Northern California backcountry clothing guide

Summer is here! A great time to enjoy backpacking and alpine climbing.

The outdoor industry overwhelms novices with the thousands of brands promising them a stress-free, ultralight vacation if they buy the latest sleeping bag or dress up in fifty layers. Magazines like Backpacker or brochures from REI/Patagonia don’t help. When every item and every review is punctuated by “ultra-light” and “super-comfortable”, the terms lose all meaning. So here are my picks from over four years and 60+ days spent in the California wilderness.

It is important to realize that a lot of gear in stores is too much for California. We are incredibly lucky to be blessed with generally good weather all year. For weekend warriors living in expensive cities, we want to optimize for light weight, multi-purpose gear that let’s us hike longer and faster in limited time, and want a smaller selection of items to fit in our small apartments.

The gear recommendations below go all the way from day hikes to multi-day backpacking and climbing trips, just by adding overnight gear as required, and occasionally carrying more than one base layer. These are biased to three-season trips, but with a little modification they serve well for California winters. The brands I picked are what I use, since they fit me well, but they should give you a good idea of what to look for.

So let’s begin:

Table of contents

How to approach gear

Just having enough or expensive gear does not make a trip comfortable. Until we achieve skin-tight suits that derive power from the sun and can instantly cool or heat themselves, clothing will be imperfect. When you are out in the wilderness, a high level of situational awareness is essential to account for changing conditions. This doesn’t mean you have to be stressed out instead of relaxing on the trip. It does mean paying attention to

  1. Your body,
  2. The weather,
  3. Time of the day

In California, forecasts can generally be trusted in the three day window and outside of the occasional Sierra thunderstorm, not much happens in the summer. If you went on a trip any way, despite a bad forecast, this guide will NOT help you! Plan your journeys wisely or be prepared to carry more gear. Just a puffy and softshell won’t be enough if you are stuck at 14,000ft in a blizzard!

Evaluating the state of these 3 things every hour or so, and taking some action based on the answers goes a long way. Optimize for the 90-95% perfect cases. A 3-layer Gore-Tex shell and rain pants is a terrible idea in California because the odds of you being caught in a multi-hour, heavy downpour are vanishingly small. By going for a 2 or 2.5 layer shell that can deal with a few hours of light rain, you will save a lot of weight and dollars.

In the sections below I’ll tell you how to use a limited quiver of clothing in a wide variety of conditions.

Using thermo-regulation to our advantage

Humans are furnaces. We burn 2000-2500 calories a day just staying alive, and since cells are not a 100% efficient, a lot of that energy is radiated as heat. All clothes, and all sleeping bags work by trapping this heat and keeping it close to our bodies as long as possible, with varying levels of success. The trick to being comfortable outdoors is to manage the loss of heat. Trying to stay comfortably warm at all costs and at all times is not the right way to do this. During the day, or when moving, focus on getting rid of as much heat as possible. When stopped, or on cold nights, focus on conserving it. When moving, we want to avoid getting sweaty, especially when it is cold outside. Continue to wear only the minimum number of layers that keep you comfortably cool, even slightly colder. Starting of the day feeling a little cold; you’ll warm up as soon as you start walking and it is only going to get warmer. In contrast, wear the puffy as early as possible when you reach camp, so all the heat from walking is conserved.

If you wear that puffy jacket while hiking uphill, you will be warm, but your clothes will be soaked with sweat and when you take the jacket off you will quickly lose a lot of heat from evaporative cooling.

Base layers

The most important property in base layers is thermal regulation. I recommend synthetic (or merino), full-length clothes. Long sleeves protect you from the sun and are more versatile. They also let you get away with not putting on sunscreen. While acceptable on a day trip, sunscreen is sticky goop that mingles with sweat and becomes a mess the more days you spend without a shower. Plus it pollutes water sources if you then dip in pristine alpine lakes. So I try to keep it to a minimum.

For the top, you want a half-zip, not a round-neck. The more of your neck the collar can cover, the better. There are a few “sun hoodies” on the market that work equally well.

For pants, a really lightweight to midweight synthetic is the way to go. Climbers may appreciate a slimmer fit around the ankles or a drawcord. A thigh pocket that is not obstructed by the harness is good for a camera and snacks or a map.

A good pair of synthetic underwear compliments this setup.

So why the specific choices? Synthetic layers dry really quickly. They can go days without washing and merino can go longer. Generally I’ll wash tops every 4-5 days, but pants go indefinitely unless they get into mud. On the John Muir Trail, I carried and wore one pair of pants for 18 days, washing it only once at Reds Meadows where there was a laundry. Softshell pants are extremely durable, comfortable, stretchy and dry within an hour when worn, and overnight when off the body. They can cost up to $100 but they last a long time even after significant abuse. I have dragged it through chimneys that tore my knees and it doesn’t show much wear.

How do we affect thermo-regulation at this layer? As it gets warmer, I’ll first pull up my sleeves past the wrist. Wrist coverage affects how cool your hands are. Even hotter? I’ll roll up the sleeves past the elbow as long as the sun isn’t too harsh. At higher altitudes I’ll deal with the discomfort to avoid putting sunscreen on my arms. Then I will start unzipping the half-zip as much as I need. If you are still really hot, it is one of those 5-10% days (see above). Just carry more water and suck it up. I never bother rolling up pant legs. I don’t like sunscreen on my legs (because I will usually go days without washing legs), and in the terrain I usually am, long pants protect from rocks and itchy plants.

My current base layer setup is:

  • Top - Arc’teryx Ether or Phasic Sun Hoody for 3-season use / Patagonia Capilene 3 for winters.
  • Bottoms - Outdoor Research Voodoo or Mountain Hardwear Chockstone
  • Underwear - Ex Officio

Carrying spares

For a one night trip, I’ll just carry and wear the same clothes both days. For longer trips, I carry a normal t-shirt for camp and either long underwear or a very thin pant (Outdoor Research Ferrosi) to change into. This allows drying out hiking clothes and feeling a little cleaner getting into bed. It is also great on those high elevation change Eastern Sierra approaches where you can be in a cesspool of sweat on the first and last day.

Outer layers

I will carry two layers:

  1. A down or synthetic jacket (hereafter called a puffy) - current favorite Arc’teryx Atom LT.
  2. A soft-shell or light-weight rain jacket based on conditions.

(2) is generally for camp, or extended breaks when it is cold. They pack down small, generally don’t need much love and care and are more than enough on their own for anything above freezing.

The most important rule of outerwear is to have one of these easily reachable at the top of your pack. As soon as you stop, even for as little as five minutes, put it on! Before you eat or drink. Conserve all that heat your just generated. Taking it off is the last thing to do right before you start. Do this diligently.

At the end of the day, I will generally change my t-shirt if I carried a “camp t-shirt”, and then put the puffy on.

(3) is for wind and rain resistance, not to keep you warm. Avoid insulated soft-shells as they are bulky and don’t breathe as well.

If the forecast calls for generally clear weather, I’ll pick the softshell since they are more versatile, especially when climbing. If there are decent chances of rain, I’ll carry the rain jacket instead.

All outer layers should have a hood. If you are a climber, these should be helmet compatible. The thin hoods make great shades for the neck and face. Puffy hoods are a great compliment over a beanie when it gets really cold or the wind picks up.

Current picks: - Arc’teryx Atom LT synthetic. I used to have the Mountain Hardwear ghost-whisperer, which is nice too. For my use cases and temperatures, the synthetic is better even though it is heavier. The wrists are way better, the side fleece allows it to be used while moving and it is more durable. - Outdoor Research Ferrosi soft-shell, or Helium II rain shell.

For colder temperatures or if you are a colder person, an additional thin layer to complement the base layer is nice. This will usually be a merino or fleece full or half-zip hoody. The hood is good to progressively get warmer - start with just raising the hood first, then zip up as required. The thumb holes allow keeping the wrists warm even as I am moving my arms, keeping the fingers warmer than they would be otherwise. Icebreaker makes some good merino hoodies. If you are a colder person, or are doing a start-stop activity like climbing, a thicker fleece like the Patagonia R1 or the OR Centrifuge (my choice) may be a good idea. In that case, get the full zip so you can dump heat as required.

The rain annoyance

I only carry a rain-jacket on multi-day trips where the forecast indicates precipitation, or where I am in more exposed positions. Rain gear has such a narrow band of use and is so uncomfortable even in that band, that, it is more of a necessity than something I actually want to carry. Regardless of how well it keeps the rain off, you are either sweating inside, or cold inside. Wearing a backpack will wet out the shoulder areas eventually. If you wear glasses, the hood doesn’t do much good. My fingers are always cold. If climbing, water trickles through the sleeves every time you raise your arms. Really :) I would much rather not be out in the rain. Snow is so much better!

I’ve never carried rain-pants in California. They are useful as a wind-layer during winter ascents, otherwise don’t buy them.

Summer precipitation in California is monsoonal. The forecast usually says “after 11am and before 11pm”. In the Sierra this generally means a short hail or rain shower that starts around 3-4 pm and lasts for a couple of hours. It is better to plan around this with some discipline than carry a rain jacket and then start late. The best scenario is to have started hiking early enough that you reach camp before the daily shower starts. If you do get caught, remember it is better to keep moving until the campsite; you will be warmer and can dry out in the tent, instead of getting cold. On the JMT we had 6-7 days of monsoon showers, only one of which lasted through the night and was an inconvenience. For the rest we would already be in camp, read or nap while it rained, then cook dinner after the rain had stopped. If you are aiming to climb a mountain, and you have that friend who asks for a late start, since “the sun will set at 8pm any way”, I recommend leaving them and starting early, unless you enjoy getting soaked and having wet shoes.

Start early, summit early, descend at your leisure.

Unless you are going out in winter, don’t bother with a hardshell. Mt. Shasta is the only place in California you may need one. Get one with pit zips, and high-chest pockets instead of waist pockets. That way you can at least wear it skiing.

Footwear

If you have decently fit legs, either from running or strength training, leave those unwieldy boots behind. A pair of running or trail-running shoes are perfect for all activities in California. Since you will almost never be out in rain, you don’t need the Gore-Tex lining. Since you will be doing effective temperature regulation, your feet shouldn’t get too warm or too cold. Since you will be carrying a limited amount of versatile gear, your pack will be light, so you don’t need extra ankle support.

Trail-runners are light, very breathable, and don’t need breaking in to avoid blisters. If they get wet from puddles, they dry quickly. They are much better at adhering to uneven surfaces. You do have to be more careful about not stubbing your toes. Depending on where you usually go, you may want to skip the zero-drop, thin-soled, minimalist shoes though. They are fine on soft-packed Bay Area trails, but Sierra trails will often feature granite choss as the trail material and your feet will get poked. If climbing, a lot of your day will be spent scrambling over talus, so an approach shoe with better toe protection and a rock plate is nicer.

Good foot care is essential for happy feet. You will want to carry at least 2 pairs of socks. One for hiking, one around camp and for sleeping in. This lets you dry the hiking socks every evening. If the trails are particularly dusty, you may want to carry another pair, and switch out halfway into the day to the fresh pair. Wash the dirtier one around lunch, and hang them on the outside of your pack, so they dry during the next few hours of hiking.

My current choice is Darn Tough merino wool socks.

There will be days when you are just doing too many miles for any of this to help and your feet will start to blister. As soon as you notice a hot spot, put a moleskine or duct tape on it.

On longer trips, a pair of flip flops are great as camp shoes.

Accessories

A thin pair of gloves.

They are excellent as sun protection at high altitudes, keep your fingers warm, and prevent rubbing from hiking poles over long distances. I find thin gloves are best used in the near-freezing band, because in that range, my core is often hot enough that I need only one layer, but my fingers start getting chilly.

Cap

Pretty obvious.

Buff

A buff or bandana is great. On climbing trips I prefer it over a cap, since it can be worn under a helmet to keep the sun off the ears and neck and forehead. It can be worn around the neck on chilly nights and alpine starts.

Bugs

The California wilderness is generally free of annoying bugs, but there is tick season and mosquito season in summer.

Please, please, please leave the bug spray at home. It pollutes water sources unless you are careful about washing your hands. Mosquito pressure is very rarely so bad that you need to DEET yourself out. Instead, use clothes to protect.

A tight-weave softshell pant like the ones listed above are impossible for mosquitoes to bite through and keep ticks away. Mosquitoes are usually active in the 60-70F band, so they generally go away at night. An easy way to protect the upper body is to wear your softshell or rain jacket. When you are moving, it is easy to keep mosquitoes away.

A face bug net coated with permethrin is extremely effective and can be worn even while hiking.

I generally carry a tarp in the summer. During mosquito season (May-July) I will carry the bug net insert, then leave it at home in August-September.

Backpacks

I won’t go into what pack to get in this article, but you should wait to buy one after you have figured out the gear to carry in it. The packs you buy should be influenced by the gear you carry. Generally you want everything to fit inside the pack, fairly cleanly, and the pack should carry well.

Taking care of gear

How carefully should you treat items? Clothes are designed for certain kinds of wear, and don’t need babying in those cases, while they need extreme care in others. So it is OK to just stuff a down/synthetic jacket into a backpack, in all the empty spaces, without having to put it into the stupid cover that came with it. It is not OK to wrap your crampons in it! Down sleeping bags hate water and should be kept away from them, but it is generally alright to sleep in them with dirty clothes, or set them on boulders to air out. Tent fabrics have high-tensile strength, but DO NOT take ice axes or flames near them.

Soft shells and fleece are OK with rubbing against abrasive rocks, but rain gear will quickly lose its effectiveness, while down jackets will lose feathers at the first nick.

Jacket’s don’t need to be washed every trip. I usually wash them every 5-6 days of wear.