Fall is, without question, the best time of year to go backpacking. If you can squeeze in a trip before it gets too cold, you’ll be rewarded with crisp air, gorgeous views, and a lot less sweat—triple bonus.
You probably already know that layering is the key to staying happy when you’re in the outdoors, especially when there's high potential for inclement weather.
That can make packing for a fall backpacking trip intimidating, but proper layering shouldn't be complicated. When the days start getting shorter, you’ll want to start with a base layer, add a mid-layer on top, then have an additional insulating layer in your pack, just in case. You should also bring along a hard shell to keep wind and rain at bay. Oh yeah, and make sure none of those items is made from cotton.
So what does that look like, specifically? Here are seven things you need to layer effectively for a fall backpacking trip.
A nice pair of synthetic or merino underwear will go a long way toward keeping you comfortable and warm. They’ll dry out quicker than cotton and won’t stink nearly as much after a few days on the trail. I typically bring two pairs if I’m out for an extended period of time, and I’ll switch pairs once I reach camp, wash the dirty pair and dry them over the fire so they’re good to go when I need them. Saxx makes an incredibly comfortable pair of boxers that dry quickly and provide plenty of support.
Sturdy, Non-Cotton Hiking Pants
The two things to remeber here: Avoid cotton and invest in a pair that’ll hold up to some abuse. Eddie Bauer’s Guide Pants are a prime example of what to look for. They’re a nylon blend with a DWR finish that helps repel water, and have silve fibers stiched into them that fight stink.
Merino or Synthetic Base Layer
Once again, avoid cotton in cold weather: if it gets wet, it loses all insulating ability and doesn’t dry quickly. For your base layer, which you’ll wear next to skin, you’ll want to go with merino wool or a synthetic. I love wool, but it can be expensive, and I think beginners are best served by a classic piece like Patagonia’s Midweight Capilene Zip-Neck. The Midweight version is the most versatile of the bunch. Same goes for the bottoms here, too—wear them hiking during the day if it’s really cold or just when you’re sleeping at night.
This is a pretty important piece and its weight depends on how hot you run when hiking and how cold it is outside. You’ll likely be taking it on and off all day as temperatures fluctuate. Fleece is a classic mid-layer material and works great. The North Face TKA 100 Glacier Quarter Zip is a solid choice, or you could go with my personal favorite, the Patagonia R1 Hoody. The latter is a bit more expensive and less durable, but it breathes better than the North Face, which means you can keep it on during high-output activties in the cold without sweating out.
Go with a puffy filled with down, which has the best warmth-to-weigth ratio. I like a slimmer jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer, which is very warm but still packs down small.
You want a hard shell because it’s usually lighter than a comparable soft shell jacket and does a better job blocking wind and rain. I like Mountain Hardwear’s Stretch Ozonic Jacket because it’s tough yet still light enough to carry in a pack all day.
You lose most of your body heat through your head, so a beanie helps keep you warm. I like this one from Smartwool because it’s wool, which insulates when wet and doesn’t stink. If it’s not cold enough for a beanie, a trucker hat and buff make a great combo.
Bonus Items: Extra Socks and Camp Shoes
Bring two pairs of socks with you; one lightweight pair to wear while hiking and one thicker pair to wear at night. Fits is my pick, as it makes some of the best fitting socks I’ve ever worn.
A lightweight, comfortable pair of camp shoes will give your feet a break once you get to camp, and I guarantee they’ll be the thing you’re most excited about at the end of the day.