Considerations for selecting a garments for backpacking
1) Weather - What temperatures are expected for high for the day, low for the night, will there be rain, how about wind. Of course weather predictors are rarely correct, and often wrong. The best guide is to look at the average highs and lows for the season, and what the average rainfall is for that season. Then look at the 7 day forecast and see if any special wind or rain is predicted. In the desert, they have sandstorms that are the sort of thing that you don't want to get caught out in. The sky turns dark and you can't hardly breathe. Rain also has it's risks, in that if you are going to be backpacking along a trail that you will need to cross several times, if a heavy rainfall is anticipated, that stream may be uncrossable for 12 to 24 hours after the rain stops, and if that is 2 or 3 days of steady rain, that could be problematic. Point of this is to say that when out in a large wilderness area, you need to be prepared to cope with a wide range of weather. Heat, cold, rain, and wind can be deadly if you're not prepared for them.
2) The wind and rain "Shell" - For wind, rain and cold - you need what's called a "shell". This "shell" is usually made of nylon, and has a layer that prevents rain from coming in, but allows perspiration to escape when you're hefting that heavy backpack. The shell will also protect you from cold wind because it has a very tight weave, and it's like a plastic layer for stopping wind. It will also keep you somewhat warm, but if it's really cold outside, there might be good reason to also bring a light sweater made of merino wool. It's light but it's a good insulator that you can wear under your shell for that extra warmth. I found that this combination works well down to about 10 degrees farenheit with a base layer under the merino wool sweater and the shell. Shells can be found at REI or Summit hut for less than $100, or you can pay more for features, up to several hundred dollars. That money is well spent though. You should get a good shell. It should weigh very little, and it should have the features that you want. I think it should have a hood, and it should zip up to your chin. Useful pockets in the right locations are a good feature to look for in a shell, and it should not weigh much more than a pound.
3) wool sweater - I recommend merino wool, because it's a tight weave, but it doesn't weigh much. You will need this layer if you plan to be out in temperatures much below 35F. You should bring this along as a risk mitigation in case temperatures are below those expected. Remember the weatherman often gets it wrong.
4) Base layer(s) - This is a fancy name for a nylon tight weave long sleeved Tshirt. these garments can be layered to increase warmth, and they will breathe, and let out perspiration. For maximum warmth, use 2 base layers, a wool sweather and a shell.
5) Pants - I recommend the convertable nylon pants because they breathe if you are in a warm season. These convert from long to shorts with zippers without removing your hiking shoes. Alternatively, if it's a colder part of the year, such as winter or early spring, or late fall, and if you are hiking in a wilderness area where there are a lot of "thorny" vegitation, such as cacti, or bushes with thorns, it may actually be better to wear blue jeans. The heavy cotton garment can stand up to bush wacking better than the nylon garment. I've seen a nylon garmenet ruined when bush wacking a mile up an arroyo through those thorny plants. The blue jeans will protect your skin better too! In the summer, you will pay a price thermally by using blue jeans, but the price might be worth it, you decide. Most of the hiking I do is in blue jeans, because it only weighs 5 ounces more but the protection is much better, and I prefer to hike in the winter in the desert. In non desert areas I might wear convertable nylon pants, because there will be fewer thorny plants, and thermally the nylon works better.
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Last Update: April 28, 2015
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