What to Wear When Hiking
Even when weather conditions seem favorable, hikers are still out in the elements the entire time they’re backpacking on a day hike. Hiking clothing is designed to support hikers through any kind of backcountry roughness but it’s up to hikers themselves to know what kind of clothing they need and how to pair various articles of hiking clothing with one another. It may seem like all hikers need is some kind of hiking shoes, long pants, and a rain jacket in case of sudden inclement weather.
Not only are these three items not sufficient to bear hikers through a hard hiking trail, but even these three important articles have design features that differentiate a high-quality pair of hiking shoes, long pants, or a rain jacket from shoddy hiking clothes that won’t stand the test of a real hiking trip.
Many outdoor apparel manufacturers try to design their products with a certain degree of style to them, but hikers should know first of all that a hiking outfit need not be hip or eye-catching. Form follows function with most of this equipment, which hikers will appreciate when they’re out on a hiking trip. It’s likely you know about most of the basic clothes, but design elements like moisture-wicking fabric, breathability, weatherproof and windproof construction, sun protection measured in UPF, ultralightweight, quick-drying ability, and functional aims like ankle support and blister protection all make a significant difference between a solid article of hiking clothes and an ineffective one.
Of course, every article should be as comfy as it can possibly be and some of the features and design perks have their own advantages and disadvantages, so what delineates great hiking clothes from not-so-good ones oftentimes depends on hiker’s personal preference.
Specialized pieces of equipment such as gaiters are popular with hiking aficionados but widely unknown among novice or infrequent hikers. Many people add a sweater to their ensemble when the warm weather goes away, but few have taken the time to properly understand how best to effectively use layering to retain body heat and protect against the elements while also maintaining breathability out on a hiking trail.
On a simple day hike, many hikers wear running shoes and a t-shirt, but for more complicated backpacking and hiking, a more thought-out hiking outfit is necessary. If you don’t want to get confused by industry-specific terms when you’re out shopping for your hiking wardrobe, you should brush up on your knowledge of synthetic materials like Gore-Tex and understand what its application is and whether you need it for your hiking trip or not.
Maybe all of these points give the impression that hiking clothes are really complicated and take forever to fully understand, but it’s really not so complicated as that. Read through this guide on what to wear hiking and you’ll be able to hit the backcountry in a hiking outfit that will keep you cool, dry, and out on the hiking trail no matter how the weather conditions may change.
Essential hiking clothing
Some hiking clothes are suited to specific applications in the backcountry and aren’t going to be needed on every single trail, but there are a few articles of hiking clothing that are critical for serious hikers and make a wise investment since they are useful on every hiking trip. One thing you should always wear hiking is a sturdy pair of hiking pants. For those to whom a pair of long pants seems less than ideal for hot weather, an absolute favorite piece of clothing for hikers are convertible hiking pants with a zip-off lower leg. Hikers love convertible hiking pants because they can have the option to protect their legs and hiking boots from precipitation and debris or to detach the zip-off leg bottoms to continue in hiking shorts.
Similarly, though you may have heard of hikers wearing sandals or flip-flops on the hiking trail, if you’re planning to go out on uneven terrain or to have to scramble over rocks, then you’ll want to have a pair of hiking boots that can provide ankle support to help avoid a twisted ankle. The right pair of hiking boots will be comfy but still hug a hiker’s ankle tightly. If you feel any slippage in the ankle or the toe box, you can use some lacing techniques to alter the fit on the hiking trail but you should invest in a better-fitting pair as soon as possible to avoid the risk of blisters.
If you’re planning on trail running more than hiking over uneven terrain, then you can likely get away with a pair of hiking shoes rather than heavier and often clunkier hiking boots. The same standard applies for hiking shoes, though: a comfy but snug fit will help avoid blisters. Both hiking boots and hiking shoes should be breathable and you shouldn’t feel any pressure points or hot spots while you’re walking in them.
Waterproof hiking boots and hiking pants
Hiking pants and hiking boots or hiking shoes all come in waterproof designs and it can make a huge difference out on the trail. Gore-Tex, a waterproof synthetic material, is created when polytetrafluoroethylene is heated up, stretched, and then cooled down again to form ePTFE, a high-porosity oleophobic substance that keeps water out but stays breathable for heat and sweat to escape. Hiking boots and hiking shoes with Gore-Tex waterproof construction will save hikers lots of strife at river crossings and in rainy or snowy conditions.
Hiking pants, including the convertible kind with zip-off lower legs, do not come with Gore-Tex because it isn’t a flexible-enough material. That being said, the best convertible hiking pants are made with a moisture-wicking fabric that makes them water repellent and keeps rain and other moisture out of your clothes and away from your skin by causing it to bead up on the exterior of the pants. Durable water-repellent (DWR) coatings also help keep water out.
Wicking is a design in the structure of hiking pants and other apparel that draws water like sweat off the skin and disperses it over the surface area of the clothing so that it can evaporate. Foreign moisture like rain or snow is kept out by wicking fabric. Hiking clothes with moisture-wicking fabric make an ideal first layer for their ability to draw sweat away from hikers’ bodies. Read on for more about layering hiking outfits.
Layering hiking clothes
Layering is a fairly simple concept but that doesn’t mean layering successfully comes easily to all hikers. When you layer your hiking clothes, there should be three basic layers: the base layer, the mid-layer, and the outer layer. The base layer is underwear such as briefs, bikini briefs, boxers, or boy shorts. Long underwear can also be worn. For the torso, a t-shirt or long-sleeve shirt or a sports bra often make up the base layer. The most important feature for the base layer is a moisture-wicking fabric.
It can be a synthetic material or it can be merino wool, which is naturally wicking and quick-drying material. For sports bras, the best option is a pullover sports bra without any metal clasps or hooks that can get caught underneath rucksack shoulder straps and cause discomfort on a hiking trip. If you do wear a t-shirt, make sure it isn’t made of cotton. Cotton soaks up water and will hold it right against your skin rather than allowing it to quick-dry as a moisture-wicking fabric does.
The layer above the base layer is called the mid-layer and the majority of your insulation will come from this layer. Even in warm weather, some insulation in the mid-layer is really important. Even though you may want a really breathable fabric for the mid-layer, consider that too much breathability will make your mid-layer the opposite of windproof and you’ll feel breezes cutting into you for the whole hiking trip if your mid-layer isn’t insulating enough. A down jacket makes a great mid-layer because down jackets are very easy to compress for packing but provide just the right amount of insulation for a hiking trip. If you do wear a down jacket, make sure you’re wearing a rain jacket for the outer layer because down jackets lose lots of their insulating ability if they get wet.
Finally, the outer layer. This is the layer where hikers should want a rain jacket that’s waterproof to protect against outside water infiltrating their hiking clothes. The rain jacket should also be windproof to prevent a chill cutting through the mid-layer and base layers. DWR treatments that make this outer layer water repellent are also handy, but a full-on waterproof outer layer is even better. The tradeoff is breathability. Completely waterproof outer layers will have little to no breathability while water-repellent outer layers vary from tons of breathability to a fair amount. If you’re going to be moving all day on a hiking trip, you’ll probably want some breathability to prevent getting really sweaty. Keep in mind that if water penetrates the outer layer and makes it to a down jacket or the base layer, you can get seriously cold and illness will likely follow.
Should I wear hiking socks and leggings?
This question plagues many hikers and the only good answer is that it’s going to come down to personal preference in the end. Some hikers who are trekking in really warm weather go out wearing spandex leggings instead of long pants. That can work on an easier hike on a flat surface, but if there will be lots of sticks or rocks that you’ll have to brush up against, leggings can be easily torn or punctured. Some hikers prefer to use leggings as a base layer.
Some hikers wear leggings as a base layer in addition to underwear and some forego underwear for leggings. That’s completely up to the specific weather conditions for your hike and your personal preference. Sometimes fabric can bunch up if you go overboard with layering, so be mindful of that. One useful application for leggings is to tuck them into your hiking shoes or hiking boots for additional protection against debris entering your hiking footwear.
Hiking socks are super important for blister protection. Keeping your feet dry on a hiking trip is one of the best ways to prevent blisters forming and hiking socks do a great job of that. Hiking socks come in polyester, Smartwool, and other synthetic materials that keep sweat off your feet and prevent hot spots that often develop into blisters. No matter what kind of weather conditions you’re hiking through, although it’s particularly important in wet conditions, you should always stop every few hours to make sure your feet have stayed dry.
For this reason, we always advise that hikers carry as many as 3 pairs of hiking socks in their daypack. If you’re on a thru-hike or a long-distance hike then this becomes even more important because blisters really like to develop when hikers expose their feet to rigorous hiking for days and days on end.
Sun protection and other additional features
In addition to a sun hat, many other articles of hiking clothes have built-in UV protection to keep your skin from getting sunburned or forming painful blisters. Normally just covering exposed skin up is sufficient enough to prevent standard sunburns, especially if you’re layering, but UV rays can still penetrate if they are particularly high on the day you go hiking. Additional features for outer layer rain jackets and certain other articles of hiking clothes include bug repellent treatment for the fabric. This can be helpful in boggy weather conditions with lots of flying insects that can bite and cause irritation, and just like with sun protection it also helps to wear long sleeves and long pants.
Waterproof gaiters are great for keeping outside water from entering your hiking shoes and hiking boots and keeping debris like small sticks and rocks from entering through the top of your footwear. They’re really easy to put on, often wrapping around the back of the leg and fastening around the front with velcro. Some gaiters have lace hooks for additional security between the gaiter and your hiking boots, as well as adjustable tightness at the top of the gaiter. For all the importance we put on hiking socks and keeping them dry earlier in this guide, gaiters can go a long way in keeping your feet dry on a hiking trip.
There are many considerations to think about when it comes to your hiking clothes. It’s much more important than planning a really sharp-looking hiking outfit because there are so many design features built into hiking clothing. In addition to maintaining proper insulation and breathability, construction materials like moisture-wicking fabric help to keep sweat off your skin and specialized equipment like gaiters help hikers keep their hiking boots and hiking socks bone dry for the duration of their hiking trip. That’s not to say hikers should skip a rest stop if they’re wearing gaiters because foot care is always important, but it can save lots of time on the trail if you are wearing additional protective gear.
Layering is a fairly simple system for maintaining insulation and keeping sharp winds and rain from infiltrating your hiking clothes but many hikers undermine otherwise successful layering by wearing a cotton t-shirt as a base layer or letting their mid-layer down jacket get wet. The outer layer should be as waterproof as you can handle and windproof as well. The more weatherproof your outer layer, the greater the odds that the efficacy of your base layer and mid-level will stay intact. In addition to wicking, polyester, merino wool, and Smartwool have all been integrated into the design of hiking socks, rain jackets, down jackets, and base layer underwear.
Waterproofing is important for hiking boots and all other external layers that will make direct contact with water at a river crossing or from rainfall. Gore-Tex will double the use-value of your hiking boots. Backpacking and hiking, even on a day hike, will be much simpler and much more enjoyable if you have the right hiking clothing with proper layering. Most articles of hiking clothes can be compressed and carried in a daypack if you don’t feel like wearing it at some moment. Hit the trail in as much style as you can muster but make sure you’re concentrating on the important features of your hiking clothes. You’ll be much better off with protection from the elements on your next hiking trip now that you know what to wear hiking.
Bonus tip: If you want more information on how to layer clothing in a hiking outfit, check out this video!