“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light”- Cesare Pavese
We live in a world of excess… we eat too much, drink too much, and buy way more than we need. Our lives are filled with stuff and this can carry over into our adventures and, just like in our normal lives, it can hinder us.
During my last few trips to the Drakensberg I’ve seen hikers carrying way more than they need, so much so that you would swear they were off on a three month mountaineering expedition instead of a weekend of hiking. We’ve all done it, I’ve done it.
The last few years of adventuring have helped me realise that most hikers carry more gear during the day in order to be comfortable when they stop for the night, but this ends up making the days walk an almost endless trudge with a heavy pack. My recent trip to the Berg was done on a whim, a last minute decision to join a group of friends on a five day hike in Mnweni. I decided that I didn’t want to suffer up and down passes carrying my usual Berg gear so I decided to see how light I could go. I’ve done some light backpacking over the years but never really invested time into it, so why not jump right into it with a five day (three of them solo) “fastpack” hike over more than 100km.
Fastpacking is a fringe branch of the already fringe ultra-running community and revolves around carrying a pack of about 6 to 10kgs. Slimming down to only essentials allows someone to move fast, see more and cover more ground than the typical hunchback of Notreberg hiker. Not all of us can be ultra-marathon fast packers, which is fine, but we can still learn from them, helping us to move faster and carry less but still enough that we can be safe, prepared and comfortable.
Kent before discovering fastpacking.
Preparing for a fastpack requires some well-planned thinking so I utilised my 7 P’s: precise pre-planning prevents pretty poor performance. I used the following points to outline and define my trip, helping me understand what I needed and to make sure I cover all the bases.
Where, When, Why
Defining the basic outlines of the trip is an easy way to help decide what to pack and what not to. Using where, when, and why I started to understand what was essential to pack and what I could leave behind. The where: Mnweni area in the Drakensberg. The when: November (rainy season) so wet gear is essential but water is readily available and it can get cold in the evenings. The why: I wanted to move fast and summit fifteen 3000m peaks in the area, spending the first three days alone on a different route and meeting up with the group of friends I travelled with for the last two days
All my packing and planning revolved around putting a lot of thought in, I packed and repacked my bag, adding new items and removing others, trying to cover my bases as best I could. My total base weight without food or water was 9kgs, with food and water included I hit 11.5kg! For perspective, my usual Berg pack sits at about 20kgs. Below is my process and thinking as best as I can describe it.
I broke my packing list down into different categories: non-negotiables, sleep, food, clothes and any extras. With each category decided I then allocated the gear I’d need to fulfil those needs. I didn’t want to buy ultra-light gear, instead I wanted to use what I already had at home. I did invest in a new light sleeping bag as my old one was getting a little saint-like (holey).
These pieces of gear are essential and cannot be left at home. My non-negotiables were:
- Sleeping bag- Vaude Soiux 100. I went for the lightness. People always ask me my opinion on down vs synthetic, the whole argument about a wet synthetic bag being better than a wet down bag. My 2 cents: a wet sleeping bag sucks either way so just keep it dry. Ensure the bag you take matches conditions you’ll encounter.
- Survival bag- Coghlans. Essential for emergencies, If you get caught out in bad weather, these are life savers, literally.
- First aid kit- home-made. I pack my usual first aid stuff, plasters, emergency blanket, paracetamol for pain and fever, crepe bandage etc. Some more unusual items are: soak it eco wipes (dehydrated wet wipes), sterile needle (I like the ones with sharp cutting tips as they can be used as a small blade to cut out splinters, I use vacutainer needles as the come in a sterile hard casing I can wrap duct tape around and make for smaller packing), Karroo foot powder (keep them toesies fresh after a long day, happy feet mean a happy hiker), Bepanthen nappy cream for those rashes that can crop up, climbing finger tape (to tape up ankles or knees or twist it into a makeshift cord, also good to hold down plaster or dressings, I use it mainly for hotspots on my feet), tampons (for the obvious if you’re a woman or travel with one, other uses include stopping nosebleeds, can be used to fill a deep cut or gash and stop bleeding.
- Hard shell- The North Face Venture jacket, perfect for keeping the water off and the wind out while hiking.
- Rain pants- First Ascent flash flood trousers
- Headlamp- Petzl Tikka
- Fleece- Capestorm puffer fleece. Lightweight, simple and warm.
- Maps- Drakensberg area 1 & 2
- Shoes- Altra running shoes
- Bottle- 1l Nalgene
- Bag- 36l Osprey Stratos. A heavy bag at 2kgs empty but it’s really comfy and has ample space.
The following pieces of gear I could do without, in other words, they are in a category I call “nice to have” but not a “luxury”. I chose to take them and decide after the trip if they were worth carrying or not. Obviously clothes are essential, but you don’t need a heavy down jacket for example.
I sleep like the dead while hiking and have never been one to carry a lot of sleeping gear. I’ve done trips with no mat and slept fine and I’ve slept out without a tent and woken up covered in snow but comfortable in my sleeping bag. The most important thing is to always have a good sleeping bag and a survival or bivy bag, this keeps you dry and warm. For this trip I carried a modified tent in case I didn’t make it to the caves I planned to sleep in since the evenings looked to be pretty rainy, it proved useful to keep the wind off me at night.
- A tent- I carried a Ferrino Lightent 2 which I retrofitted so I could pitch the flysheet only and leave the inner at home, helping me shed weight.
- Sleeping mat- a closed cell foam mat which I cut in half as a space saver more than a weight saver. As long as my core is insulated I retain enough heat through the night
Beanie- Sleeping bags have this huge hole at the top that lets heat out so I try trap as much as I can with a head covering.
We often carry way more clothing than required. I just ensured I had enough layers, and left the luxury every day change of clothes at home. One shirt and shorts to run/hike in and another pair to sleep in, it’s a bit gross but it saves weight. The one item I made sure I had a clean supply of were socks, looking after your feet is essential.
- 2 x long sleeve moisture wicking shirts, one for sleeping, one for hiking. Mine are from The North Face.
- 2 x running shorts from Capestorm.
- 4 x Injinji socks, I like toe socks that allow my foot to spread as I plant it and they protect each toe from blisters.
- 1 x Asics long running tights.
- 2 x running gaiters from Inov8 running
- 1 x broad brim hat
- Polarized sunglasses
- 1 x Sea to Summit evac event 13l dry bag
- 1 x Sea to Summit lightweight towel
Ah, the old age question, what to eat? Do I carry muesli which burns more calories chewing it than it gives you or do I splurge and eat like a king and end up doing a heavy weight carrying session? You cannot move fast and well if you are not fuelled well. I focused on ensuring I got enough calories in every day but saved weight using dehydrated food. It’s nice to carry dried food and use the water around on top of the Berg to make it tasty rather than carrying food with water in it up the mountain.
- 2 x Backcountry meals 2 person servings. I opened each packet and halved them into 4 ziploc bags. This would not have enough calories so I added Polenta and pearl couscous which cook easily without boiling and kept one Backcountry packet to cook it in and just washed it out after each meal.
- 2 x small interlocking aluminium pots. I’ve had these for more than ten years.
- 1x folding spork from MSR
- 1 x Sea to Summit collapsible cup.
- 1 x 100g Providus gas.
- 1 x Kovea gas cooker top
- 1 x Lighter
- 5 x packets of smash. Breakfast, unusual but tasty and works for me I’ve always preferred smash to oats.
- 5 x premixed dried fruit and nut packs, all the good stuff to chow down on as I walk.
- Bars. I carried 5 bars per day so I didn’t carry a set lunch. I snacked as I went. Farbars, Jungle Oats peanut butter bars, Bar-Ones and gels. It’s easier and quicker to snack than stop and open a can of tuna, it’s lighter too.
- Tailwind powders. The best way to get calories and electrolytes in at the same time.
All the things that are not on a survival list.
- Go-pro & spare battery
- Solar charging panel. To charge my GPS watch.
- Garmin watch. To track progress, but more importantly, I save coordinates on it for emergencies and navigation.
- Trekking poles.
- 300ml Hydrapak soft flask.
Reaping the rewards
I often think back to times exploring mountains and often I was held back by time, paths or logistics. This trip I was alone for 3 days and what an amazing time it was. An 11 kg pack really allows you to do what you want. I ran runnable terrain, I scrambled rocky outcrops and took in all that was around me. Most of all it gave me an unfamiliar sense of freedom, to move wherever I wanted and at a speed that allowed me time to arrive at camp early and enjoy the sunset with a cup of tea. These simple moments are the ones that mean the most to me.
Would I do it again? What would I change?
The experience has changed the way I look at backpacking, I learned new strategies and will continue to refine them especially for the future goals I have in mind (future posts coming to elaborate on this, stay tuned). The freedom of movement is awesome and moving fast really changes your mindset and allows more time to enjoy the little things.
I am definitely looking to get a lighter pack, the Osprey Stratos is awesome but pretty heavy at 2 kgs just for a bag (20% of my base weight is the pack), so I’m considering something like the Vaude Zerum 38l which can compress down well even if I don’t use the full capacity. For the next trip I’m going to swap out my tent for a bivy bag and a lightweight groundsheet and try that system out using my trekking poles for the structure, future testing and trial and error will be needed before a big berg trip. Food wise I wouldn’t change too much, maybe add in some soup, having a hot meal at the end of the day is essential in my mind so it’s worth the weight. I am considering upgrading my cooking system to a more efficient Jetboil but time will tell.
Is going super light for everyone? No. We can learn to lose a little here and there and become less attached to things that will ultimately weigh us down though. I travelled over 100km in 5 days with an elevation gain of 3500m by sitting down and seriously considering what I “need” and what I really need. If you’re thinking about shedding weight, take time and consider the consequences of not having that item, weigh up the pros and cons before you decide. Call on people who are more experienced to give guidance and above all be safe and take a no nonsense approach to the essential gear.
Till next time