Backpacking Tips: Comfort with Layers

Backpacking Tips:  Comfort with Layers

To Comfort!

I’ve found there are two ways to learn how to dress for backpacking comfort – a lot of miserable trial and error OR one can follow a few simple tips. My experience comes from a mix of both approaches.

At the end of this post I’ve included the layers I wore for 21 days on the John Muir Trail. They also work for a weekend.  Because the images are easier to see from the professionals, I’ve used images from some of my favorite brands web sites.

Base Layers

Base Layering is the key to keep your skin dry with materials which wick (move the moisture away from your skin).  More technical information is here at

Base Layers.   one Tank, one Tee, one long sleeved shirt, and hiking pants.


Tee from IceBreakers



Pategonia’s Capilene 3 Long Sleeved Shirt



Mountain HardWear Hiking Pants


My extra warmth and PJs.

 These are key layers I use when I get cold, or at night when the temperature really drops.


IceBreaker 200 weight long sleeved shirt


Mountain HardWear Fleece Pants


IceBreaker Hat

 Hiking Shirt.  This is a layer I optionally bring.  I find hiking shirts to be great sun block and I appreciate not having to wear sunscreen on my arms. They are also a nice wind break in cool breezes.


Exofficio Long Sleeved Shirt






Outer Layer.  It is amazing how warm one can be with a light down jacket and a rain jacket.  Think of the rain jacket as a wind breaker and heat trapper.  Too many people don’t put on their rain jacket in the desert or mountains when they are cold.   It works magic!  In the pictures below I show a hardshell jacket which I carry when I need a really durable jacket.  Otherwise I carry the Frogg Togg DriDucks.



Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Jacket


Arteryx Beta AR Jacket




Frogg Toggs makes a Dri Ducks Rain Suit





and, don’t forget a Sun Protection layer
Sun Hat and Sun Glasses


On the John Muir Trail, I carried a key few clothes for the 21 days on the trail in 2014.  Here are a couple of pictures of most of my clothing.  (missing pics are my tank, tee, and I carried a dry ducks rain jacket)

A bathing suit top doubled as a quick dry undergarment

A bathing suit top doubled as a quick dry undergarment

Patagonia Long Sleeve ShirtHiking Pants Dry Quickly and are very tear resistanthikingshirt


Ice Breaker wool mid-weight shirt and fleece pant are great for warm PJs Down Jacket from Mountain HardwearRainjacket is also key to use as a  wind breaker

DriDucks are the rain gear I carry:  I’ll have to take a picture of mine in the future.

Some notes about how I personally have found these layers are below.

Down Jacket
Ask anyone in my family and they will tell you I am the first one to get cold. Because I detest being cold, I quickly figured out how to get my layers right so I don’t get chilled. To be warm in 19 deg weather, I need nothing more than a wool base layer, a polypropylene mid-weight long sleeved shirt, a down jacket, and a rain jacket on top. Oh – and hat & gloves. It’s most important to put the layers on just before the temp drops and put the layers over dry undergarments. Anything damp underneath will cool one quickly.

Extra warm layers/ PJs

I have a wool top, fleece pants, a wool hat, and gloves. I store all of these in a dry bag. At one time I thought keeping my warm layers in a dry bag was overkill, but I followed the advice anyway. My perspective changed when I met father and son after a heavy rainstorm on the John Muir Trail. Between the two of them, they had only 1 dry pair of surf shorts which dad was wearing with a damp polyester shirt and a damp rain jacket. The son could not leave his sleeping bag because that was all he had for warmth. They didn’t have any wool layers which I mention because wool retains 80% of its heat when wet. Rain had seeped under their backpack rain covers and everything was wet. They were a day and a half from being able to get off the trail and were miserably planning how to get off of the trail as quickly as they could.






and, don’t forget a Sun Protection layer
Sun Hat and Sun Glasses