Thursday, July 17, 2014

Clothing For The Backpacker

As I was creating my beginner’s guide to backpacking, I realized that I had hardly discussed clothing on this blog. That omission seems strange because I can get a bit obsessed about clothing. Finding high functioning clothes for outdoor use that don’t look like overgrown Boy Scout outfits and actually seem to incorporate a bit of style can be challenging, at least for my tastes. Hopefully you, the reader, are a bit less shallow than I, and you are more concerned with function than appearance. I’ll focus this post on those issues of function and performance, but know there is a frustrated fashion stylist brimming with aesthetic discontent under my fleece beanie. The first thing to become familiar with when considering clothing for backpacking is the three part layering system – base layer, insulation, and shell.

Before we go over the layering system, I should go ahead and say that in most situations, you will want to steer clear of cotton-based materials for hiking and backpacking. Cotton retains moisture from both precipitation and sweat, does not insulate when wet (making it dangerous in cold temperatures), and cotton is especially uncomfortable when wet. Cotton also is very rigid and doesn’t stretch easily. The most commonly used fabrics and materials for backpacking clothing are synthetics (polyester, nylon, fleece), wool, silk (for base layers), and goose or duck down (sewn inside insulating layers.)


Base Layers
“Base layer” refers to the layer of clothing you wear directly against your skin. Typically this involves a t-shirt and underwear. The worst weather that you might be hiking in should determine the weight/thickness of your base layers and whether they are long-sleeved or short-sleeved, pants or shorts. 

layering system for hiking clothing, base layer

Common Base Layer Fabrics
  • Synthetics (usually polyester) – these are inexpensive, comfortable, and easy to find. They dry very quickly, too. Synthetics can have a tendency to hold on to your stink-stank, though, as these fabrics don’t breathe as well as natural fibers.
  • Wool – Merino wools can be incredibly soft and comfortable. They are available in multiple weights for any season. Wools also breathe very well and, therefore, don’t hold odors as much. They can get expensive, however, and durability can be an issue for some makes.
  • Silk – silk feels great against the skin, insulates well, and makes you feel very fancy. Downsides for silk are price and durability.

Insulation Layers
clothing system for backpacking - insulation

An insulating layer is worn directly over a base layer. In especially warm temperatures in the highest heat of summer, this layer might be skipped (or replaced with a lightweight long-sleeved shirt for sun protection and modest insulation for night breezes.) For cooler temps, however, this layer should be a more substantial garment. Common fabrics and materials are polyester fleece or nylon jackets filled with goose (or duck) down or synthetic insulation fill (PrimaLoft is a good synthetic fill to look for.) Insulating layers can come in the form of zippered jackets, pullovers, or half-zips. You can also consider vests instead of long sleeves but be wary of vests in colder temperatures. The thickness and weight of your insulating layer can be determined by climate. A bulkier puffy with more fill might be needed for especially cold temperatures, though you can also add multiple layers of insulation (for instance a fleece and a puffy), but this typically adds bulk. Compressibility is a factor to consider when choosing an insulating layer. Nylon jackets filled with down or synthetic fill can often pack down very, very small, especially compared to fleece. Fleece, however, is much more durable and less prone to rips, tears, and burns.

Shell Layer

This is sometimes referred to as a “Rain Shell Layer.” This is the very outer layer in the clothing system. For the most part, this layer should consist of a fully waterproof rain jacket (not water “resistant” but waterproof.) I personally like a hood in my rain shell and I especially like those with a “beak” which protrudes a bit forward to help keep the rain from dripping into your eyes (or on eyeglasses in my case.) You should look for articles with taped seams to ensure that water will not leak in the stitching. Breathability can be an issue with rain gear. It is possible that you actually feel more wet wearing a rain shell because it traps in all of your body heat and holds perspiration. Higher end products will be made from materials such as Gore-Tex or eVent that retard water but still manage to offer some breathability. Another way to achieve ventilation is through zippered areas such as “pit zips” under the arms or mesh hand and chest pockets that can be unzipped to allow some air flow. I should also note that most rain jackets are considered “hard shells.” Soft shells also exist, which are made from woven fabrics like polyester and other blends. They might have some stretch to them, and are often more breathable. Rarely, however, are soft shells water proof, but some higher end models manage to accomplish that feat. You’ll pay handsomely for the luxury, though.



Pants do not neatly fit into the layer categories, but suffice it to say you need pants (or at least shorts.) I typically wear shorts in warm and even moderate weather. During shoulder or transition seasons, I will sometimes break out the zip-off pant/short hybrids. My favorite pants thus far are Columbia Cool Creek II Stretch Pants. These are made of a soft shell material that is super comfortable, has some stretch, and has a gusseted crotch for greater range of movement. As with all other categories, stay away from cotton, including blue jeans or canvas cargo pants.

No matter how comfortable the rest of your clothing, if your feet are blistered, bruised, or otherwise uncomfortable, you’re not going to have a fun hike. Socks should be made from synthetic fabrics or wool. I suggest not skimping on socks. My personal favorites are SmartWool Phd models – they are absurdly comfortable, form-fitting, and very durable. The thickness of your sock might depend on the climate and type of shoe or boot you wear. Many people will use a thin liner sock with a thicker sock over them. This method can help reduce blisters because it transfers friction from sock-to-sock instead from your foot to a sock. I personally think this is best suited for thicker boots and isn’t necessary for softer boots or trail runners. Which brings us to boots and shoes…

I prefer a softer boot or trail runner for most of my hiking. If you’re carrying an especially heavy load, a thicker, more durable boot might be necessary. Heavy leather boots last longer but are often less comfortable, are harder to break in, and add extra heft to each step you take. Simple trail runners can be very, very comfortable and are especially well-suited to ultralight or lightweight hikers. For colder temperatures that are likely to involve water and stream crossings, I like to have boots with a waterproof membrane such as Gore-Tex or eVent. Wearing good socks that insulate when wet and dry quickly limit the need for waterproof membranes, but I like the extra protection.

Hats can offer sun protection, insulation, and sweat absorption. I like to wear a breathable, vented nylon baseball cap in warmer temperatures. In colder temperatures, I wear a fleece or wool beanie. Other options include bucket hats or wider-brimmed hats for increased sun protection. Those spending time in crushing sun seem to use those baseball caps with a “mudflap” hanging over the neck. While I find those to be a bit too goofy looking even for me, I have also found myself following utility over style in ways I never could have imagined prior to getting into backpacking. I fear my destiny could involve sporting one of those some day (but I hope not.)

Gloves can be very, very important in colder temperatures. If your hands quit working due to numbness or, worse, frostbite, you can find yourself in trouble really quick. I typically use fleece or wool gloves of varying thicknesses depending on climate. Many ultralighters will use latex medical gloves as liners or for cooler temps, but I can’t justify wearing gloves designed for anal probes. To each their own, however. You might also decide whether you need fully waterproof gloves, particularly if you expect to spend a lot of time in snowy conditions.


So, there’s a basic primer on clothing for backpacking. While I suggest bringing as many layers as you suspect you might need for a worst-case weather scenario, I also suggest leaving changes of clothes at home. Embrace the stink! For most trips, I only bring an extra pair of socks, an extra pair of lightweight underwear bottoms, and, occasionally an extra t-shirt (which I also use a pillowcase for my loud, squeaky, inflatable pillow.) Also, backpacking clothes can get REALLY expensive, but they don’t have to. Check out my guide to finding affordable backpacking gear where I discuss thrift store finds, discount retailers, and other areas to save money and reduce the carbon footprint of your purchases, too.

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