What do you pack when there are real physical constraints to work around (biting insects and unhealthy levels of sun/UV exposure), but you just don’t feel like yourself in clothes that don’t make the cut as an “outfit”?
Here’s my attempt to address this question!
Keeping safe while attempting to look cute(ish)
When I prioritize “keeping safe” for this wardrobe, I’m referring to the gradual and progressive hazards of spending most of my time outdoors for a week. These are primarily insect bites, sun exposure, and temperature extremes.
At an official summer camp run in a legal and safe way, it would be wildly exceptional to encounter a predictable life threatening risk. My general knowledge of risk statistics in the US leads me to guess that I’m in more danger driving to camp than I am when enjoying the great outdoors in my cautiously mainstream way.
Ignoring the realities of nature, however, can lead to immediate discomfort and developing a (potentially) non-trivial illness down the road. Sunburn is a risk factor for skin cancer. Insect bites spread disease.
I’ve built up a wardrobe of clothing designed specifically to address these two risk factors.
Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) and sunburn
Much of my summer wardrobe is made of UV blocking fabric with a high UPF. UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor is the fabric equivalent of the SPF you look for in sunscreen lotions; higher numbers mean greater protection.
A normal white cotton t-shirt might have a UPF of only 5 (five), whereas a t-shirt designed for sun protection in high Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) regions can guarantee UPF of the recommended 50 (fifty) or even higher.
I’m particularly fond of sun protective clothing by the brand Coolibar. Their ZnO knit fabric feels like a soft t-shirt made of regular cotton, and is comfortable, easy care, and easy to wear. Their styles are more likely to suit my personal wardrobe aesthetic, too.
You will also find UV protective garments in my specialized outdoor wardrobe made of Solumbra (Sun Precautions catalogue), by ExOfficio, and by Columbia Sportswear. Most (quite possibly all) of my Insect Shield clothing is also certified to have a 40+ UPF.
All of these are reliable brands whose UPF promises I trust. Most athletic and outdoor- oriented clothing companies will offer at least some pieces with UPF ratings, so buy any piece you like that carries an official UPF rating.
UPF ratings are more accurate than the SPF rating given for sunscreen lotions and creams. Few people apply sunscreen as heavily as is used in the laboratory testing scenario. Wearing UPF designated clothing means a guaranteed level of protection.
It is relatively easy to find attractive clothing styles in UV protective fabrics. There’s a lot of variety.
UPF is usually woven into the fabric of a garment, not applied as a surface treatment. This means that the sun protection will last as long as the fabric is sound. UPF doesn’t usually wash out. Check your garment’s hang tag or ask the manufacturer to be sure.
Insects: mosquitos, ticks & the diseases they spread
Protection against insect bites has the very obvious benefit of keeping you comfortable in the short term. Camp—or any other activity—is more fun when you aren’t itching, scratching, and swatting at hovering pests.
Less immediately, however, avoiding insect bites can prevent you from becoming sick down the road. Which illness and in what location will vary. What won’t change is the risk of infection. Repelling pests—keeping them off of your body, and preventing them from breaking your skin—removes the possibility of infection from their bites.
I’ve written more extensively in the past about how Permethrin treated insect repellent clothing works. Here, I will focus on how I use these pieces in a wardrobe that I don’t mind wearing.
Because the Permethrin treatment is a surface application added to the fabric, it washes out over time. Garments treated at the factory will remain effective through 70 washes; home treatments wash out much more quickly. These items should be laundered separately from untreated clothing to avoid leaching small amounts of insecticide where it isn’t wanted.
It is much harder to find clothing to suit my personal style in the Insect Shield (insect repellent treatment) category than it is in the high UPF (sun protective) category, but it is not impossible! I’ve even managed to get most of these pieces at clearance prices by being patient and buying out of season.
I really like Sierra Trading Post for low prices on last year’s high end outdoor products.
Now, on to the clothes in my outdoor adventure capsule wardrobe!
Capsule wardrobe for outdoor adventures
I always begin with my bottom half, because it is harder to fit.
I own fewer trousers than tops, and that is due, at least in part, to my shape. My waist is proportionally much smaller than my hips. I do have what poet Lucille Clifton described as “mighty hips.” I don’t match the standards used by garment manufacturers. Waistbands gap. I’m short-waisted.
These are issues that I deal with whenever I buy clothes for my lower half. They are often exaggerated when I shop for athletic clothing because those items are typically designed for a muscular, “tomboy” physique.
Fortunately, I’m tolerant when it comes to activewear. I’ll settle for a lesser aesthetic result in an otherwise functional garment.
Here are my Insect Shield certified bottom pieces:
I’m most excited about the charcoal grey knit ExOfficio trousers. They feel like regular cotton knit jogging pants: soft and comfortable! I avoid black in my wardrobe, and only tolerate charcoal, but the comfort factor wins by a mile when I’m looking for cozy clothes to wear around the campfire.
I wish the waist fit me better (it’s huge!), but I think I will wear these whenever it’s chilly. Joggers are also a bit silly on a hip-heavy figure, but the fitted hems will stop crawling insects and intrepid flyers. I’m willing to look silly.
You might notice that the olive green Columbia trousers are safari style and have a cargo pocket. This is not something I would tolerate on any other type of clothing, but it can be hard to avoid in hiking pants. Nothing suits my mighty hips less well than a cargo pocket adding bulk, but at least this one is sewn down and relatively flat.
These will probably feel cooler than the first pair of pants on a muggy day due to their lightweight woven synthetic construction. I’ll reach for these when the bugs are out but the temperature is high. If I’m in tick country, I’ll look even nerdier when I tuck my pants into my socks.
The Craghoppers maxi skirt is a slightly more attractive green than the muddy olive (army green!) of the Columbia trousers. It is a lighter weight knit, so should feel pretty good when it’s hot out.
I am packing this primarily because there is one “dress up” evening at our summer camp, and last time, I got bug bites all over my legs when I switched from my usual Insect Shield evening wear to a regular travel skirt that bared my legs. The mosquitoes won’t get to enjoy my ankle buffet this year: I’m prepared with this long, treated skirt!
I failed to get a group snapshot of my UV protective bottoms, but they are all Coolibar products with a 50+ UPF. I’ve got knit yoga pants in coral, knit capri pants in taupe, and a knit, knee-length A-line skirt in coral/white chevron print.
Capri pants aren’t particularly flattering to my shape, either, but I don’t wear shorts. I hate them. When the weather gets really hot, I prefer long, loose dresses, but capri pants are what I wear when I want the coverage and flexibility of pants on the muggiest days. Fashion must bow to function, and I apologize to those who suffer looking at me on hot days!
In the front row of the wardrobe photo (at the top of the post), you will also see something black. Those are my long underwear bottoms. I’ll wear these under any of the longer wardrobe items if I’m cold late at night or early in the morning. Odds are, no one will ever see them. They are underwear, after all!
If you just returned to the full wardrobe photo at the top of the page, you may have noticed, at the right, second row, above the long john pants, four small rolls in pink, orange, white, and grey; these are regular cotton/lycra tank tops. I like the ones from Duluth Trading Co.
These are usually layered under my other shirts to add warmth, modesty, or extend the time between washings, but I will wear them alone if the weather gets hot enough. I wouldn’t expose that much of my skin to the sun, however, and I’d have a UV protective shawl or wrap with me if I couldn’t find shade.
Now let’s look more closely at my Insect Shield tops:
I am packing my two safari style button front shirts. The coral shirt is Columbia and fairly boxy. The olive/tan shirt is Craghoppers, and quite fitted. The latter does include cute buttons shaped like flowers and some decorative tone-on-tone stitching. It has a more feminine feel than the more unisex Columbia option, but it’s slightly less comfortable.
Much like cargo pockets are an offense to my broad hips, chest pockets look stupid whilst highlighting my ample bosom. I’m not wearing safari shirts on purpose. These are just the most common styles in adventure fabrics, so they are most readily marked down.
I paid less than $10 for the Craghoppers shirt on Amazon; retail was probably $85 based upon a peek at their website today.
I also like that the Safari style shirts look right layered (worn open if the predatory insects allow) over a plain tank. I prefer to keep a layer of untreated fabric next to my skin instead of the Insect Shield—called NosiLife by Craghoppers—material.
The green tunic is Craghoppers, and it matches the maxi skirt I listed before. It would look better on me with a v-neck and more fitted waist, but I don’t feel bad wearing it. I just don’t feel cute.
On me, it looks best with the waist tie pulled to the back from both loops, highlighting my narrow waist without drawing a belt-line across my middle to make me look shorter. It looks better with my simple pants than it does with the bulky shirred waist of the matching skirt poofing up underneath.
The wide waistband of the maxi is meant to make it operate as a convertible halter dress, but that is not a style I’ll be sporting. Aside from a general policy of never going bra-less in public, I also find ties behind the neck trigger muscle pain and headaches for me. The extra fabric at the waist is not ideally flattering, but it is comfortable. It looks better worn over a tank top (tucked in) on me, but whether I wear it that way will depend upon the number of insects who are biting.
More to my liking is my newest acquisition: the rose colored open cardigan, also by Craghoppers. It offers less coverage from biting insects, but it better suits my personal style. It feels more cottony than some of my other pieces, but there is a rougher hand to the fabric, likely due to the treatment, though the ExOfficio knit trousers avoided this issue somehow.
Shown below the cardigan is a Columbia long sleeve t-shirt in rose that I’ve had for years. It just happens to work really nicely with the new wrap. I’ll call this my “camping sweater set.”
The polyester fabric of this t-shirt is too sporty to thrill me, but, on previous camping trips, the piece has proven its worth by protecting me from the mosquitoes who love me. I don’t reciprocate their feelings.
I’ll show some detail shots here to highlight a major problem with all Insect Shield clothing: ugly logos.
I’m not a fan of visible branding on anything. Nope, I don’t even want a designer handbag to sport an exterior brand. That. Is. Not. My. Style.
There might be a regulatory issue with Insect Shield clothing. Perhaps it must show a visible mark for reasons of consumer protection? But, at minimum, I’d like to see every product use tone-on-tone stitching for the most invisible branding possible.
I’m delighted to talk about where I got my clothes, or a clever solution like Insect Shield garments. I don’t want my wardrobe to advertise for itself. Craghoppers’ white logos on otherwise “fashion” oriented pieces are the most baffling to me. Why?
Finally, the periwinkle Insect Shield hoodie by White Sierra. This piece is my least favorite of the batch. Aside from standing out as an obvious mis-match to my capsule wardrobe color scheme, the fabric of this piece is that not-so-pleasant polyester used for hiking clothes. It doesn’t feel very nice next to the skin.
I thought about leaving it behind. However… this is my campfire staple piece. I don’t like it so much, so if there are drippy s’mores, or kids with charcoal on their fingers seeking hugs, this piece can take whatever abuse nature hands out.
Perhaps every item of Insect Shield clothing is “grubby” and designed to work hard in the great outdoors, but this hoodie is my most grubby. I’d wear it if I were painting a wall and there were annoying bugs.
I added two other tops.
One—an ExOfficio crinkle tunic in white—is such a favorite, I bought three more when they went on final clearance and I’d realized how much I loved the first one.
This tunic fits me perfectly, has a flattering v-neckline and a nipped in waist. It’s just long enough to cover my bum, but it doesn’t overwhelm my 5′ 2.5″ body. It breathes easy with its seersucker texture, and it washes well as it’s made of some kind of smooth synthetic blend.
The final top is a Coolibar long sleeve t-shirt in taupe. It has a crew neck, which is good for UV protection, but adds nothing to my appearance. The color is drab, but it blends neatly with my neutrals for this wardrobe. Being ZnO fabric, it feels wonderful on. I will layer with this, probably wearing it most mornings during the coolest hours.
There’s a reason this top is in my camping wardrobe instead of rotating through my everyday Coolibar collection. It’s not the cutest, but it functions well and matches the safari color scheme that outdoor clothing manufacturers continue to thrust upon us. I bought it to pair with the capri pants in the same shade, but the head-to-toe (actually: shoulder-to-upper-calf) taupe makes me want to cry.
I’m not a neutral person!
The camp packing list is very specific about bringing enough footwear. They suggest at least two pairs of sturdy shoes with laces in case one pair gets wet/muddy. Sandals are suggested, and hiking boots are an option.
I’m opting for two pairs of grey sneakers. The grey with coral (front row, 2nd from right) are breathable mesh. The grey with magenta (back row, far right) are waterproof.
I’m also bringing pair of sandal-alternative-almost-cute summer shoes by Propet, in taupe. I prefer my grey pair of these, which is why I’m leaving them at home. There’s rain in the forecast! If I’m going to ruin shoes, it’ll be the less attractive pair.
I’m not skipping them, however, because I hate having hot feet. This is the lightest weight, airiest shoe I can wear comfortably for any length of time.
My Crocs are hideous, but they fit my orthotics and they allow me to get around indoors without crippling pain. I don’t walk barefoot even to use the bathroom at night. My foot problems won’t allow for such liberties. Consider these my slippers, or house shoes.
Crocs will also work for shower shoes, which is reassuring in the summer camp environment. They’re even safe to throw in the washing machine when we get home. I don’t love my Crocs, but I appreciate the mobility they support, and I’m happy not to have to step my naked foot in a communal shower stall. In nature. Shared by kids…
I was done packing. The suitcase was even zipped. But I hesitated.
Here’s what I grabbed:
This is a rayon scarf. I’ve had it for years. It is soft against the skin, and not too warm to wear in summer. It goes with everything warm colored—red, coral, peach, orange, even purple. And, after all, you never know when a scarf will be wanted.
It will keep me warmer. It will make me feel more dressed up. I feel more like myself when I’m draped in something colorful and sensuous. I’m the kind of lady who wears a lot of scarves.
I’m not going to wear drape-y rayon around a campfire, though. I’m pretty sure this stuff is highly flammable!
Of course, there are nightclothes, socks, and undies in my bag, too. I’m only willing to show you the socks:
It’s a lot of socks, but camp is dirty. I also have everything from thick wool socks on the left, to tiny footie socks in the back row. They take up almost no space, and I will have what I want to be comfortable. Sore feet can ruin many outdoor adventures. I consider these to be some of the most important items I’ve packed.
There are even two pairs of Insect Shield treated socks. They are blue because I got them on sale. Stopping ticks will rate higher than nicely coordinated socks in some conditions. Considering the very limited colors available for treated socks, I’d likely have been compromising on color anyway. Price mattered more.
I’ll be bringing my teal blue knee length soft shell coat for outerwear. The forecast calls for more rain/storms than heat. If we get heat instead, I probably won’t need the coat.
I am also bringing both a broad brimmed sun hat (more Coolibar), and an inexpensive rain hat (that worked great in Alaska) to shield my face and/or keep my glasses dry whatever the weather.
With six bottoms and six tops, this is not a minimalist capsule wardrobe. It does all fit—with the exception, in this case, of most of the shoes—in my Tom Bihn Aeronaut (original size, aka Aeronaut 45) carry on size suitcase.
If every piece worked equally well together, we’d have 36 obvious outfits from this mix, and that’s without considering my layering pieces as stand-alone alternatives. Since I will be traveling for several weeks in total, I’m happy to have lots of options.
Packing light for camp borders on the impossible because we need to bring bedding, pillows, towels, and clothing suitable for many conditions (40-90º F) with no access to laundry facilities. We did it last time (sort of) by renting bedding, but we didn’t sleep comfortably under so-so blankets on not-quite-right pillows.
Simple sleeping bags are no longer an option for summer camp. It’s considered a risk during a fire, so zipped up sleeping bags aren’t allowed. Unzipped, a sleeping bag won’t create that useful microclimate of warmth that makes them so space efficient to pack.
This time, we’re driving instead of flying, and we’re packing what we need to be comfortable.
Also, even with most of the Insect Shield items removed, the remaining pieces make their own more minimalist capsule wardrobe. It’s wearable for days, and lacks only my usual accessories to make me feel fully dressed, and fully expressive of my own style.
The three bottoms (coral, taupe, coral/white) plus the two UV tops (taupe t-shirt, white tunic) and tanks coordinate very well. If I just keep the Craghoppers wrap in the mix, I can “cover my bum” when wearing the stretch pants with tinier tops. Or, I could buy a few large scarves for souvenirs and complete the looks (and cover my backside) that way.
I know it might seem a little odd to plan a wardrobe for a nature excursion, but it’s such a great way to point out the value in buying clothing aligned to a broader vision of how you want to dress.
I don’t think it matters how you look while hiking in the woods! I wouldn’t let mis-matched clothes prevent me from enjoying a week outdoors with my family this summer.
But, on the other hand, I do enjoy creating a thoughtful packing list that will ensure I bring what I need, wear what I bring, and am happy about how I look and how I feel.
I hope this post has been enlightening to a reader or two, and perhaps given someone the notion that it’s okay to think about what you wear while you’re adventuring, so long as you attend to function as well!
How do you pack for camping, hiking, or other outdoor adventures? Do you have a specialized wardrobe?