How to Layer Clothing for Hiking & Backpacking
A common mistake that backpackers make is either bringing too much clothing or bringing clothing that is inappropriate for the conditions. Learn how to use layers to stay warm and dry while taking fewer items.
This post is an excerpt from the “I Heart Backpacking: How to Get Started” book.
When choosing clothing for hiking and backpacking, avoid cotton. When cotton gets wet, either from precipitation or from your body sweat, it doesn’t wick the moisture away and takes a long time to dry. This can lead to losing body heat and increasing the risk of hypothermia. Wool and synthetic materials that wick moisture away from the body while retaining body heat are a much better choice.
Wool, once hated for its itchy character, has been revived by the merino wool industry. This type of wool is softer and much less itchy. Wool has natural wicking properties, insulates well, and dries relatively quickly. It also doesn’t hold onto body odors as much as other fabric types. While it does tend to be more expensive, wool is available in varying thicknesses to suit differing needs.
Synthetic materials include nylon and polyester. Synthetics are excellent at moisture wicking, quick drying, durable, and they tend to be less expensive. A downside is that they have a tendency to hold odors more than natural fibers.
Silk is a softer and lighter material that isn’t used as often for outdoor clothing. It tends to be a weaker fabric that snags easily and has a tendency to hold body odor.
How Much to Bring?
For most three-season backpacking, you may only need one set of clothes for hiking, one set of base layers for sleeping, several pairs of socks and an extra pair of undewear. In colder weather, bring an extra layer to stay warm and dry, such as a lightweight fleece top or pants. These items can also be worn with base layers for sleeping. Instead of bringing a change of clothes for each day, consider doing laundry at camp. Simply fill a plastic bag with water and swish the clothes around, then wring out and hang on a tree, rock, or the back of your pack to dry.
Tip: place damp clothing items in your sleeping bag at night and the warmth of your body will help them to dry.
Layering allows you to adjust your wardrobe for anything nature throws your way, plus it captures pockets of air between the layers which add warmth in cool weather.
Wearing multiple lightweight layers is better than fewer bulkier layers. Not only will this allow you to make more adjustments, lightweight items will fit in your pack better than bulky items. For example, a long sleeve shirt topped by a lightweight fleece or puffy and a rain jacket provides more options for adjustability than a heavy shirt and a bulky insulated waterproof jacket.
Base layers are for moisture management. A next-to-skin layer, they work by wicking moisture away from your skin and can also help to prevent chafing. In cooler weather, long underwear-style base layers keep you warm and dry. In warmer weather, base layers can prevent sweat from making you feel sticky and clammy. Examples of base layers include underwear, bras, socks, long or short sleeve tops, and pants, skirts, or shorts.
Bring a separate pair of base layers and socks just for sleeping. Not only will doing so keep your sleeping bag cleaner, it will also prevent body oils and dirt from affecting the loft and warmth of your bag. It will also help to keep you warmer since clothing worn during the day may be damp from exertion.
Mid layers are for insulating. They work by trapping your body heat to keep you warm. The type of mid layer to use will vary based on the conditions. Fleece and wool are good options for breathability and their ability to insulate even when wet. Down or synthetic insulated jackets are the most popular choice for mid layers. Down has the best warmth to weight ratio, and it compresses smaller than synthetic insulation for packability. For rainy conditions, synthetic might be a better choice since it insulates better than down when wet. Mid layers with full zippers are handy for being able to get them on and off easily.
Outer layers are for rain, wind and snow protection. A waterproof rain jacket is a must for backpacking in the Pacific Northwest. Even if it’s not raining, a rain jacket can help to block wind and retain body warmth. Add rain pants or a rain skirt (yes, they exist!) when the forecast calls for wet or cold weather. Breathability is important in rain gear, otherwise, you can get saturated by sweating inside it. The most breathable options tend to be expensive but are often more durable. Look for items with vents such as pit zips, and sealed seams to keep rain out.
Additional options for outer layers include wind shells and soft shells. Wind shells are lightweight and water-resistant, best for blocking wind and light rain. Soft shells are highly breathable and good at blocking wind, but they are bulkier to pack and aren’t waterproof.
Hats, Gloves, Gaiters
Even on summer trips, a lightweight hat and pair of gloves are essential in case the temperature takes a plunge. In colder conditions, consider wool or fleece-lined hats, insulated gloves and a scarf or neck gaiter for extra warmth.