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.
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?
- Short-sleeve shirt
- Lightweight or midweight long-sleeve shirt
- Boxer briefs
- Lightweight long johns or running tights
- 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.