Hiking Clothes: What to Wear Hiking

Hiking Clothes: What to Wear Hiking

a hiker putting on a ball cap

You might hear hikers say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. This article will offer some dos and don’ts for your hiking attire.

What to Wear Hiking (the Quick-and-Dirty List):

  • No denim jeans or “I love to hike” 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. That moisture management ability means those materials work well for all the rest of your clothing as well.
  • Comfortable yet sturdy pants: Trails have twists and turns, so you need to move freely. Branches and boulders, though, can shred thin, stretchy tights or yoga pants.
  • A warm jacket: Polyester fleece works great for this, though a puffy jacket (with a polyester fill or water-resistant down inside), is smart for colder conditions.
  • 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. In seriously soggy weather, pack rain pants, too.
  • A brimmed hat: Keeps your head dry and protected from the sun. The brim helps keep rain and sun out of your eyes. (Bring some sunglasses, too.)
  • Sturdy shoes: You don’t have to have leather boots, but your footwear should provide support, protection from rocks and roots, and traction on wet and dry surfaces.

Clothing Strategies

a hiker zipping up his various layers

If you’re ready to think about your hiking outfit more holistically, then you can shop with the following strategies in mind:

  • 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. For more details, read Layering Basics.
  • Anticipate conditions: Your health and protection is utterly dependent on what you packed, and your climate-controlled exit vehicle is many miles away. Forecasts can be off, so be ready for conditions to turn cooler, wetter, snowier or hotter than predicted.
  • Focus on function, not fashion: No one looks good when they feel miserable.
  • Think about comfort, durability weight and price: Gear buying involves tradeoffs, so decide both your preferences and your budget before you shop. Ultralight gear can be a great choice, but it will also lighten your wallet.
  • Get good hiking boots or trail shoes: One of the most important things you’ll wear on the trail, shoes are your first big decision. For advice on shopping for them, read our Hiking Boots: How to Choose article.

Key Fabric Properties

detail of a pair of shorts with sun protection and quick-drying features

Regardless of what hiking clothing is made of or looks like, you need different layers to have different 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. That lets you break a sweat without feeling clammy or chilled.

Insulating: Important in your mid layer, this ability is key to your staying 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. Note that jackets that are water and wind “resistant” do not totally block rain and wind, so they offer only moderate weather protection. And jackets that are waterproof might not also state they’re windproof, though they will be.

Breathable: Important in all your layers, this helps your wicking layer dry out more quickly. 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 offer this coverage combo, though even the most sophisticated technologies prioritize blocking wind and rain. So they struggle with breathability when humidity and exertion levels are high. Coated nonbreathable shells are a fraction of the price, but can feel like you’re wearing a trash bag in a sauna.

Sun protection. Clothing that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating will help protect skin against the sun’s damaging UV rays. Read Sun Protection (UPF) Clothing: How to Choose to learn why this is important for any hiker and any environment.

Basic Fabric Choices

Here’s a primer on some popular fabric options for outdoor apparel:

Wool: Old-school woollies might have been itchy, but today’s wool clothing 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: More affordable than merino wool, these synthetics excel at wicking sweat and drying fast, and many clothing choices incorporate recycled materials. One downside of synthetics is a tendency to smell funky, which is why some garments have an antimicrobial treatment to neutralize odor-causing bacteria. Most “techie” trademarked fabrics are some form of polyester or nylon.

Fleece: Fleece jackets are actually made out of polyester, though their warmth is as much a function of their soft, thick fibers as it is the material’s chemical properties.

Polyester/nylon jackets: In their “hard shell” form (think rain jacket or the outer layer of a puffy jacket), these synthetics, often in combination with special coatings or laminates, protect you from rain and wind.

Silk: Because of its modest wicking ability, silk isn’t ideal for a strenuous hike. Treated silk performs better because it’s been chemically modified to enhance wicking. Silk’s soft, luxurious feel is nice, but it’s not particularly rugged nor odor resistant.

Cotton: Notoriously inefficient at wicking and drying, cotton excels at soaking up sweat, staying wet and chilling you. In a sweltering heat, you could choose to wear it if you don’t mind feeling clammy and sticky. But when conditions turn cool, cotton next to your skin is a recipe for hypothermia, which is why longtime hikers say “cotton kills.”

Base Layer: Undergarment Options

undergarments for hiking

On a cool hike, a little bit of warmth in the form of long underwear might be in order, and a lot of wicking ability is always important in your next-to-skin layer.

Underwear: Whether it’s boxers, briefs, boy shorts, bikini briefs or something else, it’s fine to go with your personal preference here. Cotton is still a no-no, though, and you want something with a low profile and supportive fit. You also want your underwear to be non-chafing, which is why seamless designs are a good option for hiking.

Bra: Your best bet is a pullover sports bra without clasps—metal or plastic clasp parts can dig into your skin if they end up under your pack straps.

Tank top/camisole: A versatile piece, this lightweight top can add core warmth on cool days or work as a lighter alternative to a T-shirt on warm ones.

Base layer top and bottoms (long underwear): Available in lightweight, midweight and heavyweight fabrics: 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 can be worn under shorts for sun protection or warmth. Wear them under hiking pants, and perhaps rain pants, when conditions get stormy. Read Underwear (Base Layer): How to Choose for more details.

Should you wear undies under long underwear? There’s no right or wrong answer, so do whatever is most comfortable. Undies underneath are not needed and fabrics can bunch up uncomfortably, but some people like the added support and warmth.

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Head-to-Toe Clothing Options

a hiker adjusting their convertible hiking pants

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. Below is a rundown on those clothing 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. A wide brim can also be a plus to keep rain out of your eyes if a soggy forecast suggests bringing a waterproof hat. For cool conditions, pack along a wool or synthetic cap to insulate your head.

Shirts: A wicking short-sleeve T-shirt is fine in warm weather, and a wicking long-sleeve top is fine for cool conditions. For a sun-drenched day, wear a long-sleeve UPF-rated shirt (many have a flip-up collar for neck protection).

Shorts, pants and convertible (zip-off) pants: Hikers love zip-off pants because they don’t have to choose between pants 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.

Yoga pants and tights? Great for flexibility, but not so much for encounters with sandstone or bushes.

Hiking skirt, dress or skort: Functional touches include stretchy yet durable fabrics and built-in liners (in skorts).

Gloves and socks: Go thicker or thinner based 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. Insulated and waterproof gloves are best for wintry conditions, 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. Read How to Choose and Use Gaiters for more details.

Mid Layer: Fleece and Puffy Jackets

a hiker wearing a puffy jacket

This is the layer that provides your primary warmth. 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. Adjust as needed for your specific trip.

Fleece jacket: On colder days, you can wear it while hiking. On a cool day wait until a rest break to slip it on. Fleece comes in 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. On most hikes, though, long underwear bottoms offer all the added leg warmth you might need.

Puffy insulated jacket or vest: If conditions will be mild, a fleece jacket is sufficient. If things could get cold, then also pack a puffy. 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 can also bring a jacket filled with water-resistant down or a hybrid that combines a synthetic fill with water-resistant down. For more details, see read How to Choose Insulated Outerwear.

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Shop Insulated Jackets

Outer Layer: Rain Jackets and Pants

a hiker wearing a rain jacket and gloves, with beads of water repelling off

Even a cloudless blue sky in the morning can suddenly give way to a fast-moving rain squall. Keeping dry is key to avoiding hypothermia, so pack a rain jacket and pants that offer waterproof/breathable protection. For a deep dive on the subject, read Rainwear: How to Choose.

Note, too, that on dry, blustery days you can also wear hard-shell outerwear as protection from windchill.

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Environmental Considerations

a hiker with gaiters on walking along a wet trail on a rainy day

Certain trails present unique challenges. Do some research to see if locals have any special clothing recommendations for the area you’re visiting. Examples might include:  

Bug-protective clothing: If you’ll be hiking through brushy woodlands, a deep, dark forest or the Everglades when local populations of ticks, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, black flies or other pests might be on the rise, consider long sleeves, long pants, clothes with built-in insect repellent and/or bug-net clothing.

Tall leather hiking boots: Though it might seem counter-intuitive to wear these in the desert, they offer added protection from snakes.

Waterproof gaiters: A plus if your trail will be crossing a lot of snowfields. When snow gets soft in the afternoon sun, you might be doing a lot of “post holing.” Waterproof boots are also a plus here.

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