What to wear hiking: a high level guide for hikers
One of the most often asked questions we have here at TrekSumo is: what to wear hiking? And it’s one that spans all weather conditions and terrains. Whilst we can’t give you a definitive list covering every possibility, we can give you a rule of thumb guide that will help you choose the right hiking clothes for the conditions you’ll be travelling in. We’ve also written a selection of more comprehensive guides to hiking clothes.
Jake and I do have a few photos showing us wearing sandals, but never for hiking in. For me, that’s a big no-no. Some of you may disagree, but I have bitter memories of stubbed toes and grinding the soles of my feet on small shards of stone and pebbles thanks to the ‘freedom’ of open-toed footwear. Never again!
The one piece of gear we do recommend you pack for any hike is a lightweight rain jacket. Unless you’re going to be hiking in torrential rain in which case, you’ll need a good shell layer.
I’ve been caught out in the desert when a flash downpour soaked me to the skin. On that day, I would have given my
chocolate snacks right arm to have a waterproof layer available.
Before we move on, this guide only covers the clothes you need to consider when venturing outdoors. We’ll deal with the contents of your rucksack, tents, cooking gear and food in another post.
Okay, let’s get a little more detailed.
Cold weather hiking clothes
I picked this one first as I love travelling in cold weather. In lower temperatures you can work harder for longer before you start sweating, although you do need to ensure you wearing wicking layers to remove sweat from your skin to prevent getting cold when you stop moving.
Cold weather footwear
You need hiking shoes at a minimum, but boots give you the best protection from cold winds. And if you want to go ‘old-school’, you can tuck your trousers into the boot cuffs to prevent the chill winds from reaching parts you’d rather keep warm.
My go to choice for cold environments are my Merrell Moab 2 boots. They’re not the latest, greatest iteration of hiking boot, but they are tough and durable. They’re also flexible enough to cope with many different terrains – I wore mine when I fastpacked the length of Lake Baikal, Russia.
No matter what your choice, I suggest asking yourself a few questions before picking a pair of boots, or shoes:
- do you need to fit spikes to your footwear? If so, you’ll need to ensure the fittings are compatible with the boots, or shoes. Trust me, there’s no feeling in the world like discovering your Yak Tracks don’t fit halfway along your route.
- Do the soles have enough grip, and ‘stickiness’ when you’re moving across slippery terrain?
- Do they provide enough ankle support?
And you’ll need some good socks to keep your feet warm. A good rule of thumb is to wear two layers of socks – a thin pair with a thick, well insulate pair over the top. This approach has two benefits:
- you can keep the thin socks on for weeks, drying them out using your own body heat. Sure, it gets a little whiffy after a times, but the big bonus is that wearing them…
- reduces the risk of blisters. Your heavy outer socks rub against the base layer, not the heels and soles of your feet which means zero friction, pain free hiking.
Cold weather footwear summary
Cold weather hiking footwear should:
- be flexible enough to cope with varying conditions, including ice and snow if you’re planning to head out into super cold environments;
- have excellent support because you’re guaranteed to slip if moving across ice;
- compatible with you yak tracks, or micro spikes.
Base layer clothing
The key to staying warm, but with the option of regulating body temperature on your travels, is to layer your clothes. Also known as the ‘onion system’, but without the tears and curses, layering can sometimes be misunderstood.
The idea is to encase your body in multiple thin layers between which pockets of air are trapped. As you move these become islands of heat that protect you from the cold, keeping warmth close to your body. If you start to overheat you can discard a layer fast.
Slipping on a thick fleece and heavy coat will keep you warm but doesn’t leave much scope for removing excess heat. And once your soaked in swear you’ll need to stop and dry out.
My favourite base layers for cold weather include pretty much any clothes made from Merino wool. It’s super warm, wicks away sweat and has odour-resistant qualities i.e., your teammates are less likely to banish you to a solo tent.
For super cold trips, as a base layer, I use the Brynje Thermo which looks like the kind of vest your grandad might wear, but it’s super warm and has amazing wicking qualities. Plus, I’m near old enough to be a grandpa!
Check out Jake’s excellent post on layering.
Base layer summary
Cold weather hiking base layer clothing should:
- consist of multiple thin layers which are easy to remove for tmerperature rregultion;
- wick sweat away from your body to reduce the risk of getting cold when you stop;
- be made of a natural fibre; nylon base layers will keep you warm but you’ll smell like a very old yak.
Next up, the…
Outer clothing layer
When it comes to choosing an outer cold weather hiking clothes, you have a huge amount of flexibility. You can select waterproofs made from products like GORE-TEX, and similar materials, or go for lighter and less expensive shell layers that are windproof and water resistant.
It’s rare for me to take a waterproof shell on my cold weather hikes and expeditions as rain is often not a concern, and only seen in the summer months. I love the cold depths of winter, a time of year when all you need is a softshell outer layer, like the Montane Extreme jacket (which is an awesome piece of gear).
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re going to hike in very cold conditions, you’re not going to need a waterproof jacket. Go anywhere where there’s even a small risk of getting wet and you really should take a GORE-TEX, or similar, shell layer. This includes trousers.
For those times when you’re not wearing a waterproof layer, think ‘light and flexible’. The North Face, Rab and other mid to high end outdoor gear brands produce some amazing softshells that ticks all the cold weather boxes. As always, the key is to wear layers that can be ventilated with ease and don’t leave you a sticky mass of sweat.
Before we move on to the next section, it’s worth noting that some women wear a skirt over their walking trousers. This isn’t some crazy Scandi fashion statement from the late 90s; it’s a great way of adding another insulating layer to protect what my Victorian predecessors termed their ‘unmentionables’.
Hands and head
For me, one of the most overlooked layers for hiking in cold weather is the one you put on your hands. A good practise to get into is wearing two gloves – a thin liner made of merino wool, and a thick over glove, which should be well insulated. I use mittens from Sativa and North Face (foam and down filled, respectively). Both gloves provide excellent insulation from the cold, and each has pros and cons, but in general I favour my Sativa mittens for really cold places.
Another neglected part of the body is your head. A beanie is adequate head ware for days that are just cold. But once you tip the scales into the real negatives you need to have a hat with earflaps. Why? One word: windchill. Most people’s ears can cope with temperatures in the -20s, but when the wind picks up, they soon feel the burn as the tips scoured by gusts that drive the temperatures in the -30s, and below. Trust me, it not pleasant when a frost-nipped chunk of flesh falls from your ear!
Outer layer summary
Choosing an out layer for cold weather can feel like a headache. You should:
- choose a softshell that is easy to ventilate (pit zips are a must);
- take windproof rather than waterproof shell if you’re in an extreme cold environment where no rail falls;
- pick GORE-TEX, or another 3-layer waterproof, jacket and trousers if there is any chance of rain.
- DON’T forget to protect your hands and head, unless you want a little bit of this…
Time to put thoughts of the cold to the back of your mind and move on to sunnier, warmer climes.
Warm weather hiking clothes
Hiking in warm weather is so much easier than it is in the cold. Sure, considering the risk of heat stroke and other warm weather injuries, it can be just as hazardous. But overall, it’s so much more pleasant and simpler to plan for. But I’m still not shifting on the ‘no sandals’ rule I set myself.
The key consideration when packing your hiking gear is to stay cool and comfortable. If you’re like me, the first part of your body to get sweaty and uncomfortable is your feet.
With that thought in mind, let’s delve into..
Warm weather footwear
So you can probably ditch the boots and slip on your favourite hiking shoes, unless you’re going to be travelling across rough terrain littered with jagged rocks and loose soil/scree. I try to steer clear of heavy leather boots when hiking, because:
- they’re really uncomfortable in hot weather;
- I have nightmares about the issue boots I wore in the Army;
- polishing them seems like a chore.
No sandals. None. Ever.
Unless you enjoy the agony of a granite shard piercing the sole of you foot! Or seed pods working their way between your toes. Or horse flies nibbling on your feet.
No matter how careful you are, your feet are going to sweat so aim for a medium weight pair of socks made from natural fibres (yes, the multi-purpose tool that is merino wool is a great option).
- just say no to sandals!
- hiking shoes are fine for warm weather, unless you’re going into technical terrain;
- leather hiking boots retain a lot of heat in warm weather;
- choose a thin pair, or medium weight, socks to keep your feet cool.
In most cases you don’t need to carry a base layer. Wearing a loose-fitting t-shirt and hiking trousers/shorts will be more than adequate for your expedition. That said, you might want to consider taking a base layer and a lightweight down jacket, or fleece, if the nights are cold.
In all honesty, I’ve never felt the need to use a base layer when hiking in hot weather. Loose clothes that allow air to circulate, keeping you cool and removing sweat are key to staying comfortable in hot weather.
But steer clear of cotton! During my early days of working, and travelling, extreme heat made me realise cotton is the worst material you can wear. It soaks up huge amount of moisture from your body (aka sweat), stays wet for long periods of time, and clings to your body.
For me, there are few things more uncomfortable that the cloying grip of stinking, sweaty clothes glued to your body. I know, graphic but gives you an idea of the feeling.
In a strange twist of nature, a bit like a goat being born to horse parents, merino wool is an excellent choice of material for your hot weather hikes. Yes, I did suggest merino base layers for hiking in the cold. The difference is the weight of the material.
For example, a good base layer for extreme cold environments will have a weight of 200g. What this means that each garment is created 200g of wool.
Merino garments made with 120g – 150g of wool are best for hot, to extremely warm environments. And many of the items are cool and COOL! Here’s a few examples of rather natty merino wool hiking clothes that will make you look like a rockstar of the hills and trails!
- keep your choice of warm weather clothes loose and light;
- consider lightweight merino wool clothes that can wick moisture away fast and save you from dreaded sweat rash;
- take a base layer, or insulated jacket for cold nights.
Okay, we’ve covered cold and warm weather hiking clothes and the last option we need to cover off is hiking in inclement (rainy) weather.
Wet weather hiking clothes
Let’s whip through this…
The most important consideration is to have a truly waterproof outer layer and choosing a waterproof jacket is a key part of your planning. Jake wrote a cracking review of the Rab Kinetic Alpine 2.0 jacket, an affordable shell layer that will keep you dry even in a torrential downpour (he tested the jacket during a seriously wet hike in Scotland, and it came through with flying colours). Whatever jacket you choose, make sure it has a wired peak that can be shaped to protect your face from driving rain (more tips how to choose a waterproof jacket here).
If you get wet, you run the risk of hypothermia in the cold.
Even getting soaked on a warm day can be a demoralising experience.
Likewise, you need to carry a pair of waterproof leggings.
Your footwear needs to be water-resistant. A pair of leather boots treated with a product like Nikwax’s waterproof spray will do just fine. If you’ve got little extra cash to spare, pick up a pair of GORE-TEX boots (here’s a few thoughts on this for anyone with doubts: should you wear GORE-TEX boots for hiking?)
Avoid shoes. The high collar found on boots will reduce the risk of water getting at your feet. And grab a pair of gaiters for extra protection.
- buy a waterproof, NOT water-resistant shell layer;
- a peaked cap is key to keeping the rain out of your face;
- leather, or GORE-TEX, boots are essential to keep your feet dry;
- a pair of gaiters will provide extra protection from the rain.
General questions about hiking clothes
Now that we’ve covered off clothing for different conditions, it’s time to answer some of the questions our readers have put to us.
No. No matter what weather you intend to hike in you should not wear jeans. They absorb moisture, are slow to dry out and can chafe when worn for long periods of time. The same applies to any kind of denim, or heavy cotton, clothing. Choose a pair of hiking trousers designed for the environment and temperatures you’ll be in.
Wear shorts in hot weather to give maximum ventilation. In colder climates wear a pair of hiking pants. This advice will vary depending on the conditions and terrain. For example, some ticks and insects carry diseases and the safest option for you is to cover up, no matter how warm you get.
Yes, but if you choose to wear leggings they should be made of a material resistant to tears, and thorns. Buy a pair of breathable leggings that allow moisture to wick away from your skin, otherwise you risk developing a rash or other irritating condition.
Summing it all up
These are my thoughts. Over the years, I’ve found my personal experiences to be a good guide to choosing the right clothes for hiking. As a consequence, my collection of hiking gear is huge which allows me to pick and choose according to conditions.
For me, comfort is the most important aspect when choosing the right gear to hike in. There’s no joy in being wet and miserable, even if I’m hiking with a heavy ruck over rough terrain.
If you have some additional thoughts on what to wear hiking, send us a message and we’ll add your comments to this post.