Attitudes and Altitude: How to Go FastpackingSurvive
Written by Alex Roddie // Photography by James Roddie & Alex Roddie
Fastpacking is a fast, lightweight way of enjoying the mountains on foot, but it doesn’t have to be all about running. Here’s our guide to getting started.
In summer 2022, our editor Alex Roddie set out on a fastpacking trip across the Alps: 900km from Ventimiglia to Zermatt, featuring countless mountain passes. This is part of a series of online stories about his project, helping you to go higher and faster in the mountains.
THE FULL SERIES
Attitudes and Altitude: Mountains of the Mind Feature Story
Attitudes and Altitude: Tranter’s RoundAttitudes and Altitude: Destination Guide to the Grande Traversata delle Alpi
Attitudes and Altitude: How to Go Fastpacking
Attitudes and Altitude: Gear Guide for Alpine Fastpacking
Attitudes and Altitude: Gear Review
Picture it. You’re high on a mountain, looking down on a glacier as the sun begins to set and the light turns to gold. There’s a small, light pack on your back carrying everything you need for the next few days, and running shoes on your feet. Ultralight backpackers have been enjoying the mountains this way for years, but what happens next takes the adventure from a long-distance walk to something else entirely. You take a moment to sight out the trail as it descends in sinuous switchbacks below you, and then you break into a smooth, flowing run, helping you make short work of a long descent and flooding your body with endorphins.
Fast, light, fluid travel in the mountains. A harmonious blend of trekking and running, deploying each as required or simply when you feel like it. Doesn’t that sound good?
The beauty of fastpacking is that there are no rules about how fast or light you have to be. Your adventure is just as valid as anyone else’s – whether you’re achieving 30km or 70km in a day, whether you’re running most of it or only a fraction of it – and everyone will find their own balance of hiking and running as they adapt to the terrain, the route, and what feels good. On a long-distance trail, even adding a little running to the mix can transform the experience. An additional 5–10km per day can really start to add up on a multi-week trip, with many benefits: more choice of camping and bivvy spots, less time between food resupplies and water top-up points, more overall flexibility. And, depending on your mindset, more enjoyment too.
There are no formal definitions. If you’re going faster than you usually would on a hike, making greater speed or distance one of your priorities, then you’re fastpacking. Some might even argue that running is not strictly necessary – that a long day of hiking at top speed counts. It’s a grey area, but for the purposes of this guide I’ll assume at least a little running.
Fitness and training
How fit do you really need to be? If you are already a runner, you probably already have a good base of fitness to build on. Short-distance runners should work on gradually adding distance to their weekly routine before attempting to run with a pack on. The most important lesson I learnt was to avoid rushing things in my enthusiasm – this can lead to injuries such as muscle sprains and tears.
Runners with experience of longer distances (and, importantly, hills, for both the ascent and the rougher terrain) should develop their multi-day backpacking experience. Walking before you run is a good way of testing the waters, to mix metaphors. Carrying a heavy pack over rough mountain terrain puts unique strains on your body that fell running alone does not – and there is also the learning curve of wild camping, navigation, logistics.
What if you’re a hiker and backpacker with experience of those multi-day mountain routes and want to take things up a notch? It’s easy to assume that you can jump right in, but I’ve found that running fitness is very different from general hill fitness. You probably have a good base of cardio fitness, but developing as a runner means strength in other areas: leg muscles, core strength, endurance. None of these should be rushed.
When I started training for my big trip across the Alps, I’d done very little running before. I started small, with 5km runs through the local countryside, and gradually built things up to half-marathon and marathon distances. This took several months and I resisted the urge to fast-track myself. Only after I’d gained fitness and confidence on easier runs did I consider adding mountains and overnighters into the mix. One learning curve at a time – that became my mantra. I built things up gradually from two-day fastpacking trips in my local hills to longer outings in the Peak District, Lake District, and Scottish Highlands. I wanted to make sure that I felt comfortable running with a pack before heading out to the Alps for my 900km traverse.
My training included lots of low-intensity cardio and a relatively small amount of high-intensity cardio. If you use the zone system, I suggest sticking to zone two for most of your runs – this is an easy run, up to around 70 per cent of your maximum heart rate. If you can jog along and still hold a conversation, you’re in about the right place. Low-intensity cardio is useful because it helps to build endurance. Throwing in some much more intense runs once or twice a week will help too, although I learnt that going too hard on every run will only lead to fatigue, and can be counterproductive.
Cross-training is also useful. I spent many an hour on an indoor exercise bike through the dark winter months, and I could feel the benefits when I began my journey across the Alps.
Types of fastpacking
The Mileage Crusher
The route you’ve planned is long, but your window of availability is short – or maybe there’s another reason, such as a brief seasonal window, trail conditions, or logistics. For you, the chosen route is everything. It may have come as a flash of inspiration, or it may be one of those dream routes you’ve been thinking about for years, but you won’t be stopped by the fact that you don’t have enough time to do it as a hike. The answer is simple: fastpack it instead. If the route would normally take two weeks to hike and you only have ten days, fastpacking means that you get to enjoy this trip after all – just in a different way and at a different pace.
The Downhill Coaster
You’re a runner, but when it comes to long-distance routes you think of yourself as mostly a hiker. For you, fastpacking is the best of both worlds: you get to enjoy parts of the trail at a slower pace, with frequent photo stops, but you also love the feeling of the wind in your hair as you cut loose on the downhills. Nobody says you have to run all of it. Or even most of it. Perhaps hiking uphill and running down is the answer.
For the ultrarunner, fastpacking is mainly about running. Every long-distance runner finds themselves power hiking some of the time, but the ultrarunner truly enjoys maximising the amount of time spent running and tries to keep walking at a minimum. The result? Speed, flow, mastery, and daily distances that many of us would find incredible. But such a relentless focus on running requires a high degree of fitness and training. A path for the dedicated.
Gear for fastpacking
For detailed tips about gear, see our equipment guide for fastpacking. Here’s one to start you off: pack light. You need less than you think, but don’t remove every single luxury from your rucksack.
Although you can take a fastpacking approach to any multi-day route in the mountains, I’ve found that the best routes have a good mix of terrain – gnarly, runnable, and everything in between. Why? If too much of the route is rocky, technical, or very steep, less experienced runners may have a hard time actually running any of it, which could lead to frustration. On the other hand, if all the terrain is easy, you might be tempted to run more of it than your fitness and energy levels can actually support. The end result in the same.
In the mountains you’re constantly balancing speed, efficiency, and effort. For me – and, I think, for a lot of mid-range runners with average fitness – the best routes are runnable for about a quarter to half of each day’s distance. The rest can be as steep and scrambly as you like, giving you a variety of challenge.
Classic long-distance trails make excellent fastpacking objectives. Here are a few ideas to get you going:
– The West Highland Way, Scotland (154km, 4–5 days). A superb journey through the Scottish Highlands along popular and well-signposted trails, making this a great introduction to multi-day fastpacking.
– Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, England (302km, 7–10 days). Another popular route and one that passes through a wide variety of landscapes, including the Lakeland fells.
– Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, France/Italy (165km, 3–6 days). This is the ultrarunner’s variant of the Tour du Mont Blanc, a hiking trail that circumnavigates Mont Blanc. Although a famous annual ultramarathon takes this route, it’s also often completed by solo runners.
Fastpacking is highly accessible. It isn’t just for hardcore, elite athletes. Anyone with multi-day trekking experience and a reasonable fitness level can get started, because you don’t need to be an expert runner; even new runners can build up to their first trip with a few months of careful training. Start with an overnighter and build things from there, just as you would with any mountain pursuit. And enjoy those descents!
Alex Roddie ran and hiked 900km from Ventimiglia to Zermatt via the Grande Traversata delle Alpi, Tour of the Matterhorn, and Tour of Monte Rosa – a journey involving 60,102m of ascent. A version of this story was first published in Sidetracked Volume 25.