New to hiking? Time for a fit check. What you wear during a hike can be the difference between having a fun, memorable experience and a miserable one. You don’t have to go out and splurge on a whole new wardrobe, either. Start with the essential pieces, and you can build from there.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on what to wear for hiking every season.


What to Wear for Hiking: The Basics of Layering

Dressing for a hiking adventure can be challenging because many variables determine what to wear. Being too hot or cold can spell the difference between having a great hike and being uncomfortable.

Because of how unpredictable the weather can be, the most important skill to pick up as a hiker is leveraging the layering system to keep your core body temperature in check.

Layering is a system that involves dressing in a versatile range of clothing, each with insulation, moisture-wicking, breathability, and waterproof properties. Once you get a handle on this system, you’ll always be comfortable on your hikes, regardless of the temperature.

Here’s how it works.

Think of each garment layer as a barrier protecting your skin from the outdoor elements. The more layers you have, the more protected you’ll be, which means you’ll be warmer. When it gets hot, all you have to do is take off the top layers to maintain a comfortable temperature. When it gets cold, you simply layer up again. Go to this guide below for a detailed breakdown of the layering system.

Layer 1: Base Layer (Next to the Skin)

This is the layer of clothing in direct contact with your skin. It offers the least amount of insulation and is mainly charged with wicking sweat and moisture away from your skin. When hiking in winter, the base layer will usually be a little thicker, while it’ll typically be lighter in the summer.

Layer 2: Mid-Weight / Breathable Layer

This layer comes immediately after the base layer and offers moisture-wicking and insulating properties. Garments in this layer can be worn as standalone outfits or as part of the layering system in cold weather. The mid-weight layer wicks moisture away from the base layer, allowing it to spread over a large surface area for better evaporation. This is the layer that keeps you dry while hiking.

Layer 3: Insulating Layer

Garments in this third layer are designed to keep you warm. If you’re hiking in the winter, then an insulating layer might be a synthetic down jacket. Of course, if you’re hiking in the summer, this layer might be a fleece jacket. Whatever the season, the insulating garment you wear should complement the rest of your layers and the intensity of your hike.

Layer 4: Outmost Layer (Snow / Rain Shell)

The outermost shell layer is the first line of defense against the harsh elements you encounter on the trail. A good quality shell jacket or pants should be waterproof and have wind-breaking properties. It should also be breathable to prevent too much moisture from building up on your body.


How Many Layers to Bring

When deciding what to wear for hiking, there are three factors to consider:

  • The weather and potential changes in the outdoor temperatures: If it’s hot out, then you can skip the base layer.
  • The intensity of the hike: Strenuous hikes can cause you to be sweaty, which can be quite uncomfortable in the cold.
  • The geographical landscape of your hiking location: If your hike involves ascending mountains, then you can expect a temperature drop and a high chance of rain. But i
  • If you’re descending in canyons, for instance, you can expect a rise in temperatures.

With that brief overview in mind, let’s go to breaking down each piece of hiking gear.


Hiking Shirts

Hiking shirts come in a wide variety of styles. It might take a bit of trial and error before you find the one that works for you.

Merino Wool Hiking Shirt

Hiking shirts made from merino wool are a favorite among avid hikers. Their quick-drying, moisture-wicking, and lightweight properties make them ultra-comfortable, especially when hiking in cooler weather.

The cherry on the cake is how odor-resistant they are. No matter how sweaty you get, a wool hiking shirt will not smell, making it a great option for a multi-day hike.

The only drawback is that they’re pricier than other hiking shirts. Is it a worthwhile investment? If you will be in the hiking business for a while, then absolutely!

Best Merino Wool Hiking Shirt for Men – Merino.tech Long Sleeve Shirts

Merino.tech Merino Wool Base Layer - Mens 100%...

Best Merino Wool Hiking Shirt for Women – Merino.tech Long Sleeve Shirt

Merino.tech Merino Wool Base Layer Women 100%...

Quick-Dry Polyester Hiking Shirt

If you’re looking for an affordable alternative to Merino wool hiking shirts, then the ones made from polyester are a great option. Just make sure you read the label to check that they’re quick-dry and don’t contain cotton in their blend. Usually, a good quality quick-dry polyester hiking shirt will have some odor-resistant properties—to an extent.

Best Polyester Hiking Shirt for Men – BALEAF Long Sleeve Shirt UPF50+

BALEAF Men's Rash Guard Shirts Fishing Long Sleeve...

Best Polyester Hiking Shirt for Women – BALEAF Long Sleeve Shirt UPF50+

BALEAF Women's Running Shirts Quick Dry...

Hiking Bottoms

When figuring out what pants to wear hiking, you have a few different options to pick from. The choice of one over the other comes down to personal preference and the type of hiking you intend to do.

If you’re planning to go on a day hike, hiking shorts or leggings would be an appropriate choice of attire. On the other hand, hiking pants would be a better choice if you have multi-day hikes scheduled.

Here’s why:

Hiking Shorts

If it’s warm out and not too buggy, wearing hiking shorts is fine. Any breathable pair of athletic shorts will suffice. That said, you should still carry a pair of leggings or pants to change into in case the weather takes an unprecedented turn.

Best Hiking Shorts for Men – Columbia Silver Ridge Cargo Shorts

Columbia Men's Silver Ridge Cargo Short

Best Hiking Shorts for Women – NRS Lolo Shorts Women’s

NRS Women's Lolo Shorts

Hiking Leggings

Before you slip on your yoga pants and hit the trails, it’s important to note that there are specific leggings designed for hiking. These are designed for comfort and durability. The last thing you want is for them to get snagged on a branch or tear when brushed up against a rock.

Most brands design them with extra reinforcement around high-wear areas like the butt, knees, and seams prone to tears. Hiking leggings are a natural choice for day hikes since they aren’t as thick or bulky as pants.

Best Hiking Leggings for Men – Under Armour Men’s HeatGear Leggings

Under Armour Men's Armour HeatGear Leggings ,...

Best Hiking Leggings for Women – Carhartt Women’s Utility Leggings

Carhartt Women's Force Stretch Utility Legging,...

Hiking Pants

Traditional pants are ideal for long, multi-day hikes since they’re designed to withstand all sorts of weather and terrain conditions. They are made from highly-durable material, typically a blend of polyester and nylon, are weather resistant and are extremely breathable.

The best thing about them is all the pockets they come with, so you have plenty of room to store snacks, your phone, and anything else you need within close reach.

When shopping for a pair or two of pants, keep an eye out for those treated with a durable water repellent (DWR). This coating on the pants ensures they’re water-resistant. Keep in mind that water resistance isn’t the same as waterproofing.

Water-resistant pants simply provide some protection against external moisture. Some moisture will still get through. Wearing rain pants is the only way to get full protection when hiking in rainy conditions. These are completely waterproof.

Best Hiking Pants for Men – TBMPOY Men’s Lightweight Hiking Pants

TBMPOY Men's Travel Hiking Pants Lightweight...

Best Hiking Pants for Women – 686 Women’s Mistress Insulated Cargo Pant

686 Women's Mistress Insulated Cargo Waterproof...

Insulating Layer

The insulating layer of your hiking gear is supposed to keep you warm in case temperatures drop. It will typically comprise a fleece sweater, puffy jacket or synthetic jacket.

Consider bringing a light fleece sweater if you’re going on a warmer hike. Fleece is a soft, warm, breathable, and quick-drying polyester fabric. It isn’t too bulky and will prevent you from getting chilling when hiking on shaded trails or lower-altitude mountain summits. It gives you just the right amount of warmth without getting too hot.

Best Hiking Fleece Jackets for Men – Columbia Men’s Full Zip Jacket

Columbia Men's Steens Mountain 2.0 Full Zip Fleece...

Best Hiking Fleece for Women – Columbia Women’s Full Zip Jacket

Columbia Women's Benton Springs Full Zip, Cirrus...

If it’s more than just a little chilly or outright cold, a fleece sweater won’t cut it. You must bring out the big guns—a synthetic down jacket. They are designed with a nylon exterior and insulated with synthetic down feathers, which are remarkably warm.

One of the great things about synthetic down is how compact they are. You can fold it up into the size of a water bottle and throw it in your backpack. Unless you’re hiking in the winter or autumn when temperatures are really low, a synthetic jacket works fine for chilly weather.

Best Hiking Jacket for Men – Columbia Men’s Autumn Park Down Jacket

Columbia Men's Autumn Park Down Jacket

Best Hiking Jacket for Women – Carve Designs Horizon Women’s Down Jacket

Carve Designs Women's Horizon Jacket, Moss Camo,...

Rain Jacket

One of the first lessons you’ll learn as a hiker is always being prepared. The weather on the trails can be quite unpredictable. It can go from being hot and sunny one minute to pouring torrential rain the next.

Even if the forecast predicts a 0% chance of rain, you should always have a rain jacket in your backpack. Trust us. You don’t want to learn this the hard way.

Like your rain pants, your rain jacket should also be waterproof to keep you dry when hiking in the rain.

Best Hiking Rain Suit – TIDEWE Rain Suit Waterproof Rainwear

TIDEWE Rain Suit, Waterproof Breathable...

Footwear

There are different types of shoes you can wear for hiking. The ones you pick come down to your preferences and the type of hike you’re going on.

Running Sneakers

If you’re new to hiking, you’ll likely start with the easier trails. Any good pair of running shoes will be fine for the hike. You’ll want to invest in hiking or boots as you graduate to longer hikes with some elevation gain and erratic weather.

Hiking Shoes

At first glance, hiking shoes look like running sneakers, but make no mistake—they’re not the same thing.

Hiking shoes offer more stability, better traction, and more cushioning than running shoes and are also designed to be water-resistant. Some brands waterproof their gear but expect a little water to get into your shoes when hiking through streams or pouring rain.

If you want a hiking footwear that offers more support, you need a hiking boot.

Best Hiking Shoe for Men – Merrell Men’s Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoes

Merrell Men's Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe, Walnut, 10...

Best Hiking Shoe for Women – Merrell Women’s Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoes

Merrell Women's Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe, Smoke, 8...

Hiking Boots

Hiking boots are essentially best hiking shoes designed with a higher ankle. The higher ankle is meant to provide more ankle support, which reduces the likelihood of spraining it when (not if) you lose your footing when hiking trails peppered with loose rocks and stones.

The thing to note with hiking boots is that they tend to be quite stiff when brand new. Expect a bit of blistering around your toes when you first wear them. It’ll take at least three to four hikes to fully break them in so they mold to the shape of your feet. That’s just part of the process.

They’re also a little heavier than running and hiking shoes, so they can be tiring if you have a longer distance to cover. You get used to them after a while, and are a must-have for hikers with weak ankles?

How can you tell you have weak ankles, you might ask? If you frequently injure or sprain them, get sore easily, have balance issues, or often twist outward when walking, these are all signs that you need extra ankle support.

If you intend to go on a multi-day hike, hiking boots will be better than hiking shoes due to the extra ankle support to stabilize your foot. That way, the muscles around your feet don’t have to work as hard and, as such, won’t get tired quickly.

Best Hiking Boots for Men – Timberland Field Trekker Mid Hiker Boot Mens

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Best Hiking Boots for Women – Columbia Women’s Newton Ridge Plus Hiking Boot

Columbia Women's Newton Ridge Plus Waterproof...

Trail Runners

If hiking shoes and running sneakers had a baby, it would be trail runners. They offer more stability and support than running shoes but are more lightweight, comfortable shoes and breathable than hiking shoes. They are also quick-drying, a core feature of any good hiking footwear.

Best Trail Running Shoes for Men – Salomon Men’s Speedcross 5 Trail Runners

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Best Trail Running Shoes for Women – Salomon Women’s Speedcross 5 Trail Runners

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Socks

The socks you wear on a hike can distinguish between an enjoyable experience and one that ends in pruney toes and painful blisters. The socks you pick should be made of wool or quick-drying synthetic fabric. They should also be thick to cushion your feet so you don’t get blisters or chafing.

Ensure the hiking socks you wear are weight appropriate for the season you’ll be hiking. Go heavy in winter and lighter in summer.

Best Hiking Socks – Smartwool Hike Light Margarita Crew Socks

Smartwool Hike Light Margarita Crew Socks

Hiking Accessories

In addition to hiking outfit, you’ll need two additional accessories to ensure your day on the trails is comfortable.

Trekking Poles

If you’re going on a hike with significant elevation gain, consider bringing a pair of trekking poles. These help with stability and reduce the pressure exerted on your knees as you hike, especially if you’ll be on the trails for several hours. They are especially useful when going downhill, which can be brutal on your knees.

Best Trekking Poles – TrailBuddy Collapsible Hiking Poles

TrailBuddy Lightweight Trekking Poles - 2-pc Pack...

Daypack

A daypack is a fancy hiking term for a backpack to stow all your extra gear. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Any conventional backpack will do. However, if you decide to invest in one specifically for hiking, ensure you get something with solid back support, padded shoulder straps, and perhaps a compartment to hold your water bladder.

Consider getting one that comes with an adjustable waist belt. The belt will help transfer some of the weight from your back and shoulders to your hips. It will make it easier to carry, especially during long hikes.

Best Hiking Backpack – Venture Pal 40L Lightweight Daypack

Venture Pal 40L Lightweight Packable Travel Hiking...

Hiking Attire vs Backpacking Attire: What’s the Difference?

A female backpacker out in nature

We get this question a lot. The truth is—there isn’t much difference between the two as far as layering requirements go. The main difference comes down to durability.

Hiking is a hobby. You probably do it every other weekend.

Backpacking is a lifestyle, meaning that’s all you do year-round. For this reason, backpacking clothing tends to be more durable, weather-resistant, and quick-drying than hiking outfit.

When choosing backpacking clothes, you want to pick items that won’t snag or tear when brushed up against rocks. You also want to choose base layer clothing with quick-drying properties to wick away moisture efficiently. Invest in good-quality rain pants and a rain jacket for maximum protection against bad weather. The same applies to hiking boots.


Best Fabric for Hiking Clothing

Wool

Merino wool is a common fabric used in base layer clothing, socks, underwear, and anything else that directly touches your skin. The properties of wool make it such that it is naturally quick-drying, moisture-wicking, breathable, and odor-resistant. It also provides a surprising amount of insulation to keep you warm even when wet.

Fleece

Fleece material is made from brushed polyester, which makes the fibers thick and fluffy. It is a common fabric used in the insulating layer, not just for sweaters but also for pants. Fleece is quick-drying and extremely warm.

Polyester and Nylon

Polyester and nylon are used in various outdoor clothing. Overall, polyester is typically used to make athletic wear due to its quick-drying properties. Most pants and synthetic base layer items are made from polyester in the hiking world.

On the other hand, synthetic jackets are usually made with a nylon outer shell. Polyester-nylon blends are also commonly used in hiking outfits, hiking shirts, pants, rain jackets, hard-shell clothing, and other out-layer clothing.

Polyester and nylon are excellent at drying quickly and wicking sweat and moisture away from the body. They are a more affordable alternative to hiking outfits woven from wool.

Cotton

In theory, cotton might seem like a great choice for hiking clothing since it is highly breathable and absorbent. While both are true, cotton is the absolute worst fabric for hiking, and here’s why.

Generally, if you get rained on and your cotton clothing gets wet, you’ll stay wet for the rest of your hike. Why? It isn’t quick-drying or moisture-wicking. If you sweat, which you inevitably will, you’ll stay wet and sticky throughout your hike.

You don’t want to stay wet during a hike. Wet clothing can cause your core body temperature to drop to the point of hypothermia.


Seasonal Guide on What to Wear for Hiking

Summer Hike

As tempting as it might be to wear shorts, sun hat and tank tops during a hot and sunny summer hike.A sun hat would be a more effective measure to shield oneself from harmful sun rays and provide additional coverage to prevent sunburn. Here’s what you should wear when summer hiking:

  • A wide-brimmed sun hat
  • A long-sleeve hiking shirt, preferably one that’s UPF-rated
  • Breathable hiking pants or hiking leggings
  • Light wool socks

Winter Hike

A base layer is important during winter hikes. You’ll want something to wick away the sweat you work up as you hike so you don’t get cold. Here’s what you should wear:

  • A wool t shirt or quick-drying polyester hiking shirt
  • Breathable pants with wool or polyester legging underneath, depending on how cold it is
  • A fleece or a synthetic down for the mid-weight layer
  • A snow or rain shell jacket
  • Mittens or insulated and waterproof gloves depending on how cold it is
  • A wool beanie

Rainy Hike

If you’re hiking in rainy weather, then here’s what you should wear:

  • A wool shirt
  • Breathable hiking pants
  • A rain jacket and rain pants
  • Wool socks and waterproof hiking boots

Final Thoughts

There you have it—what to wear for hiking in all seasons. The main thing to remember when choosing hiking clothes is to always be prepared for whatever weather forecast throws your way. It is always better to over-pack than not have the right gear for treacherous conditions. Use the tips in this guide to dress appropriately for your upcoming hike.

In the meantime, are you torn between a pole tent and a frame one for your next camping adventure? Find out which one you should pick here.


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Last update on 2024-04-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API