My clothing preferences have changed over the years and continue to change today – as products improve, as my backpacking style evolves, and as the old gear wears out. When I started I relied on wool gear for warmth, believe it or not, along with down and cotton/nylon blends. It worked well, but these days – with exceptions I’ll describe below – synthetic materials rule.
While you can get by, at least at first, with gear that you might already have for other purposes, the best backpacking gear is not likely to be stuff you would want to be seen in elsewhere. Take a look at the photo at right. I rest my case.
Photo at right: Traveling light on a windy ridge above Pioneer Basin. Gear includes The North Face shorts over Moonstone tights, Asolo boots, Marmot Windshirt, Nordic Gear hat, Mountainsmith Boogeyman pack.
If I were starting to acquire new gear from scratch, I think I might work from outside to inside and from bottom to top. Outside because your shell is perhaps your most critical layer in challenging weather – get wet and you’ll be in a heap of trouble. Bottom up because good footwear can make or break any trip.
At first you might want to acquire gear that could serve more than one purpose. For example, you might consider a heavier Goretex shell so that you could use it around town and for skiing. With boots you might err a bit on the heavy side so that you would not find yourself under-equipped on a longer or more rugged trip. Eventually, as you fill out your basic kit, you can go back and start to acquire more specialized equipment; in particular, some of the lighter and more fragile ultra-light gear.
- Poly T-Shirt
– I carry 2 unless the trip is very short. One of my friends carries an extra light shirt to sleep in, thereby keeping his sleeping bag cleaner – or should I say “less filthy.” Some people use cotton but I stick to poly t-shirts. I agree that cotton is more comfortable (poly has a tendency to hold a static charge and to get smelly) but a cotton shirt is a liability in wet conditions. I hold out for decent shirts even if they cost a bit more.
– In 2006 I finally gave in and purchased one of these lightweight long-sleeve shirts designed for hiking, and often advertised for their sun protection capabilities. They are available from many manufacturers – I looked at versions from Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, and REI before finding one from Ex Officio on sale.
- Somewhat to my surprise, I find that this shirt is not too hot (the light fabric and loose fit help here) and that the adaptibility of the shirt is excellent. Sleeves roll up, collars are adjustable for more or less sun protection, etc. In August 2006 this was my normal outer layer on a pack trip to the Big Pine Creek area of the Sierra. I like all of my gear to integrate well (perfectly, actually) – I want to be able to combine any and all layers as needed – but I haven’t quite figured out how to do that with this shirt yet. Adding a lightweight polypro long-sleeve t-shirt adds warmth not provided by the button shirt alone. However, unlike my lightweight zip turtlenecks from The North Face, this shirt doesn’t fit well between an inner and outer layers. I’m working on that…
– In recent years I have tended to wear a light long sleeve shirt most of the time, largely to protect myself from high altitude sun – a more real concern as one gets older.
- Originally I carried long underwear tops – the old poly ones that look terrible and quickly developed a permanent funky smell.
- Later I switched a very light El Cap zip turtle-neck from The North Face.
- More recently I picked up a Mountain Hardwear long sleeve shirt made of what I’d describe as cycling jersey fabric. It has ripstop at strategic points: in back against the pack and on portions of the arms.
- Until recently I used a mid-weight zip turtleneck from The North Face. It is a great piece of gear, though other alternatives have proven a bit more effective for backpacking.
- A Marmot windshirt has largely replaced this layer. It is just as warm and more versatile, especially for trips away from camp where it provides adequate wind protection.
- In late 2003 I found a cheap price on a Mountain Hardware Conduit SL waterproof/breathable windshirt on the closeout rack at REI. It is a great piece and is sufficiently waterproof for day hikes – though it won’t replace a waterproof shell for backpacking.
- I used to take army surplus wool pants. They are cheap and work well. However, they are heavy and they tend to smell, well, wooly. (They also have the advantage – or disadvantage, depending upon circumstance – of making you look like a ranger, especially if you wear button-down work shirts. People regularly offered to let me check their wilderness permits in the days when I wore wool pants and a khaki work shirt.)
- More recently I have tended toward a pair of very light cycling-style tights worn under shorts (for sun protection as much as warmth) and a slightly warmer pair of tights for evenings and cold weather.
- I now have a pair of Cloudveil soft-shell pants that I got on sale – they use Scholler “extreme” fabric that is stretchy, warm, wind and water resistant. They are wonderful for fall and winter but I don’t generally take them on summer trips since they are a bit heavier than I need.
- I also own a pair of lightweight REI soft-shell pants. They are good for summer situations where I am likely to wear long pants most of the time, though I find the material a bit scratchy. Unless you insist on wearing shorts – and I do less and less – a pair of lightweight softshell pants plus a set of light long underwear should work in most conditions.
- In December 2004 I picked up a pair of Caber Hybrid pants from The North Face on sale. These high-tech multi-fabric pants fit somewhere between “normal” pants and breathable/waterproof shells (see below) and are most useful worn over long underwear for skiing and similar winter activities. In other words, they are rarely practical for backpacking.
- I now wear the ubiquitous convertible pants with the zip-off legs that seem so popular on the trail alternating between versions from REI and Mountain Hardwear. Being more concerned about sun protection these days, I rarely remove the legs to turn them into shorts – but this feature is also useful for getting pants legs out of the way when I have to wade creeks.
– I used to always hike in shorts, but these days I’m more likely to wear long pants. Chalk it up to aging skin that is less tolerant of high altitude sun.
- I used to use baggy Gramicci cotton shorts. They are pretty durable and extremely comfortable.
- When I use shorts these days I take baggy and very lightweight poly shorts from The North Face. I may even toss them in the pack “just in case” since they are so light – and they give me something to wear on laundry days.
– poly fabric. Boxers or briefs? That is a question only you can answer. Fortunately, backpacking provides plenty of time for pondering such weighty imponderables. ;-) Update 2006: OK, I’ve pondered long enough. For backpacking I use the boxer-like (though they fit more like cycling shorts) polypro underwear from REI. I’ve found that they reduce the chance of chaffing under long pants – and, trust me, that is a Good Thing on a long pack trip.
- Long underwear
– Bottoms only (though see my notes above regarding long sleeve poly shirts.) In the Sierra Nevada, during summer at least, many people may not need long underwear at all. However, I often bring a light set to reinforce lightweight long pants in the evening chill or, more critically, to stretch the lower temperature limit of a lightweight sleeping bag. This may may also help keep your sleeping bag a bit cleaner. The heavy weight versions are overkill in typical backpacking conditions.
– there are so many choices here that it is hard to pick one… so I don’t pick one – I have a number of choices:
- I have frequently taken an Arc’teryx Delta lightweight fleece jacket. It has a well-executed basic design without a lot of frills. I like it a lot.
- Sometimes I add a very light fleece vest (currently a basic one from REI) if the weather will be cool.
- I also have a heavier Marmot fleece jacket with all the extras: lots of pockets, pit-zips, etc. Because of the extra weight and larger stuffed size I’m afraid I have relegated it to The Closet Of Gear For Loan.
- I surrendered to gear lust recently and bought the softshell Vector Thermal Jacket from The North Face. This is really pretty much a cold weather jacket since it is heavier than “normal” fleece, but it is quite water and wind repellent – a great jacket for skiing, but too heavy and bulky for backpacking.
- I have an old Sierra Designs pile jacket that is very nice – though not likely available anymore. It has reinforced shoulders but is otherwise pretty basic. Pile seems to loft more than fleece per unit of weight, so might use it under a shell in winter conditions.
- In really cold weather I have used my ancient Sierra Designs down jacket with detachable hood. Nothing beats down for light weight, insulation, and compressibility. (The durability of this jacket is a double-edged sword. While the long useful life of this peice of equipment is testimony to the value of buying quailty gear, I’m beginning to wish the darn thing would wear out so that I could justify getting something newer. This jacket has lasted nearly 30 years!)
- Recently (fall 2004) I succumbed (yet again) to an acute case of gear lust (and gave up waiting for the death of the Sierra Designs jacket). I purchased the Western Mountaineering Flight Jacket. This minimalist down jacket weighs only 10 ounces (!) – and replaces the light fleece jacket and light fleece vest and wind shirt I often carry. It is astonishingly light but demands extra care since the material is so thin. Update 2006: In practice this is an excellent piece of gear. Most of the time I don’t need it, but it is great for cool fall evenings and for getting up at 5:00 a.m. to photograph the (freezing) dawn.
- I now also own the Patagonia Micro Puff jacket. What a great piece of gear! It packs small, is more tolerant of moisture than down, and provides decent warmth – though not as much as my down jacket. I use it mostly on day hikes, though it could replace the light down jacket for pack trips – a friend of mine uses it for just that purpose and is quite pleased with it.
- Many years ago I owned a Frostline goose down vest. (If you recognize that brand, welcome to the ranks of backpacking geezers!) Some people still use down vests, but they aren’t for me. They seem like too much insulation for something that doesn’t warm your arms at all. In addition I treat vests very casually and I’m afraid that the down version wouldn’t stand up to my abuse. However, there is a Western Mountaineering vest version of my Flight Jacket that is extremely light.
- I have a rather thin but wind-resistant REI fleece vest that is about the right combination of light weight and a bit of extra warmth – and it is cheap and durable. I find it useful to add just a bit of torso warmth without adding a lot of weight or bulk.
- The Patagonia Puffball and the more recent Micro Puff vests look interesting. They use a synthetic fill and weigh about the same as the lightest down vests. The Micro Puff saves weight by foregoing “frills” like a zipper and pockets. Update: At some point I saw a Puffball vest on sale – I have an eye for these things – and picked it up. Another great piece of Patagonia gear! (I don’t own a lot of Patagonia stuff, but I have to say that every piece I have acquired has been well designed, well constructed, and functional.)
- Breathable/waterproof shell parka
– Over the years I have acquired several:
- I have a pretty serious Marmot parka made of triple-laminate GoreTex material. It is a great piece of gear, but generally a bit heavier than necessary given some of the more recent lightweight offerings. I use it in the winter or when I know I’m going to deal with significant rain.
- I also own a lighter – but less protective – Sierra Designs Peakbagger jacket. It performed well on several trips, though I feel like I have to be more careful of its lightweight fabric. In addition, I feel that the fabric is not quite fully waterproof; it has became damp inside during heavy rain – and, no, it was not sweat. (A reminder that “waterproof” is something of an imprecise term?)
- In 2005 my colleagues at De Anza College marked (celebrated?) the end of my term as Academic Senate President by getting me a Marmot Precip jacket. I’ve had a few chances to use this excellent and very light piece of gear (combined with the matching pants) since that time. It is a well constructed jacket, is very light, provides good coverage, and packs small. It seems more waterproof than the older Peakbagger, though I think it breathes less.
- Breathable/waterproof pants
– I have multiple pairs:
- I have a pair of full-zip Gore-Tex pants from REI. Full-zip pants have the advantage of allowing me tp put them on and remove them while wearing boots. They have the disadvantage of extra weight. (Some people claim leakage through the zippers, but this has not been a problem for me.) I rarely use these for backpacking any more, since I prefer to eliminate the extra weight of the full-zip pants. I do use them on day hikes and for some winter trips.
- I also own a pair of very light Sierra Designs Peakbagger pants which use a GoreTex-like material. They have short zippers and are made of somewhat fragile fabric, but they are very lightweight and they stuff small.
- As of 2006 my first-line rain pants are the Marmot pants that match my Precip jacket. (Why didn’t they put a second, inside pull on the rear pocket? One can just barely stuff the pants into the pocket, but then can’t really close the zipper due to its single pull.)
- I also have a pair of The North Face Caber Hybrid Pants, as mentioned above – useful in snow but too heavy for backpacking with the exception perhaps of true winter conditions.
– There are several different thoughts on gloves for backpacking.
- A few people don’t carry them – I didn’t when I was much younger. There are still many trips on which I carry them but don’t put them on.
- I used to carry an extremely light pair of “liner gloves.” They were just barely warm enough to take the edge off of the cold.
- Somewhat warmer and barely heavier are inexpensive fleece gloves. Pay a bit more and get better material and better (even leather) grip surfaces.
- Mittens are probably warmer for unit of weight, but this advantage is outweighed by the clumsiness factor for summer backpacking. They are great for winter.
- I own a pair of very lightweight Mountain Hardwear conduit fabric gloves which provide some degree of waterproofing at a very light weight.
- I have a pair of REI One Gloves. These well designed gloves are made of soft-shell fabric and have high-quality lightweight leather palms. I occasionally take them on pack trips, though I think the Mountain Hardwear gloves described above are better for real rain.
– wide brim to protect from high-altitude sun. As I get older, the brim gets wider.
- In my 20s I never wore a hat.
- In my 30’s I wore a cap – usually a cycling cap. I still sometimes carry such a hat to keep the rain off my glasses while relying on my parka hood in the rain.
- In my 40s I began to wear a REI backpacking hat – one of those embarrasing army-style khacki models. While somewhat effective you couldn’t pick a less attractive hat. I’m currently using a wide brimmed cotton hat from Nordic Gear (see photo at right) which provides great sun protection. (Yeah, I’m older than 40 now… ;-) Although it is a bit on the heavy side, being constructed of heavyweight cotton material, it also survives abuse including being rolled up inside my pack at times. Its wide brim is a bit longer in back and it drops down to provide extra neck protection. It has a long adjustable chin strap that can be tossed behind my head when I want it out of the way, or tightened down securely in windy conditions. If I have one quibble about this hat, besides the weight, it is that I can’t really wear it under the hood of my parka to keep rain off of my glasses.
- I also own an OR Seattle Sombrero Goretex hat. (Photo at right.) This is a very well designed and useful piece of gear. In light to medium rain I prefer it over using a parka hood since it does not restrict vision or movement. The sides of the had can be velcroed up “Aussie-style” though I rarely bother. As nice as this hat is, I would rarely carry it on a pack trip unless I was expecting rain – as I was on a trip over Chilkoot Pass in Alaska a few years back. In summer Sierra conditions – meaning warm to hot – it falls short as an all-round hat because it isn’t breathable enough.
- Stocking cap or fleece cap
- I like my Gore Windstopper fleece cap. My current favorite is the infamous Dome Perginon model from Mountain Hardwear.
- I have also used a The North Face model that has ear flaps and a neck strap for extra warmth.
- Recently I picked up a very lightweight Mountain Hardwear cap that will save a bit of weight in my pack.
– I have changed my tune here recently:
- I have long used (and still use when appropriate) heavy “mountain boots” that can handle anything but weigh a ton. My current pair are from Vasque and are designed to take crampons. But I finally have to admit that they are not very comfortable for normal backpacking. So…
- During the last couple of seasons I have tried running shoe-type footwear with great results on shorter trips. Since they do not provide a lot of support or waterproofness, I restrict their use to shorter, less-rough trips in weather that is likely to stay dry. Current favorites are Merrell Reflex shoes. I’ve managed to use up a few pairs of the low-top model, and I now also own a pair of the mid-height Goretex version. I find the low ones more comfortable – the mid height model has a bit of a sloppy fit, at least for my particular feet. I use them in the winter, however, for day hiking. Compared to “normal” hikng boots, this type of shoe wears out considerably faster. (I once finally had to simply throw out an old pair of leather Pivetta boots that refused to die.) I rarely get more than a season of use out of this type of shoe. The tread pattern is first to go and eventually some part of the stitching often gives out. Still, it is much more comfortable to hike in this type of lightweight footwear in less-severe conditions.
- I recently acquired a pair of lightweight Asolo Gore-tex-lined boots. These are a great compromise; they combine extra stability and water-proofing with fairly light weight. They are my current first-line backpacking shoes.
- Heavy Socks
– I like Smartwool brand. When I use the lighter shoes I go with shorter and lighter socks.
- Light Socks
– I wear liner socks even with the lighter shoes. Cycling socks make decent liners when using shorter hiking socks.
- Extra Shoes for camp
– currently a well-beaten pair of sandals. I generally only take them on longer trips, especially if I’m wearing my heavy boots. On short trips with lighter footgear I save weight by leaving them home. I’m more inclined to take them if I know I’ll be crossing streams. Recently I picked up a pair of inexpensive Teva footwear designed for use in creeks.
– or not, or wear shorts.
- Dark glasses
– you’d be crazy not to take them on high altitude trips.
- Extra glasses
– I don’t want to be caught without prescription glasses so I carry an old pair as a backup.
- Glasses cases
– hard cases
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