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Backpacking Clothes: Everything You Need to Wear on Backcountry Hikes

Every beginner gets confused when buying backpacking gear. Different brands, styles and a lack of expert knowledge make the process unnecessarily difficult. Gear can be expensive, and all those choices can easily overwhelm a person.

We all start to question our purchasing decisions. Will the gear actually perform on the trail? Can you actually afford buying gear and is spending extra money worth it? How can you prepare for unexpected weather?

Don’t Worry!!! Backpacking doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s all about simplifying your everyday life and making life a little less stressful. Picking the wrong pants probably won’t ruin your trip(given you use common sense). So what are the best clothes for a new backpacker?

Choosing Backpacking Clothes

When it comes to choosing the right backpacking clothes simplicity is key. It’s all about finding comfortable clothes that you’re actually comfortable wearing. In the summer a t-shirt and shorts is all you really need. During the spring/fall you need to throw on an extra layer. It’s as simple as that.

My Favorite Backpacking Clothes

The ideal backpacking outfit should feel both comfortable and practical. You should feel just as comfortable out on the town as you do in the woods. Plan your outfit around what makes you feel comfortable.

If you want to wear a dress that’s fine, comfortable walking miles in jeans, go for it. Just remember that you’re probably going to sweat so plan accordingly.

On a short day hike or weekend backpacking trip you probably have everything you need in your closet(although you might want to add a quality pair of hiking socks). If you’re new to backpacking here’s everything you need.

Avoid Cotton Clothing

As a general rule, you should avoid cotton clothing. Everybody loves the comfort of cotton, but it’s not great for backpacking. Cotton is terrible in both cold and warm weather.

It’s a terrible insulator actually pulling heat from your body. You’ll also have to deal with excess sweat. Nobody wants to deal with sweaty underwear and socks. Sweat can cause chafing, blisters and general discomfort.

Choose Synthetic Backpacking Gear

Clothes that are good in the gym will typically work on the trail. Most hikers will want to wear synthetic shorts/pants and athletic long or short-sleeved t-shirts. Synthetic clothes are better in the heat, offer sun protection, prevent poisong ivy and fend off bug bites.

Long Pants/Shirts Aren’t Just For Cold Weather

You should seriously consider wearing long sleeves during the summer. Lightweight synthetic shirts will help protect you from the sun. Just make sure your clothes are well ventilated(this is all you really need).

Don’t Spend Money on Dedicated Clothing

The cost of dedicated hiking/backpacking gear is absolutely ridiculous. Who needs to spend $100 on a shirt for a weekend hike. Plus you’ll probably look like a moron walking around town in that “backpacking adventure shirt”.

Instead, opt for clothing that’s affordable and you’d be willing to wear out on the town. All you really need is a reasonably inexpensive synthetic t-shirt and a pair of lightweight shorts(gym shorts are fine).

You can even find cheap hiking clothes at thrift stores(although they might not be “in style”). Just keep an eye out for polyester t-shirts and long sleeve shirts. Thrift stores are loaded with expensive clothes from past employees with company logos.

Spend Money on Dedicated Hiking Socks

Proper hiking socks are the one thing that you need to spend some money on. Blisters are the one thing that can quickly ruin a backpacking hike. You’ll be absolutely miserable in wet socks.

Do yourself a favor and spend the extra money on dedicated hiking socks. Wear wool or synthetic hiking socks that are designed specifically for backpacking(these are my favorite). Quality hiking socks aren’t cheap, but good socks are so worth it. Cotton socks retain moisture and cause blisters(nobodies idea of a good time).

Bandanas Have Many Uses

I never thought I would buy a bandana outside of Halloween. They looked like a fashion statement that I wasn’t willing to make. It wasn’t until I actually used one, that I learned how many uses they actually have.

Bandanas aren’t just for providing sun protection on your neck. They soak up sweat; stopping sweat from dipping into your eyes. You can even dip it into cold water to cool you down a bit.

Bring along more than you think you’ll need. Once sweaty and dirty they can be used for camp cleanup. Wipe off pots and pans, store leftover food and wipe down your gear.

In emergencies, bandanas can be used for first aid. Bandanas can be used as a bandage, tourniquet, sling, etc.

Layering Clothes on a Backpacking Trip

During cold weather, you can either layer or freeze. Without layers, you aren’t going to stay warm in the field. I don’t care if you buy the most expensive jacket on the market, you need some layers.

How many layers you actually need is a matter of debate among backpackers. As a beginner, you should go with a four-layer system in the cold. Here’s a good starting point for moderate to severe cold.

  • Inner Base Layer: The inner base layer is the basic undergarments that everybody wears. These are common sense items like t-shirts, shorts, hats/bandanas, underwear and socks. Add thermal top/bottom layers like long johns in cold weather. Personally, I wear the same waffle weave long johns that I take hunting(these are my favorite).
  • Middle Layer: Lightweight fleece jackets and windbreakers for moderate cold weather. Don’t forget your gloves/mittons on cold days.
  • Outer Shell Layer: I use my shell layer to protect my middle/base from bad weather. Everybody needs to carry along rain gear in their pack(Frog Toggs are cheap and Durable).
  • Down/Synthetic Layer: This is your puffy layer that really keeps you warm on cold nights. These layers bring you a ton of warmth without all that weight. Just make sure you don’t get your gear wet.

Use Clothing to Protect You From The Sun

It doesn’t matter where you’re hiking you’ll have to deal with the sun. It doesn’t matter if you’re hiking the desert or Colorado mountains, sun protection is crucial.

You don’t need to slather up the sunscreen to protect your skin. Sunscreen is actually a pain in the butt if you don’t have shower access. It’s going to pick up dirt, clog your pores and need to be reapplied frequently.

Clothing on the other hand offers less hassle and is actually what dermatologists recommend.

  • Wear Hats: Wide brimmed hats protect the back of your neck and shade your face(I’m talking about these). You might look dorky in the grocery store, but they’re perfect for the trail.
  • Button-Down Shirts: Long sleeve button-down shirts will protect your skin and provide ventilation in warm weather. Columbia long sleeve shirts are perfect for long backpacking trips.
  • Long Pants: Personally, I can’t wear long pants on long summer hikes. I sweat way too much for that. However, they are great when dealing with overgrown terrain.

Choosing Sunscreen

If you do choose to wear sunscreen, all you need is a small travel size bottle. You’ll need to reapply every 2-3 hours and make sure you get the back of your neck, ears, face, arms and legs.

Backpacking Footwear

Backpackers don’t need to wear hiking boots anymore. With lightweight gear, trail maintenance and better shoe design boots aren’t really necessary. Most modern backpackers stick to lightweight trail shoes.

Lightweight trail shoes put less strain on your body. Lighter shoes mean you’ll be more comfortable while walking. I’m a huge fan of Merrell and Salomon Trail Runners for extended trips. Trail shoes aren’t going to wear you down like traditional boots.

Unless you have ankle/foot issues you really don’t need boots. The old adage that boots provide additional ankle support has been debunked. Go to your local outdoor store and try on a few styles. You can also order from amazon because their return policy is amazing.

Replace The Factory Insert

Do yourself a favor and replace the factory insert found in your shoe. People with perfect feet can keep the inserts, but everybody else should get thicker inserts. Find one of those Dr. Scholls custom orthotic booths at your local Walmart or CVS and buy inserts that actually fit.

If that doesn’t work you might need to go to a podiatrist and get prescription orthotics. My podiatrist made a pair of prescription inserts for my shoes and it was a night and day difference. My calves stopped hurting on hills and ankle pain was gone.

Break-in Your Shoes

Make sure you break-in your shoes before going on extended trips. Wear them daily for the month leading up to your trip. Just walking around won’t do it. You need to load up your day pack and actually hike.

Go somewhere with a little bit of elevation adn steep climbs. If you don’t have hills start running stairs. It’s better to find out the shoes aren’t comfortable now rather than on the trip.