This article is the third in a series of backpacking articles for beginners. This article will cover the clothing you should take on your first trip. You can see the other parts here:
Part 1: Trip Planning
Part 2: Major Gear
If there's one piece of advice I can give you about clothing for backpacking, it's to avoid cotton clothing at all costs! Cotton is very comfortable, and I often take cotton to sleep in on backpacking trips. However, cotton takes forever to dry out, has little insulation value and will generally contribute to making your life miserable if you wear it on backpacking trips. Having said that, I do know people who wear cotton all the time hiking and backpacking and seem to be perfectly content. But they're not writing this article, so you're stuck with my opinions.
In the past I often wore denim blue jeans and cotton shirts while competitively bass fishing. I live in a part of the country where the summers are brutally hot and humid. On a typical warm, sunny day there wasn't a problem. The problems became apparent when we'd get hit with thunderstorms and heavy rain. Even on a warm day, my cotton clothes would half freeze me to death. I was much warmer after taking off my wet shirt than with it on. Now, imagine backpacking in the mountains with cool temperatures and being soaked to the bone in cotton clothes. Not something I want to experience. I've also had bad experiences wearing cotton gym socks while hiking and backpacking. I almost always develop blisters when wearing them, even on relatively short hikes.
So, enough with what I don't like. For backpacking in warm months (which is when you'll be going if you follow my advice in Part 1), your clothing options can be pretty simple. I recommend a short sleeve or long sleeve t-shirt made of polyester or a polyester blend. Get yourself a pair of the nylon outdoor pants so common in outdoor stores today. They dry quickly and block the wind a bit. You can buy them where the legs zip off, which can be nice, but be aware that the zipper can rub your legs raw during a long day of hiking. I usually try to buy them without the zippered legs. Carry a fleece pullover to layer for extra warmth. You'll also need some rain gear. I've varied my rain gear through the years. I've carried simple ponchos, just a cheap rain jacket and both jackets and pants. I've settled on rain jackets and pants from Dri Ducks . They're very light and keep me dry, but they are pretty fragile. If you'll be in heavy brush, you will want something tougher. When I'm fly fishing and have waders with me, I leave the pants at home. For yourself, make sure you have at least a poncho to hunker under if you get rained on. A full rain suit with jacket and pants of nylon would probably be best at first even though they're a bit heavier than the Dri Ducks. If you're hiking in fairly warm weather, you likely won't need insulated rain gear. Just something to keep you dry. However, if you'll be at high elevation or there's a chance of a freak cold front, you might want to take insulated rain gear or an extra layer of insulation (like fleece).
Now for underwear. Get yourself a pair of synthetic (not cotton!) undies. If you're male, make sure to get briefs rather than boxers. You'll be glad that things are kept secure, if you know what I mean. I always take an extra pair of underwear since they tend to become rank with lots of sweat. You can find decent underwear for backpacking in the athletic departments of sporting good stores. I especially like the ExOfficio undies that I'm currently using.
Socks are also important. I wear a wool blend sock (Smartwool), and I like them a lot. It's really important not to wear cotton socks! Can't repeat that enough. Anyway, there are several wool blend socks out there that are excellent for hiking and backpacking. I just wear a good medium-weight sock, but some hikers really like wearing a synthetic sock liner under their hiking socks. You might want to try that as I've heard it helps a lot in preventing blisters. Like underwear, I also carry an extra pair of socks for when the first pair inevitably becomes soggy with sweat.
Shoes or boots are tough to recommend. Prices vary widely and everyone's foot is different. I've done backpacking in tennis shoes, but I don't recommend it for a beginner. I also don't recommend buying heavy, mountaineering boots. You should probably get something with a bit of ankle support, and the shoe should have a flexible sole. I like leather boots. They're fairly waterproof and very durable, but the boots with synthetic materials out there are very good and light-weight as well. The main thing is to find a boot that fits your foot well. Shoes or boots are definitely something you should visit a store to purchase. Take the socks you plan to hike in, so you can try on the boots with the socks you'll be using with them. Walk around a good bit in them and make sure you have a bit of space for your feet. They shouldn't be too tight. Your foot will spread out a bit after a day of backpacking, so you definitely don't want a boot that fits really tight. You may have to try on several, but you should be able to find something that works for you in your price range. Whatever you buy make sure you break them in before going backpacking. Wear them to the store, to work, on short local day hikes, etc. Never go backpacking with a shoe that hasn't been broken in at least a bit. One more thing: if you'll be in prime rattlesnake country, consider a pair of leather gaiters.
I always recommend carrying a hat, especially if you'll be out in the sun. I like full brim hats. I have a Tilly Hat for warm weather and a Filson waxed hat for cooler weather. A ball cap doesn't protect your neck or ears in sunny weather very well, but you can buy a ball-style cap with a flap on back that covers your neck and ears. Caps and hats can also help keep ticks out of your hair.
Now for a few extras. I usually take a pair of cotton flannel pajama pants and a short sleeve tagless cotton t-shirt for sleeping. I find them very comfortable, and I often sleep right on top of my bag in them in warm weather. If the weather is warm enough, I'll sometimes take a pair of shorts or light swim trunks for swimming and bathing. I have been known to just jump in naked, but this is not recommended when other hikers are around, not that I'd know.
If you follow the advice in this article you should be prepared for backpacking in most weather situations in the lower 48 during the warmer months. As always, use common sense. Research the area you'll be in. If you could face cold or really wet weather, make sure you're prepared. If you're prone to being cold, you might want to take gloves and maybe something for your head such as a balaclava. Don't take extra stuff just to take it, however. You'll be glad for any weight you can leave at home.
Since this article grew longer than anticipated, I will provide my backpacking checklist with comments in an article of its own later in this series.