The success, or failure, of a hiking trip, can all come down to the choices we make when buying or choosing our gear, and in particular our clothing.
These days, we have countless clothing options at our disposal. So many that beginners 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, we’ve put together a guide to assist you in choosing hiking attire for all seasons and conditions.
In this article, we’ll take you through the A-to-Z of suitable and practical hiking apparel for your future hikes. We’ll start with a look at a few simple pre-hike and pre-purchase observations. After that, we’ll delve into the finer details of exactly what to wear hiking in different weather conditions.
At a Glance: Key Takeaways
- Layer Up – The layering system is key to dressing for success
- Dress for the Weather, Not the Season – To avoid any unwelcome surprises
- Bring Backup – Pack extra layers and accessories to allow yourself a ‘buffer’
- Breathability Is Key – If even one garment in your get up lacks breathability, your whole layering system will fail
- Can the Cotton – Cotton kills!
- F**k Fashion – Function wins every time (and it’s very hard to look cool when you’re shivering with hypothermia, vomiting from sunstroke, or squeezing rainwater from your very trendy but otherwise inappropriate threads)
Table of Contents
- Hiking Clothes: Cheat Sheet
- Clothes for Hiking: 5 Golden Rules
- Which Clothing Fabric is Best for Hiking?
- Hiking Wear: Fabric Properties & Qualities 101
- What to Wear Hiking: Putting Together the Perfect Outfit
- Backcountry Couture: Final Thoughts
Hiking Clothes: Cheat Sheet
If you are simply looking for a quick rundown of what to wear when hiking then the quick cheat sheet we have put together below is just for you! The following recommendations are based on our own experience and personal preferences so we advise you to take them as a general guide on what to wear for a hike, rather than as hard and fast rules.
The four scenarios below are fairly generic and represent ‘baseline’ recommendations for different seasons. Because conditions can vary vastly from place to place, we advise reading through to the end of this article to ensure you develop a clothing system that works for both you and your environment.
Clothes for Hiking: 5 Golden Rules
1. Layer Up Your Clothes For Hiking
If there were ten holy commandments for hiking, 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 hiking outfits.
The layering system works, as the name suggests, by using multiple strata of thinner, breathable clothing items instead of only one or two bulkier items. This creates air pockets between each layer and allows interior moisture (sweat) to evaporate as it passes outward through the layers.
This system also offers more versatility and convenience in changeable weather. Why? Because it allows you to take gear off and put it on with the minimum of fuss as temperatures rise and fall throughout the day.
2. Anticipate Weather And Trail Conditions
Before preparing your pack and getting dressed, the first step in determining what to wear on your next hiking adventure is to study weather forecasts. You should allow a buffer for temperature variations and any forecaster whoopsies, particularly if your hike is taking you farther 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, bugs, trail aspect (in sun or shade), and the duration of your hike.
These variables may require you to take along a few extras. For example (respectively): gaiters or hiking boots instead of shoes, quick-drying garments, facial bug nets, warmer individual layers, and extra items (particularly if on a multi-day excursion).
3. Embrace Your Hiking Outfit Fugly
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.
4. Treat Your Feet To Good Hiking Boots Or Hiking Shoes
Whatever your budget, be sure to pick a pair of boots or shoes that are fit for the task.
Ill-fitting or poorly made boots or trail shoes can be a source of great pain or discomfort. They can also lead to injury by causing you to walk with an unnatural gait, or skip on important features such as extra ankle support, grippy soles, adequate cushioning, waterproofing, protective toe rand, and/or ample bridge support.
Pro-Tip: Take the Load Off
If you plan to fit in some overnight stops on your next trip, then consider taking a pair of lightweight, breathable camp shoes with you. There are a multitude of reasons why investing in a pair is a great idea. The most important? They’ll let your feet breathe and keep them in good shape for the days ahead.
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 for summer hiking. In the end, it comes down to the type of terrain you’ll be covering, your walking style, and personal preference.
The main advantage of a hiking shoe is weight savings, with some sources claiming that every pound on our feet equates to having five on your back. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that if you wear hiking sandals or shoes, you’ll have a lot less protection and support than when wearing boots.
Want to avoid going through a long (and costly) process of trial and error before finding the best hiking shoes or boots for you? If so, 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 a cold winter hike scaling the Eiger’s north face or traversing the Himalaya in winter.
5. Hiking Clothes In Bright Colors
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 you get injured, lost, or are otherwise in need of assistance, colorful threads will make you far more easily discoverable than more natural tones.
Which Clothing Fabric is Best for Hiking?
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, feels soft against the skin, and offers an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio, making it a good option as a midlayer. The only drawback to fleece garments is their lack of wind resistance.
Wool has undergone something of a revival in recent years, mainly thanks to brands such as Icebreaker and Smartwool, who are largely responsible for the stratospheric rise of merino wool in the world of outdoor apparel.
Modern wool-made hiking garments are far more high-performing than those of yore. They 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 base layers, 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.
These synthetic fabric types feature in everything from shoes and gaiters to baselayers, shirts with long sleeves, hiking 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).
Polyester/nylon baselayers, hiking shirts, and midlayers aren’t always as comfortable or odor-resistant as, for example, merino wool or bamboo products. However, they are usually a cheaper option and dry much quicker.
Most shell layers also use polyester or nylon (or both) with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) finish to provide protection from the elements.
Down is the perfect insulator in dry, cold conditions. Down jackets 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. In more humid conditions, however, synthetic fabrics are a better option – when wet, down loses most of its insulating capacity and can take a small age to dry out.
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 clothing 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. To be avoided at all costs.
Hiking Wear: Fabric Properties & Qualities 101
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 “moisture-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. First, so you don’t feel like the resident of an otter’s pocket while working up a sweat. Secondly, so 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!). Before buying, be sure to read a few user reviews or pick the brains of a knowledgeable store assistant.
To stay warm, you need to create a buffer between yourself and the ambient air and elements and trap in some of the warm air produced by your body temperature. This is the job of the insulating layer, which usually takes the form of an insulated jacket.
A good insulating layer may take many forms. Wool, fleece, down, or synthetic down substitutes are the most common options. All of these do one thing well: namely, keep in the heat produced by your body.
Generally speaking, the thicker the clothing layer, the more insulation it will provide. However, be wary of sacrificing breathability if opting for especially heavy midlayers, particularly those using synthetic materials inside a wind or water-resistant shell fabric.
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 layer – whether pants or jacket – is that nearly all garments will fall into either the “water-resistant” or “waterproof” category. The distinction is an important one. While the latter is made to keep you completely dry, the former is designed to shed only moderate precipitation, such as in a light drizzle or a short-lived shower.
A second point of note is that any entirely waterproof garment will also be windproof. This is 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’ or ‘water column’ 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 rain jacket with a 1,500 mm rating will keep you dry if caught in a spot of drizzle. A waterproof jacket or pants boasting a 20,000 mm rating, on the other hand, will do the job even when things take a turn for the biblical and your neighbors start building arks.
Perhaps the most important feature on our list, “breathability” refers to a garment’s ability to transfer moisture from inside to out, rather than trapping it within any given layer.
This is particularly important in the performance of your base layer. It allows the moisture to wick through to the outside of the base layer 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 fulfill their function. This can result in an accumulation of moisture trapped inside your layers and, at worst, can create 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 rain jacket or pants has long been considered the Holy Grail of outdoor attire. 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 rain pants 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.
Affordable options usually feature a compromise on either of these two above features, with the most breathable fabrics being less waterproof and the most waterproof being less breathable.
At the economy end of the scale, there are coated non-breathable shells. These 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. Our favorite is the Marmot Minimalist, which breathes well, boasts a healthy 28,000mm waterproof rating, and also won’t break the bank.
As mentioned above, a hardshell waterproof outer layer will also tick the windproofing box and can be worn on top of even the lightest base layers to ward off the windchill.
If conditions are dry but cool enough to demand some degree of insulation, midlayer tops such as the Rab Borealis are a good bet. This features a tight enough weave to resist the worst of the wind’s efforts while providing more insulation than thinner outer shells.
Stretch and Mobility
When out hiking, mobility is a big deal. Clothing should be sufficiently loose-fitting to ensure you can move freely, avoid chafing, and allow for some airflow between layers. It also helps comfort levels if the fabric contains an element of stretch and/or added material in key areas.
Look for features like a stretch waistband, gusseted crotch, softshell inserts on hardshells, or fabric containing some percentage of lycra, elastane, or similarly stretchy materials. These 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.
What to Wear Hiking: Putting Together the Perfect Outfit
The following overview is designed to provide a nuts-and-bolts all-season hiking clothing guide, working on the premise that you only need to add or subtract layers according to the temperatures you are exposed to.
Whatever the weather, the fundamentals of the layering system up top remain applicable.
We recommend starting with a breathable, high-wicking baselayer (like the Smartwool Merino 150 t-shirt), varying the weight or thickness depending on temperatures. If you’re out in cool conditions, this can be supplemented with a thicker fleece, down jacket, or softshell midlayer. In bad weather, top these off with a wind and rain shell.
Hiking Shorts & Pants
In very hot temperatures, you can either opt for a pair of lightweight hiking pants such as the Outdoor Research Ferrosi, or a pair of hiking 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 convertible pants with zip-off bottoms and ankle zips that allow you to remove the lower sections without taking off your boots. Our favorites are the Columbia Silver Ridge zip-off pants.
Hiking leggings and yoga pants are also becoming an increasingly common sight on the trails, mainly because they offer great mobility, breathability, and comfort.
Pro-Tip: Remember to Buy a Bit Baggy
When buying outer layers, be sure to leave room for the layers you’ll have underneath.
In cold weather, a good idea is to start with a pair of softshell pants with some degree of wind resistance. Alternatively, wear baselayer pants or hiking leggings below your standard hiking 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.
In muddy, boggy, or snow-covered terrain a pair of hiking 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 or trail runners will do the job. These could save you a bundle of cash and offer a much more nimble, and often more comfortable alternative. We love the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 for its cushioning, stability, and durability.
Here are a few more hiking essentials to consider taking along on your hikes:
Wide-brimmed hat — Spending hours on the trail under even a moderate sun can make you vulnerable to heatstroke, sunstroke, and of course, burning. As such, choose the best hiking hat you can find – this 50-100g addition is well worth its inclusion in any backpack on sunny days.
Sunglasses — An optional extra that becomes all but imperative when in snow-covered terrain, where snow blindness and headaches become a real possibility for unprotected peepers. For sunglasses that give your eyes complete protection, we’d recommend a pair featuring protective side shields, such as the Julbo Vermont, which also happen to look, quite frankly, awesome.
Gloves — Conditions will dictate just how serious a pair of gloves you will need, but a general rule is that if it’s cold enough to have one pair, it’s cold enough to have two. Insulated and waterproof gloves are recommended for cold-weather hiking.
A second liner glove can serve as an emergency backup and prove very useful for limiting exposure when performing more delicate tasks such as taking pictures, tying laces, putting up your tent, or taking readings from a map and compass.
Gaiters — A very handy addition to help keep your feet dry when hiking in boggy, wet terrain. They also help to keep small stones, twigs, snow, and bugs out of your boots.
Buffs — This very lightweight, versatile little piece of gear is a worthy addition to keep your head warm. It can be used as a hat, neck protection or warmer, and a substitute bandana to provide sun protection in warm weather.
Hiking socks — Again, avoiding cotton is essential. Breathable merino wool socks such as Darn Tough’s Micro Crew Hiker Cushion Socks or Danish Endurance Crew are the best way to avoid soggy soles, blisters, and, of course, stinky feet.
Underwear — Perhaps more than any other body part, your intimates need to breathe and shed excess moisture. Merino wool and quick-drying “tech” undies such as the Arc’teryx Phase SL are high-wicking and far more breathable than standard cotton items. For females, check out our guide to the best hiking underwear for women.
For more information on hiking clothing be sure to check out our other articles here.
Backcountry Couture: Final Thoughts
One of the many blessings hiking offers its followers is the absence of those bothersome formalities most of us are forced to follow 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.
However, this freedom from societal norms doesn’t mean taking a relaxed approach is the best way to go! On your outdoor adventures, 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 off to pay her a visit?
As we’ve demonstrated above, this isn’t always cut and dried or black and white but is dependent on many variables and personal preferences. However, by following a few basic rules and tweaking these to suit conditions, you’ll have the perfect hiking outfit for every occasion.
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