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How to Eliminate Spare Clothing from your Gear List

Stuff Sacks help compress and organize the gear in your backpack
Stuff Sacks help compress and organize the gear in your backpack

A lot of backpackers bring extra clothing on trips that they never wear and end up carrying for no purpose. Doing this has a ripple effect, because it means you need a larger backpack to carry the extra clothing, which is probably going to weigh more.

Instead of bringing extra clothes, I only bring clothes that I know I’m going to definitely wear on a trip, and that in an emergency I can wear all at once!

Putting on all of your clothing at once is also a useful exercise if you’ve never done it before, because it helps you understand the additive nature of your clothing. In other words, there’s no reason to bring along a bully 200 weight polypro jacket on a backpacking trip if wearing a 100 polypro sweater, a rain shell, and a wind shirt all at once, will keep you just as warm.

While it sounds bizarre, being able to wear all of your clothes at once is a good way to decide which clothes to bring and which to leave at home. If it doesn’t serve a unique or specific purpose alone, and one that complements your other clothing, then it’s redundant and you can do without it.

For example, here’s the clothing I bring on a 3 season backpacking trip:

  • Worn during the day
    • Trail runners
    • Wool or synthetic socks
    • Long pants
    • Synthetic boxers
    • Short sleeve wicking synthetic shirt
    • Light wicking fleece sweater
    • Billed cap
    • Ultralight wind shirt, anorak style
  • Rain Gear
    • Hard shell, breathable rain parka
    • Rain pants
    • Rain mitts
    • Thin polypro glove liners
  • Wearing in my sleeping bag (to keep its inside’s clean)
    • Long sleeve synthetic shirt
    • Long underwear synthetic bottoms
    • Wool or synthetic socks (2nd pair)
    • Polypro hat

The nice thing about this list is that I can wear every single one of these items at once if it gets very cold at night.

With so little clothing, the key to staying warm, especially when it’s raining, is to keep moving. Your body generates an enormous amount of heat.

If you get cold, you can also simply stop hiking, set up your shelter and get in your sleeping bag until you warm up. If you’re still cold in your sleeping bag, you can start putting on all of your dry clothes, including your rain gear, and get back into your sleeping bag. You’ll warm right up because you’re loosing less heat due to convective heat loss and because your sleeping bag has less air to warm up due to the space your extra clothes will displace.

All of this may sound obvious, but using your clothing together like this in a “system” is a fundamental concept in the world of lightweight and ultralight backpacking. By harnessing your metabolism and different layering combinations to regulate your body heat, you can eliminate a lot of extra clothing from your backpack that you might be tempted to bring along with you, while still ensuring a healthy safety margin in poor weather conditions.

Written 2011, Updated 2016

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  1. Great post! It sounds obvious but when you are packing its sooo easy to talk yourself into extra stuff. When backpacking, I probably bring 20% more then what I actually need.

  2. Woo Hoo! It was nice to read your list and realize that it lines up almost perfectly with my own! I love to see that a seasoned backpacker such as yourself encourages what I have learned, clothing-wise. The only thing I do not pack is the wind shirt. I read your review and it seems like a worthwhile investment. I may have to give that a shot at some point!

  3. I guess it's worth calling out that I use long pants instead of convertibles to protect against ticks and lyme disease, and that I use rain mitts even in summer. They work great with a thin liner, especially if you're hiking all day and it's raining buckets.

  4. Honestly I keep trying to ditch my camp jacket (down puffy) but I can't shake it. Each time I leave it behind I miss it and badly. I've concluded it's worth carrying the extra weight even though it's not very efficient as a layering system (even in winter it's usually to warm to actually hike in). It does double as my very favorite camp pillow though.

    I figure a good night's sleep and a more pleasant camp experience is easily worth a few ounces.

  5. Great post and my gear lines up almost exactly (including my MLD eVent Rain Mitts which I have fallen in love with). RevLee likes to quote an article that said "don't take a spare of anything that doesn't rhyme with socks". I agree that you should be able to wear eveything in your pack together in cold weather. "Fear is heavy"- my pack has gotten much lighter as my experience and confidence has grown.

  6. Chris – hard to say really, given that you're doing more high altitude hikes than me. If needed for colder bridge season hiking, I bring a montbell thermawrap jacket. Also makes a good pillow although I sometimes wear it in my bag. It is much smaller than my winter down jacket though. Do you think going to a more compressible jacket would let you get a smaller backpack? All kinds of ways to rationalize a new purchase. :-)

  7. martin cooperman

    I find this mostly to be the case. I don almost all my gear when I get into camp if it's cold enough to warrant. But in damp, rainy weather,

    I can't count on my rain shell top and bottom to dry off enough to use in my sleeping bag.

    A shell garment is very useful in retaining heat over an insulating layer in camp, but it has to be really dry to use inside a sleeping bag. My windshirt does fine as a dry top in the bag.

    Marty Cooperman

    Cleveland, Ohio

  8. Great article, I have similar clothing, I use dri-ducks for raingear & as a wind break, I generally sleep in shorts & a wicking t-shirt,with this I use a silk bag liner, it keeps the bag clean & washes easily. I have an rei spruce run jacket which packs down to the size of a nalgene bottle. All of this makes for very little space consumed by my clothes and a lighter pack.

  9. Great post, I find myself doing almost the exact thing you do.

  10. Works! I did just as you wrote two weeks ago after a very wet day of hiking up to Culver Gap Shelter. Slept in my Dri-Ducks with a puffy layer just beneath and over a long sleeved tee. Low was in the upper 30's and my 40F bag was slightly damp from condensation, even under a tarp! Had to unip the jacket and open the puffy layer to let our some of the heat and evaporating moisture.

    I do carry a second set of clean, dry clothes for emergencies and for the bus ride home. I opt for lightweight nylon fishing pants and shirts to keep the weight of the 2nd set down low.

    Highly recommend Dri-Ducks for lightweight wind & rain protection. Consider duct taping the pant's set seam before your trip as it will separate slightly while sitting on rocks and logs.

  11. I have a very similar clothing list with the exception of a wind shirt. If it is windy enough to bother me, I wear my rain jacket; it is very wind proof : )

    One additional item I always bring even in the summer that you don't list is a down vest. Light weight and adds a surprising amount of insulation. When my core is warm, my hands and feet seem to quickly follow suit.

  12. new old backpckr

    Thank you Philip! I am having a good laugh about the synchonicity of this post as I go through my hiking clothes.

  13. I generally follow this line of thinking, however, I'm very allergic to poison ivy and must keep my hiking clothes separate from my sleeping clothes. Also, I use a backpacker poncho instead of jacket/pants/rain cover.

  14. If I don't at some point in a trip have just about everything on at once, I brought too much. If you worry about being too cold due to eliminating too much there are a few last resort tricks you can do in a pinch. Stuffing a jacket with your sleeping bag works really well, as does rolling a sleeping pad around your torso under a jacket. This is really good if its raining as you don't chance getting down wet. A platy filled with hot water, between your thighs, will keep you warm for hours if the night temps dip unexpectedly. Wouldn't count on these but good to know.

  15. I wish I could get my Scouts to understand this. We are still having to do shakedowns. But better to do shakedowns than have to throw the kitchen sink into the lake because they brought it.

  16. This is a great post with lots of good comments. But be careful with other gear, especially emergency gear. Just because you haven’t (or rarely) used it in the past, shouldn’t be a reason not to bring key emergency gear with you. A headlight always remains in my pack, even with a relatively short day hike into the mtns. Lastly, periodically check the condition of your first-aid kit and emergency items.

  17. Also remember that CLOTHES AND SLEEPING BAGS ARE NOT WARM. Put a thermometer in a pile of clothes and it will read ambient temp. Understand where the warmth comes from….your body. Some clothes are more efficient at retaining that heat, resisting rain, or stopping wind. Clothes do not generate heat. The more you understand how to keep your body’s heat rather than losing it and trying to regain it, the more safe you will be in the backcountry.
    The only hat that works for me is one that stops the wind and has ear and neck flaps. Us really cold people need more than one fleece or an additional source of insulation….I used to get $2 wool sweaters from the thrift store. Now fleece sweaters can be found there also.

  18. Very good article, thank you. One thing is that when I’m hiking then stop for a rest/drink I get cold very quickly – usually I carry a warm jacket and just wear it over everything – I’m wondering what you do when you stop?

  19. I never go on any hike without my buff and my Blackrock Gear head cosy. Keeping head heat is essential if it gets cold. I havent used my rain jacket (Zpacks) in my sleeping bag but will try that if needed as long as it is not wet. Just two pairs of socks seems a good way to knock off some grams. Thanks Dara

  20. Great advice, Philip. Overpacking extra clothing a common mistake a lot of new backpackers make. It’s better to have too much than not enough. It’s just part of the learning curve. One of my most versatile pieces of gear is a down vest. It compresses well, it’s light weight, and doesn’t take up much room in the pack. It doubles as a pillow or I can wear it as extra insulation in my sleeping quilt or under a rain jacket. I consider it like a life preserver. That plus a wool beanie or buff on my head and I may not be toasty warm, but I haven’t died of hypothermia yet.

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