Whether you’re a first-timer or seasoned hiker, the question of what to wear backpacking isn’t always straightforward. While the basic principles of outdoor layering are well established, everyone has their own preferences and there are a LOT of options these days.
After many years of backpacking and thru hiking, I eventually dialed in a backpacking clothing system I love. I like to be warm in the cold, cool in the heat, dry in the rain, and comfortable in my clothes, all while exploring rugged and wild places. Is that too much to ask? (Spoiler alert: no!)
In this post I’ll share my typical three-season backpacking clothing list. I’ll explain what I love about each item, the conditions I think it’s best for, and some alternatives to consider in different circumstances.
My backpacking style tends toward lightweight but not ultralight, and my spending style focuses on value for money. I splurge on key items that provide a ton of value, but I also love a good bargain. I tend to run cold so I never skim on warm layers, yet I also like to hike far and fast with a lightweight pack.
If any of this sounds like what you’re looking for in your own backpacking clothes, then read on!
Backpacking Layer System
Before getting into specifics, let’s briefly review 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 to protect you from rain if needed.
- Base layer shirt
- Midweight long sleeve shirt (optional extra for colder weather)
- Insulating jacket: fleece, synthetic, or down
- Waterproof rain jacket or poncho
- 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.
Base Layer T-Shirt
If you read my guide to reducing pack weight, you’ll see that I recommend taking only one base layer 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, bikepacking, and travel I’ve tried more merino wool t-shirts than I’d like to admit. My favorite is the Icebreaker Tech Lite Tee.
As far as I can tell, merino wool is magic. How do sheep do it? No matter how long I wear my merino shirt, it never gets stinky! Even in hot weather the lightweight version keeps me cool (only exception: extreme humidity) and the fabric is not scratchy. The only downsides: merino can be quite expensive, and it’s not the most durable.
Merino wool comes in different thicknesses. For hiking in warm weather you want a lightweight option like 150 or even 120 grams / meter (the typical measure of merino fabric weight). Anything heavier than that is considered a midlayer, which we’ll get to down below.
Lightweight Running Shorts
In warm weather I prefer to hike in lightweight running shorts. They don’t chafe, they’re quick to rinse and dry when it’s time to do laundry, and they breathe well.
As a trail runner I’ve tried a lot of running shorts, and the most important part is to find a pair that fits your body well. Watch out for chafing around the liner, if there is one, and make sure the waist band sits comfortably under your backpack’s hip belt.
A good pair of hiking shorts doesn’t have to be fancy. It might be as affordable as these basic shorts from Under Armour. If your budget allows it, shorts with merino wool lining are a nice upgrade (the aforementioned stink resistance factor, again).
There are a few situations when I wouldn’t recommend hiking in shorts: scrambles or bushwhacks, trails heavy with poison oak or ticks, or frequent cold weather. In that case, consider more durable full-length pants. If the conditions are generally short-friendly, you can always layer on rain pants or hike in your warm tights (see below) for the occasional chilly day.
A warm pair of tights or leggings is essential for cold evenings at camp and chilly nights in your sleeping bag. They can also double as hiking pants on cold days, or as “town pants” if you’re thru hiking.
For the most flexibility, look for midweight leggings that balance warmth and bulk. It’s also handy if they don’t look like long underwear, so you can wear them on their own if needed.
I’ve been wearing Columbia Midweight Baselayer Tight for years on all my backpacking and bikepacking trips. They have a great warmth-to-weight ratio, are comfortable to wear, and look like normal black leggings. They’re not merino wool, but they have an antimicrobial treatment that seems to do the trick. They’re more affordable than merino wool tights, though Icebreaker leggings are also worth a look if you have the budget for them.
Long Sleeve Midlayer Top
Sometimes a jacket is too warm and a t-shirt is too cold. Sometimes you want to sleep in a cozy shirt that hasn’t been against your skin all day. Sometimes your puffy jacket just isn’t quite warm enough on its own. For all those times, a midweight long sleeve shirt is the perfect item of backpacking clothing.
Merino wool makes an excellent choice here as well, thanks to its excellent temperature regulating qualities. On those days when the weather is constantly oscillating between too hot and too cold, a merino midlayer will keep you more comfortable than anything else.
I love my Icebreaker 260 weight crew neck for its simple design and good warmth-to-weight ratio. I buy one size bigger than my base layer t-shirt so it can easily layer on top without binding, and I use it as both a warm layer and my sleeping shirt. Since it never goes directly against my skin until after I’ve washed up for the day, it stays clean enough for both uses.
If there ever was a perfect use for breathable stink-resistant merino wool, it would be hiking underwear! I particularly love these Woolly clothing briefs. They’re super lightweight and breathable and dry in about five seconds after washing. I never bring more than two pairs on a trip; I wear one until I’m able to wash the other and then switch.
Though I generally prefer natural merino wool to synthetics in this department, I also like the REI Co-op Active underwear (men’s version here). The panties are incredibly lightweight but also reasonably durable, and dry almost instantly.
My favorite sports bra: Patagonia Barely bra
Sports bras are a highly individual preference, but I absolutely love the Patagonia Barely bra. It’s comfy and supportive enough for me (I’m a 34A), resists stink pretty well, and has removable pads. It’s a lot lighter and more breathable than the typical sports bras I use for working out, which I would not want to wear for days on end while backpacking.
For those wondering how many sports bras to bring on a backpacking trip, my answer is only one. I wear it until it needs washing, then wash it overnight or make do with other layers until it dries.
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 fortunate to have two down jackets that I choose from for backpacking, depending on the conditions.
For lightweight trips in warmer summer conditions, I love the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. It’s crazy light (6.3 oz for my women’s small) with a high warmth-to-weight ratio.
The downsides: there’s only so much warmth that can be packed into such a light jacket, so I won’t use it for trips where temps could dip below freezing. It’s also quite expensive. If you’re a newer backpacker who doesn’t obsess over ounces and grams and you want a versatile jacket for many conditions, the Ghost Whisperer is probably not the best investment. See my Ghost Whisperer review for more details.
If the temperature is likely to drop into the low 40’s or below on a regular basis, I’ll bring my Arc’teryx Cerium LT puffy jacket instead. It’s also not cheap, but at 9.8 oz there’s room for a bit more down in there, thus it’s warmer. It still packs down surprisingly small, and I find it to be an ideal balance of warmth to weight and bulk.
Both these jackets use down insulation instead of synthetic. I tend to hike in dry-ish climates like the mountains and desert, so down works well for me. It’s warmer than synthetic insulation for the same weight and bulk, but it must be kept dry to be warm. If you hike in wet-all-day conditions like the Pacific Northwest, you might consider synthetic.
Down jackets often come with choice of hood or no hood. I choose no hood when possible because I have a separate down hood that pairs with my sleeping quilt. This is a more versatile combination, but if you don’t use this system it’s likely worth getting the hood. It adds very little weight but quite a lot of warmth.
There are many different kinds of rain jackets. While they all claim to be waterproof, some are actually more waterproof (for longer, or in heavier rain) than others. The other important factor, at least when you’re hiking uphill and working hard, is how well they breathe. Keeping the rain out doesn’t do much good if you end up soaked with sweat.
As with puffy jackets, I choose my rain jacket based on the conditions I expect. For relatively dry weather – perhaps some thunderstorms but not expecting rain day after day – I love the lightweight Helium II from Outdoor Research. Its feather weight (5.6 oz) and compact size make it a favorite among lightweight backpacking enthusiasts, and for good reason. However, it will eventually wet through in heavy rain, so I don’t use it in conditions (very cold or stormy, very remote) where that could be dangerous. See my review of the Helium for more detail.
When I need a burlier rain jacket, one that I can literally trust with my life in a backcountry alpine storm, I bring my Arc’teryx Beta AR. This is an expensive jacket (I got mine lightly used on eBay) but I’m extremely happy with it. It breathes well despite the bomber protection it offers, and it never wets through. See my review of the Beta AR for more detail.
As a bonus, the Beta AR’s large hood offers excellent storm protection and fits over helmets, so I can use it for bikepacking and climbing too. It weighs more than twice the Helium II (14.4 oz) and doesn’t pack down as small, but when I need it, it’s unquestionably worth carrying.
If you’re looking to save money on backpacking clothes and don’t see extreme conditions in your future, you can do quite well with the popular Marmot Precip jacket. It’s a middle ground between the Helium II and Beta AR in terms of weight and features, for a lower price than both. And if you want the protection and breathability of Gore-Tex without the Beta AR’s price tag, REI’s line of GTX rain jackets are worth a look.
It’s worth mentioning that I often use a rain jacket for warmth even in dry weather. When temperatures drop or the wind picks up, that extra layer helps a lot. You might also consider that some folks, especially ultralight thru hikers in warmer climates, prefer the ventilation and minimalism of a poncho as their rain layer.
Rain pants are one of the most debated items of backpacking clothes. While keeping your core warm and dry is essential for safety, damp legs are often tolerable. In summer conditions some backpackers forgo rain pants to save weight, or make do with a poncho. Personally, I use rain pants as an extra warm layer even in dry conditions, so they’re almost always in my pack.
For years I’ve used the affordable and surprisingly lightweight White Sierra Trabagon rain pants. I like the zip pocket on the outside, and the leg openings that unsnap for pulling over shoes. They do wet through in constant rain, and require re-waterproofing with Nikwax every season, but they do their job of keeping me warm from the waist down in wet weather.
The Trabagon pants are no longer available and mine are worn out, so I’ve been on the hunt for a new favorite. I recently purchased a pair of REI Essential Rain Pants and will update this once I have a chance to test them out.
Light Running Socks
One of many advantages of hiking in trail running shoes: they pair well with lightweight running socks. When backpacking I usually bring one spare pair of hiking socks, and rinse and rotate frequently. If I’m craving luxury or hiking in wet conditions I might bring a third warmer pair for sleeping. While some synthetic socks cause hot spots on my toes and heels, I’ve had very good luck with both Drymax and Smartwool running socks.
In addition to the major items above, here are a few of my favorite smaller clothing items for backpacking:
- Buff headwear: Useful as a hairband or sweat band, neck gaiter for sun protection, pillow case, and much more.
- Sun sleeves: I prefer to hike in a short sleeve t-shirt, but I add a pair of these on long hikes in exposed terrain to protect my skin.
- Sun hat: I generally don’t like hats, but I also don’t like skin cancer. I find this Ultra Adventure hat from Sunday Afternoons to be fairly unobjectionable compromise.
- Fleece gloves: Thick enough for warmth, thin enough for dexterity, these are my go-to gloves for chilly mornings and evenings on the trail.
I hope this post helps you understand some of the priorities and tradeoffs involved in choosing your backpacking clothing. It’s often said about outdoor gear: affordable, lightweight, and functional – pick two! But don’t despair, because thinking through your individual hiking goals and preferences can often lead to solid gear choices with minimal compromise. There’s never been an easier time to find high-performance outdoor clothing, so make your choices and then hit the trail!
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.
You’ll also get occasional emails packed full of backpacking resources and inspiration. I think you’ll like them! But don’t worry, you can unsubscribe any time.
More Backpacking Resources
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.
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