Backpacking in the Ocala National Forest

Choosing the right Clothing for Backpacking


During the last quarter century the type of clothing wilderness backpackers wear has changed dramatically.  Today’s clothing is lighter, stronger, and more durable than clothing worn in the past.  Clothing provides a backpacker four things.

  • Protection from the weather (Sun, Wind, Rain Snow, etc.).
  • Protection from the environment (Poisonous plants, scratches and scrapes from other elements, etc.).
  • Comfort by providing you support and the ability to store items.

The material your clothing is made of is important in providing you the above protections and comfort.  There are still occasions where I see backpackers on the trail wearing clothing made from 100 percent cotton, (i.e. jeans). Cotton jeans are very durable and they have their uses but not on your backpacking adventure.  Cotton clothing is like a sponge that absorbs water and sweat that stays next to your skin.

This retention over a period of time will cause your skin to chaff or to develop a rash that can lead to a more severe skin irritation.  That retained water and sweat can also lead to hypothermia in cold weather climates.

So here are my recommendations for the type of clothing you need on your next wilderness adventure.

Material (Synthetic and Natural)

100 percent cotton is not advisable for you to wear.  The best type of material to have is a synthetic material comprised of PolyesterNylon, Spandex, or a natural material called Merino Wool.

Synthetic Materials:  Clothing using a synthetic material like polyester, nylon, and spandex are a great combination to wear in the wilderness especially in hotter/temperate climates. These synthetic materials allow water and sweat to be wicked away from your skin.  This means that the water and sweat evaporate quickly keeping you dry on those rugged backpacking adventures.  Wearing synthetic fabrics allows your skin to breath which helps regulate your body’s internal temperatures.

Synthetic clothing allows you to mix and match materials.  So your material can be 80 percent poly and 20 percent spandex.  You can even mix these synthetic blends with cotton.  A cotton blend works well giving you the comfort of cotton with the functionality of synthetic material to wick away moisture. Cotton blends have their limitations but they are very durable.  If you use a cotton blend you should limit the cotton to no more than 50 percent with the other 50 percent being a synthetic material (50/50).

There are many manufactures that produce some very high quality backpacking clothing (5.11, Kyrptec, Vertx, Tru-Spec Etc.).  The costs associated with synthetic clothing are higher than those made with 100 percent cotton but well worth it to make your stay in the back country more comfortable and safe.

Natural Materials:  The natural material I recommend is merino wool.  This material is made from the wool of certain sheep’s.  This natural material works well in both hot and cold climates.  The structure of the merino wool allows it to wick away moisture in the hotter climates and it also traps air between its layers to keep you warm in cooler climates. This dual function is adaptable to various wilderness environments.  Wool also has the ability to control odor.  Merino wool is expensive but again well worth your comfort and safety.

Suwannee River State Park (FL)
Columbia Titanium Shirt

Clothing Design

When it comes to the design of what you should wear I recommend wearing both long sleeves and long pants.  This is up for debate with some backpackers but wearing this combination will provide you well needed protection.  This protection comes from the sun, insects, and the environment.

When I was in the military I wore long sleeves and long pants.  The difference with the clothing I wore in the military verses the clothing I wear today is night and day.   Todays material allows me to wear long sleeves and pants with much more comfort.  There are also convertible pants as an option for those wanting to wear shorts that allow you to zip off your pant legs when needed.  You can also rollup long sleeves if you desire short sleeves..

Clothing designs have also changed in terms of styles and configurations. I enjoy having various pockets on my clothing.  The amount of pockets and types are much more functional then the standard pockets you see on jeans.  Pockets are not limited to your pants and many shirt designers have integrated them on the sleeves of their shirts.

Today’s designs also allow you to choose from wearing either and athletic cut or clothing with a more loose fit.  I have worn both and choosing one or the other is a personal preference for backpackers. The athletic cuts have more spandex in them that adheres close to your skin.  They also allow you to use lighter belts and in some designs you do not have to wear a belt at all due to the spandex waistbands.  I always like wearing a belt even though I might wear an athletic cut design.

Tru Spec Pants
Tru Spec Pants (Elastic Waist Band)

Insect Repellent: I always treat my clothing with an insect repellant that is called Permethrin.  This insect repellant is sprayed on the outer portion of your clothing to include your socks and boots.  It is a first line of defense when it comes to deterring insects from attaching themselves to your skin while you are backpacking.  Certain clothing can be purchased with an insect repellant in the material.  All clothing treated with this repellent needs to be reapplied after so many washes.

The American Backpacker using Permethrin insect repellent.
Permethrin Insect Repellent.


Having the right clothing can make or break your adventure.  Technology has advanced making what you wear more functional and comfortable in the most rugged wilderness environment.  There are very good manufactures in the market to choose from. Using a synthetic or merino wool material will allow you to have a lighter, durable, and more breathable outfit. This will result in a more comfortable and safer stay while you are backpacking.  As for designs, think about wearing long pants and sleeves for added protection and choose a style that fits your personality.

Hells Canyon Wilderness Over looking the Snack River