Recommended clothing systems: Backpacking in the Mountain West

What clothing is necessary for backpacking in the Mountain West in 3-season conditions? Let’s discuss.

I define the Mountain West as the semi-arid ranges of the Sierra Nevada, Intermountain West, and Rockies. Examples:

  • Pacific Crest Trail in California and southern Oregon
  • High Sierra, including the John Muir Trail and multiple high routes, e.g. Sierra High Route, Kings Canyon High Basin Route
  • Colorado Trail and Pfiffner Traverse
  • Northern Rockies: Wind River Range, Yellowstone, Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Glacier National Park
  • High Uintas and Wasatch
  • Sky Islands in Arizona and New Mexico

From the Core 13 Clothing Collection, I recommend just ten items for the Mountain West. Mix-and-match them to create appropriate clothing systems for each season. Watch the video above for a general explanation, and review the lists below for specific recommendations.



Late-Summer through early-Fall

Posted in , on August 23, 2017
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  1. Rob on August 23, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Am I reading the chart wrong, or are you suggesting wearing depends as underwear if you wear pants full time?

    • Andrew Skurka on August 23, 2017 at 4:15 pm

      You might be kidding, or you might be serious, since I’ve heard other people say that I had that initial impression.

      “Depends” is in the “Priority” column, which I use to indicate its importance (or lack thereof). Usually in the Mountain West, I wear running shorts whenever I can, and bring trekking pants for protection against sun, brush, bugs, and chilly conditions. I only recommend underwear if you plan to wear your pants full-time. In that case, leave the shorts at home.

      • Rob on August 23, 2017 at 6:32 pm

        I am just kidding. I’m a full time pants and underwear guy, no depends. In the Whitney zone however……..😁

        • Matt on August 23, 2017 at 8:39 pm

          That is EXACTLY what I was thinking also . . .

  2. Jason M. on August 23, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    Andrew, I have enjoyed reading and watching your “Core 13.” Unfortunately, I don’t get out backpacking but a couple of times a year–one of these years that’s going to change. I think I have what I need fairly dialed in but…I always learn something from you. Thanks!

  3. Galen H on August 24, 2017 at 12:35 am

    Hey Andrew,

    I have enjoyed your blog and talks posted online immensely. Also – I now own the Pack Polo shirt from your kit and it is amazing.

    I’m curious in which ways you’d alter your clothing system for the Cascades in WA from this system. Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka on August 24, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      If your route is mostly or entirely below treeline, you can wear a short-sleeve. In spring and fall, I might grab a merino shirt rather than than poly, because it’ll be less chilling when wet.

      On most trips, rain pants and sleeping clothes will be packed, not left at home.

  4. Stephen V on August 25, 2017 at 11:16 am

    I just completed a trip into the sawtooth mountains to view the eclipse and I used your ‘clothing system’ to pick out my gear. I brought a down vest because I don’t own a light puffy jacket. Great trip all around.
    Do you wear the long pants under rain pants or just go with bare legs?

    • Andrew Skurka on August 25, 2017 at 11:18 am

      Glad it worked well.

      I will wear long pants under my rain pants if temperatures warrant it, but otherwise I’ll only have shorts on underneath.

  5. Scotty on August 27, 2017 at 1:22 am

    Thoughts on Merino for the mid/fleece layer? Ive been using a Montbell Trail shirt (button up flannel) but have been think about a hoodie like the Black Diamond Coefficient or Pat R1 or Ice Breaker Descender…

    Also what are your thoughts on wind shirts? Your bud at Bedrock and Paradox seems super into them:

    • Andrew Skurka on August 27, 2017 at 3:45 am

      I prefer poly for fleece — lighter and retains less water, less expensive, and the smell is much less of an issue for this garment.

      Wind shirts are niche. Still will need a rain jacket and a fleece if you expect cool precip. At that point, might as well leave the wind shirt at home.

  6. Jonathan on September 6, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Hey Andrew! Awesome list. Thanks for putting this together.

    I noticed you’ve got the Patagonia Down Hoody listed as your insulated jacket, instead of what seemed like your long-time go-to SD Down Hoody. Any reason for the switch?

    • Andrew Skurka on September 11, 2017 at 4:08 am

      I still use the SD Down Hoody and would recommend it. There are more premium jackets available (e.g. lighter per warmth, due to lighter materials and loftier insulation) but usually you’ll have to pay more, too. In this particular case, the reason I highlight the Patagonia jacket is so that there’s some diversity among brands listed. I don’t want to give the impression that peddling SD products is the underlying motivation for Core Clothing.

  7. Matt on September 29, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    Just wanted to give thanks for this timely post. I recently returned from a 3 week trip in the Sierras. This post came out about 10 days before I left. What was not on my list was a fleece. I agonized about carrying another 8-10 oz of clothes, but in the end decided on bringing it. And I am so glad I did. Most of my past Sierra experience has been in early August, and between a long sleeve shirt and my puffy jacked I have never really needed the fleece. But the cooler temps of late summer and early fall, just one + month, really made a difference. A week ago yesterday a cold front moved through the Sierras and brought some rain, hail and snow, depending where you were. When that front moved on, the cold stayed. I hiked in my fleece most of the day the last 5 days of the trip. Even before that, it was great to have another layer to wear instead of always putting on my puffy.

    Your recommendation was spot on, and I thank you greatly for it!

    As an aside, I also brought a 2oz reflective mylar emergency blanket I have had for 30+ years to use as a ground cloth for cowboy camping. The reflective mylar really works! I definitely could feel the reflected heat from beneath me. My sleeping pad is an older neoair with an R value of 5. Between that and the reflective mylar temperatures into the low 20s and high teens were no problem in my 30 degree quilt with my rain gear on top of my other clothes. Never needed to wear my puffy while sleeping, just my long sleeve shirt, fleece, and rain gear if it got really cold or was windy.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 5, 2017 at 1:06 pm

      Glad to hear that the advice was spot-on. Agree, that the fleece is crux when temps get brisk later in the year. Don’t poo-poo it for August, however, especially if you’re in an active monsoon cycle.

  8. Edward on February 6, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    Just noticed your “Running shorts / Key Specs” states “Running shorts with silky liner, 6-in inseam”.

    6 inch inseam.

    But your “My pick or suggestion” is for the “Brooks Sherpa 7-in Shorts”.

    7 inch inseam. 8-D

    Good running shorts, nonetheless and the extra pockets are useful.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 7, 2018 at 3:55 am

      You can’t always get everything you want.

  9. John on February 13, 2018 at 10:48 pm

    Are you wearing the same shirt and underwear/shorts every day? Sounds like it from watching your video. If that is correct, do you rinse them out daily? If so, I worry they will not be dry enough in the morning on a cool night.

    My practice on week long sierra trips is to bring have 2 underwear and shirts. At the end of each day, I try to wash off in the stream and then sleep in the clean ones that night while the previous day garments attempt to dry over night and during the next day. Perhaps it would save weight not to bring 2 of each.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 13, 2018 at 10:50 pm

      Yes, I am wearing the same shirt, shorts, underwear, and pants everyday. I try to wash my underwear daily, and my shirt and shorts every other day. I don’t wash my pants on most trips, unless they get really dirty for some reason.

      I was mid-day, when temperatures are warmest, and then wear-dry for about an hour. I don’t normally get that gross in the latter half of the day that I feel bad about wearing those “dirty” clothes to bed.

  10. Hank Smith on May 11, 2018 at 1:24 am

    I am amazed that you came up with nearly the same gear list as me. I have about 750 to 1000 days of backpacking experience, most Co or Wyoming. I too put it in a spread sheet, weight to the gram. It comes to 15.5 pound near ultralight style. Ultra tent and a canister stove, but foam pad. The clothing list is almost exactly the same. I cary a fleece vest and insulated jacket. But a woven shirt.

  11. Joe S on August 2, 2021 at 9:40 am

    Hi Andrew,

    I’ve been using your system for summer hikes in the High Sierra and I think you really nailed it with your recommendations. Coming back from Emigrant Wilderness this past week, we had daily mid afternoon thunderstorms with persistent cold rain (sometimes w/wind, sometimes w/hail) that lasted 3.5 hours. I needed to keep hiking to find a good place to setup a temporary camp to sit out the rain. However, my Outdoor Research Helium failed me in that it wet out quickly, 10-15 minutes into the rain storm. I’m going to try the packa as you mentioned in another article, unless you have any other alternatives.


    • Andrew Skurka on August 2, 2021 at 10:53 am

      The Helium falls almost into that “just in case” category — at 6 ounces, we shouldn’t expect much. A good jacket for the High Sierra, where it’s used rarely and usually short-term. But if you have a wet-looking forecast, something in the 8-10 ounce range (or the Packa) might serve you better.

      • Joe S on August 2, 2021 at 11:05 am

        Thank you. The forecast called for 30% chance of brief thunderstorms with a tenth of an inch of rain. In real life, it was 100% chance, lasting hours, and rainfall seemed to be in the inches, as dry creeks were filled and trails were flooded. This is not the first time this has happened.

        For me, I need to re-think gear I need for Sierra thunderstorms. To me they are no longer a “just in case” scenario but now a regular scenario with higher than forecast rainfall and very cold rain.


        “The backpackers had gotten caught in a severe thunderstorm that included heavy rain and hail with lightning. Several teens in the group were reportedly suffering from hypothermia as a result and needed immediate evacuation.”

        • Andrew Skurka on August 2, 2021 at 12:09 pm

          Thunderstorms seem difficult to predict, based on what I’ve seen in the field versus what the most recent forecast had been. The storms can be very localized, and the rainfall amounts can be multiples greater if you end up directly below a big cell.

          If we see 30% chance of precip when we go into the field, we’re hopeful that we can avoid getting hit but we pack a prudent amount of clothing in case we’re unlucky.

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