Forget heavy packs and clumpy boots, Fast Packing is the best way to travel in the hills. When I think back to my schooldays and specifically my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions I shudder at the size of the packs we lugged around and the stiff, heavy and blister inducing boots we rammed onto our feet. Even now, whenever I’m running on my local trails in the Peak District or further afield in the Lakes or North Wales, I still see people labouring under heavy packs, moving at a snail’s pace with their gaze steadfastly fixed on the patch of ground immediately ahead.
There’s absolutely no need at all to make life so hard for yourself and by packing light and moving fast, you can extend your daily range, appreciate your surroundings more and massively increase your enjoyment. Fast packing isn’t new but has been attracting more popular as lightweight gear has developed and become more widely available. In simple terms it just means going fast and light.
Packing implies a trip that’s long enough to require an overnight camp and so the kit required for that has to be part of your load. Adventure Racing is effectively competitive fast [acking with a few additional skills thrown in. Similarly, 2-day mountain marathons are competitive exercises in Fast Packing prowess.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
Much of the great lightweight kit has been developed with these sort of events in mind. Get your packing and pacing right and, even over challenging terrain suddenly 20-40 miles per day, becomes achievable and a vast array of routes and challenges will be within your reach.
“No matter how strong you feel, the moment the trail tilts upwards, throttle back and shift to a purposeful walk”
By reducing the load on your back, your pace especially on any climbs will naturally increase without any conscious effort on your part. However, because of your lighter pack and footwear suddenly the option to run becomes available. The urge to run though has to be tempered though by the imperative to move consistently for 6-8 hours per day and the need to get up the next morning and do it again. The classic fast packing pacing strategy is to walk the ups, jog the flats and run the downs. Discipline in sticking to this is key for fast packing success and is particularly important at the start of a day when freshness and the freedom of the hills can cause you to overcook things. No matter how strong you feel, the moment the trail tilts upwards, throttle back and shift to a purposeful walk.
If you’re planning on heading to the hills then it’s essential that you’re competent in the use of a map and compass. There’s no point in moving fast if you’re moving in completely the wrong direction. Being able to relate features on the map to the actual land and vice versa, orientating the map to your compass and direction of travel, moving on a bearing in poor visibility, estimating distances and being able to quickly plot your position and plan an escape route if conditions deteriorate are all essential skills.
A GPS is a great piece of supplementary kit but is no substitute for a map and compass. You should be 100% proficient and confident in the use of your kit. During a gale is no time to try and put up a tent or light a new stove for the first time. Finally, a basic knowledge of first aid is important and a suitable lightweight kit should be always be carried.
If you want to keep moving all day, then you’ll need to fuel the effort properly. When you’re on the move, taking on board little and often right from the start of the day is vital. Leave it until you’re hungry and it’ll be too late and your performance and pace will begin to suffer. Working on the principle of a couple of mouthfuls every 30min is an effective strategy. As with pacing, regular eating is a discipline that has to be learned and adhered to.
If necessary, set an alarm on your watch to remind you. Don’t rely exclusively on energy bars and/or gels as you’ll soon become sick of them and your stomach will struggle to process them. Experiment with a variety of ‘real foods’ until you find a selection that suits you. Include both sweet and savoury options but make sure that all of them are appealing to you (even when you’re not particularly hungry), easy to carry and access and robust enough not to fall apart.
Unlike when you’re running or cycling hard, when fast packing your moving intensity should be low enough to allow you to eat a greater variety of foodstuffs. My personal favourites for long days out include dried banana chips, cold cheese and tomato pizza and biltong. At camp you need easy to prepare, lightweight and nutritionally dense food. Your evening meal will kick-start your recovery during the night and your breakfast will fuel your day’s efforts with your trail snacking topping up the calories.
This obviously poses a problem to the fast and light approach as 6-8 litres of water is definitely going to weigh you down. The solution is to source water on route either from taps and fountains in villages or from brooks, streams and springs on the hills. In many upland areas in the UK, once you are above the height of farmed land clearly flowing water is perfectly safe to drink. If you’re unsure or want to be on the safe side then a lightweight solution is to carry and use iodine tablets.
Wild Camping in the UK
If you’re moving fast and light, you don’t want to be constricted by having to stick to designated campsites. Depending on where you are in the UK, the legal aspects of wild camping vary. In England and Wales, you have to bear in mind that every acre of land is owned whether privately or by the National Parks so in theory, you should seek permission wherever you camp. In practical terms though, that doesn’t apply.
You’ll find that in most instances, as long as you’re out of sight of farmhouses and on higher ground, you should have no problem – make sure you’re above the intake walls and you don’t stay for more than two nights. In those cases, wild camping is generally accepted. Within the National Parks, you actually have a fairly free hand when it comes to wild camping, since it’s covered in the Access Act of 1949.Under that unless you’re on a campsite, you can only set up a wild camp in the same place for two consecutive nights.
You also have to be more than 100 metres from a road and not be in an enclosure. In Scotland, wild camping is much more accepted and as long as you’re 100m from any roads, you should be ok. If you’re obviously near to someone’s house of farm though do have the courtesy to ask permission before setting up camp on their doorstep.Of course, you should observe the usual rules of camping and clean up after yourselves, making sure you don’t leave any traces when you walk on. All your toilet duties should be performed at the very least 30 metres from any water and should be buried.
There’s no doubt that ‘lightweight’ can cost financially and also in terms of comfort. Top competitors in 2-day mountain marathons will shave their pack weights down to 45kgs but they’ll accept being cold, not having warm food and a sizable credit card bill. For recreational fast packing, a good weight of pack for an overnight two-day trip would be 6-8kgs. Key kit recommendations that’ll get you down to that weight are:
Some of the UK’s National Trails can provide great multi-day fast packing challenges. For details go to www.nationaltrail.co.uk but my three top picks are:
At 85 miles, it’s a push in two days but a genuine pleasure in three or four. Over rolling, open downland to the west of the River Thames and through secluded valleys and woods in The Chilterns to the east, following the same route used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers.
At 84 miles it’s another two, three or four day challenge. It’ll take you along a riverside route in Tyneside, through arable farmland in Tynedale and the rough grazing upland section dominated by the Whin Sill escarpment. It then gradually descends to the rich pastures of Cumbria and finally the open salt marsh of the Solway Estuary.
The Pennine Way
At 268 miles of tough but spectacular upland walking, the Pennine Way is the ‘Daddy’ of UK fast packing challenges. Taking in the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviots, you’ll be logging plenty of ascent as well as miles. Ten days is good, a week excellent, but what about Mike Hartley’s 1989 record of 2 days 17 hours and 20 minutes?