Should we abandon the term fastpacking?

“Drop completely the term “fastpack.” You are backpacking, so call it that. There is a very well developed community of backpackers who take an endurance athlete’s approach to the activity, myself included. I’d encourage you to join it rather than try to create a new niche in the ultra niche. Don’t create distinctions where there are none. I’ll add that I find “fastpacking” to sound very elitist — it’s as if runners can’t admit that they are “backpacking” and it implies that the rest of us are just “slowpacking.”

-Andrew Skurka

Skurka left that comment on an article written about fastpacking a few months ago.  To be perfectly honest, to me it was nonsensical. I dropped a quote on one of my previous posts from a climber demoting mountaineering to “hiking and camping”. As absurd as it sounds, it’s absolutely accurate. Whether hiking in Shenandoah National Park or climbing Everest, you’re mostly walking and sleeping. But if we didn’t have the term mountaineering, we may not know whether our friend just climbed Everest or went on a stroll in Nepal. His argument is synonymous to saying we don’t need the term whale because it’s just a mammal or we don’t need to term hiking because it’s just walking.

But it brings up an interesting question, what exactly is fastpacking?

The discussion continues the comment thread with nearly every big name in the fastpacking giving input, including Matt Kirk, the current holder of the self-supported AT record.

Peter Bakwin, holder of several FKTs, chimes in saying:

“The term fastpacking was first used by Jim Knight in an article he wrote for UltraRunning Magazine in 1988 about a 38-hour, 100-mile traverse of the Wind River Range with UD founder Bryce Thatcher. Knight didn’t explicitly define the term, but gave a good sense of it: “We were wilderness running. Power hiking. Kind of backpacking, but much faster. More fluid. Neat. Almost surgical. Get in. Get out. I call it fastpacking.” Later, Knight used the same techniques to complete the 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT), from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley, in just four and a half days. To me, as Jim implies, fastpacking means that your focus is to cover whatever route you have set for yourself as quickly as possible, and you use the best techniques and equipment to that purpose. This definition makes no distinction between running and walking – the distinction is in your goals, your methods follow from your goals. Fastpacking is different from backpacking because your objective in fastpacking is to get it done as fast as possible.”

Bakwin continues on by adding:

“For trips of 1-2 nights that probably means no camping gear to speak of (maybe an extra clothing layer for naps). For longer trips sleep management becomes a very serious consideration. Anyway, I’d just like to propose this definition. “Fastpacking” does NOT mean backpacking with some running.”

I like Bakwin’s definition. Fastpacking is a subset of backpacking which involves a goal time and the means to attain it. To me fastpacking is an athletic endeavor and traditional backpacking is more of a means to enjoy nature. In 2009 I backpacked most of the Appalachian Trail over the course of four and a half months to enjoy the wilderness and relax. This summer I’m going to try to do it much more quickly. Neither method is any more or less meaningful or worthwhile. Fastpacking doesn’t mean you’re necessarily gunning for a fastest known time. It doesn’t mean you have to be a top athlete and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to be hitting some pre-determined mileage. Fastpacking is an extended self-supported ultramarathon. And for all the flak from traditional backpackers condemning people for moving quickly in the backcountry, get off your high horse and enjoy your hike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *