Living in the Pacific Northwest provides many excellent opportunities for hiking and backpacking in some of the most beautiful wilderness areas this country has to offer. Along with these opportunities comes the realization that to enjoy these areas, we must be prepared for extreme climate conditions. Choosing clothing to keep you warm and dry doesn’t have to mean carrying bulky and heavy items. Carefully evaluating the conditions that you expect to encounter will help in your decision on the amount and type of clothing you will require. Striking a balance between being cold, wet, and miserable or overloading yourself with heavy and inappropriate clothing is the challenge. Either option can leave you with an unpleasant experience at the very least. By developing a “ultralight clothing system” one can meet the changing weather conditions with the appropriate clothing while still keeping your load in the ultralight range.

I DO NOT and WILL NEVER recommend or advocate venturing into the wilderness without the proper safety equipment. Always have the TEN ESSENTIALS with you at the very minimum. Extra clothing, being one of the ten essentials is required for your safety. Proper clothing will protect you from losing vital body heat. It makes no difference if you are new to hiking and backpacking or if you’re an experienced hiker. Everyone of us have to adhere to this rule. When I was growing up back in Mississippi, we had a saying, “Cotton is King”. That may have been true for the south, however, here is a new saying for us hikers, “Cotton’s a Killer”. I’ll explain more on this subject later.

The goal here is not to dispense with warm clothes in an attempt to reduce pack weight. Our mission is to develop an efficient, light-weight system of garments that work together in the widest range of conditions. FUNCTION will be the key word when choosing clothing items for your system.

I have developed my clothing system over many years of trial and error. When I was a kid, we didn’t have all the super cool and high-tech clothing options available today. Cotton was the only fabric available and a properly equipped hiker was decked out in blue jeans, sweatshirt, and tennis shoes. Cotton socks and a baseball cap usually rounded out the outfit. If it was cold outside, throw in cotton thermal long johns. Hike all day and by the time you got your camp set up, you spent the rest of the night miserable, because, you were wet from the sweat soaked cotton clothes that take a week to dry….Cotton fibers are hydrophilic, meaning they absorb moisture. If you choose to wear cotton, be prepared to spend some quality time with Mr. Hypothermia. Cotton is unacceptable for outdoor clothing…Hence, COTTON’S A KILLER.

When selecting clothing for your system, look for clothes made from fabrics such as polyester, polypropylene, nylon, and certain wool fabrics. These fabrics are considered to be hydrophobic, meaning that the fibers do not absorb moisture. In some cases, nylon may actually be somewhat absorptive, making it slower to dry, however, it is still a good option for wind protection. The big problem with polyester is odor, however, the advantages of the fabric still out-weigh the smell. The fact that it dries so fast offers the option for washing daily. Wool has been around for years as an excellent material for outdoor clothing, however, until recently, it was very heavy and bulky. There are several companies producing garments made of wool that are comparable to the high-tech fabrics in weight and durability. Smartwool has become a common term in outdoor clothing and has proven to be an excellent option.

My clothing system is ever changing, however, the key elements of the system remain the same… The clothing must be the lightest in weight and the least in bulk. They must keep me warm on cold days and cool on hot days. They have to be breathable in order to minimize sweating and fast drying. Lastly, they must be durable, versatile, and easily packable.

I start with an ultralight wind proof jacket and pants made by Montane. The combined weight is 6.5 ounces. I take these with me on every trip into the mountains. They are one of my TEN ESSENTIALS. Not only are they wind proof, they are coated with a durable water resistant, DWR treatment that helps shed water. There are many manufacturers today that are producing excellent ultralight wind shells that are super packable. On rainy days, I usually save the shells for night time in camp. I can change from my rain gear and other, possibly-wet clothes into lightweight long johns and the shells. It’s like having a 6.5 ounce extra shirt and pants. The tight weave of the fabric also works well against insect bites.

My hiking shirt is either short sleeve or long sleeve depending on the season. In most cases, I prefer the short sleeve shirt while hiking during the day. Lightweight polyester is an excellent fabric for outdoor clothing and I typically use only polyester clothing except in very cold conditions. On early spring or late fall trips, I substitute smart wool long johns for the ultralight polyester pair. I will wear one shirt and carry an extra in my pack. One short sleeve and one long sleeve. If the weather is very warm, I will always try to wash my hiking shirt once I’ve set up camp. The lightweight polyester fabric will usually dry very quickly.

When it comes to hiking pants, I prefer a convertible pant by Columbia Sports Wear. The pants are sold under the Professional Fishing Gear, PFG, line of clothing. These pants are designed as ultralight and fast drying fishing clothing. They have zip off legs and a sewn in mesh brief. I’ve hiked in these type pants for years and have found them to be superior to anything else that I have tried. Another option to consider is swimming shorts. The same concept applies, lightweight and fast drying.

Depending on the temperature and my level of exertion, I can add and remove layers of clothing throughout the day.

My first choice in rain gear is an ultralight poncho. I like the poncho for a couple of reasons. First, it only weighs 10 ounces. Second, it is multi-functional. In a hard downpour, it still ventilates and covers my pack while keeping me dry. There are a lot of companies producing ultralight ponchos. Most are made from silicone impregnated nylon. Another use for a poncho is extra shelter. Six Moons Design manufactures a poncho that is a combination shelter and rain gear. The Gatewood Cape is a unique design. The cape weighs 11 ounces. They sell a net tent designed to work with the cape. The total weight of the cape, net tent, pole, and stakes come in at around 25 ounces. That’s shelter and rain gear combined…. NOT TOO BAD.

On some occasions, a poncho is just not the best option. If you do a lot of bush whacking or off trail hiking, a poncho could lead to a frustrating day of fighting through thick brush. In this scenario, I use a MontBell lightweight rain jacket, (12 ounce), and a pair of Red Ledge rain pants, (9 ounce). One thing’s for sure, you will need to have rain gear if you plan on spending any time outdoors in the Pacific Northwest. It’s one other thing you will learn soon enough, if you haven’t already figured it out. ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, YOU WILL GET WET… Always bring enough extra clothes so that you can change out of wet clothes once you’ve stopped for the night.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince you on what the optimal setup is for socks and footwear. I prefer lightweight trail runners or low top hiking shoes. I wear thin, lightweight smart wool socks. These sock tend to dry fairly fast and even when wet retain some warmth. Depending on the length of the trip, I will take two to three extra pairs. One last word on footwear. Hiking boots are such a personal item, I feel that any discussion on the subject will only bring on spirited debate with no real conclusions reached. USE WHAT YOU LIKE…ENOUGH SAID…

If you have been following my articles, last month I discussed sleeping systems. The remainder of the clothes I carry completes my sleeping system. These items are a goose down jacket and fleece hat. I never leave home without them. The goose down jacket is my favorite piece of gear. On cool nights, I wear it around camp and if necessary, right into my sleeping bag. The hat is a must… You can regulate your temperature while hiking with removing and installing as you heat and cool.
Also, I like to carry a pair of fleece mittens and a couple of cotton bandanas. All the extra clothes not worn while hiking, go into a waterproof stuff sack and placed deep in my pack. minimum weight for all the extra clothes is 35 ounces.

Ruck up and get down the trail…troop!
See ya soon,


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