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Gear Closet: Backpacking Clothing and Footwear

Gear Closet - Clothing and Footwear

You don’t need a huge wardrobe for backpacking, day, hiking, or bushwhacking but you do need clothing and footwear that’s durable and can be easily layered to keep you warm or cool in different temperatures and weather. Understanding your metabolism and how to combine and layer the different components of your clothing system in a variety of conditions takes a lot of practice, but it pays off when you figure out exactly what you need to stay comfortable. After that you can stop experimenting with new clothing and just replace items that are worn out or manufacturers stop making.

Three-Season Clothing

Here are all of the clothing and footwear items I keep in my personal gear closet, including some of the items I’ve stockpiled as spares. I hope it will give you a few ideas of things to try that you haven’t thought of before. This is the clothing I wear for three-season use when temperatures are above freezing and there’s no snow on the ground. I wear other clothing for winter, although there is some overlap with the items listed below.

Outdoor Research Sentinel Brim Hat

OR Sentinel Brim Hat

The OR Bugout Brim Hat is a wide brim floppy hat that I wear in three-season weather. I like a floppy hat as opposed to a billed cap because it provides better sun protection and 360 head protection when I’m hiking off-trail through the untrimmed brush. It is ventilated with mesh above the brim so it stays cooler in hot weather. This hat is pre-treated with Insect Shield (Permethrin) which provides protection against ticks, black flies, and mosquitos. I also have a fairly small-sized head, but this hat is available in sizes that fit me and it’s adjustable. I accidentally lost my old hat the other day on a river (floated away), so I ordered another. Read my review.

Buffs in Multiple Thicknesses

UV Buff
I started wearing Buffs frequently last year and now count them as one of the most versatile layering pieces of clothing I own. I wear one around my neck when I’m cold, as a hat when I sleep at night, a makeshift balaclava in cold wind, or for ear insulation on cold mornings. I use a UV Buff over my face for sun protection, an Insect Shield Buff when the bugs are out, and an insulated Polar Buff in cold weather. It’s funny how such a simple piece of cloth can be used in so many ways.

Sea-to-Summit Insect Shield Head Net

When the bugs are biting, I wear a Sea-to-Summit Head Net that’s been factory treated with Insect Shield to kill ticks and insects. It’s colored black, making it easy to see through without too much motion distortion.  It works well with a wide-brimmed hat because the brim keeps the head net off your face and neck. When I carry it in my pack, I use the head net as a stuff sack to organize my extra clothing so it serves multiple purposes. Read my review.

Montane Featherlite Smock

Montane Featherlite Smock

The Montane Featherlite Smock is an excellent layering piece that I carry all winter and whenever I want a very lightweight layer for wind protection. I typically wear it over a 100 weight fleece pullover on cold mornings and above treeline, to block heat-robbing wind and trap my body heat. It’s not a layer I carry on all of my trips, but it’s very handy in cool, but not cold weather. It also makes a great outer layer for XC skiing in winter and for hiking during hunting season. Read my review.

The North Face Tech Glacier 1/4 Zip

The North Face Tech Glacier 1/4 Zip Pullover

I bring a TNF Tech Zip 1/4 zip fleece pullover on every hike and backpacking trip I take. It’s a super versatile insulating layer that stays warm when wet and dries quickly. I own two of these pullovers and wear them almost every day, on the trail and off. I only retire them every 10 years or so when the seams start to unravel, but that’s literally after thousands of miles of hiking and backpacking. You can’t really ask for a better value than that. Fleece rocks and it’s not expensive. Read my review.

Lightheart Gear Rain Jacket


I’ve given up on trying to find any waterproof breathable jackets that actually perform at a sufficient level to make them worth paying extra for. For personal use, when not reviewing gear, I use a non-breathable waterproof rain jacket from Lightheart Gear that is made from PU coated silnylon. It’s lightweight, has generous pit zips for venting perspiration, velcro wrist cuffs, pockets, an adjustable hood, and a front brim. It’s waterproof but makes no breathability claims whatsoever, so it never disappoints. The hood also works well with my wide brim hat, keeping rain off my face. Read my review.  

Montane Minimus Rain Pants

Montane’s Minimus Rain Pants are lightweight rain pants with an athletic, slim, cut. They’re a good layer to have when it’s raining of course, but I also use them as an insulation layer on cold days over my hiking pants. They also have a calf-high zipper that makes them easy to put on and take off while wearing trail runners. I’m on my second pair now, after destroying my first on a bushwhack. Never again. I bring a pair of less expensive rain pants for off-trail hikes when there’s a good chance that my rain pants will get ripped up. Read my review.  

Marmot Precip Rain Pants (Boot Zip)

Marmot Precip
I use a pair of Marmot Precip Rain Pants for off-trail bushwhacks because they’re thicker, heavier, more durable, and less expensive to replace than the Montane Minimus Rain Pants I prefer for on-trail hikes. Mind you, there’s nothing worse than bushwhacking in the rain and brushing up against cold, wet vegetation, so these rain pants don’t get used that often. But there have been times when we’ve gotten rained on during bushwhacks when I was very glad to have them as a relatively waterproof insulation layer for my legs. These have boot zips so I can put them on take them off without having to take my trail runners off. There’s nothing special about Precip Rain Pants, to be honest. Their main qualification is that they’re cheap, reasonably lightweight, and I know they fit. Really, any rain pant will do for wet bushwhacking. It’s not a hobby that you want to buy expensive clothes for.

Possum Down Gloves

Possum Down
I started using Possum Down Gloves which are a mixture of merino wool and possum fur,  about two years ago. They’re good gloves for cold mornings because they provide a high degree of dexterity, so I can cook and eat while wearing them. They dry quickly with body heat when damp and I often use them as a liner inside Gore-tex Shell mittens in winter, instead of the original Primaloft liners that they came with because of the improved dexterity. I currently own 3 and 1/2 pairs, all black, which makes it easy to replace a glove when they wear out. I get about a year of use out of a pair and wear them at home as well as on the trail. Read my review.

Outdoor Research Versaliner Gloves

OR’s Versaliner Gloves are really two gloves in one: there’s an inner fleece glove and an outer Pertex “waterproof breathable” shell – in quotes, because it’s difficult to make a truly waterproof rain glove. I like wearing them for cool weather and in rain because they give me a high level of dexterity, hold in my body heat, and provide wind protection for my hands. If the inner fleece glove becomes soaked, I often switch it out and use my Possum Down gloves as a second insulation layer. These gloves are also excellent for winter hiking when you want to keep you hands cool but covered and prefer more dexterity over mittens. Read my review.  

RailRiders Journeyman Shirts

RailRiders Jounreyman
RailRiders Journeyman Shirts are lightweight, vented long sleeve shirts. I like their pockets slightly better for fly fishing – mainly to hold my fly box. I also like the pastel colors they come in, which means that I can sneak them past my wife for social occasions and when we go out to eat. They’re easy to rinse after a day of backpacking and dry very quickly. They’re also treated with Insect Shield (permethrin) for tick and insect protection. I own seven.

Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Crew

I’m a big fan of Patagonia Capilene baselayers which I’ve been using for over a decade. Yes, they’re synthetic. Yes, they stink up after a day of active wear. But I mainly use them for sleeping, so odor isn’t really an issue. I put them on when I get to camp and want to kick back in a warm dry layer of clothing. They help keep my sleep system clean and free of body oils and grime, even if I’m been out for a few days. They don’t shrink in the washer or drier and they don’t wear out like wool underwear. I still use the same Patagonia Capilene baselayer crew shirts that I’ve owned for 10 years and it’s still in perfectly good condition. Can’t beat that. I own two lightweight Capilene tops and four heavier weight ones for winter and shoulder season hiking.  

Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Baselayer Bottoms

Capilene LW Bottoms
I mainly wear these Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Bottoms for sleeping on backpacking trips, except in very hot weather, because they help keep my insulation clean and they’re so comfortable. Of course, they also add a noticeable amount of extra insulation to my sleep system when I need it. I’ve also used them as backup underwear when my boxer shorts fall apart unexpectedly and I need chafing protection until I can resupply.  Ditto on what I said above about the Capilene Lightweight Crew shirts. You can wash them, dry them, and they don’t fall apart like wool underwear. I’m still using the baselayer bottoms I bought 10 years ago and they’re in excellent shape. I own two pairs.

Under Armour Original 6″ Boxers

UA heatgear
I’ve been wearing polyester Under Amour Original 6″ boxers for 10 years. They’re not compression shorts, but they are fitted which eliminates any folds in the fabric that can lead to chafing when you sweat. They’re easy to rinse out on the trail and dry quickly, so I only bring the one pair when I backpack. They’re very durable and I’ve only worn out a few pairs over the years. I own a dozen pairs and wear them almost all the time, for hiking, and everyday life. Is that too much information?

RailRiders Eco-Mesh Pants

RailRiders EcoMesh Pants

RailRiders Eco-mesh Pants are full zip long pants that have been treated with Insect Shield and made of very thin nylon so they dry quickly. The area behind the zipper is covered with a fine mesh that lets perspiration out but blocks bugs from getting in. I wear these pants for almost all of my three season hiking trips and have been using them since 2008. I buy lightly colored pants because it makes it easier to see when ticks land on them. I currently own five pairs, but tend to use the same pair over and over until they give out, usually when the seat seam blows apart. I usually get 1-2 years per pair. Read my review.

Darn Tough Hiker Boot Socks

Darn Tough Socks
I used to blow through lightweight (Smartwool) hiking socks within a few days until I discovered Darn Tough Hiker Boot Socks, which are the only hiking socks I use now. They’re even guaranteed and the company will replace socks if you manage to wear through them. The Darn Tough Hiker Boot Socks are crew height, medium weight, wool socks that are comfortable in a wide range of temperatures, even when wet. I mainly wear them with trail runners but also use them in winter in an insulated boot. I currently own 26 pairs and send them out once a year to be treated with Insect Shield for tick and insect protection. Read my review.

Superfeet Carbon Insoles

The insoles included in most hiking boots and trail runners don’t provide much arch support or pronation protection which can lead to plantar fasciitis. I’m reminded of this every 10 years or so when I come down with a case of PF, like last year. I now line all of trail runners, winter hiking boots, XC ski boots, and fishing boots with Superfeet Carbon Insoles. The Carbon insoles are thin enough to fit into low volume running or trail shoes. I put the same thickness into all of my shoes so my feet don’t have to adapt when I switch between shoes for different activities. Read my review.

La Sportiva Ultra Raptor Trail Runners

I’ve been hiking in La Sportiva Ultra Raptors for the past 5 years. They’re very stable, unlined mesh trail runners that drain well when they get wet and have sticky rubber soles that provide excellent traction. They run a little narrow and small so you won’t like them if you have big feet and need a lot of toe space. But I like the extra protection they provide and the fact that the heel is not flat, so I can run a gaiter strap under them if I choose. I have 4 pairs stockpiled in my gear closet. Read my review.

What don’t I use?

That’s a pretty thorough rundown of the clothing and footwear I use for three season hiking, mostly in the Northeastern US and the UK. What items don’t I use?

  • No sandals, camp shoes, or water shoes. I just walk through streams because my mesh trail runners drain and dry fast enough.
  • No boots. I can carry heavy loads across the rockiest terrain without any “added” ankle support. That might not be your cup of tea, but I find that I have better balance and grip on rocks and boulders with a soft shoe that has flex.
  • No shorts or convertible pants. I’d rather wear long pants than slather DEET over my legs. I sweat a bit in really hot and humid weather, but I can live with that.
  • No t-shirts or short sleeve shirts for the reasons outlined above.

This is what works for me.

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  1. +1 for a 100 weight fleece! My North Face TKA 100 has served me well for many hikes in many different conditions from summer evenings to cold winter days. I couldn’t imagine implementing a workable layering system without a lightweight fleece.

  2. Philip, I love your list, and have many of the items on it, some as a result of your recommendations.

    Would it make sense to clarify that this is your 3-season list? You say, “Here are all of the clothing and footwear items I keep in my personal gear closet, including some of the items I’ve stockpiled as spares.” But I know you’ve got a different list for 4 season stuff.

    My personal 2c – I love most of the items I have from this list, but:
    – I have struggled with the zipper on the LHG rain jacket – it keeps snagging on the inner storm flap. I’ve never had this problem with a zipper before.
    – I have tried to love Darn Tough socks, but find they are too thick and my feet sweat way more in them. Still looking for the right thickness/durability combo.
    – I love my Montbell Tachyon Anorak windshirt (2oz), but don’t bushwhack unless I can help it.

    • Just clarified it – put in an H2 tag. Good point to emphasize it more.

      LHG – some people have problems with that zipper. Contact them. They might make a mod for you. They’ve heard the complaint before. Heard a great report from a friend this past week about that jacket on the southern half of the AT. Hiked in constant rain and his jacket never soaked through, unlike people with multi-layer gore-tex and laminate jackets who had to put on wetted-out (as in didn’t dry overnight) rain gear.

      Different thicknesses of darn tough socks available. experiment.

      Wore my Montbell Tachyon Anorak to death. Migrated to the Alpine Start because it’s more breathable. Makes a difference, I find. But still loved the Tachyon. A wind shirt is a great layer.

      • Yeah, I’m going to try some of their “no cushion” models which are intended for cycling.

        I will contact LHG – I think they just make that inner storm flap a hair too long.

        I agree re: wind shirt – especially if it’s light, it becomes a no-brainer. Chris Townsend uses one in combination with his waterproof layer for increased comfort.

        I see Montbell has come out with a stretch wind parka:
        But I’m going to have to wait until I wear this one out.

    • JP: You might look into socks made with Coolmax for warmer-weather outings. I have a pair of REI Co-op CoolMax Light Hiker Crew Socks that—while i haven’t taken them on the trail yet—ive worn for working outside all day, and they seem noticeably cooler than most other socks. REI also makes an “Ultralight” version of those. And Darn Tough has a couple of Coolmax options.

  3. Great list! I love Patagonia capilene, mostly because it’s hard to find things in my size but their brand actually has smaller sizes. They are super breathable and dry very fast.

  4. Outdoor Research rain sombrero – keeps sun out of eyes, highly useful for photographer. Also when there’s a quick shower in the summer and I don’t have a rain jacket at the ready, I just take off the hat and slap it on the (DSLR) camera against my chest … I permethrin the hat every once in a while.

    Shoes are very personal. Foot characteristics and typical conditions and terrain hiked vary a lot between hikers. I like Salewa approach shoes for relatively dry conditions including bare rock – terrible with deep sucking mud. Superfeet however seem to be made in enough varieties so that most people find one that fits. Socks – I still like SmartWool women’s light hiking crew socks. Among other things the elastic is strong enough to hold the folded pant leg bottoms in the tick/chigger seasons.

    Nylon long-sleeved fishing shirts with zipper-accessible mesh pit and shoulder inserts are nice – similar to the EcoMesh pants you mention. REI made some a while back, I bought 3, haven’t seen them since at the local store.

  5. Why do you use a pullover type fleece and not one with a full length zipper that can be adjusted for ventilation?

  6. As far as the briefs are concerned, I pack an extra pair, change into those when I do my best imitation of sponge bath, then wash the used ones and hang them to dry. It’s actually more weight efficient than packing a Tenkara rig because if I swish out the old boxers in a creek, fish start floating belly up downstream for fifty yards or so and then I can just pick out which stunned ones look like the best dinner.

    • [[ if I swish out the old boxers in a creek ]]

      : : : checking my water-filter specs to see if that’s covered : : :

  7. One of my favorites is a black Capilene tank top to sleep in when it’s hot and to layer under everything during the day to keep my core warm. I’ve had it, plus matching long-sleeve top and long johns, for 9 years and they still look/wear like new!

  8. Hope this isn’t too late for this thread:

    I often purchase items at thrift stores and have found some great deals. Many are capilene tops and fleece tops. Without the specific garment specs that accompany a new, store-purchased item, how do I determine the weight of these materials, capilene and fleece (e.g., midweight, 100 or 200, etc.)?

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