It takes a lot to prep before heading out on your first overnight backpacking trip. We’ve broken down what gear you’ll need overall, and how to pack food so you don’t go hungry in the wilderness. But with so many activewear and hiking apparel options out there, it can be hard to figure out what clothing is really essential.
You’ve got to consider a lot of factors—temperature, weather, comfort, sweat, lack of showers—that you can’t find an easy fix for once you’re out there. So you have to make sure to think ahead and bring it all with you. The biggest thing to consider? There’s likely to be a range of weather conditions, no matter where you go. “Sometimes when you start out on a hiking trail it might be 60 degrees, but by the time you get to the summit you might be looking at freezing temperatures,” says Kaitlyn Margeson, an REI Outdoor School instructor in New York/the tri-state area. Which means you need to prepare for it all—yes, while also limiting yourself to what you can wear and carry on your back.
How do you make sure all the basics are covered so you can have a good time in the wild? “It's all about layering,” Margeson says. From my experience, I couldn’t agree more.
Here, a guide to choosing the right clothes that’ll keep you warm and dry on your first backpacking trip.
1. Look for base layers (top and bottoms) made of synthetic materials to help keep you dry, even when you’re sweating.
By base layer we mean the layer that is closest to your skin. The right choice often comes down to personal preference and where you’re going to be hiking. Tank tops are fine in some places, but if you’re in the desert, you might need to be more mindful of sun protection. Likewise, long-sleeved shirts may feel impossible to wear in humid areas.
Do make sure that you’re hiking in either synthetic fabrics like nylons or polyester blends, or wool, says Katie Broadhurst, adventure specialist at Wild Women Expeditions. These fabrics are quick-drying and sweat-wicking, essentials in the wilderness. Wool has the added benefit of being naturally anti-microbial and odor-fighting, although some synthetics are treated to create anti-microbial properties as well. Stay away from cotton. Although cotton is fine in everyday life, it takes too long to dry in the wilderness, leaving you wet and cold and at risk for hypothermia if you’re anywhere but the balmiest destinations. Plus, the long dry time can lead to chafing.
For a shirt, Broadhurst relies on a collection of Lululemon tank tops, which are durable and sweat-wicking. Mikaela Ray, Sedona program manager and guide for The Wildland Trekking Company, likes long-sleeved Ensenada Sun Hoodies from Outdoor Research, which provide much-needed sun protection in the desert.
The same thing goes for pants. Leggings or yoga pants—as long as they’re synthetic or wool—are totally fine if you’re comfortable in them, as are shorts, pants, or hybrid zip-off pants. Pockets are nice if you can find them, particularly cargo-pant type pockets that have a top to them, so you don’t lose your stuff while you walk. If you can, avoid buckles and belts, which might cause hot spots on your skin when wearing a backpack for a long time. Broadhurst likes the Helly Hansen brand for pants because they have an elastic waistband, which is “super comfortable and doesn't provide any hotspots for your pack.”
2. It’s also key to stick to wool or synthetics for socks and underwear.
Sweaty feet are a recipe for blisters, but depending on the weather, you may also need to keep your feet warm and toasty. Wool is usually the best option, as it’s warm but also naturally sweat-wicking. If you don’t need that extra warmth, look for synthetic materials like polyester and nylon that will help keep your feet dry. Darn Tough has an excellent reputation and offers a lifetime guarantee on their socks, which is hard to beat. Stance also has great wool and synthetic blend socks that come in some really cool designs.
Another big consideration? Underwear. We’re talking bras and panties, and yes, you’re probably going to want some specialized gear in this department. “Finding good hiking underwear is kind of tricky,” says Margeson. “I’d definitely go with something that will dry quickly, and ideally it's a little bit odor proof because you will be working hard in them.”
Look for wool or synthetic options. SmartWool makes both bras and underwear. Both Broadhurst and Ray warn against bras that have metal adjusters on the top of your shoulders or front of the bra, which can dig painfully into the skin when a backpack’s on top.
You can find synthetic bra and underwear options anywhere. Broadhurst likes Lululemon’s Ta Ta Tamer, especially for busty women, and has no qualms about wearing Victoria’s Secret seamless underwear into the woods because it’s made with polyester and elastane, which are both quick-drying.
3. For your middle layer, focus on fabrics that’ll keep you warm.
OK, so you know what you’re going to wear while you’re actively hiking. Up next is the mid layer, or the layer that helps you retain heat when necessary. That might be when you stop for a break or camp (because your body will begin to cool down when you stop walking), if the temperatures drop while you’re hiking, or if your sleeping bag isn’t quite warm enough.
You have three main options: A puffy jacket (filled with down or synthetic insulation), a fleece jacket, or a wool jacket. Any of these are fine, although most backpackers lean toward a puffy jacket because they’re easier to compress, weigh less, and tend to be a little more windproof than fleece or wool.
So let’s assume you’re going with a puffy. There are a few big things you need to know, says Margeson. First, that synthetic material puffy jackets don’t lose all of their insulative properties when they get wet. “Even if you're out and it's raining or you get condensation on it, it's still going to keep you warm,” she says.
That’s not true of natural down, which is pretty useless when it gets wet. That said, natural down compresses a lot more than synthetic material does, and you’ll get more warmth for your weight. It tends to be more expensive than synthetic materials. If you choose natural down, you’ll have to be really careful about when you choose to wear it so that you don’t end up with a totally soaked, useless layer when you really need it.
For the most part, Margeson relies on a synthetic Patagonia NanoPuff. Puffy jackets come in a variety of warmth levels and you should choose the one that’s suited to the temperature you’re encountering—whether that’s an evening with only a cool breeze or a sub-zero night.
4. A windproof and waterproof outer layer is a must.
A rule you should live by: “Always a rain jacket, no matter what,” says Ray. Certain as the forecast might be, nature is unpredictable, and you need to have a rainproof layer should the skies open unexpectedly. Finding something that is also windproof can be invaluable to keep you warm if your mid layer isn’t cutting it.
Often, the outer layer will be the most expensive thing on your list. “What people spend a lot of money on is the breathability of their outer layer,” Margeson says. Technologies like GoreTex or Patagonia’s H2No strive to keep out water from the outside, while simultaneously allowing your sweat to evaporate off your body and escape. Otherwise, it can feel like it’s raining underneath your jacket, and that can cause real problems in cold weather, where your sweat can freeze or otherwise bring your core temperature down.
Margeson’s favorite—and probably top of the industry—is Arc’teryx (prices start at about $ 400, arcteryx.com). On the other hand, when I hiked for four months last summer, I packed an inexpensive Frogg Toggs coat ($ 36, walmart.com), which was absolutely not breathable, but did save me from a downpour or two. All that is to say, there are many options at different price points, and you can definitely find a middle ground. Some quality brands with good options: REI Co-op, The North Face, and Adidas Outdoor.
Beyond a jacket, you may also decide that waterproof pants or shoes could come in handy depending on the terrain (like if it’s going to be muddy) and weather. Breathability will be key here, too, especially with the shoes. Most hiking boot brands—like Keen, Merrell, Salomon, Danner, and Vasque—will have waterproof options. A good place to start is a store like REI or your local outdoor outfitters, so you can find a shoe that fits well and has the features you want.
5. Consider a few accessories that might help keep you comfortable, depending on the weather.
Although accessories might not make or break your trip, they can add a lot of comfort. For example, a hat—whether that’s a baseball cap or a beanie—can be helpful in keeping the sun out of your eyes or warming your head. Ray recommends wide-brimmed hats for extra sun protection. “I like SPF-treated and crushable hats so you can throw them in your backpack, rather than straw hats that you can't really wash or pack,” she says. Try: Eddie Bauer Women’s Exploration UPF Wide Brim Hat ($ 24, eddiebauer.com).
Gloves are also a biggie. Cold-weather gloves can be the difference between you having enough dexterity to open your tent or not. In warm weather, especially if you’re using trekking poles, sun gloves can protect your hands from getting a seriously ugly tan line (believe me, I’ve had it) or a painful sunburn.
6. A separate base layer for sleeping—although some choose to skip it—can be a real butt-saver.
If you sweat like crazy during the day, or got rained on, or otherwise ended up with a wet base layer that won’t have time to dry out, you may find yourself in a tough spot come bedtime. On my four-month trip, I carried a thin SmartWool long-sleeved top and bottom specifically for sleeping; you may choose synthetic long underwear or thicker, more substantial sleep clothes if you sleep cold or know it’s going to be a chilly night.
7. Remember: Backpacking is not the time to bring extra clothing options just because.
More than anything, try to avoid temptation to bring a change of outfits. Focus on what’s most utilitarian, pick pieces that are versatile, and save your extra outfit changes for a weekend when you’re driving to your campsite and can leave extra stuff in the trunk.
“For backpacking, I always think less is more,” Ray says. And once you go to lift your pack, you’ll definitely think the same.