WHAT TO WEAR HIKING: THE FOOLPROOF GUIDE
One of the great many blessings hiking offers its followers is the absence of those bothersome formalities most of us are forced to adhere to in our workaday lives. When out in the wild, for example, such hassles as deadlines, meetings, dress codes, bosses, and paperwork are thankfully in short supply.
Sadly, however, this liberation from societal and professional strictures doesn’t mean taking a willy-nilly, devil-may-care approach is always the best way to go — particularly when it comes to hiking wear. In the outdoors, the “boss” is no longer that miniature dictator in the office at the end of the hallway, but the somewhat mightier proposition that is Mother Nature.
But just what does the grand matriarch of our planet demand of our attire when we head to pay her a visit?
In this article, we’re going to take you through the A-to-Z of suitable and practical apparel for your future appointments in the Great Dame’s domains, starting off with a look at a few simple pre-hike and pre-purchase strategies before delving into the finer details of material types and clothing choices per body part.
Looking to Learn to What to Wear on Your Next Hiking Trip?
You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:
If you are simply looking for a quick rundown or reminder of what to wear for hiking, then we have put together a quick cheat sheet below. Please take the following recommendations as a general hiking clothing guide based on our experience and personal preferences.
The four scenarios below are fairly generic, which in addition to the infinite number of potential weather/trail conditions and combinations of appropriate apparel, we highly recommend reading through to the end of this article and doing some research of different products yourself to ensure you develop a clothing system that works for both you and your environment.
A little bit of know-how with regard to pre-hike prep is the first step to becoming a true all-weather hiking warrior. Below, we’ve compiled a list of the fundamental need-to-knows that will guide you around the various pitfalls in store for relative novices to hiking and let you hit the trails with confidence in your backcountry couture.
If there were ten holy commandments for hikers, using the layering system would surely be in the top three. This system, described in more detail in our definitive guide to how to layer clothing, is now all but universally accepted as the benchmark for backcountry habiliment.
The layering system works by utilizing, as the name suggests, multiple strata of clothing items instead of only one or two bulkier items, thus creating air pockets between each layer and allowing interior moisture (sweat) to evaporate as it passes outward through the layers. It also offers a great deal of versatility in changeable weather by allowing you to take gear off and put it on with the minimum of fuss as temperatures rise and fall throughout the day.
Before preparing your pack and getting dressed, study weather forecasts and allow a buffer for temperature variations and any forecaster whoopsies, particularly if your hike is taking you far afield.
Pro Tip: Elevation Gains & Temperature
An old-school, surprisingly reliable rule of thumb is that temps can drop roughly 3.5°F per 1,000 ft climbed (6.4°C/km). Using this simple calculation will allow you to estimate trail temps where forecasts are given for valley but not mountain locations.
Other factors to take into consideration pre-hike include conditions underfoot, humidity, the presence of bugs, trail aspect (in sun or shade), and the duration of your hike. These variables may require you to take along, respectively: gaiters or boots instead of shoes; quick-drying garments; facial bug nets; warmer individual layers; and, extra items (particularly if on a multi-day excursion).
Mountain-goers are not renowned for their style, and for good reason. Out in the wild, factors such as comfort, weight, functionality, durability, performance, and price trump fashion every time. While the odd backcountry fashionista is occasionally to be found, the chances are they’ve paid a pretty penny for their fancy togs and will almost certainly be that one, ever-present group-member imploring you to part with your spare sweater when the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Whatever your budget, be sure to pick a pair of boots or shoes that are fit to task. Ill-fitting or poorly made boots or trail shoes can not only be a source of great pain or discomfort, but can also lead to injury by causing you to walk with an unnatural gait or skipping on important features such as ankle support, grippy soles, adequate cushioning, waterproofing, protective toe rand and/or ample bridge support.
There are many opinions on whether boots that cover your ankles are a must versus wearing a pair of lightweight hiking shoes, or even hiking sandals. In the end it comes down to the type of terrain you'll be covering, your own walking style (injuries) and preference.
To avoid going through a long (and costly) process of trial and error before finding the boots or shoes that work for you, be sure to research the options thoroughly, read user reviews, and spend plenty of time trying out your would-be new footwear in the store before heading to the checkout.
While many top-of-the-range, technical hiking or mountaineering boots will set you back enough $ to sponsor a small war, there are plenty of more wallet-friendly options out there for those who have no intention of scaling the Eiger’s north face or traversing the Himalaya in winter. Check out our guide to the best cheap hiking boots to see our top affordable picks.
A bit of a wild-card entry here. Some old-schoolers are apt to lament the visual impact of hikers who look like technicolored candy wrappers out on the trail, but the benefits of wearing slightly garish garb far outweigh the traditionalists’ interests in defending their delicate sensibilities. If injured, lost, or otherwise in need of assistance, colorful threads will make you far more easily discoverable than more natural tones.
The success or failure of your future hiking trips depends largely on the choices you make when purchasing your gear. These days the number of options at our disposal is mind-bogglingly high. So much so, in fact, that novice hikers could be forgiven for grabbing the first decent-looking garments they lay their hands on to spare themselves the cognitive overload. To help you avoid this temptation, below we’ve listed the most popular hiking fabrics along with their benefits and drawbacks.
Fleece is a great, low-cost insulator that dries quickly and offers an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. Ideal as a midlayer, soft against the skin, and quick drying, the only drawback to fleece is a lack of wind-resistance when worn without a protective outer shell.
These synthetic fabric types feature in everything from shoes and gaiters to baselayers, shirts, jackets, and hats. They come in many forms and with varying specs, and most big brands offer their own trademarked variation such as Air Tech (Mountain Hardwear), Capilene (Patagonia), and Polartec (various).
Although polyester/nylon baselayers, shirts, and midlayers aren’t always as comfortable or stink-free as, for example, merino wool or bamboo products, they are usually a cheaper option and dry much quicker.
Most outer, shell layers also use polyester or nylon (or both) with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish to provide protection from the elements.
Wool has undergone something of a revival in recent years, mainly thanks to brands such as Icebreaker and Smartwool. Modern wool-made hiking garments are far more high-performing than those of yore and offer a slightly pricey but otherwise cozy, soft, stink-free, breathable, and high-wicking option that insulates even when wet and works particularly well in baselayers, as explained in the video below.
The only downside to wool is that it offers little wind resistance, is often pricey, and, particularly in meatier layers, can take a long time to dry.
The perfect insulator in dry, cold conditions. Down garments use different ‘fill powers’ (usually between 400 and 900) which refer to the amount of insulation offered by the garment’s feathered contents. In short, the higher the fill power, the more body heat a down product can trap.
If heading into high alpine environments, down is a great choice, but in more humid conditions synthetic fabrics are a better option — when wet, down loses most of its insulating ability and can take a small age to dry out.
Silk, really? Yeah, really. Though fairly rare these days, silk was once the fabric of choice for the world’s mountaineering elite, mainly due to its ability to provide superb insulation at an incredibly low weight. On the downside, it costs a small fortune, wicks about as well as your average sponge (i.e. terribly), and tears very easily.
Cotton is the junk food of the world of outdoor attire. It’s cheap, easy to get your hands on, looks and feels good for a while, but ultimately contains the capacity to be downright deadly.
Famous for soaking up sweat, failing to wick, and lacking in breathability, cotton is not only liable to cause fairly minor discomforts such as soggy undergarments and chafing, but can also lead to hypothermia and, in extreme cases, death — as explained in more detail in our article Why Cotton Kills. To be avoided at all costs.
Whatever fabric type you end up choosing for any garment, the label or product description will most likely boast one or more desirable properties or functions. But just what are these properties and when or where do we need them?
The term “wicking” essentially refers to a fabric’s ability to transport moisture (i.e. sweat) from inside to out, thus moving it from your skin or internal layers to the outer surface. This property is important for two reasons: one, so you don’t feel like the resident of an otter’s pocket while working up a sweat; two, you greatly reduce your risk of hypothermia, the chills, death, and other such nasties when your sweat cools down — a real possibility with fabrics that don’t wick so well.
Pro Tip: Research Marketers Claims
Nearly all baselayers and t-shirts will claim to be “high-wicking” (“low” and “middlingly” just don’t feature in the advertisers’ vocab), so before buying be sure to read a few user reviews or to pick the brains of a knowledgeable shop assistant.
In order to stay warm, you need to create a buffer between yourself and the ambient air and elements. A good insulating layer may take many forms — wool, fleece, down, polyester down substitute — but all of these do one thing well, namely keep in the heat produced by your body.
Generally speaking, the thicker the layer, the more insulation it will provide, but be wary of sacrificing breathability if opting for especially heavy midlayers, particularly those using synthetic materials inside a wind or water-resistant shell.
Shell layers may boast a number of desirable facets, features, and extra frills, but the undoubted “must-have” of these is their ability to keep out the elements. The most important thing to note when buying an outer shell — whether pants or jacket — is that nearly all garments will fall into either the “water-resistant” or “waterproof” category. What is the difference between waterproof and water resistant? The distinction is an important one. While the latter are made to keep you totally dry, the former are designed to shed only moderate precipitation, such as light drizzle or a short-lived shower.
A second point of note is that any garment that is entirely waterproof will also be windproof — handy given that wind can be as effective as cold ambient air and saturated clothes at spiriting away your body heat.
Finally, thanks to Hydrostatic Head testing (a.k.a. ‘Pressure Head’ testing), there are now degrees of waterproofing. Given in a measurement of mm, these ratings refer to the amount of liquid a garment’s material can withstand before allowing droplets to seep through. At the lower end of the scale, a jacket with a 1,500 mm rating will keep you dry if caught in a spot of drizzle, while one boasting a 20,000 mm rating with do the job even when things take a turn for the biblical and your neighbors start building arks.
For a more detailed guide to waterproof hiking duds, check out our guide Hiking in the Rain.
Perhaps the most important item on our list, “breathability” refers to a garment’s ability to transfer moisture from inside to the outside, rather than trapping it within any given layer. This is particularly important in the performance of your base layer, as it allows the moisture wicked through to the outside of the baselayer fabric to dry more quickly and takes the moisture away from your skin.
That said, if any garment in your layering system doesn’t breathe well, the rest of them are unable to fulfil their function. This can result in an accumulation of moisture trapped inside your layers and, at worst, the perfect environment for a significant loss of body heat, and potentially hypothermia, when you stop moving or temperatures drop.
A completely waterproof and breathable outer shell has long been considered the Holy Grail of outdoor attire, and these days the R&D departments of the biggest brands have just about delivered the goods. There is, however, a catch: the price. Yep, you can get your hands on a jacket or the "best rain pants" on the market that will fend off small tempests and monsoonal deluges, all while letting your body and inner layers breathe, but only in exchange for a tear-inducing portion of your savings.
More affordable options usually feature a compromise on either of these two above features, with the most breathable fabrics being less waterproof and the most waterproofed being less breathable.
At the economy end of the scale, there are coated non-breathable shells, which may look like they will do the job but a short way down the trail are likely to make you feel like you’re wearing a spacesuit in a steam room due to their lack of breathability. A happy medium, however, can be found in many mid-range Gore-Tex jackets such as the Marmot Minimalist, which breathes well, boasts a healthy 28,000mm waterproof rating, and also won’t break the bank.
As mentioned above, hardshell waterproofs will also tick the windproofing box and can be worn on top of even the lightest baselayers to ward off the windchill. If conditions are dry but cool enough to demand some degree of insulation, midlayer tops such as the Rab Focus Hoody feature a tight enough weave to resist the worst of the wind’s efforts while providing more insulation than thinner outer shells.
When out hiking, mobility is a big deal. Not only should clothing be sufficiently loose fitting to ensure you can move freely, avoid chafing, and allow for some air-flow between layers, but can be made all the more comfortable if it contains an element of stretch and/or added material in key areas.
Features like a stretch waistband, gusseted crotch, softshell inserts on hardshells, or fabric containing some percentage of lycra, elastane, or similarly stretchy materials can greatly enhance comfort levels and allow you to move without restriction.
Unless you happen to be a night-hiking enthusiast, choosing a fabric that boasts an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating is never a bad idea. The perils of skin cancer need no introduction here, but the added risks to hikers of this and other sun-induced illnesses are well worth noting. Hiking at altitude, on snow, and/or spending far more hours exposed to the sun’s UV rays all make hikers a particularly at-risk demographic in need of extra protection from the big yella fella.
In a nutshell, UVF ratings run from 15 to 50+, with the higher numbers offering superior protection (a UPF rating of 20 indicates the fabric of a garment will allow 1/20th of available UV radiation to pass through it, a rating of 50 will allow 1/50th, and so on).
The following overview is designed to provide a nuts-and-bolts guide for all-season hiking, working on the premise that you only need to add or subtract layers according to the temperatures you are hiking in.
Whatever the weather conditions, the fundamentals of the layering system up top remain applicable. We recommend starting with a breathable, high-wicking baselayer, varying the weight or thickness depending on temperatures. If you’re out in very cool conditions, this can be supplemented with a thicker fleece or down midlayer before being topped off by that all-important shell or water and windproof layer.
In warmer weather conditions where the outer shell is not necessary but you need more than a t-shirt, an outer layer with some wind resistance will serve you better than anything made of fleece or wool, both of which tend to have sieve-like qualities in anything more than a light breeze.
In very hot temperatures, you can either opt for a pair of lightweight trousers such as The North Face Paramount Trail Pants, or a pair of shorts or skorts — just be sure to check you won’t be wading through thorny or nettle-riddled brush before plumping for the latter. The ideal solution is to get your hands on a pair of light hiking pants with zip-off bottoms and ankle zips that allow you to remove the lower sections without taking off your boots.
Pro Tip: Remember to Buy a Bit Baggy
When buying outer shell layers, be sure to leave room for the layers you’ll have underneath.
In colder temps, a good idea is to start with a pair of softshell pants with some degree of wind resistance or to wear a baselayer pant or hiking tights below your standard trekking pants. If conditions are wet or particularly blustery, throwing a pair of lightweight waterproof rain pants directly on top of either your baselayer or standard hiking pants will keep your pins toasty and dry.
Your choice of footwear will depend largely on where you plan on doing your hiking and the conditions you’re likely to find there.
It goes without saying that in muddy, boggy, or snow-covered terrain a pair of backpacking boots will serve your purposes better. If you foresee doing most of your hiking on well-maintained trails and aren’t a fan of wet-weather wandering, however, a pair of waterproof hiking shoes could save a bundle of cash and offer a much more nimble, and often more comfortable, alternative. To help you choose, check out our guide to The Best Hiking Footwear of 2018.
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Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.