How To Dress Properly for Backpacking or Thru-Hiking (and Not Get Cold)

So you’re ready to head out for a trip into the backcountry. Do you have the clothes you need to keep you safe and warm during all possible weather scenarios? Are you bringing too many clothes and carrying extra weight for no good reason?

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90% of the time I hike in spandex shorts and a polyester shirt.

You need to be prepared for all possible weather situations, and weather in the mountains can change quickly. Even in the middle of summertime, the weather can be unpredictable and volatile. Freak snow storms occur in the shoulder seasons. Rain can happen suddenly and might last for days. A mountain summit can be windy and cold where the base of the mountain was hot and humid. And unlike a day hike, there is no hot shower or warm bed waiting for you at the end of the day. You might arrive at camp wet and cold and you’ll need something dry to get into and get warm.

 
Before our AT thru-hike, I spent a lot of time worrying about my clothing choices. I was particularly concerned about being cold, but I also wanted to keep my pack weight down. You might think packing for a 5-6 month trip in the mountains would require tons of clothing, but it actually requires no more than your weeklong trip into the backcountry. You are preparing for all the same potential conditions with either scenario. And with a proper layering system, you’ll be prepared for whatever the weather throws at you without carrying excess weight in your pack. You won’t be cold either!

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On this freezing day, I added my thermal top and bottom, as well as rain pants and rain jacket to keep dry and shield me from the wind.  I regretted not having gloves.

 

I’m going to list all the clothes I carry with me for a thru-hike and describe my various layering methods depending on the weather conditions.  Keep in mind that this excludes winter backpacking, which requires different preparations than your typical 3 season backcountry trip.

 
Clothes I Always Carry
Short Sleeved Polyester T-Shirt
Spandex Hiking Shorts
Long Sleeved Synthetic thermal top
Synthetic (or wool)Thermal Pants
Down Puffy
Rain Shell
Wool Buff
Shoes, Gaiters, 3 Pairs of Socks

 

 

Clothes I Add During Shoulder Seasons/Cold Weather
Gloves
Rain Pants
Microfleece Long Sleeved Top (carried on colder parts of the PCT but not on the AT)

 

 

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On cooler days I usually add my thermal and my buff.  The thermal might go on and off several times if there are some big climbs involved.

How to Layer

For the majority of 3 season backpacking conditions, I hike in my shorts: Polyester top and spandex bottoms. Even in fairly cold weather, the act of hiking warms the body enough that this is a perfectly comfortable outfit to wear while on the move. I wear the same clothes every day: it is comfortable and avoids redundancy.  I’ll keep my thermal accessible and put it on when we take a break or arrive at a chilly summit.

 
On a particularly cold morning, I might leave camp with several layers on, but as I warm up I strip them off. If it is cold outside, I will likely be adding and removing layers depending on my pace and length of breaks. As a general rule I try not to hike in my down puffy (but I’ll do it if it’s really cold out), so I will add my thermal top and rain jacket to keep me warm while hiking in the cold. If it is during a colder season I will have my fleece to add – after the thermal and before the rain shell.

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On this cold September day in Yosemite, I wore my thermal and fleece over my usual hiking clothes.  This kept me comfortable until camp, when I put on all of my layers.

Rainy weather leaves a few options. If it is warm rain, I will most likely just keep hiking. It keeps my extra layers dry and might cool me off on a hot summer day. If it is cold rain, I will do my best to keep dry while hiking and also to have a dry layer to change into at camp. Most likely I will add my thermal top, rain jacket and possibly rain pants. This will keep me dry and allow me to keep my puffy and thermal bottoms dry for camp. I’ll remove layers as needed to keep from sweating too much. If it is cold and dry I might hike in my thermal bottoms (but this is rare). I like spandex shorts because I can pull my thermal bottoms on or off directly over them, no further changing needed.

 
At camp I typically change into my long sleeved thermals. Because I don’t hike in them very often, they are more comfortable to sleep in. If it is cold outside I will add my down puffy (after the fleece if I have it with me), then my rain shell if it is particularly cold. If cold and windy, I’ll add the rain pants as well.  I keep a pair of socks just for sleeping – that way I always have a dry pair, and it keeps my dirty hiking socks away from the sleeping quilt.

 

My most versatile piece of gear is my buff. I wear it in all but the warmest weather, and I wear it to bed most nights.  I even used it as a mask during the heavy smoke we walked through in Northern Washington on the PCT.  I have regretted not having my gloves on a variety of occasions, especially when I didn’t bring them to start the PCT and hiked through snow on day 3.  Lesson learned: it is still worth it to carry gloves in May!

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A sunny day with a strong cold wind on an exposed ridgeline.  My rain shell stayed on most of the day, while I changed in and out of my thermal shirt several times.

Use Your Sleep System as Part of Your Layering System

Because hiking will keep you warm the majority of the time, you’ll mostly only have to deal with cold once you are at camp. Sometimes you might put all your layers on and it is still cold outside. On nights like these, you’ll rely on your sleep system to keep you warm. If it is cold at camp, crawl into your tent, get into your sleeping bag, and get cozy. Most of the time, you’ll warm up fast and start shedding layers. On the coldest nights, you’ll keep all your layers on, to keep you warm until morning. A properly insulated pad and an appropriately warm sleeping bag or quilt, when combined with all of your layers, should keep you plenty warm. This way, during the coldest weather, you are wearing every item of clothing you brought, and you are still warm enough to sleep comfortably.

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When is it wet outside, I always make sure I have something dry to change into.  In this case I wore my rain pants to protect the thermal pants I was wearing underneath, and wrapped my puffy inside my pack liner to keep it dry with my sleeping quilt.

Keep a Dry Layer

I always try to remember when hiking in wet weather that while I am hiking I am warm, but I need to have a dry layer to change into at camp. Therefore if it is wet outside I try to avoid wearing my thermals and opt for my rainproof gear or simply my shorts instead. In the worst case scenario, I always have a dry sleeping bag or quilt to crawl under and get warm. A dry layer is crucial in case of emergencies. Sometimes the best choice is to stop hiking and get in your shelter, get warm, and wait out the weather. Be safe out there!

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