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Complete Starter Guide to Clothing on the Appalachian Trail

Read Time: Approximately 12 minutes

When you go on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, what clothes do you carry versus what clothing do you wear? Do you keep one specific set of clothing for daily hiking and one for sleeping, or is there a need for multiple hiking clothes items?

And what about when the weather is unpredictable- do you bring extra clothes just in case it rains or gets cold? Check out this article for some tips on what clothes to bring on your next hike on the Appalachian Trail!

man overlooking the hills of the AT - what clothes to bring on the appalachian trail

Why Your Clothing System Matters

Since you can’t simply grab something from a clothing drawer and you will have to carry everything you need on your back choosing what clothes to bring on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is very important.

Depending on what kind of hiker you are, you might decide to go with a system where you have one set of clothing for daily use and another for sleeping. This is by far the most common and paired with a second set of merino socks and underwear.

This doesn’t solve all the issues though as you will need more clothing to manage the overall day as the weather or their activity level changes. This means carrying rain gear and warmth options like a mid-layer and a puffy jacket to maintain core heat.

No matter what you settle on the clothing you bring will have a direct impact on your hike and quality of life, it’s always worse to have less than you need and Mountain Crossings can be a good place to re-evaluate after a few real days on the trail!

Thru-Hiking Clothing Fundamentals

Unlike most clothing you wear during your day-to-day normal city life your clothes on a thru-hike are very functionality driven and this means they need to work in many environments, work well together in a clothing system, and be lightweight along with durable.

Layering

First and foremost the clothing needs to be able to work in a layering system as the temperature and weather conditions can change at any time when you are hiking in the mountains. This means you need a base layer, insulation layer, and a shell layer that will protect you from the elements.

The base layer is what you wear next to your skin and it should wick away sweat and moisture to keep you dry. This is important as if your clothing gets wet it will lose insulation value and make you colder.

The insulation layer’s job is to trap heat next to your body and keep you warm. This can be a down jacket, synthetic insulated jacket, or even a wool sweater depending on the conditions.

The shell layer is what goes on over everything else and it needs to be both wind and water-resistant to protect you from the elements. This can be a rain jacket, hardshell jacket, or even a poncho depending on what you are carrying.

Functionality

You need maximum functionality from the clothing you bring on a thru-hike as you will be spending a lot of time in them. This means they need to be comfortable, have a good fit, and offer features that make your life easier.

Comfort is important as you will be wearing the same clothes day after day and you need to be able to hike in them without any discomfort. This means they need to fit well, not be too constricting, and ideally have some stretch to them.

Fit is also important as you need to be able to layer the clothing under your rain gear and other outer layers. If the clothing is too big it will be bulky and uncomfortable to hike in, if it’s too small it will be constricting and uncomfortable.

Features like pockets, hoods, and adjustments can also be important as they make your life on the trail easier. Pockets allow you to have quick access to essential items like maps and snacks, while hoods protect you from the wind and rain.

Adjustments help you fine-tune the fit of your clothing to make it more comfortable.

Quick Drying

The Appalachian Trail is wet, nothing stays dry for long and this means you need clothing that dries quickly. This is important for both comfort and safety as wet clothing can lead to hypothermia.

For this reason, synthetics and wool are often the best materials to choose from as they dry quickly and retain their insulation value even when wet.

Lightweight

Since you carry all your gear on your back you want the clothing you bring to be very light. This means choosing materials that are lightweight and durable.

Ultralight options like down and synthetic insulated jackets, rain shells made from lightweight materials like nylon, and wool sweaters.

These materials are not only lightweight but also very packable so you can easily carry them with you on your hike.

Cost & Quality

For many, the cost of the clothing is a major consideration, especially for those on a budget. However, it’s important to remember that the clothing you bring on a thru-hike is what will keep you warm, dry, and comfortable so it’s worth investing in quality gear.

That being said, there are many affordable options available that are still high quality. For example, you can find synthetic shirts for under $25, rain shells for under $50, and merino wool base layers for around $50.

When it comes to the cost of clothing on the Appalachian Trail, it’s important to remember that quality gear is worth the investment.

Fabric Choice (Merino vs Synthetics)

A consistent discussion point among Appalachian Trail hikers is what type of fabric to use for their clothing. The two most popular choices are merino wool and synthetic fabrics.

Each has its own advantages and disadvantages so it’s important to choose what’s right for you.

Merino wool is a natural fiber that is soft, non-itchy, odor-resistant, and water-resistant. It’s also a very good insulator, even when wet, making it a great choice for hikers.

The downside of merino wool is that it’s more expensive than synthetic fabrics and it doesn’t dry as quickly.

Synthetic fabrics are made from polyester or nylon and they are quick-drying, durable, and inexpensive. The downside of synthetics is that they are not as good at insulating when wet and they can retain odors more than merino wool.

In the end, it’s up to you to decide what type of fabric is right for you. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages so choose what’s best for your needs.

Why Is It Called a “Clothing System”

This term is used to describe how all the different pieces of clothing work together to keep you comfortable on the Appalachian Trail.

Each piece has its own function and they all work together to provide the optimum level of comfort and protection.

For example, a base layer might be a lightweight merino wool shirt that keeps you warm and dry, while an outer layer might be a waterproof rain shell that protects you from the elements.

A good clothing system will have a variety of different layers that can be added or removed as the weather changes. This allows you to adjust your level of comfort to match the conditions.

Differences in Needs Based on Seasons

This becomes much more apparent with colder temperatures but the needs of what clothing to bring change based on the season. But summer has just as many issues with frequently warm days but a colder evening into the night where after a hard day of hiking you need a puffy just to maintain heat levels.

Having a good clothing system and proper methods of layering can allow you to add and remove layers depending on the flow of your day, sometimes adding a layer during breaks and removing them while hiking.

Break Down of Clothing

There are many parts of a complete clothing system, some will choose all these items and others may choose to streamline it more by removing some items or having items be dual purpose like bringing a single set of clothes and no town clothes and instead use rain gear when doing laundry, etc.

You have two main categories to all your primary clothing which are the worn daily clothing, the stuff that basically is on you 24/7, and then carried clothing which is typically warmth and protection from the elements.

Worn Clothing

These are the clothes that you wear every day while hiking and typically what you start your day in.

They need to be comfortable, and durable while offering a good level of protection from the daily elements.

Socks

Honestly, maybe the most important gear you will bring with you while on the trail are socks, the amount of people who end up with foot issues and need to take time off or end prematurely is higher than you may think.

Socks keep your feet and toes from blisters, they keep you upright and comfortable while also being able to wick away sweat and moisture.

Make sure to bring along a few good pairs of socks that will work for you and your needs. Merino wool socks are worth the investment, they last a long time and will never treat you poor!

Liners or “toe socks” like Injinji, are a great way to add an extra layer of protection and can be used with any type of sock to help with blister prevention.

Underwear

A staple for 90+% of people on the AT, though there are some who choose to go super ultra-light and drop these too! Since you will be wearing these multiple days in a row most people choose to either get odor-resistant synthetic underwear or go with merino wool which is well known for its smell resistance.

Hiking Shorts / Pair of Pants

This depends on the person, I prefer shorts in nearly all cases, but the benefit to a pair of hiking pants is better leg protection overall from the environment and from the sun and sunburns from consistent sun exposure.

Pants also come in a variety of different materials now that offer good levels of breathability and comfort while being protective.

Hiking Shirt / Tank

This can vary even more than shorts and pants, a shirt choice could be long sleeve, tee, or tank, then you have those who enjoy a button-up shirt.

I find that a comfortable tee or tank works great during the day, with a long sleeve shirt being a smart choice if you know you will be more exposed overall, something that is less of an issue for someone on the Appalachian Trail due to the general overall green tunnel.

Hiking Boot /Shoe / Trail Running Shoes

There are many options for your feet and again this is a hugely personal choice but boots are very heavy compared to trail runners and other shoe choices. But they can be valuable with a heavier backpack weight or when you are needing the extra ankle support.

I personally have used KURU Chicane hiking shoes and then the well-known Altra Lone Peak 4, 5, and now 6’s as they seem to increment each year. Though I have also now been testing out a pair of boots from KURU called the Quest which has been comfortable so far.

Carried Clothing

Now you get to the supplementary gear that is how you protect yourself from the colder and more extreme weather.

This is what you typically don’t start your day in but what you want to have readily available in case the temperature or conditions change on the trail.

Mid Layers

Your mid-layers are what you typically put on when it starts to get colder or when you are at a higher elevation and the temperature has dropped.

A lot of what you may consider your daily layers in town could even technically be your mid-layers on the trail as they will protect you from the elements but won’t be too warm for most conditions.

I prefer one of two mid-layers for myself, I will use the Dragon Wool Hoodie from Outdoor Vitals or my Appalachian Gear Hoodie. I really love both but the dragon wool is a bit warmer and works better in real cold but many AT thru-hikers have come to love the AG hoodie.

Rain Gear

Here is where people diverge into two distinct camps, the budget version which will rely on buying cheap rain pants and similar gear and replacing it on the trail if it gets damaged which can work but leave you exposed should the cheap gear fail, or the much more expensive but impressive high-performance gear.

If you have the money then the best way is to get quality gear, it will be lighter and compact in your backpack leading to easier to carry loads and there is much less of a chance of gear failure at an inopportune time, this would be something like the Enlightened Equipment VISP or the Zpacks Vertice for ultimate performance.

Puffy Coat (Down or Synthetic)

This will become like a second skin to you, many will continue to wear their puffy long after they complete their thru-hike as it is just so dang comfortable.

A lot of what you want to consider when choosing your puffy is the weight, what material it is made out of (down or synthetic), how compressible it is, and of course the price.

There are a lot of great options on the market but my personal favorite is the Zpacks Goose Down Jacket as goose down is just hands down the best performing down available and it is incredibly, possibly insanely, lightweight for cold-weather gear.

Camp Base Layers

Those who hate cold nights and easily sleep cooler should look to bring along a pair of merino wool tops and bottoms that can help give you that needed the extra warmth in your sleeping quilt or just make it more comfortable to sleep.

I typically bring along a pair of 200+ rated merino wool sleeping clothes as I can use them both for sleeping and as extra warmth if need be during the evening or on emergency days.

Town Clothes

The final thing you could choose to bring is something to wear around town while you are doing laundry and this could just be any simple pants, shorts, and tee.

I like to bring along a pair of shorts and a t-shirt as they are what I am most comfortable in but again it is up to you what you want to bring as many will skip these due to the extra weight.

Final Thoughts on What Clothes to Bring on the Appalachian Trail

When preparing for a hike on the Appalachian Trail, what clothes you bring is an important consideration. You’ll want to make sure to have layers that can protect you from the unpredictable weather in the mountains.

Hopefully, I’ve helped you think more on the subject today and exactly what you might want to bring on your AT thru-hike! I know clothing can be a daunting topic but once you have your system worked out it will be much easier.

If you are looking for my choices for gear that can suit any thru-hike please feel free to check out my exhaustive gear page here, you can find everything you need from big three to headlamps and headphones.

As always, feel free to leave any questions or comments below. Happy Hiking!

William Keith

Wednesday 15th of June 2022

Josh, I discovered your app yesterday. So, so amazing, what your doing.Im going to keep the app on my front page. Incredible reading. I do have a query: I have been in such a quandary about getting to the point of Fontana Dam and then arranging to get my GSMNP, hiking permit. Everything I read says that you can get it at NOC. I'm planning on staying at The Hike Inn. I believe I can print one there. I'm just so concerned this will be a roadblock. Should I calm my anxiety about getting a permit printed out? Thank you so much.

Josh

Wednesday 15th of June 2022

I would calm down and relax personally, what's the overall anxiety and stress over? Is it just finding a printer for one or something else?