Camping 101: How to Dress

Don’t just throw money at the problem. Master layering—yes, even for summer!—and the outdoors will never be the same.

Columbia's Sleeker rain jacket is a key layer that will keep the rest of your layers dry should bad weather strike. (Courtesy of Columbia)

I knew better than to ask my buddy Bryan where he got the brand-new olive-colored, three-layer Gore-Tex jacket that he offered me in lieu of his $80 portion of a three-week Costa Rican car rental. Even 12 years ago, I knew the jacket was worth way more than $80.

Today, scrolling through photos of subsequent adventures, I see that jacket everywhere. It was on my back while I proudly smoked a cigarette at the highest pass of the Inca Trail (I was acclimatized, young, and obviously cocky) as well as every mildly inclement camping trip I took stateside. In many of the pictures, usually during spring and summer months, along with the ubiquitous jacket, you’ll see a pair of rosy cheeks and the glisten of my sweaty forehead.

While that jacket helped me through countless rainstorms, it also caused me to overheat nearly as many times. The problem? It wasn’t breathable enough to expel my heat and moisture. While it was a great jacket for keeping rain off of my skin, it was terrible to wear when I was moving around in warm weather.

The importance of wearing breathable layers is a lesson that took me nearly a decade to learn and is one of the most important things to think about when you dress to camp. For trips in spring and summer—as long as it’s not actively raining or cold and windy—leave your waterproof jacket in the car. Even the most breathable waterproof jackets create a vapor barrier that will cause heat and moisture to build up inside, making you hot and wet. If the weather cools down, that sweat is going to make you cold really fast.

While purchasing and subsequently packing your layers, think of how each one is going to move moisture and heat away from your body. For base layers (the ones touching your skin), avoid cotton unless your trip is going to be a really hot one. Cotton grabs moisture and holds onto it, which could make you dangerously cold when the temperature drops. Instead, look for synthetic base layers or ones made of wool or a blend of both. I live in Patagonia’s Capilene 2 top and bottoms year round. Super.Natural’s LS 175 is also a safe bet.

Once you’re set on a base layer, look for a good insulating top that will keep you comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and won’t grab too much moisture. Outdoor Research’s Filament Pullover is a good example. It will keep you extra warm under an outer layer if the weather gets nasty.

Finally, it’s a good idea to have a weatherproof outer layer nearby that will keep you dry if it rains. Something like Columbia’s Sleeker Rain Jacket will work. Just don’t wear it all the time.

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