Gear Picks: Clothing Worn

What to Wear: Clothing While Hiking

(2nd in a 5-part Series on Gear Picks)

Neatly folded up hiking apparel, never to smell this nice again.

Neatly folded up hiking apparel, never to smell this nice again.

Before my first thru-hike, I bought exactly one item of clothing brand new. I still have that item (a dress!) and it will be with me for many trips to come. Everything else was bought earlier, typically for trail-running. Note: in thru-hiker convention, items worn while hiking are typically not counted in pack weight. Here I won’t list grams and such.

Montbell Wickron Stretch Trail Dress

$49 direct from MontBell. Lightweight, quick-drying, with sun protection. With my arm sleeves it afforded me comfort and a haven from the Colorado sun. Really comfortable overall, though I could have used an XS size rather than S. MontBell told me they don’t make XS and I could get the equivalent if I bought Japanese sizing since they run smaller. That seems like a lot of extra work. And I’m not that tiny (34 chest, 38 hips, 28 waist). I figured a small should fit, but it was pretty roomy on me. Still really love it.

Arm Sleeves and/or Sun Gloves

Outdoor Research UV Arm Sleeves AND Outdoor Research Sun Gloves
I STRONGLY recommend both arm sleeves and sun gloves if you’ll be hiking above a few thousand feet. I’m in my early 40s and really starting to notice sun damage from a lifetime of “eh, who cares” sunscreen use. COVER UP! Bonus is that, with arm sleeves, you might only need a short-sleeve shirt for hiking: the arm sleeves offer a little warmth even when not needed for the sun.

Bottoms, For Ladies!

Going the shirt and pants route? Consider leaving behind those old-school hiking pants with zip-off legs. They’re heavy, complicated, and might not even be that comfortable under your hip belt. In recent years the prevalence of trail running shorts on thru-hikers has been quick and transformative (and note that with most running shorts you won’t need underwear as they have a liner built-in). Here are some of my favorites, chosen for decent length (no chafing, some sun protection) and minimal waistband stuff going on:

  • Oiselle Long Roga Shorts: everyone on the planet seems to love these shorts. Good pockets, as well.
  • Tasc Performance Challenge Shorts (5″): Good length, UV protection, and glowing reviews.
  • PATAGONIA STRIDER PRO shorts (any length, your choice!): details change constantly with pockets appearing or disappearing from year to year. That said, these remain some of the comfiest and longest-lasting shorts I have ever owned. Quick-drying and flattering as heck.
  • The North Face Better Than Naked Shorts: Kind of hard to source, but usually on Amazon for $50. Also, eBay isn’t a bad place. Ridiculously light and ephemeral. They’re the cuben fiber of shorts. Don’t abuse them too much and they will love you in return. They are SHORT, just be warned.

Undergarments: panties, bras, oh my!

Firstly, let me put a shout out for going commando. ESPECIALLY with a dress or skirt. Here’s the strategy I would use on every thru-hike from now on: carry one pair of favorite underpants, wear sporadically ‘as needed’ to balance out the commando days. Some hikers carry two pairs, but there’s no need for that. Even if you are not a fan of going without, you can survive a day or less after rinsing out your one pair (200′ from water sources, minimum!!) and hanging them on your pack to dry. (Oh, yes, on the outside of the pack! Thru-hikers are a practical lot.)

Ex Officio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Bikinis: The only underpants I recommend. They’re awesome.

What about sports bras? My advice is take your current favorite sports bra, the one that never bothers you no matter how boring it looks, and take that along. That’s it. I found one that doesn’t chafe (usually) and fits well and that’s what I hike in. It’s from Target. I think your sports bra is even more important for thru-hiking comfort than your underwear: after all, you’re wearing your pack right over its straps. Choose wisely, and TEST first!


Like sports bras, you do need to experiment a little and see what works. Here are my favorites over the miles, for several reasons and purposes.

  • Darn Tough Light Hiking Socks, $20 (I like crew height): best thing about these (if you keep your receipt!) is that if you wear them out, send them back for a new pair. For realz.
  • DryMax Trail Lite Crew Socks, $15: When you just want your darn socks to dry out quicker. If you suffer from a lot of foot sweatiness, DryMax might help.
  • SmartWool Cabin Socks, $20+: finally, SLEEPING SOCKS. It’s a good idea to put something clean over your tired and grimy feet before you slide everything into your fancy sleeping bag. When it’s time to go night-night, SmartWool is my pick. Get a thinner style if you want less weight and/or warmth.


Everyone’s feet have a shoe preference, based on history, shape, and lots of other factors like pack weight. But look down at the feet of 100 current thru-hikers and you’ll see probably 50+ pairs of Altra trail running shoes, often the Lone Peak model. Lone Peaks acquired beloved status on long trails about 5 years ago and their dominance can be seen in the tread left behind on any section of the PCT. I wore them for most of my Colorado Trail thru-hike last fall, with zero issues.

What should influence your shoe choice? First, your own hiking history. If you have always always always hiked in full-grain leather hiking boots, you will be most comfortable in those, for now. But if your pack weight is significantly less than 30% of your body weight, consider testing out trail running shoes. Light-begets-light in this case. By having less weight on your back, you could need less structure around your feet. And you’ll need to strengthen your feet, too, if they’ve been bound up in boots until now. Already a trail runner? You might be ready to jump right into a pair of Brooks Cascadias or Altra Lone Peaks straightaway.

Followup Notes and Comments

Clothing will always be a lot of personal preference. Some folks like to keep things as cheap as possible, even purchasing items at that “Wal-store” place and justifying the low cost with how many miles they can squeeze out of running shorts or whatever. I have some bias against that place: I’d rather paw through the running shorts section in any thrift store. This way, you’re supporting either a charity or a local business, and getting more use out of something that might have otherwise been thrown away. Heck, I’ve even bought Target brand stuff at thrift: $4 instead of $17.99 is still pretty awesome. And it’s a far cry from a brand new name brand pair of shorts at $50+.

Next up: Kitchen!

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Gear Series: The Big Three

The Big Three: Tent, Pack, Sleep

(First in a 5-part Series on Gear Picks)

When I finally set out on my first thru-hike, I had a base weight of 12lbs. Not bad. Definitely not super ultra light (SUL). Heck, it’s not even technically “ultralight” which needs to be under 10lbs. Most hikers will find that the easiest (though costly) way to get their base weight down is to lighten up their “big three”, which is the backpack, the shelter system, and the sleep system. Get these under 5lbs and you’re doing really well. My list below comes in at 7lbs on the nose, but you’ll find notes on how I’d cut that down next time.

TarpTent Notch (1lb 11oz)

$314 direct from manufacturer. First, my light and versatile tent, used for all of the Colorado Trail in 2017 and more than a dozen nights since with nary an issue. With stakes, groundsheet, and sack, it comes in at 27 ounces. To pitch it requires two hiking poles: a welcome reason to bring the “sticks” that save my legs on long days. I could get a similar but lighter tent at far greater expense (sigh, Solplex….). I ain’t into doing the tarp thing, which would be far cheaper. And like Heather “Anish” Anderson, I prefer to keep the creepy crawlies out. So for me it’s a real-deal tent. Henry Shires, the founder of TarpTent, and his team build these in Seattle and they do good work.

TarpTent Notch, set up near Copper Mountain, CO

TarpTent Notch, set up near Copper Mountain, CO

Osprey Tempest 40 Backpack (2lbs 3oz)

Osprey Tempest 40. $160 from Amazon. One of the oldest items in my kit at 5 years old, this pack was my first serious backpack and it took quite a bit of adjustment before I found the magical fitment that made every mile well balanced. Luckily this pack’s torso length is adjustable and the hipbelt fits nicely snug right over my iliac crest. I wear my belt low compared to many women, so getting a big enough belt can be an issue, but this Osprey does the job. It is not superlight at 2.2 lbs, but it carries weight well and that’s more than you can say for a lot of the very light frameless rucksacks. If I were getting another Osprey today, it might be their new ultralight pack called the Lumina 45 which sheds nearly a half pound yet still has solid internal framing.

Thermarest NeoAir XLite Women’s sleeping pad (12oz)

$160 from Amazon. Whew! Crazy lightweight and packs down tiny when deflated. Drawbacks? A little crinkly when you roll around on it, thanks to the thermally reflective material inside. Other than that, nothing. This is the short version, meaning 5’6″ in length to capture just what is needed for shorter humans and not a gram more. The R-value is 3.9: wonderfully high. The thru-hiker favorite ThermaRest Z-Lite Sol weighs the same with half the R-value and must be strapped to the outside of your pack. It ain’t small. Why a thru-hiker favorite, then? Cheap, indestructible, simple. There you have it.

Marmot Xenon Women’s Sleeping Bag (2lb 6oz)

$459 from Amazon. This bag ain’t cheap nor light but boy is it toasty when you need it! I started my Colorado Trail hike with a phenomenal 20 degree ZPacks quilt (1lb 3oz!!!), which was unfortunately more of a survival rating. I was darn uncomfortable for a few nights before I swapped out for this Marmot, ordered in Breckenridge and shipped to me in Twin Lakes right in the nick of time. Still have the ZPacks and it is the lightest summer bag I will probably ever own. But it ain’t for fall camping in the mountains. This Marmot is rated for comfort at 15 degrees and ‘survival’ at -9 degrees. That makes it 30 degrees warmer than the Zpacks, which makes the weight all of a sudden seem tolerable. Biggest drawback to me isn’t the weight so much as the size it takes up, even stuffed, in the pack. That said, it still fit with my tent, the pad, gear and all my food inside a 40L backpack.

Marmot and Zpacks sleeping bags

Warm bag top, summer bag bottom. Note the Marmot was stuffed much tighter than the Zpacks.

Followup Notes and Comments

Heavier can be better! Let’s say you get your Big 3 down to a really feather weight. Below 5lbs or even 4. This means you definitely have a shelter that might be best when treated delicately. You might have a pack that can’t take more than 25lbs or even less. And you might be skimping on a bag that lets you kind of sleep but still keeps you pretty chilly throughout the night. Where would I recommend you go very light vs not so light? I’d spring the big bucks and get a really fancypants tent, taking 11oz off that weight. And I’d go back to a lighter pack, maybe shaving off 8-10oz more. But where does extra weight mean comfort that is truly wonderful? SLEEPING. Buy the best, warmest, most amazing sleeping bag you can stomach. Maybe it doesn’t stuff down super tiny. Maybe it costs $600. But sleeping poorly after a long day on trail because you are cold flat out SUCKS. And you won’t be rested for the next day.

When I started the Colorado Trail last fall my Big 3 weight was at 5lbs 5oz: quite a bit lighter than the 7lbs above. I was using an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 45 (8 oz lighter than Osprey) and that Zpacks sleeping bag (1lb 3oz lighter). Next “cool weather” trip I will stay with the warm sleeping bag, but probably switch to a lighter backpack again.

Next up: Clothes on your Body!

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