The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Clothes – What To Pack

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Let’s talk about backpacking clothes! When it comes to backpacking clothing, there are a lot of options and things to consider when you’re choosing what to pack. It can be a little overwhelming at first, so in this blog post, I’ll walk you through all the clothing categories from underwear to jackets, and things to think about when you’re packing.

What Clothes to Pack for Backpacking

A very important thing to note is that what exactly you pack will depend on your specific trip. Things like the time of year, location, weather, and duration should all factor into your choice of clothing. Paying attention to those things is important to your comfort and success on a backpacking trip.

1) Underwear, Bras, and Socks

In general, you want to avoid clothing made of cotton, especially on items that come into contact with the skin (more on this below).

For underwear, I usually just use the built-in underwear in my hiking shorts or bring synthetic underwear because it drys quickly. For bras, this really comes down to personal preference.

Most sports bras are made with moisture-wicking material, which is what you want.

Sports bras are probably the best option for backpacking, but you’ll be wearing it for hours, so make sure it’s comfortable for you.

For socks, again you want moisture-wicking materials here. I usually wear ankle-high socks with my hiking boots.

I always pack one pair to hike in and one pair to sleep in.

It’s so nice to be able to put on clean dry socks at night in the tent and then leave the hiking socks out to dry so they’re ready for the next day.

2) What to Hike In (base layers)

As I mentioned above, you want to avoid hiking in cotton clothing.

Cotton does not dry quickly. In fact, it holds onto moisture, which can leave you feeling sweaty in hot temperatures and chilly if the temperature drops.

Instead of cotton, look for clothing made of polyester, nylon, or merino wool. These materials dry fast and move sweat off the skin.

The moisture-wicking ability of your hiking clothes is especially important for the layers that touch your skin, also known as your base layers.

Personally, I opt for wool base layers to sleep in (more on sleepwear below) and polyester or nylon clothing to hike in during the day.

Hiking Shirts

I love the Patagonia Capilene Cool daily hoody for backpacking in the hot summer months. It has UPF protection, it’s lightweight, and is moisture-wicking. (Check out this budget version here.)

Even though it’s long sleeve, it does a great job of keeping me cool and protecting my skin from sunburn. On longer trips, I just wear it multiple days in a row.

Other options for hiking shirts are synthetic t-shirts or tank tops, but just make sure you pack enough sunscreen to protect yourself throughout your entire trip.

Hiking Bottoms

Sometimes I wear shorts backpacking, but there are some downsides to that, and depending on when and where you’re hiking, shorts might not be a good idea.

I usually wear “workout” shorts hiking. Again, they’re going to dry quickly and they are comfortable for me.

If it’s too cold for shorts, or I’m worried about mosquitos and ticks, I usually wear synthetic workout leggings or durable hiking pants.

Below are some great hiking pant options:

Yoga pants or “workout” leggings can be worn hiking, but keep in mind that they’re not the most durable option. I wouldn’t wear your favorite pair of yoga pants hiking. They’ll eventually get ruined.

If you have to climb over rocks and hike through thick brush, you might want more durable trekking-specific pants.

A lot of hiking pants even have pockets, making it really easy to layer your gear.

3) Mid-Layers

Mid-layers are all about warmth.

It doesn’t matter where you’re backpacking, you need to pack mid-layers.

Even if you’re backpacking in the desert, it can get cold, and you always want to be prepared for changing weather conditions.

Of course, you want to be checking the weather before your trip, but what if the weather changes?

You need to be able to adapt. Temperatures can drop drastically at night or even during the day if an unexpected storm rolls in.

That’s where thoughtfully packed mid-layers really become important.

Your mid-layers can be worn separately or layered for additional warmth.

Here are some of the mid-layers I currently use:

I also like to make sure that I have at least one mid-layer with a hood. A hood goes a long way to keep me warm on colder trips.

Don’t skimp on the mid-layers. Having a couple of layers packed makes it very easy for you to layer up or layer down throughout the day, as needed.

While you always should check the weather before a trip, it’s often unpredictable in the mountains, and you want to be prepared.

Personally, I would much rather carry a little extra weight in my backpack (in the form of extra mid-layers), than be miserably cold on a backpacking trip.

Lastly, don’t forget about your legs! Depending on the trip, you might want mid-layers for your legs too.

4) Outer Layers

Your outer layers are going to be what protect you from things like wind and rain.

Keeping dry is key to avoiding hypothermia so you’ll want a rain jacket and rain pants to keep you dry.

It’s important to note that a rain jacket that’s “water-resistant” is not the same as a jacket that’s waterproof. A water-resistant rain jacket or pants will eventually soak through, which is exactly what you want to avoid.

In addition to your rain jacket being waterproof, you also want to make sure that it’s breathable so that it doesn’t trap moisture as you move and sweat.

I have the Arcteryx Zeta SL Rain Jacket. It’s a super light and packable shell for trekking that’s waterproof and made with a breathable Gore-Tex. I wear a size medium.

For rain pants, I have the REI Essential Rain Pants in a size small. These rain pants are only okay. They’re lightweight and breathable, but I do question how well they would hold up in a prolonged downpour.

If you live somewhere that sees rain often, you might want to consider a different pair.

Since I live and hike mostly in Utah where we hardly ever have rain, these rain pants are just fine for the rare occasions that I need them. Even if you don’t think it’s going to rain, bring your rain gear.

A good rain jacket should be waterproof and have an adjustable hood. This layer can also be used on extremely windy days to block the wind and keep you warmer.

Amanda sleeping in the tent

5) Sleepwear

As mentioned earlier, I use wool base layers for sleeping.

I have a couple of different base layer sets – a cold weather set, and a hot weather set. I’ll choose my sleepwear depending on the expected weather, location, and time of year.

I also bring an extra pair of socks to sleep in.

I think it’s always a good idea to bring a set of clothes that are for sleeping only. That way, you can change out of your dirty sweaty hiking clothes, and put dry clothes and socks on for the night.

I do not eat in my sleeping clothes and I do not cook in my sleeping clothes.

No matter what the day throws at me, I know I can get into my tent and be somewhat clean and dry.

6) Accessories

The last few items I consider are accessories like gloves and hats.

If it’s a really cold trip, I will sometimes bring a warm hat and gloves.

If it’s hot and sunny, I bring a baseball cap or brimmed hat for extra sun protection.

Bug-protective clothing:

Depending on where you’re hiking, you might want to consider some additional bug-protective clothing.

For example, if there are lots of ticks, mosquitoes, and/or flies, then you might want to consider long sleeves, long pants, and clothes with built-in insect repellent or additional bug-net clothing.

arizona backpacking

Additional Packing Tips

There you have it – all my tips and thoughts on backpacking clothes!

One of my biggest tips when it comes to packing for a backpacking trip is to pack slowly and to pack when you’re relaxed. Don’t try to frantically get all your stuff together in 10 seconds before you need to be out of the door.

I get cold a lot easier than the average person, so I know that I really need to make sure I pack enough mid-layers so I can stay warm, even if my hiking buddies aren’t packing as much.

Take your time, pack mindfully, and really think through what you’ll need to stay warm and dry. If you have any further questions, just let me know in the comments below!

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