What are your goals when you head into the hills? Are they to enjoy freedom of movement through nature? If so, how can you maximise your enjoyment of that movement?
For me, the answer is to search for the lightest way to thread through the mountains. This has led me to explore different gear and strategies than are normally taken, to move as lightly as possible.
Even if the terrain is so rough that you cannot run, the lighter you can go still allows for a faster walking speed on all terrain, less time spent stopped resting during the day, and less muscle impact so a quicker recovery time overnight. That means you can cover more ground in less time.
Fastpacking is the name given to that hybrid activity of trail running and ultra-lightweight tramping. It's very popular in America and Europe owing to well-developed trail infrastructure, and is slowly taking off in NZ, particularly along the Te Araroa trail.
Every piece of gear that you bring needs to be examined and optimized. A ruthless & analytical attitude needs to be taken. That applies to footwear, clothing, sleeping, food, water.
The first question is, do I need this? Nothing weighs nothing. The next question is, is there a lighter option available that still meets my basic requirements? Many savings can be made without spending top dollar. If you’re going to invest in anything, it would be a compact sleeping bag. This in turn enables a smaller pack size.
Now I will describe the gear I used on a 6-day fastpacking trip from Arthur’s Pass to Aoraki/Mt Cook village that worked for me. Adapt these ideas to your own packing style & preferences.
La Sportiva Bushido II trail shoes (305g) are robust on rocky terrain, scramble well, and rigid enough to accept crampons for simple snow terrain. Bridgedale waterproof storm socks keep my feet warm on icy river crossings and travelling through wet snow.
Pick a good forecast so you can get away with fewer clothes but adapt to the forecast so you can still handle an unexpected storm. I use a Macpac Eyre T-shirt, Macpac hooded Prothermal, Macpac Nitro mid-layer, Macpac Tempo rain jacket. For legs, Macpac Fast Track shorts have handy waistline pockets and stretchy Macpac polypo/elastane long-johns to pull over shorts when it gets cold. Thin Macpac Dash leather gloves for scree & snow. Macpac Visor cap and Julbo Monte Bianco sunglasses.
A new Macpac 15L vest-style pack designed for fastpacking. Integrates features from trail running vests into a pack large enough for multi-day trips. Large pockets on side and front mean all your food and devices are within hands reach so you never have to stop. This also makes it well balanced for running, with your gear well distributed around you.
2x 500ml soft flasks in front pockets – I add GU electrolyte tablets to one and keep fresh water in the other. Easy to fill up in streams and never carry excess water like you do with a large reservoir.
Macpac Firefly 200 ultra-light sleeping bag (370g) with compression stuff sack (46g). The lightest setup I have found, as there are no zips and contains high quality down, yet still plenty warm enough for sleeping in huts in summer, especially with a fireplace.
Black Diamond carbon distance Z poles (284g) – these fold into thirds, attach to the front of the pack when not needed for scrambling, but I use them for the vast majority and find them extremely helpful.
if venturing above the snowline, I bring a Camp Corsa aluminium ice axe (205g), Petzl Leopard FL aluminium crampons with dyneema cord linking system (384g) or Kahtoola Microspikes (372g), Petzl Sirocco helmet (170g). If simple glacier travel is involved, 10 metres of 6mm dyneema cord, harness (120cm dyneema sling + 1x locking carabiner). Ensure you have adequate experience for alpine terrain if taking minimal gear.
Radix dehydrated meals – high fat content from coconut oil means lots of calories for less weight. Bring 2 of the foil packets (breakfast + dinner) and re-package all others in compostable bags to reduce trash on the trip. Other food items include fruit leather, salted nuts, jerky, crackers, dehydrated hummus, home-made energy bars, GU Roctane powdered fuel mix, chocolate milkshake powder (premix milk powder, cacao powder, sugar in a compostable bag). As the intensity on a fast-packing trip is in the ultra-endurance category, fats and protein are as important as carbohydrates to provide the amount of calories necessary for long days and for overnight recovery.
Aluminium 450ml pot (50g), Home-made Methylated spirits coke can cooker (10g), plastic bottle of methylated spirits (30ml per person per day). 1 tablespoon of methylated spirits heats up 2x 450ml pots of water for a dehydrated meal & hot drink. However, most huts have a fireplace and a billy or pots which you can use to heat water, so it may well be possible to leave all cooking gear behind and still enjoy a hot meal – just do some research!
Instead of a bowl or cup, I eat all my meals from 2 Radix pouches. I assign one pouch for salty (soups, dinners) and the other for sweet (tea, coffee, chocolate milk, protein shakes, breakfasts). These are easy to clean by adding some water and shaking them around. Seal and fold the top and it makes a great shaker for powdered drinks!
Phone, doubles as topo map (NZTopo app) and camera. Petzl Actik Core headlamp (6-450 lumens), USB-rechargeable. To charge these, a compact Cygnett 5000mAh battery bank (110g). Coros Vertix GPS watch helps with navigation and has incredible battery life - I GPS tracked the entire route on UltraMax longevity function and the battery lasted the entire trip with 60 hours of GPS tracking.
Emergency & Miscellaneous
PLB, first aid kit, SOL bivvy bag (130g). Always need backup and shelter even on lightweight missions. Half bamboo toothbrush. Skinnies concentrated sunscreen. Gurney Goo anti-chafe gel. 3m strapping tape. Lip balm.
Minimalism is knowing how much is just enough. Be smart and don't cut the safety margins too fine, safety is first, but with all outdoor activities there is a level of risk accepted. The lighter you go, the more risk you are taking, so be sure to acknowledge the limitations of your gear and operate within those boundaries.
There is something beautiful about choosing your own path, like an artist painting a deft red line through a topographic canvas. The variety of different routes between Arthur’s Pass and Aoraki painted over the years by adventurers now lie testament to this. Those early expeditions were explorations of the land, today they become explorations of the mind. What else is possible?