Figuring Out How Many Changes of Clothes To Bring Backpacking

I’ve been learning a lot about backpacking lately. Enough to start a blog, buy some gear, and plan my first trip. A friend and I will be hiking the Lake Shore Trail in Michigan. It follows the coast of Lake Superior. I’m super excited. Since this is my first multi-day backpacking trip I had to do a lot of research to find out what to pack. Here’s what I’ve figured out.

How many changes of clothes to bring backpacking will depend on your individual trip but experienced backpackers recommend not taking more than 2-3 days worth of clothing. In general, you want 2-3 base layers, 2 mid-layers, a rain jacket, 1 pair of pants, 1-2 pair of shorts depending on climate.

What Does 3 Days of Clothes Look Like For a Backpacking Trip?

The climate is the main thing that’s influencing the amount and type of clothes I will pack. The average temperature in August for Whitefish Point, MI  (which is close to the trail) is 73° for the high and 54° for the low. It’s going to be on the cooler side.

My trip to Lake Shore Trail is 42 miles but my friend and I want to spend extra time there so we are planning to stay for 4 nights. I plan to bring 2 days worth of clothing and an extra t-shirt to sleep in. If my trip was for a few weeks I’d probably bring the same.

My Clothing Pack List For Lake Shore Trail

  • 3 base layers. I’ll pack 1 long-sleeve moisture-wicking shirt (which I still have to buy) and 2 short sleeve Nike Dri-Fit shirts. I’ll wear one shirt during the day, change into a clean shirt at night, then wash the dirty shirt, and then change back into it after it’s dried the next day.
  • 2 Mid Layers. I am packing a puffy jacket that is Nylon on the outside and polyester on the inside. I just snagged it on clearance for $9.  I’m also going to pack a Nike Dri-Fit Zip-up Hoodie that also Polyester.
  • Lightweight rain-jacket (or poncho.) I haven’t decided on this yet. One or the other is coming with me—for sure.
  • 1 pair of hiking pants One pair of pants should be fine. If I was going on a trip that was over a week I might consider bringing two pair. Or get a pair of hiking pants that convert into shorts.
  • 1 pair of camp shorts or pants The area I will be in is near water. I’m not sure how bad the mosquitos will be. I will either bring pants or shorts. I’m debating this one still. If the water isn’t too cold in August I may want to swim and it would be nice to have that as an option.
  • 2 pairs of quick-dry boxer briefsI plan to change at the end of each day and wash my dirty clothes at night. I don’t see this being an issue at all—unless it rains and they take a little longer to dry inside my tent.
  • 3 pairs of wool socks. I don’t want to have issues with my feet or with them smelling too bad. I will have one pair of socks on when I arrive and 2 in my backpack. I’ll change my socks at night and then wash them. They may not dry as fast as other clothes so I’ll bring an extra pair.

Wash Your Clothes On The Trail

If you are backpacking intending to hike a long trail then you don’t need a week’s change of clothes. You can make a backpacking washing machine. You should pack biodegradable soap (not laundry detergent) and choose clothes that are easy to wash and dry fast.

If you are backpacking through Europe and will be visiting hostels—taking more of a vacation—then make some adjustments to these recommendations—but the point stays the same. You can wash your clothes.

Follow a system.  Change as soon as you set up camp and immediately wash your clothes. If you do this early enough there is a chance they will be dry sometime in the morning, and if not you should have an extra pair of socks/underwear/t-shirt from the night before last.

Don’t Bring Clothing Made From Cotton

Cotton may be comfortable to wear in every-day life when you are not on the trail, but it can be miserable when backpacking. Cotton absorbs moisture and sweat. When you are hiking for long periods or are hiking in cold weather this can cause problems.

  • Wet fabric causes friction against your body. If you are going to be walking for a significant amount of time each day your clothing and backpack will touch certain parts of your body. When you are dry the movement between your clothing and skin doesn’t cause problems. When you are wet the friction increases and it can cause serious chaffing of the skin, rashes, and blisters. Cotton is not a good option for backpacking.
  • Wearing wet clothing (from sweat or rain) is dangerous is colder weather. Even on cooler summer nights.

Pack Clothing Made From Moisture-Wicking Fabric

Moisture-wicking fabric pulls sweat and moisture away from your skin and into the outer layer of the fabric. It collects sweat and beads it away from you. This makes water evaporate faster. This type of clothing will help you to stay dry. If it does get will it will dry much quicker than cotton. Which comes in handy when you do your laundry on the trail.

When you are planning your gear and clothing you should opt to buy the following fabrics that are made from polyester, nylon, or wool (these are moisture-wicking fabrics). There are also different sports companies (like Nike & Adidas) that have their own blend of fabrics that create an optimal environment for repelling moisture away from the skin.

  1. Polyester
  2. Nylon
  3. Wool

These materials are inexpensive. You don’t have to buy expensive clothing from an outdoor sports store. There are plenty of low-cost options available at discount stores like Walmart or Target. Don’t wear cotton or denim.

Consider the Cost of Having a Heavy Backpack

There are different types of backpacking: regular, lightweight, and ultralight. Most people seem to be interested in regular or lightweight. The amount of clothing you pack will depend on what you need to bring vs. what you want to bring. It comes down to the necessities vs. the luxuries. You want your bag to be as light as possible.

Every piece of gear and clothing is adding weight that you will physically have to carry. You should consider your fitness level, the climate, and the type of trails you will be on. You want to make your bag as light as possible. Try not to pack more clothes than you need. Experienced backpackers recommend that the loaded weight of your backpack be no more than 20% of your body weight. So if you are 170 lbs (like me) your pack shouldn’t weigh more than 34 lbs.

What to Wear at Night Backpacking

If you will be setting up camp at night you should wear clothing that is comfortable enough to sleep in and chosen based on the environment you’re in. This may just be a t-shirt and pair of boxers if you’re a guy. If the weather is warm than wearing something cool and breathable; shorts or breathable pants that will keep you cool.

If you are in a hot climate with a lot of mosquitos you might want to wear your rain gear when you are outside of the tent. In the case of mosquitos, it’d also be a good idea to invest in a wearable mosquito net that covers your face and head.

For cooler temperatures wear something that will be comfortable and also keep you warm. Tight stretch pants that are meant to keep your body heat from escaping would also be something to consider.

Hopefully, by now, you have a better idea of how many changes of clothes to bring for your backpacking trip. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions please leave them in the comments below.

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