What is Fastpacking? Expert Advice On Fastpack planning and gear

Let's get ready for your next big adventure!

All our fitness and training resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Exercise Advice Guidelines.

When I first learned about fastpacking, I was shocked that I had never conceived the idea myself. 

After all, I loved backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail with my family growing up. Now that I enjoy trail running, combining the two activities into one unique endurance adventure sport seems natural.

Fastpacking is a unique hybrid of ultrarunning, power hiking, backpacking, and trail running, so it requires ultralight fastpacking gear and strategic planning both in terms of the backcountry routes that you take and how to pack your fastpacking pack.

In this fastpacking guide for beginners, we will discuss what fastpacking adventures involve, tips for getting started, and essential fastpacking gear so that you have a successful first trip and fall in love with this unique hybrid of running, backpacking, and hiking.

A person fastpacking.

What Is Fastpacking?

Fastpacking is an endurance adventure sport that gets you out in nature while combining long-distance trail running with power hiking or fast hiking all while carrying your gear in a pack like backpacking because many fastpacking trips are multi-day adventures.

It is a great way to experience the outdoors and is now popular amongst hikers, backpackers, trail runners, and ultramarathon runners because there is a little bit of each sport blended together.

What differentiates fastpacking from ultramarathon running is that fastpacking usually involves more hiking and jogging rather than straight trail running. Because you have to carry all of your fastpacking gear, the running pace is usually slower.

Fastpacking is also not yet a competitive sport with fastpacking races.

However, there are multi-day ultra running or trail running adventures where competitive ultrarunners are trying to get the fastest known time (FKT) on a specific trail.

These include routes such as the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian trail. The attempts at the fastest known time record are more along the lines of a fastpacking adventure rather than a backpacking trip at a leisurely pace where you are only hiking the whole time. 

A trailrunner with a backpack.

How Do You Start Fastpacking?

Here are some fastpacking tips for beginners:

#1: Practice Trail Running With a Backpack

Before you actually embark on your first backpacking trip, you should start trail running with your designated fastpacking pack to get used to trail running with a pack.

Use your training runs to build up your cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength.

Running with a full fastpacking pack changes your center of mass and will certainly make running more difficult, so it is important to practice your trail running technique.

#2: Use Trekking Poles

Using trekking poles can be quite helpful in providing added stability and balance to reduce your risk of falling.

However, running with poles is also a new technique for novice hikers or trail runners, so you will need to practice how to properly use your trekking poles.

A person running with trekking poles in the snow.

#3: Start Small

Beginners who want to get started with their first fastpacking trip certainly do not need to take on such long distances; you can do a single overnight or even just a full-day fastpacking trip to get your “feet wet.”

Then, as you build up your fitness level and learn the best way to tackle a trail while jogging, power hiking, and trail running, you can take on multi-day fastpacking adventures on more rugged terrain.

Use resources such as AllTrails.com, which outlines the difficulty level of the backcountry trail, the elevation gain, and the type of terrain. 

Make sure you are respecting your physical abilities and not choosing something that seems like a big reach in terms of what you can handle.

#4: Don’t Be Afraid to Hike

There isn’t a single way that you have to do fastpacking. 

However, most experienced fastpackers suggest that beginners power hike the uphills, run the flat stretches of trail, and jog or run the downhills, depending on how technical the trail is in terms of the incline, elevation, and footing conditions.

Generally, the goal of fastpacking is to cover the distance as quickly as possible, transitioning between power hiking, trail running, and jogging depending on the conditions of the trail.

That said, if it is your first fastpacking trip, you will likely do more hiking rather than trail running as you get used to trail running with a backpack.

A person trail running

#5: Pack Light

One of the main challenges with fastpacking trips is planning your fastpacking kit and carrying your fastpacking gear.

Because you are moving at a faster pace than on a backpacking trip, the best fastpacking gear needs to be ultralight and compact.

Essentially, you need ultralight backpacking gear: a sleep system (ultralight tent or shelter, inflatable sleeping pad, sleeping bag), water filter, cooking system or freeze-dried food, first aid kit, and moisture-wicking lightweight clothing.

#6: Bring Support

Particularly for first-time fastpacking trips, it is important to bring a buddy or support crew who have more experience than you.

Running alone on the trails can be dangerous, especially if you get hurt or lost.

If you are going to run alone, you should have a satellite radio system or some way to be rescued and have people in the area who know your planned route whom you can touch base with.

#7: Think About Safety

With any type of backpacking trip or ultra-running adventure, it is important to be aware of various safety concerns, such as storms, wildlife, poisonous plants, and dangerous people.

Do your research beforehand to know the risks with the trails you will be fastpacking and prepare accordingly.

For example, check the weather forecast beforehand to pack the right fastpacking gear and ensure you have a bear bag to keep your food stash safe when camping overnight.

A person trail running.

What Gear Do You Need for Fastpacking Treks?

Ultimately, packing the right fastpacking gear can make or break how comfortable you are both while you are out on the trails and at “camp“ overnight.

#1: Fastpacking Packs

The most essential piece of gear for fast packing is the pack.

Backpacking backpacks have a large capacity, so you have more room for a sleeping bag, tent, change of clothes, camping stove, water filtration system, etc. 

However, a fastpacking pack is sometimes smaller than a regular day pack, and closer to the size of a running hydration pack, depending on the length of your fastpacking trip and how minimalist you can be with the fastpacking kit you carry.

For ultralight fastpacking packs when you have a shorter trip or aren’t planning to use a tent, I recommend the Nathan TrailMix 12L 2.0 Hydration Pack.

It doesn’t have as much storage capacity, but the base weight is next to none, and it is a great starter backpack for shorter treks.

A person fastpacking.

There are plenty of pockets to store energy gels or collapsible flasks within reach, and there is an included 1.5 L bladder so that you don’t have to carry a water bottle while still having easy access to your hydration.

There is a bungee for expandable storage and a pouch for trekking poles.

The Ultimate Direction FastpackHer 30L 2.0 is a great lightweight pack with great storage capacity. It also comes in a 20L and 40L option.

It comes in a women’s and men’s variety to fit your body best.

What I love about the Ultimate Direction packs is that the brand thinks about the ergonomics of running, so the packs fit great without any chafing

The shoulder straps feel just like a running hydration vest, but you get the storage capacity of an ultralight backpacking pack.

Plus, channels along the back enhance breathability with moisture-wicking paneling to keep you comfortable.

You can slide the sternum chest strap up and down based on your anatomy to get a great bounce-free, no-chafing fit, and there is a detachable waist belt for when you are running with a heavier load for long fastpacking adventures.

The pack is made of durable polyester and has strategically placed pockets for your water bottle, food, poles, or headlamp for long days on the trail.

The base weight is a little more than 1 pound, and you can put a hydration bladder in the pack to increase your water-carrying capacity.

A tent.

#2: Sleep System

The sleep system is where you can save a lot on total pack weight or add a lot, depending on what you need.

Some people choose to have only an ultralight sleeping bag and inflatable sleeping pad and then just sleep under the stars.

Most fastpackers use what is known as a bivy shelter, which is basically a stripped-down tent to protect you from the elements.

I recommend the Sleep to Summit Ultralight Air Sleeping Mat for the lightest inflatable sleeping pad. It packs to a minuscule 9 x 18 cm and weighs just 345 grams.

This award-winning ultralight sleeping pad comes with its own pump and stuff sack (that turns into a pillow!) and is smaller than many popular water bottles. Yet, you still get a surprising amount of comfort and cushioning from the Air Sprung Cells.

To reduce your pack weight, I suggest getting the lightest sleeping bag you can find that will still keep you warm enough based on the climate and temperatures where you will be fastpacking.

I’m obsessed with the Outdoor Vitals Top Quilt. It comes in different temperatures and is hands down the best way to stay warmer due to its draft-free design and down-filling. 

The best minimalist bivy shelter is the Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp.

The Escapist Tarp Shelter is a technical but versatile ultralight tarp shelter made from tape seam-sealed waterproof 15 denier Ultra-Sil™ Nano™ nylon. You can pitch it in various ways using your trekking poles or trees.

If you prefer a full tent to protect you from the elements, my recommendations for the best ultralight tents for fastpacking are the award-winning Outdoor Vitals 1-Person Trekking Pole Tent or the Black Diamond Distance Tent.

The Outdoor Vitals 1P Tent is barely over 1.5 pounds, so it’s perfect for keeping the pack weight low while delivering on performance.

A fastpack with hydration.

#3: Hydration

You will need an ultralight backpacking water filter you can find so that you can purify water from natural water sources.

For water storage, it is typically best to have a hydration bladder in your pack so that you have water within reach and don’t have to keep stopping to filter water for a single bottle.

If you would also like a handheld water bottle, I highly recommend the Nathan QuickSqueeze Plus Handheld.

Remember that it is difficult to use trekking poles if you are holding a water bottle while running.

#4: Trail Running Shoes

You will need a good pair of trail running shoes for your fastpacking adventures. 

Some fastpackers prefer to find the lightest trail running shoes possible, especially if you plan to have long days on the trail, but getting waterproof GTX trail running shoes tends to be worth the sacrifice in weight and higher cost to keep your feet dry.

I love the HOKA Speedgoat 5 GTX trail running shoes.

For clothing, you will need to look at the weather conditions. Remember that you will typically need multiple layers, especially if you will be fastpacking at altitude or experiencing significant elevation changes. 

I love a lightweight, breathable, long-sleeve running shirt like the Outdoor Vitals Performance Tee. It’s only 2 ounces! It stuffs down to next to nothing in your pack.

Nights can also get quite cold and most of the lightest sleeping bags are not necessarily the warmest.

Typically, you will want a pair of running tights, running shorts, a T-shirt or tank top made of sweat-wicking material, a light long-sleeve top, and some kind of jacket such as a lightweight raincoat or packable puffy jacket made of feather-light down.

You will also need several pairs of running socks that are sweat-wicking. The last thing you want is to deal with blisters from a long day on the trails.

A close-up of the sole of a trail running shoe.

#5: Food

You will need freeze-dried food or ready-to-eat meals. Backpacker’s Pantry makes good high-calorie freeze-dried meals and breakfasts. 

During the day, energy gels, energy bars, and trail mix or dried fruit can be good fuel options. You’ll want to keep these foods in reach so you can keep your energy levels up as you move along the trail.

#6: First Aid Kit

Although hikers generally carry a more robust first aid kit, fastpackers want to assemble the lightest first aid kit possible while still containing the essentials.

Typically, it is good to have some Band-Aids, sterile gauze, a little bit of Vaseline or anti-chafing balm, sunscreen, insect repellent, your medication, antihistamines like Benadryl, and a couple of ibuprofen or Tylenol.

A first aid kit.

#6: Trekking Poles

Trekking poles are great for added stability. My pick for the best trekking poles for fastpacking is the Black Diamond Carbon Z Trekking Poles.

These ultralight trekking poles, made from 100% carbon construction, are collapsible and come in women’s and men’s designs and various lengths based on your height.

#7: Gaiters

Gaiters can be a great addition to your fastpacking gear. They fit right over your shoes to help keep them dry in wet weather.

#8 Headlamp

Even if you are not planning on running throughout the evenings, carry a headlamp for all fastpacking trips. Not only will they be necessary for long days on the trail, but also help you see around the campsite.

Overall, fastpacking is a super fun way to combine your love of hiking, running, camping, and connecting with nature.

Click here for more of our hiking guides.

A group of people hiking with poles.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.