What to Wear Hiking: No Matter Where You Are

What to wear hiking
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

Item Function Best Materials Comments
Underwear Wicks moisture away from your skin. Keeps you dry Synthetic fabrics, Merino wool, silk Can be light, medium or heavy weight, short-sleeve or long.
Fleece Insulation. Keeps body heat in Polyester Slip on during rest stops when the weather is cool.
Down or synthetic jacket Adds another layer of insulation when the temperature drops. Captures warmth by trapping air Down or synthetic filled jacket Supplements fleece on longer breaks and when the temperature drops. A hoodie is a good option
Outer shell Protection from wind and rain The best materials are both breathable and water resistant This could be a lightweight wind jacket in warmer weather
Hiking pants Protection against  weather and surroundings Breathable, quick drying, moisture wicking. Nylon plus Spandex is a good combination Consider convertible pants that turn into shorts. Look for plenty of convenient pockets
Rain suit Protects against rain Gore-Tex, eVent, Pretex. Some manufacturers develop their own fabrics This is somewhat optional depending on your the water resistance of your outer shell and your hiking pants
Gloves Provide an important level of protection in cold weather Fleece provides a good base layer glove A pair of rain mitts add warmth
Hat Sun protection or warmth Consider two types of hats, one for sun protection and a simple wool or synthetic cap that you can sleep in.
Hiking boots or shoes Support, comfort, traction Leather, Leather / fabric Select the footwear that suits the type of trail you are hiking
Socks Comfort, protect feet Wool and synthetic Cushion, warmth. protection

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


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.

Hiker in the forest

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.

Synthetic Fabrics Underwear

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.

Merino Wool Underwear

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.” For more tips on how to choose the best thermal underwear, read our popular post on this topic.

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.

For the best hiking underwear you can use, see our piece on this for more information.


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.

Fleece jacket

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.

Down jacket

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. Check out our review of the top insulated jacket you can use for everyday.

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.

Outer Shell for Hiking wear

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

Jacket Representative User Comments
Arc’teryx Alpha FL Expensive 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 LT The 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 Axiom Excellent product. Breathes well, keeps rain and wind out and allows great arm movement.
Arc’teryx Beta AR Jacket Great materials and construction make me confident this jacket will last me a long time.
Arc’teryx Theta AR Arcteryx 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.

Hiking Pants

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. For the best ski pants for men, see our reviews of the top ones for your needs.

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.

Rain Jacket And Pants

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


Fleece provides a good base layer glove:

A pair of rain mitts adds warmth:


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.

For the best winter hiking pants, see our must-read article to give you more options.

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.

Hiking Boots And Shoes

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 Boot Characteristics Type of Hiking / Trail
Trail Low-cut or mid-cut. Stiffer soles, more stability and better traction than typical running or walking shoes Your pack is light and the trail is well kept
Rough Trail Ankle-high made from fabric /  leather or split grain leather Light backpacking, aggressive day hiking
Off-trail Full grain leather, above ankle support Rough, infrequently hiked trail
Mountaineering Full-grain leather uppers, minimal seams, excellent traction, sometimes a little insulation Heavy pack on steep terrain
Technical Scrambling Low-cut and mid height hybrids. Close fit, sticky rubber soles Light 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:


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

Jacket 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?


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.