Clothing and Layering
Episode #2 of the course Beginning Backpacking by Alice Morgan
Now that we’ve talked about the gear you need, let’s look at an equally important topic: clothing. We’ll look at materials, types of clothing, and how to layer so you’ll stay dry and cozy no matter the weather.
Synthetic, wool, and down are the most common types of clothing in outdoor recreation. Synthetic clothing is often polyethylene based and is loved for its light weight and superior ability to wick sweat away from the skin, which helps regulate body temperature. Wool is a heavier natural fiber that is excellent at holding heat even when soaked and feels soft against the skin. Down is very warm when dry, but the feathers can clump if it gets wet, reducing effectiveness. To figure out what you like, try out a few different material types before you invest too heavily in one kind.
Cotton is rarely found among serious outdoor recreationists. “Cotton kills” is a well-known adage by backpackers for good reason. When cotton gets wet from sweat or weather, it gets heavy and loses much of its ability to hold heat. If you’re wearing cotton while hiking in cool weather, you’re more likely to find your body getting too cold to properly regulate its temperature, increasing your risk for hypothermia.
Clothing is broken down into layers. Base layers fit closest to your skin, where they do the hard work of moving sweat away from your body. In warm weather, your base layers are your underwear and t-shirt, but in colder temperatures, you’ll want to add long underwear and a corresponding top to your outdoor ensemble.
A mid layer is a jacket that fits over your base layers and holds heat in while hiking and resting. Popular choices are fleece pullovers or wool sweaters. You don’t have to limit yourself to one mid layer. If you’re someone who is easily chilled, you can stack as many jackets or coats on top of each other as you need to get to your desired level of warmth.
A hardshell, or rain jacket, is the most crucial piece of your layering system. Shells keep the wind, rain, and snow out and body heat in. There are two types: rainproof, which is designed to keep out precipitation and wind, and weather resistant, which keeps out wind. By topping off your other layers with a shell, you’ll stay comfortable even in bad weather.
While backpacking, you’ll be on your feet quite a bit, so you’ll need good socks to keep your feet happy. You’ll want tall, wool or synthetic socks that are thick enough to provide lots of cushion on the balls and heels of your feet. Many hikers also like sock liners, which are thin, synthetic or silk socks that go under your regular socks. These reduce friction on your feet, which can lead to fewer blisters.
There are a few different schools of thought about shoes for backpacking. Boots are the classic choice. You can get them in leather, which are heavier but will last longer, or synthetic, which are lighter and more breathable but will wear out in a few years with moderate use. Boots also come in several different heights or ”cuts.” High cuts will come up over over the ankle and are designed to minimize ankle movement. Mid cuts hit at the ankle and provide more flexibility. All work equally well, so try a few different shoes on before you make a decision.
An alternative option are the lightweight trail running shoes that have become increasingly popular in recent years. They are less durable and offer less ankle support but are much lighter and offer a greater range of movement.
That’s enough about gear for today. You now know what your options are for staying warm and dry. Now, I recommend you head to the closest gear store and start trying out different pieces of gear. Tomorrow, we’ll jump into food and nutrition!
Expert Advice series by Recreational Equipment, Inc.
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