Our Go-To Fastpacking Gear: Items 1 - 5
Maybe we need to start off by first answering the question, "What is fastpacking?" REI's excellent article on the subject calls it:
"Distance trail running and ultralight backpacking rolled into one epic outdoor adventure. You’re moving fast — mostly running or jogging, at times power hiking — while covering long distances and carrying just enough essentials for a multi-day journey. Moving swiftly with a light kit lets you escape the crowds, reach deeper into the backcountry and stay out longer than if you were just trail running."
Though the bulk of my experience in the outdoors came as a mostly traditional hiker using bulky, heavy gear early on, over the last decade or so I slowly began to convert my kit, item by item, to more of an ultralight backpacking setup as well as making it a point to avoid packing things that really were unnecessary. As I did so, I found myself not only enjoying the simple aesthetic of going light, but also the obvious difference in how much more terrain I could cover in a single day, and how less fatigued I was at the same time.
And over the last 3 years as I started running and trail running, the natural, logical progression was for me to combine these elements and dip my toes into the world of fastpacking. The concept appealed to me on so many levels and I was eager to jump right in, but even though I had spent a great deal of time and money acquiring a lot of wonderful "lightweight" gear, the reality was that most of it was still a little too cumbersome to be able to really run with, and I would have to once again completely reinvent my approach to packing for this new type of adventure.
I did what I always do and threw myself into research. I incessantly read blogs, gear reviews, poured over other people's fastpacking gear lists for ideas, obsessed over weight and price, purchased a lot of gear (most of it second hand), tested it in the field, sold the things that weren't what I had hoped, kept the ones I was a fan of... and over time I settled on a solid group of gear that does the trick for me. I'll take the rest of this post to share with you the items that form the foundation of my fastpacking kit at the moment. Don't get me wrong, this list too has and will continue to evolve, but it is a good starting point. I am not sponsored by, affiliated with, or in any way compensated for promoting these companies or their products.
PACK - MONTANE VIA DRAGON 20 (454 grams)
Out of the three packs I purchased and tested (the other two being the Salomon Out Peak 20 and the Raidlight Responsiv 24), this one stood out as my clear favorite. Though still not checking every box on my list of wishes, it meets or exceeds most of my needs and expectations.
What I like
In a few words - the fit. It's almost as if it's not even there. For fastpacking, a vest-type pack is definitely the way to go, as they wrap snugly around your body, displacing the pack weight over a greater surface area and reducing pressure spots in the shoulders. They also eliminate the bouncing that occurs if you run with a normal pack, which can cause all kinds of discomfort. What sets this pack apart specifically for me, above and beyond how comfortable it is to wear, is the simplicity of taking it on and off and the quick, hassle-free adjustment straps for fine tuning the fit.
I actually loved the Salomon pack as well, but fiddling with the tiny, annoying chest strap hooks and loops every time I wanted to take the pack on and off just got to be too much. It just wasn't a user-friendly design. And I also found the shoulder strap adjusting draw-cords to be very strange and unintuitive - darn right frustrating at times. The Dragon however is so incredibly easy - with one massive velcro strap at the bottom and a thin hook-in sternum strap higher up. You also have load-lifting straps at the top of the shoulders, which are always awesome. For multi-day efforts or in a race situation where time is of the essence, and on the fly adjustments may be necessary as the volume of your pack increases or decreases during the day(s), eliminating the stress caused by poor design is a hugely important factor in maintaining sanity.
This pack is not the lightest I tried, in fact at 454g it is 1.5 times the weight of the Raidlight Responsiv, but it's more durable, more waterproof (roll-top closure & internal taped seams) and still plenty light. The mesh shoulder straps and back paneling are comfortable and it just feels and looks good. The stretch mesh zipper pocket on the front of the pack is nice, and so is the built-in bungee attachment system, though if you have something strapped to the bungees, it is hard to access what's in the pocket.
What could be better
The Salomon is king when it comes to the size and amount of storage on the shoulder straps, nothing else I have used even comes close, and that is probably where the Dragon lets me down the most - but it still has enough to get by. My MAIN gripe, and something I find really just unforgivable, is that the incredibly nice and versatile stretch mesh pocket on the left side of the pack body is not matched by another on the right. Instead of maximizing usability, balance and versatility by having pockets on both sides, the right side has a giant useless logo instead of a useful pocket. HUGE miss on Montane's part.
SHELTER - SHINSHU TRAIL MOUNTAIN STOCK SHELTER PRO (180 grams)
As far as I know, this specific shelter, and this type of shelter design are only available in Japan. They seem to have been made specifically to meet the demands of the athletes competing in the bi-annual Trans Japan Alps Race. There is nothing fancy about this piece of gear - it is made from extremely thin material that is prone to rips and tears, is small and cramped, laughably non-waterproof and suffers from terrible condensation as most single-wall shelters do... but there are reasons to love it as well.
What I like
At 220 grams with 4 aluminum tent pegs included, there is simply no lighter weight shelter on the market. As an emergency shelter to carry on day trips, or as a primary shelter during races when every gram counts, you won't do better than this. It also packs down smaller than a 500ml plastic bottle and sets up in a minute or two using your trekking poles. You don't want to confuse this with a 3-season shelter, but it does the trick for ultralight summer outings. I used it for every overnight hike I did last year from June to October. I survived.
What could be better
Any attempt to make this better would just result in making it heavier and bulkier, negating it's number one appeal point - so I'm cool with it as is. I will say that I own a cuben fiber Locus Gear Khufu flourless pyramid tent that weighs about double the stock shelter and is a far superior tent in every way including space, comfort, waterproofness, etc.. But that extra comfort is paid for with extra bulk and weight - and those things matter as well.
BIVVY - SOL ESCAPE LIGHT BIVVY (156 grams)
This is an extremely versatile piece of kit, that is an excellent complement to any fastpacking setup. For me, it has turned into my go-to sleep solution, replacing my down sleeping bag for summer hikes here in Japan. It is certainly a no-frills option, but the warmth-to-weight balance is unbeatable. It's highly water and wind-resistant, though not completely since it doesn't have taped seams. Yet, when paired with the minimalist stock shelter listed above and combined with the extra clothing layers already in my pack it is proven to be enough to ward off most weather warmly and safely. I tested it over many nights in torrential downpours and temperatures down to 0 degrees Celsius, all at over 2,00m of elevation, between June and October of last year and slept surprisingly ok each time. If you want to bump up to a slightly warmer more durable product, you could check out SOL's Escape Bivvy.
SLEEPING MAT - FREELIGHT MICROGRAVITY PAD (55 grams)
Forgive the unimaginative photo, but the simple reality of this most-basic-of-sleeping pads is summed up just about perfectly by the blandness of the gray blob seen above. This is a single piece of ultralight, ultra thin (8mm) foam cut into a rectangle no wider than your shoulders (40cm) and no longer than your trunk (100cm). But in summer that is enough to reduce conductive heat loss to manageable levels. Simply roll it up and attach it to the outside of your pack and you're good to go.
What I like
It's incredibly light and cheap, and you avoid the extra step of having to blow up an inflatable pad when you're tired after a long effort, as well as the risk that a puncture will eliminate the usefulness of your air mat altogether. If you want to sit or lay down along the trail for a break or power nap, it takes seconds to unfurl the pad, and I even found a use or it as a simple and effective shelter under during afternoon flash thunderstorms on several occasions last summer.
What could be better
Durability is an issue, as the super lightweight material combined with the fact that it will almost certainly be lashed to the outside of your pack means that over time bushes and branches will gouge small grooves into the pad. But even still - those damages will be mainly cosmetic, and you can easily get through one to two seasons of heavy use with the same pad.
TREKKING POLES - Mountain King Trail Blaze Poles (244 grams / pair)
I've grown to be a big fan of these poles over the last year. They are just a solid, no-frills, all-around pole that tick all of the important boxes. Not everyone uses poles, but in Japan single day elevation gains can easily top 4,000 meters for distances around 30 kilometers. Having poles for efforts like that can take a lot of the stress off just the legs. AND, you'll need a set of poles to set up your stock-shelter at the end of each day.
What I like
The first thing you'll notice from the photo is that they have 4 sections, which means they break down into a very small, compact form. The length is not adjustable, but the poles themselves are available in a number of sizes - in 5cm increments from 110cm to 130cm. I'm roughly 170cm tall, and find the 110cm poles are perfect for most situations, and conveniently - 110cm is the pole height needed to set-up the stock shelter I carry on fastpacking trips.
These poles are an aluminum alloy, which means they are cheaper than their carbon cousins and more durable, without sacrificing much in the way of added weight (only 24g per pair heaver than the carbon version). They are light enough to use all day comfortably and very quick to set-up and collapse. The spongy mesh that forms the handle-grips is soft in the hand and easy to grip, and the straps are also nice.
What could be better
They come with a small velcro strap attached just below the handle that is used to secure the poles together when not in use, but it is terrible. This isn't a deal breaker, since for storing the poles you'll probably mostly rely on the built in bungee cords on your backpack or race belt, or attach your own to do the same.
In the next blog segment, we'll introduce another group of fastpacking items that we have found to be an indispensable part of our kit - this time covering shoes, rain gear, clothing and lighting. Check back soon!