7 Fastpacking Tips for Beginners
By: Jeff Garmire
Fastpacking is the ever-elusive term for moving faster and lighter. It is taking your glamorous backpacking gear setup and whittling it down to the essentials without losing the enjoyment of an adventure. While it is best done through your own experience, there is also always something to be gleaned from the experiences of others.
I went from a full freighter size pack to a sub five-pound base weight to do the John Muir Trail fastest known time (FKT). While I certainly would not recommend going that extreme, there are a number of things I have learned in my experiments with efficiency, breaking records, and finding the limits of enjoying an adventure.
Below, I’ve shared seven tips to consider when shifting to fastpacking.
1. Get a smaller pack.
This is not a recommendation to jump immediately from a 60-liter pack down to a 30-liter backpack, but start working your way down. If you give yourself less space to “pack your fears,” then you are more apt to pack strategically. It took me three different backpacks over four years to settle into a size that was just big enough to carry the essentials and an extra thing or two that improved my experience.
Speaking from experience, if you buy a bigger pack, you will fill it up. Set a healthy limit on the room you allow yourself. This is best done by trying a smaller backpack on an overnight trip first. Fill it to the brim with everything you can fit, and then make a note of all the things you didn’t use when you get back to the car.
2. Make notes and reassess.
At the end of a trip, note everything you didn’t use in your pack. Then, determine the things on that list that you don’t expect to ever need on the trail. This could be too much toilet paper, clothing, an entire bottle of Advil, a large tube of sunscreen or toothpaste, an external battery that was overkill for the duration of the trip, or even a thicker coat than the weather required.
The weight savings may seem trivial and small at first, but over a couple of trips, it is easy to save a few pounds by simply eliminating the “fluff” in your gear list. In my journey to fastpacking, I found that 99% of the time, I was simply carrying rain pants and never bothering to wear them. Now, even in rainy weather, I carry a lightweight rain skirt.
3. Cut down the “Big 3.”
The first thing I did when I transitioned from a traditional thru-hiker to a peak bagger and aspiring FKT-setter was to cut down the heaviest items in my pack. I switched to a single-wall tent, got an ultralight quilt, and started using a smaller pack.
The center of a gear kit is these three heaviest items, and by simply cutting over a pound off of each, I was moving faster and feeling fresher on the high-altitude climbs of Colorado. The lighter gear is more compact, packable, and even multi-use. In its simplicity is flexibility.
4. Learn to use your items in multiple ways.
Finding ways to use gear in many different ways is the key to efficiency, weight savings, and packing less. Once I thought through the gear I was taking into the mountains on the weekends, I realized there were many ways to use the items in my pack.
For example, if the temperature dropped while I was out there, I could wrap up in my quilt. How much different from a down jacket is a down sleeping bag anyways? With a little experimentation, I could wrap up in the “cloak” and leave the thicker puffy jacket at home in exchange for something lighter.
Kate Brown and Heather “Anish” Anderson have also used this method to set records on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Arizona Trail. Why only make use of a sleeping bag for sleeping? It is something you will already be carrying, and a great source of warmth and insulation tucked away in your pack.
5. Increase your efficiency.
In the name fastpacking, speed is implied. But that doesn’t simply mean the speed you are moving. If it takes ten minutes to dig out a snack from the bottom of your pack and repack it all before you can actually sit down for a break, that is time wasted. A lesson I learned on my first thru-hike was to value, treasure, and respect the opportunities to rest. Messing around to find things only eats into the time you could be sitting, eating, or even swimming.
The biggest thing I try to do now is keep all the food I am going to eat during the day either at the top of my pack or on the outside of it. I put the entire day's worth of trash in the water bottle holders and try never to have to dig something out of the bottom of the pack. If it may rain, my rain gear is on the outside of the pack. It makes rest breaks more restful and enjoyable while also making hiking more efficient.
6. Leave unnecessary clothing at home.
Clothing is the easiest thing to overpack. Burdened by “what if” statements, the extra layers can add up. Living in Montana, it is one of the toughest things for me to overcome. But, simply packing for the expected weather and knowing I have a few multi-use items to get me through any cold temperatures makes it less anxiety provoking.
My rain jacket can double as a windbreaker, and an extra pair of socks can double as a second pair of gloves. It is a challenge to find the clothing that you wear, enjoy, and value, and leave the unnecessary items at home (see tip 2).
7. Find your comfort zone.
The most personal of tips on the list is learning about yourself and how you respond to different environments. I do very well in the cold and can bring fewer layers than many hikers. But, in the heat, I have to throw in a second or third pair of socks because I sweat a lot, and my feet bear the brunt of the damage.
Packing the occasional third pair of socks is something I value and it contributes to more enjoyment than shaving off the couple extra ounces of weight. Find the things that you value, and don’t hesitate to bring them with you.
Take Notes Over Time to Become a Better Fastpacker
Each of the above tips is a guideline for the ways to improve, cut down weight, and move more effectively through an environment. The real heart of fastpacking is to go further, see more, and do so in a safe and rewarding way. So, find what works for you out there and keep notes of the things that work and don’t work along the journey to becoming a fastpacker.
Jeff “Legend” Garmire has completed the Calendar Year Triple Crown and Great Western Loop, finished the Nolans 14 in 59 hours, climbed all the Colorado 14ers, and broke the Arizona Trail self-supported FKT, Pinhoti Trail self-supported FKT, Long Trail unsupported FKT, John Muir Trail record, and Colorado Trail unsupported FKT, among others. Learn more about his adventures at: freeoutside.com.