Mountain Running and Fastpacking - Defined

Supporting Mountain Running and Fastpacking is what Sage to Summit is all about. We decided we ought to be clear as an alpine stream regarding the terms that define our beloved mountain endeavors. There is not any one definitive source we could find to cite so, with the help of some local active mountain folk who have a way with words and the info available on the almighty internet, we took a stab at it. As it turns out, the lexicon for our activities is as diverse and complex as the people that participate in them... OK, maybe not quite that diverse or complex. We hope this is more interesting for you than reading a dictionary. - Howie

What is Mountain Running?

Running is a means of terrestrial locomotion allowing humans and other animals to move swiftly on foot. Mountain Running is a discipline of long-distance running that takes place in mountain topography. Mountain Running can be defined by two philosophies: 1) the appreciation of the joy and benefits of moving rapidly on foot through natural mountain landscapes, and/or 2) the athletic pursuit of the fastest possible speed on foot over a given mountain route, given considerations of risk and safety.

As with normal running, two feet leave the ground at regular points in the gait, however mountain running may also employ techniques of walking, scrambling, climbing, hopping, jumping, skipping, leaping, sliding, glissading, wading, post-holing, bushwhacking, and swimming for short distances. Mountain runners strive to apply the most efficient technique to the terrain and conditions while also taking into account their own personal capabilities and preferences.

Although mountain running can be done on asphalt or dirt road surfaces, this activity is more often enjoyed on established mountain trails or in rugged terrain where such trails do not exist. Mountain Running activities typically start and finish from points in civilization such as a road, trailhead, lift station, basecamp, or lodging facility and do not require an overnight bivouac in the mountains. Mountain Running activities can be organized competitive athletic events, or casual personal outings. Navigation, routefinding, survival, self-sufficiency, and general mountain sense are important skills for long distance Mountain Running, especially outside of organized and supported race events.

Some Mountain Running itineraries may demand certain mountaineering skills and very lightweight mountaineering equipment. Mountain Runners may use specialized crampons that work on lightweight footwear or a small aluminum ice axe for short snowy sections. The following are generally considered to be outside the realm of Mountain Running: planned multiday journeys carrying bivouac or camping gear, use of a rope, harness, or other climbing security hardware; use of skis, snowshoes, watercraft, or other modes of travel not by foot; terrain that prevents one from achieving steady, rapid, forward progress, such as difficult rock climbing terrain, glacier obstacles/hazards, dense brush, etc.

Relatives of Mountain Running:

Trail Running – Specifically related to running on trails. Trail Running may or may not be done in mountain topography. Mountain Running outings usually involve a significant amount of Trail Running but travel may or may not be exclusively on trails. The term Trail Running typically refers to the running surface more than the topographic setting or context of the activity.

Ultrarunning – Also known as Ultramarathoning. Describes running distances longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). Organized ultrarunning race events known as ultra distance races or ultras, for short, are common and growing in popularity. These races are usually a minimum of 50 kilometers (31.07 miles). Ultrarunning may or may not be organized as a competitive event, and may or may not involve mountain topography. Most Ultrarunners train for and participate in competitive long-distance running events.

Skyrunning – Skyrunning is a racing discipline of Mountain Running that takes place above 2,000m where the incline exceeds 30% and the climbing difficulty does not exceed UIAA grade II. Ski poles and hands may be used to aid progress. The International Skyrunning Federation was formed in 2008 in Italy and most Skyrunning race events are in Europe, but there are also major events held in the Americas and Asia.

Fell Running – Fell Running is an historical predecessor to Mountain Running. Fell running races started in the fells and hill country of Northern Britain’s Lake District, which first gained widespread popularity in the 19th century. The tradition of these races continues today. These are generally adventurous competitions that, in addition to running in rugged, and sometimes boggy terrain, may demand skills in navigation, orienteering, and sometimes require carrying specified survival equipment. These events exclude any rock climbing or travel on loose, unstable slopes. Outside of these races and the United Kingdom, this term is rarely used for similar Mountain Running endeavors elsewhere.

Cross Country Running – Cross Country Running is an athletic racing event that has its origins in prehistoric times. It was first formalized into national competition in Britain in 1876 and International Championship competition in 1903. Running surfaces are generally earth (e.g. trail, dirt road) or ideally grass, and race courses are well marked. Courses are a standard of 5 meters wide to allow passing and are usually between 1.75 and 2km long, featuring rolling hills with smooth curves and short straights.

Adventure Racing – A descendant of Mountain Running racing, Adventure Racing combines at least 2 different endurance disciplines typically including: Trail or Mountain Running, Fastpacking, orienteering, navigation, mountain biking, paddling, climbing, and/or technical ropework. Sometimes races include such unconventional modes as: in-line skating, paragliding, horse/camel riding, caving, canyoneering, and more. Races are team events of various lengths, lasting from a few hours to several days.

Peak Bagging – Peak Bagging is a term for mountain climbing where the principal goal is to reach the summit or a specific set of summits. A difference between Peak Bagging and regular mountain climbing is that in Peak Bagging the summit is usually one of multiple high points of prominence on a list that one has made it a personal goal, or perhaps obsession to achieve. These lists may be published or self-generated, but either way, Peak Baggers tend to make “bagging” the summits on their lists the primary reason for going to the mountains. Routes and styles are secondary to the goal of simply standing on the top. Regional mountain clubs generate many of these peak lists. The “Seven Summits” a list of the highest peaks on each of the seven continents is among the most infamous examples, as is the “State Highpoints” list and the “14’ers” lists in the U.S., and the 4000m peak list in the Alps. The term Peak Bagging can also apply to lesser peaks that typical hikers and Mountain Runners can ascend to without technical skills and equipment. Mountain Runners sometimes take up Peak Bagging as a speed challenge with a summit highpoint, or in an effort to summit as many nearby peaks as possible in a single outing or ridge traverse.

Speed Climbing – Speed Climbing can be defined as climbing technical snow, ice, and/or rock routes as quickly as possible in a very lightweight style. Technical climbing terrain is loosely defined as 4th class rock climbing / UIAA grade III / French PD and harder. Aid climbing is also considered technical. Speed Climbing poses significant risks due to critical dependence on personal skill and abilities, and generally lower margin for error if anything goes wrong. Terrain can be highly exposed to mountain hazards such as falling, rockfall, icefall, avalanche, crevasses, and mountain weather. Speed climbers generally try to avoid standard technical safety systems to decrease weight and increase speed. Less time on a mountain route can reduce the overall exposure time to risk, which in many cases makes climbing slowly with increased safety systems more risky than climbing quickly and continuously without them. Successful Speed Climbing requires a high level of skill and confidence, and an ability to move efficiently in difficult terrain, as well as a willingness to accept the risks involved.

Fastpacking – see What is Fastpacking? below

What is Fastpacking?

Fastpacking is a cross between Backpacking and Mountain Running. The defining characteristics of Fastpacking are: 1) Rapid, long-distance mountain travel, on foot, over multiple days, involving camps or bivouacs, and 2) Refined equipment choices and practiced skill sets that allow for both rapid movement and self-sufficiency in a remote mountain setting. Fastpackers share alpinists’ “light and fast” attitude for moving in the mountains. Fastpackers use gear selection, ingenuity, and a streamlined approach as primary tools for maximizing speed and minimizing overall effort, without overly compromising safety or comfort.

Fastpackers enjoy the increased freedom of movement that comes with a light and fast approach. A lightweight backpack allows fastpackers to also use lighter footwear and maintain a faster pace, including the ability to use a running gait at times. This can make a big difference in overall efficiency and enjoyment. Fastpackers trade the comforts of a well equipped camping setup for the ability to see more terrain in less time, travel in more rugged terrain, and burden their muscles and joints with less load. Competitve Fastpacking is not a recognized athletic event but is usually included in longer adventure races. There are fastest known recorded times for popular trail and mountain routes that are continually challenged by elite Fastpackers and Mountain Runners, but the vast majority of this activity is done strictly for pleasure.

There are three styles of Fastpacking: supported, self-supported, and unsupported. Supported means there is a support team that can supply or tend to the Fastpacker along the way at various checkpoints along the route. These are generally the fastest, lightest trips, and they offer increased safety in case of an emergency. Self-supported trips do not involve a dedicated support team but they allow for self-caching of supplies in advance along the route, and using stores, lodgings, and/or other facilities along the way. Unsupported trips do not make use of outside assistance or self-caching of any supplies. Other than water and endemic edibles that can be ingested or collected along the way, all supplies are carried from start to finish. Unsupported, also known to mountaineers as “alpine style,” is generally considered the least impactful and purest form of the sport. It is frowned upon for Fastpackers to beg supplies from other trail users, unless in an absolute emergency, and it is considered very important that Fastpackers, and all mountain travelers, adhere strictly to the seven ethical principles of Leave No Trace, and respect the laws of the land.

Lightweight & Ultralight Backpacking - These common terms are casually used interchangeably with Fastpacking, and with each other. They are all are virtually the same in terms of philosophy and approach, with subtle distinctions. Fastpacking confers a speed and distance component in addition to the lightweight aspects. Some lightweight backpackers simply want to lighten their load for comfort and enjoyment without desiring to move any faster, or over greater distances. The terms Lightweight and Ultralight have not been officially quantified but some have suggested that the term "lightweight" generally applies to backpackers with a 3-season base pack weight of less than 20 pounds and "ultralight" applies to less than 10 pounds. The terms "super-ultralight" and "extreme-ultralight" have emerged to apply to base weights less than 5 pounds and 3 pounds, respectively. These latter terms have not gained wide acceptance in the lightweight backpacking community, probably because their use takes focus away from the bigger picture philosophy and practical approach to planning and executing lighter backcountry trips, and instead puts emphasis on achieving specific base weight numbers.

Resources and Further Reading
World Mountain Running Association -
International Skyrunning Federation -
International Association of Athletics Federations on Mountain Running -
International Association of Athletics Foundations on Cross Country Running -
International Association of Ultrarunners -
ultraRUNNING Magazine -
Fell Runners Association -
Mountain Running, Salomon -
Mountain Running, The North Face -
Mountain Running, La Sportiva -
Trail Running and Ultras -
United States Adventure Racing Association -
Guided Fastpacking and Mountain Running -
Backpacker Magazine -
Alpinist Magazine -
Adventure World Magazine -

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