Slackpacking—Walking for a day without your backpack. Typically, someone drops you off at one place in the morning and picks you up somewhere else later in the day.
They [slow walkers] understood implicitly not just the well-worn cliché that ‘it’s the journey, not the destination' that’s important, but on a deeper level, they knew that, at its core, travel is about freedom, about the unexpected; it is spontaneous, flexible, and above all open to whatever may come, an unscripted adventure full of not only new places but also of new people, new friendships, new ways of looking at the world.
—Simon Clissold, “Slow Travel,”
Central Issues Addressed in This Article
What is Slackpacking and is it a style of backcountry travel I might seriously consider? What is slow walking and is it a style of being in the frontcountry or backcountry that I might seriously consider? How do the concepts of Slackpacking and Slow Walking fit with my hiking values and philosophies?
Basics of Slackpacking
A Slackpacker sounds like someone who is a “slacker,” who is too lazy to do “real” hiking and backpacking. This comment might have some truth to it, depending on your view of “real” hiking. Traditionally, Slackpacking is walking for a day or more without a backpack or with nothing more than what fits in the typical fanny pack. It also differs from the usual day hike in that you end up somewhere different from where you started.
The word “slackpacking” probably got its start with Appalachian Trail (AT) hikers where towns and road crossings are frequent. In this context, Slackpacking is often connected with the concept of “section hiking,” hiking sections of a longer trail that is often “thru-hiked.” Theoretically, a person could slackpack the whole 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail, adding sections like puzzle pieces to a personal trail map. The concept was originally put forth as a reaction to the traditional backpacker who carries a heavy backpack for days on end. It now seems to have a broader meaning: reacting to any form of what some consider as more extreme hiking. As such it would also contrast with “Fastpacking” (those who revel in being able to hike 30-40-50 miles a day), ultrarunning on trails and peak bagging. Relaxed hut-to-hut hiking, popular in places like Europe, New Zealand and South Africa, should also be considered as examples of Slackpacking.
Basics of Slow Walking
Even though similar in spirit to Slackpacking, Slow Walking/Slow Travel is different in several ways. Instead of hiking sections of a longer trail, Slow Walking/Slow Travel is usually associated with walking from village to village, sometimes on trails but more often on roads. Sometimes Slow Walking/Slow Travel will utilize a bicycle or pack animal. The backpack of the Slow Walker will usually be a bit bigger, containing personal items not usually carried on day hikes, but will not contain much of the traditional backpacking gear. Most food, water and sleeping accommodations are picked up along the way. Even though there are differences, the rest of this article treats Slackpacking and Slow Walking as synonymous. I will use the phrase "slackpacking" to mean both unless otherwise indicated.
Slackpacking and Slow Walking Considered in More Depth
Typically, Slackpacking involves someone dropping you off at one place in the morning and picking you up somewhere else later in the day. This someone could be a friend, a family member or a commercial backpacking service. One could go back to the same base camp each evening or on to a new location. Commercialized Slackpacking will sometimes include a trail guide and transport to airports and train stations.
In its more pure form, Slackpackers (unlike most day hikers) pick their routes carefully so as not to backtrack, so they can easily reach their destination or pickup point in a comfortable day. Instead of being picked up, sometimes Slackpackers choose trails close to civilization where they can walk into town at the end of the day to recharge (e.g., at a local hostel and eatery) and resupply for the next day.
Slackpackers will usually not hesitate to accept rides when on or near a road, especially when it will avoid a too-long day away from civilization. Not usually associated with it, but still within the spirit of Slackpacking, would be the day hiker who either car camps or spends the night in town before going back out the next day.
A common theme of the Slackpacker is that of minimalism and simplicity: hiking with only a water bottle, a few snacks and a jacket. No electronic gadgets, no trekking poles, no extra clothes, and often with no emergency gear. One common exception is carrying a cell phone when it will facilitate making connections at the end of the day. Since their philosophy is one of slow walking and moderation, and since they seldom get far off-trail, they believe there is little chance of getting hurt or being out after dark.
Another common theme of the Slackpacker is going with the flow, being spontaneous and welcoming the unexpected. Sometimes it means relearning how to play and have fun in the backcountry. For some, this attitude is a major shift or contrast from daily life. Sometimes it takes real dedication to ignore habitual goal-oriented behaviors and efficiency concerns.
Most Slackpackers claim to go out of their way to respect the rights and styles of other hikers. For example, they usually harness their dogs, do not block the trail and hike as unobtrusively as possible. They do not denigrate the hiking styles of others, especially those that they have consciously rejected. Most respect private property rights and attempt to get permission from owners before traversing.
Most Slackpackers are not extremists or purists and will occasionally do traditional backpacking or day hiking or fast packing. Many will carry a lightweight emergency kit. Trekking poles are okay if they are necessary for health and disability reasons. Dogs are okay if there is concern for personal safety. Pack animals are sometimes utilized as well as bicycles. In keeping with this relaxed, non-extremist attitude, a basic statement that captures the essence of the Slackpacking/Slow Walking philosophy is as follows:
Keep hiking as simple and comfortable and relaxed as possible; everything in moderation, including Slackpacking/Slow Walking.
It is appropriate to note that this article stands in direct contrast with the subject matter of another article: “Importance of Maximizing Comfort and Minimizing Discomfort?”
Slackpacking Values and Priorities
What are your hiking values and priorities? How well do they mesh with those of the Slackpackers/Slow Walkers? Following is a list of the values and priorities commonly held by Slackpackers/Slow Walkers. The list is intended to be as comprehensive as possible, so there might be some duplication and overlap.
Easy pace day hiking
Section hiking of longer trail
Hike on well-defined trails or roads
Flexible, easygoing, casual hiking
Freedom from schedules
Unscripted adventures, spontaneous
Welcome the unexpected
Occasional aimless wandering and meandering
Living in the now, going with the flow
Losing all sense of time
Contemplate and study nature
Responsive to one's surroundings
Reject goal-oriented behavior
No concern with efficiency
No interest in speed or power hiking
Everything in moderation
Gear minimalism and simplicity
Using available amenities at stopover points
Interaction with the locals
Learning about local or regional culture
New friendships on the trail
Respect the rights and styles of other hikers
No debating the wisdom of different styles of hiking
Play and have fun in the backcountry
Close relationships with support team
Reader Participation: Acknowledging Slackpacking Values
First, add any values and priorities I might have missed to those in the previous section. Second, circle all of the listed items that are priorities in your hiking philosophy (or alternatively, mark through those that do not fit). Third, rate yourself as a Slackpacker/Slow Walker from 1-10 (10 = perfect Slackpacker fit). Rate your values and priorities not your current behavior.
Author’s Reactions to Slackpacking
Slackpacking is an interesting style of hiking that I had not come across until recently. In this vein, I am fascinated with the rich diversity of how people spend time in the backcountry—this unique style included. Slackpacking/Slow Walking is only one way among so many others. One definite positive: it gives a name or label to a style with which many can identify.
I currently have little in common with the values and priorities of Slackpackers and Slow Walkers. The only hiking I have done in the spirit of Slackpacking is when we day hiked several days in a row from our car camping base. Instead of moderation in all things, I regularly “push the envelope” (sometimes going to extremes). I enjoy being out of my comfort zone. I suspect that my philosophy of hiking will undoubtedly change with my age and physical ability to cover the miles and climb the peaks and ridges. I might just become a full-time Slackpacker or Slow Walker one of these days.
Additional Issues for Reflection
1. Is Slackpacking real hiking? Or is it taking the easy way out? Is it too aimless and directionless? Is it too casual and not challenging enough?
2. Are the rewards from hiking directly proportional to the effort put into it? Is a bit of suffering and sometimes getting out of one's comfort zone good for building character and for enjoying real happiness?
3. How persuasive is Slackpacking as a unique, distinctive style? If you lived in populous areas with lots of roads intersecting long distance trails, would you take up Slackpacking?
4. How important are a hot shower, clean bathroom, excellent meal, a comfortable bed—most of the comforts of home—at the end of your hiking day?
5. Would you be willing to pay for commercialized Slackpacking services?
6. Should more hut-to-hut, hostel-to-hostel and hiker-resupply services be encouraged in select areas?
7. How many areas of the world are really conducive to Slow Walking? Are most areas becoming too citified with fast traffic, unfriendly people, high prices, etc., for this kind of hiking?
8. Does Slackpacking go too far in not including the so-called ten essentials in every pack, even on day hikes? If one is a minimalist, what are the absolute minimum essentials to carry?
9. Are there any rights or wrongs with this style or is it simply a matter of “hike your own hike” (HYOH)? For example, is there anything wrong with not carrying emergency gear or accepting rides to get to the next trailhead or paying for guided hiking or sleeping and eating in town between serial day hikes?