Q&A: A Wardrobe for the Woods

A couple days ago, my friend Kayla asked what I wear to keep warm outdoors.  Our conversation reminded me of the many times people have asked me what I wore during my thru-hike; because of the question’s frequency and the fact that I just enjoyed a layer-clad weekend spent hiking on the snowy high peaks of the northeast, I decided my outdoor wardrobe should be the topic of tonight’s post.

So, what did I wear on my thru-hike?  The same outfit from Georgia to Maine.

Seriously, though.  Thru-hikers describe each other by the color of the shirt or rain jacket we wear:  “Yeah, you know her.  She’s the one with that neon yellow shirt.  She sometimes hikes with the guy who wears those little blue running shorts.”

Because everything we’re not wearing has to be carried in our packs, thru-hikers rarely carry changes of clothes.  Perhaps because of this, every article of clothing we bring with us is often painstakingly chosen.  Lightweight items are important, as are those that repel odors (though that magic only lasts so long).  Fabrics need to perform well; if they’re supposed to wick away moisture or guard against rain or insulate us, they must or they’ll get ditched in a hiker box somewhere.  Another important criterion for me was that anything I wore needed to be colorful.  (They call me Rainbow Dash for a whole slew of reasons.)

When you start talking to people about clothing, a lot of non-thru-hikers find the idea of choosing a few articles of clothing to wear day in and day out for six months rather daunting.  But, it’s actually pretty simple, once you break the basic hiker wardrobe down into a few categories:

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Me atop Katahdin this year, demonstrating some stylish layering

The Standard Outfit

This is that T-shirt and shorts everyone wears most days on the Appalachian Trail, unless you’re unfortunate enough to hike in a really wet year.  Obviously, we avoid cotton like the plague, and, as for shorts, I think I’ve helped advance the trend of hiking in running shorts, which are wildly popular on trail these days.

During my thru-hike, I wore a cerulean blue (my favorite color) Patagonia Capilene 1 shirt and black Reebok shorts with coordinating lime and blue accents (because that’s important!).  My sister decided that the best way to celebrate my birthday on trail was with a change of clothes, and I am quite partial to Outdoor Research’s incredibly lightweight T-shirts as a result.

Beneath that shirt and shorts, I wore synthetic underwear I’d purchased at Walmart.  Unlike many of my fellow hikers, I insisted upon carrying a couple extra pairs.

The Baselayer(s)/The Wicking Layer(s)

Here’s where the fact that I am a Southerner who gets cold easily comes into play.  On my thru-hike, I often carried two sets of top and bottom baselayers.  I’d waited months for Patagonia’s Capilene 2 and 3 products to go on sale and purchased a set of each.  I often rocked the shorts-atop-tights look, and I spent most every non-hiking moment wearing my “sweatshirt,” my lime green Capilene 3 shirt.

These days, I’ve come to love the performance of the Polartec fabric of EMS’s Techwick 2 line.  I highly recommend these baselayers for cold-weather hiking!

The Insulating Layer

The articles of clothing in this layer are some of my very favorite items that I own, in the woods or not.  On my thru-hike, I brought my beloved and fairly lightweight Columbia fleece with me.  It doubled as a pillow for much of the trail.

Recently, I’ve also fallen in love with Patagonia’s Nanopuff pullover, which I’ll be taking with me on the PCT rather than the fleece.  (I suppose that means that I’ll need to find a new pillow.)

The Waterproof Layer

So, basically everything that’s supposed to be waterproof fails midway through the trail, but I still found my rain gear essential while on some of the higher peaks, during some of the wettest and chilliest days, and on the coldest nights.  I’m one of those hikers who swears by rain pants.  (This is a no-judgment zone.)  I carried a Marmot Precip jacket and pants with me in 2012.

The Footwear

Most hikers will tell you that this is the most important category of clothing, and even ultralighters are likely to carry several pairs of socks.  I’ve found that liner socks work well for me:  The perfect combination is Injinji toe-sock liners and Wigwam outer socks.  Injinji now makes a line of trail socks that seem to serve the functions of both liners and outer socks, and I’m kind of in love with them.

Socks go inside boots, hiking shoes, trail runners, or Chacos, but more on that later…

The Cold-Weather Gear

Topping off the ensemble is the gear for the higher extremities.  Quiver gifted his fleece balaclava to me, which I don religiously as soon as I feel remotely cold.  I’ve also slept in it many nights on the trail.  I considered lightweight fleece gloves “luxury items,” but they sure made my life better when I carried them.

And, that’s all there is to it.  Hikers, what’s your favorite part of your wardrobe?

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