What To Wear Backpacking: An Initial Layering Guide

Let's make this easy on both of us.  I just deleted about 4 paragraphs of text talking about nonsense clothing gibberish because the point of this section of the website is not to complicate things, but to make things easier.


Let me just say one thing, clothing is just as important as the gear you're hauling on your back.  I say this because it can either make you comfortable or uncomfortable and thus either ruin a trip or make it awesome.  Sure, your great great grandfather didn't have what we have today and he survived, but I think that's a bit of a silly argument.  My great great grandfather rode a freaking horse to and from work but you don't see me commuting on a pony in 2018.


The problem is that we complicate our clothing system because brands are always trying to make money by coming up with a million iterations of the same damn thing over and over again.  This makes things confusing so let's dive in and make it NOT confusing.  


I'm going to give you a short list of a clothing you would need for an average, summertime backpacking trip, in good weather.  Before you say "well, Emory...it's not ALWAYS good weather," know that I'll get to that in a second, but let's start somewhere easy and straight forward. 

  1. Socks (2 pair)
  2. Underwear (prevents chaffing)
  3. Pants or Shorts
  4. Leggings or some form of thermal layer for the legs
  5. T Shirt
  6. Long Sleeved mid weight pullover/zip up with or without a hood
  7. Lightweight Insulated Jacket (down or synthetic)
  8. Lightweight rain shell
  9. Hat and/or beanie
  10. Lightweight Glove


BAM!  No more than 10 items and you're off and running up the trail.  You can literally hike from Mexico to Canada on the PCT wearing the above and go from the desert floor of California, through the Sierra Mountains, and over the Cascade Mountains.


So why is this so confusing to people?  Because retail stores want you to buy everything.  They have vests, a bunch of different shirts and styles, hats, different weights of gloves, and a number of other things that they're trying to get you to buy that you really don't need.  


I hiked the PCT in 2017 and by the time I got to Washington I wore running shorts and a shirt for the majority of my days.  I hiked through snow, through bushes, over rocks, and in the rain while wearing shorts and I was perfectly content.  When I was chilled in the morning, I tossed on all my layers and hiked, peeling them off as I warmed up.  Ahhh, the beauty of a layering system!


But....what about if it's not the middle of summer and in bad weather?

I know this is going to sound crazy, but nothing really changes with your layering system from the summer.  What DOES change is the fabric weight and material used.  


For example, if you're wearing shorts in the summer because it's hot, wear a heavier pair of pants in the fall.  Bump up the weight or thickness of your long sleeve layer and and use a thicker down or synthetic insulation jacket.  If your head gets cold, bring a warmer cap to wear and if it's raining really badly, bring a heavier duty rain shell.  


The system should remain the same, but the items may change from season to season.  Start here with this 10 piece layering system and see how it goes the next time you're out there. 


Look for a followup post soon for a more detailed look a what materials you should look at and why one could be better than another depending on the scenario you're in.