult of adventure seekers looking for the next challenge.
In July I completed my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, a 136-day, 2,184.2 mile odyssey from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. During the trek I witnessed various approaches to hiking including ultralight backpacking and fastpacking. Although different, the two styles are of the same breed. Ultralight backpackers fanatically reduce weight but speed isn’t always the main objective. Some avid ultralight hikers even make their own gear, incorporating their own weight-saving ideas. After all, a heavy backpack can take the fun out of being on the trail, and if it isn’t fun, why do it? Fastpackers, on the other hand, look at a trail and ask why a four-day hike cannot be completed in two, why a three-week hike cannot be done in one, or why a six-month hike, like the Appalachian Trail, cannot be completed in half the time. They carry the minimum equipment necessary to cover longer distances in a shorter time. Fastpackers focus on three main factors: lightweight gear, physical endurance, and mental fortitude.
As every ounce counts, fastpackers carry only the necessities…a backpack, a shelter (a tent or tarp), a sleeping system (insulation and a thin pad), an emergency kit, and layered clothing. Everything is light, minimal, and multipurpose. Food and water become the heaviest part of the pack. A fastpacker’s base weight (the weight of the backpack and gear excluding food and water) can range from 6 pounds up to 15 pounds depending on the weather, the region, and the type of hike. In comparison, a typical long distance hiker may be carrying more than 20 or 30 pounds for the same trek. This weight savings translates into increased speed and agility. And in backcountry travel, speed often equals safety.
Since most fastpackers run part of the way each day, most can be seen trotting down the trail in lightweight trail runners or minimalist shoes such as Vibram FiveFingers as opposed to heavy hiking boots. I personally covered over 900 miles in a pair of Brooks Cascadia. And now, Inov-8 and an increasing number of other companies specifically design trail shoes and packs for lightweight, ultra-fast hikers and runners.
But while using ultralight gear is great, leaving out some items altogether is even better. Why carry a stove if your food can be eaten cold? Who needs camp shoes if you are hiking all day? Since fastpackers hike from sunrise to sunset, there’s little time or need for the creature comforts of traditional camping and the gear found in a Cabela’s catalog or local outdoor store. While hiking the Appalachian Trail I dropped pack weight by going “no-cook”, sending home my stove, fuel, and pot. I ate cold instant mashed potatoes every evening for dinner and for lunch I poured couscous into a water bottle and let it soak before drinking it while hiking. (Most Appalachian Trail hikers thought “no-cook” was extreme, but for me this was an easy adjustment.) Still others give up inflatable sleeping pads or trekking poles—luxuries I’m not yet willing to drop.
In addition to lightweight gear, a fastpacker must also have extreme physical and mental endurance. The first few weeks on the Appalachian Trail were slow for me until I got my “trail legs” and was able to increase my daily mileage. But mindset is the most important strength to muster. The fastpacker must be prepared to be on the trail for 10-14 hours a day, regardless of miles covered. Some days the trail is incredible, other days the trail can be incredibly monotonous. The mental stamina needed to do this over and over for up to weeks or months at a time is astonishing. It’s these mental and physical factors that draw a diverse crowd of accomplished marathon and ultra-marathon runners, as well as other elite athletes.
Fastpacking, however, is a sport that anyone can pursue. Just hit a trail and do whatever you can to complete it faster than you thought you could. The fastpacking culture has gone from a few “crazy” hikers, to a grass-roots group challenging the traditional style of hiking, to a growing industry. But at it’s core, fastpacking brings together ones that want to bring less into the backcountry; those that carry the common drive to hike farther faster.