Few things give freewheeling travellers greater pleasure than taking an order and turning it inside out. ‘Walk, don’t run!’ say the disapproving teachers, officious swimming pool attendants, sanctimonious signposts and other agents of the fun police.
Well ‘bah’ to that, because when it comes to exploring the outdoors, some of us feel like we can experience a whole lot more by lacing a pair of trail-running shoes to some fleet feet, packing light and moving fast.
A trail runner powering along the ridge of a mountain © Ascent Xmedia / Getty Images
It’s a very simple concept: instead of walking a trail, you run it. Why? Because it feels good, and it allows you to cover greater ground, explore more far-flung corners and see the scenery from a completely different point of view. Running doesn’t necessarily mean rushing. It can involve an engagement with the terrain that’s far more tactile than traditional trekkers realise, with every root and rock analysed before the foot falls on it.
A little bit of speed can quite easily lead to wealth of stealth too, and often fastpackers will enjoy encounters with shy wildlife that chatty, clattering wanderers can but wonder about. Trail running allows a traveller to do a ‘day walk’ before breakfast. Fastpackers – who take the notion to the next level and carry overnight gear – can tackle long-distance expeditions in days rather than weeks.
Where in the world
Places that have large swaths of wilderness and good networks of well-maintained long-distance footpaths are ideal for fastpacking adventures. New Zealand is a standout example, with its system of Great Walks and myriad other top trails all looked after superbly by the Department of Conservation. World-famous routes such as the Milford, Routeburn, Tongariro Circuit and the Abel Tasman are, on paper, multiday commitments for hikers, but a reasonably fit fastpacker can complete them in one or two days, while still experiencing all the glory of the terrain they traverse.
Other great locales for fastpacking can be found all over the globe in destinations as diverse as Australia, Canada, the US, UK, South Africa, Ireland, Japan, Germany, Kenya, Columbia, Italy, Ecuador, France and Peru. These countries all have sensational hut- and campsite-punctuated paths ripe for exploration by trail-running travelers. You can go anywhere with the right gear and attitude, but carefully consider the climate when planning when and where to go – avoiding extremes of heat or cold will obviously make the escapade a lot more enjoyable.
The author – pictured here at the rear, traversing the Tongariro Circuit – was part of a three-man expedition team who set out to establish a record for running New Zealand’s nine Great Walks in 9 days © Patrick Kinsella
Comfortable and durable running shoes are essential for a successful fastpacking trip. Everyone has a personal preference about how much padding he or she likes between their pinkies and the path, but unless you’re a very experienced barefoot runner, this isn’t the time to experiment with minimalist shoes. (In fact this isn’t the time to be testing anything new – make sure you’ve put all your equipment through its paces well before you leave – especially your footwear.) You’ll want something that balances lightness with good levels of support and protection from the elements: the XA Pro 3D GTX by Salomon (salomon.com) are perfect, but for extra bounce, try a trail shoe from Hoka One One (hokaoneone.com).
Take layers, starting with a technical t-shirt or two (made from a poly fabric – any brand will do, no need to spend big) that will dry fast after being drenched in sweat or rain, and a long-sleeved lightweight merino wool top such as those made by Icebreaker (icebreaker.com) or Smartwool (smartwool.com). Your destination will dictate how many layers you need, but a high-quality, breathable shell jacket (made with Gore-Tex, eVent or similar materials) is always an excellent investment – the Minimalist by Marmot (marmot.com) is a good option. Dry socks and a beanie-style hat are worth their weight in gold at the end of a day’s running, and it’s worth stashing thermals.
Packs for making tracks
Seek out a day-size backpack (10–30 litres, depending on the extent of your escapade), with a good harness (waist and sternum straps are essential to stop it jigging while you’re jogging), easily accessible pockets (for stashing trail snacks to eat on the hoof), a ventilated harness design (to stop your back sweating) and an in-built hydration system (secured water bladder with hose). Osprey (ospreypacks.com) and Camelbak (camelbak.com) both make excellent packs for this purpose.
The speed of light
Since you’ll have to carry everything while running, it’s essential to travel as light as possible, but don’t skimp on quality – a gear or wardrobe malfunction in the wilderness can be serious. For overnight missions you’ll need a sleeping bag that offers maximum bang for minimum baggage, so splash the cash on a good goosedown number such as Alpkit’s ultralight PipeDream (alpkit.com). Many long-distance trails have huts, which is super helpful, but if you’re venturing into the genuine wilds for multiple days you’ll need some form of lightweight shelter. In warmer areas a simple tarp like the Siltarp from Rab (rab.equipment) or the Escapist by Sea to Summit (seatosummitusa.com) will suffice, but for more protection, go for a one-person tiny tent such as the Vaude Bivi (vaude.com). A stove is another consideration: the MicroRocket or WhisperLite by MSR (msrgear.com) are good options, and the same company make excellent integrated cooking systems (pans and plates) which are compatible with their stoves for easy stashing.
You can spend a fortune on pre-prepared dehydrated meals – and some, such as those by Backcountry Cuisine (backcountrycuisine.co.nz) are almost worth it – but it’s also easy to take your own lightweight grub. Go for carbs (pasta, porridge oats, couscous) and protein (almonds, tuna sachets), but don’t neglect taste: a few dried herbs weigh next to nothing.
Nay-sayers and trail manners
Fastpacking is a surprisingly contentious issue. Some dyed-in-the-wool walkers take exception to people trotting along trails, even though trail running is arguably a lower-impact pursuit than hiking. After all, you carry lighter gear and spend less time on the path and in huts/campsites, leaving a smaller footprint and burning less fuel. Part of the argument seems to revolve around the fact that you ‘should’ spend more time appreciating the immersive experience of the route, but really, everyone is free to enjoy the wilderness in their own way: cyclists ride, walkers hike, runners run – no biggie.
It goes without saying, however, that you should be courteous to other trail users, not barging past them, letting people know when you’re approaching from behind and definitely not littering the track with gel wrappers or other waste.
Pick your trail buddies carefully
Many fastpackers and trail runners like the sensation of going solo and being utterly immersed in the terrain, but you don’t have to be Billy No Mates. A shared fastpacking adventure can help forge a lifelong friendship, but make sure you’re hitting the trails with someone who wants the same sort of experience as you do. If one person is looking to set a fastest known time ('FKT' if you're in a hurry – obviously you are) and the other wants to occasionally stop and watch the sunset or slow down to smell the wild roses, conflict can quickly arise.
Stay safe: take a map and compass and know how to use them. Also pack a small first-aid kit, a space blanket and a phone, and let people know where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
Record your route: a smart watch such as the Ambit by Suunto (suunto.com) will show you exactly where you’ve been, how much elevation you achieved and how fast you travelled.
Enjoy it: unless you’re attempting to break a record, it isn’t a race. Stop sometimes, and drink in the views.
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