What to Wear for Backpacking


clothes for backpacking

As backpackers, we need to deal with the constant change of weather conditions under a variable of temperature ranges in combination with the aerobic exercise that causes your body warm up. Whether you’re going backpacking for months or just a weekend trip, your backpacking clothes are generally the same all year round.

We should expect a lot from our clothes when backpacking. Our backpacking clothes should be breathable, wick moisture, dry quickly, keep us warm, and protect us from the elements.

Having the right set of clothes that will provide insulation and protection is crucial for your safety in the backcountry. The thought of packing too little to save weight can put you in harm’s way, especially if you’re hiking in a remote area. Yet, overpacking may also lead you to having a heavy and bulkier pack, preventing you to go the distance. So how do you manage to cover all your bases in clothes so that your backpacking trip is a success?

When deciding what you pack for your trip, think layers. Layers will allow you to adjust to comfort and temperatures during your hike. We can categorize these layers as your base layer, mid-layer, and shell.

Base Layers

comfy base layer for exercise

(Photo: Wirecutter)

Your base layers should be the first piece of clothing that touches your skin. It should be able to manager moisture and sustain warmth near your body. When it comes to base layers, polyester or merino wool is optimal for wicking-moisture and keeping your skin dry. Wool may have a comfier feel and is usually the preferred base layer during colder conditions, while polyester is cooler and more breathable for warmer seasons. Since base layers are your most comfortable and lightweight piece of clothing, we recommend reserving a set for sleeping at night.

Types of Base Layers:

Underwear: Underwear is usually a matter of preference for both men and women. Some prefer to skip underwear (this goes for bras too) and opt to wearing just their top/bottom base layer which can act as an underwear. If the thought of not wearing underwear is troubling, make sure the underwear is breathable and not made of cotton. When it is contacted with moisture, cotton will take a long to dry, causing chaffing and possible yeast infections. 

T-shirt or Tanks: This top layer should be lightweight and able to protect your core. It’s a matter of preference when it comes to choosing between a shirt/tank or a long sleeve base layer. For warmer hikes, many opt for a simple t-shirt or tank but may prefer wearing a long sleeve to avoid getting sun burned.

Base layer top and bottoms: Base top and bottom layers consist of long sleeve shirts and pants purposed for cold weather conditions. For bottoms, these will consist of leggings, tights, or shorts. Bottom base layers can serve as a multi-functional piece of clothing and can replace your underwear—commando anyone?

Recommendations for men:

Recommendations for women:

Mid Layers

down puffy jacket

(Photo: Wirecutter)

Your mid layer should be your warmest piece of clothing and consist of insulating materials. This layer may consist of down, fleece, or wool.   

Puffy Jacket or Vest: Most backpackers lean towards a puffy for its windproof, packability, lightweight qualities. When choosing a puffy, you’ll have the option of synthetic or natural down. There are tradeoffs between synthetic and natural down jackets and vests; however, down natural down is a preferred (but normally more expensive) choice for a mid layer due to its lightweight and compressible qualities. Synthetic beats down when it comes to maintain its insulative qualities when wet or exposed to moisture.

Fleece: A fleece mid layer would be a more comfortable piece of gear compared to a puffy and will keep you warm even when its wet. With that said, we would recommend wearing a fleece jacket to sleep during colder nights.

Wool: Much like fleece, wool mid layers are another comfortable choice for a mid layer and great to have for a night’s sleep.

Recommendations for men:

Recommendations for women:


rain jacket hard shell

Your shell layer would be in the realm of a rain jacket and should have waterproof and breathable qualities. Your body will sweat and overheat while hiking in rain gear if temperatures are mild, so a good shell should supply you with good ventilation. When searching for a rain jacket, look for features like pit-zips and breathable materials. A good tip would be to size up to accommodate for the layers worn underneath.

Recommendations for men:

Recommendations for women:


Not all accessories are created equal. While there are some accessories that are essential like socks or gloves, other accessories like hats, bandanas, or neck gaiters will not make or break your trip if you do not bring them along.

wool socks

Socks: Just like a pair a boots, having the right pair of socks for backpacking is vital for comfortable, unblistered feet. Wool or synthetic blends that are moisture wicking will work best on the trail. Your feet tends to swell up throughout the day with constant exercise, so test out a few with your boots or shoes.

Gloves: Gloves add protection from UV exposure and cold weather. There are different gloves suited for different seasons, if you’re hiking in desert terrain look for gloves that provide good airflow or fingerless gloves that are rated at least 30 UPF and up. In cold or snow conditions, look for fleece or synthetic waterproof gloves that can provide warmth and comfort.

Hats: The type of hat will depend on what trail and weather conditions you’ll be faced with. For combating the sun, a ventilated wide-brimmed hat will provide good airflow and block the sun rays from your face. For colder climates, beanies or caps made of fleece or wool are great options in keep your head warm and dry.


Overpacking is normally caused by the fear and challenges that might occur on the trail. Take your time when packing your clothes and create a system that will allow you to easily adapt to changing conditions. With that in mind, you’ll be a pro when prepping for your next backpacking trip.

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