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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

Many ultralight 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.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. Thank you for this info. It’s very simple and clear. I was curious on the brand of rain mitts, glove liners, and fleece sweater you use.

  6. My rain shell replaces your Light wicking fleece sweater and Ultralight wind shir for keeping warm and blocks out wind….. and rain. Also worn in sleeping bag.

    Are boxers/briefs redundant? Instead, I have one pair of shorts and one pair of convertible pants. One is worn in camp, the other washed/drying.

  7. You could also go commando. It’s not for everyone, but I can’t think of a better time to do it as long as your clothing is soft enough that it won’t cause chafing anywhere.

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