The joys of fastpacking
Lily Dyu recounts some of her most memorable adventures (and misadventures) while multi-day running.
Through my sunglasses it just looked like ordinary ground. I should have noticed the suspicious bright green moss but I was enjoying the running and glorious views all around. A split second later I was shocked to find myself chest deep in a stinking, cold bog. I knew of notorious bogs in the Peak District and Dartmoor, but not in South Wales. Will it suck me in like quicksand? I wondered. Then I kicked my legs and realised I could doggy paddle. Clambering out, I was soaked, smelly and coated in plant debris.
It was a Sunday morning in June and I was on the first of two days fastpacking around the Brecon Beacons with an overnight stay at the youth hostel at Talybont. Half an hour away was Llanwrtyd Wells – the home of the world-famous bog snorkelling championships, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised at my ‘wild swim’ that morning. Thankfully, it was warm and sunny and I would dry out, so I carried on, cursing myself for my silly mistake.
I arrived at the hostel looking and smelling like I’d been in a fight in a farmyard and lost.
It was an hour later, on a stony track near Talybont forest that I tripped and landed on my front, winding myself and bloodying my knees. I sat to catch my breath. I couldn’t believe it. I picked myself up and tried a gentle jog. I was a little sore on my side but no major damage done, it seemed. Thankfully, the rest of the day was uneventful, although I arrived at the hostel looking and smelling like I’d been in a fight in a farmyard and lost.
Despite my mishaps, I had a fantastic weekend in the Beacons. It was a week later, returning from the Man versus Horse marathon that I told a friend I’d run the race cautiously because my side was still sore. ‘Does it hurt to cough or sneeze?’ he asked me. It turned out that I’d cracked a rib where I’d landed on my water bottle!
For me, fastpacking is all about enjoying beautiful surroundings. I love making a journey powered by my own two feet and seeing my surroundings change as I go.
But that weekend I was painfully reminded to always stop to look at the views whenever the terrain also demands your attention.
During eight years of fastpacking, I have made over 20 multi-day running trips, short and long in the UK, Europe and Asia. These have been some of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I have also made mistakes and got into plenty of scrapes and I always come home humbler, a little wiser and more respectful of the mountains. We always learn more from our failures than our successes, so, in the rest of this piece I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned – the outtakes from my Fastpacking book – so you don’t have to make my (sometimes painful) errors.
Research the technical difficulty of your route beforehand and ensure it’s within your capability
While fastpacking the Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites with my boyfriend, Chris, we deliberately cut short the route because it included a 20-metre exposed scramble, which I wasn’t comfortable doing in running shoes. Unfortunately, we discovered this only part way through the trip when we properly read the guidebook so it meant some re-planning. Then, on another Alpine trip, again due to being busy at work, we hadn’t read the guidebook in depth prior to leaving. On day two our descent from a pass was chain-assisted on a narrow, technical path clinging to the mountain. We hadn’t spotted this beforehand and had no choice but to go down, very slowly and carefully. With more experience, I’m now more comfortable tackling assisted sections wearing running shoes, but I should have known to expect this beforehand.
Let someone know your travel plans, especially if travelling solo
I’m not great with heights and exposed ridges. One morning, on a solo crossing of Snowdonia, I’d been enticed by the good weather to take a high-level variant over the Carneddau instead of the main route. A few hours later I found myself scrambling up a ridge alone with my heart thumping wildly in my chest. I realised then that I’d forgotten to tell anyone my change of plans and that I was completely alone if I got into trouble. I took exquisite care as I climbed. At the top, on safely reaching the cairn, I was never happier to see an old pile of stones.
Travel light but even when packing minimally you should always have the right gear for the terrain and likely weather. Make sure you know the expected conditions and are prepared
Mountain weather can change quickly. And this is certainly true of the higher ranges of Europe like the Alps. During a September trip to the Dolomites we experienced extremes, from baking sun to waking to fresh snow. And it was there, in a mountain hut over dinner, as lightning flashed outside, that we pondered what you should actually do if you encounter a thunderstorm.
In late June this year, on a four-day run around the Monte Rosa circuit, some cols were still heavy with snow after an exceptionally hard winter. Even wearing micro-spikes I had a hair-raising moment when I slipped and had to grab Chris’s running pole to stop myself sliding further down a slope. I was extremely cautious for the rest of the trip and spooked by the experience. I’m not massively into winter sports but I probably wouldn’t run in those conditions again without better knowledge of self-arrest techniques and winter skills.
Take the height gain into account (not just distance) when estimating your pace
Once, on the first day of a solo two-day circuit fastpacking around Exmoor, I completely misjudged all the climbing and descending through the deep combes typical of the area. Early evening, realising I might not make my guesthouse in Lynton by nightfall, I finished that day’s leg by hitching and then bus! Remember that if your route is exceptionally hilly, with steep climbs, technical descents and few flat sections, you may find that it’s impossible to run and you will actually be no quicker than a walker.
Take a head torch in case you make slower progress than planned and end up on the trails in the dark or fading light
While fastpacking the Grand Traversata del Alpi route in Italy, we’d misjudged the amount of climb and descent on technical trails on our first day, while aiming to cover two walking stages. Slow progress left us on the mountain as the sun set so, donning head torches, we decided to follow the road down to our destination for the night, rather than continue on footpaths. We then realised that we might arrive at our accommodation after midnight when everyone would be asleep. So we ended up knocking on the door of a lonely farmhouse to ask for a lift to the valley bottom. If it wasn’t for the kindness of the farmer’s wife, we may have ended up bivvying on an Italian mountainside (a prospect that Chris seemed quite happy about!)
Always know where you are on the map
It’s easy to forget to check your map while you’re caught up in the flow of running, but you don’t want to suddenly reach a junction and wonder where you are. Once in the Italian Alps we were blithely following paint marks on the trail, expecting to reach a col. These had changed from white and red to yellow and red and we’d lazily assumed we were still on the right route. Some time later we realised we were contouring the mountain instead of climbing it – a mistake that added two hours to what should have been a simple day. The poor lady at our next refuge worried that we’d fallen from the pass and almost hugged us in relief when we arrived at her door.
Altitude can affect women’s menstrual cycles
One of the most incredible running experiences I’ve had was a stage race in the Himalaya, around Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest mountain. However, a few days into the race and ignorant of the effects that altitude and exertion could have on my body, I was horrified when my period arrived early. After asking around the women runners, I eventually spoke with the owner’s wife in the teahouse where we were staying. She insisted on selling me one of her precious packs of sanitary pads; there, at over 3000 metres and days from the nearest town, I knew they couldn’t be easily replaced.
Women should be aware that the menstrual cycle can be affected by physical, physiological and emotional stress, all of which can occur at high altitude. Be aware of this if you are fastpacking at high altitude. Pack sanitary items even if you aren’t expecting your period during your trip.
Remember to eat and drink on the trail
While fastpacking the Alpine Pass in Switzerland we had one day of constant rain climbing from Meiringen to Grindelwald via the Grosse Scheidigg pass. I spent the day encased in Goretex and it was so wet and cold that I didn’t want to stop to eat. A couple of hours into the climb and feeling a bit wobbly, I found myself scrumping wild bilberries and raspberries on the side of the trail. Chris realised that this was odd behavior! Sense kicked in and we found a cowshed to shelter in while stopping for a proper snack and drink. A bowl of soup and apfelstrudel at the next refuge was also very welcome!
While fastpacking your energy requirements will be high due to the demands of carrying a pack on hilly or mountainous terrain. Eat and drink frequently while you’re moving and refuel and rehydrate adequately in the evenings.
On multi-day running trips you need good cushioning in your shoes
When fastpacking the 73-mile Cumbria Way over three days I made a poor shoe choice, opting for a pair of innov8 Mudclaws, and didn’t insert my usual Sorbathane insoles. While these are superb shoes for the fells, the trail was very hard packed in places. By day 3, with 30 miles to Carlisle, the soles of my feet were battered and bruised and the last miles on cycle path were agony!
The most important thing you will take on a fastpacking trip is your outdoor know-how
On a two-day fastpacking circuit around Knoydart we encountered unexpected river crossings. Thankfully the river was not in spate but in worse weather these could have been extremely hazardous. This was a remote and wild place and we were a day in any direction from human habitation. On any fastpacking trip you need to have the skills to take care of yourself and others before you head into the mountains and remote places. If you are not skilled enough to hike a route, then never fastpack it, since running increases your risk of an accident.
When fastpacking in a group you will only be as fast as your slowest runner
I’ve enjoyed many fastpacking adventures with my boyfriend, Chris. However, on more than one occasion he has been less fit than me on a trip, so we travel at his pace (which also helps to avoid a domestic!) And, of course, this is all relative. When we both joined a four-day run around Monte Rosa, we were in the company of uber-athletes who had, between them, run the Tour Des Geants, the Marathon des Sables and also the entire Great Himalayan Trail across Nepal. We were the slowest by far and everyone kindly accommodated our speed (or lack of!).
Despite my various mishaps, fastpacking is my favourite way to travel and explore
I love its simplicity and the chance to be in nature for days at a time; I’ve enjoyed views, from a cloud inversion filling an Alpine valley to a rain shower lit gold over a Scottish sea loch; I’ve feasted on bread and cheese on mountainsides and dined on three-course meals in mountain huts; I’ve relished raw wilderness and solitude and shared a dram with new friends in a bothy. And, as with all travel, I’ve met wonderful people on the way, which reminds me to share my last top tip…
Take earplugs for huts and bothies
I hope you’ll find these lessons helpful as you plan your own multi-day running adventure.