Core Backpacking Clothing || Sleep — Items 12 & 13: Sleeping clothes

This look like home? In climates with regular rain, high humidity, and limited sunshine, it's almost impossible to stay dry. A designated sleeping top and bottom can help guarantee a comfortable and sound night of sleep.

This look like home? In climates with regular rain, high humidity, and limited sunshine, it’s almost impossible to stay dry. A designated sleeping top and bottom can help guarantee a comfortable and sound night of sleep.

In climates with regular and long-lasting rain events, high humidity, and/or weak sunlight (due to shade, cloud-cover, or low sun angle), getting damp, wet, or even soaked seems to be an inherent part of the backpacking experience. If you wish to dry out completely during a backpacking trip in the eastern woodlands, Pacific Northwest, or Alaska, I’d recommend you find a motel.

If that’s not an option, at night you should at least be guaranteed the opportunity for a comfortable and sound sleep. For this reason, a set of designated sleeping clothes — worn only while sleeping, and stored during the day in a reliably dry part of your backpack, never used — are well worth their weight.  A sleeping top and sleeping bottom are the final two items in my Core 13, a tight collection of essential backpacking clothing that can be mixed-and-matched to create appropriate systems for any set of 3-season conditions.

Note that I do not take sleeping clothes for the purpose of keeping cleaner my sleeping bag and/or keeping food smells away from my shelter. Frequent backcountry laundering and good personal hygiene make irrelevant the first concern, and I’m dubious of the effectiveness of the second (though if such a policy were required, like at Philmont, I’d abide by it).

Are sleeping clothes necessary?

In full disclosure, I normally do not carry sleeping clothes. But I also normally backpack in the Rockies, Desert Southwest, and High Sierra, where we have the fortune of irregular and short-lived rain events, low humidity, and intense sunshine. Certainly, I have been soaked in these climates — especially during active monsoon patterns — but it’s not a reliable occurrence and the solution is very easy: when the sun emerges later today or tomorrow, I spread my wet clothing and gear on the ground, and in 20 minutes everything is dry again.

In wetter climates, leaving behind sleeping clothes often falls into the category of “stupid light.” Sure, you saved up to 16 oz of pack weight, but that gain will be entirely offset by a crappy night of sleep in your damp hiking clothes. Sleeping clothes need not always be taken — e.g. an overnight or long-weekend trip during an extended dry weather pattern — but when planning my trip in the weeks or months before I have a 5-day weather forecast, I assume that they will be part of my kit.

Field-drying clothing and gear is like pushing the "reset button" -- it allows you to endure the next storm nearly as well as you did the last one. However, without reliable sunshine, low humidity, or mild temperatures, field-drying is a challenge.

Field-drying clothing and gear is like pushing the “reset button” — it allows you to endure the next storm nearly as well as you did the last one. However, without reliable sunshine, low humidity, or mild temperatures, field-drying is a challenge.

My picks and suggestions

My exact choice of sleeping clothes is driven by the expected nighttime low temperatures. In all cases, these are items I own already, and I’m not going to list specific products as I have elsewhere in this series because you shouldn’t have to go out and buy sleeping clothes — if they don’t fit well, are last decade’s colors, or have holes in the elbows, it’s not a big deal. Unlike other clothing categories — when I have specific requirements for fit, fabrics, features, and sometimes even looks — my expectations for sleeping clothes are lower: Will they be comfortable to sleep in?

Warm nights:

  • Short-sleeve shirt
  • Boxer-briefs

Moderate nights:

  • Lightweight or midweight long-sleeve shirt
  • Boxer briefs
  • Lightweight long johns or running tights

Cold nights

  • Heavyweight long-sleeve shirt or 100-weight fleece top
  • Boxer briefs
  • Heavyweight long johns, running tights, or 100-weight fleece bottoms

What about sleeping socks? Indeed, if I have sleeping clothes, I usually have sleeping socks, too — and often I’ll just take sleeping socks without sleeping clothes, since feet get wet much easier than clothing. But footwear is beyond  the scope of the Core 13, so for more info on that topic I will send you here: My 3-Season Sock Systems.

Three sleeping clothes systems (left to right): warm nights, moderate nights, and cold nights.

Three sleeping clothes systems (left to right): warm nights, moderate nights, and cold nights.

Posted in on March 18, 2015


  1. Mark on March 18, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Great series. What are your thoughts on socks and head wear (hat, cap etc.)

    • Andrew Skurka on March 18, 2015 at 11:29 pm

      I think I’m going to take a break on the writing front before I go there. But glad you have liked the series — it’s been fun to write something fairly definitive.

      • Adam on March 20, 2015 at 12:50 am

        The series has been great, thank you!

  2. Katherine on March 19, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    For women there’s more of a case for a sleeping top.

    If I were a guy, I’m be tempted to just stay in whatever. But if I’m going to take my active top off in order to take my bra off, the prospect of putting that same top *back on* is different from leaving it on.

    Also depends (gender neutral) on what sort of active top I wearing. I’ll sleep in a knit synthetic (or wool), but not a woven button-down.

  3. Brian on March 19, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    Love the blog and really love this clothing series. My wife and I have a spring trip to Scotland coming up and I think I will be tweaking a few of my clothing choices based on these posts.

    I have a question about the sleep clothes. I can definitely understand having some long underwear tops and bottoms when the nighttime temps are quite low. But in normal 3 season conditions (I’m thinking when the nighttime temps are within the range of your 3 season sleeping bag), are there any downsides to just sleeping naked? My wife and I have done that for years, and it seems to work pretty well.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 19, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      So long as you are comfortable (i.e. warm, dry), no, there is no downside. I’ve never been a naked sleeper so I always like at least some underwear + a t-shirt. Whatever, the goal is to simply sleep well, and that’s hard to do in damp or wet clothes.

    • Cameron N. on September 3, 2015 at 3:30 pm

      Late to the party, but anyways: I sleep in my birthday suit all the time. However, the one thing that keeps me from doing so while backpacking is that I don’t enjoy the feel of my air pad on my bare skin. It’s also loud as hell if I move around on it bare.

  4. Dylan on March 19, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Great series. A nice refresher after reading your book. I am curious though as GearJunkie just mentioned you along with Justin Lichter and Shawn Forry’s winter PCT hike, what you think of their hike? I am sure you have seen their gear list by now and wonder if you pack in a similar manner?

  5. Teresa on March 19, 2015 at 10:46 pm

    I have a trip in Peru in June and love this clothing series! I sleep cold and never thought of using light fleece for sleepwear great idea for Peru mountain nights! Thanks for this series

  6. Slim on March 21, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Hi Andrew,
    In your book you are a big proponent of hooded baselayers. You don’t mention them here.
    So what are your thoughts?
    Hooded or not for sleeping tops?



    • Andrew Skurka on March 21, 2015 at 5:25 pm

      In general, I like hoods. And a hooded hiking shirt like the Ibex Hooded Indie is great for cooler weather, like 50 F and below depending on sun exposure and humidity. But warmer than that, a collared shirt is better.

      If you don’t have a good in your sleep system, a hooded sleeping shirt would be a good idea. But of all your layers, you probably will have a good — down parka, hooded fleece pullover.

      • David on March 22, 2015 at 8:02 pm

        I love the Ibex Indie hoody, and take on every backpack trip. As soon as the sun goes down, it goes on, and then comes off before start the next morning. Never regretted putting it in the pack.

  7. Randy Cain on May 11, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks, Andrew! I’m digging this series and look forward to many more!


  8. Dirk Rabdau on May 11, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Andrew –

    Great series. Thanks for acknowledging the difference climates can make, especially when considering clothing and shelter. A lot of gear tests I read seem to only take into account hiking in the Sierra in July.

    Great job, this really helps people make informed decisions.

  9. ken on June 2, 2015 at 8:31 am

    Thanks! Great series. Really helps to zone in on what’s required. With so many gear choices out there we really need a “theory of hiking clothing” in order to figure out the best options, this series is it.

  10. raymonduchurch on September 7, 2015 at 12:54 am

    Andrew-thought you would enjoy reading Yvon Chouinard’s VBL article in 1980 catalog, the one that introduced Bunting if I’m correct. Mr.YC was always ahead of the curve..he is my mentor. Good educating you are doing..I’m 61…into gear 55 years. Tnx. R

  11. JohnH on October 31, 2015 at 5:42 am

    An Ibex hoodie is made from 195gms/m2, so a bit heavy. Would you not be better off with a light baselayer + light balaclava + 100 wt fleece for the same effect?

  12. Dano on January 10, 2019 at 5:01 am

    Thanks for the great information. Read somewhere that an option for increasing warmth during colder nights in your legs while sleeping is to wrap an emergency Mylar blanket around your light thin sleeping pants. Have you heard or tried this option? If it works ok it could add flexibility during transition seasons where temperatures fluctuate a lot and help lower weight instead of carrying a heavier long johns. My guess is that restricting this strategy to the legs would reduce the likelihood of unwanted sweating while sleeping.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 10, 2019 at 7:47 pm

      Wrapping yourself with Mylar (i.e. an emergency blanket) will make your warmer, for at least a little while. Unfortunately, Mylar is not breathable, so it will trap perspiration and you’ll end up pretty clammy. It’s also very crinkly, so I can’t imagine it’d be that comfortable to wrap around yourself all night.

      I think that long johns would be a more sustainable option, albeit heavier. But my preference would actually be to add a pair of insulated pants to your kit. They weigh about as much as long johns, but are several times warmer (and, unfortunately, more expensive).

  13. Joe S on July 31, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    What temperature range do you have in mind when you differentiate between warm, moderate, and cold?

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