Thursday, September 03, 2015

What to Wear (Backpacking Edition)

Your first line of defense

Clothing has the power to make your hike pleasant, or make it miserable. I remember stepping off for my first backpacking trip wearing heavy boots, cotton blend shorts, and a cut-up t-shirt. By the end of the first day I had blisters on both feet, and painful rashes in regions best not mentioned. In addition, I was carrying plenty of extra clothes that I never took out of the pack (but I still had to haul them up and down the hills!).
At the trailhead, James River, VA, 2002
Over the years I've refined what I wear and the extra garments I take, aiming for a combination of light weight, comfort, and simplicity. To keep things simple I organize them into three categories: hiking clothes, camp clothes, and extra outerwear. Each category isn't mutually exclusive -- I'll use some gear for different purposes, depending on what the weather is like. And depending on the season, some items may not make the trip.

Hiking clothes

My usual hiking outfit. Near Laurel Falls, TN, 2014.
Backpacking is pretty much an endurance sport, so I try to dress the same way I would for a long run. That means lightweight running shorts, a technical fabric t-shirt, thin wool socks, and trail running shoes. The upside is that these are light, wick sweat away, and wash out and dry quickly. The downside? None that I can think of. Some hikers prefer cargo shorts, but I've found that when I wear those I tend to clutter up my pockets with a bunch of junk I don't need to carry. And I gave up boots a long time ago. Your ankles simply don't need the extra support of heavy boots, in my opinion. Winter hiking might be another issue, but I've gone through snow drifts of nearly a foot wearing trail runners. I keep my feet dry and warm by slipping plastic grocery bags over my socks when I run into snow or cold rain.
Trail runners dry out faster than hiking boots. Pickle Branch Shelter, VA 2011.

Camp clothes

One of the first things I'll do after reaching my shelter or campsite for the night is to change into a set of "camp clothes."

Relaxing in my camp clothes. Hurricane Mountain Shelter, VA, 2013
This is especially important if it cold or wet. It's easy to stay warm when you're moving, but hypothermia can settle in quickly on a cold day if you're wearing wet clothes. And even if it's warm, it's nice to change into something a little less dirty and "fragrant."My go to combination is a pair of lightweight running tights, a long-sleeve technical T-shirt, wool socks, and a pair of flip-flops or crocs. And in spring or fall I always pack a light-weight "puffy" jacket (down or synthetic) -- they're warm, light, and pack up small. I use a Patagonia NanoPuff -- awesome piece of gear.


Even on a short trip you should plan for inclement weather. A good rain jacket will keep the showers off and also serves double duty as a windbreaker or light outer layer when the weather's raw. I got a Marmot Precip jacket some years ago and it's never let me down. If the weather's likely to be cold I'll pack rain pants as an extra layer, but I don't worry about them in the summer months.
My Marmot Precip keeps the frost at bay, while my buff warms my head. Roan Mountain, TN, 2014.
For my head, I take a ball cap (keeps the rain off my glasses), and a "buff." A buff is a simple tube of stretchy material that you can use in a variety of different ways -- a neck gaiter, a balaclava, or as a hat (my favorite is the pirate look). Unlike a bandanna, buffs wick away moisture, so it doesn't get soaked with sweat on a hot day. For gloves I use army surplus GI wool gloves. They're cheap, warm, and very durable.

One final useful item is a mid-weight long-sleeve top with a quarter-length zipper. They're great for hiking in when the air is cool, and serve double duty as extra layer when you're sleeping or lounging around camp. They're often marketed as mid-weight long underwear tops, but I just layer it over my t-shirt. I've got a ratty Capilene top from Patagonia that's sure to mistaken for a cleaning rag someday, but I love it!
You can have my capilene top when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. Iron Mtn Gap, TN, 2014.

Next time - Packing it all up

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