Welcome to Backpacking Gear for Beginners part 2. In Part 1 we discussed the best way to go about choosing footwear, which was pretty subjective and based on preference and the types of terrain you’ll encounter. This time we are going to discuss a backpacking layering system for clothing. As always, if you want quick and easy information just look for “The Quick and Dirty” and keep reading the Nuts and Bolts for more details!
The Quick and Dirty
Wear a base layer (underwear) made of Marino wool or polypropylene, never wear cotton; short sleeved for summer, long-johns for winter. Over that you’ll want a loose fitting athletic shirt and your hiking pants or shorts. Carry an insulation layer such as a fleece sweater even in the summer. Finally, carry a waterproof breathable windbreaker for rain and wind protection.
The Nuts and Bolts
The clothes used in backpacking serve a few main functions. First, they protect us from the elements (cold, rain, sun, wind, etc). Second, they protect us from bugs, and minor cuts and scrapes. Finally they keep us dry and comfortable by wicking sweat away from our bodies where it is able to dry and cool us without causing chafing and discomfort.
The basic principal of any outdoor clothing system is the concept of layering. Layering is just like it sounds, layers of clothing stacked on top of each other. This allows for a wide range of comfortable temperatures and a very versatile system that can keep you more comfortable than any single piece of clothing can, no matter what cool new technology it’s loaded with.
The most basic layering system consists of the baselayer, the insulation or mid layer, and the shell or outer layer. Depending on the types of extreme weather that is expected, these layers can always be added to, but none of these layers should ever be left at home! Even backpacking in the high desert in July, I’ll take an insulation and shell layer. You’ll cool off faster than you think when you stop moving, and nothing is more uncomfortable than wind blowing right through your clothes when you’re already chilled. So lets go through these one at a time.
The base layer is pretty much your underwear. This is the layer that sits right against your skin and is the most critical to your comfort. Rule number one about all layers but especially base layers: NO COTTON! Not ever. Don’t even think about cotton. Cotton is the devil. Cotton is the fabric of our LIES!
The problem with cotton is that it absorbs moisture very easily and dries very slowly. This can lead to a lot of moisture being trapped against your skin. In cold situations this can quickly lead to hypothermia, and it warm situations is can lead to macerated (waterlogged/soft) skin which can lead to chafing, blisters (in the case of socks), and extreme discomfort.
Your baselayer should be made of a synthetic material like polyester or polypropylene, or merino wool (my favorite). These materials will keep you comfortable and chafe free no matter how much you are sweating. I prefer the wool because it tends to stink less (like a lot less!) than any of the synthetic materials and is naturally antimicrobial. The downside of wool is that it is very expensive, so a good pair of polyester compression shorts works just fine!
Side note, I have zero experience with womens’ base layers, and I hesitate to offer any specific advice here. But I can say that they should be made of the same materials, and follow the same general rules as mens’. The only difference that I’m aware of is that women should bring a few pairs since hygiene is much more of a health concern for you ladies than it is for men.
It is also important to choose a base layer that is appropriate for the weather. You can only take off clothes down to your base layers, so make sure it’s cool enough! In the summer I might wear a pair of merino wool compression shorts or boxer briefs, and a synthetic running t-shirt or jersey. In the winter, however, I will probably wear the same boxer briefs and t-shirt, but then add a pair of long wool underwear or running tights and a long-sleeved baselayer shirt as well. In the end, you’ll have to figure out what works for you and keeps you comfortable and warm/cool. Everyone’s body is different! I like Smartwool, Icebreaker, Under-armor, and Ex-Officio for baselayer brands.
This one is pretty easy but also the most variable. Just choose something warm to put over your base layer. Again, no cotton! This should be made of fleece or some other synthetic insulating material. I use fleece exclusively since it is affordable and warm and lasts forever. Fleece comes in 3 thicknesses called simply lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight, and insulate as you would expect. Thicker fleece = more insulation. In the summer, I take a mid-weight fleece zip-up jacket and a rain slicker and call it good.
If I’m going to be out below freezing, I’ll take two thickenesses of fleece plus an additional insulation mid-layer called the “loft” layer. This is usually goose down, or a down substitute and should be worn OUTSIDE the fleece layer but INSIDE the shell layer. It is important to keep “puffy” insulation layers dry and uncompressed because the second they lose their loft (puffiness) they also lose their ability to insulate. Natural goose down is still the best insulator there is, but it is very expensive and extremely sensitive to moisture. So rule number 2 of layers: If you start to sweat, take off a layer (layer down)!
If you are on a budget then synthetic materials are nearly as good as down these days for a fraction of the cost. I like Columbia, REI, North Face, Jack Wolfskin, Mountain Hardware, and Cabellas.
This is the one that really protects you from the elements. It acts as a shield against rain and wind and helps to trap warm air near your body to improve insulation. There are a ton of options when it comes to the shell layer. The three main types are hard-shell soft-shell and windbreaker/rain-shells.
The hard shell is essentially a ski-jacket; a windproof waterproof bulwark against the elements and is essential for winter backpacking and mountaineering. It should have a Gore-Tex or other breathable/waterproof membrane, possibly an insulated liner, a hood, sealed seems, and double zippers. This is the ultimate in weather protection. It is also way more than you need for summer camping when expecting mostly fair weather.
The soft-shell can be waterproof but not always, is usually not wind-proof, and can be more flexible and comfortable than the hard shell. These also tend to be very expensive for little gain and are more of a fashion statement than a practical solution in my opinion. These scream “I want to go out for a $50 steak, but I’ll wear my North Face because there might be a blizzard.”
And finally the windbreaker/rain shell is a lightweight, insulation-free waterproof barrier. This is one fashionable step away from a garbage bag poncho. It is my absolute favorite for summer backpacking and even some warmer winter stuff as long as my mid-layers are up to the insulation task. They are basically useless without a hood, should have pit-zips, and a waterproof breathable membrane.
I keep mentioning waterproof breathable, so what the heck does that mean and how is it different from waterproof but not-breathable?
Basically that is waterproof breathable. It lets sweat vapor out and stops water from coming in. The only big downside is that they tend to breath less than most people expect, so moisture management is key with these. Refer to rule #2! In my experience, they are well worth the money, but they also stop working correctly if they get dirty, so take care of them!
Waterproof non-breathable are almost exactly a garbage bag poncho. Nothing is getting in or out, which is fine in very heavy rain where you aren’t sweating, but even a small amount of sweat will lead to the inside being just as wet as the outside in a very short time.
For all shell brands I like Marmot, Lowa Alpine, North Face, Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, and Big Agnes.
I hope that gives you a good place to start when choosing your outdoor clothing system. Remember the rules: no cotton, and if you start to sweat, layer down!
In part 3 we’ll look at the daunting world of backpacking shelters and I’ll mention a few types and brands of each that I like!
Until next time, happy trails!