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Best Backpacking Clothing System: How to Layer and Pack

Best Backpacking Clothing System FlipFuel

By Eric Flottmann

Have you been thinking through your backpacking clothing system for upcoming backpacking trips?

Before the packing even begins, I always remind my hiking group and other wilderness backpackers: People pack their fears. Meaning: if someone thinks they are going to be cold, they will pack too much clothing. If someone thinks they are going to be hungry on the trail, they will pack too much food.

The phrase brings awareness to our personal tendencies and can help determine: Is this item necessary or is it too much?

Now, on to the packing.

Kit Shakedown Series: Your Backpacking Clothing and Pack

This blog post covers how to create a simple and effective layer system. In other words, we’re talking about the clothing that should be in your pack and on your back.

My strategy would be considered “somewhat lightweight” as opposed to “ultra lightweight.” I usually keep my pack around 30lbs, including food, clothing and sleeping pad. This layer system doesn’t include a change of pants/shirt or extra running shorts. I often use this system for four-day trips, but it could certainly be used for section hiking or other long-distance hiking trails.

We’ll cover other backpacking systems — sleep system, best backpacking stove setup and so on — in future posts in our kit shakedown series.

Backpacking Clothing Base Layers

Your base layer is the clothing that will be worn closest to your skin. It will be a key piece of dry clothing that will keep you warm at night. It functions as pajamas in pretty much all weather.

What type of material should be used for your base layer? I like to use a lightweight, moisture-wicking Capilene® long sleeve top and bottom.

Where should your base layer be kept? The base layer should be kept in your pack. It’s important not to hike in your base layer. Repeat: Do not hike in your base layer.

Why? Even if it’s really cold out, hiking is going to make you sweaty. Sweaty equals wet. You may also experience rain or snow while hiking. This also gets you wet.

This layer needs to stay dry. In addition to providing comfort, it’s always important to have dry clothing to change into for health and safety reasons.

When to use it? Your base layer is best used after you’re done hiking for the day, hanging around your campsite and/or going to bed.

flipfuel backpacking clothing system the enchantments

The group hiking the Enchantments in Washington.

Backpacking the Enchantments: Base-Layer Lessons Learned

We went on a trip years back to the Enchantments. Our group backpacked the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area of Washington state's Cascade Mountain Range, and we’re talking elevation gains of nearly 5,000 feet over several days.

In other words, the trek was cold, wet and pretty demanding. (It was also a trip of a lifetime.)

As we made camp later that evening, we discovered one of the hikers in our group made the mistake of wearing his base layer to hike that day. The sun started going down and the snow kicked up.

He had nothing dry in his backcountry backpack. We were at the top of this mountain and in a moment of panic. Fortunately, someone in our group had an extra dry layer to loan him.

Worse-case scenario? He could’ve also jumped in his sleeping bag and been fine. That said, these are the trade-offs you don’t want to have to think through at the top of a snowy mountain late at night.

Backpacking Clothing Mid Layer: Fleece

Your mid layer is the layer of clothing that can be hiked in during the day and can go over your base layer at night.

What type of material should be used for your mid layer? My favorite is a water-repellent fleece. One with a hood is even better. Mine weighs about 10 ounces.

This one is similar to the one I carry with me, but any technical fleece should work great. Columbia, Patagonia, REI co op, Outdoor Research Helium etc. all offer perfectly good options. [Please note: No affiliate links here.]

Something to keep in mind when making material selections? Cotton kills. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet.

This can actually be helpful when hiking in the Arizona desert during summer months. That 110+-degree heat? Dip an item of cotton clothing in some water and wear it while hiking to help keep you cool.

In most other instances, however, a wet cotton mid-layer can be detrimental. This is especially true when hiking in colder weather. A fleece mid-layer with wicking properties is going to be a much better bet.

Clothing Considerations: Start Your Day Out Cold

Weather certainly plays a role in clothing decision-making. And if you’ve done enough hiking — section hikes, thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, even weekend backpacking trips — you know weather in the backcountry can change quickly and often.

So, another piece of old hiker advice is: Start your day out cold.

As soon as you start moving, you’re going to get hot. It’s the case whether you’re skiing or hiking in 40-degree-and-below weather. Once you stop moving, though, it may be time to layer up again. Your body temperature could begin to drop once you land at your campsite.

“Start your day out cold” can help you determine the type of material for your mid-layer hiking clothes and also how many layers you will choose to wear while hiking or performing your day’s activity.

Backpacking Layer: Hiking Socks Strategy

For me, a Capilene® base layer and fleece work for pretty much every kind of trip. Another go-to strategy? Two pairs of socks.

I wear a pair of socks. I carry a pair of socks. That’s it.

On the rare occasion that it’s going to be a super wet excursion, I might pack a second pair of socks with my backpacking gear. But that has only happened a handful of times. Two pairs total is almost always enough.

Which material to choose for backpacking socks? I always carry a Merino wool sock. My go-to is from the Smartwool® brand, which are 66% merino wool, 25% recycled nylon, 8% nylon, and 1% elastane.

If it gets wet, it’s going to dry out quick. For those multi-day hikes, I may do a quick river rinse of the socks in my pack. It’s an easy way to freshen them up a bit. But the sock material makes all the difference here.

Important note: I only rinse one pair. You always want to have at least one dry pair of socks. It’s a big safety thing.

More specifically, you want to keep your sleep socks dry. That’s a must-have.

Let’s say, for example, it’s super rainy or we have to do a bunch of creek-crossings that day. I get into camp later that night and my socks are completely soaked. I’m changing into my dry socks to sleep.

If I wake up the next day and yesterday’s hiking socks are still wet? I’m putting those wet socks back on to hike. This ensures that I keep my sleep socks dry. Obviously hiking in wet socks is not ideal, but having dry socks for nighttime is a non-negotiable.

Backpacking Clothing Top Layer: Rain Shell

I always pack a rain jacket even if there’s no chance of rain. This waterproof top layer is protective of your other layers and helps ensure a safe and enjoyable backpacking trip.

I rarely pack traditional rain pants. Instead, I prefer waxed canvas pants. It’s old-school tech, but it keeps me warm and dry.

When to use your rain shell? Anything more than misty weather, I’m breaking out my waterproof top layer. A fleece can withstand a bit of mist. But this is one of those instances when it’s better to be safe than sorry.

It’s better to get it out and on over your other layers than scrambling as a mist quickly turns into a downpour.

Backpacking Layer Add-ons for Cold Weather

It’s also important to layer up before you start to get cold. It’s easier to stay warm than to warm yourself back up if your body temperature already dropped. Here are some additional layers to help you stay in front of it.

  • Beanie: A beanie is a great option for almost any backpacking trip. A warm hat provides all kinds of benefits, such as maintaining body warmth and adding another sun protective layer.

  • Insulation layer: This goes on top of a mid-layer top or fleece. I carry a hooded puffy jacket that is super warm and packs down into a small package. Keep in mind your insulator layer — in my case, a puffy jacket — might not be waterproof.

  • Gloves: These might be leather or fleece depending on the environment. Leather gloves are useful when trekking through overgrown brush, for grabbing firewood or when holding on to cables on a mountainside. They protect your fingers from potential damage. Fleece gloves protect your hands from the cold.

  • Fleece pant: This would be considered a mid-layer pant. These aren’t hiking pants. A fleece pant stays in your pack and you pull it out when it’s hella cold.

Example? At our highest camp while backcountry camping Glacier National Park, it got down in the low 20s. That night I slept in my base layer, hooded fleece top with a fleece pant and tucked myself into a quilt. I slept great — warm and toasty.

Be sure to stay tuned for other backpacking systems in our kit shakedown series, which will cover things like why I choose a quilt for my sleep system and what’s the best backpacking stove system. We’ll also be covering what to wear backpacking in the desert and hot weather in an upcoming piece.  

Backcountry Tips

As a recap, here are some good go-tos when thinking through your backpacking clothing and packing.

  • People pack their fears.

  • Do not hike in your base layer.

  • Cotton kills.

  • Start your day out cold.

Do you have other helpful packing phrases that should be on this list? Share with us on Instagram at @FlipFuel.

FlipFuel backpacking clothing system about eric flottmann

About Eric Flottmann

Eric, FlipFuel co-founder, is an Arizona adventure-seeker and technology entrepreneur. He’s hiked some of the desert’s most iconic trails, including Aravaipa Canyon and the Grand Canyon. Other backpacking favorites? West Clear Creek Wilderness in Coconino National Forest, the Enchantments in Washington, Glacier National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park.

You’ll often find Eric leading the way on outdoor adventures. He teaches young scouts — including his two kids — outdoor skills and more as a leader for Scouts BSA and the Girl Scouts of the USA. Read more about Eric and the outdoors.

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