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Outfitted: Fastpacking, the ‘Sexy Hybrid’ of Trail Running and Backpacking

Fastpacking — a stripped-down, all-out pursuit of mileage in the forest.

There’s something strangely satisfying about trekking quickly and quietly through the woods — in any season. Maybe it’s my long-suppressed hunter instincts that give me a high when I break through thickets to rush up on a grazing deer, a slithering snake, or a nesting turkey. Whatever the reason, I’m addicted.

Waterford makes sure his fastpacking pack never weighs more than 20 pounds so he can move swiftly through the woods. | Courtesy photo

Waterford makes sure his fastpacking pack never weighs more than 20 pounds so he can move swiftly through the woods. | Courtesy photo

Fastpacking is the sexy hybrid of trail running for fitness and backpacking for pleasure. It’s that happy medium where you’re moving slow enough to capture the flora and fauna around you but still moving at a pace that allows for a weekend thru-hike (hiking a long-distance trail from end to end) on any of Indiana’s longest trails. Plus, it gets you home early enough on Sunday evening for supper and a full night’s sleep.

The following are my tips for getting out on the trail and enjoying your first fastpacking trip.

Consider first that fastpacking is not backpacking. I still backpack from time to time, but only when hiking isn’t my priority. At times like that, I’ll strap on extra gear for the campfire, such as a camp chair or a growler filled with my favorite, Upland Campside. But for the most part, I pity backpackers. When I fastpack, I move through the woods, gawking about, having all but forgotten that I’m wearing a backpack at all, when I’ll come up on a backpacker with their 50- to 70-liter rucksack packed with all the gear they’ve been told they need by magazines, guidebooks, or whatever outdoor authority to which they subscribe. They almost always look winded, their shoulders are hunched over, and, if they were smart enough to bring trekking poles, they’re leaning on them like crutches.

Waterford, on the fastpacking trail. | Courtesy photo

Waterford, on the fastpacking trail. | Courtesy photo

Usually, they notice how small my pack is, and say something like, “So, are you just out for the day?” When I say I, too, am a thru-hiker, most backpackers go flush with envy that my pack weighs no more than 20 pounds. My advice for averting this envy: Pack only what you need — a small amount of gear, food, and water. You’ll be able to enjoy the backcountry much more without the extra 10 to 30 pounds on your back.

So what exactly do you need? When you’re shopping for fastpacking gear, consider the weight of everything and the aesthetics of nothing. Even when backpacking, your pack should not weigh more than 30 percent of your body weight. But when planning for fastpacking, you should keep it to 20 pounds.

There are many ways to cut weight besides purchasing lighter gear. For example, carry less water. If you know there is water available, use a filter to fill up on the trail. Eat your heaviest foods first, bring travel-size toiletries, and substitute a heavy Gore-Tex rain suit with a lighter, smaller, and cheaper plastic poncho. You can find many more ways online to cut weight, so do a little research. Less weight could save you the back pain.

Waterford, right, and some friends fastpacked the 48-mile Knobstone Trail in a weekend. | Courtesy photo

Waterford, right, and some friends fastpacked the 48-mile Knobstone Trail in a weekend. | Courtesy photo

Last year, I fastpacked Indiana’s longest trail, the 48-mile Knobstone Trail, with a couple of friends. This is a list of everything I packed: 40-liter pack, 3-liter CamelBak bladder, 1-liter water bottle, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, trekking poles, water filter, a trusted pair of shoes (if the weather is bad, bring waterproof boots), a small first-aid kit (consisting of bug repellant, bandages, lighter, toilet paper, travel-size Vaseline for chafing and fire-starting, medication, toothbrush, and toothpaste), one synthetic T-shirt, one synthetic long-sleeve shirt, one pair of shorts, one pair of pants, three pairs of socks (two to hike in, one dry pair for sleeping in), raincoat, five UGo Bars, four PB&J sandwiches, and four turkey and cheese sandwiches.

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All this weighed only 20 pounds, and I got through the difficult trail comfortably in a weekend. Notice I cut out hot meals to save the weight of a stove, fuel, and cutlery. I kept the sandwiches in sandwich bags to cut weight on packaging. And I planned only enough food to get me to the finish line, where I then feasted on grub previously cached there. In the past, I’ve even switched out my tent for a cheap plastic tablecloth because the weather was good and that’s all I needed. And when you hike with friends, be sure to split the weight of gear, such as food, tent, or first-aid supplies.

Waterford, left, and friends set up camp with minimal gear. | Courtesy photo

Waterford, left, and friends set up camp with minimal gear. | Courtesy photo

When you’re preparing for a trip, lay everything out in front of you, with your pack nearby. As you fit everything inside, determine whether each item is essential. Do you really need a 30-degree sleeping bag? Check the weather, and if you can get by with a smaller sleeping-bag liner or an army blanket — as Joey from Full House wisely suggests“Cut. It. Out.”

Lastly, once you’re loaded up, go on a trial run or walk with your pack on. If you can run a mile in your full pack without getting too sore or terribly winded, you’re on the right track. On every fastpacking excursion, you’ll learn more about what you need and want on the trail. Keep a list of the items you do and don’t use. You’ll find that minimizing the weight in your pack makes any hike far more enjoyable.

So get out there. There’s an endless amount to explore in southern Indiana — so sometimes you’ve got to move fast to fit it all in! 

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Michael Waterford
Michael Waterford was born and raised in Bloomington. He spends his time traveling and writing. Between expeditions he manages his team of explorers, the The Mountain Folk, and works to create the greatest outdoor adventures around. His travels have taken him around the world twice, down the length of the Mississippi River, across deserts, over mountain ranges, and to six continents. “Travel and exploration is the great educator and equalizer,” he says. “It’s best that we try to utilize it.”
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