Advice: Dressing And Outfitting Yourself For Hiking | The basics of hiking apparel and clothing

So you want to get yourself a collection of some basic clothing for your hiking adventures?  Out of all the equipment you might need, this is probably the easiest part of getting ready to start your hiking experiences.  There really is no specific special clothing that you need for short hikes with good weather.  Where it becomes a little more complicated is that you do have to learn to dress for the conditions that you will be expecting along your hike.

Think of dressing for hiking as working in layers.  There are the base layers that include underwear and socks.  That’s followed by a good pair of pants and a shirt.  After that, it is really dictated by the weather.  Warm and dry?  Stick with the shorts and shirt.  Colder, dress in an additional layer.  Wet?  Find yourself a waterproof shell to wear.

Just remember it is a little bit of science and a little bit of art. You have to wear what you find comfortable to hike in.

The Underwear

The one thing I would never suggest is wearing cotton underwear in any season. Cotton gets wet and stays wet in all but the driest climates. So unless you are planning on hiking in the desert (and even then, if you don’t want chaffing) pick up a pair of synthetic underwear. The synthetic brands of underwear will wick the moisture away from your body as you sweat and you will stay relatively dry. It will also reduce chafing and discomfort, since you won’t have damp clothing right against your skin constantly rubbing as you are walking and climbing.


One of my favorite pairs of synthetic underwear for hiking and other outdoor pursuits are my Ex Officio Give-N-Go Men's Boxer Briefs. These boxer briefs fit comfortably and while they are a bit expensive, last for quite a while. You can also find cheaper synthetic underwear in just about every outdoor gear store. The prices and quality vary, but you want to focus on fit (to prevent chaffing) and material (make sure it’s 100% synthetic) to make sure you will have what you need when hiking.

The Socks

Nothing can ruin a hike faster than blisters and uncomfortable feet. The majority of those problems come from wearing the wrong socks or wearing ill-fitting socks.


So in my mind, a decent pair of hiking socks is essential. Nowadays there are a million different hiking socks available, but all you really need is a quality wool or synthetic blend that will give your feet protection, will wick away any moisture and will be comfortable with the boots that you have. I have always had good luck with the Smartwool Hiker Socks and Dahlgren Hiking Socks. They are reasonably priced and they have stood up to years of various hiking and climbing trips I have been on.

Shirts

If you are hiking in the summertime, I would suggest investing in a decent synthetic t-shirt. These shirts make a huge difference when you are hiking in warm weather and sweating heavily from hiking. They wick the moisture away from your skin and evaporate it away quickly. They also dry quickly when you stop and you can take them off and hang them up and within about 10-15 minutes, they will be mostly dry. REI makes the Tech Tee, the North Face has the Vaporwick series, and EMS has their own brand of synthetic t-shirts and long sleeve shirts, as does Columbia. I’m partial to the Tech Tee and the Vaporwick shirt only because the material feels a bit softer and more like cotton than the very synthetic shirts that EMS produces. That said, EMS is often the cheaper choice.

I have a mix of these shirts and rotate through them for day hikes and bring a couple on overnight hiking trips. They can be washed and quickly dried and besides a few pulls I have not had any problems with them withstanding the wear and tear of hiking.

Pants

I never was one of those people who invested in the hiking pants. You know, the synthetic ones with the pant legs you can zip off and turn the pants into shorts? Well, once I got a pair several years ago, I was complete convert. These pants are lightweight, comfortable to wear and fully functional as pants and as shorts. These pants are incredibly handy for a range of conditions and while the price is a bit steep, they are a worthwhile investment. I’ve had a couple of pairs for years and beyond some wear and tear, they are fine. I have used these pants in all kinds of conditions from shorts in the heat of summer to a layer in the depths of winter.

All the major outdoor retailers make a pair and the price and quality vary widely. I would suggest checking out several different pairs from the different brands and finding what fits you well and what you find to be comfortable. Some are heavier than others, while others offer waterproofing or other bells and whistles.

That’s it for the summer!

If you’re hiking in the summertime, you are pretty much outfitted at this point. The only extras you might want to bring are a light fleece jacket in case it is cold or a lightweight, waterproof shell to protect yourself from a summer storm.

Cold Weather Layers

If you are hiking in colder conditions, you should invest in a light to mid-weight fleece jacket and a heavier weight, long sleeve synthetic shirt that will insulate you better, but allow your body to breathe and stay dry as you sweat. Again, all the major retailers offer long-sleeve versions of their synthetic t-shirts and it they are available in different weights (or really material thicknesses). The heavier the weight of a synthetic t-shirt, the more warmth and insulation it offers. You do not want to get something too thick though, because then it is easy to overheat.

In the cold weather you also have to learn how to layer your clothing so it is easy to remove and add layers as you warm up and get colder. It is especially important in cold weather to be able to do this so you do not get damp and then get yourself too cold to be able to warm up. By adding and subtracting layers, you can keep your body at a comfortable temperature depending on your activity level. If you are climbing a steep mountainside, you will probably be down to a few layers since you will be sweating and you want that moisture to wick away quickly. If you are resting at the summit and eating, you will probably put some of those layers back on to stay warm.

In very cold weather you will probably want to invest in long underwear as well as the long sleeved shirts. This gives you extra insulation under your pants.

For the fleece jackets, you should invest in a lightweight and a mid-weight fleece jacket. You do not need a heavy weight jacket for all but the coldest conditions since you will almost always be moving and the heaviest weight jackets tend to overheat you almost right away. Some good mid-weight jackets include the North Face’s Denali Jacket and EMS’ Core Fleece Jacket. There are jackets that mix the characteristics of a fleece jacket and a waterproof, breathable shell (see below). These “soft shell” jackets include Sierra Design’s Omni Jacket. Over the years I’ve found a solid fleece jacket like the Core Jacket is a great all-purpose jacket for hiking and in changing conditions (not really pouring rain, but light snow and rain), the soft shell jackets really are handy because you don’t have to keep adding and subtracting layers to stay dry and warm.

Wet Weather Wear

Another thing to consider is wet weather. In warmer conditions you will want something that protects you from the rain but does not add bulk. In the winter or in colder conditions, you may want that shell to offer some extra warmth for you. For summertime I like Mountain Hardware’s Epic Jacket. This jacket is very light and provides decent protection from the elements. It also is sturdy enough to stand up to plenty of wear and tear from hiking and wearing a pack over it. EMS also produces a nice, lightweight shell that is perfect for summer and warm weather hiking. For a tougher shell for colder weather, you will want to check how well the material breathes and how well the shell fits over all the other layers that you will be wearing.

For either kind of shell, you will want to make sure that the material is breathable. You do not want to be wearing a plastic bag that will not let your body breath and allow the moisture from you sweat to pass through it, while keeping the water outside out. Materials such of Gore-Tex are great at this, but there are several different materials that work and various price points.

Boots?

Oh that’s an entire story on its own. Check out my Hiking Boot Shopping 101 for guidance there. Next to socks, boots are the most important pieces of gear you will have though, so make sure you get the right pair.

Final Thoughts

It might sound a bit overwhelming, but for the vast majority of hiking, no real special gear is needed. Just get yourself a quality pair of socks, some synthetic underwear, a quality shirt and pants (or shorts), and a jacket or a shell and you will be good to.

Most of all, just enjoy the outdoors. Dressing properly for your trip will make your entire experience that much more enjoyable.


Need more hiking and camping advice?

Adventures in the Outdoors has a number of guides and advice columns on a number of different hiking, camping and outdoor adventure related topics, including our introductory guide to hiking, Hiking 101.  Browse our Advice Section for more information and to get out and start enjoying the great outdoors! 

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