Dress down

Recommending clothing is such a complex issue; advice rests on far too many unstable variables: local geographical, climactic, and meteorological conditions, personal preferences, body types, gender. With clothing – more so, perhaps than with any other of the Ultralight Makeover series – personal circumstances will significantly influence the choices you make, which makes writing a useful guide covering your particulars, well... particularly difficult.

Is there any point, then, in going into detail at all? If we assume that we share some general need for clothing on the trail (naked hikers can move on unhindered), and if we limit the discussion to clothing required for a moderate temperate climate (i.e. let's say three-season temperatures between 5ºC/40ºF and 25ºC/80ºF; anything outside that and you can add/remove items as necessary) then I think we can look at some generalised clothing concepts and make some broad recommendations.

In previous editions of this series, I've included a section looking at what other bloggers are using. For the reasons outlined above, this would be nigh-on impossible task for clothing. Instead, I'll try to pick out a few items that regularly crop up in reviews and reports, or highlight items that have achieved some level of near-universal acclaim.


Ultralight Layering

Layering is, of course, the fundamental, tried-and-tested approach to selecting clothing for any hiking, backpacking, bikepacking, packrafting or other outdoor activity. Layering involves adding and/or removing differently-purposed clothing layers comprising breathable, wicking, insulating, and water resistant properties.

With ultralight layering, the process and technique remains exactly the same; the difference lies in the weights of items worn, and in the diligence needed to cut out unnecessary or ineffective items that only add weight to the pack.

In warmer climates, a bare minimum might consist of a base layer and some kind of waterproof or water-resistant layer. Those hiking in cooler climates will need to carry more layers to give additional flexibility when facing harsher, less predictable weather.

In the simplest configuration, it's possible to limit the number of layers we need to just three:

  • base layer
  • insulation layers (including mid-layers and insulating layers)
  • shell layers (including windproof and waterproof layers)

In most locations that might fall into our arbitrary definition of moderate temperate climates, I think it's fair to say that it would be wise at the very least to have one item representing each of those categories in order to form a complete clothing system. In cooler climates or conditions, it will likely be necessary to carry more than one insulation layer, and both wind and waterproof shells. Fortunately, modern materials mean carrying appropriate additional clothing to meet the needs of your environment will not impact the weight of your pack significantly. A light down jacket can weighing just 180g / 6oz provides enough warmth on a cold evening to make it an essential item. Similarly, a windshirt weighing just 115g / 4oz will have but the tiniest impact on your scales, but will be enormously welcome in exposed spots or during a light shower.

These are items which it simply makes sense to carry. In my opinion, the larger problem we face is not what we should take, but what we shouldn't...


Cutting down on the other stuff

Whenever I return form a trip, I make sure I assess the clothing I took with me, and make note of any items which were not worn or used. Often, when we load our backpacks, we hastily pack clothing to cover every eventuality, and end up only wearing half of it. While some of these items might be necessary (taking and not wearing a waterproof shell because it doesn't rain is perfectly acceptable), you will soon learn to identify other items that are redundant: their intended purpose is already covered by other clothing that you actually do use.

As an example, on a recent trip to Käsivarsi Wilderness Area, I knew from the weather forecast that it would be cold. I diligently packed a base layer, insulating mid layer, light down puffy, and rain jacket. Then, "just in case" I packed my Hangfire Hoodie – a perfectly fine fleece hoodie that I often wear at home when the morning temps are chilly. I was worried it might get really cold at night, and that I might not have enough layers without it. So in it went.


Now, much as I like the Hangfire, it's not a small top: 457g / 16oz, and quite bulky, as is typical for fleece.

I never wore it once.

I think we often forget that when we are outside 24 hours a day our bodies adjust to the cooler temperatures quite quickly. I was plenty warm enough in my merino tee and grid-fleece mid layer. One cold morning I discovered, after hiking a few kilometres, that I was still wearing my down jacket under my rain coat.  At no point, even on the coldest night, did I even think about putting on the Hangfire. It was 457g of dead weight for the whole trip, which just goes to prove we all make mistakes.

Now I know this, I won't be taking the Hangfire on any three-season trips again (winter is another matter; it makes a great snowshoeing top).

There might be some people out there thinking, "Oh, Mark, you really are a silly arse," but trust me, a fleece hoodie is the least of your worries when trying to skip what you really don't need.


So what don't I need to take?

If I catch anyone on the trail carrying the following items, you will be summarily chastised in the sternest fashion:

  • Spare shirts - you absolutely don't need any "spare" clothing for short trips. You're allowed to smell to high heaven, it's part of getting back to nature.
  • Spare underwear - ditto spare underwear: if you're getting, ahem, skanky down there, give your undies a rinse, and "freshen up" 
  • Deodorant - okay, so it's not clothing, but I agree with Backpacker on this: deo is unnecessary weight. 
  • Spare trousers - if you're wearing smart clothing that dries quickly, there's no point carrying spare trousers. 
  • Spare socks - not necessary, with the exception of a separate pair of "night socks"
  • Pyjamas - see "long johns" below for night attire if you need them.
  • Jeans - do I really need to say this? Outside of a desert, there's no excuse for wearing cotton of any kind, let alone jeans.
  • Leather jackets - you may laugh, but in Käsivarsi Wilderness Area I saw one guy who had carried in his leather jacket. 
  • Wellington boots - popular in Finland, I have no idea why.
  • Camp shoes - redundant weight. If your shoes and feet are wet in camp, change into waterproof socks
  • Non-waterproofed rain gear - if you don't re-treat your rain gear with DWR, there's no point in taking it.


What do I really need?

Before we address that, let's reiterate the need for making appropriate choices according to environment, climate, and your body type, mainly so I don't have to write "depending on your environment, climate, and body type" before every paragraph. Only you know what you might need.

With that said, let's make a comprehensive list of clothing for a three-season weekender in varying conditions. You won't need every item on every trip, but the idea is that this should be enough to most conditions:

  • Hat (a peak or brim is useful - i.e. baseball, cadet, fishing - but a bandana is multi-purpose)
  • Sunglasses 
  • Torso base layer
  • Torso insulation - mid layer (i.e. microgrid-fleece)
  • Torso insulation - jacket (i.e. light down/synthetic puffy)
  • Windshirt (highly breathable, water resistant)
  • Rain jacket (somewhat breathable, supposedly waterproof)
  • Gloves (liners at least, possibly also waterproof mitts)
  • Long johns (optional, but good to have in cold, wet climates for night)
  • Hiking Pants (a.k.a. Trousers; quick drying, water resistant ideally)
  • Waterproof rain pants (optional, but good in cold, wet climates)
  • Hiking socks (one pair only)
  • Sleep socks (one pair only)
  • Waterproof socks (worn in camp only, can also use plastic bags)
  • Shoes (light trail shoes, see Ultralight Makeover: Redux, Pt 12)
  • Gaiters (optional)

Let's look at each item in more detail, and see what Backpacking North and others are using.

Hats are great. They keep you warm, and make you look cool.


Well, maybe not always... But even in summer, it's smart to take a hat of some sort: either for warmth at night, or to keep the sun out of your eyes, and bugs out of your hair. A brimmed-cap (baseball or cadet-style, for example) is great when used in conjunction with a headnet - the peak keeps the netting off your face.

Buffs or bandanas are also good options and true multi-use items. The cunning ultralighter will find uses for a bandana as a hat, pot holder, rehydrated meal insulator, hand towel, tourniquet, water or coffee filter, stuff sack... I'm sure there are many more uses.

For wet, cold, and windy conditions, something more insulating might be advantageous, and if you're expecting cold nights, a down beanie or hood (especially if sleeping in a quilt) is pretty much essential.

If your other torso layers are hooded, carrying a separate hat might be overkill. A hooded base, mid and (possibly) puffy might well be enough – and hooded layers have other benefits: not only are they always at hand (or at least, at neck), ready to be pulled up when you need them, but they give you better all-around protection from wind and draughts.

Being a gentlemen of the bald persuasion, I often find myself carrying several hats. For general use I wear a cadet style cap for  general use; it keeps the sun off my head and out my eyes, and offers a little bug protection. If things get really bad I just throw the headnet on top. My hat of choice is a Haglöfs Box Cap (59g / 2oz), and I bought it because I was convinced I would look as awesome in it as Jaakko and Thomas. Sadly I seem to be the recipient of a earlier design that makes me look like Arnold Rimmer.

I often carry a very thin Haglöfs polartec microfleece cap with me. It weighs just 28g / 1oz, but is surprisingly warm and perfect at night or on chilly mornings. This isn't it, but it's the closest I could find. If it's going to be really cold I take a Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon fleece beanie. It's pretty much the only hat I wear below about -5C / 23F, unless it's shockingly cold and I need a down hood on top of that.


Talking of down hoods, until recently I've been taking the removable hood of my Halti winter down jacket with me. While it's not designed to be used separately from the jacket, it works pretty well on it's own by tying the pull cords under my chin. It's an improvised solution that has the unfortunate side effect of making me look (even more) like a dork.

I've since bought a Black Rock Ultralight Down Hat. It's a much more stylish, lighter solution which Roger at NielsenBrown Outdoors finally convinced me was worth investing in. (27g / 1oz). Stick liked his so much he made a nine minute video review. It's not warm enough for a good Lapland winter; the stitch through design and light fill create areas where the cold creeps through, especially noticeable with a lack of hair. But as a cap for three-season nights inside a shelter, it's just about right.

Hats a such an individual item it's hard to find a lot of consensus about which ones are best. The Jolly Green Giant has a nice little run down, recommending the venerable TilleyMultiple contributors to Backpacking Lightrecommend Outdoor Research hats (especially the Sun Runner), and Sunday Afternoon's range.

For microfleece hats, you can pretty much pick and choose anything from your favourite retailer.


Torso Base Layer
For summer use, a light merino tee makes an ideal base layer. For cooler seasons, a long-sleeved merino hoodie offers a little more warmth, flexibility, and the benefit of a built in hood. Unfortunately, lightweight merino hoodies are sometimes hard to find. For some reason manufactures have a tendency to discontinue them just as word is getting around. So if you find one you like, seize the day.

Although the properties of merino are well known – warm in cool weather, cool in warm, no unpleasant odours in any – I personally find merino's cooling ability to be a little overrated. There's absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a synthetic base layer instead of merino if that suits you (and your wallet) better. Sure, you'll probably end up a little more aromatic than with merino, but what happens on the trail, stays on the trail – hopefully downwind.

The choice between a tee and a hoodie has some influence upon the need for a mid layer. I like the combination of a tee and long-sleeved mid layer. It offers a good range of ventilation options and is very adaptable to the relatively wide temperature ranges I can expect during what I hesitantly call summer in Lapland. Other people in different climates might simply use a single layered tee or hoodie instead.

My go-to merino tee is an older model Icebreaker 150g/m2, which is no no longer made. Mine doesn't have the biking bells and whistles of the new version, but it's a simple top that hasn't let me down. It dries very fast, the half chest zip is good for venting, and the small raised neck gives a little sun protection. It is, to give Icebreaker a free marketing quote, the shirt that keeps on going. Mine weighs 195g / 6.8oz. There are some current alternatives from SmartWool and Icebreaker, but they lack the chest zip and raised neck. A pity.

For cooler weather, there was only one lightweight, hooded, long-sleeved merino top that any serious ultralighter coveted more than Jame Gumb coveted a nice big girl suit: the Backpacking Light Beartooth Merino Hoodie. And I say "coveted" intentionally as it was hardly ever in stock, and then they closed the store (leaving the web page online to taunt us). Balaclava style hood, thumb loops, zipper, 150g/m2. It was perfect. 

But fear not, I've trawled the web (all of it, even the naughty bits) and found a replacement that ticks almost all of the same boxes: the I/O Bio Merino Contact Glory Hoodie. Zip? Check! 150g/m2? Almost! (160g/m2). Thumb loops? You betcha! Balaclava style hood? Not exactly... More gimp...


But hey, it's cheaper ($90 / €70), and they ship worldwide for $10. Unfortunately the website is "unusual" so I can't link to it directly, and I/O Merino have a habit of changing designs and names frequently. Hunt down their latest variation on it here, but be warned that whenever I've looked recently they've never had it.

There are more available alternatives out there, albeit heavier ones. The Ibex Hooded Indie is the likliest contender, and meets all the requirements (zip, thumb loops et al) at a respectable – and probably harder wearing – 195 g/m2. There's also one for women. Icebreaker also offer the 200g/m2 Oasis Hooded Base Layer, and Rab has their MeCo 165 Hooded Top

Going against all received wisdom, in hot, dry climates, cotton is useful as it stays wet for a long time, thus cooling you down. In humid areas, a looser, synthetic shirt might be more pleasant, and Rohan have a popular range for men and women. Paramo also have some for men and women. Rohan's have been worn by people like Stephen Fry, while Chris Townsend likes Paramo. You be the judge of cool. Of course neither Rohan nor Paramo are readily available outside the UK, but there a about a gazillion different big-name "outdoor" brands making similar clothing (Patagonia, North Face, REI, Columbia etc).

Insulation / Mid Layers
One man's base layer might be another woman's mid layer, and that woman's mid layer might be a person of non-descript gender identification's insulation. It's all so confusing, these days.

To complicate matters, many mid layers might be marketed (with perfect validity) as base layers or even shells. I'm of the opinion that it becomes a mid layer when you use it as a mid layer, not when someone tells you it is or isn't.

To simplify this confusing state of affairs, we can generalise, and lump all things you put on top of your base layer, and which would go under something waterproof in rain, as insulation. On a basic level that's what every item of clothing is doing in this role; insulating you, adding warmth.

Now, again I have to reiterate that I'm talking about cooler three-season climates when I discuss adding an insulating layer while hiking. Those in warmer climates will no doubt manage fin with just a base layer.

As an initial barrier against cold while carrying a backpack, it makes sense to add a fairly durable layer over your base layer. Generally, the heat generated through exertion while hiking makes wearing warmer down or synthetic insulation a poor choice – it's simply too hot, you end up sweating, and then end up changing rapidly from too hot to too cold.

I would rarely hike wearing a down puffy (unless through negligence), and instead choose a micro grid fleece top. Fleece is often frowned upon for it's bulky compression and weight, but a thin micro grid fleece works well as a very flexible insulating in cooler environments. These tops have a "grid" or "waffle" of fleece which aids moisture transportation and ventilation on the inside, and a smoother, non-piling finish on the outside: perfect for wearing under a backpack.

Without a doubt, the classic example of this is the Patagonia R1 Hoody (men / women). It is undoubtedly a very nice piece of kit. Polartec power dry means it dries fast. Hood. Thumb loops. Chest pocket. Long body so it doesn't rise up. 325g / 11.5oz. The downside? Have a guess... (hint: it's a Patagonia). Yep, it costs $150. For a fleece. If you're extremely lucky you'll catch one on sale, but they sell out fast.

There are alternatives which are just as good, even if they lack the street cred: the Melanzana Micro Grid Hoodie , the MEC T3 (women's), or the excellent RAB Baseline. I also have a Didricksons version that I picked up from my local supermarket here in Rovaniemi for about €40 a few years ago. It's perfectly fine. The moral of this story, if you hadn't guessed, is that you don't always have to throw money at the big brands to get good enough gear. I make it a habit to hunt out potentially decent clothing from obscure places and save money – and fleece is one area you should be able to do that with ease.

To get back on point, any of these articles of coshing will make a fine insulating mid-layer, which can double as a base layer, Many even have a little DWR treatment so they serve as an occasional shell. (Fleece tops are exceptionally good for cold, wet climates, such as I am experiencing on an all too regular basis in Lapland this year). And again, a micro fleece with a hood might mean you can skip taking a hat. Look for the half-zip on the chest – it aids dramatically with venting on strenuous sections of the trail.

How about an alternative to fleece? The Rab Boreas has been getting rave reviews from just about everyonein the last year. It even got a Backpacker Magazine Editor's Choice. Is there anyone who doesn't have one? I have one and find it an odd piece of kit. Not particularly windproof. Not really water resistant. Thin. A bit loose fitting with long arms. Light-ish, and cheap-ish (300g / 11oz, £45). Others swear by it though, so don't just take my opinion.


Outer insulation.

Even in summer, I never hit the trail without my super-light down jacket. I'm not talking about hardcore winter jackets capable of coping with -20ºC, but down jackets that serve, essentially, as ultralight pullovers (or "jumpers" as we Brits like to call them). These are great to wear when you stop high up, at night when temps drop, or while making your morning oats.

I don't consider a hood to be essential for a three-season jacket – quite the opposite. I use down, even in the damp of Lapland; if it rains I just throw my waterproof jacket on top. A down-filled hood would be the first thing to get wet from rain ingress, and that's undesirable. Of course, there are some very good synthetic puffy alternatives available, too, and these would provide some warmth while wet, but frankly, just because you can let it get wet doesn't mean you should. Better to let hats and hoodies keep your head warm.

I use a MontBell ExLight down jacket (180g / 6.3oz) and am extremely happy with it. If there's a down side (boom-ching) it's that the jacket is a little short, presumably to keep the weight as low as possible. On a positive note, there's a women's version, too. Alternatives are the MontBell UltraLight Down Jacket (a slightly heavier 226g / 8oz), the First Ascent MicroTherm down shirt (270g / 9.5oz., for women too, hooded versions also available if you dare), the current ultralight champion, Patagonia's Ultralight Down Shirt for men andwomen (167g / 5.9oz). (For the lowdown on down, see Backpacking Light's 2010 state of the market report, much of which is still current information. Links can be found at the end of the article).

Synthetic materials make an excellent choice for a insulating puffy layer, especially in wet areas, and most manufactures offer a synthetic version of their down jackets. The Rab Xenon (hooded) is popular, weighing around 390g / 13oz, and also comes without a hoodMontBell's Thermawrap range is not uncommon and gets multiple rave reviews on Backpacking Light, but by far the most popular, rightly or wrongly, is the Patagonia Nano Puff (289g / 10.2oz), also available for women.


Wind- and Water-proof Shells

Nothing cools you quicker than a cold, hard wind. Couple that with rain and, unless you have the right protective gear, you've bought yourself a one-way ticket to hypothermia.

First, we should clarify what we mean by wind- and water-proof shells. A wind-proof jacket (or wind shirt) is a highly breathable top which blocks a significant amount of wind. They usually have some level of water repellency to cope with light showers. They dry very quickly, weigh very little, and are made of super-lightweight materials (such as Pertex) that scrunch up to a tiny size no bigger than your fist.

Waterproof jackets are less breathable – while new fabrics such as eVent and PacLite are breathable, no  material can be both fully waterproof and fully breathable – but, like wind shirts, block the wind. They are, as you might imagine, more waterproof. But you should always take claims of waterproofing with a pinch of salt. No jacket will keep you totally dry in sustained rain; the point will come when either seams or zips start leaking, or the jacket loses the battle between trying to be breathable and waterproof, and you find yourself getting wet from perspiration. However, a good rain jacket will keep you pretty dry. Today's ultralight raincoats weigh very little, although the lighter and flimsier they get, the more likely they will not be up to extreme conditions. You can't have everything.

For a long time I never carried a wind shirt – I felt that as a raincoat offers protection from rain and wind, there was no need for a separate garment. While there is some truth to this, the breathability of a wind shirt so far surpasses that of a rain jacket that I find myself carrying one pretty much all the time. Sure, they don't add much warmth, but they do reduce loss of heat through convection. In some climates, you might be able to hike happily with only a base layer and a wind shirt for backup. I take on e to put on top of my mid-layer insulation on colder, windy days, or when I'm expecting light showers.

Another reason to take one is bug protection. Mosquitoes and other midges can't bite through the fabrics, so they make great camp wear in buggy locations. Most wind shirts are hooded, and I think this is a smart thing to look for when buying: as well as keeping your head warm, it offers additional bug-proofing.

I use a Montane LiteSpeed Windshirt (170g / 6oz) which has for many years been the most popular wind-proof top available. Steve Horner has a review, as does Joe. There's also an H20 version which is more waterproof.

The other contender for "most popular windshirt of all time" is the Rab Cirrus Pull-On (76g / 2.6oz), which is officially crazy-light. Reviews are aplenty (PTCBackpackingbongos, for starters), and I think I've seen Joe flirting with one behind the LiteSpeed's back. Tsk tsk tsk.

Andrew Skurka (how come we got so far without mentioning The Skurk?) espouses a GoLite Dakota (103g / 4oz) in his excellent ultralight bible. However it seems to be currently unavailable. Another popular alternative is the Patagonia Houdini (113g / 4oz).

Backpacking Light have just started another "state of the market" report on wind shirts, which includes the Rab Boreas (see above). I find that a little odd as it isn't really windproof at all, but they seem to like it.

Incidentally, just the other day I read that Mont-Bell are binging out the world's lightest wind shirt: a re-designed Tachyon at 45g/1.6oz. Soon they'll be lighter than the air they're protecting you from.

Backpacker recommends not skimping on rain gear for alpine climates. I agree – rain gear is probably the most critical three-season clothing item you'll purchase. When it comes to waterproof shells, your best bet is to keep it simple. If you want to up the ante against stormy weather, you want to simplify the jacket. The more zippers, pockets, and seams there are, the more potential the garment has to let water seep through.  Some designs, for example, do away with the front zip and have just a half-length, chest zip, and no pockets. Ventilation is performed by breathable fabrics such as eVent, and aided on less breathable garments by pit zips (zippers under the arms than can be unzipped to allow better ventilation under exertion).

Other things you should look for: a good hood that doesn't collapse on your face, and directs the water away from you. Cuffs that don't wet out immediately. A long body that doesn't rise up while wearing a backpack – a perennial problem with hip belts - and which sends water flowing down low enough over your rain pants so that it doesn't find a way in at your waist. If you must have a full-length zip, and live in a storm-prone area, think about storm flaps on your zipper; "waterproof" zips are not all they're cracked up to be. On lighter jackets, check the seams are well taped, or better still, welded. Another good thing to check is the position of any pockets (if you must have them): they can often be obscured by your pack's shoulder straps.

The amount of rain protection you need depends on how much sustained precipitation you are likely to encounter, and your hiking style. If you plan to hike all day in the Nordic rain (also known as "summer") you should invest in an appropriately storm-worthy shell. For occasional rain, there are numerous lighter alternatives that may well be good enough. For dryer areas of rare precipitation, the need for rain gear is questionable, especially with today's quick-drying fabrics.

Talking of fabrics, there are many that will dazzle you with their groovy pseudo-scientific nomenclature.

  • Gore-Tex (including the recently developed Paclite and ActiveShell)
  • eVent (highly breathable, expensive)
  • Polyurethane (cheaper alternatives i.e. Marmot MemBrain, Patagonia H2No, Mountain Hardwear Conduit)
  • Polypropylene (Frogg Toggs, light and fragile)
  • Paramo (a world unto themselves)
  • Greenland Wax (Fjall Raven, messy, tedious)
  • NeoShell (Polartec's whizz bang new fabric)

Of the lot of them, eVent is currently the most highly regarded. NeoShell, I feel, needs a little more time before it's virtues can be fully extolled, but it shows promise, and Chris Townsend has called it "the most breathable membrane I've ever tried."

For many years I've opted for the middle ground, and have been satisfied with my Marmot Super Mica (240g / 6.8oz). I like the reinforced areas on the shoulders and hip, and the clever positioning of the pockets so they are accessible with a pack on. The pit zips are long and helpful. The hood is decent enough. The only problems I've had are the cuffs wetting out very quickly, and it's a touch on the short side.

While the Mica has been good to me, I've recently betrayed it and upped my protection to an eVent Rab Demand (283g / 10oz). I wanted a Haglofs Ozo, but they don't make them anymore. And now, it seems, they also don't make the Demand anymore, even though it received a swathe of support from ultralighters: Hendrik has a review, and Roger convinced me of its (storm)worthiness. Instead, check out theRab Pulse.

The Marmot PreCip is also popular with Backpacking Light readers. At
370g / 13oz, and currently on  sale from $60, (mens / womens) it's a much cheaper solution.

Whatever your waterproof,, though, remember to keep it clean and re-apply any DWR coatings regularly. eVent's resilience in particular is affected by grime, but any material benefits from a re-application of Nikwax or appropriate equivalent.

For further, in-depth information, check out this great REI article on waterproof fabrics, and DWR coatings and care. There is also additional reading material at the end of this article.

While in some places gloves might be overkill for summer, I always carry at least a thin pair of liner gloves, just in case the nights turn chilly. But I find gloves difficult items to be fully satisfied with – I have so many pairs of different weights and differing properties, I often end up taking several pairs pairs with me – perhaps unnecessarily. First, I pack the liner gloves, which are great for fending off slight chills. But then... what if it gets very cold? Maybe I should pack my slightly warmer fleece or power dry gloves? And what about wind? A nice pair of windproof gloves could come in handy (ho ho) up on the exposed high ground. Ah, but what if it rains? Dammit! Better take a pair of waterproof mitts too...

Before long I've got a sack full of gloves I don't need. The windproof gloves would probably be the best choice. These are usually windproof only on the back of the hand, and are otherwise simple and light. For rain, some people like to use waterproof rain mitts, but I tend to either take my gloves off or pull my rain jacket sleeves down over my hands.

What gloves do I use? I honestly don't know. I tend to pick up pairs from the supermarket without worrying too much about it. I had a great pair of Craft gloves made out of some kind of power dry material that were pretty good. Along the way I've tried generic gloves from REI (liners that felt warm, but were not), First Ascent (sticky rubber palms, quite nice; alas, they fell apart), Halti (too thin for Halti, and one finger mysteriously melted), Haestra (ok-ish), Icepeak (waterproof gloves, but I doubt they really are waterproof), the list goes on and on...

Montane make a nice-looking PowerDry glove that I have my eye on. Extremities make a huge range of gloves that I get dizzy and confused just looking at. Roger had a pair of windproof ones that looked good, so I ordered a pair to try and keep up with the Browns. He also had a pair of MLD eVent rain mitts, which he didn't rate that highly, and The Skurk concurs (p.62, Ultimate Hiker's Guide). The seams need to be sealed on them, which I think many people forget. To be honest, I wonder if it wouldn't be smarter to make a pair of MYOG Tyvek rain mitts and glue them together. The pattern would be easy-peasy; even a ham-fisted klutz such as myself should be able to manage it. On the other hand (as it were), Black Rock's Cuben Fiber Rain Mitts are breathable, fully taped, and come in at just 12.8g / 0.45oz for a pair, but you'll pay the price for the ultimate in ultralight: they cost a whopping $95. Unfortunately they are also unavailable at this time. A slightly cheaper, slightly heavier pair are available from ZPacks (23g / 0.8oz), or you could always make your own from a sheet of Tyvek.

One quick-drying pair of underwear in your favourite style (boxers, briefs, kinky stuff) is all you need for short trips, and arguably all you need for longer trips too. After a couple of days use, just give them a  good rinse in water and stick them somewhere warm to dry overnight (i.e. next to your body in your sleeping bag or quilt). If they don't dry you have two choices: wear them to dry them as you walk, or attach them to your pack to dry as you go commando through the wilderness.

I wear Ex-Officio boxers that dry amazingly quickly. In Halti I washed them one day and they didn't dry overnight. I followed my excellent advice and tried to dry them on my pack, but it was damp and raining so that didn't work out so well. When it eventually stopped raining, I simply put the damp boxers on, and within 30 minutes they were dry again.

If you prefer merino undies, Icebreaker has your goodies covered.

As I was frolicking around admiring the internet's numerous underwear sites, I realised I have no information about the delicate needs of women in these matters. If any of my female readers have advice for the women of the world, please chime in in the comments.

Legs: Base Layer
I can't think of any occasion in any climate where I've felt the need to wear a base layer on my legs while hiking in spring, summer or autumn. Legs generate plenty of heat while walking to negate the need for any mid- or base-layers.

However, in cooler conditions, I'll usually carry a pair of merino long johns to wear at night. If it's wet and cold, changing into a pair of dry leggings is a little nighttime luxury I'm willing to burden as extra pack weight. Of course, they also provide extra warmth, extending the range of my quilt. They're not absolutely necessary, and often I'll just wear my hiking trousers at night. But if I'm expecting extended rain and cold, and I want to keep by down bag dry, and be toasty warm, I'll bring them along. I use a pair of Devold merino long johns  from the local sports shop, which I was surprised to find are lighter (186g / 6.5oz) than the popular Icebreaker 150s (205g / 7oz).

Legs: Shell
You say pants, I say trousers. Call 'em what you will – there's really not much more to say about them, except you certainly don't need to carry a spare pair.

In temperatures above around 13ºC / 55ºF I've been using a pair of Columbia Silver Ridge split trekking pants which I like very much. I picked them up from REI on the spur of the moment, and as luck would have it they are light and extremely quick to dry. It there's light rainfall I usually don't bother to add waterproofs as they'll often dry as I'm walking. They're a real bargain (around $60) compared to other brands and come highly recommended for three-season use.

I recently picked up a pair of Haglöfs Lite Fjell pants from the outlet store in Haparanda. I'd provide a link, but the problem with Haglöfs is that they change their kit so often it's hard to keep up . The Lite Fjell Pants, as far as I can tell, no longer exist (hence the lack of a link), and that's okay because, frankly, the pockets are badly thought out with no zip on the front ones, and a vertical zip on the rear ones. I can see why they might have thought a vertical zip was a clever idea: if you want to access them while wearing a thick hip belt it's easier to unzip them. But its far too easy for things to fall out, making both sets of pockets next to useless.

I wouldn't discount all Haglöfs trousers on one bad experience, though. I have one heavier pari which have lasted me years. I have no idea what model they are, but from what I can see the closest current version is aMid Flex Pant (485g / 17oz). Mine weigh 544g /  19oz, which I know is not light, but they are the epitome of rugged, with a soupçon of flexible thrown in, and a DWR finish to round it off. I'll wear them hiking from September through to May or June in Lapland.

Perhaps the most popular pair or pants/trousers are Montane Terra's (320g 11.2oz), which are especially common amongst UK ultralighters, and I've had my eye on a pair for a long time. If you do order a pair, be warned that the regular leg length is on the short side, and the long leg is a much sought-after rare beast. I have one criticism of the Terras: the serious lack of pockets. There are no thigh nor rear pockets, which I often find frustrating.

In Halti, Roger was wearing a pair of BPL Thorofare Pants which were remarkable: the water repellancy was amazing. After crossing streams they were bone dry,and yet they are breathable and light as a feather. Unfortunately they are, along with everything else BPL produced, no longer available, but hopefully some other manufacturer will pick up the baton

As for waterproof trousers, you might ask, "Are rain pants necessary for three-season hiking?" As ever, it would be nice to give a clear cut yes or no answer to that question. The best we can do is offer "it depends..." For summer weekenders you can make a fairly accurate assessment of the likely weather conditions, and have a pretty good idea of how wet you might potentially be at the end of the day.

There have been plenty of situations where I've carried waterproof trousers, enjoyed dry weather, and regretted carrying pointless weight. On other occasions, I've ended up walking in the rain and just managed in my hiking pants. This is fine if you have a pair of quick-drying or water resistant trousers, encounter only occasional showers, and hike where it's warm enough for the material to dry as you continue on the trail. It's another matter entirely if you end up walking in persistent rain in cooler temperatures, arriving cold, wet, and miserable in camp.

An example: on my recent hike to Aakenustunturi, I walked in my Columbia pants, letting them get wet in the irregular (but quite heavy) showers. I knew at the end of the day I'd stay in a wilderness hut and get a fire going. As it turned out, the rain stopped an hour or so before the hut, and the pants were already dry when I got there (my socks, however, which I didn't realise were mostly cotton, took alot longer).

In contrast, in Käsivarsi, the rain was continuous, and rain pants were essential. Higher altitude, lower temperatures, and sleeping under the DuoMid meant if I got wet, I'd stay wet (or have to cut the trip short).

While taking rain pants is optional (depending on circumstances), today's highly breathable pants are also lightweight enough to include under the "might as well take them anyway" category.

For the last few years I've been using a pair of Marmot PreCip (Short Zip) rain pants (268g / 9.4oz), and for the most part they've been pretty good. The zip aids in slipping them over trail shoes, and breathability / waterproofness has generally been fine. Only under extended use have they begun to leak around the hip-belt area, but I suspect that any pair of waterproof trousers is susceptible in areas of heavy contact with one's backpack. They're okay, but I wanted to improve on them.

Rab Drilliums had been getting some good comments, so I indulged in a pair. They are eVent, weigh 275g / 10oz, and are simple: no pockets, but they do have a leg zip. It's early days, but so far I like them.

Rain pants are probably not the most exciting gear purchases you'll make (which accounts for the chronic lack of reviews and impassioned arguments online), but if you live somewhere where rain stops being enjoyable and starts to get seriously depressing, a decent pair of rain pants might save your sanity and stop you from turning around and heading home.


Even more exciting than rain pants on the clothing ecstasy scale are socks.

If you're wearing trail runners or similar lightweight, non-waterproof, quick drying shoes (and let's assume that you are for the moment –if you're not then Part 12 of this guide will be of particular interest to you, assuming I ever finish this part and get on with the rest of my life) then a pair of short, quick drying socks are ideal.

There are proponents of synthetic materials, merino, or a combination of the two. To summarize the difference between the two:

  • synthetics: quick to dry, not warm when wet
  • merino: slower to dry, warm when wet

I've worn synthetic socks quite happily for some years now. In the past I wore slightly heavier merino socks. They were lovely and comfy but didn't dry so well. After getting into trail runners more, I switched to thinner Bridgedale X-Hale Speed Demon synthetics. They dry very quickly, and their warmth when wet isn't too shoddy: even when splashing through ice-cold streams my feet seem to heat up to a comfortable level after a minute or so or walking. I also have a pair of DeFeet Wooleator socks, as espoused by Messrs Skurka and Brown. However, I found the Speed Demons to be preferable.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You don't need to carry a spare pair of socks for short trips. But what you do need is to dry your feet and keep them dry after hiking (unless trench foot is something you've always fancied).

Using trail runners means that your feel will probably get wet. In persistent rain, or with that annoying final river crossing, your feet might remain wet in camp, which is less than optimal.

To solve this, a pair of waterproof socks can be worn in camp (directly over your feet; remove the wet socks for drying) to protect your feet from your wet shoes, and warm them up. I use a pair of SealSkinz (126g) which are great as long as they remain dry – by which I mean don't try walking through rivers  in them. Get them really wet and they take forever to dry, which is why it's best to reserve them for gentler use in camp. An alternative to SealSkinz are Rocky Gore-Tex Socks – the same limitations apply however: use them after hiking, not during.

The only spare pair of socks you should carry are a lovely, fluffy pair of night socks for use when you go to bed. I have a couple of pairs which have worked for me, both merino: SmartWool (103g), and a cheaper, REI pair (111g) which are just as good. As I'm not hiking in them, I can't distinguish any difference between the two. Their sole (ho ho ho, again) purpose is to pamper my feet at night. In the morning I leave them in my quilt, ready for the next night. They are one of the small items that always bring a smile to my face when I find them. If my feet could smile, I'm sure they would too.

As I've mentioned, we'll be covering shoes, trail runners, and everything else shoe-related in an excessive amount of detail in part 12.

Interesting alternative clothing
You're an ultralighter. You laugh at those living on the edge because you live on the precipice, man! Beyond the edge!

Clothing? Pah! You spurn such piffling traditions. You'd eat them for lunch, except you don't have lunch because you're so beyond lunch you're already on dessert. Tomorrow's dessert. That's how ultralight you are.

If that sounds like you then first of all, I'm sorry, and second... come into my emporium of delights, gullible traveller...

Rain pants? No no no... what you want are rain chaps - the ultralight version of the wild west. Breathability is no problem with these. Credibility however... A surprising amount of manufactures make rain chaps, and in some ways they make sense. Super light; breathability a non-issue; easy to put on. Check out the offerings from Full MoonZPacksBase DesignsMLD, ormake your own. Trust me, they're the next big thing with a hole in the butt.

Trousers? Pants? Whatever you call them, they're so last year. Do you want to be last year? No. You want to be next year. Right now. What you want is a kilt, my friend. I was seriously considering buying a Mountain Hardwear Kilt until I realised exactly what the mosquitoes would be biting.

A better idea (perhaps) is a rain kilt (or rain skirt). I can see some benefits to this  it even doubles as a ground cloth. Check out the ULA Rain SkirtZPacks Cloud KiltMike Clelland!'s MYOG guide, botch a pair together for yourself out of a trash bag, or watch Stick's Rain Wrap wrap up.

Rain Ponchos offer a little multi-use love to the ultralight hiker. As well as protecting you from downpours, you can often pitch them as solo tarps. MLD offer one, as do GoLiteSea-To-Summit, and Equinox. It's something I've been meaning to give a try, but I feel it suits warmer climates better. Read a review at Backpacking Lightto get a better idea.

For the true gentleman or lady ultralighter, an umbrella is the ultimate in alternative rain protection. Stylish and modern, you can make your way through the wilderness singing your favourite songs from Le Parapluies de Cherbourg (do I see a resemblance to a couple of ultralight lovebirds there?). While the top-selling ultralight trekking umbrella might have different names in America (GoLite Chrome Dome – on sale now for $19.99) and Europe (the sexily-named Euroschirm Swing Liteflex), the international language of Umbrella remains the same, as does the weight at 235g / 8oz. I have one, and I found it surprisingly useful for short showers – much quicker than putting on and taking off a rain coat all the time.

Further Reading

Backpacking Light offers a fine resource of technical information on all aspects of clothing. You do, however need to be a member to access most of the site (links marked (M) below. Forums and reader reviews are open to all.

Backpacking Light - Down Jackets State of the Market Report (M)
Backpacking Light - Waterproof Breathable Fabric Technologies (M)
Backpacking Light - Reader Gear Reviews (Free Access!)
Backpacking Light - Windshirts State of the Market Report (M)
Backpacking Light - Rain Pants State of the Market Report (M)
Backpacking Light - Waterproof Breathable Jackets State of the Market Report (M)
Backpacking Light - Alternative Rain Gear (M)

Andrew Skurka's Ultimate Hiker's Guide has a find section on clothing, offering much more technical information than I was able (or willing) to include here. It's an excellent book in general too. If I were running a course it would be on the "required reading" list.

REI's primer on waterproof fabrics
REI article on DWR care and reapplication
Fjäderlatt on Gere-Tex Active Shell
Terrybnd on NeoShell
Jorgen's MYOG Cuben Fiber Rain Mitts


Manufacturers' links

First Ascent
Mountain Hardwear
Black Rock

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