Submitted By: Allison Strauss, Annual Adventure Maven
Excitement is building around Wild Wilderness Women’s backpacking trips this summer. For some, it will be their first such expedition, potentially mixing in nervousness with the excitement and raising many questions.
When someone else is doing the planning, the area you have the most control over before a backpacking trip is what you’ll wear. The clothes you bring will affect your comfort, and therefore how great a time you have. So discussing clothing seems like a good place to start in building first-timers’ confidence, whether you’re coming with us this summer or preparing for your own walk on the wild side.
First, put REI out of your mind. But everything’s so cool! Says the excited You. But everything’s so expensive! Says the nervous You. Tell them both that those cool and expensive things are variations on just a few necessities. Over time, the backpacking wardrobe has been honed down to a standard set that applies anywhere in the continental U.S. This guide will “unpack” that set, sharing its reasoning and its options.
1) Synthetic Underwear
Backpacking clothes are all about materials. Underwear should be made of some kind of synthetic (polyester, nylon, etc.). It wicks sweat, dries quickly, and minimizes odor. We tend to think of cotton underwear as the ultimate in comfort, but cotton is banned in backpacking, because it gets wet, stays wet, and smells. The cotton ban is particularly relevant for underwear, to prevent yeast infections. That said, I backpacked in cotton underwear for years and never got a yeast infection. The aim of this guide is to impart an attitude of intentionality, not fatalism.
–How many pairs?
One for each day, plus one or two extras. No need to get radical on your first trip!
2) Sports Bra
No complicated straps or plastic bits that might dig into you.
3) Wool Hiking Socks
The thick toughness of these socks is absolutely necessary to keep your feet from blistering. And wool wicks moisture, which also keeps your feet from blistering.
–How many pairs?
As with underwear, there’s no need to go radical here. It’s more important not to get athlete’s foot. For short trips, you might as well bring a pair for each day. For trips of five days or more—not that you should be doing that your first trip–I’d say a pair for every two days.
Note: Some backpackers are firm believers in liner socks–specialty thin socks worn under wool socks to reduce friction. I haven’t found they make any difference, so I say one less thing you have to buy. You can always try them in the future if you get into backpacking.
4) Sacred Socks
Many backpackers bring a pair of comfy, warm socks just to sleep in. So they stay clean, these “sacred socks” are usually packed in the bottom of the sleeping bag and never leave there.
5) Camp Sandals/Shoes
Lightweight footwear to give your tootsies a rest from hiking boots. Many backpackers bring Teva-style sandals they can wear over their socks. Backless sandals or shoes are discouraged.
6) Knit or Fleece Gloves
7) Knit or Fleece Hat
8) Sun Hat
Baseball, bucket, or safari style, so long as it can be stuffed in your backpack.
Rigid hats like those made of felt or straw are discouraged for two reasons. 1) The stiff brim in the back may bump against your backpack and drive you crazy. 2) The only thing to do with a rigid hat if you don’t feel like wearing it is to strap/tie it to your backpack. I encourage minimizing the number of things on the outside of your pack to keep items from getting damaged, tangled, or lost. This will also make it easier to pull on a pack cover if it rains.
9) Thermal Top and Bottoms
Think of thermals as your second skin. Their job is to insulate. Many backpackers sleep in their thermals.
Thermals come in silk, synthetic, and wool. Synthetic is ideal for backpacking, as silk can be too delicate for long-term use and wool can be too hot. But if you already own either silk or wool thermals, no need to run out and buy synthetic.
Note: Most of the folks in the photo above are wearing gaiters, those sheaths around their lower legs. Gaiters have stirrups that go around your hiking boots, keeping snow, sand, pebbles, etc. out of the boots. But I haven’t found them to make much of a difference, and am more comfortable without them. Unless your trip leader advises gaiters because of specific conditions, I’d say this is another item you can skip for a first trip, and test out on future ones.
10) Hiking Pants
These don’t have to be explicitly for hiking. Check the thrift stores! What you’re looking for is a tough material and a comfortable fit. Consider whether they’ll protect your legs if you’re pushing your way through bushes. You should be able to wear thermal bottoms underneath.
Note: Seriously, check the thrift stores. I’ve found Helly Hansen pants and Marmot shorts, both with the tags still on. And you’d be surprised at all the North Face jackets.
11) Hiking Shorts
These do not have to be explicitly for hiking either. Take them for a walk to make sure they don’t chafe or ride up between your thighs. Leave the shorts at home from late fall to early spring.
Note: Pants that zip into shorts are great!
12) Synthetic T-Shirts
I used to make a cotton exception with t-shirts and you can too. But I noticed a B.O. improvement when I switched to synthetic, and the armpits don’t get holes with wear. Invisible mesh gives great breathability. Swab with an anti-static dryer sheet before your trip.
I’d say 1 shirt for every 3 or 4 days. If that means only one shirt for the length of the trip (as it probably will on your first), then bring an extra in case you spill hot chocolate down your front.
Note: Lots of women wear tank tops backpacking, but to give yourself the best shot at comfort (and therefore an enjoyable trip), I’d advise against tank tops, to minimize risk of your backpack straps from rubbing your shoulders. You can try tanks the next time, once you’ve decided you like backpacking come what may. Bring a t-shirt in case it doesn’t work out.
13) Fleece or Compressible Down Jacket
14) Fleece Pants
Wear over thermal bottoms at night and/or to sleep. Leave them at home in the summer.
15) Fleece or Compressible Down Vest
If you bring a fleece vest, you should be able to wear a fleece or down jacket over it. If you bring a down vest, you should be able to wear a fleece jacket under it. (No point in bringing a down vest and down jacket, since they can’t be effectively layered.) Think of yourself as a matrioshka doll—everything’s got to nest. Leave the vest at home in the summer.
16) Rain Jacket and Pants
These should be shells, meaning not lined with any sort of insulation. That way they’ll be comfortable if you need rain or wind protection but aren’t cold. Make sure they are marked Waterproof, that they’re not just windbreakers. These are your outermost layers and should fit over everything.
17) Hiking Boots
If you haven’t hiked in hiking boots before, or have not owned a pair you really liked, go to an outdoors store and try on an assortment of boots with a shoe department clerk. Tell him/her about the trip you’re going on. As you test different boots, describe what you’re feeling so the clerk can steer you in the right direction. Don’t be shy about taking however much time is needed and making the clerk go back and forth to the stockroom. (Go at a slow business time if possible.) If the clerk is pushing a boot that you don’t think is right, don’t settle for it just because (s)he is more familiar with boots. They’re your feet, and this is your big-money item in the backpacker’s wardrobe.
Before your trip, take your new boots for a hike or some walks on a dirt path. (Avoid wearing them down on concrete as much as possible) This will mold them to your feet and make them uniquely yours!
- Intentionality, not fatalism.
- Synthetics and wool are your friends. Cotton is banned.
- Lightweight and compressible.
- Be a matrioshka doll. Make sure your layers actually nest.
- Check the thrift stores.
- Set your feet up for success.
See you in the backcountry!