What is fastpacking?

Lily Dyu explains the concept of fastpacking: a fast-growing niche in the world of trail running.

Put simply, fastpacking is the hybrid of running, hiking and lightweight backpacking. It’s a multi-day running trip carrying the bare essentials. Underpinning the activity is the principle of ‘fast and light’ – taking only what you need to stay safe and happy, and nothing more. This allows you to travel further and faster in a day compared with hiking, by running whenever the terrain allows it.

The many styles of fastpacking

To purists, fastpacking means being self-sufficient through wild camping, but there are many styles of trip: from running with a pack between overnight stops, like guesthouses and hostels, to bothying in remote wilderness locations. Hut-to-hut running is increasingly popular in places like the Alps, where networks of mountain refuges in spectacular locations provide hot meals and a bed, allowing you to live well and travel light.

Why go fastpacking

You could see it as adventure racing without the race. It’s about exploring and enjoying your surroundings at your own pace. The reward is the journey itself and the thrill of moving fast and light in the wild. There is a special satisfaction in making a running journey powered by your own two feet and seeing your surroundings change as you go. And by carrying no more than you need, fastpacking provides a beautiful sense of simplicity and freedom.

Superb views from the Hohturli Pass. The Alpine Pass Route, Switzerland. Photo by Chris Councell.Fantastic running on the descent from Col de la Seigne. Tour du Mont Blanc, France.Hut-hopping is great way to travel. Refuge de la Croix de Bonhomme on the Tour Mont Blanc, FranceWild camping means you can stop whereever you find your perfect spot. Dartmoor, England. Photo by Chris Councell.Taking in the coastal views. Knoydart, Scotland.

The growing appeal of running adventures

More and more people are pursuing solo running adventures as a way to experience and explore the outdoors. Elise Downing ran the coast of Britain in 301 days, camping and staying with friends, while Damian Hall ran the entire 630-mile South West Coast path in a record-breaking time of 10 days, 15 hours and 18 minutes. But you don’t need to go far or fast. It could be an out-and-back running trip from your doorstep or following a local long-distance path at a leisurely pace. Fastpacking is for everyone.

Humans were born to run. Our ancient ancestors were hunter-gatherers, spending days on foot, roaming through the landscape. Perhaps the phenomenal growth of fastpacking is a backlash against our increasingly screen-based, sedentary lives and the constant pressure to record and post every run or ride online. It’s a fantastic way to disconnect from our digital lives and reconnect with nature and ourselves. Spending days immersed in the landscape and natural world through fastpacking is, for many runners, a much richer and deeper experience than a trail or ultra race.

A word about walking

Fastpacking is just like ultra-running in that you will do a lot more walking than you would on a typical long run. This is due to the extra weight on your back and the fact that you’re doing it for several days. When fastpacking, most people will usually walk the hills and run the flats and downhills, unless the terrain is very technical. A leisurely pace also gives you more time to enjoy the views!

Where to go

My first fastpacking trip was the West Highland Way over five days (which sounds pretty casual when you consider the record for the 95-mile route is under 14 hours). Since then, I’ve run many of the UK’s long-distance paths, including the South Downs Way and Wainwright’s Coast to Coast; devised my own routes such as a three-day traverse of Wales; wild camped on Dartmoor; run between bothies in the wilds of Knoydart; and enjoyed the delights of European mountain huts in Italy, Switzerland and France. Just as enjoyable have been two-day micro-adventures, running on the Gower, through the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons while staying at hostels and bunkhouses.

A great way to travel. Fastpacking in the Black Mountains of WalesBuachaille Etive Mor, Glencoe. Fastpacking the West Highland Way, Scotland.Approaching Hay-on-Wye at the end of a three-day run across Wales. Photo by Chris Councell.

How fit do I need to be?

You don’t need to be an ultra athlete or an extreme adventurer to go fastpacking. It’s a lot easier than you’d imagine. And for those who hate planning, there are many companies who will take all of that off your hands, including moving your bags and booking your accommodation, allowing you to just run with a day pack.

What to take

Obviously, if you are wild camping or using bothies you will need a tent, stove, sleeping bag and mat as well as food. Your clothes will be a significant weight in your pack and the goal is to pack minimally while ensuring you have everything you need for the expected conditions. It’s a classic balancing act that requires you to question whether every item has a place on your trip.

While more experienced ultra-runners might manage a hut-to-hut trip carrying only the compulsory kit for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race, others might want more gear – but always remember that pack weight will significantly affect your enjoyment of the trip.

Always consider multi-uses for different items of gear. A pair of running tights will be travel-wear, evening-wear or running-wear when it’s cold or wet. A fleece top for the evening will be an extra running layer if it gets cold. A buff could be a beanie, headband, travel towel or wrist sweat-band

While there is a lot of ultra-lightweight equipment on the market, don’t get too hung up on gear. Just pick a route and give multi-day running a try. Quite simply, for anyone who loves running, fastpacking is a great way to travel, explore and discover new places.

The weight of your pack is the most crucial factor for enjoyable and successful fastpackingInside Strathchailleach (Sandy's bothy), Sutherland, ScotlandFantastic cliff top running before the finish at Robin Hood Bay. Coast to coast route, England.

Some ideas for fastpacking trips

  • A good first trip is an out-and-back run to a youth hostel or guesthouse so you carry only minimal gear
  • The South Downs Way and West Highland Way are great routes for your first multi-day run. The trails are friendly and easy to follow and there’s plenty of accommodation if you don’t want to carry camping gear. Daily distances and climbing can be kept to whatever you are comfortable with. You can use walkers’ baggage moving services on these routes if you want to just run with a daypack.
  • Run from the Irish Sea to the North Sea across northern England by following Wainwright’s Coast to Coast route. Although it is an unofficial and mostly unsignposted trail, it attracts thousands of walkers each year. With its constantly changing scenery it also makes a superb running trip that will test your ability to navigate.
  • Hut-to-hut running is a wonderful way to experience the mountains. Try the Alta Via 1 route in the Dolomites for stunning trails, Italian huts and hospitality, or the Tour du Mont Blanc route for a taste of the iconic trails of the UTMB.
  • Fancy fastpacking the length of a country? Anna McNuff spent 148 days running the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa trail, solo and unsupported, covering 3000km. She wild camped and stayed in hostels and huts along the way, while going into schools to speak with children, to inspire them to get outdoors.

Get involved with Cicerone