Common sense is anyone’s best guide for the first step in how to dress for camping. But there are some specifics that will help inform you how to exercise that common sense.
First, consider the season and climate for your site. It’s obvious to say that if you want to camp in New Hampshire in the winter, you’ll choose one type of wardrobe. If your plans call for hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee in the summer, that calls for a different sort.
But the basic principles remains the same in either case: you want good protection and proper thermal control.
To satisfy the first principle, select sturdy clothing. It may look cool in a TV commercial to dress in an Hawaiian shirt and thin cotton shorts out in the woods. But that’s the quickest way to suffer scrapes and cuts, not to mention exposure to toxic plants. In that environment, those can quickly turn septic and campsites are often far away from professional medical facilities.
Pick a shirt that is comfortable, but made of durable material. Synthetic blends of cotton, wool and modern materials satisfy both criteria.
For colder climates, choose thicker clothing, but it should be wickable and breathable. ‘Wickable’ means that it transports sweat from your skin to the outer layer of the garment. Breathable is similar in that it moves air in and out. Good shirts will do that, while maintaining good insulation.
For truly cold weather camping you will want to underlay that with some thermal underwear. Today those are made from blends of polypropylene, Capilene, cotton and other materials.
Wool provides good insulation, but it is mildly uncomfortable directly against the skin and worse if it gets wet. It becomes heavy and stays wet for a long time. Pure cotton is very comfortable, but it provides only moderate insulation and doesn’t wick well. Go for modern blends.
For warmer climates, maintaining dry skin is still important. Dressing looser helps that, but you still need durable material to protect against tree branches, bushes and minor rock scrapes.
The same considerations apply to thermal underwear for the lower half of the body and to pants, during winter camping. Wickable, breathable, good insulation, sturdy and lightweight are important factors – and achievable in the same garment thanks to modern materials. Shorts, for warm climate camping, should only be worn in areas where you have lots of open space.
For outer layers in cold weather you want a jacket or coat that keeps off rain and snow and insulates well. But it should also be lightweight and not bulky. You need to be able to move freely. Fortunately, those can be had together thanks to advances in material in the last 20 years.
Synthetic down, Primaloft, Thinsulate and other materials – combined with more contemporary geometry used to arrange them – provide wicking, warmth and insulation in a comfortable, lightweight garment.
For warmer climates, but ones subject to rain, Gore-Tex is a great material – waterproof, but breathable. Garments made with it are sometimes more expensive, but well worth the extra cost. The best hiking boots, for example, all use Gore-Tex.
Remember, the common sense guidelines still apply. Dress in layers to allow you to adjust for the conditions, but keep it lightweight so you don’t have to carry around heavy items that make camping a burden. Protect yourself from the elements and you’ll enjoy your trip that much more.