You might hear hikers say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. This article will go over various hiking clothing dos and don’ts.
What to Wear Hiking (the Quick-and-Dirty List):
There will be no denim pants or “I love hiking” cotton tees: Cotton holds onto water, so it keeps you feeling sweaty in hot temps and chills you if things turn cold and wet.
Polyester, nylon or merino wool undies (and everything else): These materials move sweat off skin and dry fast, so they’re ideal for next-to-skin layers such as briefs, tees, sports bras or long underwear, and for socks. Because of their capacity to control moisture, these fabrics are also suitable for the rest of your apparel.
Comfortable yet sturdy pants: Trails have twists and turns, so you need to move freely. Branches and rocks, on the other hand, may rip through thin, flexible tights or yoga trousers.
A warm jacket: Polyester fleece works well for this, but for colder weather, a puffy jacket (with a polyester fill or water-resistant down inside) is recommended.
A rain jacket: “Waterproof/breathable” is the key phrase, meaning it will block rain and wind, but will also let you sweat without feeling like you’re wearing a plastic bag. Pack rain pants as well if the weather is really wet.
A hat with a brim: Keeps your head dry and protects it from the sun. The brim keeps rain and sunlight out of your eyes. (Don’t forget to bring your shades.)
Sturdy shoes: While leather boots are not required, your hiking footwear should give support, protection from rocks and roots, and grip on wet and dry conditions.
If you’re ready to think about your hiking wardrobe more holistically, consider the following shopping strategies:
Embrace layering: In this tried-and-true strategy each clothing layer has a unique function, and you add or subtract those layers to adapt to changing conditions. Layering Basics has further information.
Anticipate conditions: Your health and protection is utterly dependent on what you packed, and your climate-controlled exit vehicle is many miles away. Forecasts might be inaccurate, so be prepared for temperatures to drop, become wetter, snowier, or hotter than projected.
Focus on function rather than fashion: no one looks nice when they are unhappy.
Think about comfort, durability weight and price: Gear buying involves tradeoffs, so decide both your preferences and your budget before you shop. Ultralight equipment might be a good option, but it will also lighten your pocketbook.
Purchase quality hiking boots or trail shoes: Shoes are one of the most critical items you’ll wear on the trail and your first major purchase.
Key Fabric Properties
Regardless of the material or appearance of your hiking apparel, multiple layers are required to have distinct properties:
Wicking: Important in a base layer, or any apparel that touches skin, this is a fabric’s ability to pull moisture (sweat) away from you and move it to the fabric’s outer surface, where it can dry quickly. This allows you to work up a sweat without being damp or chilly.
Insulating: This skill is critical in your mid layer and will keep you warm. Clothing doesn’t actually generate heat, but, if it’s efficient at insulating, then it’s good at holding in the heat that your body produces.
Waterproof and windproof: Important in an outer layer or “shell,” this keeps the elements from saturating your clothes with rain, or chilling you when wind whisks away the heat your body produces. Water and wind “resistant” jackets do not completely prevent rain and wind, hence they only provide modest weather protection. And coats that are waterproof may not also be windproof, even if they are.
Breathable: This is important in all of your layers since it allows your wicking layer to dry faster. When your layers don’t collectively breathe, then perspiration that’s wicked off your skin dries inefficiently and you can end up getting soaked by your own sweat.
Waterproof/breathable: Advanced shells provide this coverage combination, yet even the most advanced technology emphasize wind and rain protection. As a result, when humidity and exercise levels are high, people have difficulty breathing. Coated nonbreathable shells are less expensive, but they might feel like you’re wearing a garbage bag in a sauna.
Sun protection: Wearing clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating can help protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Basic Fabric Choices
Here’s a primer on some common outdoor cloth options:
Wool: Old-school woollies were irritating, but modern wool apparel is not. Merino wool, in particular, has fine fibers that make it soft, breathable, moisture-wicking, reasonably quick to dry and not prone to retaining odors.
Polyester/nylon clothing is less expensive than merino wool and excels at wicking perspiration and drying quickly, and many clothing options contain recycled materials. One disadvantage of synthetics is that they have a bad odor, which is why certain garments include an antimicrobial treatment to combat odor-causing germs. The majority of “techie” branded textiles are made of polyester or nylon.
Fleece jackets are technically composed of polyester, but its warmth is due to the soft, dense threads as much as the material’s chemical qualities.
Polyester/nylon jackets: These synthetics, frequently in conjunction with special coatings or laminates, protect you against rain and wind in their “hard shell” form (think rain jacket or the outer layer of a puffy jacket).
Silk isn’t great for a tough trek due to its poor wicking capabilities. Treated silk outperforms untreated silk because it has been chemically processed to improve wicking. Silk has a silky, sumptuous feel, but it isn’t very tough or odor resistant.
Cotton: Despite being notoriously ineffective at wicking and drying, cotton excels at absorbing perspiration, remaining wet, and cooling you. You may wear it in blazing heat if you don’t mind feeling damp and sticky. When the weather cools, though, wearing cotton near to your skin is a recipe for hypothermia, which is why long-distance hikers say “cotton kills.”
Base Layer: Undergarment Options
A little warmth in the shape of long underwear could be in order on a cold trip, and wicking capacity is always vital in your next-to-skin layer.
Underwear: It’s acceptable to wear anything you want here, whether it’s boxers, briefs, boy shorts, bikini briefs, or something else. Cotton, on the other hand, is still a no-no, and you want something with a low profile and supportive fit. You also want your underwear to be chafe-free, which is why seamless styles are ideal for trekking.
Bra: Choose a sports bra that best suits your size, the intensity of your activity and the level of support you need. Learn more about how to pick a sports bra.
Tank top/camisole: A multipurpose garment, this lightweight top may provide core warmth on chilly days while also serving as a lighter alternative to a T-shirt on hotter ones.
Top and bottom base layer (long underwear): Fabrics are available in lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight weights: Select weight based on anticipated temps and whether your metabolism runs hot or cold. A crewneck top is more affordable, while a pricier zip-neck lets you adjust as you get hot or cold. Bottoms may be worn beneath shorts for warmth or sun protection. Wear these beneath hiking pants and maybe rain pants when the weather becomes bad.
Should undies be worn beneath long underwear? There is no right or wrong response, so do whatever makes you feel the most at ease. Undies underneath are not needed and fabrics can bunch up uncomfortably, but some people like the added support and warmth.
Head-to-Toe Clothing Options
You always need to pack a base layer, mid layer and outer shell (rain jacket and pants) to be properly prepared for any hike, but what you wear while on the trail might vary. The following are some of the outfit options:
Hats: If you’re hiking in the desert or other relentlessly sunbaked environment, wear a wide-brimmed hat or a billed cap with a sun cape attached. If a rainy forecast calls for a waterproof hat, a broad brim might help keep rain out of your eyes. Pack a wool or synthetic hat to keep your head warm in chilly weather.
Shirts: A wicking short-sleeve T-shirt is fine in warm weather, and a wicking long-sleeve top is fine for cool conditions. Wear a UPF-rated long-sleeved shirt on a hot day (many have a flip-up collar for neck protection).
Shorts, pants, and convertible pants (zip-off): Hikers like zip-off pants because they eliminate the need to pick between trousers and shorts. Quick-drying fabrics are the rule here and some hiking shorts with built-in liners can double as swimwear. Cargo pants and shorts are also popular because hikers love to have places to stash things.
Tights with yoga pants? Great for flexibility, but not so much for encounters with sandstone or bushes.
Stretchy but durable fabrics and built-in liners are functional features of hiking skirts, dresses, and skorts (in skorts).
Gloves and socks should be thicker or thinner depending on the weather. Socks need to be taller than your hiking footwear, and packing a dry pair is wise in case you wade too deeply in a creek or your feet start to blister. For cold weather, insulated and waterproof gloves are excellent, and mittens are always warmer than gloves made of the same materials.
Gaiters: On the trail you might see what looks like legwarmers atop a hikers’ boots. Called “gaiters,” these accessories keep trail debris, rain and even pests like ticks from invading your boot tops.
Mid Layer: Fleece and Puffy Jackets
This is the basic layer that keeps you warm. A standard recommendation is to bring two options, a lightweight fleece top or jacket, and a lightweight puffy jacket that compresses well to fit in your daypack. Make any necessary adjustments for your individual trip.
Wear a fleece jacket when trekking on chilly days. On a cool day wait until a rest break to slip it on. Fleece is available in three weights: lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight. Select weight based on the forecast and whether your metabolism runs hot or cold.
Fleece pants: If severe cold is a possibility, fleece pants are a nice mid-layer addition. Long underwear bottoms, on the other hand, provide all the extra leg warmth you would need on most walks.
Puffy insulated jacket or vest: If the weather is moderate, a fleece jacket will suffice. Pack a puffy if you think it could be chilly. Standard down, the insulation inside many puffy jackets, loses much of its warmth-retaining ability if you get it wet, so synthetic insulations are a better bet. You may also pack a jacket filled with water-resistant down or a hybrid filled with both synthetic and water-resistant down.
Outer Layer: Rain Jackets and Pants
Even a cloudless blue sky in the morning can suddenly give way to a fast-moving rain squall. Keeping dry is essential for preventing hypothermia, so bring a rain jacket and waterproof/breathable leggings.
Note, too, that on dry, blustery days you can also wear hard-shell outerwear as protection from windchill.
Certain pathways bring distinct difficulties. Do some research to see if locals have any special clothing recommendations for the area you’re visiting. Some examples include:
Bug-protective clothing: If you’re going on a hike through brushy woodlands, a deep, dark forest, or the Everglades when local populations of ticks, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, black flies, or other pests are on the rise, consider wearing long sleeves, long pants, clothes with built-in insect repellent, and/or bug-net clothing.
Tall leather hiking boots: While wearing them in the desert may seem counterintuitive, they provide additional protection against snakes.
Waterproof gaiters: These are useful if your route will traverse a lot of snowfields. When the snow softens in the afternoon light, you may find yourself “post holing.” Waterproof boots are also an advantage in this situation.