What to Wear Backpacking in Every Season

As a new backpacker, what to wear backpacking one of the most difficult packing decisions and the source of a lot of stress. 

You don’t want to be caught in cold, wet gear, but clothing can add weight to a pack. This leads to a lot of questions and debilitating analysis when packing.

·   What do you need to be safe?

·   How much clothing is too much?

·   What about hot weather, cold weather, shoulder-season? 

·   What if the weather is going to start off warm and then change to cold?

It can be overwhelming and stressful

Buckle up as we go through everything you need to know to figure out what works for you. 

One teeny note: While we can talk about fabrics and layering and I can show you what I wear, everyone is different and you’ll need to test things out to see what works for you.

But don’t worry, it only takes a few trips and some testing until you transition into someone who knows exactly what they’re packing for every trip.

Know Your Fabrics

We’ve all heard the phrase “cotton kills”, but a Wilderness EMT I know has a much better way of looking at fabric. 

His sage advice is, “there’s no good or bad clothing.  You just need to understand the pros and cons of each option and apply it to your situation”.

So let’s talk fabric.

Cotton

Cotton is generally inexpensive and it’s usually something already in your drawer so you don’t have to purchase anything new. 

Because it doesn’t have any wicking abilities, it will absorb moisture and the wetness will remain against your skin. 

In the winter, this can lead to hypothermia. 

In the summer (especially in the hot and humid southeast), this can help keep you cool.  However, consider temperatures may drop in the evening at camp so you’ll want something to change into or an insulating layer. 

Another thing to consider is that cotton does not help with odor like some other fabrics. 

If you’re wearing cotton and sweating throughout the entire weekend, you may find everyone else on the trip running to stay upwind of you. 

The material can also be heavy.  This is especially important when it comes to your pants. As they become wet with sweat or rain, they’ll become uncomfortable. 

Cotton pants (jeans, khakis), also don’t fit well under rain pants. 

Verdict

Consider cotton for your upper body in the summer, but be prepared with dry clothing for evenings. Avoid cotton for your pants or shorts.

Generally, cotton is not recommended for cold weather or extended backpacking trips. 

Synthetic Fabrics

Synthetic fabrics include polyester, spandex, elastane, and nylon.  Clothing made of synthetic fabrics are usually a blend.  For example:  80% polyester,  17% nylon, 3% spandex. 

These fabrics are commonly used in activewear clothing found in sporting stores.  You’ll find that runners and backpackers tend to like a lot of the same clothing.  This is because wicking is important for both sports.

Wicking is where the fabric absorbs the sweat from your body and moves it to the outer layer so it’s no longer against your skin.  Some high-tech fabrics also help evaporate the moisture once it’s on the outer layer of fabric. 

These fabrics also tend to be lightweight which makes them comfortable and great for packing.  They also fit under rain gear well. 

Some brands have developed high tech, proprietary synthetic fabrics. Patagonia has “Capilene”, and Helly Henson has “Lifa”.  Both are designed to keep you warm and help curb odor. 

Almost all hiking pants and shorts are made of synthetic fibers. 

There are also a variety of shirt options. 

If odor control is important, look for the high-tech versions. 

These fabrics can keep you warm in colder weather.  When they become wet, some people will say they stay warm, others will say they don’t.  This is something you’ll need to test for yourself. 

Verdict

For your upper body, a better option than cotton.  Great for keeping you warm when dry.  Mixed results for keeping you warm when wet. 

For your lower body, perfect for hiking pants or shorts.

Wool

Wool is king in the backpacking world.  It keeps you cool when it’s hot out and warm when it’s cold.  It’s reliable at keeping you warm, even when wet.

I do know some people that don’t like wool on hot days because they feel it’s too hot. This is something you would need to test.

Most backpacking clothing that says “wool” is made from merino wool.  But be careful, a lot of companies have a nylon core with the wool wrapped around it.  This is to add durability and strength, but you need to check the label. 

You’ll want to be sure you’re getting enough wool to warrant the price.  Check different brands to ensure you’re purchasing at least 85% wool. 

Anything less than that and you’re really purchasing a synthetic technical shirt with a little bit of wool. There’s nothing wrong with that combo, but if you’re out to purchase wool and paying for wool, that’s not what you’re getting.

One great advantage to wool is that it also curbs odor.  Within reason, you can wear the same shirt for days and not smell too bad. 

This isn’t foolproof.  After 3 days of sweating profusely in 90% humidity and 100 degree temperatures, you won’t be daisy fresh.  But you’ll be a lot better off than your friends in polyester/nylon.

Wool can be a bit heavier than synthetic fiber clothing, but not by much.  It comes in different weights with the most common ranging from 100 to 250 weight. 

The higher the number, the thicker the wool and the more warmth it will provide. 

Verdict

Wool is great any season for your upper body. 

There are some hiking pants made of wool, but they’re expensive and likely not needed. 

Understanding Layering

Ah, layering.  This is pretty much the source of most “what to wear hiking” confusion. 

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When I first started hiking and backpacking, people talked about layering and went into base layers and mid-layers and all that.  But no one really mentioned how it all went together. 

It’s actually pretty simple at its core.

Understanding layering just means knowing the different types of clothing and fabrics and how they could work together in certain situations. 

To be clear, you do not need to wear an article of clothing representing each layer all the time. 

So you’re thinking, “why does this even matter then?  I can just wear whatever I want, right?”

You do want to be purposeful in how you dress when outdoors.  By layering your clothing, you add flexibility.

Rather than wearing one really heavy item, layering allows you to adapt throughout the day by adding or removing items with changes in exertion or weather. 

It’s important to understand the purpose of each layer for those instances where you are wearing multiple pieces.  This ensures you have the correct fabrics against your skin and in the right order should you need to remove an item.

A Layering Example

You get up in the morning and it’s 25 degrees.  You put on a short-sleeve synthetic shirt, then a heavy, long-sleeve wool shirt and a down jacket, you’re comfortable eating breakfast.

Then you break camp, throw on your pack and get hiking. 

Thirty minutes in, you’re hot as Hades and need to take off the puff.  Then the sun starts coming out and an hour later, the heavier wool comes off. 

At night, you get to your second camp and the sun goes down, now you need the heavier wool and puff. 

As your exertion level and the weather changes, you need to adjust.  If you had just thrown on a heavy wool top and a jacket, you would be sweating as you hiked with no means to fix the situation.   

Also note that the down jacket (puff) came off first.  This was strategic since it was the least breathable item and made the biggest difference when removed.  

What are the different layers?

Let’s cover the different layers and how they go together.  If you already know the basics, feel free to jump to the “outfit” section. 

There are 3 layers of clothing to consider:  base layer, mid-layer, and outer layer. 

If you are wearing more than one layer, you’ll want to put them on in the right order. 

Base Layer

Your base layers are the clothing up against your skin.  They should be tighter fitting and made of a wicking material.  These layers are there to keep you warm and dry. 

The most basic base layer would be your underwear.  Now, if it’s too cold to wear a cotton t-shirt then don’t wear cotton underwear. 

Hiking and backpacking brands make wicking underwear and you can even find wool. 

The next level of base layer would be something like long underwear.  Unless you’re hiking in 20 degree weather, you probably won’t need anything under your hiking pants. 

But a shirt is another story.  You may want a short or long-sleeve wool shirt.  A 100 or 150 weight wool works well.  A lot of folks also like the Capilene for their base layer. 

And yes, you can just hike in your base layer if it’s warm enough.  I routinely hike in a short-sleeve 150 weight, wool shirt.  It’s my base layer and my only layer. 

Mid-Layer

Your mid-layer is the warmth layer.  It’s there to keep all that heat inside. 

A second layer of wool could be a mid-layer.  For instance, if it’s 30 degrees, I may put on a 150 weight, short sleeve, wool base layer and then top with a 250 weight, long sleeve, wool shirt as my mid-layer. 

Another good mid-layer could be a windbreaker.  These are surprisingly versatile.  Think of them as technical long-sleeve shirts. 

Outer Layer

This is your protective layer.  It could be your raincoat, a puff, or a heavy parka. 

Now, here in the southeast, we don’t own heavy parkas.  I have no idea where you’d go that you need one.  Honestly, it doesn’t really get cold enough to hike in a puff (down jacket).

You may want an outer layer for camp though.  When you’re not moving and the sun goes down, an outer layer comes in handy. 

Layering – Summing it Up

Don’t get too hung up on assigning some items to a specific category since some could fall in more than one layer group. 

Technically a windbreaker could be a mid-layer if you’re using it for insulation and putting another coat on top.  But it could be an outer layer if it’s for wind protection. 

The point is that you need something that wicks against your skin (base), if it’s getting cold you need something to keep the heat in (mid), and if it’s raining or really cold or windy you need something on top (outer). 

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Layering Tips

When layering, it’s important to think about how you plan to remove and add clothing before you head out.

Although stylish, if you use a long sleeve base layer and then put a short-sleeve layer on top, you may be in a position later where you want to wear only a short-sleeve shirt.

Now you’ll need to stop, remove all of your clothing, then put the short sleeve back on.

It’s best to have the short sleeve closest to your body, then the long-sleeve on top.

Another tip is to think about convertible pants. These are pants with zippers on the legs where you can remove the bottom and turn them into shorts.

If it’s cold and you’re wearing leggings under your pants, you could become too warm later in the day. With convertible pants, you can unzip and remove the bottoms for air flow.

With normal pants, you need to stop, find a place to pull over, remove both pants, then put the hiking pants back on. Trust me – this isn’t easy.

Testing New Clothing

Yes, weight is important.  Yes, you don’t want to overpack.

But clothing is one of your survival items.  If an item doesn’t work as anticipated, you will be uncomfortable at the least or in a very bad situation at the worst. 

This isn’t the place to be pound foolish. 

Have your tried and trues with you, then bring a new item to test out.  Wear it throughout the trip, but always have a backup you know will work until the new clothing has been through all the elements. 

I always wear wool but decided to test out a new high-tech synthetic on one trip.  It rained the entire time we were out and temperatures dipped into the low 20s. 

The shirt kept me toasty warm while moving.  Even soaked, I felt warm. 

And then we stopped to set up camp. 

I started getting cold, really cold.  Even in my tent, wrapped in my quilt, I was cold.  The shirt wasn’t drying (fast dry my a$$). 

Finally, after an hour, I gave up and took it off only to replace it with my tried and true wool.  Warming up was almost instant. 

The next day my wool got soaked but I was warm and stayed warm through the evening. 

Always have something you know will work.  ALWAYS. 

Putting it together

Below are some outfit suggestions to give you an idea of how it all goes together.  I’m basing this on the southeast (NC, VA, TN) where we have a temperate climate. 

While we do get cold and snow, the coldest we’ll likely reach in a sustained manner is around 10 degrees. 

Summers can reach 100+ temperature with over 100% humidity.  Summers suck. 

These days I know my clothing so packing for a trip is quick and easy. 

It’s simply a matter of experience to become a backpacking clothing ninja.  Just keep testing and you’ll eventually know what works for you in every season. 

I always wear wool underwear, wool socks, and a sports bra made of synthetic fabrics. Those items don’t change season to season so I won’t repeat them below. 

Summer Outfits

Option 1

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane shorts
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt

In the Evening at Camp

  • Add a windbreaker

Sleeping

  • Lightweight shorts with elastic waist
  • Polyester tank top

Option 2

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane capris
  • Technical short sleeve shirt (polyester/nylon)

In the Evening at Camp

  • Add a long sleeve 150 weight wool shirt

Sleeping

  • Lightweight shorts with elastic waist
  • 100 weight wool tank top

It’s usually hot during the day and warm at night. I’m comfortable in wool and prefer to use that as my base layer.

The windbreaker is perfect if it becomes slightly cooler in the evenings. Weighing almost nothing, it gives just that extra bit of warmth with no added pack weight.

In the evenings, I found a very light pair of shorts and tank top at Target and use those.

Spring Outfits

Option 1

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane shorts or capris
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt

In the Evening at Camp

  • Add a windbreaker

Sleeping

  • Lightweight shorts with elastic waist
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt

Option 2

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane hiking pants with roll up bottoms
  • Technical short sleeve shirt (polyester/nylon)

In the Evening at Camp

  • Add a long sleeve 150 weight wool shirt or light polar fleece

Sleeping

  • Lightweight jersey capri leggings
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt

In the spring, I usually can get away with hiking in the same outfits as summer, but some evenings could be cooler so I watch the weather and determine if I needed more.

The great thing about the second option is the leggings can serve as extra pants in an emergency if needed. It’s an easy way to save weight but still have what you need.

Fall Outfits

Option 1

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane shorts or capris
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt
  • Windbreaker

In the Evening at Camp

  • Add a light polar fleece

Sleeping

  • Lightweight jersey capri leggings
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt

Option 2

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane hiking pants with roll up bottoms
  • Technical short sleeve shirt (polyester/nylon)
  • Windbreaker

In the Evening at Camp

  • Add a long sleeve 150 or 250 weight long-sleeve wool shirt

Sleeping

  • Capilene light leggings
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt

Fall is the shoulder season here in the southeast and the weather can be a bit tricky. Some weekends you head out in 70 degree weather on Friday but need to prepare for 55 degrees on Saturday.

This takes a bit of extra planning so you don’t have 2 outfits. I try to hedge my bets and keep my hiking outfit the same. The windbreaker is usually all the extra layering I need.

At camp, the windbreaker is usually enough, but if it’s going to dip below 50, I have a long sleeve wool shirt ready.

Winter Outfits

Option 1

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane hiking pants
  • Short sleeve 100 or 150 weight wool shirt
  • Long sleeve 250 weight wool shirt

In the Evening at Camp

  • Polar fleece jacket (Outdoor Research Ascendant)

Sleeping

  • Capilene light leggings
  • Long sleeve 100 -200 weight wool shirt

Option 2

During the Day Hiking

  • Nylon/polyester/elastane hiking pants
  • If below 20 degrees, capilene light leggings
  • Long sleeve 150 weight wool shirt
  • Windbreaker

In the Evening at Camp

  • Polar fleece Jacket (Outdoor Research Ascendant)
  • If exceptionally cold, can use rain jacket

Sleeping

  • 250 weight wool leggings
  • 250 weight long-sleeve wool shirt

Winter clothing is going to weigh more. There’s no way around it. But you can minimize and still have what you need.

I always keep my sleep clothes separate. They’re for sleeping only. No food smells, no fire smells, no sweat. In an emergency they can be backup, but only in an emergency.

My main difference here is the addition of the long sleeve wool shirt if it’s going to be around 30 degrees while hiking and the Ascendant Jacket for evenings.

Finding What Works for You

While clothing is important and you’ll have more fun if you’re comfortable, don’t overthink it too much.

Base layers are the most important thing to get right so concentrate on your preferences there first.

Weight is important, but if you need to carry some extra clothing while you work it out, don’t worry about it. Find shorter, easier trips to test your new gear.

Ask others what they wear (we all have gear envy – it’s normal).

Last of all, not everything will work. You’ll make a few mistakes along the way. Other people will swear by an item and you buy it only to find you hate it.

This is all normal. Backpacking is a continuous experiment in learning and exploring. Enjoy the journey.

Final Thoughts on Clothing

Don’t worry about being fashionable. Most true backpackers don’t have coordinated outfits. Technical clothing can be pricy so we buy what’s on sale.

I have a ton of purple. For some bizarre reason, the purple shirts seem to be what’s left in my size once items are marked down. I proudly wear purple with orange.

The most important thing is to be comfortable and safe.

Lastly, look for sale items. You can save a lot of money by searching for sales. Try outdoor stores like REI, but also look at brand websites which can have surprising markdowns.

Always think about return policies and whether there are shipping costs. If you aren’t familiar with a brand and can’t try on an item, you want to be sure you can return it.

During hunting season, go for bright colors. Have a blaze orange item like a baseball hat ready to go.

Last of all — have fun. Backpacking is about pushing yourself, getting away from the world, and seeing amazing things.

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