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Core Clothing for 3 Season Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking Up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Mt Washington (New Hampshire)
Hiking Up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Mt Washington (New Hampshire)
Leaving Torridon - Scotland
Leaving Torridon – Scotland

I use 9 clothing items (not including hats, socks, or gloves) for three season hiking and backpacking. It’s amazing how many different scenarios they are sufficient for.

Environmental Needs

Most of the hiking and backpacking I do is in New Hampshire and Maine, up and down the East Coast on the Appalachian Trail, and occasionally in Scotland. All of these regions have a mountain maritime climate where ocean effect precipitation hits mountains, producing ample rainfall, mud, bugs, and 3 season weather ranging from 20 degrees in early spring, up to 100 degrees during summer heat waves.

Here’s how I partition my hiking clothing items:

  • Normal Suit
    • Item 1: Bug Shirt
    • Item 2: Trekking Pants
    • Item 3: Underwear
    • Item 4: Fleece Top
  • Stop
    • Item 5: Insulated Jacket
  • Storm
    • Item 6: Rain Jacket
    • Item 7: Rain Pants
  • Sleep
    • Item 8: Sleeping Top
    • Item 9: Sleeping Bottoms

Bug Shirt

I wear my long sleeve bug shirt all the time for hiking because it’s treated with Insect Shield (Permethrin) to help me avoid Lyme disease carrying ticks and protects me from the sun. I wear an Ex Officio’s Halo Check Shirt which is synthetic and easy to rinse out. It has have integrated netting vents to help me stay cool and dries very quickly when rinsed out.

I’ve been wearing Insect Shield Clothing since 2008 for most of my hiking, backpacking, and off-trail hiking and hardly ever have to use DEET anymore because it protects me so effectively.

How serious is Lyme Disease in the Eastern US? Read this. 

Trekking Pants

I always wear long pants for 3 season hiking for all the reasons listed above. For on-trail hiking, I wear RailRider’s Eco-mesh Hiking Pants, (also pre-treated with Insect Shied) which have venting zippers that run down both legs, backed by bug resistant mesh for venting. These pants are also synthetic and dry very quickly when rinsed out. Eco-Mesh Pants are a little delicate, so I often switch to tougher RailRiders Bushwhacker Pants when hiking off-trail, which are also pre-treated with Insect Shield.

RailRiders EcoMesh Pants
RailRiders Eco-Mesh Pants


I wear Under Armour Heat Gear Boxer Jocks for hiking because they prevent chafing between my thighs when I sweat. They also stand up well to continuous use on trips and dry quickly after washing. In very hot summer weather, I switch to Under Armour Mesh Series Boxer Jocks which are cooler to hike in and equally durable.

Rab 100 weight Polartec Fleece Pullover
Rab 100 weight Polartec Fleece Pullover

Fleece Top

I wear a 100 weight fleece pullover I picked up in 2010, made by Rab, but any 100 weight Polartec Fleece pullover will do. It’s my primary mid-layer insulation worn over my bug shirt in cool weather or under a rain shell. Fleece is very effective at wicking moisture away from a base layer and stays warm when wet. In previous years, I’ve also worn fleece grid sweaters such as the Patagonia R1 Pullover and Patagonia R1 Hoody, which are also excellent wicking garments, but not as warm as a simple 100 weight fleece half or quarter-zip sweater.

Insulated Jacket

I wear a Montbell UL Down Jacket. This is a very simple insulation garment. I wear it in camp at night in cool weather or over my fleece sweater. I don’t bother with a hooded insulated jacket in three season weather because I prefer wearing a fleece hat.

Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket, RailRiders EcoMesh Pants, La Sportiva Ultra Raptor Shoes
Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket, RailRiders EcoMesh Pants, La Sportiva Ultra Raptor Shoes

Rain Jacket and Rain Pants

I really like rain shells from Outdoor Research and I’m using a Helium II, which is very light weight and straddles the gap between a rain jacket and a wind shirt. It’s not a very breathable rain jacket, but I don’t wear it to stay dry in the rain, I wear it to stay warm.

I don’t buy any of the breathable fabric nonsense the outdoor industry spouts off about; if it’s raining in warm weather, you’ll get soaked from your sweat. If it’s raining in cool weather, you’ll get soaked from condensation inside your jacket. The key is to stay warm by trapping your body heat, which the Helium II does quite well when layered over a fleece to prevent heat loss.

If you get yourself a Helium II, you’ll find that the DWR wears off pretty fast if you’re constantly stuffing it into your pack. Rather than proofing it with Nik-wax DWR, I spray mine periodically with old-fashioned Scotch Guard, like your mom used to use on your rain boots. It’s easier, longer lasting, and cheaper.

For Rain Pants, I prefer Montane Minimus Rain Pants because they have narrow legs that aren’t baggy. They’re delicate though and not intended for off-trail travel.

Sleeping Top and Bottoms

I always carry a separate sleeping top and bottoms, although what I carry varies on the expected temperatures at night. I try to keep these are dry as possible, so I have something warm to put on when I get to camp and to help me sleep.

In cool to moderate weather, I wear a Patagonia Capilene 1 Silkweight LS jersey and Patagonia Capilene 1 Silk Weight long underwear. In hot weather, I switch to an EMS Techwick SS Jersey, although I almost always wear my long johns, unless it’s stifling hot, when I wear boxer jocks instead.

The Items I Don’t Carry

Running shorts – I haven’t run in about a decade and I’m not about to start. Walking is my speed and I can do it all day.  Plus I wear long pants for a reason: no ticks on me.

Insulated pants – I only wear insulated pants in winter and only when we’re sitting around in camp melting snow for drinking water, although I often carry them for emergency use during winter day hikes. If it gets cold during 3 season weather, I’ll put on my sleeping long underwear under my hiking pants for additional warmth or just get into my sleeping bag/quilt and go to sleep.

Extra long sleeve and short sleeve shirts – I don’t bother. I just rinse out my bug shirt more frequently and if it’s very hot, I wet it down to stay cool.


It’s a spartan amount of clothing, but it works for me.

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  1. Hi really interesting. Can you talk about your sock/glove/hat set up? Thanks

  2. La Sportiva BOOTS?

    Yeah, I use a permethrin treated shirt for bug shirt. My underwear, black and synthetic, doubles as bathing suit. I use a down sweater instead of synthetic for camp. I don’t bring rain pants, since my pants dry fast. But, basically, the clothing is identical.

    • Boots? No, trail runners. Dry faster after I slosh through streams.

    • The La Sportiva Wildcats are my shoe of choice in 3 season weather. I know some people prefer the ultra-raptor but that just boils down to a difference in foot shape.

      When using trail runners in the whites be sure you have good ankles, they provide no support so its all on you to keep your foot stable.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It is interesting to see the comparison between a mainly east coast hiker vs a mainly west coast hiker. The conditions, humidity, temp and bugs, are very different.

    • Exactly. So much of the backpacking media is dominated by writers and companies from the Rocky Mountains to California, that it paints hiking in a very different light from what we experience east of the Mississippi or in Western Europe. Still there’s a lot of overlap, as you can see.

  4. After decades of zip-off nylon pants (REI Sahara), I tried prAna’s Zion Stretch pants. Now I wear nothing else, on the trail or at work, even to church! They have 3% spandex and a gussetted crotch, plus a built-in belt that eliminates the buckle which can rub underneath your hip belt. They are slimmer than baggy nylon pants, so they look good enough to wear to work. They have snaps so you can roll up the cuffs to mid-calf for wading, but they are surprisingly cool in the Colorado/Utah heat.

    • Seconding the pRana Zion stretch pants. They are my go-to for most 3-season hikes. The integrated belt is a godsend and the fabric is tough and comfortable in all conditions I’ve encountered so far.

      A little pricey, but like Kurt I wear mine EVERYWHERE. Anywhere you would wear dress Khakis you can probably get away with the Zions. If anyone is looking to buy a pair keep an eye out for occasional sales on Backcountry.com or Amazon.com. The price will semi-frequently drop down to $50 or so, normally during the same periods of time that REI runs their annual sales.

  5. This is about the same amount of clothing that I carry. Although if I’m not out hiking in early spring/late fall fringe seasons, I’ll skip the extra insulation and just pack a light fleece as a midlayer. We don’t have high elevation around here like you do, so I don’t have to worry about the changing conditions as much. It can still get down to the 40’s at night in the summer time in northern WI though, so I always bring a hat and gloves since my hands and ears are the first things to get cold.

  6. My rain gear is now Frogg Toggs (which bought Dri Ducks). $20 for top and bottom. Thin, somewhat breathable, triple layer polypropylene. No pockets but very light: 10 oz total. Slips on over boots in middle of a storm. Patch with duct tape. So cheap you can easily replace them. Not ideal if you’re bushwhacking a lot, though, but no problem on established trails.

  7. The EcoMesh pants look very interesting to this Midwesterner looking forward to another summer of 90 degrees, 90 percent humidity. Can chiggers get in the open mesh and survive long enough to attach themselves? There is not much reason to get pants with a mesh insert if I can’t use them during chigger season (May 1 to hard frost). Currently I spray my nylon hiking pants and socks, and wear pants tucked into socks. FWIW, I find that men’s hiking pants typically fit me better than women’s pants, because of generous tailoring in the men’s version, allowing for more movement than the tight “fashion” cuts in women’s pants. I mention this because the RailRiders you mention come only in men’s version.

    • Should be fine with chiggers. If the Insect Shield doesn’t kill them on the outside of the pant, it will if they get inside and the pant touches them.

      • I will give it a try. Also, thanks for pointing out recently that the Insect Shield people treat clothing sent to them. Socks, worn over pant cuffs, are probably the highest contact area, and I have not seen pre-treated socks locally. I find that it is no big deal to treat, but I do have to wait for a non-windy day.

  8. wandering virginia

    Although I question whether the Insect Shield actually kills the insect (having once trapped a live tick with a brand new Railriders Madison shirt in a Nalgene bottle and seeing him walk out when I opened the bottle 3 days later), I cannot question the effectiveness of the product. I have only found a tick on me once over more than 100 hikes in Virginia. I frankly don’t understand why people insist on applying their own Permethrin, good for only 5 washings, when you can buy pre-treated clothing good for 70 washings. And Andrew’s insistence on shorts seems to be an East Coast choice for him too – never for me, also because of ticks.

    • I have seen a dead deer tick that got entangled in my permethrin-treated wool socks. I think that the neurotoxin causes weakness before it kills them, so they can’t hang on to you in most circumstances.

      Good fit and selection might be a reason why someone buys clothing and then treats it with permethrin. I just hate trying to get a good fit by mail order. Stores don’t carry Insect Shield items in all sizes or types of clothing. Come the hard freeze, I am sending off my three season hiking kit to get the 70-wash treatment, but in the meantime, I do the home spray method.

      Note to self: Wear permethrin-treated clothes when walking in city parks with grass. Chiggers LOVE nicely fertilized lawns.

  9. It’s Ex Officio Buzz Off or Insect Shield pants for me or more stretchy pants that I treat with permethrin. Underwear is Terramar’s Body Sensors synthetic. Shirts are typically insect shield nylon, with mesh ventilation backs and pits. Sox are either insect shield or permethrin treated. I also spray permethrin on my boots. Lyme disease and the five other bacterial diseases in deer ticks are nothing to scoff at. Lyme disease is now at epidemic stages in the Northeast and in northern Europe. The Lyme disease bacterium can attack the heart, as it did to a friend of mine. Most of the home gardeners that I know in my home town in New England have had a case of Lyme disease and you can get it multiple times. Buzz off/insect shield is what I wear from early spring through late fall, from boots to hats. I wear sprayed synthetic gardening gloves with a rubber palm and fingers when I hike. I never wear shorts while hiking unless I am in less tick-prone parts of the country like New Mexico or California.

  10. Doesn’t rinsing your permetherin/insecticide soaked clothes in natural waterways pollute those waterways? The only reason I shy away from man made chemical insect repellants is the harm they do to the environment let alone eventually leaching into my skin.

    • It’s made using extract of flowers, so maybe it doesn’t harm the environment at all.

      • i was curious about this as well so i quickly googled it and saw that it can be harmful to fish, so it may be worth further investigation. (and what i found also said it can be harmful to cats. i’m assuming for the same reason certain flea/tick medications are – they can’t metabolize them.)

      • It’s completely safe once its dried on your clothes. It’s also quickly breaks down when exposed to sunlight (when in liquid form). This topic has been beaten to death on my posts about using permethrin to treat clothing. I suggest you read those.

  11. This article used to mention a Rail Riders shirt that you used to wear (before the ExOfficio). What was the Rail Riders shirt you used to use?

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