I have been obsessed with the idea since I first discovered it 18 years ago. I found out that the college I attended takes students out backpacking on holiday weekends and I quickly signed up for two. Since those first two trips, I was literally hook, lined, and sinkered. And the doors for possibilities and adventure swung wide open.
Backpacking has taken me to the far reaches of the planet. I have been fortunate enough to trek through the wilds of Patagonia, the bear infested valleys of the Yukon Territory, and even one of the long distance trails in the United States, the 2,650.10-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Of course, between work, I dove into weekend trips, trekking into mountainous destinations all over the country. And that drumbeat continued for 17 years.
Fast forward to now, and things haven’t changed much. A big part of my desire to even get into backpacking was to explore the untapped and barely touched high alpine lakes and streams that are miles from roads and loaded with trout. A driving force behind almost all of my endeavors into the wilderness aside from those first two trips. But on a weird and almost depressing note, I began to get bored. I got unenthusiastic on the idea. The sport blossomed after COVID, and the peaceful tranquility of it began to fade from my psyche.
I began trail running for my after work therapy. Each run I was able to get further and further away both metaphorically and physically the more in shape I got. I just kept running and realized that I was able to achieve destinations in a day that would normally take me two to even three days should I have been backpacking. So I kept running and kept pondering how I could combine my two passions of fly fishing and trail running.
I bought myself a small running vest that had a few pockets and a small space for gear, and I started bringing a Tenkara with me on runs and heading to small creeks. The rod bounced around and the gear rattled against my back, but the trip was successful and I was able to get into fish, combining the two sports.
I kept running and kept fishing until I conceptualized an idea to run over a marathon up and over a range that I have backpacked previously and wanted to see if I could do it in a day. With my running pack strapped and my Tenkara folded and ready to go, I hit the trail and succeeded in running 28.2 miles all the while fishing the high alpine lakes and streams.
But I still had some problems. One, the Tenkara was a perfect setup for my small running vest, and at the time, fishing and running had never been associated with each other. But it failed to reach those fish well into the lake and should I connect with a quality fish, it was no match for the drag-less option.
I also was torn about wanting to go further, not necessarily in a day, but wanting to combine multiple big days in a row, in the backcountry, with what little time I had allotted between work. So I kept running and kept fishing, wondering if it would be possible to combine backpacking, fly fishing, and trail running. As the idea was swirling away in my head, the sport of fastpacking was gaining momentum.
Fastpacking is the combination of trail running and backpacking. Instead of slowly meandering up a trail with a huge backpack and relatively light gear, you move fast and lighter with smaller packs achieving the same goal, but covering double, if not, triple the distance. The gear is somewhat the same, but take everything you own and replace it with an ultra-lite version and shoulder that. So as this concept was evolving and companies began designing packs for this purpose, the light went off in my head and I found the range I wanted to run.
I shouldered my pack, stowed a proper rod and reel in the outside compartment, and hit the trails running across a range that is not only a million acres in size, but has scared me for well over a decade. The size of the wilderness is humbling to say the least, but should I have gone with my original plan of backpacking it, it would easily have taken me over two weeks to hit each lake, each stream, and hike every mile of trail that the range required to achieve. But with the new idea and concept, I could run it in half the time all the while enjoying casting to alpine lakes and setting up a tent in some of the most remote and beautiful terrain in the lower 48.
The pack was light and different than what I was used to, but the idea was amazing and the first night was achieved with arriving to camp early and casting to rising trout. The heaviest part was the food and there was no real way around it as calories are the most important thing when needing to fuel each run every day. So a simple stove that could boil water and ready made meals were the go to.
With calories down the hatch and camp perfectly made, a smile ripped across my face and couldn’t wait to see what else the rest of the trip was to bring. With how light and efficient it was all to be, the only thing that worried me was my body. Putting up with high miles, high alpine weather, and highly dangerous animals should I sneak up on them, the worries of the trip were abundant, but so too was the beauty that kept driving me forward.
Moving fast obviously meant I could cover a lot of ground, but also meant I could sneak up on wildlife. And that is both good and bad. I was able to creep up on a moose cow and calf before they scurried off into the wilderness never to be seen again. The marmot and pika squeaked and groaned as I ran by, begging me to look up from the trail to spot them, threatening my footing and face-planting in the process. And both fortunately and unfortunately, sneaking up on bears and getting a first hand and up close look at these apex and often dangerous predators, was a real possibility.
Being light and fast also meant that setting up camp and taking it down was a breeze. It was epic knowing that I could cast a few in the morning with coffee, then quickly break down camp and hit the trail, all the while getting to a destination that would not only take two to three days of trekking to get to, but also get to before night fall just in time for an afternoon light show and the evening hatch. Checking off double digit days was nothing and it turned out that the hardest part of the trip was simply running past certain lakes and streams all the while getting to another you desire.
It was exhausting trekking above 10,000 feet all the while running and carrying the gear, making nearly 20 miles each day, but the reward was worth the effort. And although the fish brought to hand barely broke the ruler stick, the beauty of each speckled and native fish rivaled even the glow of the mountains while the sun rose and set each day. The beauty was taken in with each mile of passing terrain, but the rapid fire of the run made each day a different perspective than it could ever be backpacking.
The endorphins post run were another epic addition to running the range and moving at the pace I was compared to backpacking often half or less of the speed. Although it needs to be said that there is nothing wrong with backpacking and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life, but the speed at which I was able to move with the light pack and the distance needed to cover before work began, offered a new glimpse into future trips that could open doors I didn’t know could previously be opened.
Being able to also carry enough fly gear, while remaining light enough to run was the biggest challenge of the idea. I always knew that light gear for backpacking existed and as the sport of fastpacking began to evolve, the sport of fly fishing is slow to catch up. The rods may be light, the line and flies also, but the reels are made of metal and as of now, there is no way around that. But thanks to Ross Reels making a small three weight reel and a recently inherited Echo 7’6” four piece three-weight rod, the entire trip was not only possible, but also light and functional.
I was able to cast at the end of the day, and for each water break needed at high altitude that offered both hydration and an opportunity at rising fish. And should the occasion call for a quality fish that occasionally show themselves in high alpine environments, the rod and reel combo shined far greater than the Tenkara could ever dream of. The Tenkara was the stepping-stone, the appetizer before the meal, and they too, also have a place in my kit for further and lighter ideas. But it was a blessing to be able to carry ultra-lite gear on all fronts all the while not sacrificing quality or function while doing so.
The run continued as I left each backpacker I saw in the dust, and the terrain of possibility kept presenting itself with each ibuprofen that went down my throat to soothe my achy bones and joints. Exhaustion was a real thing, but that led to an opportunity to cast further into yet another lake, another stream and presented itself yet another fish to hand to give the legs a break.
Overall, the concept is a win and one that I cannot wait to explore further in more mountain ranges full of fish all over the country and planet. Some of the most remote corners of our planet are often locked away into the depths of remoteness while always teasing us of what else there could be the further we go. But fastpacking and ultra-lite gear are making that door slowly open for what else could be in store. And I cannot wait to keep shouldering this pack to explore further of the untapped an un-fished opportunities that lay out there, begging to be casted to.
Article written by Sean Jansen @jansen_journals. Sean Jansen is a freelance writer for Flylords Magazine, and spends his time in Bozeman, Montana where he guides tours through Yellowstone National Park.