Struggling to figure out what to wear for a backpacking trip? Here is my backpacking clothing guide to help you out!
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Guide to Choosing Clothing for Backpacking
The right clothing is super important when backpacking. Clothing that fits well and is meant for trip conditions can make a trip ten times better while clothing that actively bothers you can be a trip ruiner. It’s important to have moisture-wicking clothing that fits well and doesn’t chafe.
Make sure you are tailoring your clothing to the expected weather conditions and remember – better to bring it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
In this post, I’ve listed out clothing I take backpacking and why it’s my favorite! At the very end of the post, I also included some example packing lists from real trips I’ve been on. Where I could, I included multiple retailers where you could buy each item. I recommend taking into account each retailer’s return policy, pricing, membership programs, and commitment to the outdoors when purchasing!
If you’re struggling to figure out what clothing to wear backpacking, read on!
As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out on an adventure!
Comprehensive Guide to Choosing Backpacking Clothing
Backpacking Clothing Guide – Bottoms
My favorite hiking shorts are the Kuhl Freeflex shorts, but there are a ton of options for great shorts. I personally look for shorts that are long enough so my thighs don’t rub together but are lightweight and have pockets (for snacks)! If you want a rundown of some of the best shorts for hiking, check out my post here!
If it’s too cold for shorts or if you prefer pants, my favorite hiking pants are the Patagonia travelers pants! They are super comfortable, have pockets, and are actually flattering. They are not the warmest pant, so if you’re headed out in colder weather, you may need to layer over or under them.
Looking for more backpacking gear tips? Check out my comprehensive guide to backpacking gear here!
Backpacking Clothing Guide – Tops
Picking a shirt that is comfortable is super important, because you will be wearing it for a LONG TIME on backpacking trips. I’ve found one shirt that work well for backpacking the Lululemon Swiftly Tech Tee. It is moisture wicking, doesn’t smell bad even after days, and I barely notice that I’m wearing it. I will say that after some continuous wear, it’s looking a little worn so I am in the market for something a bit longer lasting!
Long Sleeve Shirt
Even when it’s hot, I like to pack a long sleeve sun hoodie that has SPF protection. I prefer a hoodie because having a hood cover my face and neck helps with insects, sweat, and reducing sunburn! My current favorite is my Smartwool hoodie. In cooler weather, I’d recommend a warmer base layer.
Backpacking Clothing Guide – Weather Specific Gear
If you’re here because you also live in Western Pennsylvania, you know it rains a LOT. I always bring my rain jacket backpacking even if the forecast is 100% clear because you just never know. My rain jacket doubles as an extra warm layer if it’s not raining. If the forecast looks like it’s going to rain, I’ll also throw in my rain pants!
Warm Top Layer
My preferred warm layer is my Patagonia Better Sweater quarter zip. It’s super warm. It is a bit heavier than some backpacking-specific layers, but it works for me! I almost always sleep in this during colder nights on the trail.
A puffy is a must when backpacking in the colder weather. They are absolutely worth their weight. I really love the Patagonia Nano Puff jacket. I’ve had mine for about five years (even before I got into hiking) and it has held up really well. It absolutely saved me from freezing my butt off on my trip to Quebec Run last year when the overnight temps dropped into the 30’s!
I always wear a hat when backpacking! For sunny days, a baseball cap projects my face from sun damage and for cold days, a beanie helps keep my heat in. And both hats keep my dirty hair out of my face! I also like to sleep in a beanie as it keeps my head warm and I can pull it over my eyes to keep any light out. While a regular baseball cap would work just fine for most, I have a very small head and like a smaller, more lightweight cap.
Backpacking Clothing Guide – Shoes and Socks
I’ve talked about this a million times but I prefer trail runners to hiking boots. I would rather forego the ankle support and have less weight on my foot since it adds up over the miles. This is strategy that has helped me hike a lot of miles even after a leg injury forced me to not walk for a month,
My tried and true trail runners are the Topo Terraventures. They have a wide toe-box which limits blisters and they are so comfortable. They dry quickly when wet and I always feel like I have great traction on even the most slippery terrain.
Camp shoes can be a point of contention among people who want a lighter pack. The best feeling of the day is taking off my hiking shoes at camp, so camp shoes are a requirement for me. I usually bring my Crocs, as they are super lightweight, easy to slip on and off, and easy to clean. I just got Birkenstock EVAs which might make an appearance on trail next year as they are thinner so easier to clip to my pack.
Almost nothing is more important than picking the correct socks. While shoe fit is vital, having comfortable socks is also an important factor in keeping feet healthy and reducing blisters and hot spots. Socks are a super personal item and what works for me may be completely wrong for you. Thankfully, socks are relatively cheap enough that it’s easy to grab a couple of brands and try each of them on shorter hikes. I’ve listed some of my favorite sock brands below!
Backpacking Clothing Guide – Undergarments & Misc
There is no better bra for hiking than Branwyn. I’ve tested this bra for four months straight and it is the perfect bra. It does not smell (even after four days of hiking). It is super easy to hand wash and dries quickly. I used this bra hiking, kayaking, white water rafting, and backpacking this summer and it held up every time. I highly recommend splurging on this bra, because you only need one for multiple days in a row.
It was HARD to find good underwear for backpacking. I really like the REI branded underwear because it’s so light and takes a couple days to smell bad. They are super easy to wash out, so I also love them for travel. Branwyn underwear is probably my second favorite hiking underwear.
Again, this might be considered a luxury to some, but I like to bring an extra pair of light shorts and a clean t-shirt to sleep in. After using baby wipes to clean off, slipping into some sleep clothes almost makes you feel clean (…almost).
I’m not going to add any links because you should have some at home!
Looking for backpacking trips? Check out my post on Best Backpacking in Western PA!
FAQs about Backpacking Clothing
Everything is so expensive! Where can I find clothes for cheaper?
Yes, unfortunately good quality backpacking clothing and gear is expensive! However, a lot of it is super good quality that holds up really well, so the secondhand market is a great place to try. I have a comprehensive list of places to get gear for less in my post on how to get hiking gear on a budget!
How do I know how many layers to bring for backpacking?
Check the weather, and then plan for the worst. I like to look at the planned temperatures for my hike and think “would I be ok if it is 10 degrees colder than what it says?” “What about if it rains?” This way I can think through if I need to bring more to ensure I am not wet and/or cold.
I also recommend that whatever you want to wear backpacking, you try on a long day hike first. This way you can test your gear before you’re stuck in the woods with it for multiple days in a row!
How should people dress for backpacking?
This is up to you and is different from person to person! I am someone who gets very cold very easily, so I am more likely to pack more layers for a good experience.
Generally, I would say that you should pick clothes that are comfortable, moisture-wicking, and don’t chafe. Layers are key because sometimes there can be huge temperature changes in the backcountry! But as always, test your gear on a long day hike before committing!
Should I bring different clothes to sleep in for backpacking?
This is subjective. For anything three nights and under, I bring a different set of clothes – usually sleep shorts and a sleep shirt made of cotton or something else comfortable. For trips longer than three days, I will bring a sleep shirt and sleep shorts that I can also wear hiking the last day or two.
Do you bring a change of clothes when backpacking? How many sets of clothes should I bring backpacking?
Again, this totally changes person to person and also can depend on how comfortable you are carrying pack weight and/or being stuck in the same clothes for a long time. See below for my example packing lists for different length trips in different climates!
Example Packing Lists
To help guide you, I’ve created a couple of different packing lists based on real trip conditions I’ve encountered.
Here’s what I pack for a four day backpacking trip in the summer with no extended rain in the forecast:
- Two shirts – one for hiking the first two-three days and the second for sleeping, then hiking
- Two pairs of shorts – same logic as above
- Two bras
- Two pairs of quick dry underwear
- Four pairs of socks – I like to change socks every day to keep my feet clean
- One rain jacket
- One warmer top item – I like bringing my Patagonia three quarter zip
Here’s what I packed for a two day, one night backpacking trip in the early spring with temps ranging from 50’s during the day down into the mid 30’s at night:
- Two shirts – one for hiking and the second for sleeping
- One long sleeve
- One pair of pants
- One pair of long underwear (generally for sleeping, but can use to put under my pants if it gets very cold)
- One bra
- One pair of quick dry underwear
- Two pairs of socks – one for hiking and an extra warm pair for sleeping
- One quarter zip
- One puffy jacket
- One warm hat
- One pair of gloves
- One rain jacket
Note that most of these items are on my body when I take off – I only pack one extra of most things other than socks. But again, these choices are personal and are definitely going to take some testing on day hikes and shorter trips to find out what works best for you!
Final Thoughts on Choosing Clothing for Backpacking
As I have mentioned many times in this post, gear is totally subjective. PLEASE make sure to try before you buy if you can to make sure your gear works well for YOU. I recommend taking whatever you buy for backpacking on a long day hike to see how your body reacts to wearing it for a long time, especially when dirty or sweaty!
Did I forget anything that you think is vital? Let me know in the comments and enjoy your adventures!
Updated November 2023