Gear: Clothing

Clothing is gear that's just as important as a tent or sleeping bag. We'll help you choose wisely.

When dressing for a wilderness trip, you can’t take your apparel decisions lightly. The reason is simple: “Out-there” clothing is gear that’s just as important as a tent or sleeping bag. No one knows better than the Backpacker editors, who will tell you interesting tales of frozen underwear, shirts so sweat-soaked they offended the local flies, and raingear that wouldn’t repel a bad idea. In the unpredictable wilds, your clothing must protect you from anything Mother Nature throws your way–and it all has to fit neatly into a pack.

Dressing for the Trail

Here’s a look into the Backpacker closet, organized around the all-important concept of layering, which the editors–and all knowledgeable outdoorsfolk, for that matter–practice with the fervor of a tent preacher in a room full of sinners. (Put simply, layering is merely being able to modify your apparel to suit weather and activity.)

Layer 1: Outerwear

Outerwear is your first line of defense against the elements. It should repel rain and snow, but also breathe so perspiration doesn’t build up inside your layering system and soak you from within. In wet conditions, you’ll want something that’s totally waterproof, with features like sealed seams, zipper guards, and cinchable hoods. Armpit zips, mesh pockets, and waist drawcords will help you ventilate when working up a sweat. In drier conditions, you can get away with a shell that’s windproof. These usually aren’t very waterproof but are fairly breathable, and they pack smaller and lighter than waterproof models. For summer travel in most parts of the country, a jacket is all you need. But for hikes in fall, winter, and spring, it’s advisable to pack waterproof/breathable pants, too.

Layer 2: Insulation

The shells mentioned above will keep you dry and prevent wind from penetrating, but staying warm is the second half of the battle. This is where the all-important insulating layer comes in. Your choices range from synthetic fleeces of various weights and thicknesses to plain old wool, to down, to a host of high-loft synthetics like Polar-guard, Micro-loft, and Primaloft, to name only a few.

Synthetic pile and fleece are the most effective all-around materials for insulation and your best choice for wet weather. The advantages of these materials are numerous: They’re breathable and easy to ventilate. They keep you warm even when wet. They’re warmer for their weight than wool. They trap heat while absorbing very little water. And they’re durable and machine washable.

For below-freezing winter weather, add a light down jacket to your wardrobe. Lightweight and highly compressible, down won’t add much to the bulk or weight of your pack, yet it will help you keep warm during rest stops and around camp.

Once you choose the materials, style is the next consideration. Jackets and pullovers offer the ultimate in warmth. Vests warm your core when the weather’s chilly but not downright cold, while allowing your arms plenty of freedom of movement. And don’t forget the pants! On cold-weather outings and most any travel high in the mountains, warm pile pants are wonderful to slip into once you reach camp and begin to cool down after all that hiking.

Layer 3: Underwear

We’re not talking Fruit of the Looms here. In the wilderness you need a base layer made of high-performance fabric that will wick moisture away from your skin, so you stay dry and comfortable–especially important when you’re working up a sweat in the cold mountain air. There are a zillion fabrics of varying thicknesses and all sorts of styles to choose from, but as long as you remember the Golden Rule, you’ll be all set: No cotton.

Most good underwear fabric is spun from some sort of polyester, but companies have their own secret recipes for stitching up wicking fibers. Some are woven into a “bicomponent” knit, which has different inner and outer surfaces to help move moisture away from your skin. Others feature special “antimicrobial” fibers, which claim to eliminate that pungent smell we all take on after a few days in the woods.

Wool has seen a resurgance in popularity these days, thanks to finer yarns that itch less, don’t stink and wick well. Polypropylene is still available, too, as long as you don’t mind your own odor.

Several weights of fabric are available. For general three-season backpacking, the lightest weight is your best choice. If you’ll be winter camping, add a heavier “expedition”-weight top and bottom to your clothing bag.

Trail Duds

When you’re waltzing down a trail through the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t matter if your colors clash or you have crisp creases in your pants. What does matter is that your clothes fit well, keep you warm, dry, and protected from prickly stuff, and most important, feel comfortable.

Most good hiking clothes aren’t made of cotton. Cotton works fine for dry, warm-weather excursions, but it doesn’t do you any good if it gets wet from rain or your own sweat. It takes forever to dry and can drain away precious body warmth in the process. Look for garments with flat seams, loose, comfortable cuts, and rugged fabrics that shed dirt.

Apparel Pointers

Here are some more tips on packing apparel for the trail.

Anticipate your activity level when deciding what items of clothing you’ll need on a backpacking trip. Vigorous hiking may allow you to wear lighter layers in daytime.

When buying hiking clothes, look for versatility. The more conditions a piece of clothing will accommodate, either alone or combined with other pieces of clothing, the more it deserves a place in your pack. A synthetic midweight long-underwear top with a zipper neck, for instance, will be useful in any kind of weather.

Always allow for the unexpected when planning your wardrobe for backpacking. Consider the range of conditions–especially the worst conditions–you’re likely to encounter. Weather can change very quickly, particularly in the mountains.

Be prepared for precipitation and cold temperatures in summer. Pack a wool or pile hat. For the weight, no other piece of clothing will keep you as warm.

In summer, dress for the heat of the day. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored synthetic clothing. Avoid cotton fabric, except in desert environments and extreme summer heat. A long-sleeved shirt and long pants might seem like overkill, but they’ll protect you from sunburn, ticks and other bugs, and brambles, and in desert dryness, they’ll reduce water loss from perspiration.

Avoid heavy, insulated parkas. Several light layers do a better job at providing greater warmth and more versatility than a single heavy layer.

Resist the temptation to wear extra thick socks or too many socks. These can impede bloodflow, making your toes feel cold. A combination of properly weather-sealed boots and good socks will see you through almost anything Old Man Winter throws your way. On the trail, wear a thin, synthetic liner sock topped by a wool or synthetic hiking sock. Save the heavy socks for when you pull into camp and make the switch into down booties.

In winter, carry more warm clothing than you think you’re likely to need.

The Lowdown on Dirt

Keeping your apparel clean will help it last longer and perform better. Just remember that the washing process is stressful to any fabric, so don’t cram the clothes into the washing machine or ship them off to the dry cleaner. Detergents and harsh dry-cleaning chemicals can harm your garments’ performance coatings.

For the sake of both your gear and the environment, it’s best to use chemical-free homemade cleaning concoctions whenever possible. Here are some natural, inexpensive, and safe alternatives. You probably have most of these items in your cupboard.

Instead of bleach: 1/2 cup white vinegar, baking soda, or Borax. Just add the mixture to the washing machine with your regular soap.

Instead of ammonia: 1 part white vinegar, 1 part liquid castile soap (like Dr. Bronner’s), and 1 part water.

Instead of chemical stain remover: 1 tablespoon liquid castile soap, 1 tablespoon glycerin (available from drugstores or natural food stores), and 1 cup water.

Instead of disinfectant: 1/2 cup Borax and 1 gallon boiling water.

Before cleaning, read the hangtag on your garment and defer to the manufacturer’s recommendations, since the maker knows the fabric better than anyone. But if the hangtag says “dry-clean only,” be suspicious. Call the manufacturer to ask why they recommend dry cleaning. In many cases they’ll tell you hand or machine washing is fine, and will probably be able to give you specific pointers.

Hand washing takes time, but it’s much less stressful to your high-tech outdoor fabrics. Find the time to follow these steps and your payback will be longer-lasting, better-performing gear.

  1. Fill a bathtub with lukewarm (not hot) water, then dissolve a small amount of cleaner (castile, glycerin, or one of the specialized cleaners described above).
  2. Immerse the grungy garment and knead gently. Don’t twist or wring!
  3. Allow to soak for about 30 minutes.
  4. Drain the tub, then press the water out of the garment.
  5. Refill the tub with warm water, let the garment soak for another 15 minutes, then knead to remove soap. Drain the tub and compress the garment again.
  6. Rinse and press at least one more time; several times is ideal.
  7. Lift the garment gently, then lay it flat on a towel or screen.
  8. Air-dry for a couple of hours before machine drying. Wool, silk, and synthetics should air-dry only, but down garments can go in the dryer on the no-heat “fluff” cycle to redistribute the filling. Skip the tennis balls, though. That’s an old wives’ tale that will only damage the structure of the down plumules.

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