I recommend clothing that can be comfortably worn day after day for a wide variety of activities. My clothing is typically made from technical fibers or merino wool which provides good mobility, decent durability, is light weight, fast drying, and odor/stain resistant. I use mostly the same clothing for daily urban life, done in a day outdoor activities, travel, and sometimes extended time in the backcountry. Given my mixed use, I generally constrain clothing styles and colors to be something that would be acceptable in a business meeting or at a nice restaurant. For example, no cargo pockets on the thigh. I use specialized clothing when engaged in vigorous exercise because these activities benefit from more specialized clothing. My backpacking clothing is largely “hand-me-down” from daily life. When things are looking a bit too wore to wear to a nice restaurant, they get relegated to backpacking because appearances don’t matter and the clothing tends to age more quickly due to more abrasive conditions.
Conventional wisdom is that you should dress in three layers: a base to manage moisture, a middle to provide insulation, and a shell to protect you from the elements such as wind and rain. In colder conditions it is common to have multiple insulation layers which can be added or removed to maintain comfort over a range of conditions.
A slight variant of this system is to use a windshirt over the base layer. When people are engaged in high output aerobic activities the combination of high breathable base layer like the Patagonia’s Thermal Weight Capilene Hoody and a light weight unlined windshirt such as the ArcTeryx Squamish or a rain shell that has high MVTR such as those made from Gore’s Shakedry fabric can keep the wearer comfortable for a surprising range of temperatures. When activity level drops or if the conditions turn harsh (below freezing temperatures), insulation can be place are placed over the wind shell. Softshells are the cold weather variant of a base + windshirt, providing more insulation while maintaining good breathability. Softshells work well when the wearer is highly active facing variable conditions.
Below are some general recommendations. I have a number of posts with more specific recommends which have a clothing tag including:
I go into greater detail in each of the above posts and in my personal gear page, but a quick summary of my clothing:
- Icebreaker Anatomica Tee-Shirt (Merino Wool). Comfortable wide range of temps. Dries overnight. Very odor resistant. Adequately durable – 600 days of use.
- Solbari Weekend Button Up Shirt. UPF50+ shirt that is reasonable comfortable in hot weather, keeps bugs from biting me, and looks like a dress shirt when under a jacket. In cooler weather breaks a bit of wind allowing me to delay using a jacket.
- Icebreaker Anatomica Briefs. Most comfortable briefs I have found.
- Outlier Slim Dungarees or Western Rise Evolution Pants: Nice looking pants made from nylon but don’t have that “swish” of some technical fabrics. Durable, reasonable fast drying. Can wear with a sport jacket or on the trail.
- Bluffworks Hopscotch Blazer: Looks nice, doesn’t wrinkle, machine washable, light weight and comfortable in hot weather.
- Xoskin Toes Socks: No blisters!
- Luna Sandals: Light, comfortable, durable. What I would wear all the time if I could get away with it.
- Vivobarefoot Gobi II: Durable, zero drop, barefoot style ankle boots. Looks good when dressed up wearing a blazer and when wearing more casual clothing, up to long walks and still looks good.
- Inov-8 Trailfly G 270 Trail runners: when the route is too technical for the Luna or Gobi. Rarely needed.
- Macpac Nitro Hoody (Polartec Alpha Direct) Comfortable in a huge range of conditions depending on how much you block air movement. Dries super quickly. Reasonable warmth/weight ratio. Reasonably compressible. If never going into backcountry would likely replace with a cashmere sweater which is more dressy looking.
- ArcTeryx Squamish Windshirt. CFM 30 which is perfect when active. Normally lives in car. If traveling / minimizing get dropped and I use the R7 for wind protection.
- Gorewear R7 Trail Running Jacket (Gore Shakedry) Most breathable waterproof material I have used. Doesn’t wet out in long rains. Can double as a wind shell.
- Montbell Plasma 1000 Vest (Down) Light and compact insulation for core.
- Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody Jacket (below 20F combined with Nitro and/or Plasma Vest)
When engaged in vigorous physical activity (running, bicycling, fastpacking, etc) items are part of my mix
- De Soto Mobius Tri Shorts + Sun Protection Leg Sleeves: reasonably comfortable when wet, minimized chafing, pockets on the thighs and hips which keep things from bouncing when running.
- Xenith Delta Tee + sun protection arm sleeves. Dries perfect speed to help keep me cool. Very good odor control for a synthetic. Doesn’t bind when soaked.
- Black Diamond Alpine Start Jacket. CPM somewhere between 40-60 making is perfect for high output activities. NanoSphere treatment makes it quite water resistant. One of the highest MVTR measured in a wind shell.
Minimize Moisture Absorption
Managing moisture is critical to comfort and safety. Heat lose in water is 24 times more effective than if you are standing in still air. This means that a soaked garment can chill you more than standing naked. Ideally, you want clothing to stay dry. It’s not always possible to keep clothing dry, so the best mitigation is to select clothing which minimizes water retention and dries quickly. Cotton is an inappropriate material for highly variable conditions. Cotton can absorb more than four times of it’s weight in water and can take five times as long to dry as some synthetics! Silk, Rayon, and a host of other fabrics are better than cotton, but still not nearly a good as nylon, polyester, or wool. The article why cotton kills explores this topic in more detail as does my Water Retention In Clothing page. I generally recommend fabrics made from polyester and nylon. Merino wool is also decent, retaining a bit more water than these synthetics but has the advantage of resisting odor. There are several treatments that can be applied to these materials which make them even better such as Schoeller’s nanospheres.
A nice side effect of quick drying clothing is that on extended trips in the back country or when you are adventure traveling you can wash your clothing in the sink or river and be able to wear them almost immediately. This reduces the amount of clothing you need to carry without being grubby or smelly.
Select the Right Amount of Insulation
There are four things which effect how warm you feel: your base metabolism (do you run “hot” or “cold”), the environmental conditions you are experiencing (temperature and wind), the amount of insulation you are wearing, and your activity level! Richard Nisley posted a wonderful graph illustrates how these factors are inter-related as does his revised paradigm for estimating garment comfort limits. I found Richard’s graph very helpful in selecting the right set of garments for a trip or event. My caveat is that I seem to require around 1/2 the insulation Richard recommends except when I sleep. What’s important to remember is that you only insulate for your lowest level of activity. For example, I will often eat “dinner” early and then hike at a moderate (no sweating) pace until dark and then immediately get under my quilt. In the morning I immediately start hiking and eat breakfast once it warms up a bit. This means I need clothing that is much less insulating than something that would keep me comfortable when sitting around at the coldest time in the day. I have also found Richard’s graph is a great reminder that besides adding or removing clothing layers, a highly effective way to maintain a comfortable temperature range during the day is by altering activity level.
Know How Much Durability is Needed
People are often concerned about the durability of clothing that will be worn in the back country or for an extended period of time while traveling. Many manufacturers encourage people’s fear and sell seriously overbuilt clothing, often labeled “Expedition Proven” or some such thing. The truth is, very few people, even those on expeditions need clothing that is so overbuilt. Unless you are facing continuous hard-wearing conditions, lighter weight clothing will have close to the same lifetime as the over-built clothing. There are many advantages to selecting items which aren’t overbuilt: you save weight, save space, often get better performance and spend less money. It is possible to go so light that durability is effected. Several manufacturers make clothing which is aimed at extreme athletics looking for the lightest weight performance. Often times weights savings comes at the expense of durability.
Price / Performance “Tiers”
My experience is that clothing (and most other products) comes in a number of “tiers”. Generally they go up in price and cost. In my experience “value” products are the best products in terms of number of uses / cost. Generally there is a ratio of performance / price. Generally the ratio starts to go exponential as you approach “the best” performance. With expensive products I generally look for the “knee of the curve”, were I am getting the best performance before the prices start to raise exponentially. Often the price difference between cheap and best clothing is small enough for me on an absolute scale, that I am willing to go for “the best”.
- Fast Fashion: Mostly about the “style”. Typically cheap (almost disposable) fabric, for workmanship. Great if you want something that looks like the cool kids and will be worn out by the time the new style comes out. Bad for the planet and the workers. I never buy these.
- Value: Typically use classic style, decent material, decent workmanship minimizing value / price. Muji and Uniqlo immediately come to mind. In the 1980s Land’s End. This is what I historically purchased and still do if I am going to put excessive wear on the item or I just don’t pay attention when I am using it.
- Name Brand: Clothing that is using higher quality materials, good workmanship, that are designed for a specific application or performance characteristic. Examples of this: Nike, ex Officio. Columbia, etc. I rarely see an advantage of name brand. It used to be it guaranteed better quality than value priced items, but that is not alway true. A lot of name brands attach there logo to clothing which doesn’t have the same quality are their core / original productions.
- Top Performance: Clothing that uses top materials, excellent workmanship, great design. When you put it on it just feels right and the garment is tailored to move with you. The seams are a thing of beauty. Often use innovated techniques. People often wonder why they are more expensive than many name brands. The first example of this is Arcteryx. I often find there are numerous little details that they pay attention to that other companies don’t. Taken together it elevates a piece of clothing from something that gets the job done to something I love every time I pull it out. I am lucky enough to be able to afford these items when I really care.
- Luxury: The logo makes the item worth >2x what any normal company would charge for an equivalent product of the same quality. Prada, etc. I never purchase these for myself.
Andrew Skurka’s Core Backpacking Clothing provides a proven approach to layering clothing. Understanding Layering Using Patagonia as A Guide by Nick Gatel is insightful and a bit of a history lesson. Richard Nisley’s article A Revised Paradigm For Estimating Garment Comfort Limits provides an in-depth model for evaluating clothing. I would also recommend checking Andy Kirkpatrick’s (aka pyschovertical) The Art of Not Suffering and BPL Clothing (and Sleep) System for Mountain Hiking. Frank Revelo’s clothing theory, clothing rejected, and clothing current is a an interesting take… very appropriate for the treks he takes. I would also look at the the various BPL forum posts by Richard Nisley and Steven Seeber. There have been some wonderful research done at the institutes housed U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center (NSSC). Alas, finding their publications is harder today than it was in the early 2000s. DeputySean’s Guide to Summer Wear is an opinionated set of recommendations for good sun protection for hiking in summer alpine conditions.
I wonder if clothing which makes use of graphene such as graphene-x and vollebak could be a game changer… but for now I am highly skeptical. I am unlikely to spend my own money to test it out given I think it’s just hype. The only real user review I found was not exactly positive.
I am just starting to learn more about sun protection. A good starting paper about properties that impact the protection of fabrics.
My Stay warm notes might provide some insight into clothing choices. Finally, I would recommend the tips in winter running for people who engage is very high energy activities in cold weather. See my others posts with clothing tag for specific recommendations.