Sunday, November 2, 2014

How to Dress Kids (& Yourself) in Layers for Three-Season Hiking, Backpacking, and Camping Adventures

Family outings, even in the rain or cold, can be fun and exciting with proper preparation. That said, rainy or cold family outings offer potential misery with inappropriate clothing. Light weight, quick-drying items amenable to layering that pack compactly make for comfortable three-season outdoor adventures (32°F/0°C and above).


Near freezing, it’s all layers on. With increased warmth or activity, peel layers off. Cooler, wetter, or windier conditions trigger mixing and matching layers as appropriate.

Fabrics for Outdoor Adventures

Mama’s first rule of thumb – avoid slow drying fabrics like cotton. Although wonderful at home, in the outdoors cotton soaks up water like a sponge, becoming heavy. It dries slowly, is not compact, and unpacks super wrinkly.  Wool and synthetics such as polyester, polypropylene, Nylon, and others perform better.

Quick dry fabrics allow campers to take advantage of sunny dry moments.

The availability and relative affordability of synthetics such as polyester helps the budget. For example, Walmart sells Danskin Dri-More shorts, tee shirts, and long-sleeved tees. These prove affordable when compared to athletic wear from expensive gear shops that won’t fit next year as your child grows.

Polyester Danskin tee shirts (both) and child's shorts.

Clothing Item
Child’s Polyester Tee
Base (Summer)
1.9 oz. / 54 g.                                 
Child’s Polyester Shorts
Base (Summer)
2.8 oz. / 79 g.
Adult Polyester Tee
Base (Summer)
3.6 oz. / 102 g.

For the budget minded, Nylon hiking pants and rain gear dry quickly. Other higher end rain gear in quick-drying fabrics exist. Examples include Gore-Tex®, eVent®, MemBrain™, and the like. If high end fits your budget or provides performance features you require, go for it! The layering principles discussed here apply either way.


Base Layers

Adult polyester long underwear suit, hiking pants over bottoms.

Three season adventures require good base, middle, and outer layers. Synthetic long underwear (polyester blended with a small amount of Rayon in my case) provides a great base layer that can double as pajamas. I really like the thumb holes on my long underwear shirt on cold days. It makes a big difference for hand warmth, yet allows fingers to be glove free for cooking and photography. Other fabric choices for long underwear include polypropylene and wool.

Pajamas with skinny pants beneath, and a sweater on top. I insist on quick-drying layers, but let her select the "design".

Does your child resist wearing long underwear? Mine prefers a warm, comfy pair of pajamas with a sweater over the pajama top and skinny pants under the pajama bottoms instead. Her pajamas happen to be polyester.  She thrills herself with crazy color combinations. Why fight it? The important thing is to have a good base layer (or layers) to provide warmth, while allowing sweat to wick away from the body.

Clothing Items
Child’s Long Underwear Set
6.4 oz. / 181 g.
Child’s Skinny Pants
3.9 oz. / 111 g.
Child’s Pajamas
6.9 oz. / 196 g.
Child’s Sweater
6.8 oz. / 193 g.
Adult Long Underwear Set
1 lb. 0.5 oz. / 468 g.
Extra Long Underwear Shirt
10.1 oz. / 286 g.

Middle Layers

Various options for middle layers exist. Middle layers should be breathable, capable of wicking sweat, and warm. Fleece (polyester) provides an excellent middle layer. Multiple middle layers can be worn for warmth. When it’s near freezing, I like to wear either a sweater or a second long underwear shirt between my base layer and my fleece.

Child's fleece pants and hoodie.

My daughter wears warm fleece pants that sometimes show up in hand-me-down boxes from her older cousins. Other times they come from Sears or the Children’s Place, wherever I find warm fleece on sale. Her polyester fleece hoodie showed up in a box of hand-me-downs from her cousins. Thank you my sisters!

Mama wearing fleece jacket, fleece pants, and hiking pants over the fleece with a long underwear base layer beneath. Our daughter wearing rain gear over fleece with a sweater and pajamas as a base layer underneath.

My super warm Polartec® fleece pants have an ankle zipper which allows dressing and undressing without boot removal. Great past Christmas present from my husband! Picked up my Polartec® fleece jacket from REI outlet on closeout. It contains inside pockets where I stash my hat and fleece gloves, rendering them ever findable. I love my fleece.

Hiking pants may be worn over fleece, or without other layers when it’s warmer outside. Quick drying synthetic hiking pants (ours are Nylon) that zip off to provide shorts provide comfort and convenience. Kids (and grownups) love all the pockets. When temperatures or activity levels change, ankle zippers allow the zip-off portion of convertible hiking pants to easily pull on and off over boots or shoes to transform long pants into shorts.

Nylon hiking pants with polyester tee shirt.

On summer outings forecast to be hot day and night, leave the fleece and long underwear behind. However, always pack rain gear. During warm weather, we wear synthetic (such as polyester) tee shirts and zip-off hiking pants or synthetic shorts.

Clothing Item
Child’s Fleece Pants
4.5 oz. / 128 g.
Child’s Fleece Hoodie
9 oz. / 255 g.
Child’s Hiking Pants
6 oz. / 170 g.
Adult Fleece Pants
10 oz. / 283 g.
Adult Fleece Jacket
1 lb. / 454 g.
Adult Hiking Pants
11 oz. / 311 g.


Outer LayerS

Rain gear provides our outer layer. Not only does rain gear allow the rain to roll off our backs, it also keeps wind from penetrating clothing. An added bonus is that mosquitoes cannot bite through rain gear. Rain gear itself is not an especially warm layer, but it both holds warmth in and blocks wind when placed over inner layers.

Various performance fabrics work well for rain gear. Nylon fits our budget and works for us, but with Nylon it’s important to ensure ventilation can occur or you’ll be drenched with sweat. The point is to have an outer shell capable of resisting wind and repelling rain with adequate ventilation.

Adult and child clothing gear, rain gear over fleece middle layers and base layers.

The REI brand adult Nylon jacket shown here features pit zips (for ventilation), a drawstring at the hip, Velcro for cinching at the wrist, a front zip that opens from both the top and bottom, and a brim to keep rain out of the eyes. I bought this jacket on close out at REI about 20 years ago, and it still performs nicely. The yellow child’s North Face® rain jacket shown above is Nylon with a polyester liner. It also has a nice brim for keeping rain out of the eyes, and a vibrant color for safety and fun. Our rain pants are Nylon.

Outer layers also include hats and gloves. It's Sun hats when it’s warm, winter hats when it’s cold. Fleece gloves come out when it’s near freezing. I have an eye out for fleece hats. Until I find nice warm hats at a great price, we’ll continue to wear our everyday winter hats.

Clothing Item
Child’s Rain Gear (Jacket & Pants)
12.7 oz. /  360 g.
Child’s Hat
2.4 oz. / 68 g.
Child’s Fleece Gloves
1.9 oz. / 54g.
Child’s Sun Hat
2.7 oz. / 76.5 g.
Adult Rain Gear (Jacket & Pants)
1 lb. 7.2 oz. / 657.7 g.
Adult Hat
3.2 oz. / 90.7 g.
Adult Fleece Gloves
2 oz. / 56.7g.
Adult Sun Hat
3.9 oz. / 110.6 g.

Extending the Life of Camping Clothes

None of the clothing layers shown in this post fall into the super-expensive category. That said, clothing gear is still an investment to care for. To ensure clothing gear lasts, ensure all clothing is perfectly dry before storage. Use the gentlest washing cycle and temperatures that will do the job. Sweaty, smelly clothes require more aggressive washing cycles, so I like to separate clothes by the aggressiveness of washing required.

Hang clothing gear to dry rather than using the dryer. The strategy is to extend the life of outdoor clothing by imparting as little wear as possible in the cleaning process. That said, do not store dirty clothes. If clothes are damp or soiled before storage, storing them dirty will lead to their early demise.

Final Thoughts

The particular three season ensembles shown here performed well on rainy, windy outings in the Sylvania Wilderness and Boundary Waters, and even on a cold, windy backpacking trip with highs/lows of 46°F/33°F (6.7°C/0.6°C). My rules? Clothing must be comfortable, fabrics must dry quickly, and everyone in the family must have an effective set of rain gear. Clothes must also be fairly compact and lightweight.

Higher end performance wear is nice. Hopefully one day we’ll enjoy owning a few more key pieces. That said, the clothing items shown here provide comfort and perform well for us. We enjoy every minute of our time in them.


I do not receive compensation for products mentioned or reviewed in this post. All products mentioned or reviewed were purchased by me or my husband, with some of my daughter’s clothing handed down from family. The comments made based on our experience with clothing we own refers to three season weather at and above 32°F/0°C.

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