PCT clothing review
What do you wear to walk 2669 miles?
(Nothing, if it’s the summer solstice…)
I wore 4 different shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, 4 different hats, and 5 pairs of shoes over the course of my 160 day PCT thru-hike. Some of it was great, and some did not work for me AT ALL. In this post, I’ll review everything I wore from Campo to Manning Park.
If something sounds like it would work for you, give it a try!
Each and every hiker has different preferences, and one person’s favorite item could be another person’s biggest hate. The purpose of this PCT clothing review is to let you know this one hiker’s likes and hates, and perhaps in the process give you ideas for where to start your research.
Preferences aside, it’s good to remember that clothing is gear on the trail — wear the wrong garb and you could freeze, burn, or get scratched up by ice or brambles. That being said, it’s up to you to figure out what is right for you. The only real guideline is I’ll give is, no cotton. For reals. You will be sweating for like, 2668 miles of the 2669 mile trail, and you don’t want a material that makes you colder when it’s wet.
Because I like doing research, I spent many hours picking out the “right” clothes for the trip. This did me well for the beginning, but honestly, I ended up changing almost everything in my pack, including my clothes. It was comical halfway through the hike, when I had 10 short minutes on wi-fi to find and buy a replacement, remembering how much thought I’d put into the original item before the trail.
You too may have to throw out all your carefully done research and just get whatever is available in whichever town you’re in. Or you might never change anything. That’s the nature of the beast that is the Pacific Crest Trail.
With that in mind, here are the garments that accompanied me on the PCT this summer:
Disclaimer: Each item in this review was purchased by me with my own money, or given as a gift. I am not repping any brand here, just sharing the ones that worked for me.
On my body
I started the hike in a 150 gm merino wool Icebreaker Flash Short Sleeve V-neck t-shirt. It breathed well, didn’t rub raw patches into my skin, and didn’t have seams on the tops of the shoulders for the backpack straps to chafe on. It also stained quickly and severely, and like most thin merino wool, shredded where it rubbed. By the time I got to Bishop at mile 789, I was ready for a new, hole-less shirt. Because I hadn’t planned to swap shirts there, I just went to the outfitters in town and found one on sale for ~$20.
The Rab Aeon Tee (short sleeve) is 100% polyester with a high neck, two traits I had avoided pre-hike. By that point I had noticed that the folks wearing polyester shirts didn’t look nearly as dirty as I did in my light thin merino wool, though, and didn’t notice a smell problem with the poly. I wore this short from Bishop all the way to Northern California when I jumped off-trail for a week. I loved it, and returned to it to finish out the trail. The non-v-neck stopped the progress of the chest tan-line, and the smooth fabric didn’t chafe in the slightest.
When I got back on trail in Northern California, I took the opportunity to swap out gear, and switched my top to a thicker merino wool shirt that I already owned: the Icebreaker Tech Lite T-shirt (short sleeve). This shirt was also 150 gm merino wool, but I think I thought it was thicker (and therefore more durable) because of the slubby texture of the material.
(Noticing a color theme here? I may have gotten swept up in the idea of looking like a penguin… er, penguin’s habitat?)
Within a week of hiking again in this shirt, I developed saddle sores under my pack on both sides. I chalked it up to hiking through a hot sweaty area (Mt. Shasta and north), and kept going. Feeling the sores crack when I bent over was painful, to say the least, and they took a long time to heal; I still have faint scars. As I hiked into Oregon, I started feeling like the slightly nubby texture of the shirt was exacerbating the rawness of my lower back. By the time I got to Bend, the shirt had developed holes in the back, so I looked for a new one at the REI there.
I hoped to get some sort of polyester print long sleeve button-down, and found the Royal Robbins Light Expedition 3/4-Sleeve shirt. By the time I had hiked to Timberline Lodge, I hated the thing.
I must have been high on Town Fumes or something when I bought it, ’cause it was just fugly. It might have looked better in the store, but on the trail I felt like a frump monster, and believe me — the PCT is no fashion show. No one gives a fuck — I didn’t give a fuck, except about that shirt. Anyway, the texture was so smooth that it felt slimy when sweaty, which is All The Time when thru-hiking. I requested a change in my next resupply box, and picked up the Rab polyester t-shirt in my Trout Lake box, then wore it happily to the border.
The Verdict: Next time, I would look for a lightweight long-sleeve polyester shirt to wear from the start, certainly through the desert, or go with the Rab Aeon Tee again. That shirt was fast drying with a smooth weave and SPF 30, didn’t stain or tear, and was always comfortable. Smell was never an issue. A way to vent would be nice (hence considering a button-down next time), but all in all, this was a great shirt.
I didn’t bring a single pair of real pants on the PCT. I had fallen in love with wearing running shorts to hike in during my 2013 JMT trip, and knew I’d repeat it on the PCT. I even hunted down the current version of my 2009 running shorts — the Oiselle Distance Short. My legs get hot when hiking, and having them bare was a great way to keep them cool. For sun protection, I wore sunscreen religiously for the first 900 miles of the hike, and on and off after that point.
These shorts have a zip side pocket, which was handy for carrying a pocket knife, or ID in town, plus another in the back which I didn’t use due to its placement directly below my pack. The crotch seam started to go after the Sierra, and I sewed it up in Lake Tahoe. They did get stains, but I didn’t really mind, except for the sap stain directly below my crotch that never came out that made it look like I had always just pissed myself…
Sadly, the seam on the shorts went out again in Oregon, and I started flashing people. I had been admiring other hikers’ Spandex shorts for a while, and though I didn’t have the chafe they are usually worn to deal with, I decided to get a pair of those to finish out the trail.
(I had brief issues with chafe in Southern California, but it went away the day I bought Vagisil to treat it. Go figure.)
I was hoping for mid-to-lower-thigh-length shorts, but the Bend REI only had two lengths: super short, and past the knee. With my propensity to overheat through my legs, I opted for the short (super short!) version: the Lucy Hatha Short with 3″ inseam. There was a cheaper version from REI, but the fit of the Lucy shorts felt significantly better.
From Bend on, I wore the short shorts — I called them my booty shorts — and I loved them. They fit my hips, butt, and thighs great, didn’t ride up or sag, and I never got chafe wearing them. Somewhere in Washington, I stopped wearing underwear under them, and they never retained a smell.
Pants-less hiking ftw!
The only real downside of these shorts is that I was a bit self-conscious of their length (or lack thereof) off the trail. I ended up wearing my rain pants over them when I was in town or hitchhiking. Otherwise, I was never too cold, and crucially, never overheated. Now, after ~700 miles of hiking, they show barely any wear; no seam problems, stains or tears.
The verdict: I would hike the trail in Spandex shorts like the Lucy Hatha Short next time, though perhaps slightly longer (6-8″ inseam?).
I started out with two pairs of merino wool Ibex Balance Briefs, swapping them daily and washing them. I love these underpants. They don’t feel too smooth and smell weird like Ex-Officios, and they are thick enough to be durable without being clunky. Added bonus — they are seamless and tagless.
My issue with these panties was with my choice of colors: Solar blue and avocado green. I wanted to have cheerful colors to boost my trail morale, but the light colors ended up getting real stained real fast. Butts sweat A LOT, and there’s dirt everywhere on the whole trail, and particularly in SoCal, so by the time I got to swimmable bodies of water in the Sierra, the original colors were barely visible. I picked up a pair of (0ld, discontinued) black Icebreaker merino wool panties in Bishop so I’d have less gross undies for swimming.
These worked well, but, like other 150 gm merino wool on the trail, got holes immediately. Once I ripped a hole in them, with my thumb, while putting them on. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my panties to be as delicate as tissue paper. I eventually sent home one of the Ibex pairs, then threw out the torn Icebreakers.
As I mentioned earlier, at some point in Washington I got tired of doing laundry and started going commando. This was fantastic, and I highly recommend it. I still carried one pair of panties for period or emergencies, but wore just the booty shorts the bulk of the time.
The verdict: On a do-over, I would bring one pair of black Ibex Balance Briefs to use on my period, and go commando the rest of the time.
This was probably the most-researched piece of clothing I wore on the trail. I had worn synthetic material bras on my JMT section hike in 2012 and complete JMT hike in 2013, and was unsatisfied with both. I wanted to find a wool bra for the PCT since I’d been so happy with my wool panties, but spent the spring before the PCT searching high and low without success. I tried the Ibex offerings — Balance Sports Bra and Balance Bralette — but those didn’t work for my frame. The bralette would ride up, and the sports bra was too tight.
I finally resigned myself to a synthetic bra, and boy! am I glad I did. I found a recommendation for Patagonia’s Barely Everyday Bra, and found one in black that turned out to be PERFECT for me. It’s a polyester/Spandex blend, doesn’t have any clasps or adjustment hardware (= less to chafe), and has gathering in the front to take a teensy step away from the loaf look of most sports bras.
The downside to this bra, and upside, is that it is very thin. This means that A) it dries super quickly after sweating or swimming, and B) if you’re anything like me, you’ll be nipping out in any and all trail photos.
Shrugs. WORTH IT.
The Verdict: Definitely the Patagonia Barely Everyday Bra again. Full disclosure: I am still wearing this bra near daily at home, almost 4 months post-trail. It has zero signs of wear and no smell. Great quality.
Heavy hiking socks make my feet sweat, and tall socks make my leg hair hurt when it’s long enough, so I knew I wanted short, lightly padded socks for the PCT. I started in Smartwool’s PhD mini light running socks and Injinji wool toesocks. I got a lot of blisters quickly in the desert, and hiker-boxed the toesocks when I got to Agua Dulce.
I have a longer second toe (Morton’s toe) which I would guess contributed to the toesocks never feeling good. Whatever the cause, I had blisters between several of my toes, and the toesocks rubbing on those was super uncomfortable, so I went back to open toe-box socks, and never looked back.
The Smartwool socks were basically fine, but they would get holes easily, usually in the back of the heel first, then over a few toes. I got a pair of Darn Tough socks in Agua Dulce, and this review can just stop there — they’re the best, go buy some now. They will get holes eventually, but it can take 1000 miles, and the company will replace them for free if you mail them in.
I got whichever style was available at the Northridge REI, which was the Darn Tough 1/4 Cushion Hiking Sock, and that style worked great for me. I picked up a second pair in Tahoe, and from there didn’t replace socks until my friend brought me new Darn Toughs at Snoqualmie Pass.
I used two pairs of socks for most of the trail, on a “wear one, wash one” cycle. When I stopped washing, I just wore the first pair for two days, then the second for the remaining days until town. When I got to Kennedy Meadows, I added a pair of taller Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion socks for sleeping through the Sierra, and kept them until Tahoe. I brought them back in Washington at Snoqualmie Pass for the last push to the border.
The Verdict: This one’s easy: Darn Toughs. Darn Toughs. Darn Toughs. Two pairs of Darn Tough 1/4 Cushion Hiking socks for most of the trail, with extra warm/sleep socks for the Sierra and/or Washington.
I wore Dirty Girl gaiters from the border to Agua Dulce. They seemed to keep sand and rocks out of my shoes really well, and I wore them daily for a month. I wore long johns daily through Section E to prevent skin contact with Poodle Dog Bush, tucked into my socks, and then the gaiters over those. I ended up getting raised flat red patches around my ankles — some sort of heat rash? I fingered the Spandex Dirty Girls as the culprit in these rashes, and tossed them in the hiker box at Hiker Heaven.
I was disappointed to let them go, because I do think they were helping extend the life of my socks. All that dirt and grit really grinds down the fabric underfoot, and anything that cuts down the dirt level helps. Maybe someone will come out with a breathable, stretchy gaiter that will stay on well like the Dirty Girls; I would give those a try.
The verdict: I would personally skip gaiters next time, but lots and lots of hikers loved them, so if you’ve never tried them, I’d encourage you to give them a go.
I hiked the entire PCT in Altra Lone Peak trail runners, and would do so again. I had been getting my feet used to Lone Peaks for 3-4 months before the trail (see my initial review of the 1.5s here), and while I did get a fair number of blisters during the first month or so of hiking, I didn’t get any shin splits, achilles issues, or plantar fasciitis. These are zero-drop shoes (meaning they have no heel) and I think that flat sole really helped strengthen my feet and prevent injuries on the trail.
I switched sizes several times, and eventually landed in men’s size 10 of the newer model, Lone Peak 2.0s. I wanted size 9.5, but the store didn’t have them, and the 10s seemed fine. I made it 700 miles from Bend to Canada on that pair without falling down even once, so the extra half-size didn’t seem to be a problem. The men’s style seemed to fit my toes better; I have a wide toebox with the aforementioned longer second toe, and women’s shoes kept feeling too small.
It was fun having the second most popular shoe on the trail, after Brooks Cascadia, a very popular shoe that was too narrow for my toes, but which works great for my husband’s feet. The shoe prints of the Lone Peak 1.5s in particular are fun, like a little paw-print.
In all, I went through 5 pairs of trail runners on the trail; two times I switched because of size issues, the other two times because the tread was shot after 750 and 500 miles.
I didn’t start the trail with camp shoes, but when I got treated for infected blisters in Big Bear City, I picked up a pair of cheap, lightweight flip-flops at Safeway and used those to let my feet air out at breaks and in the evening. They lasted until Ashland, so I bought another pair of cheap ones at the Albertsons there. I didn’t expect to like having camp shoes as much as I did, but I ended up loving them.
The Verdict: Loved these. Would do Altra Lone Peak 2.0s again, no question. I’d probably go for men’s, one size larger than my street shoes. Cheap flip-flops from any store for camp shoes.
I wore a hat for shade pretty much the entire hike, and between the dust, the wind, and my jamming my sunglasses into the sides, they just didn’t last that long. I started out with the rather dorky Outdoor Research Transit Sun Hat, which I’d bought a few years back for the JMT, and which seemed the most practical sun hat. It had mesh sides, a brim all the way around, and the crucial chin string to keep in on during the relentless wind in the desert.
This poor hat really was very functional, but just so ugly. I did appreciate the relative lack of neck burn it provided, though, so I wore it until it shredded in a dryer in Lake Isabella. I replaced it then with a big straw hat with a chin strap from the Lake Isabella hardware store, and wore that until it too shredded, somewhere near Carson Pass.
In Lake Tahoe, I picked up a Sunday Afternoons Aero Visor, hoping it would let the top of my head cool down better than a full hat. It did that, and folded down quite nicely due to the seam in the middle of the brim, making this my second favorite hat of the trail.
I wasn’t planning to switch hats in Trout Lake, but when I came across a ¢50 trucker hat at their annual rummage sale with a giant Grimm logo, I knew it was meant for me, and I mailed the visor home with the ugly green shirt. The Grimm Trucker Hat became my favorite hat of the trail.Having never worn a trucker hat before, I hadn’t realized that the mesh on the sides is functional, letting the sides of your head cool down. The brim was solid, it folded down well due to the foam and mesh nature of the top, and it attached easily to my pack.
All that AND I get to rep my favorite supernatural TV show set and filmed in the greater Portland area? Sold!
The Verdict: I would wear any lightweight wide brimmed hat with a chin strap for the desert. For the rest of the way, a trucker hat gets the job done.
In my pack
I started the trail with 2-season-old pair of black Smartwool Microweight Long Underwear Bottoms. The ultra-thin 150 gm material was very light to carry, but I ended up wearing it frequently, as it was my only pair of long pants, and between the age and the occasional snag, the pants developed serious tears. I walked into Agua Dulce with huge shreds in the thigh region that I’d sewn up several times.
The 200 gm merino of the Icebreaker Oasis Leggings I got next was sturdier, and they made it through the hike without a single tear. That was also in part due to buying a pair of wind pants so that I only had to wear the long johns for warmth at night and not during the day.
In Washington, I added in a second pair of long underwear bottoms, an old pair of silk Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) lightweight long underwear, to wear while hiking. The idea was that I would have added warmth during the day and still have a guaranteed dry pair in my pack for night, but this ended up being overkill. I think I only wore the second pair once, and was just carrying the weight for nothing.
For long underwear tops, I started with an old black EMS Techwick Lightweight Crew shirt in a polyester/Spandex blend. This shirt is super thin, light, has monkey-paw thumb holes, and has been a reliable garment for 5 years now. I didn’t hike in the shirt in California, wearing it only at night for sleeping. It got the job done. Later, in Washington, I had Russell mail it back to me and I wore it as a second layer during the day.
When I entered the Sierra, I wanted to have a heavier long sleeve shirt, so switched from the EMS polyester to an Ibex Hooded Indie, and LOVED IT. I kept it all the way to the border, I loved it that bad. The hood was just so warm and comfy, it also had thumb holes, and the mid-weight (195 gm) merino wool was durable.
The Verdict: For bottoms, I loved the lightweight but not ultra lightweight (200 gm) Icebreaker Oasis Leggings, and would carry them the whole way next time. I would start with a lightweight polyester like the EMS Techwick Lightweight Crew or 150 gm long sleeve merino wool shirt for the beginning of the hike, and switch to the heavier Ibex Hooded Indie in the Sierra again.
Wind Shirt & Pants
I started the hike with a poncho-tarp and no raincoat, so my Montbell Tachyon Anorak windshirt got a lot of wear. It’s incredibly lightweight, and super durable — no tears or stains. It cut the cold on windy ridge-walks throughout Southern California, and I would definitely carry it again. The only negative was that the hood would catch wind easily and billow out into a space-helmet-shaped globe if I wasn’t careful about adjusting it to my face.
At Agua Dulce, the British hiker Will let me try on his rip-stop nylon Patagonia Houdini Pants, and finding them comfortable and suitably light, I got myself a pair that I carried from Tehachapi to Canada. These pants were great for slipping on during breaks for warmth, wearing during glissading, protecting skin from poison oak or post-holing, and looking like a ninja. I did tear a few holes in the seat of my pants when I fell on Glen Pass, but I easily repaired those with nylon tent patches in Lake Tahoe.
Both these items are mens/unisex only, so there’s no real shaping to accommodate women’s bodies. I found the pants (in size small) real tight in the seat until about Oregon, when I think I had lost some weight on the hips that made them fit better.
I started with an EMS fleece headband, and that was sufficient until the Sierra. I mail-ordered a Smartwool Reversible Training Beanie in their 195 gm merino wool, and carried that the rest of the trail. It was okay, I guess. Kind of thin. It was light, and between it and my buff, my head was never uncomfortable. It wasn’t particularly cozy, though, which would have been nice for morale.
The Wool Buff was a last minute, very good purchase. I don’t remember when I had Russell mail it to me, probably at Kennedy Meadows. It worked as a scarf, as a second hat, and as a pot cozy for finishing cooking. It didn’t tear or stain at all, even with all the food I spilled on it. I loved it on the hike, and wear it now IRL.
The Verdict: With the short hair that I had, I would carry the Wool Buff the whole way to provide extra neck warmth. You could probably skip it for warmth with long hair, though I might carry it anyway for pot cozying. I would probably carry the Smartwool Reversible Training Beanie again, unless I found something cozier that wasn’t too too heavy. Maybe a lightweight polyester fleece hat that tied under the chin?
I started out carrying the puffy I’d picked up for the JMT two years prior: a Montbell Ultralight Down Vest. I like vests a lot — they keep your trunk warm but let your arms stay unencumbered. This one was great for me through all of Southern California, and between it, my long underwear, and my wind shirt, I was never too cold. I was also not super warm when I wasn’t in my sleeping bag.
Right when I was in Lake Isabella, 50 miles before Kennedy Meadows, there was a snowstorm with white-out conditions over Forester Pass. After seeing pictures online of hikers wading through snow fields, I made a decision to get a warmer puffy with sleeves for the snowy Sierra. I found a deal on a down Rab Microlight Jacket and had it shipped to Kennedy Meadows and carried it the rest of the way to Canada.
The only downside to this jacket was discovering that the lining was a shocking pink color, which I decided was a feature — you can signal a rescue chopper with magenta! The warmth, fit, and length of this jacket were all great. I might get one with a hood if I had to replace it and was feeling super luxurious.
The Verdict: Loved the Rab Microlight Jacket and would get it again. It was great to have in the High Sierra, when I was camping before dark to set up for the passes and had some sitting around to do.
Instead of a tent, I carried a poncho-tarp and bivysack for the first 550 miles of the trail. The poncho-tarp was to be my raincoat, and as I didn’t have any real precipitation during that whole section, who knows how it would have performed. When I decided to carry a tent instead of the tarp, I brought on my two-season-old Marmot Crystalline rain jacket as well. This jacket did fine, until I had to wear it for extended hours while hiking in Oregon. Then it shredded, and when it shredded, it shredded HARD. First the back of the neck lost water resistance, then the armpits started tearing.
By the time I got to Bend, the armpits were naturally vented through large tears on each side that were working their ways to the tops of the shoulders. This actually wasn’t terrible, but the neck leaking was super unpleasant, so I looked for a new one in town. I found a serviceable lightweight jacket in the Patagonia Torrentshell, and that did me fine up through the end of the trail. It performed as expected — no leaks, no tears. Kept rain off me. My only issue with it was that it was quite a bit heavier than the Marmot jacket.
The Verdict: While I use the Patagonia jacket here at home quite a bit, I would look for a lighter jacket next time. Perhaps one of the cuben fibre ones going around? Or a new Marmot Crystalline.
And there you have it — all the clothing I wore on the PCT during my 2014 thru-hike.
(You deserve a medal for thru-reading this post.)
If you have any questions about clothing on the PCT, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.
See my gear reviews here: the Big Three (tent, sleeping bag, pack) and the little stuff (food prep, water treatment, snow gear, etc.).