My Go Suit is my backpacking uniform, and I wear these clothing items every day from sunrise to sunset — and, unless they’re wet, at night too. Additional layers from my “Stop” and “Storm” categories are worn over them, while my “Sleep” layers replace them when wet for improved nighttime comfort. Out of the Core 13, a tight collection of backpacking clothing, my Go Suit constitutes the first 7 items:
When my Go Suit becomes unacceptably dirty, I do the same thing as I would at home: I do laundry, usually in the backcountry with just water (no soap), in order to remove dirt, salt, and some stink. No spare or extra clothing. I definitely could get a cleaner clean with a washing machine and some detergent, but a backcountry wash is an effective interim solution.
In warmer weather, I normally wear the short-sleeve shirt. In cooler temperatures, and/or when I need to protect my arms from scratchy brush and relentless sun, I wear the long-sleeve.
Other than sleeve length, the shirts can have identical specs. Look for a knit polyester or merino wool fabric labeled “silkweight” or “lightweight,” or a weight of 120 g/m2 to 150 g/m2 (for merino fabrics only). If the shirt will be used only in hot, arid environments, a cotton component is acceptable — if not actually desirable — for superior airflow and extended evaporative cooling.
Avoid woven fabrics, which normally have low airflow. (Quick comparison test: Put your mouth against the fabric and strongly exhale.) And avoid nylon, too; it’s a very durable synthetic fiber, but it does not manage moisture as well as polyester. Oddly, many of the button-front “travel” shirts popular with hikers such as the REI Sahara Tech Long-Sleeve feature both. While such shirts are generally more UV-resistant than knits, the benefit is marginal: a knit shirt with a UPF rating of 25 still blocks 96 percent of UV, versus 98 percent for a much stuffier woven shirt with a UPF rating of 50.
I generally prefer merino wool because it’s far more odor-resistant and it’s warmer when wet (though not “warm”). But I can make an argument for polyester, too: it’s much less expensive and more durable, absorbs less moisture and dries faster, and can be milled in lighter weights, which makes it cooler and a better moisture manager than the lightest wool fabrics. Also, in dry environments I find that polyester is much less offensive smelling, especially with a backcountry wash every two or three days.
Fit & features
The cut should be regular, since a semi-fitted or form-fitted shirt will be too warm. A slightly long torso will prevent the shirt from riding up and allowing a backpack to chafe your lumbar. To supplement the air-permeability of the fabric, I like venting features like a chest zipper or button-front. To protect my neck from the sun, I want a high collar, not a crew neck. Finally, I want to look sharp when wearing it; I avoid poor-fitting, slopping-looking “base layer” underwear.
My picks and suggestions
Ibex Echo Sport Zip T Short-Sleeve. The fit and features of this shirt are perfect, but sadly it has been discontinued and I can’t find an exact replacement. Any suggestions? Like all pure merino shirts, its durability and moisture management were lacking versus my synthetic shirts, but I loved its 150 g/m2 weight, regular fit, mid-height collar, and chest vent. As a substitute, I’d probably pick the Icebreaker Quattro Polo, which besides the button-collar is almost exactly the same; or you might be happy with the simpler Icebreaker Tech T-Shirt (women’s) or similar.
Sierra Designs Short-Sleeve Pack Polo and Long-Sleeve Pack Polo. I wore the long-sleeve version for a month straight last summer in the High Sierra and loved it: awesome air flow, super fast dry time, and good looks.
If I were in the market for a long-sleeve merino top, I’d take a look at the Stoic Alpine Merino Bliss Shirt and the Icebreaker Aero Half-Zip Shirt, which appear to have the right fit and features. Both also have a synthetic fiber component, which improves moisture management and durability while reducing the cost.