A weekend campsite is far from a Fashion Week runway, but just because you’re surrounded by dirt, bugs, and the unfiltered elements doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about what to wear. In fact, all the mud and mosquitoes make your wardrobe selection particularly important. Camping demands clothes that do double or triple duty, protecting exposed skin from sunburn and hungry bugs alike. The pieces should be worth wearing, but also not trigger tears if they get a bit mussed, scuffed, or dusty.
That said, as long as you keep safety and comfort in mind, there’s no wrong way to dress. If you want to fill a knapsack with ratty band T-shirts and denim jeans with holes in the knees, that’s fine. If you want to buy ultra-modern clothes that are so technologically advanced they’re practically as smart as you are, that’s fine, too.
Most important is knowing the sorts of clothes your camping trip will require based on the location, time of year, and types of activities you’ll be doing. If you’re pitching your tent near a lake in the middle of August, you’ll want some short sleeves and swim trunks—and you can leave your bulky sweater at home. Yes, you’ll want something warm to wear if the evening gets a bit cool, but a parka is just going to unnecessarily take up space.
If you want to put a little more thought into the packing process so you can maximize your comfort at the campsite and beyond, read on.
Your Arrival Outfit
Remember that whatever you’re wearing on your way to the campsite will be what you’re wearing when you set up your tent, hang your hammock, forage for firewood, and tackle the multitude of tasks necessary to create a cozy home base for your time in the wilderness.
Put on something comfortable for the drive up, but keep your post-parking activities in mind when you’re deciding what to wear that morning. It’s not a bad idea to dress in long pants and short sleeves, but be sure it’s all stuff that can get a little grubby. Don’t let the fact that you’re starting your day in civilization lull you into a false sense of cleanliness. That shirt is soon going to be coming into close contact with tarps that may have gathered some dust since they were last used or may still bear some soil of camping trips past. It’s also going to meet new dirt from digging and raking, ash from the fire pit, grease, oil, fuel, and all sorts of substances that will light your way and heat your food.
Depending on when you arrive, you will most likely get to work in what you wore. If the evening is already cooling down, you can always throw on an outer layer, but remember that you’re going to be doing physical activity, which makes you sweat. When sweat meets dust, it makes mud. Of course you’re planning to get dirty—this is camping, after all—but keep that in mind if your windbreaker or light sweater is one you’re planning to wear every night for the rest of the trip. You might want to slip into it after the heavy lifting is done.
No matter what you wear to bed, make sure it’s not wet. Whether you were drenched by a downpour, spent some time in the river, or simply gushed a gallon of sweat, any moist articles of clothing need to head for the hamper—or whatever you’re using to store your dirty laundry. Even if your underwear or socks don’t feel wet, do yourself a favor and take them off. You were perspiring into them all day. Put on something clean and comfortable.
Hang anything that needs to dry outside, then put on a fresh outfit. Think long underwear, but resist the urge to overdress, because you can roast yourself in your own juices and soak everything—including your sleeping bag—anyway. Wet clothes and sleep systems will rapidly cool down at night and make you colder. Damp insulation is inefficient insulation. Keep your sleepwear simple—even minimal, if you prefer—and add layers over the top of your bag in the form of blankets if necessary. You can also wear a beanie or cap to keep your head warm at night.
If you dread morning chill, consider choosing tomorrow’s outfit and taking it to bed with you. You can loosely tuck it around you or lay it out between your bag and a pad, if you’re using one. Your own heat will warm up the clothes throughout the night. Imagine sliding your legs into something that’s already a cozy near-98 degrees the next morning, as opposed to a bracing, much-less-than-body temperature pair of underwear.
And since we’re on the subject of where you’ll be spending the majority of your nighttime hours, don’t forget to invest in some quality cloth when it comes to your sleep system. A sleeping bag may not technically be clothes, but it’s pretty darn close. Plus there’s no sense in putting time and effort into selecting the right pair of pajamas if you’re not going to be properly insulated by the next layer out. Thermal efficiency is obviously a big deal, but modern sleeping bags also come with so much more. Eureka’s Lone Pine line, for instance, uses Stealth-Grip fabric that holds tight to the tent floor and prevents you and whatever you’re wearing from sliding around, making it a perfect choice for those times when you accidentally set up your tent on a slope (or if you’re an active sleeper).
You First Full Day: Dress in Layers
There are many reasons to avoid picking a single outfit and sticking with it throughout a day at your campsite and beyond, but one of the most obvious is this: The outside temperature, your body temperature, and possibly even the weather will change—probably multiple times—between when you wake up and when you fall asleep again. In general, you’ll find yourself wearing more clothes when the sun is closer to the horizon.
Since changing can be a hassle and you don’t want to have to stop an activity and trudge back to the tent for a new outfit when you start to get a bit warm, you’re going to want to dress in layers. Casual, warm-weather camping trips make this less of a pressing concern, but even otherwise-pleasant days can start and end with a chill.
To plan what to wear, first picture yourself as one of those dress-your-own paper dolls. We’re starting at ground zero: underwear.
Remember wearing scratchy, uncomfortable wool clothes when you were a kid? They’re not made like that anymore. Not all of them, anyway. Wool is the best choice for the material nearest your skin, because it wicks away sweat and dries quickly, keeping undergarments from getting uncomfortably clingy and preventing chafing. This isn’t just cold-climate tip, either. Clothes that help your perspiration move along aid with body temperature regulation, keeping you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Silk is another good choice of skin-contact fabric, especially in situations where you’re planning to be moving more.
Cotton? That just soaks up the sweat and sits on you all day, like a long, clammy hug—not the best feeling, especially when that hug is coming from your underwear. Pick something that breathes, that dries quickly, and that supports anything that needs supporting.
If the weather is warm and is going to stay warm from dawn to dusk, pull on whatever undergarments make you most comfortable, then throw a T-shirt and shorts or skirt over that. You can zip yourself into a windbreaker later as necessary. Maybe drape a blanket over your legs at the campfire.
If you’re in a more see-your-breath time of year or area, go with long underwear in the same versatile fabric. Remember: Sweat is your enemy. Pick a pair that will draw it away from you.
Having established a base layer to keep you dry, next get into an insulating layer to keep you warm. Once again, wool is a great choice, but so are other natural fibers. Down, for instance, traps heat well. Synthetic options have come a long way, too, with fleeces that use polyester to keep you happy, but not hot.
If your camping experience is both cool and dry, you’re good to go at this point. Cold weather camping often goes hand in hand with wet weather camping, however, so a third layer is frequently in order: the shell. This is your physical protection against the elements, so you’ll want something that can keep the wind, rain, and snow in nature where it belongs—not near your skin, which is where your heat belongs.
The trick is to find something that blocks moisture from getting in, but also allows the humidity you’re creating to escape. There are jackets that are both waterproof and breathable, though they tend to be on the more expensive end of the price scale. Water-resistant fabrics are a bit easier on the wallet, as are non-breathable materials. Just know that whatever you choose should, at minimum, keep your insulating and base layers dry. If they get wet, your whole carefully calibrated thermal regulation system goes out of whack. In other words, you can start to feel colder and more uncomfortable. Most of the time, this will be nothing more than annoying—a hassle you put up with as the cost of enjoying the unpredictable outdoors. In emergency situations, however, allowing rain to soak your innermost layers can create a dangerous situation, especially when heat retention becomes increasingly critical as the sun goes down.
On a less morbid side, dressing in layers means your whole outfit is customizable to keep you as cool or warm as you’d like to be throughout the shifting day. Even if you don’t go in for polyester sweaters and silk boxer-briefs, or if you’re taking a low-key car camping trip for a much-needed weekend getaway, think in terms of what you’re planning to do and choose what to wear as you mentally go through the day. Start with clean underwear, jeans, a T-shirt, and a light sweater. Add a beanie or scarf if it’s particularly cool out when you leave the tent. As the morning chill burns off, lose the beanie, the scarf, the sweater. You can change into shorts, of course, if it gets really hot or you’re planning for water activities, and then add layers back on as the day starts to cool down once again.
Two big things to remember:
• Always sleep dry. Take off every layer. Strip down to the buff and put on a fresh pair of underwear and socks each night before hitting the sack.
• Long sleeves and pants are about more than staying warm. (Cue ominous chord and thunder crash.)
If you don’t know this about camping, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you: There are things in the wilderness—little things, mostly—that want your blood. Mosquito-repelling tips, tricks, tech, and hacks abound, but the best way to keep the bugs from taking a sip through your skin is to put a barrier between you and them.
Mosquitos tend to go on the hunt during the twilight hours when it’s cooler anyway, so this shouldn’t be much of a problem.
Ticks are another nuisance and, like mosquitoes, can range from minor inconveniences to dangerous, disease-carrying pests. These eight-legged parasites can transfer from a blade of grass or trail-blocking branch to a patch of bare skin and burrow in. They can also start on the outside of an outfit and work their way up and around until they find a way to connect. Keeping your legs and arms covered when walking in areas where ticks are likely to live is a great first line of defense—and don’t forget your socks and shoes. Tighten what needs to be tightened, pull up what can be pulled up, and keep your skin for yourself. A tick check at the end of the day is a smart move, so give your bare body a good once over after you peel off all those layers. It helps to have a friend—a good friend, for obvious reasons—lend a pair of eyes for this. Don’t forget to look the clothes over, too, for unwanted hitchhikers.
Sun protection is also an important part of an outdoor outfit. Wearing a suitably strong sunscreen is an excellent choice, but shading your skin is also a wise move. If you won’t overheat, consider sleeves, pants, and a hat or other head covering to block out unwanted UV radiation.
Head to Toe
The extreme ends of your body deserve a little special attention, starting with your head.
As noted above, sun protection is important, so it’s a great idea to top off your outfit with a hat. This can be a wide-brimmed sun hat, a battered baseball cap, or whatever makes you most comfortable. Headgear can also keep sweat from running down your forehead into your eyes or down the back of your neck and into your shirt. Even a simple bandana can help with this—and it covers even the wildest cases of bedhead in a shampoo-less setting.
Your eyes, too, can use some protection from glare, so do your vision (and facial skin prone to wrinkling after repeated squints) a favor and wear sunglasses, especially if you’re going to be spending time on or near the water or snow, both of which do a better-than-great job of reflecting harsh sunlight up at you.
Down at the other end of your body, you can save yourself a whole lot of potential discomfort and grief by choosing a good pair of socks and shoes. Wool socks are fantastic for every reason wool was praised above, but there also are plenty of modern materials available to wick sweat away from your toes. Wear socks that fit snugly and comfortably, and shoes that provide support and as perfect a fit as you can find. You want your feet to stay as dry and as happy as possible to avoid rashes, chafing, and the very real problem of blisters. Even one small bump can make walking a literal pain, putting a damper on a camping trip and jeopardizing health, morale, and possibly the entire group’s efforts on more remote excursions, such as backpacking trips.
Invest in a good pair of shoes, and don’t be afraid to bring a few with you and change them as needed. There’s nothing wrong with packing a pair of boots for hiking, kick-around shoes for typical campsite activities, and water shoes (sandals, in a pinch) for beach-based fun. Don’t walk in rivers or lakes barefoot, as hidden rocks can do a number on your feet—and stray fishhooks, broken glass, and other hazardous trash can do worse. Whatever you do, don’t wear your only pair of shoes into a creek unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you haven’t picked up the main message of this guide yet, you will now with this reminder: Don’t wear anything that’s wet. Not for too long, anyway, and certainly don’t walk or sleep in it.
If something you need to wear does get dunked or soaked, get it dry. Hang it in the sun or spread it out by the fire. This is a good idea even if you don’t plan to put it on again, because wet clothes left to stew can get musty faster than you may think. Tossing a moist towel or T-shirt into a pile of dirty clothes can lead to a mildewy smell in as little as half a day, given the right conditions.
If you’re on an extended trip, you can hand wash and line dry socks, underwear, and the like, but be sure to bring a biodegradable and nontoxic soap, and use it sparingly far—at least 200 feet—from any bodies of water or features that drain directly into bodies of water.
Otherwise, throughout your trip, keep your laundry (dry, remember?) in a dedicated area in an out-of-the-way spot in your tent so the dirty clothes won’t get mixed up with the clean ones. This will save you from having to perform the sniff test on anything, but more importantly it makes packing up and returning home easier. Keep your outer layers separate since you’ll likely be wearing these multiple times, but the stuff that stays against your body all day can go into the laundry bag along with anything that got excessively dirty, sweaty, or otherwise unwearable.
If anything gets seriously stained, remember that the faster you get to it, the less likely it will set in. Olive oil soap is practically magic when it comes to saving fabric from spills and smudges. One of its best qualities is that it breaks up grease. It also handles grass stains well. Wash these sorts of stains immediately, if possible. Also: Don’t bring along any clothes that will break your heart if they get ruined. Camping is unpredictable.
Once you get back to civilization, don’t wait: Throw a load into the washer right away—but keep anything wool separate. That should be washed by hand.
You may save energy by typically washing your clothes in warm or cold water, but consider turning up the heat for what you bring back to sterilize and thoroughly clean the fabric.
If you’ve got articles of clothing that have come into contact with poison oak, keep them separate from everything else and given them their own wash with a good detergent in water as hot as you can make it. Oil from the painfully itchy plant can permeate your clothes, and you need to attack it with everything your washing machine has got to get rid of it.
Once everything is dried and clean, put the items you also use in everyday life back into your closets and drawers. Consider giving dedicated camping clothes their own bin or shelf if you’ve got the room. That will make packing for your next camping trip faster and easier, giving you more time to enjoy the outdoors and less of a hassle while you try to figure out what to wear.