BACKPACKING BASICS

What to Wear Hiking: No Matter Where You Are

Best Hiking clothes
Russell McCarty
Written by Russell McCarty

What to wear hiking varies by geography and season. What you would wear hiking the North Carolina sections of the Appalachian Trail in June is different from what you would wear hiking Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in October.

But there’s a basic hiking wardrobe checklist that provides the fundamental pieces of clothing that are the same anywhere, anytime.

And if you follow its basic components – making adjustments for temperature and geography as necessary – it will serve you well in any part of the country and in any season of the year.

What to Wear Hiking Checklist

ItemFunctionBest MaterialsComments
UnderwearWicks moisture away from your skin. Keeps you drySynthetic fabrics, Merino wool, silkCan be light, medium or heavy weight, short-sleeve or long.
FleeceInsulation. Keeps body heat inPolyesterSlip on during rest stops when the weather is cool.
Down or synthetic jacketAdds another layer of insulation when the temperature drops. Captures warmth by trapping airDown or synthetic filled jacketSupplements fleece on longer breaks and when the temperature drops. A hoodie is a good option
Outer shellProtection from wind and rainThe best materials are both breathable and water resistantThis could be a lightweight wind jacket in warmer weather
Hiking pantsProtection against  weather and surroundingsBreathable, quick drying, moisture wicking. Nylon plus Spandex is a good combinationConsider convertible pants that turn into shorts. Look for plenty of convenient pockets
Rain suitProtects against rainGore-Tex, eVent, Pretex. Some manufacturers develop their own fabricsThis is somewhat optional depending on your the water resistance of your outer shell and your hiking pants
GlovesProvide an important level of protection in cold weatherFleece provides a good base layer gloveA pair of rain mitts add warmth
HatSun protection or warmthConsider two types of hats, one for sun protection and a simple wool or synthetic cap that you can sleep in.
Hiking boots or shoesSupport, comfort, tractionLeather, Leather / fabricSelect the footwear that suits the type of trail you are hiking
SocksComfort, protect feetWool and syntheticCushion, warmth. protection

Here’s more on each component of the Checklist and some recommendations on specific brands.

Underwear

Your underwear is in direct contact with your skin and is designed to move moisture away from your body. It should fit snugly. If it’s not touching your skin, it can’t wick away sweat.  It should be hyper breathable and quick drying.

Hiking Underwear

Short sleeve versions are available for warmer weather. This base layer of your hiking wardrobe is available in light, medium, and heavy weights. The most experienced outdoors people generally choose thinner underwear because it does a better job of wicking away sweat.

They rely on fleece to add a layer of heat preserving warmth. While we commonly think of “underwear” as a piece of clothing worn under something else, this is not necessarily the case. This component of your hiking wardrobe can be worn alone in mild or cool conditions.

Three materials are used in this base layer of your hiking wardrobe:

  • Synthetic fabrics
  • Merino wool and
  • Silk

Synthetic Fabrics Underwear

Synthetic Fabrics are usually made using polyester mixed with some other material like polypropylene. They are relatively inexpensive and do the best job of wicking away sweat from your body so it can evaporate. The downside is that they can start smelling bad quickly.

Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Crew

Recommended synthetic fabric underwear:

  • Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Crew. This is Patagonia’s lightest-weight, fastest drying and best wicking base layer
  • Under Armour Base 2.0 Crew. The fabric traps heat in tiny pockets. Wicks moisture efficiently. Quick drying
  • Helly Hansen Men’s Dry Stripe Base Layer Crew. Polypropylene. Features Lifa stay Dry Technology. More than one user has commented on the durability of the Helly Hansen product. One said:
    • I have honestly never found a base layer that performs better. They are tough, close fitting (which is good for wicking) and have a good long cut on the sleeves and body. One of my Helly’s is over 10 years old and still as good as the day I bought it. Highly recommended.

Merino Wool Underwear

For underwear, traditional wool has largely been replaced by fine-fibered merino wool. Produced by the Merino sheep, this wool is very soft and comfortable against the skin. Unlike synthetic materials wool relies more on moisture absorption than wicking.

Icebreaker Oasis

A base layer of merino wool is capable of holding 30 percent of its own weight in water absorption before the wearer is able to feel it on the skin. Even while saturated with sweat, wool’s unique fiber construction allows the material to remain breathable, providing temperature regulation and odor resistance.

Wool wears more easily than synthetics so it has some disadvantages when it comes to outdoor sports like rock climbing, but for activities like hiking, it’s ideal.

Recommended Merino Wool Underwear:

Silk Underwear

Silk provides soft, luxurious underwear with no bulk. It works better when dressing for activities that are less sweat producing. Silk moves moisture more slowly than synthetics and is therefore recommended for moderate to cool-weather activities

Recommended Silk Underwear:

The wife of a satisfied wearer of Terramar Men’s Thermasilk Crew Neck Top (and bottoms) commented: “This is the only type of thermal my hubby likes to wear. My guy wears these skiing under his regular shirt, or even just for daily wear on really cold days. He wears the silk pants under his ski pants. They wick the moisture and hold the warm layer of air next to his skin without feeling like anything binding or bulky.”

TIP: Whether you choose synthetic, wool or silk, select underwear that has a zip neck. This enables you to cool off more rapidly when you stop for a break and may eliminate the need to shed another layer of clothing.

TIP: Avoid cotton for sweat producing activities and save it for lounging around camp. Cotton doesn’t wick away moisture. It’s a poor insulator and retains moisture, something that can leave you chilled and even lead to hypothermia.

Fleece

Your fleece is one of the most valuable components of your hiking wardrobe. On colder days, you can wear it while hiking. Even if you don’t need it during the day, it feels good to pull on at night.

Patagonia R1

A quality fleece is lightweight and breathable and insulates even when it’s wet. It dries fast and has a higher warmth-to-weight than wool. The main drawbacks are wind permeability and bulk.

Recommended Fleece:

Weather Variations:

Fleece tops are available in 3 weights:

  • Lightweight for aerobic or mild climates
  • Midweight for moderate activity or climates
  • Expedition-weight for low activity or cold climates

Down Jacket

A down jacket, like the Patagonia Down Sweater, works in combination with your fleece. Some hikers take an either or approach.

Patagonia Down Sweater Hoodie

That is, they’ll pack either a fleece or a down jacket. But, in fact, these two insulating garments work best together with the jacket going on over the fleece when the temperature drops.

Goose down is best for cold and dry conditions. It has good warmth to weight ratio and is very compressible. Down’s main drawback is that it must be kept dry to maintain its insulating ability.

Recommended Down and Synthetic Jackets:

Innovative products to look for: Water resistant down. A new innovation that eliminates down’s main drawback – that it loses its insulating ability when wet – by giving each feather a coating that allows it to resist moisture.

Outer Shell

Outer shells range from mountaineering jackets to basic windproof jackets. Most allow some perspiration to escape. Most are treated with some water repellent finish to make water bead up and roll off the fabric.

Arc’teryx Alpha FL

The outer shell protects you from the cold and water. By contrast with your fleece and down or synthetic jacket, the outer shell keeps weather out rather than keeping body heat in.

Five Top Waterproof, Breathable Outer Shell Jackets Rated by Outdoor Gear Lab

JacketRepresentative User Comments
Arc’teryx Alpha FLExpensive but worth it. Very light and packable for hiking, skiing or just for a backup jacket/raincoat when you aren’t sure what the weather will do.
Westcomb Shift LTThe Polartec shell really conveys the vapor to the outside when sweating and rain

runs right off. Used the jacket for snowshoe hikes as outer layer were sweating a lot and I stayed

dry. Would buy it again.

Outdoor Research AxiomExcellent product. Breathes well, keeps rain and wind out and allows great arm movement.
Arc’teryx Beta AR JacketGreat materials and construction make me confident this jacket will last me a long time.
Arc’teryx Theta ARArcteryx quality – doesn’t get any better. Jacket is expensive but if you need it, it’s worth every penny. Theta is better length for me than the Beta. At 6’2″ I liked the Beta for everyday but wanted longer when doing anything active. Love the Theta.

Four additional categories of outer shells are worth mentioning. These are not as versatile (or as expensive) as the waterproof / breathable shells but may serve the same function as the high end outer shells depending on the weather conditions.

  • Water resistant breathable shells. Usually made of tightly woven fabrics to block wind and rain
  • Soft shells Many offer both shell protection and insulation
  • Waterproof / non-breathable shells Rainy days with light activity
  • Insulated shells Come with a layer of insulation included

Hiking Pants

A high-quality pair of pants is a valuable addition to your hiking wardrobe. They provide comfort, freedom of movement, and protection against weather and the environment – rocks, briars and shrubs.

North Face Paramount Peak II Convertible

Both men and women have a number of variables to evaluate when choosing among hiking pants. The most obvious among these is whether or not to hike in convertible pants. On many hiking pants a zipper just above the knee allows you to convert the pants into shorts.

But there are a number of other variables as well. While other features may not be as obvious as the zipper feature, they are not necessarily less important.

Other variables include:

  • The option to roll the cuffs up and tie or button them just above the calf to turn the pants into capris;
  • Articulated knees and gusseted crotches;
  • Number of pockets
  • Drying speed
  • Spandex added to provide ease of movement and comfortable fit
  • Integrated belt, drawstring or belt loops that help adjust the fit as the pants become looser as a result of extended hiking
  • Fabric weight and breathability
  • Ability to repel water. Do the pants have a durable water repellent (DWR) coating?
  • Select light colored pants for hiking in the sun or warm climates; select dark colors for colder seasons or higher altitudes
  • Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating? This measures the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin through the fabric

Recommended hiking pants for men:

Recommended Hiking Pants for Women:

Rain Jacket And Pants

Select a rain jacket and pants that are both waterproof and breathable. Pick gear that offers generous venting in the form of torso zippers and two-way zippers in front.

Hiking Rain Jacket And Pants

Evaluate whether or not to pack rain gear based on the water resistance of your outer shell and hiking pants.

Gloves

Fleece provides a good base layer glove:

A pair of rain mitts adds warmth:

Hats

Consider two types of hats:

  • A wide-brimmed hat or a billed cap with a sun cape attached will protect you from the sun.
  • A simple wool or synthetic cap will provide head warmth for hiking on cold days and you can sleep in it.

Hiking Boots And Shoes

There is no question that the most important element of clothing for hiking is your boots. With the right pair of boots on your feet hiking, is a pleasure. The wrong pair and it’s a painful experience every time your foot touches the ground. Disregard looks and flashy features.

Vasque St. Elias GTX

What you want is comfort, durability, stability, weight, warmth and water resistance. Look for a snug fit at the heel and wiggling room for your toes. Buy the lightest boots that fit the style of hiking you’re doing.

Five Types of Boots and the Trails They’re Suited For

Type of BootCharacteristicsType of Hiking / Trail
TrailLow-cut or mid-cut. Stiffer soles, more stability and better traction than typical running or walking shoesYour pack is light and the trail is well kept
Rough TrailAnkle-high made from fabric /  leather or split grain leatherLight backpacking, aggressive day hiking
Off-trailFull grain leather, above ankle supportRough, infrequently hiked trail
MountaineeringFull-grain leather uppers, minimal seams, excellent traction, sometimes a little insulationHeavy pack on steep terrain
Technical ScramblingLow-cut and mid height hybrids. Close fit, sticky rubber solesLight hiking and scrambling

Three of the best hiking boots for men according to Outdoor Gear Lab:

Three top hiking boots for Women according to Outdoor Gear Lab:

Socks

Your hiking socks should:

  • Cushion your feet inside your hiking boots
  • Wick away moisture from your feet
  • Keep your feet warm when hiking in winter
  • Reduce friction that can cause blisters

Five good options for your hiking socks are:

TIP: Avoid cotton socks. Cotton absorbs sweat, dries slowly and can lead to blisters.

Additional Items Of Clothing to Enhance Your Hiking Experience

Here’s a short list of additional pieces of clothing you may wish to pack if you’re hiking for more than one day:

  • One long-sleeve shirt
  • Two T-shirts
  • Bring a pair of light running shorts for wearing around camp, sleeping or wearing while you wash your hiking pants
  • Sleeping clothes. A set of sleeping clothes can improve your quality of sleep. Keep them in a small dry bag and bring them out only after bedding down for the night

Layering

Layering is a tried and true method of managing what you wear in the outdoors to maximize your personal comfort.

Hiking Layering

There are three basic layers that correspond to the first four items in the What to Wear Hiking Checklist, above:

  • Base Layer: Wicks away sweat from your body. This is your synthetic, wool or silk thermal underwear
  • Mid Layer: Holds in heat. This is the combination of fleece and down jacket on the checklist
  • Outer shell: Keeps out wind and rain

The guiding principle of layering is that you are always adding and removing layers to keep your body temperature even.

Summing it Up

What you wear hiking is as much a part of the experience as the trail itself.

Use the What to Wear Hiking Checklist and follow basic layering principles, and the pleasures of what you wear hiking will be indistinguishable from actually hiking and as much a part of your good memories as the scenery.

What layers do you think are most important? How do you stay warm while you’re hiking?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Russell McCarty
Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.

  • Christian Miller

    I’m going to spend the spring doing a lot of hiking, so I search for new hiking boots. I need comfortable and beautiful boots. I spent two days searching for them and I think I found what I need in this article. I will buy Vasque St. Elias GTX boots.

  • Russell McCarty

    Glad you found them! I hope you have a wonderful experience using them since Spring is so nearby. I’m looking for some new hiking boots myself and looking forward to hiking and camping with my buddies soon. It’s great to buy from trusted brands since these will be for the long haul.

  • Karen Wood

    Hi Russell! I very often go camping so I have a lot of clothes for this. One year ago I bought Terramar Women’s Thermasilk Scoop-Neck top and Columbia Saturday Trail Stretch pants. I like that it is very light and comfortable clothes. I am so happy with this purchase!

  • Russell McCarty

    Thanks for you input and yes, you’ve done great by choosing the Terramar Women’s Thermasilk Scoop-Neck top. The material feels comfortable since it naturally stretches. It is also hardy and tough.

0
0
Total
0
Shares