What Qualifies As The
Right Backpacking Clothes?

Backpacking Clothes

The backpacking clothes you bring and wear are an important element to your trip. They will provide protection from the elements and comfort while moving around. Typical everyday clothes are usually not the best option – as the materials they are made from are not made for outdoor activity. But we’ll get into that in a bit.

Before I continue, there is one point I feel should be made - your backpacking clothing should be about practicality, not fashion. It’s fine to want to look good, but this must come second to the performance of the clothes you wear.

What to Consider When Deciding on Backpacking Clothes

It’s important to look at the climate and terrain you’ll be traveling in. This will greatly influence your clothing decisions. Obviously, an alpine trip will require much different clothes than a summer excursion in Arizona. For one trip, you will be looking for warmth and protection from getting wet; for the other, you’ll want clothes that protect from the sun and are breathable to keep you from getting too hot and sweaty.

Now let’s talk a bit more about the clothing itself. I mentioned earlier that most everyday clothing won’t work for backpacking clothes. First, backpacking clothes are lighter. Plus, they pack and wear more efficiently. Second, most regular clothing is made of materials like cotton that retain water and do not help it evaporate.

Moisture wicking clothes are specially designed for outdoor and sport use that actually draw sweat and moisture away from your body and evaporate it quickly. Not only is this important in the summer to keep you cool and dry, it is also important in the winter to keep moisture from staying on your body and increasing your risk of hypothermia.

Let’s Talk Layers

As you build your backpacking clothes wardrobe, you want to choose items that layer well. Essentially, layering utilizes multiple clothing items to create a comfortable and effective outfit. With layers, you can add or subtract clothing in order to achieve your desired level of comfort. Plus, if you pick clothes that layer well, you can have more efficient packing and reduce the weight of your pack!

If you neglect to have backpacking clothes that layer well, you can easily find yourself with few options for addressing the ever changing weather. For example, even though it may be really hot in the daytime, once the sun sets, it can get cold in a hurry. And you don’t want to be caught in just shorts and a short-sleeve shirt.

By the same token, if you are dressed for colder weather you don’t want to be stuck if the temperatures decide to rise and you don’t have suitable clothing to dress down to. Not being prepared for weather changes can put your wellbeing at risk.

The Five Layers You Want to Have

When picking your backpacking clothing, you want to address five different layers: your base layer, an inner layer, a mid layer, an insulating layer and an outer layer. If you can get these down right, you’ll be in a great spot for a comfortable wardrobe.

The Base Layer - Your base layer will consist of your underwear. Most people generally have cotton underwear. And as we mentioned above, cotton is something to avoid when participating in an outdoor sport like backpacking. Again, cotton retains moisture and this can become very uncomfortable and irritate the skin. For more information on your base layer, visit our page on backpacking underwear.

Additionally, this base layer will also consist of socks. Some people wear two pair of socks, a moisture wicking liner sock and then an actual hiking sock. You can find out more about backpacking socks here.

The Inner Layer - The inner layer needs to consist of a moisture wicking item. Depending on the extremes of weather you plan to experience, this can be a short sleeve or a long sleeve shirt. This layer allows you to be in the bare minimum of clothing required for the weather conditions you expect to experience.

The Mid Layer - The mid layer usually consists of a clothing item that will protect against milder elements such as the wind or sun, but does not add much insulation. For us, this is normally a simple long sleeve shirt. Again, it is best if this item is moisture wicking.

The Insulating Layer - The insulating layer’s purpose is to protect you from harsher elements, normally the cold. This could consist of a light jacket or a heavier fleece depending on what conditions you might experience.

The Outer Layer - The outer layer can sometimes take the place of the insulating layer if you don’t expect to experience much cold. This layer is designed to protect you from elements like precipitation, wind and cold. This can be a rain jacket, rain pants, a coat in the event of winter backpacking, etc.

Pay special attention when picking an outer layer because it can be a somewhat complicated layer to decide on. Do you need it to be water resistant and yet breathable? Or do you need it to be water proof but not breathable?

ALWAYS bring an outer layer, even if you don’t expect to need it. It is a layer you will regret not having when you need it. In a sense, your outer layer can be an insurance policy in the event of an emergency or an unexpected change in the weather. Not to sound too dramatic, but it can mean the difference between life and death.

Additional Info

Moisture wicking clothing can be more expensive, but it’s not impossible to find good deals. If money is an issue, keep your eyes out at thrift stores and for sales. Exercise clothing is normally moisture wicking and is a cheaper alternative. Just make sure you are getting clothing items not made of cotton, but rather a synthetic material like polyester.

And when it comes to backpacking clothes, we’ve found that some people have an interest in backpacking without them. If you’re interested in learning more about backpacking in the buff, visit our naked backpacking page. (Coming Soon!)

We also haven’t forgotten about one essential item – your footwear. This plays a huge role and is important to address. Click here to learn more about how to find the best hiking boots. And let's not forget the importance of breaking in your new boots.

Finally, you don’t always have to buy good clothing items. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, visit our page about making your own backpacking clothes. (Coming Soon!)

Return from Backpacking Clothes to Backpacking Tips Home Page