Saturday, August 23, 2014

Clothes Review for the PCT: SoCal and the Sierra

This is a review of the clothes I wore on my 2014 PCT hike for the 940 miles through SoCal and the Sierra.

I have already reviewed my hammock gear in this post, and I will do a review in the future of my other gear (pack, hydration, electronics, etc). 

I have divided the clothes into functional categories:
   - Hiking clothes (shirt, skirt, gaiters, underwear, bra, socks, shoes),
   - Sleeping clothes (fleece hoodie, long underwear, down coat, down booties, buff)
   - Clothes used for weather protection (sunhat, umbrella, sungloves, sunglasses, raingear).
What I wore every day for 700 miles in SoCal.
How to I choose clothes for the PCT
Before my hike, I agonized over what to wear on the PCT.   My hiking clothes were dialed in for the humid, forested southeast, but I knew it'd be sunnier and drier on the PCT.  Reading online advice and Yogi's book left me totally confused.  The best advice I got was to focus on the expected conditions that you will encounter and determine what gear to use to deal with those conditions based on your own backpacking style and preferences.  A great guide is found here.  I ended up wearing similar clothes to what I already liked wearing (with a few modifications) because I knew they worked well for me.  

For SoCal and the Sierra, temperatures might swing from 90 degrees to 30 degrees during the day.  Nights got down to freezing.  In the Sierra, it is known to drop to 20 degrees in the Sierra.  The sun and wind were intense.

One thing I did find is that a 30 degree night on the PCT didn't feel as cold as a 30 degree night in the (humid) southeast.

About my backpacking style
For dealing with the cold, you can either suffer by carrying more weight and be warmer, or you can have a lighter pack but be colder.  I choose the first option, and carried more clothes than most of the guys (women generally sleep colder than men) thought my choices still left me cold a few nights.  But most of the time I was fine.   I also have Raynaud’s syndrome, so I paid extra attention to my extremities.  One thing that was different for me on this trip was that it was my first long-distance hike and I noticed my ability to thermoregulate changed over the course of the hike.  It wasn't just me either- by Tuolumne Meadows, it was easy to pick out the PCT hikers because we were all wearing our puffy jackets during lunch or rest breaks, when all the dayhikers were strolling around in shorts and tshirts.
Layering for the cold and sun in the Sierra.
For the heat, I preferred to stay covered from the sun and carried an umbrella.  Loose fitting clothes also helped me stay cooler.  Other people go the route of wearing a tank top and fewer clothes, but I'd burn to a crisp.

One way I do save packweight- I am fairly tolerant of being dirty and smelly.  I didn’t carry a change of underwear or clothes to wear in town like others did. 

My clothing is still on the heavy side.  As I look over my gearlist while sitting inside on this nice couch, I think I could have brought less and toughed it out to save some ounces.  But when I was lying in my hammock for hours shivering in the cold, unable to sleep, I was glad I was carrying everything I had.  Probably happened only a half dozen times, but it was often enough.

Hiking Clothes (shirt, skirt, gaiters, underwear, bra, socks, trail runners)

Hiking shirt: Railriders adventure shirt  (6.5 oz)
For hiking, I wore a sun shirt in SoCal and switched to a long underwear top at Kennedy Meadows for the Sierra.

Pros:  This was a great shirt for SoCal!  The long sleeves gave excellent sun protection.  The vents on the sides kept me cool.  The pocket on the side of the arm was a good place to keep my wallet when I was in town.

Cons: The sleeves were too short for my long arms.  I also wished it came in prints or colors that weren’t so boring. 

Hiking skirt: DIY skirt (4.5 oz)
Three skirt wearing hikers on the PCT.
I loved wearing a skirt on the PCT.  A skirt was breezy and cool so it helped me avoid chafe and heat rash.  Another great thing about hiking in a skirt is that it makes it easier to pee (i.e. can go standing up without taking off your pack).  I swear it saves lots of time and bother.  I made the mistake of sending my skirt home in the Sierra and switching to pants because I thought bugs would be a bigger problem.  Pants gave me awful chafe between my thighs, so I ended up wearing my long underwear all through the Sierra while I hiked.  Should have stuck with this skirt.

Pros:  Pockets on both sides were the perfect size to fit my cell phone and tiny notebook.  Beautiful spandex galaxy print made me smile and was stretchy to allow full range of movement (especially for leaping over streams and scrambling down rocks).  The ripstop nylon on the front and back was more durable.  Both fabrics dried quickly but were cool. I was really proud of my design for this skirt, and felt good about wearing something I sewed myself.

Cons:  I wish I’d sewn it two inches longer to protect my knees from the sun.  But I was obsessed with shaving off ounces from all my gear and clothes, and didn’t anticipate just how many ounces of sunscreen I would have to apply to keep my knees from burning too badly.

Gaiters: DIY tall gaiters (3 oz)       
Pathfinder and I rocking the tall gaiters.
Pros:  Gaiters kept dirt and sand out of my shoes.  I sewed special gaiters that came up to just below my knees to protect my legs from the sun and brush.  When I went off trail to look for hang sites or went through places where the trial was overgrown, I really liked the leg protection and also that they kept my legs from being so dirty.  Other people wore long pants for these reasons, but I liked the combination of a skirt and tall gaiters- just the right balance for cool and breezy on my upper legs and protection for my lower legs.

Cons: The extra fabric added 2 oz compared with dirty girl gaiters which are just 1 oz.  Also, it was important to remember to take these off prior to attempting to hitchhike.  I have been told they look pretty dorky, and that might matter to some people.

Underwear: Patagonia active hipster briefs  (1 oz)

I carried one pair of underwear.  Every other day (or so), I would wash them out in my ziplock baggy and then dry them on my hammock ridgeline or outside my pack while I hiked.  Others had two pair of underwear, and some wore compression shorts.

Pros:  I liked this style (bikini) because they didn’t chafe or ride up.  The fabric was quick drying.  The waistband was extra wide so it felt comfortable.

Cons: None.

Bra:  Moving comfort fiona  (4.2 oz)

I only had one bra, but other women preferred two (and others wore no bra).  I switched to a dark colored bra for the Sierra because I felt more comfortable wearing that for swimming.   

Pros: Supportive and good fit.  I liked that it had hooks in the back to make taking it on and off easier when it was damp from sweat.
Cons: It makes me cringe seeing how much this bra weighs, but I am a DD cup so there aren’t a lot of options.   Other bras that were lighter were not supportive enough.  This bra doesn’t dry quickly, so I took it off when I got to camp and hung it on my hammock ridgeline so it would have time to air out.
The other thing I didn't like about this bra is that the velcro adjustment on the straps were bulky and tended to slip.  To fix this problem, I cut the velcro off and sewed the strap directly to the bra.

Hiking socks: Injinji Run 2.0 lightweight minicrew (1.5 oz)

What worked for me in the southeast (i.e. smartwool socks) didn’t work for me on the PCT.  I ended up using much lighter socks and switching to toesocks.  I washed my socks out every day, as often as possible, and hung them to dry on my pack.
Drying my socks on my pack as I hiked.  Yes, this is after they'd been washed.
Pros: I loved my injinji socks because they kept me from getting blisters between my toes.  They made my feet feel like they could splay out more in my shoes.  I also really liked that these socks had little loops on the sides (the label) because I could attach the socks to my pack via a carabiner to dry.

Cons: They wore out after a few hundred miles.

Waterproof(ish) socks:  Rocky Gortex socks
Trying to warm up my feet after an icy river crossing.
I picked these up gortex socks at Kennedy Meadows, and I was happy to carry these in the Sierra.  There were a ton of ice cold water crossings.  These socks allowed me to keep my feet from being totally numb all the time.  When it was very cold at a water crossing, I took off my socks and gaiters and just wore my trail runners through the water.  On the other side, I would put on my socks and put the gortex socks over them.   I would NOT wear the gortex socks through the water or the water would go through eventually.  The great thing was that these gortex socks kept my other socks from getting soaked from my wet shoes, so my feet wouldn’t be so horribly cold.  Granted my feet were still cold and I would still have to wait to feel my toes, but it wasn’t quite as bad.  I also used these in the coldest mornings when I woke up and my shoes were frozen solid.

An alternative to gortex socks are reynolds oven bags.  I have had success with them on weekend hikes, but I tend to rip through them after a few days.  If I were to do it over, I'd stick with the oven bags it just wasn't worth the extra weight.

Pros: My toes didn’t get frostbite and fall off.  I didn't cry too often because of frozen toes.

Cons:  I didn’t like to wear them all the time because they weren’t breathable.  My socks could still get soaked with sweat when my feet started to get warm.  There was a narrow temperature range which these worked best- namely only when it was really cold.

Trail Runners: Altra lone peaks (23 oz)

Pros:  There is a good reason these are one of the most popular shoes on the PCT this year.  They allow your toes to splay out naturally, have a wide toebox, are lightweight, and have awesome grip on rocks.  I thought the zero drop felt very comfortable.

Non-gortex, highly breathable, low cut trail shoes work well on the PCT.  These shoes dried quickly which was important in the Sierra for all the water crossings.  In the heat of SoCal, I could feel the wind going right through them, cooling off my feet.  Altras already have the velcro to attach your dirty girl gaiters sewn in already- how perfect!

Cons: These shoes got holes in them relatively quickly.  I used gorilla glue to patch up the holes which extended their life a little bit and prevented bigger rocks from getting into them.  Also, that mesh that allowed these shoes to dry quickly and stay cool also let in dirt and sand, so it’s definitely a tradeoff.  The sand problem can be managed by dumping out the sand at rest breaks and rinsing out your socks.

One thing to note: I got a stress fracture in my foot at mile 800.  I don’t know if it was the shoes being too unsupportive, or me only having worn them for 6 months before the hike so my feet weren't strong enough, or the fact that I switched up half a size for the Sierra, or something else, or a combination of factors.  Tons of other PCT hikers wore them, tons of them switched into them with less time than I had, and they all didn’t get stress fractures.  So, I just don’t know.  I dream of going back to these shoes someday because they are the only shoes that never hurt my bunions. (Read more about stress fractures here)

For Sleeping (fleece hoodie, long underwear, down coat, down booties, buff, gloves/mittens)

Choice of sleeping clothes depends on the entire sleep system as a whole (details of my hammock setup here).  I found it more versatile to have warmer sleep clothes (that I could wear to hike in if needed) and go more minimal with the weight of my quilts.  Most of the time, I had one set of clothes to hike in and one warmer set of clothes to sleep in.  But in the Sierra when it was very cold at night, I slept in both my hiking and sleeping clothes and was still cold.

Fleece Hoodie: Melanzana Micro grid    (9 oz)                
Snug in my hoodie.
Pros: LOVE my fleece hoodie.  I slept in this every night.  I could cinch down the attached hood, leaving only a small breathing hole for my nose and mouth, and it kept my neck and face warm.  The material feels incredibly soft and fuzzy against your skin.  It has a magic kangaroo pocket to keep your hands warm and to store gloves so they warm up (or dry out).  I’ve had mine for several years and it holds up well to constant use.  I live in this thing and absolutely love it!

Cons: The sleeves were too short for my long arms.  But I sewed wristies to make up for it.

Long underwear bottoms: Icebreaker bodyfit 200’s (5.8 oz)
Wearing my long underwear while hiking in the Sierra.
Pro: I wore these every night and hiked in them through the Sierra.  Because they are wool, they were still warm when they got wet, which has come in handy a few times on stream crossings.  They've lasted many years, but this may be my last trip with them because they got a ton of holes when I went glassading down the passes.

Cons: I can't find them in this awesome print anymore.

Down coat: Montbell alpine light  (12  oz)
Puffy jackets also keep you warm while eating ice cream.
During the first hour in the mornings when it was really cold, I hiked in my puffy.  I put it on first thing when I got into camp.  At night, I used it as a hood and tucked the sleeves under my neck because my quilt doesn’t have a hood.  I considered bringing my lighter puffy in SoCal but I would have been cold a few nights.

Pros: This jacket was warm and packs down small.  I liked hiking in the morning with my hands in the toasty warm pockets.  The collar is a nice fuzzy fleece material.  I liked that my jacket has a full zipper (even though it weights more) because I could regulate the temperature more easily.  I was also glad it didn't have a hood because I didn't need it since my fleece has a hood.

Cons: none

Down booties: Goosefeet socks (3.5 oz)

Pros:  Putting these on every night was heavenly.  I slept better because my feet were toasty.  Several nights I arrived in camp with frozen and numb toes from evening stream crossings and I was so grateful to have these.  They pack down quite small.

Cons:  They seemed a bit extravagant.

Buff: DIY (0.8 oz)
I am so cold.  When is the sun gonna come up?
Pros: A great, versatile piece of gear.  I hiked with it over my head on cold mornings.  In the snow, I wore it over my face and neck because there was so much glare that I burned really easily.  I also used it as a towel for drying off when I went swimming or washed off.  Finally, it cheered me up because I sewed it out of an old tee shirt from my trapeze/aerial silks studio and it says "Sweat and Glitter." Always a good motto!

Cons: none

Gloves: Surplus Wool Liner Gloves (1.5 oz)

Pros: Warm. Versatile.  In rain or snow, I slip a pair of nitrile exam gloves over them.

Cons:  Eventually they wear out but they are so inexpensive they are easily replaced.

Mittens: Fleece convertible mittens

I bought these in Lone Pine after I got cold leaving Kennedy Meadows the first time. I was glad I had them for the Sierra.

Pros:  Warm.  They were convertible so I could keep them on while I set up and took down my hammock and packed up my gear, or ate breakfast or dinner.  At night, I tucked them around my legs for extra insulation.

Cons: Heavy and bulky.

For weather (sunhat, umbrella, sungloves, sunglasses, raingear)
Sun hat: Sunday afternoons sport hat (2.5 oz)
I liked having both a sunhat and an umbrella.  I wore the hat when it was too windy for the umbrella, and if the wind wasn’t too bad, I could use the umbrella and take off the hat when it was hot.  Though mostly I kept the hat on all the time, sunup to sundown.  I was jealous of the people that could just do a visor and bandana, but again, I was very prone to sunburn so I did what I had to do.
Another day of sun on the PCT
Pros:  This wide-brimmed hat provided excellent sun protection and made me feel cool (i.e. the temperature type cool, not the hip, hiker-babe cool).  The chin strap kept the hat on my head in the wind.  I really appreciated the extra brim around the sides to keep the sun off my neck.

Cons:  Weighs more and is more bulky than a visor. 

Sun wristies: DIY fingerless (1 oz)
Pros:  All weather protection, I absolutely loved my wristies (i.e. my own version of sungloves).  Kept my hands and wrists from getting sunburned, since I found that sunscreen doesn’t stick well to dirty, sweaty hands and fingers.  Wristies also kept my hands cleaner and from drying out too much in the harsh, dry wind.  Plus they kept my hands warmer in the cold.  Other people wore sungloves but I liked my design better because I didn’t want fabric between my fingers.  I was also able to slip them off my thumb and push them up my arms when I was at water sources and didn’t want them to get wet.  As for the other design features, I have long arms, so I added extra coverage for my wrists so that they extended to where my sleeves ended.  Mine also a lovely light blue color and had cool rainbow accents.

Cons: These required patching a few times because I constantly wore them.  I wished I’d sewn two or three pair so I could have just replaced them.
Sungloves after 1500 miles.

Sunglasses: Oakley Juliet  (1.8 oz)
Wrap around sunglasses were essential for the PCT.  They protected my eyes from wind and dust too.  I wore mine sunup to sundown. 

Pros: Excellent optics.  Durable.  Oakleys are expensive but I’ve had mine for over 10 years, making them my longest-used piece of gear.  So that gives them a low per use to cost ratio. 

Cons: The metal frames sometimes felt cold on my face. 

Raincoat: Zpacks Cuben jacket (5 oz)    
Is it raining, hailing, or sunny, or all three at once?  That's the PCT for you...
I’ve had too many times I’ve gotten mild hypothermia in the rain to go without raingear.  On very cold nights in the Sierra, I tucked my raingear around me as extra insulation in my hammock.  I also wore my raingear when I was washing my clothes. 

Pros:  I was delighted with the quality of this jacket, and the nice cut.  I was a bit reluctant to pay so much for a cuben raincoat, but the weight savings won me over.   I had mine custom made with extra length at the sleeves to cover my freakishly long arms- this made me very happy because otherwise my wrists get cold and wet in the rain.  I can’t comment on how well this stands up to days of torrential rain because I never experienced those conditions, but it did well for what I experienced on the PCT.   I also loved how good this material feels against bare skin like when I wore it to while doing laundry.  Which reminds me-- when wearing this jacket at the laundromat, it is important to remember to zip up the pit zips to avoid offending the non-hikers.

Cons: None.

Rainpants:  Golite Tumalo  (8 oz)
Wearing my rainpants for protection from the dreaded poodle dog bush.
Pros: Great for warmth and wind protection.  I wore them many cold mornings.  And for protection against poodledog bush.  They aren’t very breathable, but I didn’t expect them to be.

Cons: Heavy.  I wish I’d splurged for Zpacks cuben rain pants to save a few ounces.

(Edit: After I healed from my stress fracture, I bough the Zpacks cuben rain pants and wore them the next 550 miles.  They were definitely worth the price to save ounces.  They breathe well and are comfortable.)

Umbrella: Golite chrome dome (8 oz)  (see this post for how to rig the umbrella on your pack)
Snow the day we left Kennedy Meadows.
Pros:  Loved my umbrella.  It worked for sun, snow, rain, and hail.  I used mine quite often.  I tend to be more sensitive to sun, and liked that it kept me cool so I’d sweat less and not burn through as much water.  It was also awesome to have on rest breaks for when the sun shifted or I couldn’t find a spot in full shade.

Cons:  These don’t stand up to the relentless, strong winds found on the PCT.  I tried to be careful and put it away when the gusts got bad, but my first one only lasted halfway through SoCal, and I know other people had to replace theirs too.  I wish they would make one that was more sturdy.  I also wished I'd bought the Euroshirm version which is the same but doesn't have the ugly logo.              

Questions?  Please let me know if you want any clarifications or further details.  I'm happy to talk endlessly about the PCT!

Disclaimer: I purchased all this gear with my own funds.  The opinions expressed in this review are my own.


  1. Thanks for the gear lists. Interesting to see what worked and what needed replacement or repair as you went along. Any plans for a break down of your food system?

    1. Oh good suggestion. A post on food has been on the back burner. I'll try to remember to take some more photos as I get my food together for the next few sections.

  2. I'm thrilled to find women out solo on PCT. I've been reading men's PCT blogs and I really appreciate your gear list details. Thanks for the inspiration. I've been absent from backpacking for several years due to health issues and I just HAVE TO get back out there. I started backpacking in the mid 80's; things/gear sure have changed. Back then it was just BRAWN to carry heavy pack... now it just takes a lot of $$ to buy down the weight. I'll have to re-start my backpacking using what I have (no extra $$) and do some short trips to get started... then hopefully a section hike of PCT (probably section d or c). Thanks for the inspiration; sharing your experiences; sharing your knowledge. I can't wait to get out for a few short trips very soon.

    1. Hi there Terri!

      Glad you’ve found this helpful—really appreciate that feedback. :) So tough being off the trail due to health— I definitely know what it’s like not being able to hike, and it’s so slow getting the strength back. But hang in there and do what you can, you’ll come back even stronger than before, and smarter.

      Gear really has changed a lot, but there are so many ways to reduce pack weight without spending a ton of money. This is something that I didn’t know when I was starting out, but I’ve learned more and more tricks to save $ and there are great cheep lightweight alternatives. This is something I’ve been meaning to write more about, since it’s always coming up when we teach backpacking for our women’s hiking club. BTW where are you located? You might check out Trail Dames—they’re a great group that is perfect for getting back into the swing of things.

      Pmags Frugal Backpacker article has good tips to save $.

      Great that you are planning short trips—I’m a section hiker too and love being able to pick and choose my sections.

    2. P.S. There are a ton of other solo women backpackers out there too, we are sometimes harder to find. The "Women of the PCT" and "Outdoor Women" facebook pages are a good place to start.