What to Wear when Backpacking and Hiking

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Gear selection is an important consideration for any backpacker. While we tend to spend a lot of time obsessing over our shelters or sleeping gear, appropriate clothing is arguably the most important aspect of any backpacking trip. In regular situations, it can make a world of difference in your comfort level. In certain unforeseen circumstances, the right clothing can be the deciding factor between life and death.

Even when going on a day-hike, it's important to plan for all potential types of weather. Here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, you can experience the full gamut of weather in a single 6-8 hour period. As a result, having a logical clothing layering system that works can be very important.

So, what clothing do you need? What extra items should you take (down jacket, rain gear)? What is the easiest, but lightest, way to stay warm on the trail? These are some of the big questions we'll cover in today's article on backpacking clothing.

What Do I Need?

Highly regarded in the backpacking community, Andrew Skurka has come up with the “Core 13” system for backpacking clothing. We highly recommend you check out his video below and the landing page for his Core 13 articles as well. They are full of great information.

In the interest of brevity, we'll cover the basics of his system below. 

Go Suit


    While 13 items of clothing and related gear may sound like a lot at first, here's the thing: It is highly unlikely that you will need all of these items for any given backpacking trip. The great thing about this system is that it provides a basic list of all of the items that you may need. It's a good starting point and a basis for a “mix and match” type of system. 

    Skurka himself has mentioned this as well and has provided links to location and season-specific packing lists for popular hiking areas around the country. As such, you can get a solid idea of what you'll need to pack for any given climate.

    For instance, for a climate similar to that of the Great Smoky Mountains in early spring, you will only need about 9 of the items from the list. Bugs aren't out of control yet, so that negates the need for a bug shirt. Unless a late-season cold snap or snowstorm pops up, it should be warm enough that you won't need insulated pants while taking breaks or hanging out at camp for an extended period. With the dense canopy of trees and average temperatures, it won't be likely that you will want a short-sleeve shirt, but you can always roll the sleeves up on your long-sleeve shirt if you do happen to get warm. In case you're wondering what the fourth "optional" item is, it's underwear. We'll leave that one up to you. 

    The Core 13 system is all about common sense. For some more examples, you won't need a down jacket in the middle of summer backpacking in Georgia. Rain gear will be superfluous in the desert most of the year.

    As you can see, this system is highly versatile to both the needs of individual backpackers and their personal preferences as well as the specific clothing needed for different trails in different seasons across the globe.


    The easiest and lightest way to keep warm on the trail is by dressing in layers. The first thing you might think of when you hear “dress in layers” is your mom or grandmother trying to get you to bundle up to play out in the snow as a kid. Layering in backpacking is a lot simpler, though. In fact, it's best to avoid bulky coats and jackets as they add extra weight and heat you quickly, causing you to sweat, which can lead to hypothermia in cold temperatures. 

    Wearing more thinner layers is a lot more comfortable, allows you a greater range of motion, and enables you to customize your clothing to your comfort level, current weather, time of day, etc. Layering is highly subjective to each hiker, but a good 3-season starting point might include a t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, and fleece pullover to start with. (And pants, of course.)

    For cooler temperatures/seasons, a lot of hikers recommend “starting cold”. In other words, don't overdress. It won't take long to warm up once you get going and no one wants to stop 15 minutes into their hike to take extra articles of clothing off. 

    As you are probably already aware, having a good base layer of clothing is important to help wick moisture away from your body in both warm and cool weather. As we mentioned in our article on hiking footwear, avoid cotton clothing at all costs. It holds on to moisture and does not dry quickly, posing an increased risk of hypothermia if it gets wet and you are exposed to cool temperatures for prolonged periods. Look for clothing made from merino wool or synthetics, such as polyester, nylon, and spandex.

    Extra Items for Consideration

    Aside from the items listed above in the Core 13 list, some other items should be taken into consideration for certain circumstances. For example, if you will be hiking during the winter or in high altitudes, some form of an insulated hat and even gloves go from the realm of “luxury item” to necessity. Hiking through exposed areas in the summer or desert terrain may necessitate the use of sunglasses and a hat as well (preferable one with neck protection). 

    You will obviously need socks and likely want underwear as well. For these items, many people like to have at least one extra pair so you can still have a clean one while rinsing and drying the other. It's also a good idea to put on a clean pair of socks before hopping in your sleeping bag at night to help you stay warm.

    We hope this article has provided some guidance and useful information in choosing what clothing to wear and pack on your next outdoor adventure. What other hiking gear questions do you have? Let us know in the comments below!

    clothing layering Safety Tips and Resources Trail Safety

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