Dressing Appropriately

This is part 4 of a multi-part series on backpacking equipment

  1. Portable Backcountry Shelters
  2. Staying Warm At Night In the Woods
  3. Fueling the Furnace
  4. Dressing Appropriately
  5. All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack
  6. And, Finally, What To Put It All In
  7. An Example Gear List

The first time I took off to spend a few nights in the backcountry I figured that it would be good enough just to wear some warm outdoor clothes topped off by a set of rain gear just in case.  I wore jeans and a flannel shirt along with a spare set, a change of underwear and socks for every day, an old warm coat and a new set of rain gear from the local department store.  It’s actually a wonder that I ever went out again.  Of course it rained pretty much the whole time I was out.  Four days in the back country and I was dry for about the first 10 minutes.  I have learned a lot about dressing for the woods in the years since then and can hopefully help you with it some.

Clothes for the Trail
My garb for the trail has changed considerably over the years.  Now I wear a pair of lightweight pants with zip off legs and built-in mesh briefs, an old long sleeve running shirt, a lightweight pair of socks and a pair of trail runners equipped with Dirty Girl gaiters.  If appropriate I will also wear a floppy wide brimmed hat for rain or sun, an eVent coat or poncho for the rain, and a second shirt and gloves if cold enough.

All of these clothing items are lightweight, synthetic and dry quickly, unlike slow drying cotton.  And I will wear them every day while out on the trail.  If it is warm enough and I find a convenient lake or stream I might wash them, along with me, and then wear them dry.  But since I am outside and moving along the trail there is seldom any issue with the smell, at least for me.

I used to hit the trail in shorts and a tee shirt, and would then change when I got to camp and/or got cold or bug eaten.  But now I generally walk with my legs and arms covered and don’t bother with the shorts and tee.  It’s not really that much, if any warmer; I don’t have to carry the extra clothes; my legs don’t get scratched up; and I have built in bug and sun protection without lotions.  And if, for some reason, I need shorts, I can just zip off the pant legs.
I will generally keep a light coat easily accessible while on the trail to use while at lunch or on a break.  Slipping into a coat when it is cool and you are not longer generating as much heat can be very nice, especially if the wind is blowing much.

Boot or Shoes?
For many years I hiked in heavy boots with big thick wool socks.  Mostly because it was what one was supposed to wear.  I would waterproof them before each trip hoping to keep my feet dry, but it was always a futile effort.  If it was wet out my boots and feet eventually became wet and my boots took at least a day to dry out.  I hardly ever got blisters but my feet were seldom happy.  They just did not like being entombed in boots all day long.A couple of years ago I went out with an old pair of running shoes and lighter ankle socks.  My feet felt so much better, and I found I could just walk through pretty much any stream or mud hole without concern for keeping my feet dry.  They would get wet and cold (which actually felt good), would be gooshy for a few minutes and then they were back to normal.  Even though my feet were wet, I couldn’t tell it while walking.  I have put in 400-500 miles over the past couple of years in running shoes and never regretted it.

Last year I spent some time wearing Vibram Five Fingers, the KSO Treks.  I like wearing them, and run in them all the time.  But walking a trail was a different story.  With very little in the way of sole I have to be pretty careful where I step.  If I get a sharp rock into my arch it can really hurt.  I can do OK early in the day when I am fresh and willing to carefully watch the trail, but as the day goes on, or I get tied of keeping such a close watch on where I place my feet, I begin to long for a heavier sole between my tender feet and the rocks.  I have not given up on them yet, but I am not sure they will ever be my backcountry shoe of choice.

This year I have bought a pair of Brooks TrueGrit trail runners.  At about 22 ounces for size 14, they are not much heavier that the KSO’s but they have a pretty substantial sole.  I like them so far but have not yet had them out on the trail.

One of the bonus features of wearing running shoes is that there is really no reason to consider bringing along a pair of camp shoes.  With boots I always looked forward to getting them off and putting on something more comfortable.  Now I wear the comfortable shoes all day long.

I still carry an extra pair of socks and try to change them out every few hours.  It really seems to help keep my feet happier, getting them out in the air for a few minutes and then back into dry socks.  Even better if there is a stream to soak them in for a while.

Rain Gear
Rain gear has always been a challenge for me.  If I am walking unprotected n the rain I get wet.  But I seem to get nearly as wet wearing most rain gear.  The only real advantage of one over the other is that inside a coat at least the wet is warm.

If it is raining I prefer to walk with a poncho covering me and my pack.  And for just sitting around in the rain watching a river flow by a poncho is unbeatable.  But it is less great when trying to do something around camp.  It just seems always to be getting in the way.  I have found that tying a short line around me, like a belt, can go along way toward keeping it out of my way in camp, and sometimes on a windy trail.  The poncho vents well and does minimize the extra sweat that comes from the additional cover.

I also have a lightweight eVent coat that is great for camp type activities, but overheats on the trail and does not keep as much of me dry when sedentary.  The coat is fairly breathable and is much better than my previous Marmot PreClip coat, although a little heavier.  I usually end up taking the coat on most trips because of its warmth, but for trips where much rain is expected it is always a toss up, although more and more often the poncho stays home.   The downside to leaving the poncho home though is that I now have to give more thought to keeping my pack dry, either with an internal liner or a pack cover.

I also have a pair of Marmot PreClip pants that are nice in heavy rain or wet brush, but they seldom make it out on the trail any longer either.  The pants do not have any real insulation, but they do block the wind, and so can be very useful if the wild and cold are overwhelming the rest of my clothes.

Clothes for Bed
At night I like to cuddle up in a down cocoon.  But down and body oils are not a good mix.  So, if for no other reason, you should not sleep in the clothes you have been wearing on the trail.  It will just get your bag or quilt dirty and greasy and degrade its performance.  Having a neck to toe layer between you and your bag or quilt is ideal for keeping it clean, with the added benefit of extending its temperature rating a few degrees.I tend toward sleeping cold, and when cold I do not sleep well.  As a consequence I probably wear more clothes to bed than many folks do.  Unless it is pretty warm out at night, which is hardly ever where I generally hike, I will wear at least a pair of silk long johns, a long sleeve shirt, and a pair of Possum Down socks, none of which are ever worn while on the trail.

If it gets cold enough I can supplement that with a knit cap, gloves, down coat and pants and down booties.  The down pants and booties are not always taken but the rest of it usually is.  Did I mention that I sleep cold?

Clothes for Camp
Usually when I get into camp I am warm, and wearing the accumulated grime of the day.  I will generally set up the hammock first and then work at getting cleaned up and fed.  A swim, splash in a river/creek, or a wet wipe spit bath to cleanup followed by dressing for bed.  If bed is still more than a few minutes away, I put my pants and coat on top to keep the bed clothes clean as well as to stay warmer.  By now dinner should be ready to eat, followed by cleanup and bed.In the morning it’s up, start tearing down camp while eating breakfast, and slowly swapping out clothes as they need to go into the pack.  By the time the hammock is in the pack, I am dressed and ready for the trail.  The coat may stay on for a while until I get warm, but it will generally come off fairly quickly.

While this suits my current style of backpacking, it may not work for you if you find that you are wanting to spend more time in camp and less time on the trail.  In that case you may need some additional clothes that are a bit warmer than your hiking clothes that you can use while knocking around camp, while keeping the sleeping clothes as clean as possible.

You may also not be able to tolerate putting stinky clothes on after the third day.  If this is the case you should consider having at least a second shirt, and maybe a pair of pants, that you can wear while you wash your primary set and get them dried out a bit.  When I spent more time camped than walking, it was not uncommon to have a line stretched between two trees with a shirt or two, pants, a couple pair of socks and a towel hanging out to dry.

Final Thoughts
Dressing on the trail is something that each person has to work through for themselves.  It takes time to transition from our typical closet full of clothes and a hot shower a day to traipsing along the trail for days at a time with no real change of clothes and little in the way of hot showers.  But as you make that transition you will likely find yourself requiring fewer clothes and becoming more comfortable with accumulated layers of sweat, trail dust and squashed bugs.  Take along enough to stay warm and decent and don’t worry about what you look or smell like.  The chances of encountering an REI catalog photographer on the trail are pretty infinitesimal.  Plus, the fewer clothes you lug along, the less you have to carry every step of the way; and that’s the big pay-off.

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