Best Backpacking Apparel – How to Choose

The Best Backpacking Apparel

July Blizzard
Having the best backpacking apparel really comes in handy in unexpected July blizzards.

Having the best backpacking apparel can be the difference between a great journey into the wilderness and a miserable one. Comfortable shoes, a rain jacket, and a warm jacket are just the start of the apparel that might be needed for a successful backpacking trip. The following is our list of apparel that we always consider packing into our backpacks before heading out into the wilderness.

Classification and Rating

Best Backpacking Gear
It is hard to imagine that this is what we have the potential of packing into our backpacks.

We classify the best backpacking apparel in this article as a mixture of necessary and optional gear. Our A-F rating is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all backpacking gear in one place.

Quick Links for the Best Backpacking Apparel

Bug Net
Jake looking to the future when there are no blood-sucking insects. But until then, he’s making this bug net fashionable :).

Hiking Shoes

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • A-Rating: Spend the money for a quality product that is durable, well-designed, and saves weight.

When it comes to the best backpacking apparel a good hiking shoe or boot is a rather obvious need. A great hiking shoe will have a good grip, but beyond that it is going to be preferential to the individual. It should be comfortable for your foot and hiking style. We find that a quality backpacking shoe will last for two years but we do a lot of hiking.

Jennifer likes a low-top waterproof shoe. I too like a low-top shoe but I have preferred a mid-cut boot in the past. I do not like waterproof as they are hot and tend to wear out and leak way to fast. Once a waterproof shoe does start to leak, they hold water inside the shoe to well.

Jennifer and I both prefer Merrells because they seem to fit our feet well and tend to be made well. I once had a pair that were defective and Merrell replaced them with very few questions asked, although it was a bit of a hassle. Still, they seem to be a good company that stands behind there product.

Water Shoes

  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • D-Rating: Save some money as the difference in a name-brand product isn’t necessarily worth the cost.

A light pair of water shoes are nice to have on a long backpacking trip. They are very nice to have while lounging around the campsite (your hiking shoes will stink after a long day on the trail), but more importantly, they are essential to have for creek crossings. If you are new to backpacking, many well-established trails will not have bridges across creeks. You will need to wade across them. If you don’t have water shoes you will need to do so either in your hiking shoes or barefoot. Wet hiking shoes will most likely result in blisters and barefoot is really rough on the feet with a heavy backpack pushing you down on river rocks. Jennifer and I have been slow to adopt water shoes because we like to keep our packs light but this is one area where a little extra weight really saves you some pain.

Rough Trail
This is a tidal marsh and part of New Zealand’s Abel Tasman Trail. This is also one of the places we really wish we had started backpacking with water shoes sooner. Cracked seashells are rough on the feet!

Microspikes

  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • B-Rating: Prioritize weight savings and design on a quality product if you can.
Traversing the snow on Mount Audobon
Jennifer hiking in mid-July and wishing we hadn’t left the microspikes behind.

Microspikes (AKA: Crampons or Traction Cleats) are a literal lifesaver when hiking or backpacking in places where ice lingers into the summer months. If you haven’t grown up in high elevation areas, this is more common than you might think. On some of our backpacking journeys, we have needed our microspikes into late July. It is tough to know when to bring the microspikes and when to leave them as they are heavy. We almost always have them in our day packs in the early parts of the summer on mountainous trails. We have often left them, to our detriment, on longer backpacks thinking the trails would be clear. While heavy, when they are needed they are irreplaceable. There is nothing harder than trying to keep you balance on ice while carrying a heavy backpack.

Not all microspikes are made the same. We’ve had traction cleats that were basically coiled wires and they were terrible. They would constantly slip off our shoes making them less useful and a huge annoyance. These Uelfbaby microspikes work amazingly well and are fairly easy to get on and off. They come with a small bag which comes in handy as microspikes get dirty and they could otherwise puncture your backpack. We often strap them to the outside of our packs to dry out after use. It is important to clean and dry them after each trip.

Leg Gaiters

  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • D-Rating: Save some money as the difference in a name-brand product isn’t necessarily worth the cost.

Leg gaiters aren’t something we thought a lot about before 2019 when we ventured out onto the Tonquin Valley Trail in the Canadian Rockies. To say that it was a muddy trail is an understatement in the extreme. Only wearing one pair of pants for 3 days out of 4 on that journey became questionable as the mud-caked onto the inside of our pants as we sunk our shoes deep into the muck. The solution would have been to own a pair of leg gaiters which would have kept the pants cleaner. Therefore gaiters are now on our pack list when headed into potentially muddy conditions.

Neck Gaiter

  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • C-Rating: Spend some money on a quality product if you can but if not you can save money now and plan on upgrading later.

We originally acquired our fleece neck gaiters for use as face masks when skiing. They work really well in all types of weather and we don’t backpack without them. Often when we are a little chilly, instead of throwing on a jacket and then sweating we put our Turtle Fur neck gaiters on to warm up. A neck gaiter is easier to get on and off while backpacking than a jacket. Most people don’t realize that if you warm or cool the blood in your neck via the carotid artery that it will circulate that warm/coolness throughout your body. The neck gaiter is a quick way of regulating body temperature by using it like a scarf or covering your face from the elements. Jennifer sometimes even tends to wear hers as a warm hat/toboggan.

Down Jackets – The Best Backpacking Apparel

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • B-Rating: Prioritize weight savings and design on a quality product if you can.

A quality down jacket can be expensive but they are lightweight, pack down really small, and are a great source of heat. You are not going to get more warmth out of a coat/jacket for the weight. A quality down jacket is one of the first pieces of optional camping gear I recommend splurging on. I also recommend one that has a lot of cells within the jacket. The cells ensure that warmth is dispersed evenly. They also keep the down material from clumping to one area of the jacket over time, especially after cleaning. We do machine wash our down jackets but we always hang dry.

Down Jacket at Mount Assiniboine
Jake staying warm at Mount Assiniboine with a neck gaiter and down jacket. This photo was taken on the same backpacking trip as the snowy image above.

Rain Jacket or Poncho

  • Classification: Necessary Gear
  • D-Rating: Save some money as the difference in a name-brand product isn’t necessarily worth the cost.

You need a quality rain jacket or poncho if you are going to do much backpacking. Eventually, you will find yourself in a downpour that the weather person missed. As you backpack more popular trails you will also find yourself with permits that have taken planning months and years in advance. You will end up hiking in a snowstorm let alone rain because you’ve waited for years to win that permit and you aren’t going to let a little snow-lightning scare you off (true story). The moral of the story is to have a good lightweight rain jacket or poncho in your backpacking repertoire. I prefer a rain jacket over a poncho as they also double better as windbreakers which really come in handy on gusty mountain peaks. I recommend a rain jacket that is large enough to comfortably fit over your down jacket. This will allow you to layer them in cold, gusty, and rainy conditions.

Backpacking Rain Gear
Jennifer sporting her rain jacket, rain cover on the backpack, and backpacking sun hat.

Gloves

  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • C-Rating: Spend some money on a quality product if you can but if not you can save money now and plan on upgrading later.

Like rain jackets, the best backpacking apparel will include waterproof gloves for those unexpected rain and snowstorms. You need a pair that is fairly lightweight, semi-warm, and has a good grip. You will be holding onto your trekking poles and need the dexterity to adjust your pack and fiddle with your map and/or phone. These Sealskinz gloves tick off all those boxes for us.

Hats

  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • D-Rating: Save some money as the difference in a name-brand product isn’t necessarily worth the cost.

Hats are an important piece of gear to bring on the trail when doing long backpacks or even short hikes. A wide brim hat keeps the sun off your face and neck. A warm toboggan will keep the heat in while hiking in cold weather and it is another nice layer to have inside the sleeping bag on really cold nights.

Bug Net

  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • B-Rating: Prioritize weight savings and design on a quality product if you can.

Bug nets are weird things in our culture. People hate wearing them because they aren’t fashionable. Jennifer included. I have a love/hate relationship with them because they impair my vision. Why do we backpack if not to see the beauty in nature? However, when you are sitting around the campsite and you’re the only one not swatting at the bloodsucking mosquitos because you are wearing a bug net, suddenly this becomes the must-have fashion item. The envious campers just shake their head in awe and say, “I wish I had one of those.” Seriously, if you are going to be backpacking in mosquito country carry one of these. They work and they reduce the amount of bug spray you need to put on your body. They’re tiny, lightweight, and typically come with a little carrying bag.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Apparel

Best Backpacking Apparel Pin
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The best backpacking apparel will help keep you warm on cold nights, dry on rainy days, and clean on muddy trails. The best apparel can also help you maintain solid footing on icy, wet, and muddy paths. Not all of this gear is needed on every trail, but the best backpacking apparel should be on hand to easily pack in when the weather forecast is questionable.

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