Backpacking Clothing – What Should You Pack For the Trail?

Backpacking Clothing - What Should You Pack?

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.

Layering

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.

Drying out clothes in Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness
Drying out clothes in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness

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.

Wearing all my insulating layers on a cold morning
Wearing all my insulating layers on a cold morning

Real-World Example

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.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He also volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

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21 comments

  1. I’ve bought several items from Ragged Mountain, and you are right that the website is pre-historic. Not enough specific information on the fabric weights and colors. For example, they have 4 or 5 vests in their current line-up but not enough information to compare them easily. That said, the pricing is great and the products are well-made and made in the USA. Shipping was fast.

  2. My choices are very similar to yours, even though our trips are very different. (Mine are 1-4 night trips mostly in the Ohio River Valley – Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio – with occasional trips to Virginia on the AT.)

    I usually wear 150-weight wool boxers and short-sleeve T-shirt (I’m mostly in the woods; I do have one long sleeve version for the rain trips where I’ll be in the open a lot.) I’ll carry a second set of boxers and T-shirt for trips of more than 2 nights. I have a pair of nylon hiking pants and a pair of shorts – I wear whichever weather and other conditions require; I found that, when I used convertible pants, I either never zipped off the legs, or zipped them off within the first mile and never zipped them back on – so why not just use one or the other? I carry two pairs of socks for one or two night trips, and add a third pair for longer trips (usually designating one pair for sleeping.) I also carry a Patagonia Houdini windbreaker that I find I use more often than I thought I would.

    I have a light wool sweater for cooler weather (basically the same thing as a light shirt, but no collar.) As temperatures dictate, I carry (or wear) 250 weight zip-T top and long johns (usually over the boxers and t-shirt.) I also carry Montbell Superior Down hooded jacket, pants, and booties for camp warmth and to wear for sleeping, to extend the range of my 40-degree quilt (that inner layer of clothing also neatly eliminates any drafts that might develop, though that’s never really been an issue with my quilt.) I also have a Montbell down balaclava that functions as a quilt hood for nights when a cap isn’t warm enough, but the hooded jacket is too much. I also add wool gloves and mittens (as a backup for wet or lost gloves), a lightweight wool beanie, and a heavier wool balaclava.

    I’ve had good luck with OR’s Helium rain suit, but these days I prefer the Patagonia Torrentshell set (no wetting out so far, but I tend to cancel trips when lots of rain are forecast. At 70, I find that my “I can camp in the rain” T-shirt is still in pretty good condition and doesn’t need replaced.)

  3. Thanks for the excellent article.

    There are, of course, many choices when it comes to backpacking clothing systems. One option that seems increasing popular, though perhaps questionable from a fashion standpoint is to forgo underwear altogether, instead hiking in a pair of shorty running shorts with built in liners. For some inexplicable reason, these are often paired with a Hawaiian shirt. Andrew Skurka and many long distance hikers I have met prefer this type of shorts, finding them less constricting, better ventilated, quicker to dry, and weight saving (by not having to carry underwear). There is also the famous Ray Jardine’s preferred summertime outfit to consider, that of a pair of homemade spandex boxer briefs, 2-3 pairs of polyester dress socks, a pair of running shoes with several holes cut strategically in them, a rucksack sans waist-belt resting jauntily on one shoulder and little else. What’s your take? Are these choices something you would recommend?

    • Running shorts make sense if you’re someplace that’s hot and you’re not worried about Lyme disease, or you hike exclusively on trails and not off-trail. Your choice. I’ve remained disease-free all these years by playing it safe and lose very little blood when venturing off-trail in dense brush.

      I used to use polyester dress socks, long ago myself, but have found that darn tough socks are far more durable when it comes to the grit that gets on your shoes. It destroys non-durable socks, sometimes in days.

      If you can get by with a beltless backpack, but all means go for it (20 lbs is about the limit most people can tolerate on their shoulders). I’ve been using a beltless backpack all winter and grown rather fond of it.

      • I just started using shorts on a backpack trip, and they worked well in the heat.

        You can check your legs frequently for ticks since they are readily visible.

        I wouldn’t wear shorts off- trail here in the East, and wouldn’t wear them on days of high mosquito pressure, in black fly season, or in cool spring/fall weather. But I think I will use them again this summer.

        I’d never wear shorts on a backpack trip without a pair of long pants in the pack, though, so you have to keep weight in mind.

    • I tried the shorts with built in liners for a couple of years, but found that the mesh didn’t do a good job of moving moisture, and I invariably ended up with irritated or chafed spots. I haven’t had that problem since switching to 150-weight wool. However, I’m one of those whose upper thighs rub together in the best of times, so that may also be a factor.

  4. Huge fan of Ragged Mountain. I make it a point to stop in there any time I am up in the area, because you never know what they have. And their bargain basement can be hit or miss, but the hits are pretty good. I like the new paint job too, lol.

  5. Michael orenstein

    Columns like this are why I read you every day. Aboit the gloves: is there a temp when they feel too warm for you?

    • Thanks Michael – I’m making a point to increase my FAQ content (started even before the current “circumstances”)

      I’ve taken to wearing those gloves pretty much all the time. They’re very thin and synthetic. OR has added a sugar molecule to them that makes them feel cooler – their ActiveIce treatment. It works well and of course, they are great for keeping the insects off.

  6. Why did you give up on your LHG rain jacket?

    • Lots of reasons, but when it comes down to it the Versalite is so much better quality it just isn’t funny. The hood is easier to use, the hip belt compatible pockets are easier to use, the pit zips, and as I said the seams are taped not bound so you don’t get leaks under pressure. I have also been able to stretch the Versalite into a wind shirt and winter shell role, something that the LHG jacket just can’t achieve. I don’t care about the breathability as I said. It’s just a much more functional piece of gear although considerably more fragile for off trail use, which I avoid.

  7. Thanks Philip. Can you comment on why you prefer the Montane rain pants over ther Versalite rain pants?

    • Thigh zips and they are more durable than the Versalite rain pants even though they ar ea few ounces heavier,

  8. Great informative article. Here’s my current clothing “kit” .
    A Nano Air, R1Hoody, EE Torrid Apex insulated Jacket, REI Drypoint GTX Rain shell, REI 1/4 Zip Merino Wool blend base layer long sleeve hiking shirt, fleece hat, gloves, Capilene long bottoms, wicking t-shirt, Montbell Superior Down Parka, REI Activator Soft Shell hiking pants for colder weather, various Smart-wool socks, long sleeve Capilene night shirt, wicking shorts, and OR Gaitors..

  9. My clothing system got adjusted after two AT section hikes in less than a year. The first one got snowed out after 35 miles, which saved me from much wasted effort because I was WAY overpacked and too heavy. It gave me a chance to reflect, re-plan, and reload for the second section, a hike of 103 miles that I felt worked much better.

    For day use on the second hike, I packed:

    ? 2 pair synthetic boxers
    ? 1 pair Darn Tough socks (I probably should have packed one extra for daytime use so that I could have cleaned and alternated them)
    ? 2 pair thin synthetic T shirts with anti stink technology–bless that stuff!
    ? 1 RailRiders Madison River long sleeve shirt
    ? 1 pair RailRiders EcoMesh pants
    ? 1 pair OR Gear Helium rain pants
    ? 1 pair OR Gear Thru gaiters
    ? OR Gear Helium Hybrid shell, which I was gear testing for SectionHiker but OR ceased production of the item shortly afterwards… oh well… I’ll have to save some of the wisecracks for another review!
    ? OR Gear Bugout Brim hat. It’s floppy enough to fit under a hood while also still providing a bill over my face.
    ? Several pairs gloves, including a pair of waterproof SealSkinz and a pair .9 mil nitrile gloves. I have a tendency to overpack gloves because I have Reynaud’s syndrome and have to make sure my hands don’t get wet and cold.

    For sleepwear:

    ? 1 pair Darn Tough socks
    ? 1 Columbia thermal base layer long underwear top
    ? 1 Columbia thermal base layer long underwear bottom

    One mistake I made that I need to account for in planning my next AT adventure is that my cold weather sleep system depended on using layers I wore in the daytime, along with a silk mummy liner, which I didn’t bring on this hike. I’ve used my 30ºF bag down to 13ºF that way. I didn’t plan for my hiking clothing becoming storm saturated, which is what happened one brutal afternoon and night. An all day rainstorm turned into freezing rain and snow toward evening, which was accompanied by ferocious winds that blew all night long. When we got to a shelter, all our clothing was soaked through. I wasn’t cold because I’d been active but when I stopped, the chill set in. The only dry gear I had were my sleeping bag and the clothing which had been in a waterproof Schnozzel bag–one pair boxers, a pair thin gloves, one T shirt, night socks, long underwear and down shell. We couldn’t keep the howling wind out of the shelter with our rigged tarp and my 30ºF bag was having a hard time keeping up with that wind and snow swirling on us in the low 20sºF. My hiking buddy loaned me his down puffy for extra insulation because he had a heavier duty sleeping bag. I may bring my half pound heavier 20ºF bag next time.

    • If anyone is *questioning* the format of my list, the question marks were originally bullet points but the reply box dodged the bullets when turning it into a comment.

      Now, if anyone wants to question my sanity…

  10. https://raggedmountain.com/clothing-for-men-75/stretch-grid-hoody-ii

    Is this similar to Patagonia’s R1 Hoody? The price is great, was thinking about picking one up

  11. This is a great article! Layering is so important for me when hiking, and I probably push the envelope a little when long distance hiking – mostly to keep weight low. I just finished a couple of weeks on the AZT recently, and the trail was a little colder than I expected. I should have taken one additional layer. What I had worked, but I got a little cold a couple of times.

    I almost always wear shorts when 3 season hiking, and that is on and off trail. I will say that in desert hiking though, I’ve learned my lesson – too many scratchy things ripped me up! My legs just don’t seem to get uncomfortably cold unless the temperatures are in the low 30’s or below freezing.

    My AZT clothing included 1 pair hiking shorts, 1 long sleeve button up shirt, 2 pair Smartwool light socks, Precip rain jacket, Montbell lightweight rain pants, FF Helios jacket for camp, Voormi River Run Hoodie for sleeping and town, Kora Beanie, 1 pair running shorts for sleeping, Goretex Glove liners.

    I should have taken my Marmot Dri-Clime jacket for mornings, mountain tops and breaks. I also always take a warm sleeping bag or quilt – warmer than needed, because I don’t like sleeping in a lot of clothes.

    Thanks for the great engagement on this site. I always learn something and enjoy the conversation! Every hiker is different, and it is interesting to see all of the different styles.

    Ellie

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