Hikers are like onions...
…because they're made of layers. Har har.
Or maybe I'm thinking of ogres?
Regardless, when you're out in the backcountry you have to make like an onion and layer up. So this blog is going to be about the different kinds of layers hikers wear while out on the trail and what clothes to bring for any situation!
One of the problems with knowing what clothes to wear/bring when hiking is that you are most likely going to be in the mountains and the weather out there can change within a moment's notice. Even if the forecast calls for blue skies the whole day without nary a cloud, don't be surprised if ten minutes later a giant hailstorm blows through. Mother Nature is fickle like that. So that's why it can sometimes be a bit confusing on how to best prepare before heading out.
My rule of thumb is always to dress for the forecast and pack for any type of weather. If the forecast calls for sunshine, wear shorts and a t-shirt but make sure to pack your rain jacket and pants, just in case (or better yet, wear convertible pants). Hypothermia is the leading cause of death for hikers who end up lost- don't become part of that statistic. The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to survive any given situation.
It's important to know that dressing in layers is essentially your way of regulating your body temperature. By adding or removing layers, you can either heat up or cool down during your hike. And on that note, you should always be aware of WHEN you need to add a layer and when to remove a layer. Slow down or take a layer off before you sweat, then put that layer back on before you start feeling chilled. For example, if you're about to climb a large hill that you know is going to make you sweat, take off a layer before starting up. You might feel a bit cold at first but once your body starts heating up, you'll be glad you did it. Then once you get to the top, put the layer back on. The layer stays dry this way and doesn't become uselessly damp once your body temperature starts to drop again.
CAUTION: Cotton is not your friend. Not only does it absorb sweat like you wouldn't believe but it also takes forever to dry out, making it impossible to warm up in the meantime (which can be deadly in the wrong conditions). What's more, cotton loses its insulation the moment it gets wet. And don't trust corduroy, denim, flannel, or duck. That's just cotton disguising itself (tricky little bugger). In addition, steer clear of anything that is a blend with cotton. It doesn't matter if it's only 50%, it will still cause problems for you in the long run.
A great alternative to cotton is anything that has wicking, insulating fibers like polyester, nylon or wool.
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's go over the different types of layers hikers wear while on the trail:
Inner Layer- this would be the layer that lies closest to your skin (underwear, socks, etc.). Because it is the first barrier between your skin and everything else, it's essential that you make sure this layer is not made from cotton. I used to make the mistake of wearing cotton underwear and then could never understand why I always felt chilled after getting back to my vehicle, especially because everything else I wore was made of a wicking fabric. Fun fact: wearing cotton underwear can also cause killer wedgies when hiking (did I say fun fact? I more meant disturbing fact that you really didn't want to know but I decided to tell you anyway. Bum flossing is no laughing matter people!). But in all seriousness, it's crazy the difference a pair of undies makes. And that goes for your socks as well. Make sure to get a wool brand of sock. Not only will it keep you warm but it will also help with preventing blisters. And don't forget your long johns for those cold days/nights!
Mid Layer (Base Layer)- The mid layer is essentially your light weight t-shirt or long-sleeved shirt, as well as your hiking pants or shorts. It's main function isn't so much warmth as it is just allowing you to stay light and comfortable…and also so you're not walking around in only your undergarments. If the weather is good, you can wear it without the added two layers below. Keep in mind that you want to choose a fabric that will allow the most mobility and will help you stay sweat-soaked free. I usually buy my clothing at MEC or Camper's Village. Both places have a great selection of mid layers. Or if you're feeling really fancy, Lululemon also has some really nice shirts that are moisture resistant. Just try to keep things light.
Insulation Layer- This layer functions as a lightweight, breathable insulation of sorts. When it's too cold and your mid layer is no longer keeping you comfortably warm, it's time to put on the lightweight sweater. Make sure the sweater is made of something that will keep you warm but won't weigh you down too much whether it's in your pack or on you. I would suggest wool since it's breathable, doesn't attract moisture very quickly and is cozy (like getting a warm hug from grandma…while you drag her up a mountain).
Outer Layer (Shell)- Outer layers are something you should never forget since they're time to shine is ironically when it stops shining. When bad weather like rain, wind or snow decides to show up, that's when you put on a good weatherproof jacket and pants. It's like wearing a portable shelter system on the trail and will stop you from getting wet and/or cold. Just make sure it's completely waterproof or you're going to be cursing at the sky once things go south.
In addition, don't forget to bring a hat or bandana. Both can be used to protect your face from the sun and keep the sweat out of your eyes. I find a bandana especially useful because it can have so many other uses (plus, it gives you that 'I'm a seasoned hiker' look).
Making sure you've brought every needed layer for the hike itself is all well and good when it comes to backcountry hiking. That is until you get to your actual campground destination. Then you're just stuck in sweaty clothes for the rest of the evening. Not only can this be dangerous, but it's also down right uncomfortable! So make sure you bring along a comfy pair of sweats and a sweater (the comfier the better) but try to make sure they're not going to add too much weight to your backpack. In addition, make sure to tack on some camping shoes to your pack so that you can give your feet a break from those rigid hiking boots. The shoes should also be lightweight. They can be anything from flips flops and crocs to actual camp shoes you can buy at most outdoor stores. There's nothing better than being able to snuggle up in your tent or beside a fireplace in comfortable clothing after a hard day's work!
The most important thing for sleeping in the backcountry is staying warm. That's why I always make sure to put a nice warm pair of wool socks in my sleeping bag when I'm packing for the trip. That way they're right there when you go to bed, dry and ready to go! Always make sure to keep these socks in your sleeping bag so they can stay separated from everything else. In addition, you'll also want to have a toque for those cold nights. Since your head is the one thing left uncovered while in a sleeping bag (unless you bury yourself underneath), the toque is perfect for making sure you don't lose any body heat. For "pajamas", I like to use my long johns for bottoms at night. They are lightweight and stretchy but can still keep me warm and are incredibly comfortable. As for a pajama top, there's nothing wrong with sleeping in your camping sweater! Just remember that the worst thing you can do is sleep in clothing that is damp or wet in any way. Always make sure you are going to bed in dry clothing!
So let's create a handy dandy packing list based on the information above…