My backcountry clothing system

Last night I was as physically shattered as I’d been in almost a year. My eyes felt pushed from their sockets, due to dehydration, by hands were so dry they seemed to stick, with a combination of sandpaper and velcro, to everything I touched. My triceps ached, from paddling, my ribs stung, from jackknifing attempts to unstick my boat from mud, and my thighs radiated the heat and agony of peddling a loaded bike up sand and gravel and mud and graded road. I was right off a bikerafting trip on the Dirty Devil river, roughly 60 miles of peddling and pushing, paddling and dragging, in 2.5 days.  And if you took away the 1.5 mile downhill hikeabike, and all the boat dragging, I hadn’t walked a foot with a loaded pack.

Odd, it seemed to me, that the clothing I brought along was essentially the same for a summer packrafting trip in the Bob, or a fall hunting trip, or a spring canyoneering trip.  Maybe backcountry clothing isn’t actually that complicated.

If you took away everything in my closet save the stuff I mention in the video and detail below, I’d be just fine for 97% of the stuff I do outside.  The few occasions where I’d miss something else are noted.  No guarantees other folks will, after years of trial, error, and refinement, develop similar preferences, but if you want to shortcut from the beginning of technical clothing acquisition straight to a dialed system this is my suggestion.

Hat: Dynafit Performance Beanie

Yes, it’s $35 MSRP.  Worth it (a theme here).  Combines warmth where you need it, good venting, and quick sweat mitigation with no compromises.  And it’s long enough to cover my ears even when my hair is long.  Hat search over.

Cap: 100% Synthetic trucker hat

I take the low-tech route here, with a cap I got as swag at OR this year, that retails for $15.  It’s big enough to layer over the performance beanie, but not so huge it won’t fit under all my hoods.  Basic, and essential.

Gloves: work in progress

Honestly the answer most of the time is none.  Going through the screaming barfies once makes for amazingly warm hands for the rest of the day, usually.

Hard shells: BD Helio Alpine jacket and Liquid Point pants

For the last six years my go-to has been the Haglofs Ozo, whose DWR is finally starting to give out.  The choice of the Helio to replace it had as much to do with trying something a bit different, and cost, than anything.  Jury still out, but the fabric seems great thus far (features, less so).  Long story short, I want hard shells to keep water out, and over the years Goretex has done that better than anything.

Primary insulation: BD Hot Forge hoody

As discussed in the link, down/synthetic blends have performed better than I would have thought.  Longevity remains the x-factor, but even the best pure down coats don’t last too long with frequent use.  The Hot Forge is warm enough, light enough, and has the pockets I want.  Expensive at MSRP, yes, but thus far good enough to justify it, for me.  The current Cold Forge has heavier face fabric and more insulation, I’m not aware of anything quite analogous currently available (readers?).  Deep winter requires a massive (10+ oz fill) down coat.

Secondary insulation: Patagonia R2 vest

Two insulation layers are better than one.  I’ve tried otherwise, and always come back to wanting to have one to keep dry while the other gets soaked.  Fleece is the obvious choice for active insulation, but oddly, it’s tough to find fleece that does what I want.  Too many technically featured and cut options use too much spandex, which in this likely to get wet and thick (and thus already slow to dry) layer is a more emphatic no than usual.  The R1 in my vest, for instance, is only 2% spandex.  The current R3 hoodie is the right kind of fabric, as is the Rab Firebrand, or just plain old 100 weight fleece.

Windshirt: BD Alpine Start

The most versatile piece of outdoor clothing yet made didn’t make it into the video, because much though I love it, the Alpine Start usually doesn’t get worn boating.  Too much spandex, though it does dry fast given it’s composition.  It was essential on the biking, and every time I’ve left it home in the last three years I miss it.

Baselayer shirt: Sitka Core LW hoody

Written plenty about this one, and put lots of miles on it, without dampening my enthusiasm or putting dent it the shirt.  Aside from some pilling on the little thumb loop ribbon, it still looks almost new.  It is not quite light enough to be an ideal sun shirt, but does that job well enough, while still working well in the cold.  If I could only have one other baselayer I’d do the Patagonia Sun Stretch for crazy heat, and this for everything else.  Yes, that puts Cap 4 in third place.

Pants: Patagonia Rock Craft

I have a hard time getting excited about pants.  They need to fit decently, be slim enough but not too much, dry fast, and hang around for a long time.  These get the job done.  Not sure what the equivalent is, which could be a problem as after 3 years these pants will probably die in the next few months (blown seat seam would be my guess).  Are the RPS pants as good?

Boxers: Patagonia Capilene 1 Stretch

The perverse exception to my jihad against spandex, these have low double digit content in memory serves.  But they’re super comfy, especially cycling and hiking high mileage.  Longer dry time is oddly enough a decent price to pay.

Long johns: Kuiu Peloton 200

Too be added soon!  I’ve spent a lot of time not carrying anything extra for my legs, and the cold and lack of anything to wear in camp while I dried my pants over the fire got old.  This will doubtless open the gate for sleep clothes and all sorts of redundant crap.

Shoes and socks: way beyond the present scope.




38 responses to “My backcountry clothing system”

  1. The RPS pants are nice. The tiny integrated belt is light yet works really well. I’d prefer them a little slimmer but they’re good.

  2. The Quandarys are the Rock Craft current equivalent. I did like the integrated belt on the RPS but overall they were too baggy for me. BD Creek pants are awesome too but seem to be discontinued???

  3. Back country pants are my bane…I have fat thighs w/ a not too big waist, so it’s hard to find stuff that fits well.

    Why the Kuiu Peleton? (As silly as some may find it, I’ve completely written off Kuiu because of the political statements the owner makes on his personal Instagram). And in general are you still not sold as wool as a baselayer for durability reasons?

    1. Side zips, and the 200 weight w/ that much mechanical stretch is impressive. I agree about personal opinion re: the company but am willing to fudge on this.

      Wool dries too slow. The poor durability is a secondary issue for me.

      1. The side zips would be nice for camp, and I understand the warm you’re after.

        They do have some nice stuff and I”ve bought it in the past, but now I’ve decided to do what I an do hold out.

  4. we share a few of the same entries- Alpine Start (although I do sometimes choose my 2012 Houdini as well); Rock Craft pants; I have a Sitka Core hoody, but on multi-day trips I usually go w/ a Merino 1 crew (65/35% merino/capilene)- it’s proven durable and dries pretty quickly; I also prefer lwt merino boxer briefs over syn

    nice when things get dialed in :)

  5. Been interested in the Core Hoody for a bit, but can’t stand the neck. It looks like they’re coming out with a half zip version of the same this spring. It appears to be the kind of versatile piece that could be worn year ’round in a huge range of temps. Is it significantly thinner/lighter than 100 wt fleece?

    1. Very much so. 100 g/meter, which is thinner than most “lightweight” layers.

      I’ve actually come to like the hood and neck, but I do think the zip will prove more popular.

      1. I just can’t bring myself to buy the camo. Maybe if I ever move out west, but where I”m at on the East Coast it looks way to wanna be.

        1. The new one will come in off-black.

        2. Nice, glad I held out then. Thank you Dave.

        3. Just saw the CLW hoody has been released…man that’s a dark black for warmer months though. Was hoping for something more approaching gray.

          As an aside, their new Ascent Gaiters look promising with the undershoe wire.

        4. Why they didn’t go with one of their nice browns I cannot understand.

        5. It really is frustrating considering the shirt is made for warmer weather. Oh well. C’est la vie.

  6. In your search for pants I highly recommend the Formosa Taffeta fabric used in the Arc’Teryx Palisade. I’m only on pair two over the course of 11 years (including a 1200 mile thru hike). They’re currently my everyday work pant on mostly asphalt shingle roofs with the exception of super cold days where I use heavy cotton insulated Carhartts.

    I need to go re-read your Alpine Start post. I still firmly believe the Gucchi R1 is the most versatile apparel piece and checking out your take on the former piques my interest.

  7. How nice it must be to have amazingly warm hands! :P

  8. Very similar to my setup in function. I suspect the Patagonia Tropic Comfort Hoody II (my choice) isn’t far off from the Sitka. I’m with you on the Rock Craft pants…a little worried as I’ve just about worn out the seat and knees in my last pair. *Hoping* the Quandary don’t make any unnecessary changes in fit or function…

  9. I was looking at Black Diamond’s site and saw their new Alpine Lite softshell pants. They don’t name Schoeller, but 4 way stretch, dwr, several zipped pockets, adjustable cuffs, built in belt- about 10-ish ounces. I’m going to give them a go.

    1. Lycra % kinda high.

  10. Sorry for all the comments today, but I have the day off and I’ve done the work I care to do and it’s too cold/I’m too poor to do anything fun at the moment.

    Anyway, what do you think of the following for a second / active insulation layer:
    -Patagonia Nano Air Hybrid Jacket or Vest:
    -Rab Alpha Flux Jacket:

    Weights seem in line with traditional fleece options, but maybe more packable? I really like the idea of the Nano Air since my back tends to sweat a lot with a pack obviously. However, I presume the fleece portion has the 7% Spandex of the R1.

    Also, when talking about stretch and how it adds to water retention, is there any difference between Lycra/Spandex/Elastane?

    Thank you

    1. ETA: Just read the specs more closely…the fleece portion of the Nano is !00% polyester.

      1. Regarding the active insulation pieces like the Nanoair and various Rab Alpha jackets; I like them a lot for things like hunting or skiing in the cold (for me; 25F and lower). They’re simpler and sleeker and in most cases vastly more breathable then fleece plus windshell. They come up short for be as a midlayer for packrafting or some other warmer weather activity when they’re likely to get wet. Dry time is better than any other kind of puffy, but still not as good as fleece. I think this is largely due to not being able to separate the shell and the insulation. And as you mention, those stretch fleece panels can be prodigious water sinks. Even if they’re 100% poly I still generally hate them.

        If I were to get one today, it’d be the Rab Alpha Direct.

        1. Thank you Dave. I understand your preference for the fleece better now…funny how actually getting out and doing something helps you figure out what you really need :)

          Your temp ratings for those active insulations also are similar to what I’ve found. I’ve been really surprised by how little insulation I need if I’m moving. The last I went hiking it was about 30 degrees out, and once I started uphill the Kuiu Kenai (before my current embargo) was WAY too much. Finished the hike with just an R1 type baselayer and a Rab Boreas. Would have liked to have my Houdini though or a light vest at times, especially when stopped.

    2. Lycra and spandex are for all intents the same thing.

  11. […] I mentioned last week, there are some, stifling hot, occasions when even the lightest knit baselayers aren’t up to […]

  12. quick update on the BD Alpine Light pants- one overnighter and two (long) snowshoe day trips- I like them- breathe well, good dwr, stretch is nice, like the built in belt- drying seems pretty good, might be a little less than rock guides though

  13. Dave, have you seen/tried Sitka’s new version of their lightweight Core Hoody? Added a zip and perhaps a few other features. Any thoughts? Do you like the “new and improved” version of one of your favorite pieces?

    1. Saw it at SHOT in January. I actually like the old non-zip one, but the zip seemed well done.

  14. I thought this was an interesting piece when I got the email the other day, mainly given the price and size options.

    I wrote an asked…17oz total weight (which seems heavy) and 3% spandex.

  15. Thanks for quick reply. Just got this info from Sitka: “There are a couple differences in the new
    CORE Lightweight Hoody. There is a quarter zip now that was added and also a built-in facemask that lays in the hood while not being used.”

  16. […] function of fleece plus windshell in a streamlined and potentially more user-friendly package.  As recently as this spring I didn’t see them as likely to function better than fleece in difficult […]

  17. […] colored socks, gloves, and hats remain a favorite whose value was emphasized this fall when my favorite (and black) hat went missing.  Many other bits of gear have come and gone since, but all of the […]

  18. […] said, technical outdoor clothing is both better and more expensive than ever, so if you pick well a small arsenal can work on almost any day of the […]

  19. […] rain (so as to not get too soaked).  I’ve packed full battle rain gear, as well as the usual clothing.  The only other special provisions for this trip are more, and more detailed maps than usual, […]

  20. See you’re rolling with truckers hat — picked up a down jacket from them last year and is better than I would have guessed…

    1. Free is the best price.

  21. […] lift at the right time you might have seen my haste-induced poor form.  I nicked the arm of my fancy shell, broke the leash on my right ski (which it is supposed to do in a nasty fall), and bruised my whole […]

  22. […] first and best way to spend less on gear is to have and need less of it.  Start with clothing; you don’t need that much of it, and it is far better to buy better and less and simply have things dialed and predictable […]

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