What to Wear Hiking

by Ian Standard
Last Updated: October 25, 2021
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

At any point, the temperature can drop, jump, a rainstorm can pop up, or the wind can start howling. Walking the trails means you need to be ready for the unexpected. The best technique for preparedness while hiking knowing what to wear while hiking. What you wear hiking will give you a huge edge of Mother Nature, or put you in a position where you are easily taken down. 

We all want to be on the good side of Momma Nature, which means we need to get dressed appropriately and do our research to best discover what to wear hiking. Fortunately, years and years of experienced outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen have done all the trial and error portions for us. For now, it’s just about getting dressed and heading out. 

Before you throw on any clothes in your closet, take a quick look here so we can discuss what kind of clothes will best suit you for the hike you’re about to take on.

If You’re in a Rush

Let’s say you just got invited on a hike, but realized you have absolutely no idea what to wear hiking, so here you are at the end of your Google search. Here’s the nitty-gritty, short and to-the-point version of what to wear hiking. 

Leave all your cotton graphic tees and Levi jeans at home- Any time spent around experienced hikers will tell you, cotton kills. It soaks up water and holds it for, what seems like, forever. Denim will only end in uncomfortable rashes in places you don’t want rashes. 

Wear the right fabrics- Okay, don’t bring cotton or denim, but what should you wear? Try out materials like polyester, merino wool, fleece, nylon, or other synthetic materials. These all wick moisture away from your body, and if they happen to get wet, they dry quickly and still keep you warm. 

Always pack your rain gear- The sunniest day on the trail can switch over to a storm in the blink of an eye. You should always be ready for this change and have a lightweight rain jacket with you. I prefer to bring rain pants as well, just because hiking with wet pants is majorly uncomfortable. 

Sturdy but comfortable pants- Pants that you wear hiking need to be able to stand up against the branches that can reach out and grab at you along the trail. Avoid thin materials that will get ruined quickly like yoga pants or leggings. 

Strong hiking boots- On the trail, your feet are your only mode of transportation, so you need to take good care of them. Wear boots that will support your ankle and foot while also being able to take on rocky trails. 

Clothing Strategies For All Weather Conditions

Getting dressed to go hiking is an art. If you have the right strategies down, you’ll come out on the other end just as comfortable as you went in. It’s possible to get dressed for any situation and not need to worry once you’re there. Here are some tried and true strategies to help you understand what to wear hiking. 

Layering system- The layering system for clothes while hiking is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Just like a cake, an onion, or an ogre, you need to have layers. Dressing with the right layers, and bringing extra layers, allows you to add and remove different layers as the temperature changes throughout the day. 

You can follow the old saying of “be bold, start cold” at the beginning of the hike, but when you stop for rest breaks, you need to have outer layers and an insulated jacket on hand to keep that body heat trapped in. On the other hand, you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of a hike starting to sweat with a heavyweight polyester fleece sweater and nothing on underneath it. 

Comfort, durability, and price ratio- This golden triangle is a great tool to help figure out what hiking clothes you should buy. It’s nearly impossible to find something that will give you the comfort and extreme durability you want, without spending a hefty penny. Be willing to make some small tradeoffs to get what you need. If that doesn’t work, check out your local used gear shop and find some hidden gems. 

Know what you’re getting into- If you keep an eye on weather conditions and study the route that you are going to be hiking, you can plan ahead well to know what to wear hiking that day. Keep in mind how wrong the weatherman often is and come prepared for anything. Clothing options like convertible hiking pants make you ready for a switch from cold weather to hot temperatures during any hiking trip.

Hiking shoes are worth the extra buck- Your feet are the only way you’ll make it back to your car at the end of the day, so quality hiking shoes and hiking boots are worth spending a little bit more on. Don’t buy a pair of boots without putting your feet in them first. Pay attention to areas that may rub and how your toes react when at a sharp downhill. Blisters will appear quickly in the wrong shoes, so take your time to get the right pair. 

Don't let anyone convince you that hiking sandals are real. Hiking shoes can be waterproof hiking boots, trail running shoes, or any other kind of hiking footwear. Hiking sandals however, are a bad idea. It opens your feet up to many other injuries and foot injuries are not what you want on a backpacking trip. Buy good hiking boots and you will quickly get the benefits.

Forget what you look like- Hiking clothes and the outdoor brands that make them aren’t overly concerned about how you look while on the trail. Hiking pants, hiking shorts, and other hiking apparels aren’t focused on providing a cute hiking outfit. They worry much more about keeping you protected. It’s still possible to look good, just don’t make it your primary concern. 

Fabrics and other Materials

The right fabrics and materials that your hiking clothes are made out of will make all the difference when you start getting outside. Hiking clothing and knowing what to wear hiking is really all about the fabrics that you choose. There are fabrics that can ruin your trip and some that can make it a breeze. Here, we’ll take a look at why your fabric choice matters in hiking clothes and which ones do what. 

Key Fabric Properties and Qualities

Waterproofness

Waterproofing yourself during a torrential downpour is inherent to a good experience. This is an essential property when you are looking into an outer shell rain jacket or rain pants. The catch here is that you are looking for a fabric that is both waterproof and breathable. A non-breathable waterproof layer will end with a lot of sweat building up and you’ll still be wet. 

Some clothing will be "water-resistant". This doesn't mean it's a bad choice, but water-resistant clothing won't keep all the moisture out. Most jackets will be described this way just so the outdoor brands can't get in trouble for selling an outer layer jacket to wear hiking that isn't fully waterproof.

Moisture Wicking

When figuring out what to wear hiking, you will quickly discover moisture-wicking materials. It’s inevitable that you will start to sweat at one point or another. Moisture-wicking fabrics help to bring that perspiration out away from your body where it can get out into the air. If materials leave your sweat on your skin, you will start to feel the build-up and it can cool you down too quickly. This is what you are looking for in next-to-skin layers such as underwear, long sleeves, or a t-shirt. 

Breathability

Materials that let your skin breathe help again with the moisture content and build-up next to your skin. Just about every layer you wear needs to be made from a breathable fabric because hiking is an incredibly active sport that will lead to sweat. Without breathable materials, your wicking layer won’t work effectively, and you’ll be soaked. 

Durability

Lightweight gear is incredible. Lightweight gear also tends to be delicate. Delicate and the woods don’t mix very well. The trail is a place that can be unforgiving and will rip your clothes easily, no matter how much you paid for them. You need clothes that can take a beating so you don’t end up with holes in every layer. This is especially important in your outer shell layer because it can act as a suit of armor for the rest of you. 

Hiking pants especially need to be durable. Don't wear yoga pants out in the woods even if they seem appealing. Your long pants and long sleeves will protect your skin from branches as well as adding extra sun protection for summer hiking.

Insulation

When hiking, your body naturally gives off a huge amount of heat. Normally, this will just leave our body and go out into the world where we will never see it again. On a cold day, we can’t afford to lose all the heat we are producing. That’s where insulating fabrics come into play. In your mid-layer, you need to pay attention to insulating properties. It’s one of the few ways that you will stay warm. 

Sun Protection

No matter how thick your long sleeve shirt is, the sun can still get through. Some fabrics have higher UPF (ultraviolet protective factor) ratings to better protect you from UV rays. 

Basic Fabric Choices

  • Wool- Merino wool could quite possibly be the fabric above all other fabrics. It insulates well, it’s breathable, moisture-wicking, and it dries quickly. One of the other qualities of wool is the fine fibers that don’t hold on to a huge amount of odors. This can be great for going on long trips that often end with a bag of stinky clothes that you don’t want to even bring inside.
  • One of the only drawbacks of wool, specifically merino wool, is that it can have quite a high price tag. This is the kind of fabric you want to find in used shops unless you have the funds to get new wool gear. It’s worth the purchase. 
  • Polyester/Nylon- Polyester is your classic synthetic material that wicks moisture well, dries quickly, and doesn’t cost a ton. Most of the clothes you see branded towards the outdoors will be made from polyester. The thing you need to look out for in this fabric is those that contain anti-microbial or odor resistant properties. Otherwise, you’ll quickly notice how bad polyester clothes can start to smell after a day or two hiking. 
  • Fleece- Fleece is just a different form of polyester that creates a warm and insulating layer. Polyester fleece jackets are made up of soft and cushy fibers that retain heat well. Fleece wicks moisture well and will keep you warm even when it gets wet.
  • Cotton- I have already mentioned that cotton clothing is possibly the worst pick for hiking clothes, but it needs to be mentioned again. Cotton soaks up moisture and is terrible at letting it go. Once your cotton clothes get wet, they make you colder and can actually be dangerous to wear in colder conditions. Keep your cotton tees at home for lounging and sleeping, not for hiking. 

From the Bottom Up

Base Layer: Undergarment Options

Let’s talk about underwear and other inner layers. It might not seem like it has a huge impact on your hiking at first, but in reality, you will notice your base layers constantly. If you choose the wrong pair of underwear, you can end up waddling your way back to the car, or tending to a rash for the next week. The best hiking clothes and hiking attire starts at the bottom.

  • Underwear- Your base layer needs to be a wicking, breathable material that also is comfortable. Comfort can be one of the most important aspects of choosing a good pair of underwear to wear. If you buy a pair of underwear that bunches up, falls down, or just doesn’t fit right, your hike can be defined by thinking about how you can fix that. 
  • Bras- For the ladies, a sports bra that is made for physical activity are going to be the best option. Hiking isn’t always high-impact, but it’s another thing that’s just about comfort and personal preference. Remember that you’ll often be wearing a backpack and need to be wary of any clasps that may start rubbing against your back, which is why sports bras are a great option for outdoor apparel.
  • Socks- One of my personal favorite pieces of outdoor gear is socks. I used to complain every time my parents gave me socks at Christmas, and nowadays I am asking for them every single year. I suggest getting a pair of merino wool hiking socks that are fitting for the season you are hiking in. Remember that your feet are the most important thing out there and the right pair of socks can prevent blisters, and help keep your digits warm in the coldest months. 
  • All the rest- The rest of your base layer will be any other clothing that touches up against your skin. This can be long underwear or hiking pants, hiking shorts, a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, or a thick wool base layer. These all need to be breathable and made of something that will wick moisture away from your skin. 

Mid Layer: Fleece and Puffy Jackets

Your next layer outward is going to be warmer layers that are mostly about insulation. Fleece and puffy jackets are perfect for a mid-layer because they can be taken off and put back on easily. If they aren’t on your body, you want them easily accessible in your bag. One reason hikers love down puffy jackets is that they compress down so small, weigh nothing, and provide a tremendous amount of warmth. 

  • Fleece Jackets- Fleece jackets are the perfect pick for an insulating layer while hiking for countless reasons. You can get them in different thicknesses, styles, and you don’t need to sell your house to afford them. Fleece is an affordable material, which is one reason why I love it so much. 

Some hikers are put off by fleece because of its smell as well as its inability to compress down. While these can be major drawbacks for some, I am drawn to fleece’s price tag and functionality. 

  • Puffy Jackets- Puffy jackets come in two different flavors, synthetic and down. Both of these have their pros and cons, but both are great choices for a mid layer. Puffy jackets tend to be the next level up from a fleece jacket when the cold temperatures start to come on. I will often wear a puffy jacket over my fleece hoodie once I start to see frost on the ground. 

Synthetic jackets use stuffing that is typically made from polyester due to its affordability. This makes for a jacket that insulates well, but retains odor and doesn’t compress as small. 

A puffy down jacket uses feathers to provide loft and warmth to a jacket that will keep you super warm. You can get smaller fill jackets or a jacket with a high fill that will keep you warm in the arctic tundra. One property of down that everyone loves is how small it can get. One of the bigger drawbacks is that once down gets wet, it becomes much less effective and is super difficult to get dry.

  • Fleece Pants- If you’re hitting the trail on a frigid day, you can bring along a pair of cheap fleece pants to up your game. They are a great option for cold nights around a fire, but I wouldn’t suggest hiking in them.
  • Puffy Pants- Puffy pants are in the same category as fleece pants. Great to have at basecamp, but not a good choice for hiking in. You’ll end up creating a pool in your boots just from the sweat you produce due to these. 

Outer Layer: Rain Jackets and Pants

Here is one of the hardest categories to get right. Rain gear is difficult, as it needs to keep water out, but not trap water inside. Seems nearly impossible, right? Fortunately, gear techs have found a couple of effective ways of accomplishing this.

  • Rain Jacket- GoreTex. It may be all we need to say on this subject. It’s just about the only material that is waterproof but breathable. It can cost a lot, but if you aren’t going into any extreme conditions you don’t need GoreTex Pro, or any other jackets that are super expensive. 
  • Rain Pants- The GoreTex rule applies here as well. In addition to only ever buying GoreTex, the feature I will never go away from with my rain pants is the side zip. A zipper that runs the full length of your leg allows your legs to breathe without taking the pants completely off. It’s perfect for the summer rainstorms that come and go all day. 

Accessories for Hiking

There are a lot of pieces that come together to know what to wear hiking. Just like in fashion, there are accessories beyond hiking pants, hiking socks, and a rain jacket. Use these accessories to complete your hiking outfit.

  • Gloves- Your hands can quickly get cold while hiking because they aren’t often doing much. There are plenty of different gloves that are great for hiking. Depending on the season, you may just want glove liners or a pair of fingerless mittens so you can still handle things with ease. Waterproof gloves exactly what you need for long rainy days.
  • Hats- Whether it’s a beanie or a hat with a brim, a hat is an important addition to your hiking outfit. It helps keep the sun off your face on exposed hiking trails, protects you from ticks during summer hiking, and will keep your head warm for winter hiking. 
Ian Standard
I'm a part time wilderness guide, part time student, and full time nature lover. I find any ways possible to get outside and feel together with the world around me, and sometimes that means skiing, biking, hiking, or just sitting.
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