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Meredith Chenault in the Robber’s Roost, Utah. Meredith is wearing a pricey merino shirt, which provides good warmth, under a synthetic shirt, which protects the former from slot canyon abrasion and thus prolongs its life significantly.


Selecting a clothing system for backpacking can be daunting, for many reasons, three of which stand out. First, it will probably be fairly expensive, possibly egregiously so. Second, the possible options are vast, and jargon describing them impenetrable for newcomers. Third, your comfort and possibly safety is at stake if you go far wrong. In the following article I will outline some basic clothing considerations, and outline priorities those starting their outdoor clothing closet from scratch might use to get the most performance from their money.

Outdoor clothing is at least as much a fashion item as it is a piece of gear proper, and therefore the language used to describe it is often obfuscatory; long on evocation and short on concrete detail. This rhetoric encourages spurious purchases, and is why most dedicated backpackers have an excessive closet of “technical” clothing. Every backpacker is indebted to the coffee shop aspect of the outdoor clothing market, as without buyers who prioritize “lifestyle” useage the volume of technical clothing would be small, and the costs proportionally increased. Field performance should be prioritized above all else, by those with limited funds most of all. The appeals of fashion and the demands of thrifty function are often at odds. If you can set the former aside much money can be saved.

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Backcountry skiing on a January day which never got above -10F. Fleece is the supreme budget insulator for summer backpacking, and the same jacket can also serve as a moving layer for frigid days. Fleeces ability to inhibit moisture from affecting its function, something vital in cold weather, is still unmatched.

Upper body layers

A good system of upper body clothing will, for three season backpacking, consist of 3-5 separate pieces. In wet weather some folks will add a sixth piece in the form of a second baselayer shirt which stays dry as designated sleep/tent clothing. In the following paragraph I’ll start next to the skin and work outwards.

Against the skin: baselayers, underwear, and socks

A good baselayer will do two things well and durably: regulate internal moisture to prevent chafing and help control core temperature, and protect from external abrasion and UV. What baselayer you choose will depend on your physiology, most common backpacking area of operations, personal preference, and budget. Polyester forms the core of virtually all modern synthetic baselayers. Polyester is relatively cheap, and can be extremely durable. The fabric itself is made from fibers which have little affinity for water, and poly moves sweat out to evaporate on the exterior surface without absorbing much at all. Merino wool is the second major baselayer fabric. Wool is less durable than polyester, and considerably more expensive. Modern merino is remarkably soft, and wool fibers absorb a significant amount of water, thus controlling the rate of moisture evaporation, and thus evaporative cooling. Merino is also impressively resistant to odor accumulation unlike polyester which no matter the anti-odor treatment, is still plagued by it.

Baselayers are an obvious place to save money, as “technical” 100% polyester t-shirts can be found at stores such as Target for under $20, compared to $60 or more for a premium merino or merino/poly blend shirt. On the other hand, baselayers, underwear, and socks are worn more than anything else. A $25 pair of underwear is really not exciting, but an investment in this area might increase comfort more often and more consistently than anything else.

Someone just starting out, but with a bit of financial wiggle room, would do well to sink a little above the minimum amount into clothing worn against the skin layers. One synthetic and one merino shirt, for example, as well as a few pairs of good socks and synthetic undies would be a good start. Women should add, depending on cup size, at least two synthetic sports bras or tank tops with shelf bras. Chafing and general discomfort is to be avoided, as are undergarments which do anything less than dry very fast. Avoid fabrics will a spandex or lycra content much above 10%, as they tend to dry slow.

The rest of this article covers midlayers, wind shirts, insulating jackets, rain jackets, and the lower body.


  • Upper body
  • Against the skin: baselayers, underwear, and socks
  • Midlayers and windshirts
  • Insulating jackets
  • Rain jackets
  • Lower body
  • In conclusion

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Gear Up:

A great selection of lightweight layering systems can be found at REI and Patagonia. For closeouts and cheaper alternatives, check out Sierra Trading Post or browse our Gear Deals Page.

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