Should you carry a separate pair of sleeping clothes on backpacking trips? Is it worth the added weight? What about when it’s really hot or humid at night and you’re having trouble staying cool?
I carry a separate set of clothes to sleep in on backpacking trips because it feels nice to put something on that’s clean after perspiring in my regular daytime hiking clothes. They also serve double duty as an extra baselayer in cold weather or if I need to change into something dry after my regular clothes get wet, like when I have to hike in rain. Cooking dinner while wearing cold wet clothing is the worst!
What sleeping clothes should you bring?
- Shirt – long sleeve or short, depending on temperatures and personal preference
- Long underwear – silkweight for hot weather and heavier weight for colder conditions
- Extra socks – set aside one pair to wear just at night
- Beanie – warm hat or insulated balaclava, even if you sleep in a mummy sleeping bag
For 3-season use, I wear a Patagonia Capilene Cool Lightweight Long Sleeve Shirt and a pair of Patagonia Silkweight Capilene Long Johns (no longer made), plus Darn Tough Hiker Boot Socks (same as I wear hiking), and whatever lightweight fleece beanie I have sitting around.
Does it matter if sleep clothes are wool or synthetic?
Wool or synthetic, it doesn’t really matter what kind of fabric they’re made of, although you probably want to avoid cotton unless you’re backpacking through a hot and dry climate like the desert where they can dry quickly if they get wet. I use a thin synthetic jersey and synthetic long underwear because they don’t shrink in a dryer and they basically last forever. They also pack up small and are very lightweight.
I also change into a dry pair of wool hiking socks wool (the same pair repeatedly) each night because wool stinks less even after a few days of use. I also wear a fleece beanie cap, since I usually sleep in a hoodless sleeping bag if I’m on the ground or with a quilt, in a hammock.
While wearing sleeping clothes will help you keep your sleeping bag/quilt and sleeping pad cleaner, there’s more to wearing sleeping clothes than meets the eye. When I take off my daytime clothes and switch to my sleeping clothes, I relax. It triggers a psychological response and helps me kick back in preparation for sleep.
It feels and smells better
I sleep really well outdoors and feeling “cleaner” has a lot to do with it. My daytime hiking clothes get crusty with salt, sweat, and dirt, and they’d be nasty to sleep in. I also like to rinse out my daytime clothes before going to sleep and hang them to dry, so they’re not available to hang out around camp or sleep in.
There are health benefits to sleeping in cleaner and drier clothes at night because they give your nether regions and feet a chance to gently reabsorb body fluids and heal. If you sleep in your salt-encrusted daytime hiking clothes at night, even if it’s just your boxers, the salt will continue to draw moisture from your skin. Wearing clean clothes and socks will reduce any ongoing irritation and help your skin recover its natural resiliency. Plump, resilient skin is much more durable, blister, and chafe-resistant than dry irritated skin.
What about sleeping naked on backpacking trips? Whatever floats your boat. I’d still recommend bringing along an extra baselayer shirt and long underwear that you can layer with if you get cold or wet, or you can use to augment your sleeping bags/quilts warmth on cold nights. I don’t bring any extra daytime shirts, pants, or underwear on my backpacking trips, so my sleeping clothes are my only fallbacks.
Keep your sleeping bag/quilt clean
If you’ve been hiking all day and sweating or you’ve slathered suntan lotion and bug dope on your skin, the last thing you want to do is to transfer that crud to your sleeping bag or backpacking quilt. While you can rinse yourself before bed, it’s hard to get really clean on the trail. Wearing sleeping clothes helps keep the inside of your sleep insulation cleaner so you have to wash it less often.
You’ll be warmer
Sleeping clothes provide an added thermal benefit when worn inside a sleeping bag or under a quilt. In fact, sleeping bag temperature ratings (and the testing protocol) are based on the assumption that you are wearing long underwear (top and bottom) and an insulated hat. If you’re a cold sleeper, wearing sleeping clothes will help you get the full insulation value that your sleeping bag is rated for.
It’s worth it just for the psychological benefits alone, you just feel better getting into your jimmy jams before going to bed. Modern synthetics weigh so little as well. Bit like having even a small campfire, not required but just so satisfying at the end of a long day to sit and stare for a little while before you nod off.
If you backpack in wilderness, sleeping in clothes that don’t have food smells is an absolute must as is hosting food at night.
…for bear avoidance.
Thanks for this post! I adopted wearing Capilene as sleep clothing ever since coming across the concept in your gear lists. An added benefit where I do most of my backpacking is I have less bare skin exposed to ticks in the off chance a tick found its way into my sleeping system or shelter.
Unfortunately, Patagonia has killed off their silkweight-weight capilene long underwear. I still have a pair that’s going strong over a decade of use, but wish I could get more if it. Super lightweight.
Cleaning off as much of the salt from my skin makes fresh sleeping clothes go a lot further. Particularly my neither region and between my thighs makes all the difference. Compostable towelettes or old fashioned wash cloth.
I also really appreciate a lightweight bag liner. On hot nights I just sleep in that on top of my bag and pad.
I know more than a few distance hikers that lament the passing of Pata Silk weight. My answer was found at Montbell with their 190 merino long johns. Not as cool on warm humid nights, but at that point I’m in boxers, not leggings. Yet merino has the uncanny ability of adapting to a wide range of temps. Edging earlier comments, there is a lot to be said about retiring in clean, dry clothes. It separates the vigorous hiking day from the peaceful evening. The more days you hike in a row, the greater effect of sleeping in clean dry clothes.
My last WFA teacher mentioned that a really good way to avoid getting blisters was to make sure you always had dry feet at night. She recommended keeping a pair of nighttime socks rolled up in your sleeping bag to be certain you didn’t accidentally put them on during the day. I just keep them buried in my pack, but regardless, it’s always THE BEST to get to the campsite and change to dry socks. (And also camp shoes!)
I agree, “sleep-only” clothes are always in my pack. In an emergency they can add daytime warmth but keeping your sleeping bag clean is important.
In 1980 the I was working as a professional trail builder with Bell Brothers on the Snow Creek section of the PCT in southern California. I got very dusty every day swinging a sledge hammer, drilling holes for explosives in rock faces and every other task we had to do to build that 9 mile section from scratch.
At the end of the day I’d rinse off in a deep hole in Snow Creek near our camp. It was always “ice cream headache” time but worth it – I went bed relatively clean in my “sleep only” T shirt.
I usually only do 1 or 2 night trips. I carry a fresh base layer for each day. Weather permitting, I sponge off at the end of the day and change into the next days base layer.
I’ve done the same., especially on short summer trips when it’s hot out. It’s nice to change into a fresh shirt and pair of underwear in camp, and by using the next day’s clothes you avoid having to bring separate sleep clothes.
The truly UL thing to do would be to bring neither, but this way you can at least make it multi-use. A single shirt and pair of underwear don’t make a huge difference in weight anyway.
Another bonus is on the last day of the hike, you put the wet and fouling smelling clothes you’ve been changing back into each morning into your pack, and walk out in comparably clean clothes. I know my shuttle drivers have appreciated it!
I appreciate it myself when I’m driving in my car alone after a trip!
Great article and exactly my thoughts as well. I thought Patagonia killed off the lightweight Capilene because I was one of the few who appreciated lightweight long underwear. Apparently I’m not the only one. I still have my Capilene Lightweight shirts, but I’m still looking for something the pants. Can’t we start a petition?
I still use my lightweight Capilene jerseys every week for winter hiking. Fabulous wickers!
Instead of getting a warmer quilt or bag in the fall, I just got a second set of sleep clothes. Sometimes I wore both. Didn’t add more weight than a heavier bag and gave me more flexibility both at night and day.
I never would have thought of that, but it makes perfect sense!