Gear Selection and Planning Pt 3 – Back Country Clothing and Footwear

A friendly reminder:
Being back country guy is not my day job. Although, I have been doing this for many years and have become comfortable with my way of doing things, I’m sure there are different ways to do just about anything out there; some may be better and some may not be. Please keep an open mind when reading and don’t be afraid to compare my ideas with someone else’s and maybe between them, come up with something that works even better for you.

Back Country Clothing and Footwear

Let’s talk about clothes!

Some may think by looking in their closets, that they have this area covered. But if you’re just starting out, one will learn either by research or experience that extended outings in the back country take a different wardrobe than what we may be used to every day.

…this is where we start to see the separation between those, obsessed, and the casual hobbyist. Things are going to get a little more expensive from here on, but I guess that’s just the nature of the beast. It doesn’t cost a dime to wander through the mountains…but it takes some spending to get ready to…

When I first started, I would plan these great trips to Big Bear for my friends and me, and we would always pack blue jean shorts and cotton tee shirts along with other stuff, and our clothing items were always the heaviest bag in our packs. At this point in time, I was still learning, so everything in my external frame pack was pretty heavy.

Not only is cotton heavy, it isn’t really functional in the field. It doesn’t dry well and when wet, looses any and all insulating properties. If all of your clothes in your pack are cotton, and they get wet…that’s no fun. Your pack doubles in weight, and unless you can get everything dry at once, things could get really difficult.

In the Sierra back country, it’s not uncommon to experience 30-50° temperature fluctuations in a very short time during the day. Whether it’s by gain and loss of altitude, change in weather, or when the sun starts to go behind the mountains for the evening.

There have been days where I woke up to temps below freezing, and by 1:00pm it’s over 80°F.

When I choose my clothes for a trip, I always think in layers – light, medium, and heavy.

The lighter, or insulating layer will be worn the most often, and keep in mind, will be touching your skin all the time. Be aware of annoying tags and other itchy thingies before you get out in the field.

For outings lasting a week or longer, this means that you will probably be wearing some of these items in some kind of rotation, more than once during your trip. …eeeeww, right?

Excluding underwear, which I’ll have a fresh pair for every day, I can get by on a 10 day outing with 3- 4 light shirts (at least two long sleeve), one set of long johns, two pair of convertible cargo  pants (with removable legs) and a pair of cargo shorts.

With my socks, I wouldn’t carry ten pair of ginormous hiking socks. I would take a couple thick pair and a couple of medium thick pair, and then use some thin liner socks that I could change every day. By using the liner socks inside the thicker socks, this will help to cut down on blisters as well as extend the life of the thicker sock during your trip. ~ Make sure the liner socks fit tight on your feet. If they’re loose fitting, or stretch, they will start to come off of your foot, inside your other sock…and that’s annoying.

Normally, at this point, I would be sending you to REI to check out their awesome selection of clothes…but in this case, we’ll visit Moose

Moose Jaw, imo has a better selection of clothing for our purposes, and their prices are very reasonable as well.

Some good brands to consider are Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, North Face, Arcteryx and Patagonia. All offer clothes that will wick moisture away from your body and some also offer shirts with odor control! I have used all of the brands I have mentioned and have been very happy with all…but Mountain Hardwear has been my favorite.
(I get my convertible pants from REI-their brand)

…when shopping for your light layer… remember… NO COTTON!!!

By the time I feel the need to add something from the medium layer, I usually have on 2-3 light shirts and my pant legs zipped on.

My medium layer usually consists of some sort of Patagonia Capaline long sleeve pullover, a light fleece pullover and a mid weight fleece zip up jacket.

For mid layer bottoms, I’ll put on the second pair of convertible pants, (think elastic waistbands with a canvas belt) and if need be, I’ve always got the long john bottoms. I’ll also be getting out the warm hat at this point, which is a very important insulating item. Without a warm hat, a good portion of your body heat escapes through the top of your head which makes it very difficult to stay warm.

Now in most cases, wearing my light and mid layer clothing together, will keep me warm down to just about freezing… especially if I’m moving around – but remember, we’re in the mountains, where it drops below freezing just about every night.

For this, the last items in my clothing arsenal are a Mountain Hardwear down coat, some down booties and a nice pair of gloves.

Speaking of down booties, we haven’t covered footwear yet…

I have had the same pair of Salomon boots for the last eight years and can’t speak highly enough of them…but after the last outing, I think they’re done. The soles are worn and they are starting to separate. I noticed some water getting in through the bottoms on the last trip.

Those boots have carried me many, many miles and every time I see them, a flood of memories comes rushing back. They’re like a couple of old friends that I’m always happy to see, and it makes me sad to think about retiring them.

When I finally do break down and get a new pair, there are a few things I’ll be looking for:

Since my loaded pack weighs around 60+ lbs for an extended outing, my boots will have to be able to support me, and that weight, without issue.

The soles will have to be very rigid and non-slip for crossing wet rocks and boulders, and the toes reinforced to protect my feet and stand up to the rough granite on and off trail. (Rigid soles offer the ability to put more weight on your toes when wearing the pack; to aid in climbing and when footing is narrow or difficult.)

Comfortable; good ankle support and water-proof would wrap up the list.

Along with Salomon, there are many well known brands out there, and I’ll be trying them all until I find the right boots.

Along with my boots, I’ll also have some kind of river shoes with me that double as camp shoes until it gets too cold. I like Teva’s for this; they’re comfortable and don’t stay wet or get heavy.

When it starts getting cold, I break out the down booties. I have had mine for a few years, and they have held up very well. They have textured bottoms…but not soles, and they work great to walk around camp. They’re very light and easy to pack; won’t damage the inside of the tent, and if it’s really cold, I can wear them inside my sleeping bag without worrying about rips.

Over the years, I have been able to shave enough weight off of clothing, so that now; the bear canister full of ten day’s worth of food outweighs my clothing bag by a few pounds.

By shopping smart and avoiding cotton, one should be able to keep the weight of their clothing for longer trips both functional and manageable.

Another must have in the field is rain gear. Rain jacket and pants can also double as another insulation layer if things get really cold or windy. If there is a cold, strong wind that is biting right through your layers, you can use your rain gear, under some fleece to kill that penetration and bite.
When buying rain gear, think light and breathable, or there are some all weather jackets that offer rain protection and can be used as a mid layer shell, or liner for your heavier jacket.
I use Sierra Designs rain jacket and pants. Both are very light, they fold up nicely and fit into a side pocket on my back pack, where I can pretty much forget about them until I need them.

…One last tip…

If you find yourself stripping off layers of clothing before you get into the sleeping bag, if you’re going to be putting some of those clothes back on in the morning… put them in the sleeping bag with you, overnight. You’ll be glad you did…have you ever tried to put on a frost covered tee shirt or socks, first thing in the morning? No fun!

Remember that once you’re in the field, your clothing options are limited to what you are carrying. This is where clothing can also make or break a trip, so make sure that you have clothes that you know are functional and comfortable, and you should be well on your way to enjoying your time in the field…instead of trying to get back to civilization as soon as you can.

I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Thanks for being here,

Peace everyone!


3 thoughts on “Gear Selection and Planning Pt 3 – Back Country Clothing and Footwear

  1. Awesome tips, Joe! I’m going on my 9-day hiking trip in a couple of weeks. I’m SO excited!! I think I know what kind of clothes to bring since I’ve done a lot of backcountry camping before (never strictly hiking though, always a mix of canoe-portaging). But good to have the info and definitely that reminder of sticking my morning clothes in my sleeping bag overnight! 🙂

    • Thanks, Janice!
      9 days sounds like a great trip…I can’t wait to get back out for that long!
      Looking forward to reading about that one.
      Hope you have a great week!

  2. What a great post, thank you again! Clothes are always the hardest for me, I usually end up bringing too much in an effort to be prepared. This is very helpful. Love the down booties, I’m going to have to get some of those! I know just getting out there is the best way to learn, but I appreciate you sharing what you have learned already. This way, there will be some things we won’t have to learn the hard way!

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