The purpose of this article is simple: I want to teach you how to choose backpacking equipment for inclement weather by documenting my thought processes as I select clothing, sleep, and shelter systems for a summer trek. The process will be illustrated as a case study: my equipment selection for a 12-day summer trek in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Southwest Montana.
I will be placing significant emphasis on going as light as possible for several reasons:
- I’ll be carrying 12 days of food and supplies, without resupply;
- I’m rehabilitating a nagging back injury so won’t be able to carry as much as I normally can (I’m usually OK with 50-55 lb starting pack weight on longer trips);
- Most of our planned route is off-trail;
- I’ll be carrying some “extra non-backpacking gear” (more on that below), so I want to save weight in my base kit as much as possible.
Although the equipment I selected is based on my planning process for a Beartooth Plateau (Montana) backpacking trip, the information herein would be applicable to most western U.S. mountain ranges during the summer. These ranges might include the Northern Rockies of Montana and Idaho / Continental Divide Trail, the Colorado Rockies, the Uintas, Glacier/Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Parks, the High Sierra, and the Northern California / Oregon Cascades / Pacific Crest Trail.
Some changes, of course, might be necessary for other environments during the summer, such as the drier and warmer deserts of the southwest and inland northwest, and the wetter climates of the northern Pacific Crest / Washington Cascades / Olympics.
Note: I’m staying away from brands and models of gear in this mini-treatise, and focusing on form and function. In some cases, I have linked to reviews, manufacturer’s websites, or retailer’s websites of products that I’ve personally used and like (and is the gear I’ll be taking on this trek).
The following represent the primary environmental considerations that guided my equipment selection:
- High altitudes – most of our route, and almost all of our camps will be above the treeline (> 10,000 feet).
- Wind – exposed terrain at our camps and the high altitude of our route results in generally windy conditions.
- Storms – seasonal considerations and high altitudes mean that we’ll be trekking during the peak of the summer thunderstorm season.
- Insects – because we are taking the trek in mid-July, we’ll be camping during the peak of mosquito season.
- Bears – both grizzly and black bears are present.
- Remoteness – we’ll be traveling through areas that are not-so-remote, as well as through areas that see very few visitors.
- Terrain – most of the trip will be off-trail across a wide variety of terrain, including meadowy tundra, talus and scree, glacial moraine and high passes up to Class 2+, steep snow, and even some bushwhacking.
- Climate – during July, we expect high temperatures at these altitudes to be in the range of 55 to 70 degrees, and low temperatures to be in the range of 30 to 45 degrees; cold fronts are common during the summer here, and can deliver freezing rain, hail, graupel, and snow.
- Group travel – we are traveling as a group of seven. Some members are sharing food, cooking, and shelter; some are not.
- Fishing – we expect fishing to be outstanding, and there’s no way we’re going to leave our fishing gear at home; this will be a consideration in meal planning for me.
- Photo/videography – much of the route will be spent “location scouting” for our Wilderness Treks program, so we’ll be bringing along a camera kit (or two) to shoot photography and video that will be used to give participants and prospective participants a sense of magnificence of this incredible place!
- Expedition publishing – we’ll be publishing journal and photo dispatches live from the trip, directly to this website, as well as to social media accounts.
Last Minute Considerations
The day before we left, a storm off the Pacific Coast gained some strength and began to move inland.
The National Weather Service issued a hazardous weather advisory, calling for high winds, severe thunderstorms, and … snow. With low temperatures for the first few days of our trip projected to be in the 20s (F) and high temperatures in the 30s (F), it threw a bit of a wrench into my planning for what I was hoping would be a mountain sunshine vacation!
The bottom line is that this was a very slow-moving cold front and would likely be impacting our weather for the first 4 or 5 days of the trek.
How to Choose Backpacking Gear for Inclement Weather: Clothing Layers
I like to (mentally, at least) compartmentalize my clothing into three distinct systems:
- Trekking clothing;
- Storm clothing;
- Camp clothing.
In short, trekking clothing is what I wear next to my skin all day, storm clothing is what I put on while trekking in bad weather, and camp clothing is what I wear to stay warm in camp (or during other long periods of inactivity in cold conditions).
This system dictates where I stow my clothing in my backpack. I wear the trekking clothes, keep the storm clothes handy near the top of the pack (or in an outside pocket), and I stow the camp clothes deep down inside my pack (usually with my sleeping bag) since I’m not likely to have to access them on the trail.
Of course, there is crossover: on a particularly cold day, I may need access to an insulating jacket (camp clothing) at lunch, or have to wear a rain jacket (storm clothing) in camp.
Trekking Clothing (Base Layers Worn While Walking)
For “warm” weather (60s F and higher), I prefer to wear just a woven trekking shirt as my base layer. For cooler and/or wet weather, I prefer to wear a lightweight short-sleeved, merino wool t-shirt under my trekking shirt.
However, for this trip, I’m expecting plenty of foul weather and very little warm weather. I’m not expecting to encounter temperatures over 60 deg F until, perhaps, our last day or two of trekking once we finally drop below 8,500 feet.
For these temperatures, and considering that we’ll have breezy conditions on the plateau above 10,000 feet (where we’ll spend most of our time), making the case to wear a woven trekking shirt becomes less compelling. I’d rather have the comfort of a highly functional layering system for inclement weather trekking, so I’ll have to rely on something else for protection from biting insects (more on that later).
- long-sleeved, lightweight merino wool hoody – 7 oz
- form-fitting nylon / polyester / spandex shorts (underwear) – 4 oz
- woven nylon trekking pants – 12 oz
- crushable nylon hat with brim – 2 oz
Storm Clothing (Other Layers Worn While Walking)
The various scenarios to consider when planning a layering system for inclement conditions include some combination of wind, precipitation, and cold temperatures:
- Wind (none -> high)
- Precipitation (none -> high)
- Temperature (warm -> cold)
The probability that we would encounter “extreme” conditions while trekking on this trip, given the hazardous weather forecast, is quite high. Therefore, the primary question I want to ask at this point is
What will I add to my trekking clothing as wind and precipitation increase in intensity, and temperatures drop?
I know that simply wearing a lightweight merino wool hoody under a rain jacket wouldn’t be enough by itself to stay warm in this type of weather, so I have a few options:
- Add mid layer(s) to this system (more versatility);
- Replace the lightweight merino wool shirt with a thicker/warmer base layer (simpler).
I like simpler, so option #2 is tempting. However, the need to have my trekking clothing be as comfortable as possible in as wide of a range of conditions as possible trumps everything else. I know from experience that my lightest weight merino wool hoody is comfortable while trekking even in very warm conditions (> 60 deg F). In addition, it dries faster than a thicker layer. Therefore, I’m going to opt for #1 and add mid layers to my system.
The mid layers I own and use include the following:
- wind shirt – 4 oz
- various 50-200 weight fleece vests and pullovers – 8 to 15 oz;
- thin synthetic vest – 7 oz
- thin down vest – 3 oz
The wind shirt is almost a non-negotiable item for me. It is the single layer that I wear more than any other and find it to be the most versatile piece of clothing I’ve ever used. Being able to wear it as an outer shell in cool/cold and dry/light precipitation conditions makes it invaluable. I know there is a trend for some to ditch the wind shirt and move back to a traditional layering system using a fleece jacket/vest instead. Fleece is more breathable, and in some (colder) conditions, more comfortable than a wind shirt. However, this decision comes with a higher weight penalty and less versatility in high winds and warm/buggy conditions.
This three-layer system – the ultralight merino hoody, the wind shirt, and my rain jacket – are what I would need to stay warm in all but the most hostile conditions. However, we are expecting hostile conditions. What to do if the temperatures drop into the 30s, precipitation is heavy wet snow, and winds are breezy?
That’s easy. I’m going to camp! Those are terrible conditions for hiking, and I’d rather hang out in my shelter, drink coffee, and write in my journal.
The Insurance Layer
But I need a little bit of insurance to buy me some time between that moment on the trail where you realize how bad this sucks, to the bliss of finding a suitable campsite to hole up in. That time could be on the order of an hour or two or three, depending on terrain, so I at least want an “insurance” layer to help preserve my body heat.
That’s where my super light 3 oz down vest comes in. Throwing this on between my merino shirt and my wind shirt, and topping off with the rain jacket, means that it’s pretty close to my skin for good core warmth, and far enough away from the elements that it doesn’t suffer the demise of getting (too) wet from perspiration condensing in the clothing system.
The legs are much simpler, because they generate more heat while hiking, and stay warmer.
My underwear, trekking pants, and rain pants take care of most conditions. If I know I’m going to start the day hiking in extremely foul weather, I might add thin synthetic long underwear (“long johns”) under my trekking pants.
If the weather changes during the day, I may add the long johns over my trekking pants (just to keep things simple and fast), and then top off with my rain pants.
Head, Hands, and Feet
Head. I already have a thin merino hood on my base layer shirt, a wind shirt hood, and a rain jacket hood. Also, I’m usually wearing my crushable nylon brim hat with all of this. Therefore, it seems odd that I would need any additional head covering for summer weather, even bad weather.
However, for the worst case scenario described above (cold, wet, and windy), I do find that a little bit of extra around my head and neck goes a long way. I keep a mini neck gaiter stuffed in my rain jacket pocket for just such a scenario, and if it really gets bad, I plan to add a very light fleece hat.
Hands. I rarely take gloves in the summer, but since we are expecting cold, wet, and windy conditions with temperatures in the 20s and 30s, I will bring a simple but foolproof system that includes a lightweight fleece mitten with a waterproof shell mitt.
Feet. What an incredibly challenging thing to deal with in conditions like these. We are trekking during the early season, so there will be stream crossings that require wading. Sub-freezing temperatures at night will freeze shoes and socks. Wet meadows, lots of precipitation. And then later in the trip, dry and warm.
A waterproof-breathable shoe combined with a high gaiter makes the most sense on a trip like this, but waterproof shoes are a terrible idea for stream crossings.
It’s reasonable to expect that feet will stay warm while trekking, and be very cold in camp. Dry socks for bedtime must be made a high priority. And squishing around in cold, wet shoes and socks while in camp is probably not a very good idea.
If the chance of inclement weather were slight, I’d suffer well with non-waterproof trail running shoes, three pairs of trekking socks (2 to hike in, 1 dry pair for sleeping), and no gaiters. I’ll keep the non-waterproof trail running shoes and two (not three) pair of trekking socks, but I’ll add:
- Trekking: A light pair of calf-height gaiters (2 oz) for trekking in snow and wet tundra; I like that gaiters also preserve a little ankle heat which contributes to foot warmth;
- In camp: I’ll change out of my wet trekking socks, and replace with a thin merino sock liner underneath a thin waterproof-breathable sock (3 oz) for walking around in wet shoes;
- Sleeping: I’ll remove the waterproof socks and stuff my merino liner-clad feet into a pair of ultralight down socks (2 oz).
How to Choose Backpacking Gear for Inclement Weather: Camp Clothing & Sleep System
If all of my trekking / storm clothing gets wet, I’ll need some insurance in camp. Usually, that insurance consists of my long johns, an 8 oz hooded down jacket, and a 40 deg F / 14 oz down sleeping quilt.
I’m expecting my down gear to suffer the inevitable demise of accumulated condensation over the course of the first few (up to four or five?) days of the trek before I can count on drying it out in the sun. Therefore, I have three options to consider: take the chance and suffer as I watch my ultralight down gear wilt, take a higher fill down jacket and/or quilt as insurance, or go with a synthetic insulating layer and/or sleeping quilt? Or of course, some combination of these things.
My lightest down gear (jacket, 8 oz + quilt, 14 oz) weigh a combined 22 oz and are plenty warm when they’re dry! I would have no problem using these items down to freezing temperatures.
The heavier synthetic jacket and quilt weigh a combined 32 oz, are not as warm as the down gear, but would maintain body warmth at lower temperatures if they contained any accumulated moisture. Also, I could sleep in all my clothes, even if they are damp, and wake up in the morning with dry clothes! I wouldn’t be able to do this (as effectively) with down sleeping gear.
A hybrid system (synthetic quilt and down jacket) solves some of these problems, but if I’m going to pack some extra weight, my gut tells me to simply pay attention and be careful, and spend the extra weight on some more down fill! My final setup thus will weigh a combined 28 oz, keep my original 8 oz down parka, and replace my 14 oz down quilt with a much warmer 20 deg F / 20 oz down quilt.
My Backpacking Bed
Bed comfort is increasingly important to me as I get older and appreciate the ability to recover overnight after a hard day of trekking. To keep morning backaches away, I use an 8-oz short-length inflatable mattress combined with an inflatable pillow. The pillow is topped with the Waldorfian luxury of a goose down slipcase.
How to Choose Backpacking Gear for Inclement Weather: The Shelter System
I don’t think there is a shelter available anywhere that is as stormworthy for its weight as my small, Cuben Fiber pyramid (10 oz with 1.5 mm Dyneema guylines). I’m using trekking poles on this trip, so I add a super light (< 1 oz) carbon fiber pole jack to help me get a taut pitch. My stake kit weighs 2 oz and includes both carbon core and titanium skewer stakes. Due to the cold weather forecast, I’m skipping the inner tent (I’m hoping to be fine with just a garage-made bridal veil mesh headnet) and opting to floor my shelter with some shrink wrap.
The advantages of this 13 oz shelter system include:
- Full perimeter protection from wind, rain, and snow;
- Plenty of headroom (more than four feet usable) near the peak for sitting up and moving around comfortably;
- Side entry door opens wide for expansive views and ventilation on mild nights.
Conclusion: About the Trek
Starting on July 9, we’ll be traveling in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, including a traverse of the Beartooth Plateau, for 12 days. Our traverse will include about 60 miles of travel, most of it off-trail, and including two remote crossings of the Absaroka Backbone (divide).We’ll be scouting trekking routes and camps for this seasons’
Our goal is to explore some lesser-known lakes and find out where the biggest trout in the Beartooths are found!
This trek was planned, and will be led, by BSA Venturing Crew One.
Eric and I will also be scouting trekking routes and camps for this seasons’ Wilderness Treks program, so be sure to follow our live dispatches, which will be published daily on the home page via satellite, with images also posted over on our Instagram feed.