Choosing the right hiking clothes for safety & enjoyment

According to an article published by National Geographic, of those hikers who found themselves in a survival situation, 12% of them named clothing as their primary source of heat. This same article goes on to argue that day hikers are the most vulnerable in survival situations for the simple reason that they usually take the least amount of precaution, and “are more likely to bring a camera than extra clothes in a backpack.” Partly for this reason, a number of hikes end in death each year.

Preparation is the key to survival. By taking the time to read this article in advance of your next hike, you have taken the first step to ensure your wilderness experience is both rewarding and safe.

Before you Hike

Before we dive into the key components of hiking wear, there are several factors to consider regarding the environment in which you plan to hike, the time of year, and the terrain you will cover. Regardless of your level of experience, hiking can present a challenging and dangerous activity. 

Environment & Region

Clothing provides an invaluable defense against the elements, but knowing what kinds of elements you will encounter is key in choosing the right gear. The more you hike and travel to different regions of the world, the more you will find that subtle changes in humidity and temperature can greatly affect the types of clothes you take with you. 

snow capped mountain reflecting in the lake

In general, you will know the climate based on the region, but there are many other environmental factors to consider. Taking seasonal variation into consideration, you will also need to anticipate elevation changes. Going from a low elevation hike through a dense forest, to the summit of a mountain above the treeline, you will encounter a wide range of temperatures, wind speeds, precipitation, and sun exposure. 

Just take Mt. Washington in New Hampshire as an example. An article published by Weather.com explains that snow has been recorded on the mountain in every month of the year, and winds regularly exceed Tropical Storm speeds. But, compared to many of the Rockies or the Alps, Mt. Washington is quite small.  

Seasonal Variation

While the seasons are a convenient weather forecaster, you might forget that different regions come with different wet and dry periods. Monsoon seasons vary from place to place, but in California, you should also take into consideration the frequency of wildfires. Additionally, the plants and bugs that come out at the beginning of a region’s hiking season may be completely different than those present at the end of the season. 

Terrain

group of hikers climbing up boulders on side of mountain

And finally, make sure you study the landscape of your upcoming hike before you get there. The condition and composition of the ground will have the greatest impact on your footwear. Trails can be icy or muddy, or smooth and dry. Of course, climbing up ice-coated boulders during the middle of February is way different than those same granite boulders at the end of June. But even a small amount of run-off can freeze over and turn the trail into an ice sheet. In this situation, you would want to add crampons to your footgear. 

While I strongly advise against wearing jeans for a hike, there are other materials that will restrict your range of motion just as severely. For this reason also, consider the variability of the terrain. You will find it hard to climb over rocks and tree roots while wearing thick, inflexible cotton or denim. 

Materials

What They Are and What They Do

As you search for the pieces of your hiking outfit, you will undoubtedly encounter many tags and labels with lists of fabrics that are supposedly the “perfect” material for the job. To help you, I’ll try to cover the basics here and explain why they’re useful (or not). 

Cotton

My first piece of advice is to avoid cotton. (Unfortunately, this means denim, too, since denim is made from cotton fiber.) Cotton retains water from sweat, rain, and humidity, and is one of the worst materials for wicking moisture away from your skin. And when the temperature heads south, cotton does little to retain heat.

Polyester

Polyester performs well when wicking moisture from your skin. It tends to be lightweight and breathable, and will dry out fairly quickly. However, like other synthetic materials, polyester tends to promote the accumulation of odor-causing bacteria. 

If you plan to hike in the spring or early summer, woven polyester makes a great defense against bugs because it is difficult for them to penetrate. Woven polyester is durable as well, and works great in pants if you plan to explore off-trail through high grass or brush. On the other hand, when the bugs have died off in the late summer, autumn, and winter, wool will offer increased breathability. 

Wool

Wool has become a favorite among hikers, campers, and hunters for its breathability, warmth, moisture wicking, and natural deodorant properties. One reason for its upsurge in popularity is due to an improvement in comfort, specifically with the increased use of Merino wool, which comes from Merino sheep and is known for its softness, among other things. Classic wool can be coarse and uncomfortable to wear against your skin, but as a second, insulating layer, this may not be an issue. 

person wearing yellow shoes with red laces and wool socks

Down

Down comes from the plumage of birds – more precisely, from the layer of plumage beneath feathers and closest to the bird’s skin. Down is common in water birds, such as geese and ducks, and helps to retain heat. Because of this, down contains inherent properties that make it a superb material for hiking clothes. 

In general, goose and duck down have the best warmth-to-weight ratio when compared to any synthetic material, but the one negative aspect of down is that it does not perform as well in humid regions, such as the eastern United States. In the dry climate of California, for example, down will retain more heat and be lighter and more compressible than fleece. 

Fleece

Fleece, which is made from polyester, offers a comparable alternative to down, but it tends to be heavier and less compressible. However, fleece has the additional benefit of retaining heat when it becomes wet.

Layering

Active Layer

Just as the different materials have different properties, the various layers of your hiking clothes serve different purposes. 

The active layer, or base layer, consists of your undergarments and includes items such as underwear, bras, camisoles, long underwear, leggings, tank tops, and t-shirts. The active layer will remain in contact with your skin for hours at a time during strenuous climbs and periods of rest. Thus, the active layer plays a critical role in removing moisture from the skin and preventing irritations such as chafing and blisters. 

Also, the base layer will protect your skin and function as the final barrier between your skin and the environment. Depending on the fabric you choose, it will protect you from bug bites, create a layer of warmth, and provide cover from harmful sun rays. 

And of course, the base layers also provide the essential coverage you need to preserve decency – unless you find yourself inspired by the free air of nature, which does happen sometimes. 

collection of gear camera shoes pack compass jacket on map

Insulation Layer

The middle layer is where you will want to include your insulating clothes. You will want this layer to consist of clothes made with lightweight insulators, such as down and fleece. Many of your “puffy” garments will be best suited for this layer, but you could also include sweaters and insulated pants. The primary function of this layer is to retain the heat generated by your body, while permitting normal range of motion. 

Outer Layer

The outer layer, or “shell,” serves as the initial barrier between you and the elements. The purpose of the outer layer is to enable the inner layers to do their jobs effectively, by keeping both rain and wind out. 

“Soft shell” garments include water-resistant jackets and pants. While these are typically made with a water repellent coating, this coating typically disintegrates quickly with use and does little to keep water out over prolonged exposure. Soft shell items perform best in wind, light rain, or snow. Still, what they lack in waterproofing, they make up for in breathability. 

“Hard shell” garments are usually advertised as waterproof. The truth is, you’re gonna get wet one way or another, but hard shell jackets provide greater water resistance than their soft shell counterparts. Unfortunately, it will feel like you are wearing a plastic bag because of how it traps heat and moisture emitted by your own body. 

In any case, the outer layer is necessary for these two more extreme elements, but remember that you can always remove the outer layer when the weather is calm and dry. 

Extremities

Feet

Shoes & Boots

The one part of your body that will take the most abuse during a hike is your feet. Your feet and ankles absorb much of the shock of each step. They shift to the angle of each rock and provide the impetus for your forward motion. Finding the right footwear could be the difference that makes or breaks your ability to rough it in the wilderness. 

A rule of thumb that you will often hear is that “one pound on your feet is five pounds on your back.” The United States military has conducted many studies to determine the effects of heavier and lighter boots on soldiers, and in his article “Weight on Your Feet,” Jörgen Johansson reviews several studies that support the adage. One study even showed that an “increase in oxygen uptake that could be attributed to wearing of boots compared to shoes varied from 5.9% to 10.2%, with an average of 8% in spite of the fact that the weight added by the boots was only 1.4% of the persons [sic] body weight.” It is clear then that lighter hiking shoes and boots will require less energy and allow you to hike longer. 

So, what’s better: shoes or boots? 

man sitting on rock with feet hanging over edge in golden hour

There are many great lightweight, low-cut hiking shoes and trail-running shoes out there, many with superb traction and comfort. In general, hiking shoes tend to weigh less than hiking boots, and they allow your ankles to move more freely and naturally. 

Hiking boots will usually weigh more, and while they offer similar comfort and traction, their high collar will restrict movement of your ankle. As Andrew Skurka, a professional long-distance backpacker, points out, the support that hiking boots give to your ankles can create stress in the knees, especially when hiking on uneven terrain. The ankle is adapted for movement in six directions, and the knee cannot compensate for this movement when the ankles are locked up. While some support may be useful for those with weak ankles, Skurka recommends low-cut hiking shoes for most situations. 

Waterproof versus Non-waterproof

Additionally, Skurka notes that he would choose non-waterproof shoes over waterproof ones for the simple reason that non-waterproof shoes will dry faster since they allow more air flow. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but waterproof shoes are designed to prevent water from penetrating through the shoe’s material. At some point in your hike, your feet will almost certainly get wet, either from rainwater running down your leg, crossing a stream, or your own sweat. For this reason, he says, it is more important to minimize the effects of wet feet, rather than trying to keep your feet dry at all times.

Socks

Socks are another critical part of your footwear. A common habit among backpackers is to carry two pairs of socks: one to wear and the other to switch out if (and when) the first pair gets wet. If you are only planning on a day hike, you probably do not need to worry about carrying extra pairs of socks. For long-distance hikers, you should definitely plan to take at least two pairs. 

When choosing the material for your socks, wool works best for keeping your feet both warm and dry, and even in hot climates, wool will breathe well and wick away moisture to keep your feet cool. Polyester will possess some of these properties as well, but since it is a synthetic fiber, it tends to promote the growth of odor causing bacteria. 

Gaiters

The main purpose of wearing gaiters is to keep twigs and stones out of your shoes and to keep the outside of your shoes more clean. Gaiters come as either tall or short, and the type you choose will depend on the nature of your hike. 

If you plan to trudge through snow, then tall gaiters would be best. Tall gaiters are also better suited for boots, are usually waterproof, and if you plan to wear them hunting, you might also consider tall gaiters for walking through high grass. 

If, on the other hand, you are planning a hike through the woods, staying mostly on a cleared trail, short gaiters will serve you just fine. 

On a related note, depending on the region where you are hiking, you may want to consider wearing snake gaiters, rather than spending a ton of money on snake boots. 

hiker drying his socks and shoes while sitting on a log across a stream
Crampons

Hiking in the winter months over ice or snow can create extra hazards for those wearing regular hiking shoes. For this problem, I would recommend investing in a pair of crampons that you can attach and remove when necessary. 

I personally love hiking in the cold months of winter, and many of the trails I follow will be covered with ice, especially in February and March when the snow melts during the day, runs down the path, and refreezes during the night. For me, crampons work best because I can remove them for the rocky, non-icy parts of the trail, or slide them back on when I encounter ice or snow. 

Hands

Gloves can provide warmth for your hands in cold rain or snow. However, gloves are an irreplaceable addition to your gear when hiking windy and exposed trails or mountains. They also protect your hands from thorns, sharp twigs and sticks, bug bites, and poisonous plants. Since you use your hands for almost everything, I would recommend taking extra care of them. 

Head

The head, face, and neck are the one region of your body that is exposed to the elements more than any other. There are several options to help you reduce this exposure, as well as to aid in absorbing sweat and preventing frostbite. Rather than going into the pros and cons of each, here is a list of some of the choices available to you with the most common functions:

  • Wide brim hats – reduce sun exposure from all directions; some protection from bugs
  • Baseball caps – reduce sun exposure in one direction; some protection from bugs
  • Headbands – absorb sweat; warm the ears
  • Scarves – protection from wind and blowing sand; absorb sweat; warm the ears and face
  • Neck gaiters or buffs – used as a scarf, headband, or bandana; protection from wind and blowing sand; absorb sweat; warm the ears and face; reduce sun exposure
  • Bandanas – absorb sweat; protection from wind and blowing sand
  • Ear warmers – make you more attractive
  • Beanie – warm the ears, forehead, and scalp
  • Balaclava – covers scalp, face, ears and neck; protection from wind and blowing snow or sand; absorb sweat; warm the ears and face; reduce sun exposure
man wearing wide brimmed hat looking down canyon

Extras

Sunglasses

Even if you are planning to wear a hat with a visor, you should still consider taking a good pair of sunglasses with you. Sunglasses and safety goggles can offer much more than simply blocking the light. They can help filter out harmful UV rays, shield your eyes from protruding branches, and reduce headaches by eliminating eye strain. If you choose polarized lenses, you will also have a reduced glare from snow, ice, and water. 

To be totally honest, one of the reasons I wear sunglasses during the summer is to keep flies out of my eyes – especially the gnats that dive bomb your eyeball every other second. 

Belts

Belts are typically used to hold your pants around your waste, but depending on your gear, they can also be used for attaching additional items that you want to have handy, such as a knife, camera, or water bottle. 

Belts can also be used to strap things together, such as a bundle of wood, or two sticks when your tent pole breaks, or your sleeping bag. A lot of things you might use a belt for, you never would have expected, and that is exactly why I recommend taking a belt. 

In my experience, nylon belts with autogrip, double ring, or flip buckles are more versatile than tongue buckles since you can tighten the belt down to any size. 

Buying Local

In an ever growing global economy, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of supporting our local retailers and organizations. The reason that so many great trails and parks exist is due in large part to the efforts of local volunteers and organizations who recognize the importance of the wilderness and who strive to preserve it. Without proactive residents and retailers, trails such as the AT, the CDT, and the PCT would not exist. By supporting local businesses, you are strengthening local economies and promoting better opportunities for all. Furthermore, buying gear from nearby retailers will give you access to great advice, information, and service, which will save you time, money, and trouble in the long run. 

Do your part: buy local.

Over to you…

Aside from planning a backpacking trip, choosing what to wear will be one of the most effective ways to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable experience in the wild. I’ve tried to give you as many of the tips I had to learn the hard way, along with some sage wisdom I’ve learned from others. 

If you think I missed something, I’d love to hear about it, so leave me a comment below! 

Show Sources
  1. Brockett, Claire L. & Graham J. Chapman. “Biomechanics of the ankle.” Orthopaedics and Trauma, Volume 30, Issue 3, Pages 232-238. June 2016. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877132716300483
  2. Donegan, Brian. “Mount Washington, New Hampshire: The Most Extreme Weather Observatory on Earth.” The Weather Channel. December 29, 2016. https://weather.com/science/weather-explainers/news/mount-washington-new-hampshire-observatory-extreme-weather
  3. “Foot Marching, Load Carriage, and Injury Risk: Technical Information Paper No. 12-054-0616.” Army Public Health Center. May 2016. https://phc.amedd.army.mil/PHC%20Resource%20Library/TIP_No_12-054-0616_LoadCarriageandMarching.pdf
  4. Gray, Douglas. “Are all Denim Blue Jeans Made of 100% Cotton?” Cotton Mill. October 6, 2014. https://www.cottonmill.com/blog/are-all-denim-blue-jeans-made-of-100-cotton/
  5. “How to Choose Crampons.” REI Co-Op. https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/crampons-snow-ice-climbing.html
  6. Johansson, Jörgen. “Weight On Your Feet.” FJÄDERLÄTT. February 23,2018. http://www.fjaderlatt.se/2009/11/weight-on-your-feet.html
  7. Moye, Jayme. “Day hikers are the most vulnerable in survival situations. Here’s why.”National Geographic. April 11, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/2019/04/hikers-survival-tips/
  8. Parker, Vicki. “What’s Killing America’s Hikers?” Sky Above Us. Feburary 26,2017. https://skyaboveus.com/climbing-hiking/Whats-Killing-Americas-Hikers
  9. “Quirky Questions: How much body heat do I really lose through my head?” One Medical. January 15, 2019. https://www.onemedical.com/blog/live-well/body-heat
  10. Skurka, Andrew. “Andrew Skurka: “Ultimate Hiking Gear & Skills Clinic” Talks at Google.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGQTcQhL08A&t=2271s

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