Fastpacking differs from ultralight backpacking to me (although the line is indeed blurry) in one major way: the brisk movement through terrain is most likely the only objective. There’s rarely a large camping/cooking/hanging out portion of a fastpack. Instead it’s all about that forward motion: fastpacking is a multi-day, unsupported run.
It’s best to be as prepared beforehand for the adventure, and get your gear dialed in as best as possible. Part of this dialing in is picking out what to bring, as well as how to pack it. I’ll be focusing on the latter idea in this post.
So why is it so important to pack correctly?
Consider this scenario:
You’re 8 hours into a three day trip. Time to take five minutes, refuel, get some water, put on some sunscreen, and shoot a quick inReach message out so everyone knows you’re fun is still at Type 2. Standard stuff.
You put your pack down, and look for your gear. Is that inReach in one of my front, or back pockets? Did I put my water purification kit with the rest of my toiletries, or with my food, or separately – or where is that damn kit… Here’s some of my food, but not the food I wanted – wait, what happened to my head torch? Did I drop it, or has it gotten buried? Will I need to unload the entire pack to find it? Looks like it…
A quick and efficient stop has turned into a whole ordeal of mapping out where the gear you want is located in your pack. Maybe things weren’t packed well to begin with, but most likely what started as an orderly pack has turned into a chaotic mess. Don’t let your pack get this way! Keeping gear in good order can seal up this time suck.
Give Your Gear Homes
All the gear you bring should have a specific home inside your pack. When you pack, make sure to remember where it lives, so when you take gear out to use, you can put it back right where it was located before. Sounds simple, but I know I get energized and excited on trips – especially in the beginning, and sometimes forget about these small details. I’ll put gear wherever and just start accumulating “packing organization debt”. At the tail end of the day, I know I get fatigued and the last thing I’ll be looking forward to is working off this debt. What I want to do is sleep! Funny how things go missing at the bivy spot.
Thankfully, it’s an easy enough method to practice: when you initially pack before a trip, then unpack and repack. Learn exactly where you’re putting things, and anticipate where your stuff goes back. You may also find a better, more convenient and/or more efficient way to grab your gear. In other words, practice!
Let’s go into how I usually pack gear for a 3-6 day unsupported fastpack. Use my ideas below as a framework for your own packing, but don’t feel as if it’s the end-all, be-all – they’re just ideas. And like everything I do, I like to constantly experiment, so what I do this year may be a little different come next year. Find out what works the best for you, and keep that habit going.
Main Compartment (bottom to top)
The main compartment will hold the majority of my gear. I usually try to pack it with the idea that the gear on the bottom of the pack will need to be accessed less than gear that’s on the top of the pack. It’s always harder to access that gear anyways, since I have to start taking stuff out and putting it aside. Doing The Repack Shuffle burns time.
Sleep System (minus my sleeping bag)
For me, that means my sleep system (everything except my sleeping bag) goes down in the bottom of the pack. Unless I get stuck in a freak storm, I’ll only need to unload the main compartment of my pack fully when I need a prolonged break, usually late at night.
I’ve been bringing along a waterproof bivy, blow up pad, and pillow with me in the late summer. I’ll roll/fold these up, but won’t put them in a compression bag – they’ll get compressed well enough by the weight above them and not using yet another bag saves some grams. The little bit of loftiness will provide just a smidgen of padding for my lower back, anyways. The soft plastic material that this gear makes up feels comfortable to me at the bottom edges of the pack.
Next, I’ll pack in my food for the days ahead. I usually put a day’s worth of food in a large, gallon zip lock bag, and have one bag per day. This food is the heaviest item in my pack, and like a full-sized backpack, it’s nice to keep the heaviest things somewhat in the middle of the pack. I find it’s more comfortable to allow the bivy and pad to be at the very bottom, as the food can be a little lumpy, and irritate my back if it sticks out in weird ways from the bottom of the pack.
Food shouldn’t be something I constantly need to pull out. I’ll only need to pull out a day’s ration once per day. That day’s ration will be stored somewhere else (so read on!). I go over just what I eat, and why in a separate article.
Next I have two small stuff sacks, one for electronics and one for personal items.
My electronics are put in a bright red waterproof stuff sack. I also sharpie in my name, email address, and phone number on the sack itself. The chances I’ll have some expensive items in there are great, the waterproof-ness of the bag means that the contents will survive months on their own, and it would be really nice to get them back if I do lose them. Electronics in this stuff sack for a fastpacks usually include batteries, battery packs + cables to connect them to devices. some other electronics, like my phone, my inReach, and my GPS are things I want to have easy access to – and will be on most of the time, so I’ll put those in different parts of the pack.
My personal items are put in a bright blue waterproof stuff sack. I also put my name/contact information on these, as I usually bring some pricey personal items like contacts and an inhaler. I may also bring things like some NSAIDS, and some very minor first aid items. I usually don’t bring a first aid kit on fastpacks (but maybe you should consider it).
Both these stuff sacks are small in size and aren’t impossible to absentmindedly drop out of your pack, so they’re still put in somewhat in the bowels of the pack itself. Both are bright in color, and that color is of stark contrast of the terrain I’m usually fastpacking in. If I drop it, I’ll usually see it on the ground.
I know that red = electronics, and blue = personal items – it’s a little thing I made myself stick to as a fundamental rule, so I don’t have to open one up to remind myself, or start mixing up contents mid-trip because I didn’t make a clear rule for myself.
If you find yourself rummaging around often in either of these packs, consider storing some of these items you most often use in the front vest of your pack instead. For example, I often re-apply sunscreen, so I’ll have that always in reach. I’ll keep my extra contacts, contact solution and contact case in the sack, as I may not use any of these at all, but I simply cannot go on a multi-day trip without these items.
Wearable Gear and Sleeping Bag
On top of my sleep system (minus bag) and food, I’ll have two stuff sacks that I pack vertically and in parallel. One stuff sack holds my sleeping bag in the manufacturer’s recommended/provided stuff sack; the other one holds all my wearable gear (clothes).
These two stuff sacks are roughly the same size and weight, so they balance out each other well. I find they’re more comfortable to pack them vertically and in parallel than if you pack them horizontally – especially if you’re using a pack that has just a thin back padding like mine.
At first blush, you may not think you’ll be accessing the sleeping bag all that much, but for a quick ten minute nap, it’s convenient to whip that bag out and just cover yourself up quilt-style to get a quick recharge. In the past I’ve put my entire sleep system in a heavily overstuffed/overcompressed compression sack, but I’m trying to move away from that. Usually by doing this, the stuff sack and the expensive down sleeping bag gets damaged prematurely. I’d rather now just run with a pack with slightly more volume that’s slightly less dense overall.
My wearable gear gets accessed all the time, as I swap out clothes depending on the conditions. I’m usually in the mountains and some trips, like the Nolans line, has you ascend and descend 3,000’+ in a matter of hours into and treeline and above treeline, throughout the day. Weather patterns during a full day can be tumultuous, so there’s a lot of costume changes going on.
This can be a time suck in of itself, but we’ll go over some strategies later in this article to deal with that. I do some micro-organization of my wearable gear, putting less-used items stuffed into the bottom of my sack, and often-used items up top. For me, that means insulated jackets and pants are found near the bottom, them waterproof rain gear, then a warm hat, extra socks, gloves, then finally any mid layers I’ve decided to bring. Wearable gear will of course vary depending on the terrain you’re going through, the time of year, etc. For alpine adventures, I want to be ready for anything, so that I can continue on my intended line.
If I’m doing a trip where I plan to be carrying many hours worth of water – say on a ridge traverse like in the Sangres, Mosquito-Tenmile, or the stretch of the Continental Divide ridge outside my home, I’ll bring along a water reservoir. Usually, a pack will have a specific sleeve to hold your reservoir, and I’d suggest using it. If I can, I try to avoid using a water reservoir altogether, as it does sometimes mean opening up the main compartment and shuffling things around to put 10+ liters of liquid inside the pack. Oftentimes though, this is unavoidable. Instead I use bottles that go outside of the pack (we’ll get to that).
My fastpack has two side compartments, that with a little bit of stretching, I can access without taking the pack fully off.
Side #1: Water Bottle #1
I usually bring two water bottles with me, and store the first one in the side pocket of my pack. Why two? Usually I want a water-only bottle, and a bottle that I mix with some sort of nutrition like Tailwind or Perpetuem. That water-only bottle may also be the bottle I’m currently treating with something like Aquamira, and I’ll need another bottle to be drinking from while waiting.
Side #2: Clothes Cache
Remember when I talked about how my wearables stuff sack is something I find myself constantly dipping into? To counteract this, I usually put the most changed into and out of item in my other side pocket. Usually this is a light rain jacket, like the Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket V2, or the La Sportiva Odyssey GTX. Mountain weather and temps sometimes change drastically just from how much wind you’re hitting upon – and that can be wildly different depending on if you’re on the windward or leeward side of a mountain or ridgeline. Sometimes all you need is a light jacket to cut things down.
This compartment is one of the most useful in the entire pack, as it allows access to gear without having to open the main compartment. It’s sometimes hard to get things out without taking the pack off, so choose wisely in what gets put in this coveted spot. For me, it looks something like this
Day’s Ration of Food
My entire food cache is in the main compartment, but I take out a day’s worth of food at the beginning of the day, and stick it in here. I know in an instant by looking (or even feeling) what I have left. Periodically, I’ll take out my day’s cache, and distribute the smaller ziplock bags that are found inside the large gallon ziplock bag, in the smaller pockets of the front vest sleeves and if I’m wearing one, a waist belt.
I’m as fair as the first beams of the morning, so I have to make sure to always be well covered in sunscreen. To make this easier, I make sun screen accessible, so it lives outside my pack, rather than inside. I usually put on a good layer in the morning, then do spot coverings throughout the day. Grabbing some food from this pocket? Good time to also put on some sunscreen.
Clothes Cache #2
If the weather is getting particularly egregious, I’ll have another cache of small items, like a warmer hat and gloves – things I can stick really far into this pocket, and know they won’t find a way out. I try to limit how many clothes caches I create, as things can become very unmanageable if clothes are found in multiple places.
inReach Mini clipped to side
I always carry an inReach Mini with me on my trips, as I sometimes get a little carried away! (although I’ve never called for help). I find that it’ll get the best communication with the satellite it uses for both location and communication if it’s on the outside of my pack, and the front of my pack is already a bit filled up with stuff, so the back of the pack it is. My Mini has a built-in carabiner that I use to clip into the daisy chains that run on the side of my pack, so I know it can’t become a free range InReach. I use the Garmin Earthmate app so send messages, so I never really need to have access to the actual unit if I don’t want to go to the trouble.
Small zip pocket
Above the front pocket is a small zip pocket, this is quite nice to be often used items that I also don’t want to get crush or lost.
Head torch/Sunglasses + case
Usually if I’m wearing one of these items, I’m storing the other and I put them in this pocket for fast retrieval at the exact moment I need them.
Front Vest Pockets
My fastpack has a ton of storage up front, which allows me forgo taking off the pack – I can just grab what I need from the vest pockets. Here’s what I keep in there:
Water Bottle #2
Bottle #1 live in a side pocket; Bottle #2 lives up front in one of my vest pockets. Easy to access whenever I’m thirsty
My phone which I use for photos, a secondary navigation aid, and communication lives up front – where else? I can control my inReach Mini from my phone, too.
GPS on Tether
I use a standalone GPS unit (maybe getting a bit old school), which I keep up front. I’ll often consult it. I tied it onto my pack with a tether, as losing it may get me lost in the worst case scenario. In the best case scenario I’ll lose my track for aprés hike study .
Sun protection is really important to me, and I want no excuse to not put it on. So, I keep a very small, very high SPF sunscreen within easy reach.
Another item I want quick access to, but don’t want to lose. If I’m purifying water using Aquamira, I’m going to be at the water source for a hot minute, so I don’t mind taking off my pack for a small breather, and I’ll grab some Aquamira from here. I usually have some premixed in a light-tight bottle, and have the two larger bottles in my personal items bag. At the beginning of the day, I’ll make more premix.
(somewhat of an aside) I use Aquamira mostly in mountain fastpacks, as there is a good chance that I’ll encounter freezing temps at night at high altitudes, and a filter could freeze and become damaged. I hate wondering if my filter has been damaged, so I use Aquamira for one less thing to think about. The tradeoff is that it takes a few minutes for the Aquamira to work, so I make sure to always have one bottle I can fill up and wait to get treated. If I need more water than that, I’ll break out my water reservoir and fill + treat that water, then distribute the treated water to my bottles.
Snacks. Snacks. Snacks.
Any other available pocket on the vest pockets I can, like a squirrel’s cheeks. Easy snacks access means constant snacking, and when I’m trying to eat 3,500 – 4,500 calories/day, anything that makes this easier is welcome.