Backpacking clothes is a special type of clothing that is made for purposes to protect you from the elements as well as offer comfort while on the go. For this reason the everyday blue-jeans and a t-shirt is not the ideal outfit for a backpacking trip. Yes, it will work, but you have plenty of room to make for a very uncomfortable trip due to wearing this kind of clothing. Cotton is your enemy on backpacking trips. It will soak up any moisture it comes in contact with and will not hardly dry. Especially blue-jeans. I have witnessed quite a few miserable hikers due to the fact they were wearing cold wet jeans.

When choosing your backpacking wardrobe, it is best to think in layers, especially so for warmth. Warmth is achieved by creating air pockets. The warmth is captured from your body in these air pockets created from the layers of clothing, and in turn keep you warm. This does not mean just start piling on clothes though. There are 4 basic layers to keep in mind when choosing your outfit.

  1. Base layers.
  2. Mid layer.
  3. Insulation layer.
  4. Outer layer.

Base Layer – The base layer is the first layer of protection. This is socks and underwear, but also includes long pants and technical shirts. These are usually thin layers that fit close to the skin. They do not have to be skin tight, but does not need  to be loose. They need to be form-fitting to promote optimal moisture management as well as ease of layering over. Typically the long under pants are only worn in colder months, but the shirt is usually worn alone during the warmer months.

Some people will wear 2 pair of socks for backpacking. A very thin polypropylene sock and then a heavier-weight wool sock over this. However, some prefer to just wear the one sock, and this is usually a wool sock. Do not wear cotton socks. These will retain any moisture and will more than likely lead to painful blisters. Of course length of sock depends on user preference, but also on type of shoe / boot worn and time of year or conditions expected.

Underwear also should not be cotton. Again, polypropylene is the best bet here. Also, some like to wear a boxer briefs to help reduce chaffing. Some prefer not to wear any at all. This again is personal preference.

Long under pants are more typically worn during the cold months. There are different weights (light, medium, and heavy or extreme) of long pants that are used accordingly to the conditions expected. Some hikers prefer to wear a pair of long under pants under a pair of shorts to hike in.

There are a few different materials that the technical shirts are made of. Most commonly is the polypropylene and wool. Also, the same as with the long under pants, there are different weights to many of the technical shirts as well. There are also long sleeve and short sleeve. Other than price, some things to think about when choosing these shirts are: odor-control, fit, hems, durability, weight, length, breathability, moisture management, and layering capabilities.


Mid Layer – The mid-layer is just an extension of the base layer. It is just a little added protection from some slightly harsh weather, whether it is simply a little rain or wind. It may be a long sleeve wind shirt over a base layer that simply blocks some wind or sheds a little water. It could even be a light-weight fleece to add a little warmth. This layer still needs to provide the ability to wick moisture as well as breathe well.

Insulating Layer – This layer is what it says it is. An insulation layer. This is usually worn over the base and mid layer to provide warmth. This layer is not typically not worn while hiking because of the heat generated, which leads to sweating which could be bad in conditions that warrant needing an insulating layer. So these are usually worn while at camp, or even to sleep in for added warmth.

The two types of insulating materials are synthetic fills and down fills. There are different types of synthetic fills. Some are warmer than others, while some compress smaller than others. Synthetic is famous for using in wet conditions due to its ability to maintain a degree of thermal efficiency when wet. Moisture does not collect in the actual synthetic insulation, but rather in the spaces (heat pockets) that are made in the insulation. This is because the synthetic materials are actually made from plastics, which are unable to absorb moisture. However, the thermal efficiency is somewhat decreased whenever the material is wet due to less amount of heat pockets available. Also, due to the water collecting in these spaces rather than in the actual material, it is possible to wring much of the water out of the insulation, increasing drying time.

Down is much more effective at holding onto your heat, as well as weighs less than synthetics but cost’s more. Also, down will last much longer than synthetics if cared for correctly. There are different down fill weights (550, 650, 750, 800, 850, etc… to name a few). The smaller the down number, the more it takes to fill the given space, so naturally the heavier the overall product is. Also, the higher the down number, the larger and more abundant the down clusters, so the better at hanging onto that precious warm air.  So, larger down numbers equal greater thermal efficiencies, lesser weight and higher prices. When down becomes wet, the actual down clusters absorb the moisture, so drying time is more than in synthetics, and thermal efficiencies of wet down is greatly decreased.

Other things to consider when choosing an insulation layers are: sleeves or sleeveless (vest), do you want pockets or go minimal and save weight, do you want a hood or not, and how durable do you want the outer shell of the insulation piece to be? Some of the materials are made for the ULer’s, so it is very light-weight and needs special care. It may not be ideal to generally wear under a backpack. Also, find out about its flame-resistance, as well as it’s water resistance. Sometimes these are worn under a hard shell to protect the actual insulation layer. It all comes to what condition will you be wearing this piece in?

Outer Layer – This layer is sometimes called the “hard shell”. It is a highly water and / or wind  proof / resistant shell that covers all other layers. This can be worn as a system over the other 3 layers, or alone over any of the other layers. It all comes down to the condition in which it is being used. This can include a rain jacket, a poncho and rain pants.

The bid baffle over the hard shell is the balance between its ability to be completely water “proof” and its level of breathability. Typically, the more water proof, the less breathable, and the more breathable, the less water proof. Usually, this is achieved through the use of either a spray-on coating or a layering system that creates a type of membrane. Regardless, these hard shells need to have a method of venting, whether it be pit zips, opening mesh pockets that that allow the jacket to breathe, or even a vented section in the back. Also, the jacket can be simply unzipped to offer a form of ventilation.

It is very important to always have an outer layer. It is no fun when things get wet, and this is an important piece to keep you dry. In times of wet and cold situations, it is also a means of more than just comfort, it can also include the ability to help keep you alive.

Pants – Pants are generally made from nylon or polyester and even from a blend of polyester and cotton. Some are made of light weight nylon-based ripstop material. This material helps control rips in case they do happen. The two features that are very important when picking out backpacking pants are durability, and the ability to dry fast.

Your pants will go through it all with you (hopefully) so you want to know that they will be able to go through it all with you. They need to be tough enough to be able to take limbs rubbing or grabbing them. And you want to be ale to know that when you need to sit down and take a much needed break that when you get up the rocks will not have torn a hole in the bottom and showing off your behind!

Of course backpackers are going to be left out in the rain at times as well. Typically you will only have one pair of pants, so you want to know that they will dry out quickly in time of need. This is why cotton pants (blue-jeans) are not ideal while backpacking. They used to be worn as backpacking clothes, but now we have ultra light super strong fabrics that dry out super quick.

There are a few things in pants that may need to be focused on other than the actual material and the ability to dry quickly, the features. Pockets, elasticized waistbands, snap or button, zippers, color and even the ability to convert to shorts.  All these things should be taken into consideration when picking out your hiking pants. Is there enough pockets, are they deep enough, do they close (by zipper or Velcro)? How comfortable is the waistband, does it stretch with you? Also, take into consideration, when hiking multiple days your waistline may shrink, so do you have a belt, or something to cinch the pants together? If the pants are closed with a sewn on button, do you have a spare in case the other one is lost? Does the fly zip closed, and if so how well does the zipper work? And are you sure you want that light color? They collect dirt really fast and makes you look really dirty walking into town. However, do you sweat your tail off in the darker pants? There is a balance. Lastly, do you want pants that convert? These allow double duty, which is a good thing, but they seem to be an issue for some.

With all pants, try them on and see how they fit. And if you can, even if you know which ones you are getting, if it’s your first time, try on a few different pairs to get different fittings, then choose. The many brands all fit very different. How does the material feel against your skin? How does the waist fit? Is the length ok for you? How about the seams, do they rub you, especially for convertible pants. Walk around in the pants, do the move with you, or do you feel resistance wearing them. Some pants are made to stretch a little bit to improve comfort and movement.

Footwear – Another thing to consider when backpacking is footwear. Backpackers wear quite a wide variety of footwear while on the trail. The type of footwear ideally depends on the terrain you will be crossing, as well as the amount of weight that you have on your back in your pack. However, it can also depend on any special needs that you may require, as well as your overall condition.

Some types of footwear found on the trail are: sandals, trail runners, light-weight hiking boots and heavy-weight hiking boots. Some things to consider are first off, the fit. Footwear should always be bought in person, or at lest determined in person. If you require any special insoles or orthotics, bring them in while trying the footwear on. Also, bring the socks that you will be wearing while using this footwear.

Another thing is height. How far up the ankles do you need covered? This can depend on the condition of your ankles as well as the amount of weight you will be carrying and the conditions of the trail you will be traversing. It also depends on comfort. Be careful for the way a higher boot will rub on your ankles. Also, be sure that your heel sits firmly in the footwear, and the toes do not hit the front of the boot whenever you are walking downhill. One other thing to determine is the mid-sole and the outer sole. The mid-sole can help protect your feet from those rocks digging into your feet, but it can also determine the ease of flexing your foot. The outer sole is what will help you tear into the ground to get a good grip, as well as hang on to those slippery roots and rocks on the trail.

There are lots to look into on footwear, and it is very important that you do so. You must protect your feet on the trail, and finding the proper footwear is the best way to do so. So don’t get in a rush when looking for the right pair, research and study up on all things footwear, and ask questions. Then go try them on. It is suggested that you wear your new footwear indoors for a few days before taking them out just in case you realize that they are not exactly the right ones for you and you can return them without much hassle.

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