December 09, 2021 11 min read

Anyone looking to venture into the wilderness for a night or two should know what to wear, so you’ll be both comfortable and prepared for all types of changing weather conditions. Ideally, your backpacking clothing should keep you dry when it’s wet, warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, and act as a barrier against the wind.

But with such a vast array of backpacking outfits available from a multitude of outdoor brands, narrowing down and identifying exactly what to wear backpacking can be overwhelming.

This post will go over the basics of hiking and camping clothes and help you dress like a seasoned backpacker.

Here’s what we will cover:

  • Important factors to consider
  • Backpacking fabric choices 
  • Backpacking layering system 
  • Base layers 
  • Mid layers 
  • Outer layers 
  • Camp clothing/sleepwear 
  • Accessories 
  • Footwear

Factors to Consider When Choosing Backpacking Clothes

Proper backpacking apparel, along with a quality and lightweight down sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and/or hammock compatible sleeping bag, is a key to your overall readiness to face the various obstacles that await you in the wild. Here’s what to consider before you go shopping for hiking clothes at your local gear store.

Functionality 

Your backpacking clothing needs to be functional over fashionable. It should be capable of wicking moisture away from your body, protecting you from the elements, and have antimicrobial properties that prevent odors. Clothes with extra pockets, zippers, and hoods also add more functionality.

Comfort and Flexibility 

Choose clothes that allow you to have a full range of motion. You should be able to raise your arms, squat, jump, and clamber up rocky sections. Make sure everything fits correctly and is comfortable against your skin.

Weight 

Ultimately, you'll want to pack as light as you can. That means looking for quality clothes that are thin and light. Also, pack light by only bring the necessary garments. Pack heavy and you won't have the energy to have fun throughout the hike.

Layering 

You want to choose clothes that can be layered one on top of another, depending on how cold or warm you feel and the time of day you plan to hike. Instead of bulky clothes, go for smaller and thin layers that you can add or remove to fine-tune your comfort levels.

Season  

When planning what to wear backpacking, always keep the season in mind. Some of the hiking clothes you wear during the winter won't be appropriate when backpacking in the summer. Just make sure the clothing setup you create is adequate to keep you comfortable during the day and warm at night.

Weather 

Regardless of the season, the local weather forecast should always dictate what you wear hiking. This way, you are more prepared for any condition you may encounter on the trail.

Environment 

Always consider the environment in which you will be hiking. How often does it rain? What's the average temperature range? Is the trail exposed to the sun, or is it shaded?

Durability 

You don't want to have to replace your outdoor apparel at the end of each season. Always judge how the material would fare on the kinds of trails you want to do, and buy quality clothing that can comfortably handle whatever Mother Nature throws at you.

Backpacking Fabric Choices

The best materials for backpacking clothing pull sweat away from the skin and move it to the fabric’s surface so it can dry fast. These fabrics also tend to be lightweight, reducing the load strain on your body and allowing you to pack light. Here are some materials that backpackers should consider.

Wool 

Traditionally, wool was always considered itchy and scratchy, making many backpackers disregard it. Today, fine merino wool is king in the outdoor world. It’s itch-free, breathable, moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and has natural antimicrobial properties that prevent odors.

Synthetics

Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and spandex are commonly used in most activewear clothing. Backpackers love these materials because they are excellent at moisture wicking. They also dry quickly, weigh less, and are quite durable. The only issue is they tend to stink more quickly than natural fabrics.

Silk 

When treated, silk can help wick moisture away. However, it moves perspiration from your skin more slowly than synthetic material. It's best used when hiking in moderate or cool weather conditions since it degrades fast when constantly exposed to the bright sun.

Cotton 

Avoid cotton clothing at all costs when backpacking. It holds onto moisture when you sweat or get rained on, making you feel sweaty and uncomfortable in hot temperatures. And when the temperatures drop, you'll feel wet and cold, which can lead to hypothermia. 

Ideal Backpacking Layering System

The idea is to have an inner layer that pulls sweat away from your body to keep you dry, middle layers that provide insulation to keep you warm, and a waterproof outer layer to protect you from rain. Use the following layers to create a cohesive clothing system.

Base Layers 

Base layers are worn next to the skin. They play a huge role in managing moisture and helping maintain a layer of warm air near your body. They come in three categories based on thickness: lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight. 

Light base layers are best when hiking in hot or moderate conditions, while midweight is great for all seasons. If you expect cold temperatures or ferocious winds when hiking, go for heavyweight base layers.

Underwear  

Leave the cotton undies at home and go for merino wool or synthetic undergarments. Whether you prefer briefs or long underwear, that's your personal choice. Some backpackers choose not to wear underwear altogether, instead opting to hike in running shorts with built-in liners. 

Whichever option you pick, make sure the underwear has moisture-wicking properties, dries fast, offers good ventilation, is less constrictive, and doesn’t rub against your skin. Bring two to three pairs of underwear depending on the length of your backpacking trip.

Sports Bra  

For women hikers, a sports bra is an obvious must-have. They don't have clasps and hooks, which can create sores when caught between your body and your backpack. A good bra offers just enough support without constricting your chest, breathes well even in a hot climate, and doesn't chafe.

T-Shirt 

Start with a short sleeve t-shirt made of merino wool or knit polyester. You can hike in it if it’s warm enough. Pack two t-shirts and wear each for 2 or 3 days of hiking.

Long-Sleeve Shirt 

A long sleeve merino wool shirt will come in handy in many situations. When hiking in hot conditions, it will protect your skin from the blistering sun, and when temperatures drop, you'll stay warm. 

You’ll also need it when making your way through dense brush or when you want to keep bugs at bay. Look for a long sleeve with an extendable collar for added neck protection and a short zipper to help with ventilation.

Shorts  

If you’re hiking in warm weather and bugs aren’t biting, wear lightweight running shorts with an integrated liner. They won't chafe your legs like most hiking-specific shorts, they’re lighter, easy to wash, quick-drying, and breathe well. 

Tights 

Tights are essential base layer bottoms for backpacking. Slide into a pair of yoga pants when it gets cold or when you want to protect against bugs, sun, and light brush. Use the same pants you’ll use for sleeping and hanging out at camp. This will help keep your load light instead of packing one pair for hiking and another for sleeping. 

Convertible Hiking Pants 

With the ability to zip-off and convert into comfortable hiking shorts, convertible hiking pants are a popular choice for year-round backpacking. The zips on the bottom section of the legs allow you to quickly slide the pant legs over hiking boots. 

They are a must-have if you’ll be crossing multiple streams or bushwhacking. Most come with a ton of functional features, including ultraviolet protection, tough construction, adjustable waistband, water-resistant capabilities, and enough pockets for storing small on-person items.

Skorts 

Hiking skorts are now a popular clothing item for women on the trails during warm weather. They are essentially skirts with a built-in shorts liner. They offer excellent breathability, have sweat-wicking properties, and provide a larger range of motion with your legs. If you're hiking in a cooler climate, you can wear one over your tights.

Mid-Layers 

Also called insulating layers, these are the hiking clothes you will need to stay warm when the weather turns cold. They are worn between your cozy base layers and your rain gear. Their job is to trap and retain the heat that’s radiated by your body. 

Fleece Top 

Fleece is a fabric made from polyester that is brushed to make the fibers thicker. It's soft, warm, breathable, quick-drying, and stays warm even when damp. Wear a fleece top when it gets chilly, when hiking in the shade all day, or when going to sleep. 

To save weight, go for a thinner version with no pockets, no windproof membrane, and no shoulder abrasion panels.

Puffy Jacket 

Puffy jackets, whether down or synthetic, are versatile mid-layers for backpackers adventuring in colder climates. They will keep you warm when hiking in the early morning and in the chilly evening when relaxing at camp. 

If you expect mild temperatures, bring a vest version or one without a hoodie. Many hikers prefer down because it feels warmer for its weight, is more compressible, and is durable.

Soft Shell Jacket  

These jackets bridge the gap between the mid and outer layers. They have a light fleece lining, a water-resistant membrane, and can reduce wind chill. 

Their main advantage is the ability to regulate body heat, meaning you’ll have much less need to take off and put on different layers as the temperatures rise or drop. Some hikers opt to wear them instead of a puffy jacket, but they can’t substitute a hardshell rain jacket if you’re hiking in rainy conditions.

Outer Layers

This layer of clothing is your first line of defense against the elements. It includes a rain jacket and rain pants treated with durable water repellent to keep you from getting wet. Select rainwear with good ventilation and some degree of breathability to allow at least some perspiration to escape.

Rain Jacket  

Rain jackets range from thin ultralight nylon jackets to tough hard shells. Choose your option depending on the location you’re traveling to. When backpacking somewhere with temperamental weather, including intense downpours, investment in a full Gore-Tex shell with an adjustable hood. In windy or cold conditions, a rain jacket will help you retain heat.

Rain Pants 

Get rain pants that will hold up well in a prolonged downpour and make sure they loosely fit over your hiking pants to avoid restricting your movement. Pants with full-length side zippers are easy to slide on and off without taking off your boots.

Camp Clothing/Sleepwear

Camp clothes are the outfits you change into when you reach your campsite, and they are also good for sleeping in. Packing camp clothing has many benefits; you'll feel fresh putting on something clean after a sweaty trek, and they keep your sleeping bag fresher for longer. 

They can also act as an extra base layer in cold weather, or you can change into them when your backpacking clothing gets wet. To cut your backpack weight, use your sleepwear as the next day’s base layer clothes.

Long-Sleeve Shirt 

Once you arrive at camp and take off the sweaty base layer, put on a long sleeve shirt. Merino fabrics are great when the nights are freezing, while synthetics are the perfect option for sleeping in during warmer nights.

Sweatpants 

Pack lightweight long johns or tights made from merino wool or synthetic fiber. They will keep you warm and dry by wicking away perspiration. In warmer weather, you can sleep in running shorts.

Accessories

You’ll need extra clothing items to keep your feet, hands, and head warm throughout the backpacking trip. Plus, there are other items you’ll want to help you backpack in comfort.

Socks 

The right socks are just as important as the right footwear. Select hiking socks that provide cushioning along the bottom of your foot and combine well with your boot. Put on light socks if you’re hiking in trail running shoes.

Whichever design you go for, they should also be breathable, easy to dry, and have antimicrobial properties to curb odors. Bring two pairs for hiking and one dedicated for sleep. In the evening, wash and dry your hiking socks, so they’re ready for the next day.

Gloves 

Toss a pair of gloves in your pack, as you'll need them on chilly mornings and chilly nights. If you're heading to the mountaintops, or trekking through cold and windy conditions, go for windproof gloves. 

When backpacking in desert areas, bring lightweight fingerless gloves to keep your hands cool and happy. Make sure the gloves retain good dexterity so you can handle your phone and hiking poles with ease.

Head Wear 

Pack two hats: one for sun protection and another to keep you warm. The sun hat should have a brim large enough to cut the sun out of your line of vision. A beanie hat will serve you well for hiking and camping in cold climate. 

Gaiters 

Pack gaiters to keep your legs below the knees dry from snow, mud, and dew. They will also block tiny pebbles, twigs, and pine needles from wiggling into your shoes. Bring a pair that is ultralight, breathable, and has a waterproof membrane.

Neck Gaiter/Bandana  

A wool or synthetic neck gaiter is a useful piece of clothing when hiking in cold and windy areas. It keeps your neck and chin warm, and you can also don it in the summer to protect your neck from the burning rays. In hot weather, you can tie a bandana around your neck to provide sun protection.

Bug Protection  

If the trail you'll be using is infested with mosquitos and other bugs, wear a head net over a sun hat. It may not be comfortable at first, but it will keep pesky bugs from getting in your ears, eyes, and mouth. You should also treat your hiking clothes with insect repellent or apply picaridin lotion on exposed skin.

Sunglasses and Sunscreen 

Sunglasses will make a positive difference when trekking under the blazing daylight sun or on trails covered in reflective snow. Shop for a pair with 100% ultraviolet protection. Remember also to apply sunscreen lotion several times a day.

Footwear

Wondering what kind of shoes to wear for backpacking? Here are three options you can put on depending on where you’re hiking.

Hiking Boots 

Proper hiking boots are one of the most important items of hiking gear. They offer better ankle coverage, prevent ankle sprains, and deliver better foot support compared to shoes. Wear them when traversing through rocky terrain, and mucky trails.

Hiking Shoes 

Many hikers now prefer to wear low-cut footwear that blends the best elements of hiking boots and trail runners. They weigh much less and dry fast, allowing you to hike faster and farther. However, hiking shoes and trail runners are best suited for trekking on easy terrain, smooth trails, and dry conditions.

Sandals  

If the trail you’re using isn’t wet, cold, or too technical, you can get away with wearing hiking sandals. Just note that they don’t offer great support and can expose your feet to cuts from sharp objects along the trail. Many hikers only use them to cross streams and to relax at camp. If you're planning to hike in sandals, pack a pair of socks just in case the temps dip.

Find What Works for You

Knowing what to wear when backpacking doesn’t have to be a tricky endeavor. Just anticipate the conditions that you're going to experience based on the time of year, location, climate, and weather forecast, and then pack the appropriate layers.

Also, make sure the outfits you wear and bring will protect you from the elements, keep you comfortable on and off the trail, provide increased mobility, and are lightweight, dry fast, and durable. It may take a few backpacking trips to find the perfect combination, so don’t worry if you get it wrong the first time.

We hope this post will lift some weight off your shoulders and allow you to pack your hiking apparel with ease and confidence. And if there is anything we’ve left out or you have other items to add to the list, please let us know in the comment section.


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