Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking Clothes – What to wear, what to avoid and more

By Alexander Popp 

info@worldsbestadventures.com

 

So, you’ve got your gear packed up, tent, stove, sleeping bag, and everything else all ready to go, but you’ve still got one more thing to pack – clothes.

While backpacking, clothes are a big factor that will decide whether you’re going to be comfortable or not. They’ll also be what keeps you warm, dry, and cool while you hike, depending on the weather and season.

With this guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know to pack your clothes for a backpacking trip into the backcountry. But first, let’s talk about some important things to keep in mind when picking your backpacking clothes.

 

What do I need to consider when picking my backpacking clothes?

Hiker stand looking at a mountain view in North Carolina.

Materials Talk to any experienced backpacker and the first piece of advice they’ll give any new acolyte is that the material your backpacking clothes are made from really does matter. No cotton, no denim, no silk, and no materials that can’t handle a little ruff and tumble action in the field. But especially no cotton and denim, because both will absorb moisture (which is bound to happen while hiking) and soak through, keeping you cold.

In the world of backpacking, merino wool and synthetic moisture-wicking materials are king. Learn to love them.

Weather and Climate – What clothes you plan to bring will largely depend on the weather you’re expecting on your trip and the climate of the area you’re heading to. You’ll pack much differently for hiking mid-summer in the deserts of Arizona and Nevada than you would for a trip to the Mountains of North Carolina in winter. Sounds like common sense, but it needs to be said. We’ll talk more about layers further down in this guide.

Layering – Layering, or the process of wearing increasingly warm layers of clothing while backpacking and camping, is going to become your best friend. Backpackers normally start with base layers, wool or synthetic tops and bottoms that go under everything, and then layer pants, shirts, sweaters, and jackets on top. Then as you heat up or cool down, while exerting energy or slowing down, you can strip or add layers as needed.

Comfort and Weight – It’s a sad truth, but our comfiest clothes (those wonderful baggy sweatpants) aren’t always going to be the lightest options for hiking clothes. And as any backpacker new or old knows, weight means a lot when packing backpacking gear. But you shouldn’t immediately discount your pieces of comfy clothing just because they might add a few extra ounces because we all need some comfort in the backcountry (which can be pretty uncomfortable at times, if we’re being honest).  

 

What do I pack for a backpacking trip?

Regardless of how long you’re going backpacking, just a few days or months on end, you basically only need a few sets of the same 7 things: Base Layers and Underwear, Bottoms, Shirts, Jackets, Socks, Footwear, and Warmth Accessories.Hikers sit in camp wearing cold weather gear.

Base Layers and UnderwearWhat you wear under all the rest of your clothes is really important. Whether it’s wool base layers for cold winter mornings or moisture-wicking underwear for hot afternoons on the trail, these items are going to be your first line of defense towards keeping dry, warm, or cool. When considering base layers, we suggest looking for merino wool items like the REI Co-op Merino 185 Base Layer Bottoms. For underwear, there are hundreds of different options to fit any body size or need, look for items made of merino wool, polyester, nylon, and other moisture-wicking materials.

Bottoms – Pants, shorts, yoga pants, hiking skirts, and kilts, again, you have a lot of options. But again, you’re looking for things that can handle water and the elements, wick moisture and dry effectively, and provide protection against cold, the sun, and hazards you encounter on the trail. Our suggestion is a combination of long and short bottom options. Zip-off pants that convert into shorts or roll up are great options.

Shirts – We may start sounding like a broken record, but the big takeaway from this section is that backpacking shirts need to be moisture-wicking. Both your shirt sleeve hiking shirts and long sleeve layering, and sun protection shirts need to wick moisture away from your body. Like the section above, we suggest packing a combination of long sleeve and short sleeve shirts to cover any situation.

Jackets – Every backpacker should have two jackets with them when they hit the trail, a rain jacket, and a warm jacket. What these jackets are made of is going to depend largely on what the weather is like, but generally speaking your rain jacket should be wind and waterproof and your warm jacket should be insulating and well, warm.

Socks – Socks are very simple. Wool, wool, and wool. Avoid cotton socks at all costs and get yourself medium-weight wool hiking socks. Wool socks are going to give you the best insulation, protect your feet from blisters, and will hold up in even the worst circumstances.

Footwear – There are three basic options when it comes to backpacking footwear that you should be thinking about: boots, trail runners, and camp shoes.

Hiker holds up two pairs of boots for the camera.
Head Guide Alex Popp shows off a pair of boots with 1,000 miles of wear and a new pair of boots during his Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike in 2017.
  • Boots (generally speaking) will give you the most protection, water resistance, and durability. The downsides are that boots will normally be heavier and clunkier than trail running shoes.
  • Trail Runners are normally lightweight and less expensive than hiking boots but are often less waterproof and durable.
  • Camp Shoes are the shoes that you wear while in camp after the day’s hike is done. Often these shoes are very lightweight and minimalist, think strap sandals, slide flip flops, and Crocs. They provide the smallest amount of protection but are often more comfortable and freeing after a long hike. Most new hikers don’t bring camp shoes, but totally should.

Warmth Accessories like a wool hat, gloves, and scarves are a great call regardless of the weather. Please bring them with you and use them.

 

How many changes of clothes should I bring?

In almost any backpacking scenario, a simple overnight trip, or months of extended backpacking, you only need two sets of backpacking clothes.

You have the set of clothes you’re wearing, and an extra set to wear when your first set is drying, too soiled, being washed, etc. The small caveats with this method is that we suggest bringing enough wool socks to change them each day and several pairs of underwear, for hygiene and comfort.

 

Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this winter and spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups, and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina. Learn more here.

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