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Clothing to Wear for Backpacking

Clothing for Hiking or Backpacking

  • No cotton. Cotton absorbs perspiration and does not dry quickly. It also takes up too much space and weight for packing. A better option is organic cotton blended with faster-drying natural fabrics, such as Tencel (lyocell) or Bamboo. Tencel is a fabric produced from the pulp of the eucalyptus tree. Bamboo is a type of rayon produced from the fast-growing bamboo plant. Both dry more quickly than cotton.
    • Tencel absorbs 50% more sweat than cotton but contains tiny fibrils, or small hairs, that give it sweat-wicking properties. Cotton does not wick moisture at all.
    • Lyocell is manufactured in the U.S. by Lenzing in Mobile, Alabama. Bamboo is predominately made in China.
  • Wicking. Synthetic fabrics wick away the perspiration from your body to the outer layer of the material where it can quickly evaporate, helping you to stay dry and comfortable. Look for performance fabrics, which contain Polyester or Merino Wool. Polyester is an excellent lightweight synthetic and wool is a natural wicking fiber.
    • Polyester is often a better choice for staying dry and cool. It is best suited for hot and humid climates (such as the South US).
    • Wool is often a better choice for staying dry and warm in cold and wet climates (such as the Pacific Northwest). It is warmer by weight than polyester.
    • Shirts: Look for 100% polyester or blends with a small amount of nylon (nylon adds durability) and a ribbed/waffle pattern. The weave characteristic will feel less sticky against than skin. Or, look for merino wool which is softer and less itchy than traditional wool.
    • If you are trying to decide between polyester or wool, keep in mind that wool comes from an animal. Give careful consideration of the welfare of the animal before deciding to purchase wool. Check where the wool is sourced. Australia does not have a good record when it comes to raising sheep for wool. U.S., Canadian, and New Zealand sourced merino is a safer bet (i.e. Ibex, Icebreaker, Smartwool).
    • If you don’t like the idea of wearing environmentally unfriendly synthetics or animal-based fiber, consider Patagonia. They use recycled polyester in many of their clothes (the Capilene series is a good example).
  • Pants: Look for 100% nylon. Convertible pants with zip-off legs are great for year-round hiking. Look for ones that have an integrated drawstring or belt to cinch the waist, ankle cinch (handy to keep debris from entering into shoes), and a few side pockets (you’ll find a use for them, i.e. TP, knife, snacks). Hiking in wet areas or bushwhacking? Look for pants treated with DWR (Durable Water Repellent). DWR does bead off the water and keep pants drier. It will wear off over time but can be re-treated.
  • UPF Rating. Clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating that offers UV sun protection from 15+ (good) to 50+ (excellent) is an excellent choice if you will be hiking in the open.  The UPF in the fabric will not fade or wash off over time. More useful for shirts.
  • Loose Fit. The clothing should ‘semi-fitted’ or loose enough to allow for adequate air circulation. The bottom of the shirt should be long enough to cover the lowest part of your back (or allow for tucking into pants/shorts) to prevent the backpack from chafing your bare skin.
  • Socks. The same fabrics recommended for clothing apply to socks – wicking. Wicking socks are essential for keeping feet dry and preventing blisters.  Look for Merino Wool blends (best) or Coolmax Polyester blends (good). Why is wool better? Wool, unlike other fibers, is naturally anti-bacterial, helping socks stay stink-free after a few uses. While polyester is great for wicking water, it is not anti-bacterial. The fatty lipids in your sweat do not wick away and are retained within the fabric, contributing to the stench.
    • Look for wool blends containing at least 60% Merino Wool (not from Australia) and Nylon (for durability) and Spandex (for stretch).
    • Make sure you purchase socks that are tight fitting. Loose socks will create a wrinkle inside your boot and cause a blister.
    • Purchase socks with padding on the bottom of the sole. Your feet will tire much less with cushioning support.
    • Make sure the toe and heel area is reinforced to help the sock stay comfortable and last longer.
    • We like the Darn Tough brand of socks.
  • Rain Gear. Never hike without it – you just never know when you will be caught in a rainstorm.   Take an ordinary poncho or a waterproof jacket/rain suit that is breathable.  I have even seen backpackers pack their umbrella.  When it comes to rain gear, it really depends on what type of hiking you will be doing, the season, and your threshold for soggy / wet / damp.
    • If you purchase a poncho, make sure what you are getting is sized to cover you and your backpack. We like the ponchos made by Frog Toggs and Sierra Designs.
    • The advantage of a poncho is that it offers good rain protection in a downpour and can be used for other (non-rain) purposes such as a tarp/temporary rain shelter/ground cloth. The main disadvantage is that it is not breathable and you will start to feel damp and uncomfortable after a while.
  • Sun hat. Hats not only prevent sunburn but are also useful for keeping insects from dropping in your hair.
    • Look for a hat with a 360-degree brim to protect your face, ears, and neck. Make sure the material is flexible so it can easily cinch into your backpack.
    • Look for mesh fabric on the top of the hat to allow for ventilation.

Cold Weather Clothing Considerations

  • Layers. Wear several layers (3-4 work well) of various weight clothing. A lightweight wicking base layer, a middleweight second or third layer (insulator), and a waterproof shell/jacket. A base layer helps to regulate body temperature by keeping you dry, middle layers by providing insulation, and an external layer for protection against the elements (i.e. water, thorns, insects, wind). Layers work because they trap pockets of air between clothing in which the body has warmed. Layering also allows you to quickly add or remove clothing to adjust to temperature changes throughout the day.
    • Never wear just a single heavy garment, even if it is heavier than the combined weight of the thin layers. Insulation from a single layer doesn’t work.
    • Base Layer: Breathable wicking fibers like wool and polyester make excellent insulating base layers.
    • Middle Layer: Insulating fibers might include warmer synthetics such as nylon, fleece/polyester, and poly/olefin blends (Thinsulate).
    • Outer Layer: Waterproof and breathable fibers such as Goretex in the summers/rain. Warm Polar Fleece in the winter.
  • Hat. We lose a lot of our body heat from our head – anywhere from 10 – 30%.Wearing a hat that covers your ears helps prevent heat loss.
    • Look for insulating fibers. Wool and fleece are both excellent.
  • Gloves. Mittens are most effective for keeping hands warm. They also offer the least amount of dexterity. If you prefer wearing gloves, wear 2 pairs: A tight fitting silk or poly liner and a fleece, wool or neoprene outer glove.
    • Look for gloves/mittens that have an adjustable cuff. The cuff should be high enough to cover your wrist and can be adjusted for a snug fit. Otherwise, heat loss will result and snow will fall into the glove.
  • Socks. Same as summer considerations, but may want heavier socks or layering.
    • Consider a sock liner made of silk, polyester or nylon.  The liner should be very thin and fit tight.  Thin black dress socks work quite well for this purpose.
    • Feet sweat more than any other part of the body. Dry your wet socks by stuffing them into your sleeping bag at night. They’ll be warm and dry from your body heat by morning.

Should I purchase cheap clothing?

Not unless you can tolerate poor quality and don’t mind replacing the cheap stuff more frequently. If you enjoy the outdoors, chances are you are involved in several hobbies that take you there. Purchasing high-quality clothing will give you a multitude of uses, saving you more money over the long-term. Purchase clothing during the off-season when it is often marked down.

Properties of Various Fabrics taken from

Brand Name Construction Wicking Layer Design Use
Polartec Polyester Fleece Yes mid/outer Warmth
Xalt Two-layer Gore-Tex clone No outer Breathing
Gore-Tex Two/Three Layer No outer Breathing
Activent Not air permeable yet
No outer Breathing
DryLine Two Layer Polyester/Nylon Yes base Warmth
Akwatek Polyester Yes base Warmth
Akwadyne Nylon terry Yes base Warmth
Thermastat Dacron (hollow core) Yes base Warmth
Versatech Windproof Water resist No outer Breathing
Therma F.I.T. Polyester Fleece Yes mid/outer Warmth
Windstopper Windproof Micro Fleece
mid/outer Warmth
Wind Proof
Pile & Pertex Windproof Micro Fleece
Yes mid/outer Warmth
Wind Proof

*Breathable here refers to water vapor transiting the fabric.

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5 thoughts on “Clothing to Wear for Backpacking”

  • Regarding Smart Wool, this brand uses Australian sourced merino. Australia has an issue with flystrike, big time. They often practise “mulseing”, which is where the poor sheep has its wool and skin stripped off without anesthetic around its nether regions so that flies are unable to lay eggs, which in turn hatch into maggots causing another source of misery. When mulsed, a sheep will instead just have scar tissue here. I advise you to google mulseing and merino to confirm what is written here.

    New Zealand sourced merino (Icebreaker etc.) hasn’t been produced with this barbaric practice as flystrike is not such an issue. The NZ farmers treat the sheep with organophosphate insecticides instead. My sister was a sheep farmer who inadvertently ingested the above nasty and as a consequence went organic in her practices (3 day rotation of pasture, garlic/cider vinegar drenches/ and application of sump oil/kerosine to flystruck sheep). I’d rather eat soybeans myself than put an animal through all that! Icebreaker have a baaacode on their products which allows tracing back to the high country station that reared the sheep.

    Disclaimer: no connection with merino, in fact I’m not a fan of it as it is overprocessed, consequently not warm enough and too heavy. I am a fan of possum/merino which is gorgeous. And I’m definitely no friend of High Country Farming. Don’t get me started…

  • Great info, but I have a couple things to add
    First, Lyocell is a process that can be applied to wood pulp and other natural materials, including bamboo. In fact, Lyocell Bamboo has become more popular as the chemical process involved in producing Viscose Bamboo from Rayon has come under scrutiny from environmentalists.

    That being said, Bamboo also makes for very effective socks; wick moisture and helping to regulate temperature

    Graphic Comfort offers a wide range of bamboo clothing for men and women

  • Any article of clothing that you buy second hand (regardless of material, manufacturer, environmental impact, etc.) is 100% recycled, and therefore guarantees 100% less environmental impact than buying a new article of clothing (regardless of material, manufacturer, etc.). Hit your local thrift shop and you’re not only saving the earth, but some serious cash in the process.

  • People like simple answers. And a lot of people seem to think that if something is good, it will be even better if taken to extremes.
    First, how serious are your risks? An unexpected summer rain? An unplanned night out with injuries? Are you going into remote mountains or into a popular area?
    On “Cotton kills”. Most leaders of the Calgary Outdoor Club will not take someone wearing cotton. Even for summer day hikes. Most of their outings are in the Rocky Mountains, so that makes sense. When I started working in a coastal British Columbia logging camp, almost 50 years ago, all the loggers wore heavy cotton jeans. And unvented rubber rain clothes. But this was a work environment, with zero chance of getting lost or having to spend a night out. Also, those who didn’t need as much toughness in the material sometimes wore heavy wool work pants.

    Nobody seems to mention fire risk. Most synthetics will be damaged by sparks from a campfire, and some can actually catch fire and melt onto your skin. Campfires are prohibited in a lot of places now, so that may not always be an issue. But if you’re going to be near fire, I would advise checking the flame characteristics of the fabrics you’ll be wearing. Acetate and acrylic are particularly dangerous. You probably won’t find them in commercial outdoor wear, but they’re a thrift store item that should be avoided.

    Cotton is probably the most comfortable fabric IF and only if, you’re going out in hot weather with zero chance of getting cold. On a normal summer day when you could be surprised by the weather, a poly cotton blend would be better.

    Body odor is another issue. Polyester stinks in this regard, pun intended. If you wear a polyester shirt for a couple days of backpacking, you’ll want to wash and change before hitting the restaurant!

    I have a few items of high tech clothing, but I also pick stuff up from thrift stores. I like wool shirts and I like polyester cotton with 60% or more poly. When I’m alone, I often wear old wool dress pants, even better with a bit of spandex in them for flexibility. The reason is their silence. When I hike alone, I keep an eye open for wildlife and other fabrics make too much noise.
    Just my take on the subject. I think it comes down to learning what you need to know and then finding the right balance for your specific needs. Like everything else in life.

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