Wondering how to dress like a pro on your upcoming hiking adventures? This curated guide on what to wear when hiking is for beginners and intermediate outdoorsy bums keen to plan their hiking outfits wisely.
Having the right gear is a must to enjoy hiking without worrying about what nature can throw at you. You don’t need much to get started tho! However, as you gain some practice, you’ll want to start getting your hiking attire right.
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What to Wear Hiking Guide
Hiking is one of the best adventures out there to enjoy time away from the chaos of the city, get some fresh air, and expand your limits. But, don’t expect nature to embrace you with warmth and comfort. If you are not prepared to resist its hurdles, you will be heading home sooner than you ought to.
Are you familiar with the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing?” It doesn’t ring truer than in situations when you shiver in cold thanks to poor layering. Or sweat your ballrooms off, all while your loose pants cause your thighs and bums to irritate cuz of rubbing -it hurts! I am telling you!
As I always say, how comfy you are when hiking marks the threshold of a love and hate relation with this life-changing activity. To make your experience more enjoyable and stress-free is always useful to plan ahead not only your clothing but what to pack for a hike.
You should focus on what to wear for hiking as much as you worry about camping gear and other essentials.
For sure, some people will not even care because they are just so used to certain conditions. Take New Zealanders, for example. They don’t seem to suffer the cold weather at all! I’ve seen women going up a snowy peak wearing leggings. And there I was, dressed pretty much like the Yeti.
Getting Ready to Hit the Trails -Aka the Importance of Your Clothing
When choosing the right clothes to take on a hike, you’d need to buckle up for changing weather, spiky bushes, annoying bugs, slippery slopes, mud tracks, and river crossings. Hence, you need to consider every layer of clothing seriously.
For example, you can nitpick on jackets, vests, and shirts, but if you don’t give two cents about your underwear, you can still end up drowning in your sweat -eeeeek. If you are a bra-wearer (?), tell me…have you ever regretted your bra simply because of the friction between the back hook and your backpack!? I feel you!
If you are a regular hiker, you need to invest in some appropriate clothes for hiking that you can use for different climatic conditions. If you are just testing the waters, it still matters, although not THAT much. So no need to be obsessive! Also, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to buy quality clothes.
Read on and find top intel and product suggestions on what to wear hiking!
What to Wear Hiking: The Basics
The simple trick to stay warm during any season is to layer your clothes –more on that later. Before I go into detail about clothes to wear hiking in each season, I’m going to quickly take you through the 10 essentials for hiking…
Duh! Should I even mention it unless you are planning to go commando? LOL #respect. Anyway! Since your undergarments are next to skin fabrics, you cannot rely on your usual, comfy cotton boxers or bras. It either has to be synthetic or wool that will wick moisture and keep you warm -I don’t go anywhere without my thermals!
2. Pants – shorts – leggings
What pants to wear hiking depends on the climate as well as what fabric best fits your needs. Pay attention to fit, comfort, durability, and breathability. Convertible pants are a great option as they are flexible. Jeans aren’t as ideal as they cause chafing.
Also, they retain moisture in cold weather and are damn too hot in warm weather if you easily sweat bullets. Another thing is to go for pants that aren’t too loose as it could be a good reason for rashes to appear in your thighs and ass!
For long-ish hikes, you’ll also want to bring rain pants. Or check how much heavy rain your pants can sustain. In any case, I always bring my rain pants and this is probably one of my best tips for hiking in the rain. On multiday hikes, I also bring spare leggins just in case. The idea is that if it rains during night time, I can still ensure having dry clothes to sleep.
Always bring long/short-sleeved t-shirts or a shirt to keep you comfortably warm. I discuss fabrics below, but with T-shirts, you want to make sure the textile won’t kill your armpits. Plus, your t-shirt will support the weight of your backpack where it rubs your skin, so the wrong texture can leave your whole back exposed to sweat, and, as a consequence, to cold.
SPF protective t-shirts can save you loads of pain, so keep this in mind when purchasing and looking for great road trip essentials.
4. Insulating jacket and/or vest
Pick a jacket that won’t give away to the cold weather. It can be made from wool, down, or other synthetics. Ideally, an insulating jacket should be lightweight -some could even fit in your pocket! Of course, some will be perfect for cold weather with, for example, a built-in down layer -where some others are synthetic and more stretchy.
5. Waterproof jackets
Insulation won’t work if your jackets get wet, especially if it’s down material. So, cover it with a light/thick water-resistant jacket. Beware though, as some jacket types can make you feel like you are trapped in a plastic heater!
Explaining the ins and outs of waterproof jackets deserves an article on its own, but what you want to look at if you are planning to hike quite a bit is the jacket’s Durable Water Repellent coating. (A hint: this applies to all your rainwear)
6. Hat – cap – beanie:
Pick one that best fits the weather condition. For mild to cold weather, you can pair your beanie with a scarf -I love my Buff neck tube- for added warmth. We lose between 7 to 10% of body heat through our heads, so you may want to consider getting a hat liner.
7. Hiking shoes/boots:
As you’ll see below, your outdoor shoes are not just your hiking boots. Some people bring flip-flops to rest after a long day, others water shoes, FiveFingers, trail runners, sandals, or even crocs -for real.
For top comfort on the trail, ensure to bring trekking poles to complete your hiking system.
Pairing your shoes with the right hiking socks is everything. Pick one that provides cushioning and is breathable. If you are hiking with exposed legs, your socks should cover up to under your knees. More on this here. The issue with socks that are not breathable is that your feet will end up soaking wet!
You’ll also need to avoid air pockets and friction, which lead to rubbing, blisters, and tenderness. Also, how uncomfortable it is to have to pull up your socks all the time? Or having your shins pressed by the sock cuffs? Nope! So pay attention to your socks -and if you are prone to blisters, or your hiking boots are not very breathable, get sock liners too.
Easy to overlook, ankle gaiters for hiking are something I recommend based on my experience. If you are hiking in rough terrains or in intense climatic conditions, gaiters really come in handy. They block debris when bushwhacking, water when crossing streams, cover your shins, and offer extra insulation for happy feet! You can ditch them in summer or go for ultra-light ankle covers for hiking. Even I don’t use my gaiters all the time when I don’t have them I regret it! It can be gruelling to walk under pouring rain, so consider bringing these and prevent pushing your hiking boots’ waterproofing to the limit -better safe than sorry!
10. Accesories: Gloves and neck protection
Go for moisture-wicking gloves in wet or cold weather. When it comes to neck protection, a fleece or wool neck gaiter can be lifesaving! As much as I love scarfs, these are bulky and not handy for hiking -I still take my circle scarf as I use it as a pillow and love the cozy feel of it.
Sun Protective SPF Clothing
Nowadays, a big part of proper clothing for hiking also involves pieces that already come with sun protection. Caring for your skin is an absolute must when hitting the trails as sunburn can ruin your whole trip, especially behind your neck and shoulders. This is where you carry your backpack, so paying extra attention to the clothes you are choosing will pay off! (also please, don’t fall asleep at the beach with your week exposed, duh!)
Many of the tees I’ve shared in this article already come with protection, but if you want to know more, here’s a great article on this topic from the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Is It Better to Wear Black or White in the Sun
There are different opinions on this topic. Some experts recommend tones that blend with nature, where others call for bright, attention-grabbing colors in case of an emergency. All these opinions are valid, and it will depend on your taste to figure out your fave hiking outfit.
However, when it comes to heat absorption, the rule of thumb is that lighter colors will keep you cooler, and deeper tones warmer…or not? As I was digging deeper into the research for this guide, I found that the darker, the better. Surprising, right?
So, here’s the thing. Heat flows 2 ways. One thing is the heat you receive from the sun, and the other is the one your body creates and expels.
As this article explains, the key here is the thickness and type of fabric. Honestly, I’m not one choosing to stay cooler as I’m always cold and barely sweat. As you’ve read before, choosing sun protective, moisture wicking clothing will be, in the end, your best bet!
What to Wear Hiking in Summer
Ideally, summer calls out for light, loose-fitting clothes. Moreover, choose light-colored shades as they reflect heat as opposed to absorbing like dark shades (read above tho!).
The best fabrics for summer hiking are wool, polyester, and nylon as they absorb sweat and dry faster. These moisture-wicking fabrics prevent skin conditions like dermatitis that can cause the skin to irritate, itch, and even cause blisters, especially in the armpits.
Cotton and linen are other options of what to wear while hiking in moderate warm conditions. But, just remember cotton can easily become your enemy when hiking -more on this below!
While it can be tempting to wear shorts and sleeveless tops, these are not ideal for hiking. You should be ready to spend some long hours outside, which means you can easily get exposed to sun rays. Not only will your skin end up dry, burnt, and patchy but also vulnerable to UV damage. You can wear sunscreen for protection, but long-sleeved clothing offers extra protection. A brimmed hat is also useful.
You don’t need heaps of layers for summer, but it’s better to carry an insulating and waterproof jacket in case the weather turns awry.
Summer can be tricky because depending on where you are, temperatures can vary greatly between day and night. When I was in the Atacama Desert in Chile, during the day it was uber-hot, and then, as soon as the sun was gone, bum! Freezing cold!
What to Wear Hiking in Winter
Experts say, in winter, you should layer your clothes like an onion! It’s essential to trap the heat emanating from your body, thereby providing the required insulation and warmth. Dressing up in layers of clothes during winter also helps you control the body temperature. Depending on whether you feel too warm or cold, you can easily add in or subtract a layer.
So, what does this technique of layering involve? Layering involves the base layer, mid-layer, and the outer layer.
The base layer is made of the next-to-skin clothes or your underwear. The purpose is to keep sweat off your body. In winter, go for long, fitting (not tight), and more importantly, moisture-wicking underwear.
You can also go for an added layer of short underwear underneath if you are picky or worried about hygiene.
While you might treasure your loyal, innocent-looking cotton underpants, know that these can harm you by absorbing your sweat and making you feel cold! So, as a rule of thumb, avoid cotton when you consider what to wear for hiking in winter. Go for synthetics like polyester or natural fabrics like wool. So, essentially…
A long-sleeved jersey
Moisture-wicking boxer shorts, briefs, bikini briefs
Sock liners and hat liners -skull cap.
The mid-layer is your insulator that retains warmth by trapping your body heat. It should consist of moisture-wicking fabrics. This should be the thickest layer of clothing made out of synthetics or natural wool. So choose garments like,
Fleece hooded jackets, vests, and pullovers
Down insulated hooded jackets and vests
Synthetic insulated jackets
The outer layer or the shell layer is meant to protect you from wind and rain. Always select water-resistant fabrics that will protect the other layers, but make sure they’re still breathable.
When it comes to pants to wear hiking, you can skip the intermediate layer. Instead, choose robust, durable, waterproof, breathable, and comfortable pants to cover your base layer. One with zippered ankles, zippered thighs, or even full zippers on the sides is perfect as it offers more flexibility. Personally, I prefer to layer up leggings. I don’t particularly like loose pants, and wool sometimes makes me itchy!
Top your winter gear with,
Fleece -polar- or wool gloves
Fleece or wool hats
Face mask (depending on the weather)
The whole list of what to wear for winter hiking may sound a bit overwhelming, especially if you are a beginner, but every layer does the job of protecting you.
Wrong kinds of clothes can expose you to the risk of frostbite or hypothermia.
Frostbite is caused when you are exposed to extreme cold, especially if you are without proper gloves to footwear. Hypothermia is the loss of temperature below the average level, which can even lead to death -no kidding there. This is why layering and trapping body heat matters so much!
What to Wear When Hiking in Spring
Selecting the right mix of clothing for spring hiking can be a bit tricky and depends on the weather conditions. You have to prepare for both wind and rain. The usual rainy conditions can make the hiking trails muddy, slippery, and sometimes flooded.
So, when planning your spring hiking attire, embrace the rules of layering, although not so obsessively as in winter.
Your base layer has to be moisture-wicking fabrics. You can go for a short-sleeved or long-sleeved t-shirt depending on the anticipated temperatures. Don’t forget socks – you can ditch the liners tho.
The mid-layer has to be a fleece or synthetic fill jacket. You can also go for a synthetic shirt instead of a jacket. The thickness or the number of layers is up to you based on the climate. Just make sure it’s comfortable and breathable material.
The outer layer has to be a waterproof jacket but not very thick to make you sweat. A zippered one is better than a pullover, so you can remove it whenever you want. A pair of water-resistant pants is essential to protect from the rain. Finally, add-in…
Extra pair of short pants (if the weather gets too warm)
Just remember that if you are hiking in early spring, go for more layers. During late spring, you can strip off layers as the weather changes -it will!
What to Wear Hiking in the Fall
While fall is a superb time to hike, temperatures can change drastically at the most unexpected times.
For the base layer, you can go for undies of quick-drying fabrics, short-sleeved synthetic t-shirt, and a pair of breathable leggings.
For insulation, add a mid-layer consisting of a zippered jacket that would help you adjust ventilation while providing the required warmth. You can also add a vest if you reckon it will get too cold as you move further in the trail.
The outer layer can have a rain-proof jacket to protect your inner layers. More importantly, select a good pair of hiking pants that will resist strong winds and moisture. If it’s a pair of convertible pants, even better as you can turn these into shorts.
Best Types of Fabrics for Hiking
There’s a lot to learn about the evolving tech surrounding outdoor gear! For now, let’s keep it easy as the idea is to give you practical hints to take on your first hikes.
Probably the superstar of fabrics ideal for hiking as it ticks pretty much all the boxes.
This is a soft natural fiber, packed with breathability and comfort.
It’s also versatile as it helps you stay cool during warm temperatures and warm in a cold climate. The fact that it’s moisture-wicking and odor-resistant will help you not stink -yay! Plus, it prevents allergies. The only downside is that it’s expensive and doesn’t last as long as synthetics.
Best synthetics for the base and outer layers. Light in weight, dries fast, keeps you adequately warm, and also durable. While it’s much cheaper than merino wool, it doesn’t do a good job at odor resistance. You might also feel a bit constricted as they are not very breathable.
Best insulators. So, the clothes you don as the mid-layers should ideally be from fleece to give you the maximum warmth. It’s breathable, light in weight, and also cheap. The downside is that it’s usually not water-resistant, and if it gets wet, you would need to change quickly! If you are wearing it during winter, go for a protective outer layer that is water-resistant.
For many of us, cotton is our comfort zone, and it’s easier to think of it as the best option for hiking, especially during winter. But, this is a situation where your friend turns to foe and kills you! Exaggeration aside, cotton is less than ideal for high-performance activities like hiking where you’ll release a lot of sweat. It’s not moisture-wicking, plus it’s a poor insulator.
Cotton will absorb the sweat and takes a loooong time to dry.
What Shoes to Wear Hiking
I want to talk about shoes and footwear separately because they are so important to consider.
For hiking in tough terrains especially during snowy or rainy seasons, select a pair of high-performance hiking boots. It will give maximum coverage for your feet and ankles protecting you from water, mud, and insect bites.
There are also insulated boots to provide added warmth in very low temperatures. Some recommend wearing 2 pairs of socks to avoid the risk of blisters and snake bites.
If you want a less bulky option, invest in a pair of good hiking shoes that also tend to be comfier than boots. They are best for hot and cool temperatures but may not hold up in extremely cold weather.
Hiking sandals are great for moderate hikes where the climate and the terrain are very friendly on you. You can also take a pair of hiking sandals as an alternative for boots when your feet need to see the light of the day.
Choosing the Best Hiking Shoes
When you are off-road, in the wilderness, anticipate the worst and prepare at your best. This is why it’s important to select footwear that is durable, comfortable, breathable, and makes you feel at ease.
Picking a sturdy pair of shoes that would let you move through the woods without trouble is important. But, here’s the thing. No one type of shoe would fit all the terrain conditions and seasons.
While there are all-terrain hiking shoes designed to withstand a wide range of conditions, there are also specific shoe kinds designed for specific hiking/backpacking trips. If you need a comprehensive guide on what shoes to wear when hiking that best fits you, read this guide.
It goes without saying that socks also play an important role as shoes when it comes to protecting your legs. Say you pull on your regular cotton socks without giving much thought? You would be inviting blisters to stack on your feet, making your hiking adventure not miserable, but at least uncomfortable.
So, it’s best to pick wool or polyester and forget about cotton! I recommend you to wear socks liners for extra protection. You can even select a pair of anti-blister hiking socks just to be on the safe side.
Overall, what kind of socks to wear with hiking boots or shoes will mainly depend on the shoe type, nature of the hiking trail, weather, and your skin type. Your shoe type should determine the sock height to protect against abrasion. If you will be hiking on elevated terrains a lot, it’s important to pay attention to ankle support for hiking.
Okay my friends! I hope this guide helped you choose the right hiking attire for your next outdoor adventures!
Hey u! I’m Martina, from Argentina. I’ve been combining travel and life overseas since 2013 in a quest for living alongside with creativity, joy and personal growth.
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