The “Real” Big Three: Clothes
As I sit here in Northern Arizona, it is a whopping 15 degrees outside right now with a low last night of -5. It has got me thinking about a three series post I’ve been wanting to do for some time now and this seemed like just the right time since the temperature outside has into sharp relief the sheer importance of the topic. So I am going to post a short series on the Big Three. No, not Pack, Shelter, Sleep System. Those are the biggest weight items and they are very important especially when you are trying to cut down weight, but there are three essential things that everyone takes with them on any trip and are not typically the first things you hear talked about, but if you don’t have them or they don’t work the way you thought, they can literally ruin a hike. What are these three things? Well you’ll just have to come back to find out all three!.
Now I can hear some of you already, “Not having a good pack shelter and sleep system ruins a hike pretty fast!” And that’s true, but if you tend toward being what Andrew Skurka calls in his book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, an Ultimate Hiker, you might only spend 6-8 hours using your shelter. Having a bad shelter or sleep system can give you a bad night and we all know if you don’t have a good night’s sleep it’s nearly impossible to have a good time, but what about the things that you spend the other 16-18 hours a day using? Yes your pack does make it on that list, but so much is out there dedicated to picking the right pack that I don’t feel the need to bring it all up here. So I will move on to the first thing on my list of “Real” Big items: Clothes.
When I started researching about backpacking, before I had discovered the lighter side of things, I relied on what was out there on the internet. One of the biggest resources I used was REI’s Expert Advice pages. They are a great source of information for anyone who has no clue where to start and I think most people start with some pretty weird ideas of backpacking that they can help to make more realistic. Like me, for example, my idea of backpacking was something I’d seen in a movie once when I was a kid. A group of teens all hoisting external frame packs, bouncing down a meadow-laden trail magically already deep into the mountains, all smiling of course! As absurd as this image is, it was what got me interested to begin with, so when I discovered REI and saw that wall of backpacks that looked remarkably like what I’d always imagined, I was hooked from that moment on. It didn’t take me long to realize that image was not as realistic as the magic of Hollywood made it seem, but fortunately I found out I could bounce down a meadow-laden trail with a big ole’ smile on my face, just not with those absurd packs.
When I started, most of the things that I found on clothing talked about layering and how you needed a base layer, a mid layer and a shell. A few of these articles were what I assume now must have been fairly old, because they talked about how you needed long underwear, then a shirt, a light fleece, a mid weight fleece, a puffy jacket and a rain shell. Obviously this is the most reliable under any and all conditions, but as I found out quickly fleece is heavy and bulky and there are better options out there for the individual conditions that each area can bring. Thankfully, I read the REI Expert Advice article entitled Ultralight Backpacking. A lot of the things it says seem really silly and inaccurate to me now, but it got me started and I took the concept and ran. But that meant restructuring everything I thought I knew about backpacking clothes!
Before I decided to commit to UL backpacking, clothes were simple; heavy, but simple: just take everything. After, I found myself questioning every last piece, some I had already laid down the money for, most I had not, thank God. Something that I have discovered is clothes don’t and can’t work the way the other systems in my pack. It’s not as simple as the three Summer, Fall/Spring, and Winter kits. Choices change depending on season, temperature, precipitation, humidity, terrain, foliage, and whether you’re on or off trail. The key for anyone who is working with a limited budget, is to buy one or two items to fit most of the situations we encounter in our local areas where most hiking is likely to be done and which fit your personal hiking style best. This means that every list will and should look a little different. No one backpacker; whether an ultimate hiker, ultimate camper or somewhere in between, whether you live on the west coast, east coast or another country altogether, will probably have the same system or items in their pack. I emphasize this because it is one on those things that I really didn’t get when I first started out. I thought I could find a list of someone who lived in the same area as me and just copy it, but even if such a list would work in the area, there is no way to know if it will work for me and my particular hiking style.
It takes not just skill, but experience to be totally comfortable on any given hike and my favorite way to get that experience in between trips is day hikes and recently I have gotten some really great day hike testing for my Winter/Fall clothing. Something I learned, my heavy weight long john top is too much until the temps get below 20 degrees and that my wind jacket is my favorite shell when it is dry and cold. Over the last few years of hikes I have learned that no matter how silly I look, I love to wear my light long john bottoms under my shorts while hiking. Here is my basic clothing system based on temperature and not taking into account weather. The things highlighted in gray are still things I need to acquire. What choices do you make when deciding what clothing to take on a hike?