With the exception of socks or underwear, most backpackers don’t bring multiple sets of clothing on backpacking trips in order to save weight. That means washing or rinsing clothes when they get stinky or crusty with perspiration and dirt. If you’re on a trail near a town, this means a stop at a laundromat or at an accommodation that has laundry facilities. Otherwise, it’s best to rinse out and dry your socks and underwear daily to reduce odors, chafing, athletes’ foot, and jock itch. You’ll be surprised how clean they can get if you get them wet in a stream and then ring them out along the bank. A little clothing and hygiene maintenance can go a long way to staying comfortable and healthy on the trail.
Daytime Clothing System
When it comes to shirts, pants, and other clothes, most backpackers just carry one set of clothes to wear during the day and one set to sleep in. The only exceptions to this are socks and underwear.
- For trips that are three days or longer, many people will bring two or three pairs of socks to alternate between for day use and one pair just for sleeping with. For one and two night trips, one or two pairs, plus a pair of sleeping socks are usually sufficient.
- For trips that are three days or longer, two pairs or three pairs of underwear are usually sufficient, so you can rinse, dry, and wear different pairs in rotation. Most people sleep in a separate set of sleeping clothes like long underwear at night.
For shirts, pants, and other clothes, you want to choose clothes that can be layered one on top of another to address different environmental needs. For example, if it’s chilly, a fleece hoodie sweater can be layered over a hiking shirt for added warmth. If it’s cold and windy or cold and rainy, a rain jacket can be layered on top of the fleece sweater, and so on.
Layering lets you combine many thin and lightweight layers that are easy to add or remove so you sweat less and fine-tune your comfort level. When you’re hiking, you’ll be generating a lot of body heat, so you can dress lighter, and when you can stop hiking, you can add more layers to stay warm. Everyone’s metabolism is different so dialing in a good layering system takes some experimentation and practice in the different weather conditions you want to hike in.
When it comes to shirts and pants, it helps to get clothes that are fairly thin, so they dry quickly. Shirts and pants made with synthetic materials are best for this purpose, although many people prefer wearing wool shirts because they stink less after a few days. When choosing shirts and pants, think about how much sun protection they provide, whether you prefer having a lot of pockets, and whether you can roll up your sleeves or zip off your pant legs. There are a lot of variables to consider and experiemnet with.
For example, for a three-season backpacking trip, a hiker might pack the following clothes for daytime use.
- 1-2 pairs of socks (for day time use)
- 2-3 pairs of underwear (for day time use)
- long or short sleeve hiking shirt
- convertible hiking pants w/zip off legs
- short gaiters
- fleece hoodie sweater
- rain jacket w/hood
- billed cap
- fleece or wool hat
- lightweight down or synthetic insulated jacket
- rain pants or a rain skirt
- sun gloves
Such a clothing system can be easily layered to address a wide range of temperatures, wind, rain, and insect pressure.
Nighttime Clothing System
Most hikers carry a separate set of clothes to wear at night, which can be used as a backup for daytime use if they need more insulation. This usually consists of:
- sleep socks
- long underwear bottoms
- long underwear top
- fleece or wool hat (possibly repurposed from daytime clothing)
It is really nice to be able to put on a “cleaner” set of sleeping clothes if you’ve been sweating all day and your daytime clothes are crusty with perspiration. It helps keep the funk out of your sleeping bag or quilt and you’ll sleep warmer. In fact, most sleeping bag and quilt manufacturers assign temperature ratings based on the assumption that you are wearing sleeping clothes and a warm hat at night.
Everyone has their own favorites when it comes to daytime and nighttime clothing selections. But to make things more concrete, here’s a summary of the clothing choices I wear on my three-season trips, with an explanation of their purpose and benefits.
Philip’s Daytime Clothing System
From the bottom and working out.
Underlayers – Always Worn
- Darn Tough Hiking Boot Socks – a durable wool sock that’s a little difficult to clean on trips because it’s so thickly woven. But they’re very abrasion resistant and virtually impossible to destroy. I like the height of these socks even though I wear them with trail runners. I send them out to Insect Shield to have them pretreated with Permethrin to kill ticks and prevent Lyme disease.
- Under Armor Boxer Jocks – Synthetic underwear with 6″ long legs that help prevent chafing between my leg creases and wick moisture well.
Shirt and Pants – Always Worn
I prefer wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt when I’m hiking for insect protection and sun protection because I can’t stand slathering lotion on my body. But the ones I wear are very lightweight and have lots of venting options, which makes them tolerable even in very hot and humid weather.
- RailRiders JourneyMan Shirt – button-down synthetic long sleeve fishing shirt that is pre-treated with InsectShield. The shirt has a high UPF rating for sun protection and chest pockets, which I use frequently.
- RailRiders EcoMesh Pants – long pants with mesh side panels for ventilation that are pre-treated with InsectShield. They are delicate, so I only get about a year out of a pair and don’t wear them for off-trail hikes. I’ve tried many other pants, but these are hard to beat.
Accessories – Always Worn
- Outdoor Research Thru-Gaiters – short stretchy gaiters that keep debris out of my shoes and provide tick and insect protection. I self-treat them with Permethrin. I go through 2 pairs per year. There are the first gaiters that I’ve found that are cool enough for me to wear with long pants for hiking.
- Outdoor Research ActiveIce Sun Gloves – lightweight fingerless gloves that provide sun and insect protection. I also use them for fly fishing because they have silicone dots in the palm that are gentle for handling catch and release trout.
- Outdoor Research Bugout Brim Hat – floppy hat with a cord so it doesn’t fly off in wind. It provides sun protection and is pretreated with InsectShield.
Insulating Layer – Often Worn When Cool
My first insulating layer is a fleece hoody. Fleece is exceptionally breathable and wicks moisture away from your inner layers to its exterior where it can evaporate. It’s a perfect insulating layer when you’re active and easy to vent with a chest zipper or by pushing up the sleeves.
- Ragged Mountain Equipment Powerstretch Hoody – warm fleece hoodie with a 1/2 zip that I wear year-round. You can only buy it at the Ragged Mountain Equipment Store in Bartlett, NH when they have it in stock. They sew their own clothing but they have a terrible online store that doesn’t reflect their actual product selection. It’s a shame because they have great technical clothing for hikers, skiers, and climbers that isn’t made by any other manufacturer and their prices are incredibly low.
Fleece also makes an excellent underlayer under a rain jacket. For example, I usually put on a fleece under a rain jacket unless it’s very warm out to prevent getting chilled. All rain jackets suffer from condensation when the interior is warmer than the exterior which is usually the case when it’s raining because they trap your body heat. Condensation is water and water conducts body heat 25 times more efficiently than air. So if you don’t wear insulation between a wet shirt and a rain jacket, the moisture between the two will suck the heat right out of you. Fleece stays warm when it gets wet because it traps a lot of air. While it will absorb some moisture, it’s better to be damp and warm instead of wet and cold.
Waterproof and Windproof Layer – Layered As Necessary
Rain and wind can chill you when backpacking, so its good to carry layers that you can use to deflect both. I prefer wearing a rain jacket and rain pants for my climate, although there are other options like ponchos, rain chaps, or a rain skirt. For three-season use, I like to carry a waterproof layer is that light enough to use as a wind layer, both in terms of weight and the amount of heat it traps.
- Montbell Versalite Rain Jacket – I’m between rain jackets, but this is the leading contender at the moment. It has a 3-way adjustable hood, velcro wrist cuffs, taped seams, hip-belt compatible pockets, and pit zips. Yes, it’s a waterproof/breathable jacket, but I could care less about its breathability performance. I like it because it’s very lightweight and is designed for hiking (and not skiing). I don’t think it’s worth buying a rain jacket for breathability, but I’ve found that I prefer jackets that are seam-taped over ones that are made with bound seams like the Sil/PU jackets from cottage manufacturers. If you want something comparable but far less expensive, check out the Compass 360 Ultra-Pak UL Rain Jacket ($35). It doesn’t have pit-zips, but it has a 3-way adjustable hood, taped seams, velcro wrist cuffs, and protected vents.
- Montane Atomic Rain Pants – Non-baggy waterproof/breathable rain pants with side zips for ventilation. It’s also very lightweight. I prefer rain pants over a rain skirt. These are delicate so I only use them for hiking on trails.
Camping Layer – Layered As Necessary
- Montbell Ex Light Down Anorak – this is a very warm but lightweight hoodie for 3 season use that’s easy to put on when you stop for a break or when camping. It is too warm to wear for hiking though. It also makes an excellent adjunct to a backpacking quilt.
- Fleece beanie – Any old fleece hat will do.
I hope that helps you understand what clothes to bring on a backpacking trip. If you have any questions, just leave a comment below.
More Frequently Asked Questions
- Backpacking Clothing – What Should You Pack For the Trail?
- Do You Need Rain Pants for Hiking and Backpacking?
- What are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Trekking Pole Tents?
- Do You Need a Backpack Rain Cover?
- Why Do I Get Wet Inside my Rain Jacket?
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