It seems that today, there are a million and five ways to move on two legs, all involving various schools of thoughts and methods. I have tried many and I almost always find some limitations, especially as I keep getting older, fitter and with much less time. My biggest concern at this point in my life is time: time to be out, time to train, time to get outdoors; so I have had to find a new method for my outdoors adventures – ultrapacking.
Ultrapacking is probably not a new idea and has likely been developed with various modifications/areas of focus in the past. A few activities with some similar concepts include:
- Ultralight backpacking
- Expedition racing
- Thru-hiking (to some extent)
- Fast hiking
- Ultra running (longer races)
- And probably a few more I can’t recall….
The way I see it, ultrapacking can be defined as applying an ultra running mentality to a backpacking experience. Pretty simple, but what does that mean? Let’s break down the two main parts here: ultra running and backpacking.
Ultra running is usually described as running a distance longer than a marathon (just over 26 miles/42 kms) and can some times be called ultra marathon, ultra distance, etc. The world of ultra running has exploded in the last few years, mainly since 2011 and the publication of “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, so it is really hard to try and fit it all in a few paragraphs.
The ultra running discipline has a wide range of subdisciplines that relate to the way a race is held (time or distance), the distance of the race, if it is done in one go or over several legs, etc. The main subdisciplines are:
- One day (or in one go) running events – those include 50km, 100km, 50 miles and 100 miles.
- Timed races – mostly on a short track where you just need to run as much as you can in a set time frame, usually 24 hours.
- Variations on rogaining – a race to pass a set number of checkpoints, without a set route, within a specific time frame.
- Multi day timed races – running a long trail with a set time frame for each stage (“cut off times”) to allow getting to the next stage.
Many of the ultra races take place off-road, usually in areas that also offer some physical challenge such as mountains, specific climbs, river crossings, etc. The setup for many ultra races is having aid stations every 20-30 kms to offer food, drinks and medical assistance to the runners. At multi day events, you must reach a specific end point each day to qualify for the next day. The races tend to be very organized, cost a small fortune and are subject to clear and stringent rules.
Most participants in ultra races today are not elite athletes and they usually sign up with the hope to just finish the race and no hope or chance to win. On multi day events, the competitors are rarely runners and walking is used more and more often, especially in harder sections.
Despite the great popularity of those races (and I know my share of avid ultra runners), I’m not a big fan of participating in them myself, for the following reasons:
- Races mean competition and I’m not interested in competing. I’m a very aggressive person when pushed and a race environment is the worst place for me: I tend to get mean to fellow competitors and push myself too hard, even if I have no chance to win.
- Races have very strict constraints: when to start, stop, eat, where to go etc. I like the freedom of choice and picking my own route and timings.
- Ultra races are very expensive most of the time. Organizing hundreds of support people with aid stations in remote locations, making sure that there is enough food in the stations and medical staff to treat everyone, and getting insurance for races, especially the ones in harsher conditions (where I’d like to run), costs a lot of money. Add up all those expenses and you are looking at a couple of hundreds of pounds (300-ish USD) in entrance fees for the basic race and 10 times that for the high end ones.
- Crowds, though not big, are part of a group activity. I like going solo, so doing a group activity in the form of a race makes no sense to me, even if I doubt I would see anyone on the way (as is the case for most races).
- I don’t like it when someone else carries my stuff. On races you will have a support team, or aid stations, or your gear will be moved between camping spots. You have food provided for you in stations and all you are supposed to do is run the distance – for me, this is missing something.
Even with all of the above drawbacks, I find many of the mental and physical aspects of an ultra race very compelling, especially for longer and faster trips. My main takes are:
- There is a threshold of pain that, at some point, goes from sharp pain to dull ache; you just have to find what it is by experimenting with longer and longer distances. The trick is to walk through the pain until it is no longer there and it moves to the back of the head. This can easily lead to injuries so you need to learn to balance the pain with still preventing injury: knowing when the knee pain is a bigger problem than just fatigue (for instance).
- Maximizing efficiency in terms of movement, calorie intake/use and fatigue. In longer activities fatigue is inevitable, but by allowing the right calorie consumption and use you can sustain it for longer. Having an efficient stride and gait also means I can move longer, concepts taken straight out of ultra running manuals.
- Cutting weight even more to allow even faster movement. From footwear to gear that can be used on the move, the less you take with you, the easier it is to carry it and so the longer you can keep going.
- Never stop, keep on moving at all times, but keep it consistent. It is not about sprinting from one point to another and then having a break, but it is about finding the pace and rhythm that allows you to move for the full leg. Breaks send your body into a cool down from which you won’t come back revived, but even more tired; it is best to stop when you can allow your body full recovery, like at the end of a leg (=day).
- Ultra running is not just about the legs, but the whole body. Training should focus on the whole body, combining as many moves as possible and as many muscle groups as possible. Tired shoulders, arms and core are just as draining as tired legs.
These could be seen as general training tips, but as ultra running is about keeping the body working for so long, I find the slow and consistent approach as recommended by ultra runners and coaches to be the best method for my own adventures as well.
My first issue with the term “backpacking” is the fact that it refers to two different activities: one is a travelling lifestyle in which you live out of your backpack, usually while staying in hostels or the like, and travelling from city to city in a foreign country. The other (more relevant here) form of backpacking is what is usually called wilderness backpacking – walking for more then a day while carrying a backpack with all your gear for staying outdoors (usually camping). Wilderness backpacking has many different names, generally based on country of origin: tramping (New Zealand), hill walking (UK, at times), trekking (Central Asia and South America) and more. Some activities which are variations on backpacking are:
- Thru-hiking/long distance walking – backpacking the length of a long distance (over 50km) trail in one go
- Snowshoeing – winter backpacking where snowshoes are needed for travelling
- Ski Touring – winter backpacking where skis are needed for travelling
- Alpine mountaineering – mountaineering (mountain climbing) using the alpine style of traversing from one hut to another with the occasional night in a bivy
- Ultralight backpacking – using ultralight principles to utilise skills and multi-use gear to minimize pack weight
- Wilderness survival/bushwalking – focusing on survival outdoors skills while backpacking
The above are just some of the variations on backpacking you can find. Two other variations I’d like to mention are bikepacking and kayak camping when the backpacking concept is utilised but a bicycle or a kayak (respectively) is used for travelling outdoors.
I have done most of the variations on backpacking over the years (except using skis) and have enjoyed all of them. Backpacking is a great and relaxing way to be outdoors for days on end, enjoying the changing scenery and absorbing the path through your feet. I have backpacked in various ways for thousands of kms (tens of thousands? maybe, I don’t really keep track) over the years on most continents, and I really enjoy it.
My main issues with the forms of backpacking listed above are what I find so appealing in the ultra running concept:
- The pace is slow when backpacking. Even with ultralight backpacking, the tendency is for a slower pace (2-4 kmph, 1-3 mph), which is not fast enough for me at this point
- There is too much focus on the camping/night aspect. When I’m out walking, I like to walk and I have no need to stop until the day has gone so dark I can’t see anything around me (and even then I might walk a bit more). The physical aspect of moving through a beautiful, peaceful and natural environment is the main goal
- Too many breaks. It seems that most walkers/backpackers/hikers need to have breaks all too often due to over exhaustion, I find no need for breaks during the day. Waking at a comfortably quick pace allows me to automate my walk and spend my time looking all around me, so I have no need to stop and “look at the view” (the usual excuse for a break when outdoors)
- Inefficient movement and habits. From gear that is too heavy to bad gaits and not stretching at the end of the day, backpacking seems to be everyone’s pastime (as it should be) but is often done inefficiently – carrying bulky and heavy items, eating low calorie (or wrong calorie) food and bad walking form make most backpackers inefficient in their movement. The slow pace means that most backpackers only feel the implications of this on the 3rd or 4th day of their trip
What I do love about backpacking is its core idea and the experience you get – being outdoors, moving at your own pace, getting amazing (usually, if weather permits) views and a sense of connection with the outdoors. The mechanism of finding a place for the night, setting up camp, carrying your own food, making it and starting the day again the following morning is amazing. All of the above are the reasons I do love backpacking, but I have needed to find a way to adjust it to my interests, limitations and needs.
And so, here comes Ultrapacking
Over the last couple of years, since becoming a father, I have been faced with two options:
- Accepting that I need to give up backpacking, especially solo backpacking, until my children are old enough for the family to function without me for long enough time stretches that would allow me to leisurely backpack or thru-hike. Sadly, this is the reality for most people and the reason that on the trail, you find either young people (under 30) or people with grown kids and established careers (over 40). The age of 30-40 becomes dedicated to raising a family and establishing a career
- Find a new way to backpack, learn how to get more out of my limited time with my wife’s help and approval and tweak my gear and skills (mainly navigation) to allow for a faster, more efficient form of backpacking
I chose the second option and found myself learning more and more, getting fitter than I have ever been and starting a website to find like minded people to share experiences (you are on it now!). I found myself trying new methods of backpacking, mainly aiming for ultralight backpacking and trying my hand at ultra running, but those just didn’t feel right; something was not balanced – a hybrid of the two methods was needed.
Ultrapacking was born out of the need to balance ultralight backpacking with ultra running.
It it still a not very clear concept, but I would like to try and define it:
- Walking is the main goal when ultrapacking, so movement and energy efficiency are a necessity. Finding the best ROI food for backpacking while training to improve gait and pace when walking are key
- Ultralight gear and skills are to be used to reduce carried weight, but reduced weight is not the goal. Gear is a tool for the ultrapacking experience, not its focus
- It is not a race but a journey, so as much as the goal is important, the actual here and now that are part of the backpacking experience is to be kept a priority
- An outdoor adventure should be fun as much as it is a challenge so avoid injuries, lack of food or sleep deprivation and take stuff that make you comfortable and happy
It is pretty straightforward, I think, but it does require training properly, finding the right gear while moving to a lighter setup and developing skills for moving more efficiently.
Is this something you think you would like to adopt? Or is it something you are already doing? Let me know here or on social media where you stand on the Ultrapacking idea and if you want to learn more and develop your skills, just sign up for our newsletter to get access to a range of resources to be a better ultrapacker – just fill your email in the box below: