When you’re looking for a job or heading out on the town, there’s a saying: Dress for success. Surely you didn’t head into your last job interview wearing cutoffs and a wife-beater undershirt, right?
As funny as that imagery is, there is a serious side to this when it comes to backpacking. Clothing is a serious issue.
It’s not a question of looks, labels or anything of the sort. But it does concern, at the very least, comfort. And in some cases, survival.
Taking a day hike in a state park wearing jeans and a T-shirt is probably no big deal. But if the environment in which you’re going is going to get cold and/or wet, you have to rethink what you’re wearing. So here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth.
If you expect cooler temperatures or temperature fluctuations, think twice about wearing and bringing cotton. That includes most T-shirts, denim and cotton socks. Cotton absorbs a lot of water and it takes a long time to dry out. Working up a sweat during the day, for example, could leave you pretty damp. At night, that soaked shirt suddenly becomes ice cold and stays that way. Same for any cotton socks or pants. Hypothermia danger suddenly becomes a real danger.
Cotton socks are doubly bad in this respect: By trapping moisture from sweat, they can cause major blisters on long treks. Blister can cause a lot of discomfort and, if they burst, there is a risk of infection.
Instead, choose moisture-wicking undershirts and synthetic fiber fleece pullovers and pants. If possible, find moisture resistant pants and bring some sort of rain gear (preferably something that’s breathable to prevent excess sweating). Staying dry is a good way to regulate your body temperature and make your trip more enjoyable and, in extreme circumstances, survivable.
It’s nice to bring along some sort of hat to protect your face from sunburn or, in cooler climes, a wool hat to keep your head warm. Your body loses a lot of heat through your head.
Footwear depends on the ruggedness or the terrain. Trail runners are fine in many cases, but any bushwhacking or rockier environs may require a sturdier boot. A lighter boot is better (less fatiguing to wear over time), and try to find a pair that’s waterproof.
Lastly, plan to pack/wear layers. That way you can shed clothes when it gets warm and add clothes when it gets cold.
There’s always exceptions. Desert backpacking has different needs than mountain backpacking. Same could be true if you’re trekking in the Kiamichis instead of the wild lands of New England. Do your homework and be prepared. Dress for success.
— Bob Doucette