Before heading out for a hike, you may think about what you should wear. There is a bit to consider beforehand, such as the trail difficulty and weather forecast. We will cover what materials are best for hiking, the clothing, shoes, and accessories and what to wear by the season as you set out for your hike.
What Materials Should I Wear Hiking?
When hiking you need different layers to have different properties:
Wicking: This is especially vital for your base layer, that touches the skin. Wicking fabrics have the ability to pull moisture (sweat) away from you and move it to the fabric’s outer surface, where it can evaporate, keeping you dry.
Insulating: This ability is key to you staying warm. A Merino Wool, fleece or down/synthetic midlayer are good choices for cooler temperatures.
Waterproof and windproof: Look for these qualities in an outer layer or shell. This keeps the elements from saturating your clothes with rain or chilling you with wind gusts.
Breathable: Breathable fabrics are important in all your layers; this helps your wicking layer dry out more quickly. Some fabrics, like Merino Wool, are not only breathable, but also thermoregulate, meaning they help maintain your body at the right temperature.
Sun Protection: Clothing that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating will help protect your skin against the sun’s damaging UV rays.
You may think because cotton is natural, comfortable, and soft that it would make a great material to hike in, but its inefficient at wicking and drying. Cotton excels at soaking up and holding onto sweat, which can keep you hot in warm temperatures and chilling you in cooler temperatures, a recipe for hypothermia. This is why you may have heard the infamous saying, “cotton kills.”
I recommend wearing garments made either from Merino Wool, synthetic materials, or a blend of the two.
Synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon are often more affordable than Merino and can be found in most retailers. With today’s fabric technology, most synthetic garments incorporate recycled materials and are excellent at wicking sweat and drying quickly (although synthetics do tend to smell funky faster).
What Clothing Is Best for Hiking?
I’ve found that layers are key, no matter the season. Having enough clothing and needed accessories will help you enjoy your day on trail.
A rain jacket that’s waterproof and breathable will keep you dry and help prevent your skin and upper body from feeling swampy on the inside. Choosing a rain jacket that has pit zips (under arm zippers) helps with ventilation.
A polyester fleece or wool shirt is the perfect midlayer for extra warmth when temperatures are cooler. A puffy jacket (available in both down and synthetic fillings) adds extra warmth.
All these layers are great to add and subtract to adapt to changing weather conditions. Here’s my recommended layer list of what to wear and pack:
Base layers are your undergarments, your next-to-skin layer that offers a little bit of warmth and wicks sweat.
Underwear: It’s fine to go with your personal style preference here, although cotton is still a no go. Look for synthetic and Merino offerings. You will want your underwear to be non-chafing and seamless.
Bra: Choose a sports bra that best suits your size and the level of support you need.
Socks: I like packing an extra pair to keep in my pack in case the trail gets too muddy, or I need to wade across a creek. Switching socks could help prevent a blister and trench foot if wet. My co-worker Owen shared some great tips on choosing hiking socks.
Base layer bottoms and tops: You’ll find these are available in a variety of weights. Choose a weight based on temperature and whether you run hot or cold. Bottoms can be worn under shorts for both sun protection and warmth if needed. Wear them under hiking pants or rain pants when conditions change. A zip-neck top lets you adjust your ventilation as you get hot or cold.
Shirts: A wicking short-sleeve shirt is good in warm weather, and a wicking long sleeve top is good for cool conditions. For a full day of sun exposure, wear a long-sleeve UPF-rated shirt. Some have a hood or a flip-up collar for neck protection.
Shorts, pants, tights, and convertible (zip-off) pants: I prefer a quick-drying bottom that is durable enough to handle abrasion and flexible enough to handle moving up and over obstacles. Pants with side pockets are a great feature to stash your phone to easily grab for that Insta shot or to stash snacks.
Hiking skirt, skort, or dress: There is a wide variety of hiking skirts and dresses available that offer a greater range of motion, breathability, air flow and make backcountry bathroom breaks easier. Many skorts and dresses offer either a side pocket or back waistband pocket to hold a cell phone, snacks, and keys. With the added skort liner it also helps prevent chafing. If hiking in winter, there are insulated skirts available that you can pair with a thick base layer tight for extra warmth.
Fleece jacket or pullover: On colder days, you can wear it while hiking. Fleeces comes in lightweight, midweight and heavyweight options. Select a weight based on the forecast and whether your metabolism runs hot or cold.
Puffy insulated jacket or vest: If things get cold, then also pack a puffy. Standard down, the insulation inside many puffy jackets, loses much of its warmth if it gets wet, so synthetic insulations can be a better bet.
Rain jackets and pants: Keeping dry is key to avoiding hypothermia, so pack a rain jacket and/or pants that offer waterproof, breathable protection.
Hats: When hiking in exposed environments, wear a wide brimmed hat or a billed cap with a sun cape or bandana attached for sun coverage. Both can also be used to keep rain off your face in wet conditions. For colder conditions, pack along a wool or fleece-lined cap to insulate your head. During hunting season, you will want to wear blaze orange. It’s encouraged to wear either a warm beanie or brimmed hat that’s available in this color when hiking during this season for your safety.
Gloves and mittens: Based on the weather forecast, you may need a thinner or thicker glove. Mittens are especially great to have on a much colder outing. I like to pack both — my thin fleece lined gloves while hiking and then pull my mittens over them if I need the extra warmth. Insulated and waterproof gloves are best for winter conditions. Rain liners or mittens are great to keep your hands dry and warm if you catch yourself hiking in the rain.
Gaiters: When trail conditions are muddy or snowy, it’s good to put a pair of gaiters on. They come in a range of heights. I like the below knee gaiters, great for deep snowshoe adventures to block out any snow and good to keep my pants dry and mud free when the seasons change. They also keep trail debris, rain, ticks, and snow out of your boot tops.
Footwear: Hiking Shoes
One of the most important things you’ll wear on the trail are sturdy shoes. You don’t have to have leather boots, but your hiking footwear should provide support, protection from roots and rocks, and traction on wet and dry surfaces.
Traditional boots with ankle support and trail runners are two very popular options for hiking. Depending on the trail, and your personal preference, one may want to hike in hiking sandals – again look for a sandal that will provide support and traction.
Matching Your Footwear with Your Socks
If you’re like me and have an overflowing sock drawer full of many different colors and prints, you may want to match your socks to your outfit and footwear. Or you could just wear whatever sock meets your needs and conditions for that day like most folks.
I wear trail runners from late spring to late fall. I like alternating wearing the Women’s Hiker Micro Crew or Luna, which are both midweight with cushion, and the Sunset Ledge lightweight with cushion on hot days to let my feet breathe a bit more.
During the winter months I swap my trail runners for a waterproof, insulated ankle boot to keep my feet warm and dry. I’ll normally stick with the midweight with cushion micro crew socks, but maybe wear a boot height style such as the Gatewood if I need the extra height.
Should I Wear Something Different If I'm Day Hiking vs. Backpacking or Thru Hiking?
If you’re curious about backpacking or doing a thru hike and wondering if you should be wearing something different than on a day hike, the short answer is not really. You still want to wear and pack the same as the above. Pack for unpredicted changes in the weather, pack extra socks and underwear.
I like to wear the same outfit every day if I’m doing a multiple day hike. Remember when I mentioned that Merino Wool is odor resistant?
Well on a recent thru hike, I wore a Merino shirt for 10 days straight, and it didn’t start smelling until day 7! Same with my backpacking socks – packed 3 Darn Tough Merino Wool pairs. One only for sleeping and two I would alternate every other day.
You’ll want to pack a pair of clean clothes to sleep in every night. I use the base layers discussed earlier, a midweight pair of Merino tights and a fleece half zip pull over with a fresh pair of socks and a beanie if I need the warmth. Also, one may want to pack camp shoes – these are lightweight sandals or a foam clog to slip into after a long day in your hiking shoes.
Consider the Weather and Season
Now that we have the basic clothing considerations out of the way, let’s get more specific regarding clothing needs by season. This will change depending on where you live and what part of the season you’re in. Here are some tips for choosing the most appropriate clothing by season.
Personally, summer for me can be a hit or miss; with my body already running warm, I tend to overheat. But with the proper clothing and hydration, I love summer hiking and the possibility of a post hike swim.
It’s important to keep in mind wild hazards and terrain when choosing summer hiking clothes. Ticks, poisonous snakes, and plants flourish this time of the year. So, wearing pants or tall socks could help prevent you from getting Lyme disease or fighting poison ivy.
Breathable, wicking materials are great for shirts and bottoms to keep the sweat off your skin. Lighter colors absorb less heat and can keep you cooler on hot days. A wide brimmed hat can keep the sun off your face and neck.
For footwear, hiking sandals and trail runners are appropriate for most terrain and dry quickly after wading through water.
As the temperature starts to drop, it’s important to pack additional insulating clothing. Bring extra layers like a fleece mid-layer, puffy, and rain jacket for possible temperature fluctuation that will help keep you comfortable in this unpredictable season.
For footwear, I recommend hiking boots or trail runners with added traction and support, with a bonus of keeping your feet dry if they are waterproof for muddy trail conditions from rain.
Hiking in winter is a whole different animal, but it’s worth the effort to enjoy the beauty of nature covered in snow!
The key here is layers: a base layer with insulating properties such as Merino Wool, an insulating removable mid-layer, and a waterproof/windproof outer layer.
For footwear and accessories, insulated, waterproof hiking boots paired with Merino Wool socks and a beanie and warm gloves are also key to a comfortable, winter hike. Wearing gaiters can help prevent snow from dropping into your boots.
You may also want to wear snowshoes or micro spikes depending on trail conditions. Snowshoes are for staying above a deep layer of snow and prevents post holing, while micro spikes give you traction on snowy, icy surfaces.
This season is very much like fall; weather can be unpredictable. It’s usually wet, and muddy from snowmelt and spring showers. So, make sure you pack the layers needed and a change of socks.
About the Author
Alex McClain is a Catskills 3500 peak completionist, Long Path End-to-Ender, Trail Maintainer and Product Designer for Darn Tough Vermont. She enjoys hiking, peak-bagging, and birding. Her favorite socks are the Luna Micro Crew.