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Core Backpacking Clothing || Intro: With just 13 items, go anywhere in 3-season conditions

The Yukon Arctic in late-July, featuring bad bugs, thick bushwhacks through willow, cool temperatures, and a mix of sun and rain.

The Yukon Arctic in late-July, featuring bad bugs, thick bushwhacks through willow, cool temperatures, and a mix of sun and rain.

To backpack anywhere in 3-seasons conditions, how few articles of clothing are needed to mix-and-match appropriate systems?

I say: thirteen — the Core 13, I’ll call the collection. However, a decent argument could be made for 11, and for a narrower range of applications or conditions, even fewer are relevant. For instance, just 9 for the Colorado Rockies and just 7 for a summertime hike on the Appalachian Trail. Consult the last post of the series for location-specific systems of backpacking clothing.

To assemble such a tight system with minimal sacrifices to performance — and thus my safety and comfort — I strive to only wear or pack clothing that is:

  • Warranted by the environmental and route conditions;
  • Unique among the collection in its functions, with no or minimal redundancy between pieces; and,
  • Suitable for a wide-range of conditions, not niche circumstances.

Note that the Core 13 only includes backpacking shirts, shorts, jackets, and pants. I could do a similar evaluation for footwear and extremity accessories (i.e. hats, gloves, headnet) but that’s beyond the scope of this series.

An wardrobe malfunction in the High Sierra, where mild temperatures, sunny skies, bug-free days, and open cross-country travel normally rule in September. Our route, however, included a 7-mile bushwhack through scratchy chaparral.

A wardrobe malfunction in the High Sierra, where mild temperatures, sunny skies, bug-free days, and open cross-country travel normally rule in September. Our route, however, included a 7-mile bushwhack through scratchy chaparral.

Defining “3-season conditions”

Given that there are thousands of outdoor clothing SKU’s available in retail stores like REI and online-only vendors such as Backcountry and CampSaver.com, I realize it may seem impossible to believe that the optimal clothing collection can be so simple. And I’m sure that it seems impossible to sort through all the options and find the thirteen items necessary to span the full range of 3-season conditions:

  • Normal daytime temps 50-90 degrees F, with extremes 10 degrees F colder and hotter
  • Normal nighttime temps 30-70 degrees F, with extremes 10 degrees F colder and hotter
  • Sunny or thick overcast, and everything in between
  • Downpour, rain, mist, and dry
  • Low, moderate, and high humidity
  • Thick forest canopies, open woodlands, or big skies with relentless sun
  • Intense bug pressure, mild pressure, or none
  • On-trail, cross-country, and bushwhacks

But, really, it is this simple.

Classic conditions in the Pacific Northwest and in the Appalachian shoulder seasons: rainy, high humidity, temps just above freezing, soaking-wet vegetation, minimal sunshine

Classic conditions in the Pacific Northwest and in the Appalachian shoulder seasons: rainy, high humidity, temps just above freezing, soaking-wet vegetation, minimal sunshine

The Core 13

In a series of posts over the next two weeks I will detail my selections

Go Suit

Stop

Storm

Sleep

In the capstone post in this series, I detail specific clothing gear lists for multiple locations in North America.

8 Responses to Core Backpacking Clothing || Intro: With just 13 items, go anywhere in 3-season conditions

  1. Connor March 9, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    Are you a communications professor because you argue your claim in great 3 point abstract

    • Andrew Skurka March 9, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

      I’ll take that as a compliment.

      No, it’s purely coincidence.

  2. Doc March 9, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

    Awesome!
    I’m looking forward to what you have to share!

  3. Sam H March 11, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    This intrigues me. You’re suggesting 13 necessary items but not including things like shoes, sunglasses, and gloves? I just went through my minimal SUL list (10 clothing items) and my standard weekend loadout (16 items), both of which include everything worn. Looking forward to your rationale. Presented in 3 point abstract of course ; )

    • Andrew Skurka March 11, 2015 at 3:45 pm #

      Thirteen necessary clothing items. Obviously you’ll need other things, too, but I wanted to keep this series to one product category — clothing.

      If the pieces are versatile enough, you can get to 13. In fact, you can even get to 11 pretty easily by using convertible pants (instead of dedicated pants + shorts) and a knit polyester bug shirt (instead of dedicated hiking shirt + bug shirt). These 13 items can be mixed and matched to create a system that is applicable for every set of 3-season conditions. There might be a few instances in which the system is not exactly perfect — for instance, my 13-item kit includes a merino or polyester hiking shirt, but if you only hiked in the desert southwest you would probably fare better with a cotton blend — but my point will be made that clothing can be pretty simple.

      • Sam H March 23, 2015 at 8:11 am #

        Andy, not that you needed reassurance, but your research and presentation of the Core 13 came together excellently. I particularly appreciated your final post and the suggested applications of the principle to specific regions/seasons. Your doing great things to educate outdoor users, man. Keep it up!

  4. Marshall March 28, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    This is more than a blog. This is a reference.

    Thank you.

  5. David October 29, 2016 at 8:27 am #

    I have always wondered what 3 season “actually” meant. Here it is described temperature wise as 20F to 100F at the extremes. For the areas of the world that have distinct seasons I guess this a fair guide. In the benign climate where I grow up it covers the whole year apart from a few very hot days in summer. Anyway, clothing is an area where I have struggled and therefore appreciate this post.

    For those who also struggle, quality high performance clothing, (merino wool etc), whilst punishingly expensive is the the only humane solution for longer duration trips. Not smelling like a corpse is the only way I can cope with life.

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