Lightweight Backpacking Clothing
When selecting clothing for lightweight backing it is important to think about a “clothing system.” A clothing system typically consists of 3 layers, and allows you to effectively manage your body’s heating and cooling system. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a brief discussion of what we feel is the most overlooked piece of clothing to take along if you are backpacking.
Traditional backpacking shoes are notoriously heavy. That is because they are designed to support you carrying heavy loads. When you carry lighter loads like lightweight backpackers do, then you no longer need to wear heavy hiking books. Lightweight Backpacking enthusiasts typically choose light hiking boots or trail running shoes. Some choose to use sandals, but they lack support and stability when carrying a load on your back over rough terrain. Inov-8 is a very popular line of footwear among lightweight backpackers. Using lightweight shoes has an added benefit. The Critical Mass Ratio for walking is 5:1, meaning, every ounce on your feet feels like five on your back. If you can save a pound in footwear, it is the same as saving 5 pounds in your pack. FootwearBuyer.com is a great product search and comparison site for shoes and other footwear.
Lightweight Base Layer
The first layer next to your skin is called a base layer. It should be good at wicking(pulling moisture away from your body) to keep your skin warm and dry. Cotton is a poor choice for a base layer. Cotton gets wet and stays wet. Polypropylene is typically the least expensive and dries fast. However, polypropylene tends to “smell” very bad, very quickly. Producers of polypropylene base layers have attempted to control the “smell” problem using numerous different techniques, all of which don’t work, or don’t work very well in our opinion. We believe that base layers made from merino wool provide superior performance. Merino wool base layers wick well, provide good thermal regulation, resist fire, and don’t stink like polypropylene base layers. Merino wool base layers are being made out of lightweight fabric. We really like fabric that weighs 200 grams per meter for cool weather, and the newer 150 gram, and 140 gram material for warmer temperatures. We won’t go into detail as to all the performance advantages of merino wool on this introductory site, there are plenty of pages that go into great detail on that subject, and also discuss the properties that prevent merino wool for stinking like other base layers.
Lightweight Mid Layer
The next layer in the clothing system is the mid layer. Its primary purpose is to provide warmth, and so clothing that is to be used as a mid layer should have good insulating qualities. Synthetic or wool (especially merino wool) works great here. Generally, the material will not be next to your skin, and so the issue of “smell” doesn’t play as big of a factor. But even so, we have gotten pretty stinky in synthetics. However, the synthetic mid layers we have tried tend to be more durable than their merino wool competitors. You do get some performance advantage by layering a merino wool mid layer over a merino wool base layer, and the two layers work together as one for wicking. Our experience is that synthetic mid layers are not as warm as merino mid layers are. In general, the more air your clothing traps inside the warmer it will be. For colder conditions we really like the lightweight down jackets and vests from Montbell and Patagonia. These down jackets and vests are very light, and are highly compressible so that they do not take up much room in your pack. Down provides the most warmth per ounce, and doesn’t break down as fast as synthetic insulations when it is compressed.
Lightweight Outer Layer
The outermost layer in the clothing system is to provide protection from water and wind. There have been numerous advancements in material and fabric technology for outerwear, and staying on top of all of these new technologies is a challenge. Since this site is meant to provide an introduction, we will stick to the basics. The outermost layer is often referred to as a shell, and the material used should be waterproof/breathable.
Lightweight Wind Shirt
The addition of a wind shirt to your clothing system can add tremendous comfort and significant warmth, allowing you to wear lighter base layers, lighter rain shells, and lighter insulating garments during active exercise in cold conditions. The bottom line: a wind shirt extends the comfort range of your clothing system, and allows the other pieces to be lighter. Lightweight wind shirts weigh less than 3 ounces, and pack down small enough to be stuffed in a pocket. Do yourself a favor, get a lightweight wind shirt as part of your clothing system.