Of Long Johns and Layers

Many folks view clothing such as long underwear, wool or fleece ski hats and gloves to be items that one wears only in cold winter weather. Yet these items are important to have any time of year for backpacking in Wyoming or Montana or for that matter,  any place where we lead treks in the Mountain West and Alaska.

For Yellowstone backpacking and any of our mountain treks — including those in mid-summer – hikers and campers must prepare for any kind of weather, even though summer weather in the Rockies is generally pleasant with lots of sunshine. However, low humidity and high altitudes usually produce chilly nights and mornings. And high mountain summer snowstorms, though rare, do occur. Even high desert spring and autumn backpacking in Utah occasionally produce cold rain or snow. Same goes for our Gila Wilderness trek in the high country of southwest New Mexico. That’s why you’ll be happy to have the security of being prepared with all of the clothing items on our Big Wild Clothing/Personal Gear List. If you’ve signed up for a Big Wild Adventure, be sure to pack all of the clothing items listed. It’s not that much, and you probably already own most or all of them!

Even in dry weather, wool or synthetic long underwear is your first defense against the cold. On a cool summer evening around the campfire or on a 35-degree morning, you’ll quickly come to love your long johns! When it turns cold and wet, they are essential. That’s because unlike cotton, wool and synthetic materials such as capilene, polypropylene, thermax etc. actually wick moisture away from your body, keeping you warm and dry.

Some of our clients who live in warm climates have a difficult time finding cold weather clothing in stores, especially during the summer. Nowadays, it’s easy to find stuff online, and I’ll quickly recommend two great sources for cold weather clothing and gear in general. For great quality clothing including longjohns, I recommend the Patagonia company, based in Ventura, California. Their stuff is expensive, but the quality is great and this company actively supports wildland conservation efforts and is a leader in corporate social responsibility. If you’re on a budget, there are lots of good buys for quality outdoor clothing and gear from Campmor, a no frills company based in New Jersey.

So when the weather turns stormy, put the cotton T-shirt in your backpack and get those long johns on right next to your skin! Depending upon conditions, you can then layer your wool shirt or fleece pullover on top of the long johns, and maybe even add your fleece or down or fiber-filled jacket over your first two layers. And of course, if it’s raining or snowing, your breathable lightweight two-piece rainsuit is your outer layer. Buy it big enough to fit over your other layers. This is the classic mountain layering system that we strongly recommend for backpacking. No one layer is very thick or heavy, but taken together and used judiciously, you can add or peel to suit the conditions/activity level, and always be comfortable.

I sleep in long johns on all but the balmiest summer nights. And my ski hat is usually with me too, because our bodies lose more heat through the head and neck than anywhere else, especially for those of us with minimally insulated noggins who it might be said are follicularly- challenged. But really, for everyone, keeping the head and neck warm are essential for cold or cool weather comfort.

In summary, please take our clothing requirements seriously. On any given Yellowstone guided hike you may get lucky and experience a solid week of warm sunny weather with low-humidity and no rain, causing folks to wonder why they bothered to bring all that warm clothing. But don’t bet the success of your vacation on it! Remember Murphy’s Law and realize that Murphy lies in wait for those who are unprepared. Simply put, never get caught without the items that will keep you warm, dry and alive in the most severe conditions that Mother Nature may possibly dish out.


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