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What to Wear While Backpacking?


Backpacking and hiking trips in the wilderness, backcountry, or a nearby state parks require adequate clothing and accessories. Are you planning a weekend trek over moderately hilly terrain or an extended backpacking adventure in a mountain range? Regardless of the locale, the length of your trip, or level of difficulty of the territory you’ll cover, you will need comfortable, practical and durable clothing.

You also need fabrics that are easy to pack and wash. These sportswear items also need to dry easily under the night sky, even in cool climates and high altitudes. Without question, packing layers of clothing is essential. The ultimate decision of what to wear on a backpacking trip is very important. Understanding what clothes to wear in different locales and climates is essential.

For ideal comfort, you can stop along the trail and shed a layer to avoid overheating. When hiking in cool weather, at high altitudes or in overgrown woodlands without sunshine, it may be chilly. If so, you can add a layer of clothing to maintain good body temperature. For ultimate comfort and savvy packing, choose moisture-wicking fabrics that dry quickly.

Clothing made of materials that offer sun protection and have antimicrobial properties to help prevent odor buildup are recommended. It helps to select lightweight fabrics with streamlined pockets, pouches and hoods for easy packing. Also, fabrics that can repel or discourage insects are good choices for backpacking in all locations.

Best Fabric Choices for Backpacking Clothes

Deciding what to wear on a backpacking trip takes some thought and planning. Fabrics that layer well, are easy to pack and offer good durability include the following:

Wool.  Wool is the ideal material for hiking socks, t-shirts and hats. As a natural fabric, it packs well and is durable. Many hiking stores and supply centers feature ultra-refined merino wool clothing and accessories. Durable and breathable, this type of wool does not cause skin irritations or itching and offers moisture-wicking. It also dries rather quickly and does not accumulate odors. Although regular street clothes made of merino wool can be expensive, woolen sports clothing is frequently priced very reasonably.

Nylon and Polyester.  Many people today avoid buying synthetic clothing since that material does not contain natural fibers. They are often considered unhealthy fabrics for the skin. Also, some hikers say that clothing made from synthetic fabrics can collect perspiration and feel clammy. These materials are also known to hold odors. However, they are popular choices for pants and shirts today among many backpackers. The main reasons that trekkers choose synthetics is that they dry quickly and last for long-term use. Many synthetics also offer good moisture-wicking results. 

Silk.  Backpacking/Hiking clothing and accessories made of silk are good choices for treks during cool weather. They are also suitable for backpacking excursions of all lengths in moderate climates. A layer of silk clothing against your skin is soft and soothing. In addition, the clothing is lightweight and can be packed easily. Silk is slower to wick moisture from your skin than nylon and polyester. However, some chemically treated silks do offer better wicking properties than they have in the past.  Unfortunately, silk tends to accumulate odors and can be damaged easily by abrasion and bright sunlight.

Cotton.  The most experienced backpackers know not to pack cotton clothing for trekking excursions. Although cotton is a natural fabric that offers comfort for leisurely activities, it is not suitable for trail wear. Contrary to popular opinion, cotton cannot wick moisture from your skin effectively during strenuous activity. It also requires more drying time than other recommended fabrics, and is not a good insulating material. For this reason, it is not the best choice for socks or layered clothing on backpacking trips.

Ideal Trekking and Camping Clothing for Every Season

Your selections of what to wear on a backpacking trip should vary according to seasonal weather conditions. You can find backpacking clothes suitable for every season of the year – over all types of terrain – including:

Summer.  Of course, when trekking during warm or hot summertime weather, you need comfortable shorts, t-shirts and tank tops. These items will see you through the day on the trail under bright, direct sunlight. Even on very humid days, you can reach your distance goals when wearing these clothes and staying hydrated. When hiking along mountainous trails through different altitudes, you need a complete outfit. This includes comfortable underwear or lined shorts, trekking socks, hiking shoes, sunglasses and a protective sun hat.

When hiking at a fast pace, running gaiters can help prevent small rocks, twigs and debris from collecting in your shoes. A long-sleeve shirt, windbreaker or rain jacket can shield you during sudden weather changes. They also promote healthy body heat retention. In wet climates, rain pants are also recommended. Long hiking pants and base layer tops are useful at evening camp sites. In addition, it never hurts to pack a cozy, puffy jacket for cool night gatherings around an outdoor campfire.

Autumn and Spring. The Fall and Spring backpacking months tend toward cooler weather with more rain. For these excursions, you will need some additional warm clothing. Using the basic items from your summer hiking wardrobe, substitute trekking pants for shorts. An extra base layer top and long-sleeve shirt can be useful. You should also pack a warmer pair of long pants and a fleece jacket for added warmth.

Select socks and shoes based on your backpacking terrain for each trip. A few extra pairs of socks are also helpful, since washed socks may not dry completely overnight in cool or cold weather. You may also need running shoes and lightweight boots on the trail. In some locales, during early Spring and late Autumn, you may encounter heavy rain or even some snow. For this reason, it is smart to pack a rain jacket and rain pants, as well as rain mitts and a sturdy umbrella.

Winter.  Packing for winter hiking trips in cold climates requires more thought and attention. It can be difficult to stay warm during harsh, windy weather. Especially if the temperature drops below freezing, you will need extra warm, dry clothes in your backpack. On snowy or rainy days, you need warm base top and bottom layers of clothing worn beneath rain gear. A warm, snug-fitting hat and liner gloves along with rain mitts are also essential on the trail. For colder climates, a mid-weight fleece jacket and pants are needed. Also, remember to wear sunglasses as eye protection in snowy areas.

At your campsite, you need a full change of base layers, plus a moderately heavy down jacket, for added warmth. You also need suitable backpacking sleepwear. Always pack an extra pair of fleece gloves to wear at night while your first pair dries out. When trekking through wet weather all day, even your liner gloves will usually get soaked. Light to moderate-weight hiking boots, trekking socks and snow gaiters are recommended. In some areas, you also need snow shoes to trek over snow-covered terrain.

If you go backpacking and camping in cold weather, ensure that your campsite shelter is sound. In addition, be sure that you have a sleep system that provides good warmth and insulation throughout the night.

Next week, we will provide you with specific recommendations for the best backpacking/hiking clothing you will need to make your excursions as comfortable as possible. 

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