An Expert Guide to What to Wear Hiking

Investing in the right hiking gear can mean the difference between an amazing experience and a dire one. Hiking expert Alex V. is here to help.

Photo by Holly Mandarich
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Today, innovation and advancement in hiking gear has made it possible to trek and survive the outdoors in almost every terrain, all year long.

With so much gear to choose from, it can be hard to decide what you actually need. I’ve been asked a lot of questions about materials, gear and technology while working in the outdoor industry over the last two decades.

“What's the best rain jacket for traveling through Southeast Asia?”

“I live in Tahoe where we have 260 days of sun. What snow pants are going to be comfortable but also keep me dry?”

“I'm going bushwhacking through Belize, what's the toughest shirt I can wear?”

“I'm planning my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail and have no idea what to wear!”

Investing in the right hiking gear can mean the difference between an amazing experience and a dire one.

Two people hike across a snowy plain
Photo by Mitya Er

For instance, if someone ventures out into a hot climate with a two-layer/non-breathable jacket as their only outer layer, perspiration can easily turn into dehydration. Or if someone travels to a wet climate with only a down jacket (which can stay damp for a long period of time), they can become hypothermic. These are all dangerous scenarios you want to avoid. And that’s why it’s absolutely vital to wear the best possible hiking gear for your journey!

The first golden rule: layer. No matter what climate you’re in. Always come prepared with base layers and outer layers for optimal body heat. You’ll be thankful you have that merino long sleeve shirt when it matters! Or that compressible puff jacket at the bottom of your bag when the wind picks up. How about that super breathable wicking tank top when you’re thru-hiking the south end of the Pacific Crest Trail? Bust out the nylon ripstop pants when you encounter thicker, brushier areas.

It’s a matter of temperature, weight, protection and comfort.

Think climate first, terrain second.

Here are some other things to keep in mind when deciding what to wear on your hike.

Best Materials

Purple and grey yarn
Photo by Óscar Aguilar Elías

Cotton vs. Wool and Synthetics

Knowing the right materials for a specific environment is key. Have you ever heard ‘cotton kills’ from your experienced mountaineering friends? It turns out there’s a lot of truth to what seems on the surface to be a dramatic expression. Cotton isn’t dangerous from chemicals leaching into your skin, but rather because it adds to your chances of getting hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a condition in which the body's temperature falls below 95 degrees, and it can lead to death fairly quickly when left untreated. A lot of people think hypothermia only happens when someone is exposed to snow or cold-weather conditions, but frequently, it strikes inexperienced hikers in warmer months with marginal weather. In fact, most hypothermia cases are reported in wet, windy weather with temperatures well above freezing.

The major danger factor with cotton is that it’s hydrophilic - meaning it likes to hold onto moisture and dries slowly. Wet clothing conducts heat away from your body at an extremely fast rate. And cotton can be heavy. It can hold onto moisture up to 27 times its weight when wet.

Contrarily, materials like synthetics and merino wool wick moisture away from the skin and to the outside of the threads where it easily evaporates.

With this in mind, there is a time and place for cotton. It’s a great insulator when dry, and it’s very breathable. An organic cotton t-shirt is especially great for spring and summer hikes. But remember to always pack different hiking outfit accessories, like a light rain jacket, even for a day hike.

Merino wool and synthetic materials are my go-tos for technical layers. Even when wet, they insulate and perform well.

A man stands with his arms spread open on the top of a rock
Photo by Jason Hogan

Construction

If you’ve ever been online shopping for certain types of technical clothing or tents, you’ve likely come across the word ‘denier’ or seen a number like ‘70d’ on a label. So what the heck does it mean? Denier is a unit of measurement that is used to determine the fiber thickness of individual threads or filaments used in the creation of textiles and fabrics. Fabrics with a high denier tend to be thick, sturdy and durable. Fabrics with a low denier tend to be thin, sheer and silky.

Down

Duck or goose down is an amazing insulator. It's in a class of it’s own due to its warmth-to-weight ratio, compressibility, softness and breathability. That said, the disadvantages with down are that it doesn’t usually perform very well when wet and can lose it’s loftness over time.

As with most animal-sourced materials, it might be important to you to trace the source of the down if you have certain ethical standards. There are companies like Patagonia which ensure their recycled down can be traced back to birds that were never force-fed or live-plucked.

Nowadays, with the advancement of technology and biomimicry, we also have down-alternative insulation options like Primaloft which mimics the insulating power of down without absorbing moisture.

GORE-TEX

For some people, GORE-TEX is simply a magic word, and their expectations for the technology are high. But how does the material actually perform and what is it?

Basically, GORE-TEX is a waterproof/breathable fabric membrane that is treated with Teflon. It’s exceptional in its ability to shed water, stay waterproof and remain breathable all at once. The downside? It’s not the most environmentally friendly in its use of certain chemicals, but the company has reportedly made strides since 2011 to manufacture this proprietary tech more responsibly.

DWR

While we’re on the topic of chemicals, let’s talk about DWR. There’s three ways to make something waterproof. Using DWR, GORE-TEX or simply a waterproof material. DWR stands for Durable Water Repellent. It’s a coating applied to fabric or material to make the water bead and roll off. Without DWR, water can easily permeate through fabric which could leave you with heavier, wetter and obviously, colder garments.

The one major drawback to DWR is that it loses its effectiveness over time. When clothes encounter natural abrasion or are washed repeatedly, that outer layer will slowly start to erode away. You can easily test its efficacy by pouring water on the fabric and observe if it rolls off and isn’t absorbed. Fortunately, if it’s losing its coating, there are multiple brands that sell a spray or wash-in treatment to return it to its original glory.

So now that you know what materials to look for, let’s start from the bottom up.

Gear List

A person stretches out their legs as they sit overlooking a lake and mountains
Photo by Simon Migaj

Shoes

Near water? Go waterproof or water resistant. Hot environment? You want them super breathable so they dry quickly and don’t wet-out your feet. Long journey with a lot of weight on your back? Go lightweight and supportive.

It’s also really important to break in your hiking shoes before taking them out on the trail for the first time. Go ahead and wear them out running errands for a few days before really testing them out! This will prevent blisters and any other unpleasant surprises that can often come from wearing them ‘straight out of the box’ by allowing time for them to mold to your feet.

Socks

I cannot stress the importance of good socks enough. It’s well worth a few extra dollars in the long run. Merino wool is one of my favorite materials for colder climates. It keeps you warm yet doesn’t hold onto moisture like other materials – and it’s natural. Bamboo is another great natural material for warmer climates. And it’s breathable too.

Pants and Shorts

How abrasion resistant do you want your trousers to be? I personally feel almost invincible when I’m wearing my hemp canvas shorts through the tropic and volcanic sides of eastern Maui. Equally as resilient with my Black Diamond Swift pants when I’m scrambling around Southwest Utah. Going to trek over some glaciers? Need some insulation? How about that ‘bathroom-friendly’ zipper? Cargo pockets? Convertible pants that zip out to shorts? So many luxuries you would never think of until they’re useful!

Shirts and Long Sleeves

Did I mention merino wool already for moderate to colder climates? That's my go-to material for higher altitudes. How about ripstop materials for more abrasive terrain? Something odor-resistant that you can wear a long time without you or anyone else realizing it? Organic cotton is one of the best breathable natural materials for hotter climates but should never be taken alone. All important factors for your base-layers!

Mid-layers

Pullovers, hoodies, light jackets, vests. Wool is great for warmth, even when wet! Synthetics are great at wicking water and blocking wind!

A woman in a red jacket overlooks green fields
Photo by Shell Robshaw-Bryan

Jackets and Outer Layers

In order of priority of importance: insulation (no insulation to very insulated for warmth), water-resistancy, breathability, abrasion resistance, compressibility, weight. My down jacket doubles as my camping pillow and takes up less space than my first aid kit. I absolutely love it. Almost as much as my Marmot Refuge jacket for my trips to the Pacific Northwest.

Headwear

Essential sun-blocking and super-breathable headwear is key in most hotter or high elevation climates. Heading to Siberia? Time to pack the balaklava for face protection from sub-zero temperatures. In a tropical climate? Whip out the buff which can also act as a headband!

Accessories

Normally accessories fall into the categories of jewelry and fashion – but when hiking longer distances, accessories can be your superhero toolkit! From neck-gaiters to paracord bracelets, camelbacks to fire-strikers and more – you'll be glad you had them along for the journey!

Photo by Mats Hagwell

I’ve had some of my favorite hiking gear and jackets for over a decade. It’s nice knowing I can have more with less! And by choosing your own personal collection of hiking gear after a little thought and research, you can face all of your horizons with confidence for years to come!

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Written By
I've camped and hiked across many parts of the Western United States, Hawaii and Canada. I have been actively training to do the PCT in the next couple of years. I've worked in the outdoor industry for almost two decades. I understand a lot of products, materials and tech that goes into gear which c...

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