What to Carry: The Basics of Putting Together a Kit for Hiking the
Appalachian Trail. Part V – Clothing
Last Edited 27 April 2006
Finishing up the list of what to pack with clothing seems like exactly
the right way to go. Clothing can be such a personal decision because
many people needs when they buy clothing, even hiking clothing. Some
hiking clothing is really “hiker fashion” clothing, some hiking
clothes are purely functional, and most hiking clothing falls
somewhere between the two extremes. The wearer decides what it is that
draws them to that item in the first place – function, style, brands,
reputation, warrantee, etc. Add to that the fact that there are so
many human variations on enduring things such as heat, cold, rain,
wind etc. While one person is totally comfortable in shorts and a
t-shirt while there is an inch of snow on the ground, another person
may bundle up in ever piece of clothing in their pack at 50F. Then
people can adapt differently to these conditions while actually on the
trail; while one person may find after a week on the trail they need
less clothing to stay warm in a given situation, another may need more
as their body fat depletes and they loose their personal insulation
layer. So given all that possible variation, you will have to
experiment yourself and see where you fit in. Read other people’s
packing lists and journals to see what works for people, and try to
find someone that sounds like they have a similar comfort level when
you plan your clothing.
Note. Before I move on, I want to specifically address cotton. I love
cotton clothing but only in town when at things like Trail Days. It is
comfortable and doesn’t have stink build up like most synthetics. That
said, I wouldn’t want to hike in it or carry it as spare clothing in
my pack because of how it absorbs and holds water. Cotton towels make
great towels at home because they absorb water, but they also dry
slowly. Cotton clothing such as t-shirts and blue jeans suffer from
the same issues – ever get blue jeans wet and wait for them to dry?
Wearing wet cotton clothing while hiking can chafe, they can mildew,
and in cold weather can lead to hypothermia. Even keeping a spare set
of cotton clothing in your pack for camp and/or town can be a bad idea
because of the humidity in the Appalachians. Every time the clothes
are exposed to air they will absorb some moisture. After a while you
would end up with damp or wet clothing mildewing inside your pack. So
to end this, when looking for materials for clothing, you generally
want to look for synthetics and wool.
Longstanding advice has been to plan for dressing in layers and I find
that this is a good strategy to follow. With layers you can add or
subtract what you need to wear based on weather and exertion level in
order to stay comfortable. When you start off in the morning at camp
and it is cold, you may start off with wind pants, long shirt, and a
cap. Under that you would be wearing shorts and a T-Shirt so that as
you start walking and your body starts to warm up, you can take off
the pants, long sleeve shirt, and cap as if feels comfortable to you.
If it starts getting cold, you can add back the layers as needed. This
supports the acronym COLD which is used in the military to train
anyone on the basics of staying healthy in cold weather:
C – Clean.
Keep your clothing clean as possible. Dirty clothing does not breath
O – Overheating.
Do not allow yourself to overheat and sweat, you can get cold later
and with wet sweaty clothing this could be dangerous.
L – Layers.
Use a layering system to regulate body heat.
D – Dry.
Keep everything as dry as possible. Staying dry seems to be 50% of the
fight at staying warm.
Why address cold and not go into staying cool? Well I will get to
staying cool, but hypothermia is one of the big dangers out there for
hikers even in the southern Appalachians even in summer. You can
become a cold weather casualty as high as 50F, and at altitude these
temperatures can happen in any season and most anywhere on the AT.
So following a good system, you can prevent hypothermia. Since I
believe in the layering system and follow the layering principles, the
following section is broken down in a method that supports that
9. Rain Gear
How to keep dry? As I mentioned, staying dry can be 50% of the fight
in staying warm and comfortable. You rain gear can also be used to
help stay warm even when it isn’t raining since it does add an extra
layer of insulation and wind protection. Here are some ideas to think
• Rain Top. Most everyone will want something to keep your torso and
head dry. Some possibilities:
o Poncho. This is the old standby that has served outdoorsmen
(and women) for years. It is a cape that usually has a hood and
covers down to about the middle of your thighs. A benefit to a
poncho is it can serve as your pack cover and a tarp for camp, and
ponchos can provide good airflow while hiking when compared to
jackets. Also, when you have to stop to eat in the rain, it is
nice to simply use your poncho to create a dry space and have a
meal. Disadvantages can be things like ponchos getting caught on
brush in overgrown trails, getting blown around in the wind,
especially when crossing exposed ridges, and long tails which may
be annoying while walking.
o Rain Jacket. Another good choice is the rain jacket. A rain
jacket has the advantage of being form fitting, so it can keep
wind from blowing water in and can also serve as a nice wind
breaker when you don’t have rain but do need to block wind.
Disadvantages are things like water getting between your back and
your pack in the rain and the fact that a jacket can be a lot
hotter than other options when the pack straps create pockets of
dead air inside the jacket – no fun while walking.
o Rain Hat. Not all jackets or ponchos come with a hood, and even
some of the hoods are not adequate enough for some hikers. A rain
hat can look like a ball cap or a wide brimmed sun hat, but have a
waterproof coating that causes the water to run off. A benefit to
a hat is keeping rain off glasses if you wear them.
o Packa. This product combines the form fitting of a rain jacket
with the protection of a pack cover – thus eliminating that
problem with rain getting between your back and your pack since
you wear your backpack under the Packa. Since you pack goes inside
the Packa, it also eliminates those pockets of hot air that can be
created with a rain jacket.
• Rain mittens or gloves. These hand coverings can be all you
need to keep your hands warm in cold wet weather. They can also work
with a light set of fleece mittens or gloves to make an effective
layering system that is water resistant.
• Waterproof socks. In the day of Gore-Tex clothing, there are boots
made with Gore-Tex layers to help keep feet dry. Often people using
these sorts of boots find that their feet sweat enough in them to
counteract any possible benefit to using Gore-Tex. The issue is
this: Gore-Tex still adds another layer of material for sweat to
pass through and to hold heat inside the boot. Think of this: Why
not wear a Gore-Tex jacket to hike in during sunny, summer hiking?
It breaths right? Of course it is a bad idea because you would sweat
worse with the jacket than if you just went with a shirt. Now think
about what a Gore-Tex layer is doing in your boots when you don’t
need it. The solution some folks now use is to carry a set of socks
made from a Gore-Tex or similar material that they can put on when
it is wet. Then they can remove it and let them dry out at the end
of the hiking day. It can also save money when you don’t have to pay
extra for boots with the Gore-Tex layer.
• Umbrella. A recent addition too many hiker’s rain gear is a simple
collapsible umbrella. The benefit is you can hike in the rain
without any extra layers of clothing to make you sweat. The
disadvantage is their performance in wind driven rain – in that case
you may still want to have some other form of rain protection.
• Rain Bottom. Similar to the rain jacket, you may need protection
for your legs. Many hikers limit the rain bottoms to colder months,
and will simply let their legs get wet in warmer months. The benefit
to keeping your rain pants is a windbreak layer in windy conditions.
Some things you can use for rain bottoms:
o Rain pants. These are pants that are made from waterproof or
resistant material. A benefit to having rain pants is you have a
pair of pants you can wear in town while the rest of your stuff is
in the laundry.
o Rain chaps. Some people simply wear a pair of rain leg
protection. These are usually more useful if you are wearing a
poncho for your rain top since the poncho usually covers to below
o Rain Skirt. Recently available, this is a simple wrap of
waterproof material that will only cover a kilt, skirt, or shorts,
while leaving the bare legs exposed. This can be a real benefit
when hiking in hot weather since you keep your lower clothing dry
without all the heat of covering your entire leg.
Rain gear materials can vary widely. Some items such as ponchos and
rain jackets can be made from material that is totally waterproof.
Others may be made from materials that attempt to “breath” so that
they are more comfortable by letting out hot, sweaty air generated
inside the material. These special materials can be fairly expensive
(like Gore-Tex) or fairly cheap (like FrogTogg material). Despite the
materials, some of these items add ventilation options like pit vents
to help with air flow. Expensive rain gear doesn’t necessarily mean it
will work any better than the cheap stuff.
10. Extra Clothing – Warm Weather
Extra clothing is something you will have to decide based on personal
preference. While some may wear the same clothing in camp, town, and
hiking, others may want a spare set of shorts, t-shirt, and sandals to
wear in camp. Some folks change socks three times a day, while others
don’t do it for days on end. Some ideas:
• Spare socks. Carry at least one set. When your socks get dirty,
you can wash them and hang them on your pack while you walk.
• Spare T-shirt. If you carry one, think about having one long
sleeve and one short sleeve so you have the option to cover your
arms when you need to avoid sun burn or bugs.
• Spare underwear. Some folks will go without – and if that is your
thing, more power too you. But occasionally on the trail you may get
what is lovingly referred to as “bubble gut” which is a combination
of gas and loose stool. One misread on which one you are letting go
can end up in dirty drawers. Having a set to protect your pants from
smelling like a privy and a spare to change to could be a nice idea.
If you are going to go with underwear I recommend micro fiber type
11. Clothing in Pack – Cooler Weather
Here is where you start to add a layer of clothing for when you need
to stay warm at times, but not always. You would start off hiking in
the normal worn clothing layer (see below) and have these items with
you for when you need them like in camp or on exposed ridges in the
wind. Using this level and rain gear, you can maintain a fairly
flexible system without needing lots of clothing in your pack. For me,
I add this layer when I am going somewhere and expect weather to be
below 60F but will be above freezing. Some ideas:
• Spare socks. Even if you carry some in the group above, another
set for wearing in camp may be a good idea since the ones for
walking will most likely all be nasty by the time you reach camp and
you may want or need something to keep your feet warm. I also like
to make these socks a little warmer (thicker) than my lower level
• Light gloves. A pair of fleece or polypropylene glove liners is a
nice addition when the temps dip. Recently there was a study that
showed people had a higher perceived comfort level based on how warm
their hands were in cold weather – this was shown to be true despite
how warm their actual core body temperature actually was.
• Warm hat. A pullover knit cap is another nice thing to add to keep
heat in. A lot of heat is lost through your head.
• Warm clothing layer. This can be something like polypropylene
underwear or some light fleece. A top and bottom is probably what
you need, but some people also like to add an extra top like a
fleece vest to whatever they choose.
12. Clothing in Pack – Cold Weather
This is the next layer level, for time when you expect temperatures to
go below what your previous level cannot handle. In these cases you
may be wearing your previous level when hiking or not, but when you
stop, your previous level may not always hack the weather you are
going to encounter. For me, I add this layer when I expect
temperatures below freezing.
• Spare Socks. Again, at this point I know I am going to want
some really warm socks in camp. For this level you could carry thick
wool socks or fleece booties.
• Wool or Fleece mittens or gloves. These warm hand coverings may be
what make the difference between keeping your hands warm enough to
work while making dinner or starving. I like to step up to a mitten
at this level myself.
• Balaclava or Neck Gaiter. You may encounter weather that will
freeze your nose or make ice crystals in your mustache. To help warm
the air you breathe, a balaclava can be an easy way to go. Another
strategy is to keep your warm hat from the previous level and add a
pullover neck gaiter to create a flexible system that can replicate
a balaclava while giving you a few extra ways to use it.
• Insulating clothing. At this point some heavy fleece may be a good
idea. Another option I prefer is clothing that uses lofting
insulation such as Polarguard 3D or down since it can be lighter and
pack smaller than heavy fleece. You may be surprised at how warm you
can be with a long sleeve polypro shirt, insulated jacket, and a
13. Clothing Worn
I’ve ended my clothing section with the clothing you wear. Maybe it
should be the first clothing discussed since your extra clothing has
to support what you already wear when starting. But in this case I
left it last because I wanted you to think about all that stuff we
have already gone through before you go on to what you are going to
wear while hiking. You hiking clothing should be comfortable and allow
you to stay cool in hot weather. It does not have to be the warm,
protective layer – that was already put in your pack for the times you
need all that. This is going to be the clothing you might just say
“screw it all” and jump into a river or lake, while also having the
general acceptance to be seen in public in most restaurants and
• Footwear. This is probably the most important part of this
section. Your feet must take you everywhere on the trail, so your
footwear needs to provide adequate protection while also ensuring
comfort for your feet. You can have so much protection that your
feet are sweaty, crammed, and forced to conform to your boots. You
can also go so under protected that you endanger your feet –
although a few folks have successfully hiked the AT barefoot. But at
any rate, you will probably have to replace footwear along the trail
whether it is at the heavy extreme or the light extreme – so be
ready for the possibility you pick the wrong footwear at the start
of your trip. Another thing to consider is the general wisdom
(supported by research) that one pound on your feet is equal to five
pounds on your back for the amount of effort it takes for the hiker,
so heavy boots may not be the optimal way for someone trying to get
broke into the trail to actually do it. Some footwear to consider:
o Barefoot. Not personally something I would do, but it has
been successful for a few. The benefit to this would be low cost,
low maintenance, low weight, and easy to clean. The draw backs –
well you can see how cold it could get and how easily you could
hurt your feet if they are not ready for this or you are not
careful enough while walking.
o Sandals. For centuries people have traveled long distances in
sandals. Recently some ultralight hikers have gone to trying
sandals in an effort to make their footwear less complicated. What
have resulted are some sandals that are built with toe protection,
wide straps to prevent chaffing, and tread designs for trail use.
o Running Shoes. Another option is running shoes. They are built
for people that can put a lot of stress on their feet by running,
and they can hold up to a few months of abuse while being cheaper,
dry faster, and much lighter than many hiking boots. A
disadvantage can be the tread designed which may not give much
traction on muddy trails.
o Trail Runners. These shoes combine the benefits of a running
shoe with a slightly more aggressive tread pattern and many times
also have a little more “body” to them than a running shoes. This
generally makes them slightly heavier than the running shoe.
o Light Boots. These boots are usually low top fabric boots. They
give more ankle support than trail runners and running shoes while
attempting to give the foot a little more protection and support.
o Medium Boots. Normally higher topped than the light boots, these
were the normal standard for hikers for many years. There has been
a general trend lately to move to lighter footwear, but many
experienced hikers still swear by them.
o Heavy Boots. These monster boots will sometimes outlive the user
because they are rugged and built to last (usually). They are
suited to mountain climbing and such, but are probably overkill
for trail hiking on the AT. Still, some people will use them and
• Socks. The sock is designed to generally prevent your footwear
from scraping the skin off your feet and to cushion the foot from
the places in your shoes most likely to cause blisters. Heavier
footwear doesn’t always mean you need a heavier sock, but I have
found that when I hike in trail runners or running shoes my socks
are almost nothing compared with what I use in boots. Sock choice
can often be influenced by how your footwear fits in the first place
since a boot that has a lot of extra room may cause you to wear
thick socks while another with less room may cause you to need thin
socks. Some hikers also hike with a liner layer sock under the
heavier sock in order to create a lower friction environment around
their feet. This is something you will most likely need to
experiment with to see where you are comfortable.
• Gaiters. At the top of some hikers’ footwear they add another
barrier to keep out sticks, rocks, and dew. Not all hikers like them
or use them, and others swear by them.
• Shirt. Well not everyone wears one of these. Some men go topless
and some women wear a bathing suit top. But I recommend you have one
of some sort of shirt since pack straps can tear up the skin on your
shoulders or neck if you don’t have calluses there yet. Something to
consider based on your pack fit is whether you want a shirt with a
collar to protect your neck from getting chaffed or not. Depending
on your skin, you may also want a shirt with long sleeves to prevent
sun burn. In places you don’t need it you can always push the
• Underwear. Discussed earlier, not everyone wears it on the trail.
• Shorts. This is the normal wear seen on the trail for most hikers.
They can be as light as spandex or runners shorts, or as complicated
as cargo shorts with 6 pockets.
• Trousers. Some folks want full leg covering even in summer to
protect their legs from insects, thorns, sun, etc. An option is to
go for zip-off leg trousers.
• Skirt. Some women like to hike in a skirt rather than pants or
shorts because of cooler air flow. I imagine it is easier to use the
bathroom in the woods wearing a skirt.
• Kilt. A recent trend in male hikers is to switch to a kilt. The
benefits of a kilt are similar to those of a skirt for a woman.
• Hat. You may want a hat to keep the sun and rain off your face. A
ball cap makes a good “front porch” for your face, or a wide brimmed
hat can even add that same protection for your neck and ears. Some
people use those caps that look more like a headband with a visor
for better ventilation for their head. Another option is to use a
bandanna as a pirate head cover or sweat band. You can use almost
any of these hats as a cooler in hot weather by dipping it in a cool
So that wraps up recommendations about clothing. You can spend mega
bucks on clothing and not be any more comfortable or happy than they
guy that gets all his stuff cheap from Wal-Mart. Remember that hiking
clothing is a fashion to some and can drive the price up without
adding any better performance or quality.
I know I said I was going to finish the article on clothing, but this
does need to be mentioned. Consumables must be planned for when
determining pack weight. But they can be a good weight since it goes
down the longer you are out. You may also want to think about how much
of a consumable you carry. You don’t need a 12 ounce bottle of insect
repellant when you start hiking in March. You won’t see bugs for
months, and you won’t need that much bug dope ever in a single stretch
of trail. If you can get the same product in a lower amount that fits
your re-supply points, then carry enough to get you to the next
re-supply, or maybe enough to last you to the second or third
Other options are to share buying supplies in town with other
hikers and then dividing out the amount each of you need. Think of
this: often there are stories of hikers starting a thru-hike with a
gallon of stove fuel when it is available along the trail by the ounce
– think of the wasted space, effort, and energy to pack all that when
it isn’t needed!
The big three things that most people count as consumables are food,
water, and fuel.
• Food. While not foolproof, a good general rule is to plan for
about 2 pounds of food per day. Another good rule is to carry a
little extra. So if you are going for 4 days between re-supply,
carry 5 days food.
• Water. This was mentioned earlier, but I bring it up again. Water
weighs more than one ounce for every fluid ounce you carry. So if
you carry a lot of water, you carry a lot of weight. Think of how
often you can re-supply with water and determine how much you really
need to carry.
• Fuel. It is a good idea to practice with your stove before you
hike so you know how too cook on it and how it works in a given
situation. When you do this, you can also figure out how much fuel
it uses to cook a standard meal, this way you can plan how much fuel
is realistic to carry. No need to carry 3 fuel canisters when you
only need one every two weeks and you can re-supply every 4 days.
In conclusion, I hope I have covered how to put a packing list
together in enough detail for you to plan your own kit and decide what
you really need without giving you the idea that you have to follow a
certain list or go with a specific set of guidance if you are going to
make it on the AT. There are as many ways to do this as there are
people on the trail. This isn’t the Army where your NCO tells you what
you better have or else…
Remember you are out there to have fun and your gear will enhance
that. Also remember that it isn’t you gear that will get you to
Kahtadin, it is your will and self motivation. Don’t sweat the packing
list so much you loose sight of that fact.