What To Wear Backpacking (A Beginner’s Guide)

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Are you planning a backpacking trip through some trails in the backcountry? Have you considered everything you need to do regarding this backpacking trip, including what you will wear when hiking these wilderness trails?

If you have yet to take this step, the following article may be very instructive. Here we will talk about some of the best attire and garment choices when backpacking, and provide some tips on how to plan—from a clothes standpoint—for the various weather and trail conditions you may encounter.

What to Wear Backpacking: Introduction

Regardless of where you intend to hike or for how long, you will need to bring/wear clothes that are functional for your purpose and take into account the changing weather conditions that can occur in the backcountry. You also want to make sure that you keep your pack as light as possible. One way to accomplish all of these things is through layering.

Layering your clothing is a great way to prepare yourself for changing climatic conditions, such as those that happen from morning to afternoon to evening, and even wet and rainy conditions. When you layer your clothes, you can easily transition from cold to warm conditions just by removing one of the layers, and then transition back by adding that same layer back on as the chill of evening begins to set in.

So what types of clothes should you choose? Before we address the specific types of attire to wear when backpacking, it’s important to note that you need your clothes to serve a function.

You definitely want to seek out clothing that will wick moisture away from your body and dry quickly should it get wet. You may also want to choose clothing that will protect you from the harmful rays of the sun, or select attire with antimicrobial properties that will prevent odors—a function for which your fellow backpackers would readily applaud you.

There are even clothing types that are known to ward off insects and other pests that can become a nuisance on the trail.

Choosing clothing with fewer buttons and zippers will also allay some of the weight in your pack, but you may have to sacrifice some comfort. In the end, it is you that must make the decision between extra weight and comfort, but we recommend you try it both ways for a while to get a good feel for each.

Functional Fabric Choices

Before we talk about the various layers of clothes and some of the clothing accessories you will need for your backpacking trip, let’s talk about some of the fabrics that can offer some of the functionality we discussed above.

Here are some of the fabrics you should consider when backpacking, followed by one type of fabric you may want to avoid.

Functional Backpacking Fabrics

  • Wool. When most people think of wool they are reminded of the itchy and scratchy wool sweater their grandmother always got them for Christmas—and that doesn’t sound like it would be good choice for a backpacking adventure. However, wool has changed since those early days, and there are now many wool fabrics that are as comfortable as they are functional. One example of this is known as Merino wool, a very fine wool blend that offers a lot of great properties. This wool resists odors better than perhaps any other fabric, it also wicks sweat away from your body and is very breathable, and is able to keep you comfortable while you are on the trail. Because of these properties, many people elect to go with wool when it comes to their base layer of clothing—clothing that will come into contact with the most skin, such as T-shirts, socks, hats and even undergarments.
  • Synthetic Fabrics. Synthetic fabrics are those that are not naturally-occurring. They include names like polyester, nylon, and many other new and improved fabrics used to make athletic and gym-inspired clothing. One of the best things about wearing synthetic fabrics is that they are very quick-drying and they can stand up to a lot of punishment. This is why many sports uniforms and work clothing is made from polyester. The downside to synthetic fabrics is they tend to stink after a long day on the trail, but they are very easy to wash and can easily dry overnight in most weather conditions.
  • Fleece. Cotton fleece, as you will see in our next section, is the only type of cotton clothing you should consider, and only as a mid-layer. Cotton fleece, as you well know, is very soft and comfortable. It works great as a mid-layer when hiking in cold conditions, and can even be used for sleepwear around camp.
  • Silk. Believe it or not, silk can be a great fabric when backpacking, but it does have its downsides, too. When treated, silk can help wick moisture away, but it is recommended only for moderate to cool weather conditions as a base layer. It is very soft, but not very durable, especially in bright sunlight.

Non-Functional Backpacking Fabrics

  • Cotton. If there is one taboo fabric (as a base layer) among the backpacking community it is cotton. Cotton does NOT wick moisture away, gets wet very easily and is slow to dry, and can get VERY stinky after a couple of days’ wear. Because of this, it is not recommended for base layers, socks or outer layers.

Layering Your Clothes for Backpacking

Now that you have a good idea regarding which fabrics are functional for backpacking and which ones are less so, let’s talk about the various layers of clothes that are recommended for the sport, beginning with the base layer.

Base Layer

When we speak about the base layer, we are talking first about the clothes nearest to your skin, which includes under garments (including bras for women), and a base top and bottoms (like Long Johns), the latter of which is optional and should only be considered in colder temperatures.

When it comes to undergarments, both wool and synthetic fabrics like nylon or spandex are good choices. All of these fabrics do a great job at wicking away moisture, and wool is very breathable.

Experts recommend that you avoid very tight underwear and opt instead for something looser and airier. Tight underwear can rub and chafe after walking several miles and should be avoided. For bras, women should wear the sports bra type in a breathable, moisture wicking fabric.

A good merino wool tee-shirt, either short-sleeved or long-sleeved, is a great choice for a base layer, as it wicks moisture away from the body, is breathable and is odor resistant. In very cold weather, both men and women can turn to wool long johns to keep both their upper and lower body nice and warm.

As for pants, those that also convert into shorts are a GREAT choice when backpacking. What could be easier than simply unzipping the lower half of your pants when the weather turns warm. These days there are several stylish choices made out of very breathable synthetic fabrics that will also keep your legs nice and dry.

Yoga pants or tights are also acceptable for women, although they are not recommended for very intense backpacking through brush and other hazards, as they are not known to be very durable.

Mid Layer

When we speak about the mid-layer, we are talking about the clothes you will need to wear for warmth when the weather turns cold. (As you will see in our next section, the outer layer merely refers to rain gear that you will need to keep handy should you encounter a downpour).

A good rule of thumb when considering your attire for an upcoming backpacking trek is to bring two garments to serve as potential mid-layers: a fleece or nylon pullover and a heavier jacket of some kind (for VERY cold days and nights).

Fleece tops are very comfortable, and because you already have water-wicking clothes on for your base layer, you can get away with a little comfort here. These are not very prudent choices for wet weather, as cotton takes forever to dry, but a nice fleece pullover feels very comfortable at night when laying around camp after a hard day of walking.

The jacket you bring along should be insulated for warmth. Down jackets work very well for this purpose. Make sure to bring along a jacket/coat (or even a vest) that is rated for the type of weather and temperatures you expect to encounter—a simple jacket without a lot of bells and whistles on it—extras that can potentially weigh you down.

Outer Layer—Rain Gear

If there is one single adjective to describe the weather in the backcountry it is this: unpredictable. Sunny, glorious days can quickly turn into heavy thunderstorms, and unless you have the proper rain gear you can expect to get very wet—and very uncomfortable.

There are many camping, backpacking and hiking retailers that sell rain gear just for this purpose. These rain jackets and rain pants are highly resistant to water and, in some cases, even completely waterproof.

No backpacker should ever be caught without this type of nylon rain gear, and because it is so light and easy to roll up it will take up little room in your pack and add very little weight.

Clothing Accessories for Backpacking

Last but certainly not least, let’s talk about some of the clothing accessories you should ALWAYS bring when setting off on a backpacking trip.

Socks

Wool socks are the best choice here. Wool socks will wick away moisture why allowing your feet to breathe. They also have antimicrobial properties to help them resist odors and are very soft and durable.

Sleepwear

Warm wool socks, a soft fleece top and a pair of fleece pants will make you very comfortable around camp.

Hats/Caps

There are actually two different hats you should consider bringing on your backpacking adventure. Wide-brimmed hats or even ball caps with a visor will help to keep the sun from beating on your head and keep you cooler as you explore the trails.

The other hat you should bring is a wool stocking cap or watchman, which will keep your head warm on colder mountainous hikes. And when the weather is truly cold, these hats are also great to sleep in.

Sunglasses/Sunscreen

Sunglasses as you walk the trails during the bright daylight sun will make a very positive difference. They also help protect your eyes from the UV rays of the sun.

Sunscreen should also be applied to all exposed places on your body. Sunburns can happen after just a few minutes in the blazing sun and can make the rest of your trip miserable.

Gloves

Gloves will keep your hands warm on very chilly backpacking excursions. You can also bring a secondary pair of gloves for sun protection.

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