One of the best things about backpacking is being free from the shackles of everyday life.
As freeing as it would be to see the world naked, you will need to take some clothes along, and you want to make sure you have the essentials so you can be prepared for anything.
What backpacking clothes do you need?
Your backpacking attire should match the season, and as a base for all weather, you’ll want a good pair of hiking shorts, a t-shirt or tank top, and comfortable and durable boots or sneakers.
In colder weather, you can add and remove layers as needed, and should account for rain, wind, cleaning schedules, and accidents that can occur along the way.
To help you get your gear in order, we’ve created the ultimate guide to backpacking clothes.
This covers all of the essentials and items you’ll need, how to pack them, and taking care of them on your travels, so you’ll be ready for anything.
Does Backpacking Require Special Clothing?
Backpacking is a general term used to describe an act of traveling light with just your backpack in tow, but there are many variations.
Regardless of the type of backpacking you choose to do, you’ll need to have the right clothing to do it in, and this usually translates to something practical and comfortable.
There’s no specific clothing that must be worn to go backpacking but rather it’s about making smart choices based on the activities you’ll be doing, what the weather will be like, and what access you’ll have to amenities.
The goal is to be comfortable on your travels but that also means choosing clothing that keeps you safe and protected and supports the physical aspect of this type of journey.
How Weather Impacts Your Choices
Before you start packing a bag for a backpacking adventure, you need to assess the weather.
This includes what season you’re currently in and what the forecasted conditions are for wherever you plan on traveling for the time that you’re there.
This season requires the least amount of clothes but still needs to be carefully planned.
During summer, you’ll want to start with something basic like shorts and a t-shirt, plus shoes, socks, and sun protection as usual.
Having a backup long-sleeved option is ideal even if you think you’ll never use it.
Winter backpacking requires a lot more thought and the risk of cold-related injuries or illnesses increases.
At all times, you need to stay warm and dry so there’s more chance of changing outfits, and you should always start with a base layer just like you do during summer backpacking.
In addition to regular clothing, you’ll want items like scarves, beanies, and gloves.
These tend to fall in between but lean more towards cooler weather than warmer and the chance of rain is higher.
Therefore, you’ll want a good base layer with some winter garments as well, and adequate protection against the rain.
The Essential List of Backpacking Clothes
Using the weather as your guide, you can start to assemble a list of must-have backpacking clothes.
These are some of the clothing basics that every backpacker needs on hand, categorized into their layers:
- Three pairs of socks: Keep one pair of socks for hiking and the other for sleeping, and a backup pair in case either of the others gets wet. With wet socks, the rest of your attire will be uncomfortable.
- Few pairs of underpants: Choose a synthetic fabric that wicks moisture or look for hiking pants that have underwear built into them. This can save time and washing but requires extra attention to keep hygiene up.
- Sports bra for women: Women should wear a supportive sports bra that’s comfortable and allows them to move freely on the trails without discomfort. Take a backup along so you can alternate days.
- Hiking shirt: A hiking shirt can be either a tank top, t-shirt, or long-sleeved shirt design. Shopping for garments made specifically for hiking is the best approach as they’re moisture-wicking, lightweight, and durable enough for these outdoor settings.
- Hiking bottoms: The bottoms you choose will depend on weather and personal preference with the most popular options being shorts, leggings, or pants. Choose garments that are labeled as hiking specific to ensure they meet the requirements and have two pairs that you can rotate.
- Hiking boots: Trail runners are the best kinds of boots for hiking because they’re supportive, comfortable, and durable. You can wear them all day without a hassle and they provide a cushioned surface to protect against even the most rugged terrain.
- Jacket or cardigan: Some form of protection against cold weather is needed, and the colder it is, the thicker you’ll want this to be. Bonus points for a windproof option that prevents the cold air from getting through.
- Long pants: A pair of long pants that you can wear over your hiking shorts or pants are ideal. This gives you another layer of protection that can make a world of difference when you’re dealing with freezing temperatures.
- Water-resistant pants: When it rains, you want to keep your dry pants in that same condition, so donning a pair of water-resistant pants over the top is key. These will prevent any rain from getting through and once the rain stops, you can remove them and go back to enjoying your dry clothing.
- Water-resistant raincoat or jacket: As with water-resistant pants, a coat or jacket does the same thing. These are made with waterproofed or resistant materials and are layered on top of your clothing to keep you dry during wet weather.
- Base layer shorts and shorts: This should be another set of base clothing that’s separate from your daily hiking or traveling gear. If it’s winter, you’ll want that base to be something warm so don’t waste space with shorts and tank tops.
- Additional mid-layers if cold: Just as you added extra layers for during the day, you should do so at night. Depending on the weather conditions where you’re traveling, how capable your tent is at retaining heat, and whether you sleep hot or cold, you’ll want additional insulated layers for nighttime.
- Hat: A wide-brimmed hat will offer the best protection but some people feel more comfortable in a baseball cap. If you do opt for the cap, make sure your neck is protected with additional sunscreen or some other type of coverage.
- Beanie: Everyone knows the old wives’ tale that you lose most of your heat out of your head, and if you’re backpacking in winter you’ll want to be sure it stays put. A comfortable beanie does the trick at night and if you can pull it down over your ears, you’ll get bonus points.
- Mesh layers for bug protection: Traveling in areas that are prone to mosquitoes and other flying insects will prompt you to pack protection in your backpack. This could be an additional mesh shirt to drape over or some form of netting that you wear over your entire body, depending on how much coverage you want.
These form just the basis of a backpacking clothes list, and it should be adjusted to cater to your needs specifically and the weather and conditions of where you’re traveling to.
Some may feel the cold more and others may run hot, so it’s all about knowing what your body needs and dressing for the occasion.
The Key to Organization
It can take some time to get your backpacking clothes right, and you’ll likely have some trial and error along the way.
When packing your bag, you want to leave the items at the top that you’re more likely to need access to, with the ‘sometimes’ options further down.
As clothing is generally lightweight, you can keep it at the top of the bag where it won’t affect the weight distribution.
Make a list and check it off each time you plan a backpacking trip, remembering to adjust items as needed, and have a separate one for summer, winter, and spring/fall trips so that you’ve covered.
The key with packing for hiking and backpacking is doing more rather than less.
For your first few times especially, you’ll get a better idea of what’s required and it can be adjusted in the future, rather than finding out that you have no warm, dry clothes left when you’re backpacking in the middle of winter.
Caring and Cleaning Backpacking Clothes
Unlike at home where you have easy access to a washing machine and dryer, being on the trail or an adventure somewhere far away is a little different.
You’ll need to get smart about how to wear, clean, and take care of backpacking clothes to ensure good hygiene and comfort.
The choice of fabric will play a major part in determining how easy it is to care for which is why synthetic options are best.
You’ll want to have separate clothing options for hiking and traveling compared to those for rest and sleep, and having a distinction between the two will ensure they last long.
As you arrive at the campsite for the night, you might want to remove the clothing from that day, and if possible, take a trail shower.
Replace your socks, underwear, and clothing so that you’re only wearing your nighttime garments when you’re clean.
Try to clean your daytime clothes every two days at the latest, and make sure you have a spare set ready to go while the others are drying.
Some people like to use portable washing devices that let them clean their clothes on the trail with access to water, but it’s not always necessary.
Depending on where you’re traveling, the available facilities, and how long you’re traveling for, you may or may not need a system for washing clothes.
A Packing List for Preparedness
Being prepared is the smartest thing a backpacker can do, whether it’s having the right camping gear or knowing that you’ve got a spare pair of socks in your bag in case of emergencies.
A successful backpacking adventure can only be possible when you’re wearing functional and comfortable clothes, so spend some time creating a list that will prepare you for anything.
Backpacking clothes don’t have to cost a lot of money or be the most premium quality, as long as you know what you’re looking for and how to shop for your body.
To find out more about the right attire for backpacking and similar activities, we’ve answered some FAQs that can help you out.
How Thick Should Backpacking Socks Be?
The thickness of a sock should be determined by the weather, with warmer temperatures calling for light or mid-weight sock, and cold weather requiring a heavyweight sock.
The sock should also be chosen to match the shoe you’re wearing so that it’s comfortable, so it’s a personal choice of the wearer as well.
Can You Hike in Leggings?
Some people may find it more comfortable to hike in leggings as opposed to hiking pants or shorts, provided you choose the right material and size.
There are many brands of leggings that make hiking and backpacking specific styles for this very purpose so it’s more common than ever before.
How Big Should Your Bag Be For Backpacking?
A rough guide for a back weight is around 20 percent of your body weight, but there are some deviations to this rule.
You’ll also have to consider the type of backpacking as there are categories like ultralight and lightweight which dictate how heavy your belongings should be.