Best Backpacking Clothing – How to Choose

The Best Backpacking Clothing

Jennifer's Backpacking Clothes
Jennifer sporting some great backpacking clothing.

Acceptable cultural practices often take a backseat when on the trail and that is because clothing can be heavy. Food is typically the heaviest thing in our backpacks but clothes could easily be. When it comes to clothing we prefer to walk the fine line of less is more while maintaining cold weather layering options. The following is a list of the best backpacking clothing and how to choose, as well as, how much to pack.

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 clothing in this article as necessary gear. Clothing isn’t exactly optional unless you are way off the beaten path 🙂 but the type and amount of clothing can be. We also give each item a rating. 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 Clothing

Pants/Shorts

  • Classification: Necessary 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.

Pants are the easiest to choose regardless of the length of the backpacking trip so let’s address those first. I will typically wear a pair of pants or shorts (depending on the forecast) and carry a pair of campsite pants to wear at night after cleaning up with a hiking wipe. That is it. No matter the duration of the backpacking journey the best backpacking clothing will consist of two pairs of pants/shorts in total. I will typically wear my night pants on the final day so I feel a little bit cleaner when I climb back into the truck and head into civilization in search of a shower.

The best pair of backpacking pants are made of lightweight, ripstop, water-repellent materials. Jeans or any other cotton fabric are not appropriate for backpacking. Hiking pants that zip-off at the knee (convertible pants) are what I prefer as they allow me to be comfortable no matter the temperature. Jennifer believes that women’s convertible pants aren’t that stylish/flattering so she prefers to wear lightweight pants. She is fair-skinned so pants also mean less sunscreen.

Thermal Pants

  • 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.

In addition to our two pants limit, we each carry a pair of thermal pants if the forecast is near or below freezing. Thermal pants are a great layering option for both daytime hiking as well as sleeping. Just be careful to not sweat in them during the day because who wants to sleep in sweaty thermals? We find that thermal shirts are less necessary as we carry down jackets for core body warmth.

Shirts

  • Classification: Necessary 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.

Shirts are similar to pants in that we typically carry one for the campsite and wear another during the day, but unlike pants, this has a duration limit. Shirts tend to get more sweat on them than pants do. I will usually wear a shirt for a maximum of three days. So if it is a 4-day journey I might only carry the two shirts and wear the nightshirt on the final day but for longer journeys, I carry an extra shirt. I will typically wear a long sleeve shirt when backpacking unless the temperatures are really hot. The long sleeve helps keep the sun off and reduces the amount of sunscreen needed.

A quality synthetic backpacking shirt will be lightweight and airy. It will wick sweat away from your body, keeping you dry. I can’t stress enough that you should not wear cotton when backpacking.

Second Layer

When the temperatures are forecasted to vary in extremes we typically carry one extra layer to be used every day. A down jacket over a sporty long sleeve is usually enough for me to combat the cold but on occasion, I do carry a merino wool shirt as a third layer. Merino is great because it is fairly light-weight for the amount of warmth it provides and it doesn’t hold odors or sweat like cotton.

Jake's Backpacking Clothes
A synthetic shirt base layer, merino wool long sleeve shirt, convertible pants, a hat, and Merrell shoes are some of my typical backpacking attire.

Underwear

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

If you don’t heed my anti-cotton warning for anything else do so for backpacking underwear. When it comes to underwear cotton should be avoided like the plague. It will only make you chafe in all the worst places. The best underwear for backpacking will be a synthetic material that is lightweight, tight-fitting, and sweat-wicking.

I usually carry a pair of underwear for every day of a trip and change every night so I sleep in a fresh pair and then hike in it the following day. I know some people who turn their underwear inside out so as to only need half as much undies but as of yet I can’t get on board with that. You sweat a lot when backpacking. That is all I’m saying.

Socks

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

Socks are perhaps the most important piece of clothing for backpacking. I prefer socks that are a Merino Wool blend and that are specifically designed for hiking. They are comfortable and they wick sweat and moisture away from your foot preventing blisters. I have soaked my shoes while backpacking and had to continue hiking for 5-miles to camp and did not get a blister. Some of this is attributed to a good fitting shoe but it is mostly the sock. Jennifer is actually allergic to wool so she has to wear a synthetic sock. She swears by the Wigwams we have listed. They too wick moisture and sweat away preventing blisters.

When it comes to socks, I am slightly more prone to re-wear them than underwear. I typically have a pair of socks for sleeping in that I also wear on the last day of hiking. For every other day on the trail, I will wear a pair for two days. For example, I would have 3-pairs of socks for a 4 or 5-day backpacking trip.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Clothing

Best Backpacking Clothing
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Choosing the best backpacking clothing is an integral part of a successful and enjoyable trip into the backcountry. Having clothing that wicks away sweat keeps you dry so that you will smell less. Proper clothing can also keep you from developing blisters and chaffing, allowing you to enjoy nature more with less pain.

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