What if we told you there was a new way to hike further, see more and escape to ever more remote trails away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday. Bliss right? The answer is speed hiking.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard about speed hiking or fast packing, but what is it exactly? And how do you get started? What kit do you need?
From the best speed hiking shoes to clever fastpacking tips, we’re here to help you get more from your time on the trail.
What is speedhiking and fastpacking?
Speed hiking, sometimes called, fastpacking has become increasingly popular over the last few years and is pretty much what it sounds like: traditional backpacking, but faster. Or a cross between backpacking and trail running if you like.
Why rush through nature?
The key attraction is that fastpackers travel greater distances, so they see and do more than a conventional backpacker would in the same time period – getting further away from the white noise of everyday life quicker. There can be a greater sense of freedom too, knowing how far you’re able to travel, as a myriad new options open up to you…
It’s the perfect sport for our time-impoverished age. Yes, fitness is important – though for most people a fastpacking trip is a combination of walking and running (or even skiing) – but fastpacking isn’t necessarily the realm of Dean Karnazes wannabes. The most important element that allows folk to cover perhaps 30 or 40 miles in a day is simply to travel light. Halving the ounces on your back could mean doubling the miles under your feet.
Northern Ireland’s Matthew Hazley became the first person to thru-hike the Triple Crown of the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian Trails, all in one season.
The 7,525 miles (12,110 kilometers) took him 239 days. And 13 pairs of shoes.
“My goal was 40 miles a day,” he told /National Geographic Adventure/ magazine. “I’d start at 6 or 7am to limit myself to 14 hours a day. Otherwise, if I started at 4 or 5am, I’d go 16 hours.” His pack’s base weight was eight pounds (4kg) without food and water (though he added more kit for the snows of the High Sierra).
Of course, fastpacking needn’t be competitive or anywhere near as ambitious as that. A fastpacker doesn’t need to head into the wilds for months or weeks at a time. It’s just about the inherent joys and freedoms of going fast and light, broadening your horizons to think more ambitiously about what might be possible in a time frame.
There’s great pleasure to to be had traveling at pace, covering great distances and seeing great things, all on your own steam and self-sufficiency.
“Fastpacking is a brilliant sport,” says Meghan Hicks on Irunfar.com. “Where you sleep under the stars wherever your feet have landed you.”
Fastpacking: Where do I start?
Your first fastpacking journey might not even be an overnight effort – even a straight out and back – probably a good idea if you’ve not covered those sorts of distance before or need to test out new kit. It might be a 60 mile, 100 or 200-mile trail. If the competitive element appeals, maybe there’s a trail nearby that doesn’t have a FKT – of one that sounds breakable? To borrow a cliche with thousands of miles of truth in it: the destination isn’t the point, it’s the journey that counts.
It needn’t be a solitary thing. Invite a friend and get scheming. Research is vital and remember to think about gradient, terrain, if you can get resupplies of food, availability of water courses and suchlike. Always tell someone your plans and when they should expect to hear from you again. If you’re new to endurance sport, think seriously about training for your trip – running, hiking and any cardiovascular sport will be a great help, and practice carrying your pack when possible.
Fastpacking: Where Should you Speed Hike?
As you’re unlikely to be carrying lots of back-up or safety supplies, such as extra food or layers, it is advisable to stick mostly to recognized trails. Any national park could be excellent for a fastpacking expedition. If you’re intrigued by the competitive side of the sport, the Grand Canyon: Rim to rim, (42 or 47 miles depending on which way you go) is one of the shortest challenges, with a hotly coveted FKT. The 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail is another popular one. And then of course there’s the Triple Crown trails and the 211-mile John Muir Trail. But much of the joy of the sport is in coming up with your own challenge or route.
Fastpacking Gear: What Kit do I Need to Speed Hike?
Getting your pack down to an ultralight weight is all-important. This may mean a few sacrifices when it comes to comfort, but then this isn’t a marsh mellows over the campfire type of holiday. A lot of kit choice will depend on the season, weather and likely temperatures – summer fastpacking allows for a lighter pack for obvious reasons – and personal preferences.
Fastpackers tend to use trail shoes rather than boots, as they allow faster progress. There’s less weight for your calfs to lift, but the better ones still have excellent grip. If you’re coming from more of a hiking background and prefer ankle support, then Merrell also make excellent lightweight ankle-high boots now that will suit many speed hikers, too, such as the all new Merrell Capra.
Along with footwear, a comfortable pack is your most important kit choice, and 35 liters is the maximum size (any bigger and you’re backpacking). If you can get your kit down to 15-25 liters – carrying less than 10 pounds (4.5kg) – you’re getting there. Consider ultramarathon-style running pack-vests, too, which can be excellent. It needs to fit your back, so ideally try before you buy. And the less it weighs before your stuff your kit in it, the less you’re carrying overall.
Sleeping bag, sleeping mat and shelter are the Big Three when it comes to kit weight. For sleeping bags, down has the best warmth per weight ratio and it compresses best. A sleeping mat is often next heaviest – can you do without one? If you can’t, how big does it really need to be? For many it’s just shoulders and hips and fastpackers tend to trim away so there’s so there’s no excess. For shelter, seasoned fastpackers will take a tarp, tarptent or bivvy instead of a tent. Better still, are there any back country huts where you’re going?
Clothes, like much kit, is personal, but shorts are most fast packers’ preference. They’re very breathable for starters and don’t take long to dry out after a downpour. Do you really need spare clothes? That may depend on how far you’re going for.
What’s the Best food for speed hiking?
Just like the rest of your kit, you need to consider the weight. There are trade offs to be made. Which ones will be highly personal. Some speed hikers will go without a stove while others may not be willing to do without the luxury of that bed-time hot chocolate or early morning coffee kick. Stoves are getting lighter all the time (now as light as 1.5oz, sans gas canister).
Food, too, is wildly different weights. Fruit for example, is usually prohibitively heavy. Dehydrated food is popular, as are energy bars, dried fruit, dried meat and sports gels. Think light, but remember you’ll be burning plenty of calories too.
Of course, purists might suggest you cut the labels off your clothes and shave off all your body hair to save yet more weight.
Traveling light has risks, so think through scenarios you may encounter. What will you do if the temperature drops dramatically, if there’s snow or sustained heavy rain? It might be that keep moving, or stop and erect a shelter, are your favorite options rather than carrying extra layers. Research is crucial – it could save your life or at least more weight. For example, you don’t want to be lugging two liters about if there’s a river full of gloriously fresh mountain water only a mile ahead.
All that said, while lightweight kit is the essence of fastpacking, don’t get too hung up on it. It’s more about having a fast and light mentality. It’s a very good excuse to start daydreaming…