First there were trail running and backpacking. Now, there’s fastpacking. Here’s why you should give it a try.
Out of the darkness ahead came an audible snort—the sort of noise that communicates massive size, stubbornness and pecking order in one succinct push of air.
R.J. Thompson ground to a halt. The beam of his headlight fell on a set of deep, wideset eyes. He backed up the granite slab he’d been running down on Mt. Mansfield.
The massive female moose stepped forward and locked eyes with him. He clapped. She chewed, froze, and stared him down. “It was one of those terrifying moments where it only hits you afterward that you’ve just seen a massive, incredibly rare animal near the ridgeline of Vermont’s highest peak,” said Thompson.
Thompson was out for a run on the Long Trail, the 273-mile stretch of connected footpath that runs north to south along the spine of the Green Mountains. His goal that night was to run eight more miles—and he did—stopping briefly to sleep for just a few hours before rising to do it all again.
His mission? To train to run from North Adams, Mass. to Derby, Vt. on the Long Trail, a 273-mile trip that should take the average hiker 21 days. Thompson planned to do it in less than a week.
As the executive director of the Vermont Huts Association, Thompson has logged a lot of trail miles. He placed fourth in the 50K at the Vermont 50 at Mt. Ascutney in 2011 and won the race outright in 2013. He’s also the founder of Native Endurance, a company that hosts trail races like the Mansfield Double Up, an 11-mile race up and over Mt. Mansfield’s exposed ridge.
Thompson is among a growing group of fastpackers across the state—Vermonters who are blurring the line between ultralight backpacking and trail running by challenging themselves to make what were once week-long backpacking trips into weekend excursions.
On a typical fastpacking trip, a hiker will run the flats and downhills and hike the rugged and steep uphill sections of trail that make the Long Trail and other Vermont footpaths such challenging routes.
Their reward lies in being able to see more with less time, explore remote sections of trail and see Vermont’s wild places at a time when few others do.
“For all the time I’ve spent outside exploring Vermont, I think fastpacking has offered me the most interesting and exciting encounters with wildlife and the natural world,” says Thompson. “When you’re on the trail at dawn or dusk, you see places in a way that’s much more similar to how they are without you present. It’s a different way of getting to know a trail.”
One key element of fastpacking is that you’re probably intending to run some portion of the trip, with a planned overnight. However, a fastpacker doesn’t have to run—they could simply travel light and tackle big mileage days by minimizing the time they spend in camp and maximizing the time they spend on the trail. That sense of constantly pushing onward is what distinguishes the sport from ultralight backpacking.
Fastpackers may cover anywhere from 15 to 60 miles in a day, sleep in the backcountry and get up to do the same the next day. “It’s about being able to recover as you go so you can cover as much ground and see as much trail as possible,” says Thompson.
Vermont’s fastpacking community is a mix of professional athletes, recreational ultramarathoners and weekend warriors looking to pack as many trail miles into a few days off as they can.
Relentless Forward Motion
At 67, Buzz Burrell is often called by fellow ultrarunners, “The Father of the FKT.” The Boulder resident has run more than 75 marathons and ultramarathons and has been breaking trail speed records for more than 37 years.
In 2018, he helped to create fastestknowntime.com, an online database of fastest known completion times of trails. He’s also Vice President of Brand for Ultimate Direction, one of the gear companies developing cutting edge ultralight fastpacking gear (see p. 12).
According to Burell, the term “fastpacking” was officially coined in 1988 by a runner named Jim Knight in an article he published in Ultrarunner Magazine about running the 62.8-mile Highline Trail in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. At the time, it was a revolutionary move.
Peter Bakwin, Burell’s partner at fastestknowntimes.com says, “To me, fastpacking means that covering the distance fast is the primary objective, so that you use whatever means best suited to achieve that, which usually entails going as light as possible, and employing relentless forward motion.”
That relentless forward motion involves starting your trail day in the early hours of the morning and moving past sunset. Most fastpackers hike the steep uphills and run the flats and downhills, though, as Burrell points out, “Over longer distances, we’ve seen that the fastest travelers are thru-hikers,” who cover big miles by focusing on maximizing the number of hours a day they spend moving rather than running.
Fastpacking also means leaving behind any gear that isn’t absolutely essential. A fastpacker may plan to sleep in shelters along the way, packing a lightweight bivy bag, half-length or ultralight sleeping pad and lightweight down sleeping bag for shelter instead of a tent. Most fastpackers use anywhere from a 20 to 30L pack for a multi-day trip—often one that is shaped ergonomically and fits like a vest to make running more comfortable.
New pack designs have helped the sport, with companies like Ultimate Direction, Nathan and Salomon turning out new running and fastpacking-specific vest packs that let hikers move through the mountains with less jostle. “That’s been a huge gamechanger,” says Thompson, who has seen the gear evolve since he started fastpacking nearly a decade ago.
“I like to think of making the transition to fastpacking as earning your master’s degree in backpacking,” says Josh Burns, a former Outdoor Gear Exchange gear expert who has run about 300 miles of Spain’s El Camino de Santiago with a 20L pack. An ultramarathoner who has run 13 ultras and has been backpacking for 10 years, he enjoys the logistical challenges fastpacking presents. “It’s about honing your craft by cutting down what you have and learning to stay safe while doing so. Each trip I learn more about what my body really needs—and what I can do without.”
For Greg Maino, fastpacking presents a unique way of moving on Vermont’s wild and rugged trails. “Pace-wise, it’s somewhere between trail running and backpacking. You wake up and move right away. You eat breakfast on the go and what you get in return is the trail to yourself. You still have time to stop at a swimming hole. Then in the evening, you keep moving right through that blue hour, when most backpackers are tucked away in camp and wildlife tends to be most active,” says Maino, 39, whose dual roles as a dad to two little kids and the Communications Manager for the Catamount Trail Association keep him busy midweek.
Getting Farther, Faster
Routes like the Long Trail or the 136-mile Northfield-Placid Trail in the Adirondacks become week or weekend-long adventures if you can tackle 30-mile days. Bucket list hikes like the 21-mile Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire’s White Mountains or the Pemi Loop, a 31.5-mile, rugged trek around the Pemigewasset Wilderness become day trips for a fit fastpacker. Remote areas of Vermont, such as the 35-square-mile Glastonbury
Wilderness just outside of Bennington, become accessible day or overnight trips. Try the 21.8-mile Glastonbury/West Ridge Loop and spend the night at Goddard Shelter, where a short hike takes you to the summit of 3,745-foot Glastonbury Mountain and a fire tower. A fastpacking setup would also allow you to run the 1.9 miles to Butler Lodge on the flank of Mt. Mansfield after work for a midweek overnight. One of the nearly six dozen lodges the Green Mountain Club maintains along the Long Trail, the hut is located just half a mile below the Forehead. Rise early and run the two-miles across the ridge, then cut across the CCC road and back to the Stevensville trailhead to be at work in Burlington the next morning.
“I think that as gear gets lighter and more affordable, more serious trailrunners are saying, ‘What if I didn’t have to go home at the end of the day? What if I challenge myself to see how long I can sustain those big miles and how much I can see while doing it?’” says Maino.
That’s what sucked the Green Mountain Club’s Rob Rives into the world of fastest-known-times and fastpacking. The 29-year-old Education and Outreach Coordinator has guided rock climbing in Yosemite Valley, where he got into big wall climbing, the art of scaling 2,300-foot granite faces which often involves spending a night dangling from a secured tent thousands of feet above the air. The North Carolina native got into fastpacking big loops through the arid backcountry of Tuolumne Meadows about nine years ago as a way to see more territory on his days off. “I wanted to wed the two disciplines by moving with minimal gear so I could tackle big distances in technical terrain,” he says.
Since running his first ultramarathon in 2009, Rives has run at least one 100-mile race each year. He set the first FKT for New Hampshire’s Coos Trail, a 170-mile route through the White Mountains in 2015. The next year, he finished second at the Thunder Rock 100-Miler, a race in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. But unsupported, multi-day trail runs are what drive him.
“I love the self-sufficiency of fastpacking,” says Rives. “I like seeing a line on the map and knowing I can get to the end without any extra help and with everything I need on my back.” And in his role at the Green Mountain Club he’s seen fastpacking grow. “I think interest and participation in that style of moving on a trail has increased pretty dramatically in the last three to four years in particular,” he says.
Vermont is a great place to fastpack, whether you choose to do so competitively or not.
“Everybody gets 52 weekends in a year and for most of us, a fixed amount of time off in between,” says Greg Maino. “If you find yourself picking a place on a topo map that’s way back in the wilderness and saying, ‘I’d love to get there this weekend, but I just don’t think I have the time,’ this sport is for you.”
Gearing Up (or Down)
If you’re looking to get into fastpacking for the first time, Rives suggests getting a running pack and starting to pare down the belongings you take on your next backpacking overnight, experimenting with running the flat and downhill sections of trail. “It’s a fine line between experiencing discomfort and being unsafe. Think hard about which items you used on your last trip and whether you could do without them for a night. What that looks like will be different for everybody.”
Rives recommends stripping items away slowly, especially if you plan to push yourself to run much of your trip with a time goal. “It’s a scary but exhilarating place to be—in the dark, miles and miles into a geographically committing trip and suddenly be unsure of whether you can do what you set out to accomplish,” he says. “Don’t put yourself there too soon.” Items like a GPs locator beacon and bivy sack give you the confidence you need to feel safe pushing onward.
Other tips include: always bring two pairs of wool socks, apply corn starch (liberally) to keep your feet dry and free of blisters, and expect to burn between 3,000 and 4,000 calories per day. Meals ready-to-eat from brands like Mountain House, which require only hot water in a disposable, packable container, are great options. Look for a trail running shoe with medium cushion, that fits your foot. Then take your whole setup on some 15- to 25-kilometer day trips to see how it feels.
“I think I like the struggle,” says Thompson. “I really love being on the trail for extended periods of time, and I absolutely love Vermont’s trails for how wild and alive they are—even more so than anywhere I’ve been out west. I love to be nestled under the forest canopy the way you are on the Long Trail, and fastpacking has led me to some really fascinating experiences—bear cubs climbing up trees, moose plunging into ponds—during the time at dawn and dusk when most people are still on their way to or from the trailhead.”
For Josh Burns, it’s about pushing his body to its limits, but it’s also about humility and perspective. “Every time I take a fastpacking trip, I learn a little more about the things I really need, and what I can do without.”
For 12 pieces of great fastpacking gear to get you out on the trail, click here.
Featured Photo Caption: R.J. Thompson of Stowe, shown here headed north on The Long Trail, climbing the Forehead on Mt. Mansfield. Thompson was on a training run in preparation for taking on the men’s unsupported fastest-known-time for The Long Trail. Photo by RJ Thompson.