While you may want hiking to be somewhat of a challenge, battling the weather itself is usually not the experience you’re looking for.
Being comfortable on a hike or backpacking trip makes it a lot easier to have a good time, appreciate the beauty around you, and even avoid some potentially dangerous situations. No one wants to spend a trip wet and miserable! With a little forethought and the right hiking gear though, you can enjoy camping in any season.
These days it’s even easier to stay warm and dry (or cool and breezy) out on the trail. Modern hiking shirts, hiking pants, and other hiking clothes are made from some pretty impressive materials. So there’s no reason to be uncomfortable no matter how far into the wilderness you stray.
Picking the Right Hiking Clothes
Before we dive into dressing for the weather, there are some basic techniques for putting together a hiking outfit that everyone should be aware of. In a moment, we’ll take a close look at layering and insulating. The key here is that you want to have options. But beyond these basics, you’re going to want to think about the location you’ll be hiking in and consider a few different factors before deciding on an outfit.
First, of course, you should consider the weather. Both the climate and temporary weather conditions will impact what you should wear. Then, think about animals, bugs, and plants in the area. For areas with large tick populations, for instance, you may want to wear hiking pants even in hot weather.
Finally, consider the needs of this particular trip. Are you going to be on the trail for a while and need to minimize the space your gear takes up? The key to a smooth and pleasant camping trip is careful planning beforehand and this applies just as much to what you wear as to anything else! There are some aspects of a good hiking outfit that are always worth considering though, so let’s look at those tips now.
Layering, Insulating, and Staying Dry
If you’ve been hiking or camping for any time at all, you’ve probably heard the mantras about layering, layering, layering. This is the cardinal rule of dressing for a hike. After all, uncertainty and risk are part of what makes hiking and camping so appealing and fun. But the flip side is that you need to be prepared for sudden changes in the weather, unexpected challenges, and getting stuck out there longer than you planned.
So, if you’re just doing a day hike, it might seem silly to bring along things like a rain jacket, a warm layer, and extra hiking socks, but it never hurts to throw these things in your daypack. Especially in cold weather, getting wet is dangerous and uncomfortable. But even in warm weather, wet socks can cause blisters and other issues, especially if you have them on for a long time.
For cold weather, you should also think about insulation. Make sure the cold weather gear you’ve got is going to be insulating enough, especially if you’re heading out on a multi-day hiking trip. Almost all hiking jackets and such will have a temperature rating so you can compare different levels of insulation. You should also consider other factors, though, such as the material used, how the fill is distributed, and how the insulation will respond to water.
Key Components of a Hiking Outfit
Now that we’ve established how important it is to dress in layers, you may be wondering what those layers should be. Your needs will of course depend on the trip you’re taking, but there are a few basic components of any good hiking outfit. You’ll want a base layer, a mid-layer, and an outer layer (at least), as well as appropriate footwear, and pants, shorts, or leggings.
In cold weather, you’ll need layers on the bottom half as well, but we’ll cover that more in a moment. If you start with these three layers, you should be reasonably prepared for any normal hiking or backpacking trip. Some extreme climates may require adjustments to this technique, but it’s a great way to check off the basics when preparing for a hike.
The Base Layer
The base layer is the layer directly next to your skin. It’s the first thing you put on, and this layer should never come off. The main function of the base layer is to keep you dry, so ideally this layer should be made of moisture-wicking material, like polyester or merino wool. While polyester is very light and dries quickly, many hikers now opt for merino wool if possible thanks to its greater breathability.
You can wear a cotton t-shirt for this layer if that’s all you have, but cotton absorbs too much moisture and will quickly become uncomfortable if you’re sweating much at all. In hot weather, a tank top or a sports bra can also serve as your base layer. Look out for athletic wear versions, however, made of polyester or similar materials.
In cold or even cooler weather you’ll want a long sleeve shirt made of light, moisture-wicking material. This ensures that sweat is wicked away and doesn’t stay trapped against your skin. Again, staying damp in cold weather is certainly uncomfortable, and can even be dangerous at low enough temperatures.
The mid-layer, as you might guess, is the layer in between your base layer and outer layer. You can generally skip a mid-layer in hot weather, but in the spring and fall, it’s a good idea to have one in your pack just in case. The purpose of the mid-layer is to provide insulation.
So, depending on the weather, you’ll need more or less insulating materials. Fleece jackets, like those from The North Face, sweaters, down jackets, and wool are all great options for staying warm. And the choice of mid-layer is somewhat up to personal preference.
Some other things you should consider in planning out your mid-layer are fit, moisture-wicking ability, and warmth-to-weight ratio. Especially in very cold weather, you want your mid-layer to fit tightly in order to improve insulation. It’s good to have a mid-layer that can wick some moisture as well. Finally, keep in mind that some materials are going to be much heavier than others.
The outer layer, or shell layer, is all about wind and water protection. In warm weather, you can wear a shell directly over the base layer, or just have it available in case it’s needed. In cold weather, the outer layer will go over an insulating mid-layer. In very cold conditions, the outer layer can also provide additional insulation.
One thing to keep in mind is that this layer is meant to be put on and off as needed. In the winter you may need this layer on all the time to break the wind, but in the summer you’ll want to save it for rainy conditions. Keep in mind that the more waterproof the material is, the less breathable it will be. So there’s some balancing to be done here as well.
Another important distinction to keep in mind is the difference between a softshell and hard shell layer. A hard shell is waterproof and wind-resistant. Think raincoat or Gore-Tex jacket. Softshells, on the other hand, are less water and windproof.
They won’t keep you dry in a downpour, but they’re a great option for snowy conditions where you want both breathability and water resistance. You can find both hard and soft shells that provide additional insulation as well for especially cold conditions.
What to Wear Hiking in The Winter
In addition to these basic layers, there are a few additional pieces of gear that can make winter trekking a lot more comfortable. In particular, wool socks are almost essential for winter hiking. Wool wicks water much more effectively than cotton, so this will keep your feet from getting damp.
You’ll also want a hat and gloves for cold weather and something to protect your neck from the wind. Gaiters are a great option as they stay put better than scarves and are made out of more breathable material. You’ll also want to pay special attention to your mid-layer and outer layer choices in the winter.
Make sure you’re going to be well insulated and not weighed down. Down jackets are unmatched in their warmth-to-weight ratio, but keep in mind that down loses its shape and functionality in wet weather. So, if you’re going with down, make sure the conditions will be dry enough or that your shell layer is sufficiently waterproof. One often overlooked aspect of winter hiking is the reflectiveness of snow.
If there’s snow on the ground and it’s sunny, you may need to think about sun protection in the winter as well as the summer. Sunglasses or snow goggles are good to have on hand. After all, you don’t want to end up snow-blind out in the backcountry. At best, it’s going to slow you down, and at its worst, it can lead to injury, exhaustion, and directional confusion. Not a great way to end a hike!
On the Bottom: Leggings and Hiking Pants for Winter
Most hiking outfit guides focus on the top half of the body. This is where most of the heat escapes from your body and it’s also where the vital organs are centered. So, it’s more important to keep your chest at a safe temperature than your legs. Still, especially in the winter, you want to make sure your legs are going to be warm and comfortable as well.
Most hikers use two layers on the bottom when hiking in cold weather. You have a few different options for a “base layer” on your legs. Leggings, yoga pants, or old-fashioned long johns will all work to some extent. You can also buy specially designed winter hiking leggings, however, made by companies like Patagonia. And these are going to offer the best insulation, moisture-wicking, and comfort.
For pants, in less extreme weather, you can generally wear normal hiking pants. For a tighter (and warmer) fit, look for cross-country skiing pants. Be sure to note features like breathability, waterproofing, and insulation. Again, depending on the conditions you’re facing, you might need more of one and less of the others. In more extreme cold, though, you’ll definitely want insulated hiking pants if you’re trying to stay comfortable on the trail.
Hiking Gear for Hot Weather
For hot weather hiking, it’s all about sun protection! Summer hiking is a lot of fun and a bit more accessible than hiking in the winter. Still, there are some concerns to be aware of and ways to keep yourself healthier and happier on a summer hike.
To avoid sunburn, make sure you have sunscreen on hand and consider wearing hiking shirts with sun protection. You can now find shirts, and even hiking pants that offer sun protection. Just like sunscreen is rated by an SPF number, such materials are rated using a UPF number.
Beyond beating the sun, the other main consideration for summer hiking is breathability. No matter what season you’re trekking in, moisture-wicking material is your best friend. In the summer especially, you’re going to want to be dry and cool. The ideal hiking shirt for the summer is light, breathable, and loose.
Are Hiking Shorts Worth It?
Hiking shorts can be more comfy than pants and also help reduce chafing in the summer months. Not only do they provide a bit more airflow, but there’s also more skin surface for sweat to evaporate from, which keeps you cool. Still, there are some who prefer long pants even in the summer.
As mentioned above, it depends somewhat on where you’re hiking. If ticks or poison ivy are widespread, long pants are a good idea. Thankfully, hiking pants made for hot weather are very breathable and cool and many have zippers at the knees so you can turn them into shorts or pants as needed.
If it’s going to be wet out, you can also look for rain pants, which offer the water-resistance of winter hiking pants without the insulation. Staying dry is important in any season and rain pants can also protect your day-to-day legwear from getting splattered with mud as you hike.
Hiking Boots & Hiking Shoes
Finally, let’s take a look at footwear! In the summer, you have a few different options, from running shoes to hiking sandals. If you’re covering mostly flat ground, hiking sandals can be a cool and comfortable option. For rockier terrain, though, you’ll generally want more ankle support than that. For summer hiking, waterproof trail running shoes are the best option out there. They offer a great balance of support and breathability.
In the winter, however, you’ll almost certainly want to wear hiking boots. Just like your mid-layer and shell, pay attention to the temperature ratings of your hiking boots when getting ready for a winter trek. Here, weight is also a factor. Some winter hiking boots can be quite heavy, so make sure you’re not going to be straining too hard to lift your winter footwear of choice!
Hiking clothes can seem complicated and confusing to the uninitiated, but it’s really quite simple once you understand what each layer (base layer, mid-layer, and outer layer) is for and know what to consider when picking out hiking gear.
One final tip to keep in mind is that more expensive is not always better. In particular, lots of hikers feel the need to get top-of-the-line gear that’s a bit overpowered for their actual needs. So you don’t need to buy a jacket rated for scaling Mt. Everest if you’re just doing a bit of backcountry snowshoeing!
Bonus tip: Check out this step-by-step video on how to properly wash Gore-Tex outerwear!