Whether you’re new to backpacking or a seasoned hiker, the question of what to wear backpacking isn’t always straightforward. While the basic principles of layering are pretty well established, everyone has their own preferences and there are a LOT of options.
After many years of hiking and other outdoor adventures, I’ve finally dialed in a clothing system I love. I like to be warm in the cold, cool in the heat, dry in the rain, and comfortable moving around in my clothes. I also like to hike far, fast, high, and often. Is that too much to ask?
In this post I’ll show you the best clothes for backpacking that I’ve found so far, with an emphasis on keeping backpack weight reasonably low. Some are multi-use items that will allow you to pack more minimally, and some are just quality lightweight versions of essential gear.
At the end I’ll tally up how much weight you can save save from adopting this system… Any guesses?
Backpacking Layer System
Before we get into the specifics, let’s first go over the essential components of a layering system for backpacking. The idea is to have an inner layer that pulls sweat away from your body to keep you dry, middle layers that provide insulation to keep you warm, and a waterproof top layer if needed to protect you from rain.
- Base layer shirt
- Insulating long sleeve shirt (optional extra for colder weather)
- Insulating fleece, synthetic, or down jacket
- Waterproof rain jacket
- Shorts or pants depending on climate
- Warm long tights for colder weather
- Rain pants
- Sports bra for the ladies
Now, for each item on that list, here are detailed recommendations.
Merino Wool T-Shirt
If you read my guide to lightening your backpack, you’ll see that I recommend taking only one baselayer shirt (no matter how long your trip) and leaving the deodorant and soap at home.
There is only one way I’ve found to make this possible without things getting too funky: merino wool.
During years of hiking, bike touring, and travel I’ve tried more merino wool t-shirts than I’d like to admit. My favorite is far and away the Icebreaker Tech Lite Tee. The sizing fits me, the high neck prevents sunburn, and it comes in tons of fun colors.
As far as I can tell, merino wool is magic. How do sheep do it? No matter how long I wear it, it never gets stinky. Even in hot weather the lightweight version keeps me cool (only exception: extreme humidity).
At night I switch to my long sleeve wool shirt (more below) and remove this one. I rinse it out every couple nights and it’s dry by morning (only exception: very cold nights).
I usually buy these on Amazon, because there are always one or two colors that are a good $20+ cheaper than the others. You have to click around a bit to find the discounted color/size combination, but it’s totally worth it. Here are links to the listings where I usually have success:
My only complaint about these shirts is that they don’t last forever; they eventually end up with holes and dirt stains after months of non-stop use. But honestly, I can’t fault them for this, as I really put my shirts through a lot. Dark colors fare better when it comes to dirt stains.
Weight savings: These shirts are so comfy and stink-proof that I don’t bring a spare. This saves me 3.5 oz. I also don’t bring soap or deodorant – a simplification I can only tolerate with stink-proof wool shirts – saving roughly an additional 6 oz.
Lightweight Running Shorts
My favorite: Oiselle women’s Roga short
In warm weather I hike in super-comfy lightweight running shorts. They don’t chafe my legs like hiking-specific zip-off shorts used to, they’re easier to rinse out when dirty, they dry super fast, and breathe well. I see a lot of female PCT hikers wearing running shorts, and for good reason.
When it’s cold, instead of zipping on legs I switch to a pair of warm tights. This is the same pair I use for sleeping, so it gets double use, one of the core principles of lightweight backpacking. No need to carry around an extra set of heavy hiking pants or separate pants for sleeping in.
I’m a trail runner, so I’ve tried a lot of running shorts, and my favorite is the Oiselle Roga short. I like that they’re a bit longer on the inside of the thigh (no chafing or riding up), the fabric is relatively durable as far as running shorts go, and the fit is flattering for my body.
There’s also a “long” version with a 6 inch inseam, which may appeal to those less familiar with the breezy world of running shorts.
Honestly though, there are plenty of cheaper comfy lightweight shorts out there, so the pair you already have is probably the best one to start with.
The only time I wouldn’t recommend the shorts + tights system is for scrambles or bushwhacks where your legs or tights are going to get torn, really dirty, or covered in poison oak. In that case, bring dedicated hiking pants.
Weight savings: Assuming you’re hiking in shorts and were going to sleep in your tights anyway, the difference in pack weight is the zip-off legs. On my pair of old zip-off pants this is 5 oz.
Since these double as long underwear for sleeping and hiking pants for cold days, it’s important that they be durable and not see-through like silk underwear (though wearing shorts on top of more sheer long johns is an option too and oh-so-stylish).
I love the Columbia Midweight Baselayer Tight for this purpose. They’re not merino wool, but they have an antimicrobial treatment that seems to do the trick. Because of the reflective material on the inside (which is totally comfortable against my skin), I find these seem warmer than other tights of comparable thickness and weight.
They’re also a lot cheaper than some of the merino wool tights out there, though Icebreaker has a tight I would look into if these ever went away. I’ve also used Salomon running tights and liked them too, though they’re not quite as warm.
Weight savings: included in above section for shorts, since the two together make up my hiking pants system.
Warm Long Sleeve Merino Wool Top
Sometimes a jacket is too warm and a t-shirt is too cold. Sometimes you want to sleep in a shirt that hasn’t been against your skin all day, and because you’re a lightweight hiker you only brought one t-shirt. Sometimes your puffy jacket just isn’t quite warm enough. For all those times, a cozy long sleeve wool shirt is exactly the thing.
I love my Icebreaker 260 weight crew neck. Its simple design – no zippers – never rubs me the wrong way and is lightweight for the warmth it provides. I buy one size bigger than my base layer t-shirt so it can easily layer on top without binding.
This shirt doubles as a warm layer for hiking and also my sleeping shirt. Once I arrive at camp in the evening I take off my baselayer t-shirt and put this on instead.
I never hike with it directly next to my skin (always over my t-shirt), and I always clean up a bit with water or baby wipe before changing into it at night. This way it stays relatively clean (plus it’s stink-proof wool) and I don’t need to pack a separate shirt just for sleeping.
Weight savings: Using this stink-proof wool shirt for both hiking and sleeping, I save roughly 5 oz by not bringing a separate t-shirt for sleeping.
Merino Wool Underwear
With my habit of taking long minimalist trips, whether hiking, biking, or traveling, I’ve found merino wool underwear to be absolutely essential. I finally found these briefs from Woolly clothing, not exactly a well-known outdoor brand, but they fit me perfectly and never ride up or chafe.
They’re super lightweight, so they feel dry and breathable when I wear them, even in the humidity of West Africa. They also dry within about 5 seconds when I wash them, which is perfect because I never bring more than two pairs on a trip.
The only negative for the Woolly clothing briefs: they’re so lightweight that my oldest pair has a few holes in them, mostly around the waistband and leg openings. This was after several months of near-constant wear in West Africa though, so I can’t really blame them. I’d say they’re still totally worth it.
I’ve also tried these boy shorts from Icebreaker and I like the look and fit, plus they come in some great colors. Unfortunately they sometimes get saggy and ride up when I’m on the lean side at the end of a long trip. If I had more of a booty or sized down they’d probably be great.
Weight savings: With good fast-drying wool undies, you only need 2 pairs max. Wear one and rinse/dry the other for the following day. They weigh almost nothing though, so taking one fewer only saves around 1 oz.
Merino Wool Sports Bra
My favorite: Icebreaker Merino Women’s Meld Sports Bra
Sports bras are a very individual fit and everyone has their favorite, but after trying a fair number my favorite is the Icebreaker Merino Meld.
It’s very comfy and supportive enough for me, though I’m a 34A so there’s not much to support. I like that it has removable pads for the “modesty” factor since I use it for travel too.
Unlike the non-merino wool bras I’ve worn in hot and humid climates, I don’t smell it constantly once I’ve been out for a few weeks (learned this the hard way). This means I only bring one, and when it needs washing I rinse it out when I change into my sleeping clothes and put it back on in the morning.
Wool sports bras are expensive, and for just a night or two you can get away without them. My favorite regular sports bra, the Under Armour Mid, or whatever you normally work out in would be just fine.
I do think it’s important to wear some kind of sports bra though, even if you’re small-chested like me, simply for comfort. Standard bra straps don’t play well with backpack straps.
Weight savings: Using a wool bra allows me to only bring one, which saves me about 3.4 oz (the weight of a random sports bra from my drawer).
Much digital ink has been spilled reviewing puffy jackets for backpacking and outdoors, which makes sense because it’s an expensive and key piece of gear.
I’m a fan of the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer for my three-season lightweight backpacking trips. It’s crazy light (6.3 oz for my women’s small) with a fairly high warmth-to-weight ratio, which is why I’ve used it on the John Muir Trail and many other trips.
Personally I prefer the hoodless version because it’s lighter and smaller, and I have a standalone down hood that I use with my sleeping quilt and can wear while hiking as well.
To be clear: this is a down jacket for lightweight backpacking enthusiasts. If you’re just starting out and haven’t optimized your gear to save weight yet, you can find other good quality down jackets for less money.
The only downside to the Ghost Whisperer (besides the high price tag): Despite its impressive warmth-to-weight ratio, it’s still very light, so there’s only so warm it can possibly be. For me (I run pretty cold), if the morning/evening temps are going to dip below around 50 degrees, I need an additional fleece layer like this to stay happy.
The Ghost Whisperer is also a little more fragile than standard-weight puffy jackets so be careful not to snag the fabric, and it’s down (not synthetic) so you absolutely need to keep it dry.
There are many different kinds of rain jackets, and while they all claim to be waterproof, some are actually more waterproof (for longer, or in heavier rain) than others. The Outdoor Research Helium II is perfect for trips where a) minimizing weight is important, b) daytime temperatures are moderate to warm, and c) you’re not expecting many back-to-back days of rain.
The tradeoffs: The Helium II does the trick for my summer trail hikes and I love how light and small it is, but I wouldn’t trust my life to it in a higher-risk environment with intense downpours in cold weather. It’s also gotten less waterproof over the years.
For durability and reliability in more challenging conditions I recommend making the investment in a full Gore-Tex shell like the Arc’teryx Beta AR. Check out this rain jacket review and comparison for more tips on choosing a hiking rain jacket.
For their low price, the White Sierra Trabagon rain pants are surprisingly light (5.6 oz) and keep me surprisingly dry. I like that they have a zip pocket on the outside, and the leg openings unsnap for pulling over shoes.
I’ve tried wearing a homemade rain skirt fashioned from a garbage bag in an effort to save weight… Maybe I didn’t do it right, but let’s just say I now use rain pants. I get cold easily and getting soaked in the mountains is bad news.
Light Running Socks
My favorite: DryMax trail socks (unisex)
Possibly the smallest of many advantages of hiking in trail running shoes: your spare pair of socks will weigh less. I only bring one spare pair of hiking socks, and rinse and rotate frequently. If I’m craving luxury I might bring a warmer pair for sleeping. These DryMax socks have kept my feet blister-free on many long hikes and trail runs.
Weight difference: my pair of DryMax socks weighs 1.2 oz while a pair of heavier hiking socks weighs 2.9 oz, so the lighter socks save 1.7 oz for the spare pair in your pack.
Total Weight Saved
If you’ve been keeping track, the weight savings from each section above add up to 37 ounces, or 2.3 pounds. That’s a lot when you’re walking many miles a day!
Even subtracting the weight savings from the Ghost Whisperer puffy jacket, the biggest splurge in this list, that’s a respectable 2 pounds of weight cut by choosing smart clothing and thinking carefully about how it all fits together.
Of course this isn’t a full packing list, and there are other must-pack items on my list like a hat, sunglasses, gloves, buff… Not to mention all the camping gear. But hopefully these quality hiking clothes will be a worthwhile investment into lightweight backpacking gear and will answer the question of what to wear backpacking once and for all.
Use this list to shave a few ounces or pounds off your pack on your next hike and let us know how it goes. Happy trails!
If you’re into cutting backpack weight, you might also enjoy these articles:
- Lightweight Backpacking Gear I Love
- Hiking in trail running shoes: why you might want to ditch your hiking boots
- 3 simple no-cook backpacking breakfast ideas
Or, you can go straight to the full list of hiking and backpacking resources.
Cost vs. Weight Gear Worksheet
I know, choosing the best outdoor gear from so many options can be overwhelming! To help, I’m sharing the interactive spreadsheet I use to make my own choices. It will help you compare cost and weight of potential gear choices, so you can cut weight from your pack in the most cost-effective way possible.
Enter your email address below, then click the link in the confirmation email, and I’ll send you the google spreadsheet link right away. I love all the gear I’ve chosen using this method and I hope you will too.
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