Put backpacking and trail running together and what do you get?
Fastpacking combines ultra trail running with lightweight backpacking, allowing deeper exploration into the backcountry.
You don’t have to be out for fastest known times, though: Regular trail runners, hikers and backpackers can get started. It’s just a matter of acquiring the right gear, planning a route and training.
Here’s what you need to know about fastpacking in Washington.
The first step is getting in shape — both mental and physical — in preparation for long days on the trail. If you’re an avid runner, consider training plans for 50K or 50-mile races.
If you’ve never trail run and want to start slower, Seattle-based running coach Trisha Steidl said to consider joining a local running group, like the Seattle Mountain Running Group or Seattle Running Club. People who identify as women can find running buddies in the PNW Outdoor Women Facebook group, and women of color can join Trail Mixed for regular group runs.
Seasoned trail runners can test the fastpacking waters by finding a friend to join them for a day trip. Generally, single-day fastpacking trips range from 30 to 60 miles, depending on your speed, expertise and comfort level. And, of course, you can work your way up to longer runs.
Experienced runners can also consider a group trip, which can cost several hundred dollars.
Bellingham-based Aspire Adventure Running organizes multiday running adventures across the Pacific Northwest. Trips range from two to four days and cover as many as 100 miles. Runners can choose from a variety of lengths, locations and difficulties, and trips include emergency and logistical support (such as permits), and some meals.
“Fastpacking is a great way for runners to break up a larger endurance objective into multiple days,” said Abram Dickerson, Aspire course director. “Done well, this style of travel means full days of movement, a basic but comfortable overnight experience, and the benefit of beautiful sunsets, sunrises and moving in the daylight to take in all the views.”
Packing the right gear
Lightweight gear is key to fastpacking, but the size of the pack depends on the trip. Testing your gear before you head out on your first fastpacking trip is key to optimal comfort.
“While asking others what they do may help point you in a good direction, ultimately figuring out what to wear [and/or] carry is something learned best through experience,” Steidl said.
Before your big run, head to a familiar training route or go for a short overnight with your loaded pack to get a sense of how it will feel on a longer journey.
Required gear will vary depending on trip length and how minimalist you want to go with your pack; just be sure to always bring the 10 essentials (navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, fire, shelter, food, water and clothes). Single-day fastpackers should still bring overnight gear and layers in case of emergency.
You’ll want a running-specific backpack for fastpacking, which is lightweight and designed for such adventures. Larger capacity packs range from about 20 to 35 liters (i.e., 20L to 35L), though you can go much lower if you dare! Ultimate Direction and UltraAspire make great packs.
Your sleeping setup will vary depending on the weather and your comfort level. And although ultralight gear is not cheap, you can start out with what you have or borrow from friends to accumulate new items slowly.
In lieu of a bulkier sleeping bag, consider a backing quilt, which takes up less space and weight. As far as shelter, the most lightweight options are a bivy sack, hammock or tarp.
Food and water
Katadyn makes soft flask water bottle filters that fit into running backpacks. Since you’ll be running and covering dozens of miles each day, packing enough food will be critical.
Many runners opt for energy bars, gels and chews during the run. It’s likely you will get sick of those and want some real food at the end of the day. Backpacking meals are a great option because they’re lightweight and high in calories. If you go that route, bring a backpacking stove like a Jetboil.
Layers, layers, layers! You’ll want a hat, gloves, rain jacket and warm jacket for evenings. Merino wool is ideal for sweaty ultra feats because of its insulation properties, minimal stink and quick drying abilities.
Bring a set of clothes that are your designated dry clothes to change into after you finish your run for the day. You’ll also be grateful for a pair of sandals you can wear with socks at camp.
Satellite communication device
Chances are you won’t have much, if any, cell reception in the backcountry, so it’s a good idea to bring a satellite communication device like a Garmin InReach in case of an emergency. A battery pack is also a good idea if you have space.
Planning your first fastpacking trip
Plan for a fastpacking trip similarly to how you would a backpacking trip. Make sure you understand any permitting regulations, water availability, the weather and snowpack (especially now, during shoulder season). Check with local ranger stations, hiking websites, friends and hiking groups for recent trip information.
Steidl recommended researching the following routes for novice fastpackers.
Pacific Crest Trail
“We’re so fortunate to have the [Pacific Crest Trail] in our backyard,” Steidl said. She said the PCT is good for fastpackers of all experience levels because it’s easy to find a shorter, easier section — or to tackle something more remote if you have the experience.
White Pass/Pilot Ridge Loop
This 30-mile loop off the Mountain Loop Highway in the North Cascades features alpine lakes, spectacular views and gorgeous wildflowers in the summer. The route is easy to follow and great for beginners or intermediate fastpackers.
The Wonderland Trail
Circumnavigate Mount Rainier on this classic, well-marked and easy-to-navigate 93-mile route. While most of the trail remains fairly remote, its popularity means there are a few spots with amenities. Permits are required to complete the trail; see st.news/Wonderland for more.