Wondering what to wear hiking? We break down all of the key essentials to a good wardrobe and outfit for your hike in the wilderness. Of course, you don’t need a new wardrobe to go hiking and if you’re on a short and simple hike. We suggest you head out in whatever is comfortable just don’t forget a rain jacket, phone, and some water.
As you gradually progress to longer hikes and more advanced terrain it’s a good idea to have a smart strategy in regards to clothes. In the last few years of travel we’ve seen plenty of extreme weather from Uganda to Costa Rica and the Faroe Islands to the Canadian Rockies and everywhere in between.
What to Wear Hiking
When it comes down to what to wear hiking you don’t need everything on this list. As it all depends on where you’re trekking, the season, your personal preference, and the route aspects. A walk through the woods to a waterfall in the summer is not the same as summiting a mountain in the winter. Though 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 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, element protection, and moisture management. Temperature management 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 with most hikes occurring in the mountains, it is realistic that hikers will deal with cold temperatures.
How to Layer Your Hiking Clothes
This is the layer that touches your skin. It’s also what we consider the most important layer as it’s responsible for moisture management. It’s what keeps you warm in cool temperatures and cool in hot temperatures.
Do not wear cotton as your base layer! Cotton performs poorly at wicking away moisture (pulling and drying) and provides no warmth when wet. It can even cause hypothermia in the right conditions. In hot temperatures, it can also cause skin chaffing or blisters.
You need this layer in cold winter months or during fall/spring conditions. Most commonly it is a fleece jacket or sweater that provides warmth, but not necessarily protection from the elements. On a nice fall or spring day, we also love wearing a flannel shirt for warmth even if it’s not a technical piece of clothing.
This layer is for insulation and is most commonly a down jacket. On most cool days or evenings you can wear this with a base layer and I’ve worn a combination of a base layer, mid layer, and insulation instead of a winter jacket. Insulation or mid layers are interchangeable.
This the layer that offers protection from the elements It’s not designed for insulation, but protection from rain, wind, or snow. I have two Goretex shell jackets one designed specifically for alpine touring and the other a rain jacket. However, other than the cut, pocket layout, fit, and zippers the jackets are basically the same thing.
What to Wear Hiking Checklist
What to Wear Hiking
- Sports Underwear
- Thermal Layers
- Performance Shirt
- Technical Shirt
- Mid Layer Sweater
- Shell Jacket
- Down Jacket
- Hiking Shorts
- Hiking Pants
- Wools Socks
- Trail Running Shoes
- Hiking Boots/Shoes
- Buff Headband
Do you 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. That being said I’ve added recommendations on what we currently use during hikes.
It’s all quality gear that we’ve tried to balance for performance and value. There are some key things we do recommend everyone have though like thermals, a decent shell/rain jacket, and comfortable boots/shoes.
Hiking Clothes We Recommend
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun since you’ll likely spend a lot of time hiking in the sun at elevation. 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. Sunglasses are particularly important if you plan to visit any glaciers or high alpine passes as sun reflection from the snow is damaging to your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses; however, we love ours and will never buy cheap ones again. Polarized glasses are great at enhancing vision in bright environments and removing glare from windshields and the water.
It’s best to wear underwear that wicks away moisture from your body for multiple reasons. First being that moisture pulls away heat from your body when you’re in cold temperatures. Most importantly it keeps you dry in hot weather and reduces the risk of chafing or discomfort. For extended hiking trips, I recommend packing two-three pairs and hand washing pairs whenever you get the chance.
For men, I have a couple pairs of the ExOfficio boxer briefs I’ve been traveling with for years now. For women it’s all about personal preference, but the Patagonia Barely 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 when we snowboard or climb mountains to wick away moisture from our bodies. Kora makes high-performance technical clothing out of quality Yak Wool from the Himalayas — warning they are high priced.
For base layers we recommend they fit snug are made from a non cotton 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.
I love to wear a comfortable shirt on hot days that are made from a performance fabric that handles sweat and the sun. You should look for a fabric that is lightweight, breathable, and has quick dry qualities such as merino wool, nylon, or polyester.
The more expensive option would be to bring a hiking shirt that has active panels that are designed to move with your body and hold up to the wear from a backpack. I have one from Kathmandu that does a good job at handling a backpack and maintaining my body temperature.
A technical long sleeve shirt looks great and is typically well constructed. You should look for a nice blend of synthetic materials that allow for quick drying. A long sleeve shirt like this allows for greater comfort moving from chilly mornings into warm days.
It’s a great shirt for hiking as it is more durable. Most importantly it protects your arms and neck from sun exposure, bugs, or thick brush. Don’t worry about overheating as the panels for heat ventilation and the additional sun protection will keep you cooler than a cotton tee shirt.
Mid Layer Sweater
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.
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. We’ve both had one for years and it looks like they’ll last another decade.
In our eyes you can excuse the high price tag as they’ll last for years. The quarter zip is our favorite as it’s effective at protecting your neck and remains close to your body for when you’re active on trails. As a plus the slim fit allows for it to fit under a down or shell jacket.
A great item to have on the trails is a shell jacket that is designed to protect you from the wind and rain. This is not about wearing a winter jacket, but a jacket that will break the wind and protect you from the elements.
We both have rain jackets made by Kathmandu and Patagonia. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof. Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
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.
We always recommend you bring a great packable down jacket on just about any extended 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.
This is one of those obvious things that can be really easy to forget at home. I’m partial to the simplicity of a canvas belt that has a locking buckle. I’ve had one that I use almost every day and it’s lasted for almost four years.
A great pair of shorts are 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. prAna makes some tremendous lightweight hiking shorts that are both comfortable and affordable.
Hiking pants are one of the most duh things when it comes to hiking apparel. 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.
There are two different hiking pants that we love to wear on our travels the Keb Trouser from Fjallraven and prAna’s Stretch Zion Pant/Halle Pant. The most versatile would have to be prAna pants that 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 mountaineering staple, but they are heavyweight and not great for quick dry properties yet extremely durable. If you really want to mix it up you can opt for hiking tights — Tasha loves those!
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.
We travel with a couple pairs of the Darn Tough Merino socks and our feet have never felt cold or wet. As a bonus, they’re produced in Vermont!
Trail Running Shoes
We both picked up the Hoka One One’s Speedgoat 2 last summer had a great time on the trails. They’re pretty heavily cushioned so they protect your feet from uneven or rough surfaces and can even double for hiking shoes.
I would recommend you look at the weather and your shoe preference before you pick either a nice hiking boot/shoe or trail running shoe. In the cooler temperatures we appreciate the added insulation in hiking shoes, but in the warmer months prefer the breathability and lightweight nature of trail running shoes.
The Speedgoat’s are rated as some of the best trail running shoes on the market and so far they haven’t let us down.
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.
There has been a long debate on whether you need high top 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.
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 stuff we saw a lot of when hiking in Central America.
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 come in both women’s and men’s versions in addition to high and low cut versions.
We have a collection of buff headbands and bring them everywhere. They’re great for a multitude of reasons such as sun/wind protection, a scarf, headband, or an ear warmer.
We always have one in our suitcase or backpack no matter the destination and consider it one top travel accessories. I imagine most people have one or two of these by now!
As I’ve said before cold evening 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.
Heavy winter gloves are not necessary on the average hike , but a lightweight pair are great for those prone to cold hands. If you’re trekking in cold temperatures consider a pair of lightweight and weatherproof gloves that will protect your hands from the elements. There are a lot of gloves purpose built for hiking, jogging, or general sports activities that would be great for your trip.
You should pack at least one type of 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 much more effective.
Tilley has long been famed for its sun protection hats. They’ve seen the world over and have seen more than a few adventures. It holds its shape and the material has a stylish look to it. What sets Tilley apart is that they guarantee their hats for life against wear and tear.
A wide brim keeps the sun off your hat. What I love in addition to the guarantee are the features such as its ability to float in the water and a hidden pocket to store and I.D. or money. It has everything you could want in a great safari hat. Although, the higher price point may deter some – just keep in mind it has a lifetime guarantee.
We recommend a lot of different sunhats in our best safari hats post if you want to head over there for more options.
This is a non-negotiable item if you’re in bear country and in some parks, it’s actually required by law. Bear spray should be on your person and not in your pack. We each have a neoprene sleeve that holds our bear spay on our belt pocket. It’s easy to reach in case of emergency which the most important detail.
It’s a good idea to make noise while hiking in bear country whether that is 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.
What to Look for in Hiking Clothes
This is most important for your base layer or any of the apparel that touches your skin. It refers to the fabrics ability to pull or wick away moisture (sweat) from your body so it can dry fast. This allows you to remain cool and dry in the heat and warm in cold temperatures.
This is the key to warmth. Its intention is to retain the heat that your body produces. One of the best insulators comes from down jackets, but there are also synthetic down materials.
Your outer layer or shell protects you from the elements like rain, wind, and snow. These are all elements that can pull body heat away from your body. A lot of jackets advertise as being weather resistant, but this does not mean they are waterproof.
Top end shells are often treated Gortex that offers breathability combined with weatherproofing, but they come at a premium. I own two and both retail for nearly $400. I’d suggest if you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors to make the investment but wait for an end of season sale as last years model almost always includes the same tech.
This is a key element that pulls moisture away from your body so that you stay dry. If you have one layer that doesn’t breathe it will trap the perspiration or humidity inside the jacket.
You can face a lot of sun exposure in multiple environments whether at elevation, lower latitudes, or in reflective environments. Many clothes are rated for their ultraviolet protection factor or UPF, this is something you should seek in an outer layer.
Tips On Hiking Clothes
Everyone processes temperatures differently as metabolisms vary. So no one can recommend what exactly you should wear based on temperature. For example, I run hot and use minimal insulation even in the winter months while Natasha will often wear one to two layers more. It will probably take some experimenting in hikes until you find the right clothes that work for you given the weather.
No denim or cotton.
There are a plethora of “The Mountains Are Calling” tee shirts, but they’re good for hanging around a mountain town not hiking. Cotton absorbs and holds moisture so that you end of feeling damp and sweaty in hot temperatures. While in low temperatures it can turn cold and wet as the moisture pulls heat away from your body. As stated several times in the post look for materials such as nylon, polyester, wool, rayon, or other alternatives.
You should be mindful of your clothes you want to look for something that is durable yet stretches. Trails and scrambling require a lot of movement so you need pants that do not inhibit your stride. On top of this branches, briars, and rocks can be tough on thin clothes so you need a decent material that will hold up.
Your body heat fluctuates naturally throughout the day and activity this is why layering is key. Beyond that it’s always a good idea to bring an extra layer beyond what you think you will need in case something gets wet or you find yourself with a chill. Maintaining your temperature is key because once you get a chill it’s very tough to shake it.
Bring A Mat
Speaking of a chill it’s a good idea to bring a small mat to sit on during breaks if you’re in the mountains. The stone and ground can often be much colder than the air so it conducts heat and will make you cold. Also, whenever you take a break it’s a good idea to put on your extra layer in order to maintain your body temperature.
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