5 Clothing Tips for Comfort and Effectiveness in the Backcountry

Forgotten gear, soaked clothing, cold hands, even a minor oversight in preparation can turn a backcountry trip uncomfortable. In most cases, discomfort is not life-threatening and a little bit of suffering adds a little poeticism to the story. However, there can be a fine line between the discomfort we come to expect in the backcountry and the kind of discomfort that can eventually distract us from looking for animals, interfere with sleep, and reduce dexterity when it might count the most. So a little extra preparation and a few key clothing tips can go a long way to increase both comfort and effectiveness in the backcountry.

There are, of course, endless amounts of gear hacks and tips to help reduce weight, stay warm, and get more bang for your buck with gear. Here are 5 tips and tricks that help keep me comfortable and more effective when out on the land, water, and sleeping on the ground.

1. Cinch those drawstrings

For years, I always saw the drawstrings on my jackets as a superfluous frill. It’s not that I didn’t notice cold drafts rushing up my back. It’s more that I didn’t believe that cinching the bottom of the coat would really make that much of a difference, so I just ignored them. Once in a while, I would tighten the hood on a rain jacket, but even then, I tended to just leave it alone and hope the rain ran down instead of inside the jacket.

One of the things I have come to learn over the last number of years, particularly since spending a great deal of time in the Arctic, is that the extra little difference that drawstrings make is worth it.

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Good rain gear will let you really cinch down the hood and cuffs to keep water out. Photo credit: First Lite

This tip is particularly useful when you are sitting down in colder weather, such as in a treestand, in a boat, on a snowmobile, or in any other kind of windy situation. Most decent jackets will have an elastic drawstring running along the bottom or around the waist. Cinch that string tight to lock a lot of body heat inside your jacket.

It’s also worth spending some time getting to know the drawstrings on the hood of your rain jacket. Figure out which strings tighten the hood in different directions and use them strategically to keep heat in and prevent wind from blowing rain into the hood. I recommend specifically choosing rain gear that has multiple cinch points on the hood.

2. Use liner socks

Another clothing system I got on to a few years ago is using a pair of liner socks under my regular hiking socks. Liner socks are a thinner pair of socks usually made of some combination of merino and nylon or polypropylene that stay tight to your skin Liner socks are key for a couple of reasons.

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First, liner socks help prevent blisters. Blisters are formed by the friction of your skin rubbing against whatever it is touching. When you have a pair of liner socks tight against your foot with a looser fitting pair of merino or other wool socks on top, the point of friction becomes sock-on-sock – the liner sock rubbing on the main sock. This will significantly help reduce blistering.

Check out the video above for a rundown on Kenetrek’s sock system.

Second, liner socks help with thermoregulation. When moisture from sweat stays against your skin, your feet will get too hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Sweat will also soften and swell your skin and expedite and worsen the blistering process.

Liner socks help with the moisture wicking process, transporting sweat away from your skin and out to the main sock which will continue to transport the moisture out and allow your feet to stay dry. This will help to keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

3. Three head layers

A constant backcountry battle is the need to bring enough clothing to adapt to changing weather conditions while not unnecessarily increasing the weight of your pack.

The common debates tend to revolve around how many and what kinds of upper and lower body layers to pack. However, head layers are relatively low-cost items in terms of pack weight and can go a long way to help you quickly adjust to changing temperature and weather conditions.

I have found that three head layers will get me by in pretty much any of the weather fluctuations I would reasonably expect on a trip. This system is particularly useful in spring and late summer when nighttime temperatures begin to drop. The key with this is to broaden what we see as a head layer.

On most trips, I will bring three layers from a combination of the following choices:

Unless it’s the middle of winter, I always wear a baseball style hat on a trip. I like wearing them and they keep sweat off my face and help with the sun. A Buff or another kind of neck gaiter is super versatile. I’ll choose the material and weight depending on the season and I can wear it around my neck or around my ears like a headband right on top of my regular hat. If temperatures are going to get cold, I’ll bring a winter hat that I can wear on top of my regular hat.

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Neck gaiters, such as Buffs, are light-weight pieces of gear that can be used in many different ways. Credit: Buff

It’s also important to think of hoods as a head layer. It’s easy to overlook hoods, but they can be a big help in adding a layer to your head without having to pack a separate piece of gear. In the fall, I will usually wear a merino mid-layer shirt with a hood. I also often use the hood on my rain jacket to keep the wind off my head. Wind is a huge source of heat loss, so the more you can keep it from moving body heat away from your skin, the better. In other words, a head layer doesn’t have to be super insulated to make a difference in warmth.

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4. Merino. Merino. Merino.

I have mentioned merino wool a few times. While this tip involves a not unsubstantial investment up front, I can’t stress enough how important and useful merino clothing is for outdoor activities. Many people know that wool is one of the best fibres to wear in colder temperatures but people often overlook its usefulness in warm temperatures.

The reason wool is such a great fibre for warmth is that it is so effective at moisture wicking. Where cotton will become soaked and lose almost all of its heat retention qualities, wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture and retain 80% of its insulating properties.

The moisture-wicking quality of wool is as true and useful in the summer when a lightweight merino t-shirt pulls sweat away from your skin. This is particularly useful in areas such as on your back when carrying a backpack or on your feet, causing blisters.

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Merino sheep survive in tough environments such as the alps of New Zealand. Photo credit: Icebreaker

Merino wool comes from merino sheep, a breed that is particularly well adapted for large temperature fluctuations, surviving in temperature ranges from 30 degrees Celsius in the summer to -10 degrees in the winter. Merino wool is particularly effective for backcountry trips because it is so lightweight for its temperature regulation effectiveness.

Do some research on different companies and how they organize their merino products. One of the downfalls of merino is that it is known to lose shape over time, so some companies offer a blend of merino and other synthetic fibres to help with elasticity and durability. Another challenge is that high-quality merino products are not cheap, but they will make a huge difference in the number of layers you have to carry around and the relative weight of those layers in your pack.

Making the change to merino clothing will go a very long way to increase your comfort in the backcountry in all seasons. To get started, invest in a couple good pairs of merino hiking socks. Then consider a lightweight (150-200 g) shirt or a merino neck gaiter.

5. Pocket organization

Outdoor gear is famous for being loaded with pockets. This is convenient for stashing gloves for quick access and other small gear like knives and lighters. However, an excess of pockets can also lead to loading up all kinds of unnecessary bulk on your body that should probably just be carried in your pack. It can also lead to things dropping on the ground and being lost to the dark as you fumble around looking for your chapstick.

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One of the tricks I use that helps me quickly access the small items I need is to designate certain pockets on my pants and jackets for particular items.

Knowing that my gloves are always in the left thigh pocket of my pants and my knife is always clipped into my right hip pocket prevents unnecessary searching through pockets for items I need, sometimes in a hurry.

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Create a good system of pocket organization so you know where everything is when you need it. Photo credit: Fjall Raven

This system takes discipline so you don’t just stuff things into any pocket that happens to be handy. It also requires care to ensure that pockets are closed once things go in them. But it pays off when you always know where things are and never have to worry about whether something inadvertently slipped out and fell on the ground as you tried to separate your hat from your gloves.

Conclusions

When packing for the backcountry, many of us are familiar with the guiding principle that “two is one and one is none”. In other words, if something malfunctions or goes wrong with your gear in the backcountry, you can’t just grab a new one from the shelf.

Ensuring you have the gear you need is not just about convenience. It’s primarily about safety. Temperature regulation is one of the most important considerations when packing for a backcountry trip. Staying warm and dry means having enough layers for the temperature and the right kind of layers for the weather. But weight is also always a consideration.

There are endless tips and tricks to help stay warm and comfortable in the woods. Part of the battle is ensuring that you are using your gear to its maximum potential and can access it reliably when you need it. To summarize, here are 5 tips I use to keep me comfortable and effective on hunts:

  • Drawstrings: cinch up drawstrings on your jackets to keep heat in and rain out.
  • Liner socks: a pair of next to skin liner socks helps prevent blisters and keeps your feet dry.
  • Head layers: find a good 3-layer system for your head that maximizes use of all your other clothing accessories and combination.
  • Merino wool: one of the most effective clothing fibres for its insulating and moisture wicking properties.
  • Pockets: decide on and stick to a good system of pocket organization to keep track of gear you need to access and tuck away frequently.

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