The most common question we get is what to wear hiking. Of course, you don’t need a new wardrobe to go hiking and if you’re on a short and simple walk. We suggest you head out in whatever is comfortable but don’t forget a hiking jacket (location dependent), phone, and some water. However, as your hikes lengthen and you delve deeper into the wild, you’ll need some solid fundamentals.
It’s a good idea to have a smart strategy regarding clothes. Layers are crucial for temperature management and aid in protection from the elements. Cold weather, rain, sunburn, or bugs are all certain to ruin any unprepared hiker’s day. Good quality clothes can be the difference between a good day and a bad one.
In the last few years of hikes around the world, we’ve seen plenty of extreme weather. It’s been a wide range of climates from Switzerland to Utah and Uganda to the Canadian Rockies and everywhere in between. We spend roughly half our year out on the trail.
Tips For What to Wear Hiking
Make Your Plans
When it comes down to what to wear hiking, you don’t need everything on this hiking attire list as it all depends on where you’re trekking, the season, your personal preference, and the route aspects. Walking through the woods to a waterfall in the summer is not the same as summiting a mountain in the winter. However, any season does share some basic principles on what you should wear hiking.
The most basic principle of what to wear hiking is layering. Anyone that has spent time in the wilderness or mountains can speak to the fact your temperature can fluctuate a lot on a hike. So the goal of clothing is to help regulate your body temperature, provide element protection, and manage moisture.
All of that is best done through a layering system. The layering system may not be as important for short hikes at low elevation in the summer, but since most hikes occur in the mountains, it is realistic that hikers will deal with cold temperatures.
Chose The Right Materials
While layers help manage moisture, the choice of material is equally important. Synthetic materials dry fast thanks to their moisture-wicking qualities. If clothes fail to dry once you’ve stopped moving, you’ll find you develop a chill fast.
It’s best to avoid cotton as it is slow to dry and heavy. However, the cotton rule can be broken when hiking in the desert heat. Synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester are breathable, wick moisture away, and durable. For a more natural choice, try wool or canvas. If possible, opt for fabrics that are recycled or Bluesign certified.
Invest In Your Hiking Attire
Price tags on quality gear can be eye-watering. However, the investment can often pay off in performance and longevity. Cheap items often have a shorter life and thus end up in the landfill sooner. The environmentally conscious approach is to purchase quality goods that will last for many seasons and thousands of miles. If you’re on a budget, check out your local sporting goods consignment store.
Do You Really Need New Hiking Clothes?
The short answer is NO. A lot of this stuff you probably already have at home. Things like wool socks, underwear, and sunglasses are all things I imagine everyone has at home. I’ve added recommendations on what we currently use during hikes. Of course, there are hundreds of comparable products.
It’s all quality gear that we’ve tried to balance for performance and value. I recommend several vital fundamentals for everyone, like a decent shell/rain jacket and comfortable boots/shoes.
What to Wear Hiking Checklist
- Sports Underwear
- Wools Socks
- Thermal Layers
- Performance Shirt
- Mid Layer
- Shell Jacket
- Down Jacket
- Hiking Shorts
- Hiking Pants
- Trail Running Shoes
- Hiking Boots/Shoes
- Buff Headband
Ensure you protect your eyes from the sun. Since hiking is an outdoor activity, it’s essential to bring UV protection. Make sure to consider the increased UV strength when you hike at elevation or near reflective surfaces such as water or snow.
There are a lot of options for sunglasses, and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes. Our personal favorites are the Smith Guide’s Choice and Lowdown 2 because the sunglasses have a broad frame to reduce UV reflection.
You should pack at least one type of hiking hat to give an added layer of sun protection. I’m often in a ball cap, so it’s what I most commonly use, but a well-designed sunhat with a wide brim is more effective. It’s all a matter of personal preference. On a sunny day, you’ll have a lot of exposure. It’s important to protect yourself from harmful UV rays.
It’s best to wear underwear that wicks away moisture from your body for multiple reasons. The first being that moisture pulls away heat from your body when you’re in cold temperatures. However, more importantly, it keeps you dry in hot weather and reduces the risk of chafing or discomfort. I know chafing might sound a little comical, but it’s a real risk when the distance starts to add up — just ask any endurance athlete.
For men, I have a couple of pairs of Smartwool wool boxer briefs I’ve been hiking with for years now. For women, it’s all about personal preference, but the Patagonia Barely wool underwear comes in both bikini and thong versions.
Underlayers are the closest layer to your body and maintain your body heat. When we reference thermals, this includes long-sleeved thermals and underwear. I always wear quality baselayers when active in cold temperatures. It’s an essential item if you’re in alpine conditions while hiking, snowboarding, scrambling, or camping.
We’ve tried a few different brands but recently settled on Kora as our favorite pair of thermals. It may be best for us as we need something technical as we spend a lot of time in the alpine around glaciers. Kora makes high-performance technical clothing out of quality Yak Wool from the Himalayas — warning they are high priced.
We recommend base layers fit snug and are made from a noncotton material like nylon or wool. We’ve had a lot of baselayer, but our favorites are wool-based layers from Helly Hansen, Smartwool, Black Diamond, and the yak wool from Kora. You only need these if you’re hiking in temperatures below zero.
We’ve learned to love our feet with a good pair of socks. You will want to keep your feet nice and dry while you walk around. Most importantly wool socks stay fresh for several days as they have natural antimicrobial properties.
Try to avoid cotton socks as they are well known to cause blisters since they slip, rub, and hold moisture. My personal favorites are Darn Tough merino socks, and my feet have never felt cold or wet. As a bonus, they’re produced in Vermont! We also love Smartwool and Farm To Feet!
I love to wear a comfortable shirt on hot days made from a performance fabric that handles sweat. It’s best to wear lightweight, breathable fabric with quick-dry qualities such as merino wool, nylon, or polyester.
I’ve tried many hiking shirts, but my absolute favorite shirts for hiking are the Outdoor Research Echo Shirts. They have long-sleeve, short-sleeve, and tank top options, but I wear long-sleeve shirts more these days for added protection. If you’re on the fence about synthetics, try out a wool-based shirt.
Outdoor Research Echo Shirt
When you’re on the trails, you often come across cold temperatures in the mountains. A comfortable sweater is a great way to remain warm in the mornings and evenings. There are a couple of options for hiking mid-layers. Choose a fleece, thermal, down jacket, or softshell jacket. It depends on what you find comfortable and the weather on the trail.
Our Patagonia Better Sweaters are perfect fleece sweaters, especially for a mid-layer. It’s a slim-cut fleece with a soft lining that moves well with your body, while the outer material feels tough and shows little to no wear.
A loose base synthetic layer such as Stryka Hoody from Arc’teryx is great for chilly hike days or if you’re backpacking. Of course, a wool-based thermal like the Smartwool Merino Sport 250 is tremendous. My last recommendation would be the Ascendant Hoody from Outdoor Research which is my favorite!
There are only a few items we recommend everyone has, and one of them is a down jacket. A down jacket is a staple for travel and outdoor activities as it’s tremendously versatile. They pack down and fit easily in a backpack. However, despite their lightweight nature, they can offer a lot of warmth.
We always recommend you bring a great packable down jacket on just about any hiking trip. When you’re dealing with the mountains and wide temperature shifts, it’s a great way to keep warm without eating up too much space in your hiking backpack. My favorite down jacket is the Arc’teryx Cerium, as it manages to blend the perfect balance between ultralightweight, performance, style, and fit.
The most essential article of clothing for hikers is the shell jacket. You have two options for shell jackets and it is a good idea to have both as it depends on the climate. One option is a sturdy multi layer rain jacket and the other is a lightweight windbreaker.
They’re both a great item to have on the trails as the shell jacket is designed to protect you from the wind and rain. If there is a chance of rain or cold weather on the trail we always pack one of GoreTex shell jackets.
We have a couple, but I really love my Arc’teryx Zeta FL jacket for its lightweight construction and performance. Arc’teryx makes the best outdoor apparel on the market, but expect it to come with the highest price tag. Other great options that are far more affordable are the Patagonia Torrentshell and the REI Drypoint.
A lightweight windbreaker is great for warmer destinations where a chance of rain looks unlikely. They can help you out in a pinch against a surprise shower, chill, or even hordes of insects. A light windbreaker also packs down small and fits easily in a backpack.
A great pair of shorts is self-explanatory for keeping yourself cool on a hot hiking day at lower elevations and warmer weather days. We love a pair of hiking shorts. Of course, it all depends on the terrain and landscape, as sometimes a pair of hiking pants can remain cool while protecting your legs from thick brush or rocks when scrambling up a trail.
You don’t need to get too fancy with shorts, as any athletic shorts will do the trick. I spend most of my days hiking in shorts. They are far more agile uphill and less likely to snag on branches or rocks. My personal favorite as we get more into trail running is the Arc’teryx Aptin shorts. Another great option with pockets would be the Abisko shorts.
Lightweight pants that are made from synthetic material are tremendous to have in your pack. It’s what we wear most days when hiking as they’re comfortable, antibacterial, and protect our legs from mosquitos and branches.
We love to wear two different hiking pants on our wanderings, the Keb Trouser from Fjallraven and Outdoor Research Ferrosi Pants. The most versatile would have to be Outdoor Research pants as they are lightweight, look great, and extremely comfortable. We recommend neutral-colored pants as they’re great at hiding dirt and can match most shirt colors.
Fjallraven’s Keb pants are a staple, but they are heavyweight and not great for quick dry properties yet extremely durable. I spend a lot of time in rough terrain or big mountains, and the Kebs are lifesavers. If you really want to mix it up, you can opt for hiking leggings — Tasha loves those! I’ve even taken some winter trail runs in the snow with men’s leggings.
This is one of those obvious things that is easy to forget at home. I like the simplicity of a canvas belt that has a locking buckle. I’ve had one that’s lasted for almost four years without any issues.
Canvas belts treated us well, but we’ve now opted for a Jelt belt. Jelt is a B-corporation based out of Montana that creates elastic belts made from recycled bottles. The belts are tremendous for physical activities as they’re very slim, lightweight, and comfortable.
We have a collection of buff headbands and bring them everywhere. They’re great for many reasons, such as sun/wind protection, a scarf, headband, or an ear warmer.
We always have one in the backpack no matter the hike and consider it one top hiking accessories. I imagine most people have one or two of these by now!
As I’ve said before, cold evenings and nights are a frequent occurrence at elevation, so a nice beanie to keep your head warm is always nice to have in your pack. It’s small, and covering your ears is one of the best ways to warm up.
Heavy winter gloves are not necessary on the average hike, but a lightweight pair is great. If you’re trekking in cold temperatures, consider a pair of lightweight and weatherproof gloves.
Many gloves are purpose-built for hiking, jogging, or general sports activities with a slew of features. We spend a lot of time scrambling up craggy peaks, and a pair to protect our hands from sharp rocks is important.
I could write dozens of articles on the best shoes for hiking. Truthfully there are a ton of variables when it comes to footwear. Things to consider are terrain, fit, style, and intended use. I have several different options for footwear when it comes to the trail, and I choose based on the day.
I do not recommend everyone has seven different options, so choose a shoe that best fits your everyday needs. For most hikers, I would say that it is a trail running shoe as it is capable both on and off the trail, so you get plenty of use.
There has been a long debate on whether you need high-top boots or low-cut shoes to protect your ankles. Truthfully we own both types and like to wear high tops on muddy trails or areas with thick vegetation and shoes in warm and dry destinations. Boots are also a lot better to carry weight on multiday camping trips.
Trail Running Shoes
We both have up the Hoka One One’s Speedgoat 4, and they’re great on the trails. They’re pretty heavily cushioned, so they protect your feet from uneven or rough surfaces. The tread pattern is also not too aggressive, and they feel comfortable on gravel surfaces or even the gym.
However, if you’re big on the actual sport of trail running, it’s pretty tough to beat the Salomon Speedcross 5. They have a diehard following and food good reason. The lightweight shoe is high on comfort, and the aggressive tread pattern ensures you always have grip. We’ll burn through a pair of these each summer.
A Natural Shoe Option
There’s a strong argument that many of the foot and joint issues that plague modern-day humans are from overdesigned shoes. Shoes cause our feet to move in unnatural manners and restrict natural muscle movements. The result is weak feet. Vivobarefoot crafts natural shoes that are designed with minimal support and allow the feet to move naturally. It’s like walking barefoot.
We’ve been trying out the new Tracker Forest ESC on our hikes and have been impressed with the performance of a boot that also feels as if we’re barefoot. These new boots are naturally water-resistant. Most interesting is the non-slip sole combined with an exceptional arch grip for gripping and sticking to surfaces. Inside the boot is an air mesh lining that allows for proper airflow. They are broad, thin, and flexible to promote the foot’s natural movement.
(Use code “AJBARE10” for 30% off)
Shop Vivobarefoot Tracker Esc
When it comes to hiking, it’s tough to beat purpose-built synthetic boots as they are lightweight, breathable, quick-drying, and often waterproof. While hiking in the mountains, loose rocks are a real threat on the trails, and it’s a good idea to wear decent hiking boots or shoes.
I’d say wear what you’re comfortable with, but if you have plans to head to the wet areas, it would be a good idea to bring a pair of high ankle boots. Ankle-high boots are for protection against thick brush, bugs, and even venomous snakes.
So owning a good pair of hiking boots will come in handy if you have plans to explore different climates. We love the Merrel Moabs II that comes in both women’s and men’s versions in addition to high and low cut versions. They are not the most technical boot, but they’re always reliable and never give you a blister. I’ve taken a brand new pair on a backpacking trip and hiked 20 miles a day in them with no threat of blisters. Most important, they’re the best value on the market for hiking boots!
Merrel Moab II
Peak Design Capture Clip
This is has been one of our favorite additions to our camera equipment and hiking outfit. The Peak Design capture clip allows for a camera to be clipped onto your backpack strap or belt. It has to be one of the best accessories we’ve ever used for carrying our camera.
The clip feels secure and robust with a straightforward design that makes switching straps easy. We’ve brought it on several hikes around the Canadian Rockies now, and it has changed how we photograph hikes. The access it provides to your camera is so much better than a camera strap that allows a camera to swing and banging into everything.
It’s super handy and a must for anyone who wants to carry their camera on hikes but not have to fumble around in their bag every time they want to take a photo.
This is a non-negotiable item if you’re in bear country. Some parks even require visitors carry the deterrent. Bear spray should be on your person and not in your pack. We each have a neoprene sleeve that holds our bear spray on our belt pocket, or we place it in our vest. It’s easy to reach in case of an emergency which the most important detail.
It’s a good idea to make noise while hiking in the bear country, whether singing, ringing a bell, clapping, or banging your hiking poles. Be wary of blind spots on your hikes, such as tight bends and forested sections of the trail.
This is a general list of some of the many items we pack when hiking. What we bring revolves and changes around the time of year and the forecasted weather. If you want a more extensive list, check out what to wear hiking for women, hiking for men, and our full backpacking checklist.