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.
Items shown above:
- Women’s Butterlicious Long Sleeve Half-Zip
Super soft against the skin, this synthetic top feels good to wear day after day.
- Icebreaker merino wool short sleeve top
Great for warm weather hiking, this top has airy mesh panels for ventilation.
- Patagonia Women’s Barely Bra
Yay! A sports bra that doesn’t bind, create a uniboob, or pull your arm out of its socket to get it off. The fabric is soft, wicks well, and doesn’t feel restrictive the way most bras do.
- Patagonia Womens Active Mesh Boy Shorts Underwear
I only take one extra pair of underwear on backpacking trips. It’s simple to wash them at camp and they dry fast so you always have a clean pair to wear. These are so comfortable, plus combined with the bra, they make a great backcountry bikini!
- Icebreaker Merino Wool Oasis Crew Long Underwear Top
I wear this soft merino wool top for sleeping, and if it’s really cold while hanging around at camp at night, it can be worn as an extra layer.
- Columbia OmniHeat leggings
Synthetic leggings lined with silver dots to reflect body heat, these are my favorite base layer pants for sleeping in (or wearing under hiking pants in cold weather).
- Prana Halle Straight Pants
My favorite hiking pants! The fabric is super stretchy, the fit is slim, and they look just as good in the city as in the backcountry.
- Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Socks
Socks are one of the few things that are good to have in multiples for backpacking. I like to take three pair: two are for hiking, and one pair is for sleeping. Darn Tough socks are extremely durable. I’ve yet to get a hole in any of these, but if I do, they have a lifetime warranty.
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.
Items shown above:
- Outdoor Vitals Loktek Jacket
This unisex synthetic jacket is feature-packed at a low price: it has an adjustable hood, pit zips, hand pockets, thumbholes, and a DWR finish to resist rain.
- Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer
This hooded down jacket is extremely lightweight, provides a lot of warmth, and layers well with an outer shell due it’s trim shape.
- Columbia Glacial Half Zip Fleece Top
I take this top on colder weather trips. It keeps me super warm and is great for sleeping in on chilly nights.
- NW Alpine Spider Hoody
Made with Polartec grid fleece, this top will keep you toasty warm in cold weather. Features include a hood, thumb loops, and a chest pocket.
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.
Items shown above:
- Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket
At just over 5 ounces, this is one of the lightest rain jackets available.
- Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants
These rain pants feature 2.5 layer Pertex-Shield+ fabric, have ankle zippers, an elastic waist, and they stuff into the back pocket for storing in your pack.
- Mountain Hardwear Super Chockstone Hooded Jacket
I wear this soft shell jacket while hiking in cool weather. This jacket is more breathable than a rain jacket but won’t cause overheating as easily as an insulated jacket.
- REI Waterproof Gloves (no longer available)
- Borah Gear eVent Rain Mitts
I wear these rain mitts over lightweight gloves when hiking in the rain.
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.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for some of the items listed, which means that I make a small commission if a purchase is made. This does not change the price of the item. Regardless, the items listed here are owned by me and purchased with my own funds. All reviews are unbiased and not paid for by any company. Thank you for supporting this blog!