How to Layer Backpacking Clothes – Beginning Backpacking Techniques

Layer One: Long Underwear:

Remember: dry skin = warm skin. However, this can be difficult to manage when you are also hiking up a steep trail with a heavy pack on your back. A healthy body perspires constantly to cool itself off. As the perspiration evaporates, it transfers excess heat away from your skin along with the moisture. Conversely, to stay warm, you need to stay dry. How do you do it?

The answer is found in the first layer of clothing, the one worn against your skin. It should be made of any one of a variety of fibers that are “hydrophilic,” or good at absorbing water, and be thin enough to fit comfortably under your other clothes. The fibers could be wool, or a synthetic material, such as polyolefin (once called polypropolene). There are many brands of long underwear on the market these days. Shop around to find the ones that fit your budget and feel comfortable against your skin.

backpacking clothes How to Layer Backpacking Clothes   Beginning Backpacking Techniques

Besides being absorbent, the “wicking” action in these fibers is also important. “Wicking” means the fibers pull the perspiration away from your body and allow it to evaporate without chilling your skinˇŞa potentially deadly situation under some circumstances in the wilderness.

(While it’s true that cotton is hydrophilic, it is not good at wicking the moisture away from your body. Do not use it as a first layer.)

I have an old set of lightweight wool/nylon blend underwear that I’ve used for years. However, many of my friends swear by the new fibers. And a few, such as Trevira Proearth , made by Hoechst-Celanese, are even good for the environment: they’re made out of recycled plastic bottles!

Another alternative is silk. Many shops sell silk long-johns that are extremely soft, lightweight, and surprisingly warm. However, be prepared to pay a premium price for a pair of silk long underwear.

Layer Two: “Trail Clothes”

These are the shirts, shorts, pants, etc. that function well on and off the trail. The recent rise in popularity of “rugged outdoor clothing” for general use ensures you’ll have a wide variety of styles, colors and fabrics to choose from.

In addition to long underwear, plan on taking one pair of pants, one pair of shorts, one long-sleeved cotton shirt and maybe a t-shirt, depending on the length of the trip. Some manufacturers make versatile “pant-shorts” combinations: long pants with zip-off legs. These are especially good for trips where the weather is extremely changeable throughout the day.

If there’s any chance of encountering enough water for swimming, grab a simple swim suit to take alongˇŞthey are light and do not take up much space. (Of course, depending on where you go and who you travel with, you may not need a swim suit at all.)

I recommend you get pants with enough pockets for carrying all those little things that get lost in backpacks: Swiss Army Knife, compass, lip moisturizer, etc. And avoid 100% cotton knit tee-shirtsˇŞ they tend to get wet from prespiration and stay wet, not to mention stretched out from your backpack straps. (Maybe carry one to sleep in.) Look for a good cotton twill shirt.

For the budget conscious, or those of you with fast-growing families, take a look at the clothing that’s offered in the specialty shops, figure out what features, styles, etc. you desire, then see if you can find what you want at a better price in other locations. I’ve found some great trail clothes in second hand stores, including “name brand” pants and shirts that sell for $25 and up in outdoor retail specialty stores. These were in great condition, and cost a fraction of what they would have cost if purchased new.

There are also outdoor discount or “factory seconds” discount outlets in many cities all across the country. Check the phone books or talk to your backpacking friends for leads to these bargain stores.

Layer Three: Outwear

This is the layer that protects you against rain, snow, and extreme cold. It includes raingear, insulated parkas, sweaters and jackets, and a variety of accessories, such as hats, gloves, and gaiters. This layer is wind- and waterproof, designed to keep you warm and dry from the outside in (as opposed to Layer One, which keeps you dry from the inside out), under a variety of weather conditions. Once again, to save money and keep yourself comfortable under variable conditions, it’s important to think in terms of layering.


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