Except for brave hikers on Naked Hiking Day most of the time you will require clothing to protect your body from heat, cold, insects, poison ivy, abrasion and odd looks.
One of the differences between day hiking and thru hiking is that day hikers can get away with taking plenty of clothes. Clothes in which they drive to and from the trailhead. Clothes they start off wearing, clothes for when it rains. Or snows. Or gets hot. For when they get to town. For when they tear something. For luck. It doesn’t matter if they carry a pound or two all the way that is never used because it was there ‘just in case’. It’s comforting and it ‘for safety’. Cool. No problem.
If you have to walk 2000 miles in one trip though then you have to focus more on what you genuinely need and try to find a set of clothing that is flexible enough for all the situations you will likely encounter without carrying so much weight and bulk that you can’t hike enjoyably and safely (yes, unfortunately carry more options = more weight = more injury risk).
On the AT (as distinct from other expeditions which will have their own requirements) you may need to choose essentially 2 sets of clothing – cold weather and summer. They are actually quite similar in requirements with the main two differences being that in colder weather (I’m not talking ‘proper’ winter hiking for which you will need to look elsewhere for advice) you may want a few extra pieces for the outer edges – feet, hands, head and an outer layer for your torso and maybe your legs (people vary widely on how cold their legs get though); and also the weight or thickness of the other items is obviously greater in colder weather and lighter in warmer weather. But the core items are actually identical.
If this seems like a crazy assertion then I’m going to lay some serious knowledge on you here. If you are an experienced hiker you will be way ahead of me, probably already at camp making tea or hot chocolate.
Think Layers, Not Clothes
You don’t initially need to figure out which items of clothing to take. Instead, you need to figure out a Layering System.
The most useful thing I did when it came to choosing clothing for my thru-hike of the AT was to design a layering system before considering any actual products. I managed to come up with this system independently which means I feel – for better or worse – strongly committed to the concept but you should simply use this article as a jumping off point for your own ideas.
Now, if you are feeling a bit disappointed that this article entitled, “Clothing an AT Thru-Hiker” is not actually going to mention a single piece of actual clothing and you want to cut to the chase of what I individually, at a single point in time, actually chose to hike the AT with, information that became out of date the week I wrote it, then you’ll want to jump over here right now. Sorry to lose you. It could have been fun.
An aside: coming up with this concept on my own is very much like the time I invented wine. I had gone into a bar with some friends and I was asked what I wanted to drink. At the time I had just eaten so I said I was too full for fizzy cider or a pint of beer but I didn’t want to get a tiny slosh of something hard like rum or vodka. I don’t like the sweet ‘fruit’ drinks aimed at women. So I just described what I felt like: something about the size of a quarter pint or less, strength of about 10-15% ABV, not carbonated and not sweet. I got quite excited that I had discovered a new category of beverage as I described this out loud to the bartender who waited for me to finished before saying, “So: a glass of wine then?” Damn.
So yes, this layering system is not new. Sorry about that.
The overall aim is to come up with a TOTAL system that works in every variety of weather and environmental condition you are reasonably likely to encounter. If you encounter unpredictably extreme conditions such as unexpected prolonged snow you will have to rely on skills and common sense to remain safe and live to fight another day – you can’t carry a mall on your back for that 1% chance. Every item of the system taken in isolation might seem imperfect to a casual observer, but they are all pieces of a jigsaw that come together to make a complete picture.
One great thing about this system is how it doesn’t date. I can list specific products that fill the roles today and a year later those recommendations may be completely out of date. But if you understand the system you can quickly figure out what new stuff to buy when the old ones are obsolete as a Model T Ford and have been replaced in the shops by shiny new models.
So first of all let me just list them and then tackle each layer in more detail. I will start by concentrating on the upper body. Since most of your essential bodily organs are contained in your torso (the blood-pumping heart is a particularly useful one to keep warm) you must protect it, plus your head, at all costs. We’ll come back to the legs and feet later.
For the upper body:
- Base Layer
- Mid Layer
- Extra Insulation
Both legs and upper body can also have a Wind Layer and a Rain Layer. I don’t put these in the list with a number because their location can vary. You can wear either or both of them, wear them directly over your base layer, or on top of everything. A wind layer is optional and is less commonly encountered but it is a thin 100g/3oz layer which can be surprisingly useful and warrants further investigation. Only in niche situations will you safely be able to leave a rain jacket at home, though you may elect to carry a lighter shell when you have no expectation of rain during your trip, or use a tougher shell when backpacking in Scotland.
Layer 1 – Base Layer
Get this one right because you will be developing an intimate relationship with your Base Layer. Do not even consider starting a long – or short – hike without having worn this for several days and washed it at least once or twice (because clothes change shape, size and ‘feel’ when washed, some quite dramatically and not always for the worse.
There are two distinct types of garment used as a Base Layer – garments that look like t-shirts and those that look more like regular dress/business shirts. Some people stick religiously to their style of garment in all weathers but some will lean more towards shirts when it is hot (you expect to layer over the top less) and a t-shirt style when it is cooler.
Hiking shirts should always be made of synthetic materials (usually nylon and/or polyester) and may be short or long-sleeved. Bear in mind that long sleeves might actually be better in really hot sunny weather as they shield you from sunburn without needing to constantly apply sunscreen. It’s really important to check the shoulder seams of a shirt marketed as a hiking shirt as some have normal ‘over the shoulder’ raised seams and these may chafe your skin something chronic when compressed and rubbed by backpack straps. Try and find shirts with ‘raglan’ sleeves, or ‘offset seams’ or at least ‘flat’ or ‘flat-lock’ seams to avoid that problem.
In the t-shirt style, a Base Layer should be fairly tight fitting in order to work effectively – this is not your a comfy lounging t-shirt at home – without chafing or feeling constrictive. A Base Layer’s prime objective, other than keeping you warm (to some extent) is to keep your skin dry and healthy. It does this by ‘wicking’ away moisture (sweat) from the skin-side surface to the outer surface and by spreading said moisture over a wide surface area so it can be evaporated or conducted away quickly and without chilling you. This means it is worth its weight in gold (it’s not, that would be crazy. But it’s worth a lot. As you find out when checking the price of one.)
Some people like their tee shirts to be long-sleeved, some short, some like thumb-holes or a hood, some not. Half-zips have become much more popular in the last few years in order to allow for some heat venting. One trap to avoid is to buy a Base Layer that is too heavy for your heat output characteristics (i.e. do you run hot, cold or average) and the conditions you are hiking in. When you are thru-hiking of course you have to cope with many different terrains and weather conditions but that is even more reason to err on the side of light, not heavy. This is because you can always add layers to warm up but you cannot make a t-shirt cooler unless you start ripping holes in it (which you could do but it’s not really an award-winning strategy).
With t-shirts you have a wider choice of materials but the two categories are all-or-mostly natural fibers (probably Merino wool) or mostly synthetic (probably polyester or polypropylene). There are other materials, and combinations are becoming more prevalent, but this is not an exhaustive review of base layers. In general, Merino is warmer and stink-free (another problem day-hikers do not have to concern themselves with), easily lasting a week before it may begin to reek a little, while synthetic garments may feel more silky when wearing and are much cooler (good in summer) but quickly stink – even those treated with an anti-odor treatment like Polygiene will smell after a few days. They also may not recover their 100% fresh smell even after laundry. As synthetic garments are much cheaper than Merino wool garments you may want to treat them as somewhat disposable, replacing after a month or two on trail.
Since you will always be wearing your base layer and not carrying it in your pack, the weight of this garment is not too critical. Obviously a thicker garment will weigh more than a thinner one, wool weighs more than polyester and short sleeves are lighter than long sleeves. Make your decision based more on the features and materials you want. You would expect such a garment to come in under 300g /10.5 oz though in colder seasons and 125g-250g / 4.5oz-9oz in summer (in men’s medium, women’s will run 10%-15% lighter).
Layer 2 – Mid Layer
Since we have committed to a base layer that will not keep us warm once we have stopped hiking we must pay some attention to our next layer. It is not a luxury and its performance will become of great interest to you once you stop for a break or for the night. Generally here we are talking fleece. Any garment that performs the same role can be considered a mid-layer though.
Fleece is (possibly) Latin for ‘fluffy bits of polyester’, oddly perhaps the same raw material used in your silky base layer. It’s funny how two radically different materials can both be 100% polyester. Anyways. This is probably the easiest layer to find actual garments for and you can get 80% of the performance of a top item by spending 20% of the cost. Common materials used in this layer are Polartec 100 weight classic fleece, Polartec PowerDry and it’s warmer-and-lighter-but-less-wind-resistant cousin, PowerDry High Efficiency. These synthetic materials continue to be surprisingly effective at providing warmth when wet (though not as good as merino wool, another potential mid-layer material).
What they generally do not offer though is any wind resistance. They are most effective when you are located somewhere out of the wind (e.g. in a tent) or when you layer them under a wind-resistance garment such as a wind shirt, rain jacket or insulation layer. For this reason many people find they are warmer when hiking above treeline in just a baselayer and very thin wind shirt than they are with a thick fleece on which usually promised a warmer experience.
You may prefer a full-zip, half-zip or no zip at all. Zips always do three things: they make it easier to put on and take off, add weight and make it possible to vent heat without removing the whole garment. They can break of course in which case a half-zip garment will continue to function pretty well while a full-zip will be a problem.
Every single manufacturer offers a variety of fleece garments. Even when you decide to focus on a fabric you have tried and liked, such as Polartec Power Dry High Efficiency, you will find every manufacturer offers oddly similar products, usually one without a hood and one without. It’s almost like they know.
You will probably find that a spring/autumn weight fleece will be about 350g / 16oz and a summer weight item might be 10-20% lighter.
Layer 3 – Insulation
The buck stops here for warmth (except in wintry sub-zero conditions for which we add a Layer 4, see below). This is it baby (unless you put your rain shell on top for a little extra warmth) so consider this one – and your attitude to being cold – carefully.
If you are hiking in dry conditions (and snow counts here, though sleet does not) then this may be insulated with down (the fuzzy feathers from duck or geese) for its unbeatable warmth-to-weight ratio but otherwise it’s safest to go synthetic with a fill that can resist the wet (bear in mind that ‘wet’ when hiking can mean sweat, condensation, damp ground, humid air and river crossings that go wrong) and still provide warmth. Down shrivels and dies if it gets wet leaving you without an effective insulation layer.
Perhaps the top brand name for this layer is Primaloft, and the Primaloft One (now called Gold) product is the top of their range for warmth, compressibility and performance when wet (it only loses 5%-10% of its effectiveness). Many manufacturers use their own brand fill which makes it harder to compare their products with products from other brands. You can get jackets in different weights so you can tailor your insulation layer to your conditions. For example, a 60g (grams per square metre) synthetic fill jacket is light-medium, 100g is medium-warm and 133g is very warm indeed.
While you could go half-zip here for weight savings it’s probably safer to go full-zip so you can vent easily and thoroughly. Finally, consider whether you want a hood on this layer, a decision to be taken in concert with your other layers. You probably only need one or two hoods in all of your layers.
Synthetic insulation compresses well, though not as well as down.
A good quality Primaloft One/Gold jacket will provide your ‘everyday warmth’ for less than 400g / 14oz.
Layer 4 – Blimey, it’s cold
If you will encounter genuinely cold conditions (which means different temperatures to different people) you will want more protection than we were advocating in Layer 3. As well as individual preference, on the Appalachian Trail the need for this layer may also depend on the time of year you intend to hike. For a NOBO starting in March or earlier this layer is probably A Good Idea. For a SOBO they may like to start with this layer at any time of year since they must tackle the White Mountains so early on. Hikers can then send this garment back to base once they get past the worst of the weather and just use Layer 3 for insulation from then on (with NOBOs making sure they get their L4 garment back again around Gorham, New Hamsphire for the final sections).
An alternative to having two insulation layers is of course to have a single, thicker, one. You would after all get the same insulation for less weight since you are carrying one less outer and inner fabric layer, thread, pocket material, zips, etc. However you then have to wear your big coat even if it is only just a little too cool for your fleece leaving you uncomfortable either way. A thick down jacket may also be difficult to use to supplement your sleep system when then nights get too cold for your sleeping bag alone and you find a need to wear clothes inside to stay warm. Therefore two layers offer more options in both day and night-time situations.
Since you building a Total System here you then have to consider your Layers 3 and 4 as a team. You don’t need the thickest possible Layer 3 if you will also carry a further insulated jacket and it is a good idea to ensure the two layers complement each other in terms of material and features. Do they really both need hoods? Unlikely. Should they both be insulated with the same material, such as down? Perhaps there is more safety in one being synthetic and the other natural (down or wool).
A new development (or, a not-so-new development that has exploded in availability recently) is that of hydrophobic down. This is regular down that has been treated in such a way that it resists water, like a Teflon coating. It is not completely the holy grail of insulated clothing however as the improvements compared to untreated down are that it resists water longer (at least an hour or two) and then dries out quicker (about a third faster) when it does become saturated. That is not the same consistent performance as good quality synthetic insulation but it is still a very useful extra feature to look out for.
The amount of warmth you can expect from down garments can be gauged from two measurements: amount of fill and quality of fill. The amount is simply how many grams or ounces of down is stuffed into the garment. Most quality manufacturers state this in the product details online or else will tell you if they send them a quick email. It is had to compare products when you don’t have that information unless you can try it on in person. The second measurement is down quality, stated as ‘fill power’ or ‘fill’ for short. Very low quality garments, as might be found in high street general clothing stores might contain 400 or 500 fill power down. 600 is the lowest quality you should find in technical hiking garments. Anything from 800 and above is top quality. Just bear in mind that measuring fill power is not a completely consistent science and also that the main measuring system used in the United States gives a number 50 higher than in the European Union. And so some retailers in the EU feel enough commercial pressure that they quote US ratings (e.g saying 850 when they really ought to say 800). Annoying. Still, that’s what your research time is for!
High quality down has one final ace up its sleeve. It compresses like you wouldn’t believe. A lovely warm puffy ‘duvet’ jacket squashes down to the size of a grapefruit.
All of this this means a Layer 4 garment can provide serious warmth for about 300g / 10.5oz (roughly the same as carrying a can of Coke) which has 100g of high power fill while taking up only a small space in your pack (do make sure it is protected in a dry bag).
Now down to the legs. Except in extreme cold, or when you are exposed to ‘pretty cold’ for a long period, the legs and feet tend to get by pretty well on their own. There are no organs to protect so what you feel is what you get. A few jumping jacks will quickly kick-start some warmth. In addition, some people really do not feel discomfort in their lower body – or else it just doesn’t mentally bother them.
Obviously in summer you will see people out in trail runners, ankle socks and running shorts. This outfit does not take long to plan or require detailed research to come up with the optimal set of garments. So what we really need to concentrate on is what to wear in colder weather.
For the legs:
- Base Layer
- Pants / Trousers
Again, a pair of Wind Pants and Rain Pants is also possible, with – again – the rain layer being more commonly seen.
The Base Layer should follow the same guidelines as for the Upper Body – not at all baggy, and either wool or synthetic depending on personal preference and climate. You would only hike with these on in really cold days and bear in mind it can be tricky to remove them if you warm up after a period of hiking! They may be just as useful however as part of your sleep system, to keep your dirty legs off your sleeping bag and to provide some easily washable insulation to supplement your bag’s rating.
Your hiking pant is highly personal. One person’s opinion on how many pockets is essential, tight or loose fit, reinforcements at the knees or seat, how essential a diamond crotch or articulated knees are, belt or no belt, etc, etc. will vary greatly to another’s. Just don’t get too thick a material in summer or too thin in winter. You will likely find that most hiking trousers are made of nylon. Since your wear your pants when hiking the weight is not too critical but anything over 500g / 17.5oz in probably heavier than necessary.
Insulation on the legs is not so commonly seen in 3-season hiking though this may be because people are only likely to wear them in camp. As with the upper body insulation layers you can choose between synthetic (e.g. Primaloft) or down insulation with the same advantages/disadvantages and different weights depending on your needs and the climate. There are, however, radically less options on the market compared to upper body insulation which reflects the lesser demand for such garments.
This article has dealt with the core aspects of your clothing by describing a layering system that in turn guides you when purchasing actual clothing garments. It deals with the Big Ticket Items but there are still the hands, feet and head to deal with. These areas fall outside of the layering system however so are generally dealt with by just buying one or two items that mostly work independently. Anyway, some ideas to consider:
Underwear: You’re on your own on this one. While some people choose to go commando it is most common for hikers to wear underwear. As with all clothing it must be well tested before you take it into the field, must not be cotton, must not chafe, should dry quickly and not pong too quickly. Men should consider if they require a fly for quick access. Only the truly dedicated would wear one pair of underwear for their whole hike – laundry can only achieve so much – so prepare to refresh your down-belows occasionally.
Socks: Whichever ones you want – your test hikes will guide you to the right ones. Take two pairs at least (some people take 3 though it’s best if they are not all quite heavy). Wear one during the day then take them off in camp to dry and out the others on. Wear those, or even dedicated bedsocks, in bed and then wear them for hiking the next day, giving that first pair a chance to dry and air.
Gloves: One pair thin enough to not over heat you but tough enough to hike with when using trekking or hiking poles and when rock scrambling. A silk, fleece or wool liner for general warmth when needed. A warm mitt in colder weeks (mitts are warmer than gloves as they keep the fingers together in one space). If all three of those layer together then you’re golden.
Headwear: Along with the layer you decided to buy with hoods (perhaps one of either Layer 1 or 2 and then one of Layer 3 and 4) you may want a dedicated item for your head and/or neck. Buff bandanas are highly popular as they can be used in many different ways (not just as headwear indeed). You may want to consider a balaclava for colder times.
In this section we list all the spare clothes (backups) you will need to bring over and above the one-of-each of the upper and lower body garments detailed above.
Um. None really.
Well, look. You could take a lightweight t-shirt, probably polyester or polypro. You can then sleep in it, giving your hiking base layer a chance to air out or even be rinsed if it’s not too cold. And it can act as a backup baselayer since that’s your most important garment and they do get shredded from time to time. And you can wear it in town when doing laundry or, if it looks half-decent, wear it anyway in town look less homeless. And it can act as a towel for drying your tent. A makeshift head or neck bandana. Part of your pillow system. The uses are endless and it only weighs 100g / 3.5oz, so why not, go ahead and splurge.