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Backpacking Clothing System for 3 Season Hiking and Backpacking

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
    • 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.

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

Underwear

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.

The LightHeart Ran Jacket is coated with Silicone and Polyurethane to keep it waterproof.
The LightHeart Ran Jacket is made with silnylon and coated with Polyurethane to keep it waterproof.

Rain Jacket and Rain Pants

I’ve given up on waterproof/breathable rain jackets and switched to a silnylon rain jacket made by Lightheart Gear that is only waterproof. While it has pit zips, I mainly wear it to stay warm when it rains. 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 Lightheart does quite well when layered over a fleece to prevent heat loss.

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 Lightweight LS jersey and Patagonia Capilene 1 Silk Weight long underwear. In hot weather, I switch to an Super.Natural T-Shirt (50% wool, 50% polyester), 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.

See Also

Andrew Skurka suggested that I write this post, so you could compare his core clothing list to mine. We both carry similar items.

Questions?

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

Written 2017.

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17 comments

  1. What about a base layer under the bug shirt?

  2. May I ask how a rain jacket keeps you warm? And what solution for hiking during torrential rain? i was thinking of maybe using a $3 vinyl parka?

  3. Hi Phil
    Do you wear a synthetic under your bug shirt? I’m planning a short hike next week on the PA AT and I am trying to follow what you wear. Not the exact product but as close as I can come. Thanks

  4. Hi Phil
    Do you wear a synthetic under your bug shirt

  5. Bookmark this page and return whenever you need to assemble a clothing system for a trip in unfamiliar territory, or to reconsider your existing systems.

  6. What temperature range would you say is the upper limit of your system? I’m heading to Philmont this summer and am trying to find a long sleeve shirt (for sun protection) that I can use in temps approaching 85 degrees. Looking at Andrew’s “core 13” he advocates loose, knit shirts so I’m currently looking at something like the UA Tech ¼ zip.

  7. Bookmark this page and return whenever you need to assemble a clothing system for a trip in unfamiliar territory, or to reconsider your existing systems.

  8. Other than omitting the rain pants (might hedge my bets and keep my rain jacket in case of a surprise shower) what would you add/omit/change for a March/April thru hike of the Arizona Trail?
    Thanks for the great info!
    Brian Jaynes

  9. Thanks Philip, recently I’ve learned a hiker could drop 2+ lbs or so be choosing lite weight clothing and be better protected, so please continue to share new info. Ounces matter.

  10. Recently I learned my clothing is heavy, and I’m carrying 2+ lbs of extra weight.
    Please continue to update us on new lightweight bug repellant clothing.
    I looking for a new light weight puffy. -Rob

  11. Phillip, ya’ know, that is roughly what I use also. An item you might have missed is socks. I usually bring one long, oversized pair for sleeping. These are knee length and adds to insulation without constricting blood flow. I also carry two pair of hiking socks. One is often drying in my pack while I wear the other. After two days of steady rain…well, I hike with wet feet by wearing both sets for some extra cushion.

    The one item I do not bring is rain-pants. I have tried these, but, they do not seem to work very well. My shoes/socks get wet, soaking my legs, anyway. Unless it is pouring, My pants drain/dry fairly well with the heat generated from my legs from hiking…almost as quick as they get wet. My rain jacket does cover my crotch and is oversized for additional layering under it. As you say, mostly to keep you warm in extended downpours, my pants work fairly well for that, as does my jacket.

    Generally, 80% of my hiking is done with the same set of clothing. My shirt is 100% synthetic and dries overnight, usually…rinsing it out every day or two is not really a problem. As are my pants. I just slip them off and rinse them out and slip them back on. Wet, yes…they dry within an hour or two except if rain adds more water. Same for underwear, socks while I am at it. My bandana works well for rinsing off my face, what hair I have left, nether regions and my back. This can be done right down to about 40F with a fire going at camp. So, firewood is often my first priority after setting up. Warm water from the camp fire sure feels good at 40F. Staying passably clean is essential on longer week to two week trips I usually take with the minimal clothing I carry.

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