The Hiker’s Handbook: What to Wear

Before I get into clothing, I have a confession to make. I’m going to say it loud, and I’m going to say it proud:

I. Don’t. Care. About. Gear.

There. It’s out. I don’t care about gear. Not in the slightest. Sure, I love to wander around REI looking at expensive high fill down jackets, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to spend money on something so extravagant, no matter how nice it looks. And therein lies my primary beef with gear: it’s way too expensive.

I enjoy a privileged existence full of disposable income and material comfort, and even with that fortunate reality, I don’t have nearly enough money or nearly enough digestive fortitude to stomach spending over $100 on a pair of pants. I buy MOST of my stuff at Target, and even though those clothes clearly aren’t up to the same quality as a top-line Archteryx item (see, I don’t even really know what the top of the line is – I pulled Archteryx out of my ass), the quality difference in a $20 target workout shirt and $100 hiking shirt is not sufficient for me to justify the cost.

But enough with the confessions. There are some general principles in choosing clothing that are good to know, and whether you can make it rain at REI or you’re sifting through the clear-out racks, these principles can help you choose your clothing.

Don’t Put Cotton on Your Body

Okay, so first let me caveat: if it’s a local 3 mile hike on a nice day, this really doesn’t matter that much. However, in more involved hiking situation, you will want to avoid cotton. Cotton absorbs moisture and dries out slowly. If you sweat, or if you get wet, you will stay that way for a long time. This leads to rapid loss of body heat, which can result in hypothermia. Cotton is also heavier than synthetic materials, and most hikers religiously avoid adding any unnecessary weight. It also does a poor job at regulating temperatures, despite being heavier. 

Instead of cotton, look for synthetic materials and merino wools. Synthetics dry quickly, wick moisture, are lightweight, and, when layered appropriately, can regulate temperatures more effectively. Each material has its drawbacks, and the better the material, the more expensive it is (I’m looking at you merino wool). Most workout clothes are made from a synthetic material, and if you’re not looking to buy fancy hiking clothes, workout clothes from Target can do alright.

Layer Your Clothing

You might be tempted to throw on a t-shirt and a big, heavy hoodie, and if you did, you’d be committing a rookie mistake. Temperatures fluctuate all the time on the trail, both due to atmospheric conditions but also due to fluctuations in body temperature caused by exercise. Your best bet is to carry multiple layers with you while adding and removing layers according to your temperature regulation needs.

Remember the three W’s: Wicking, Warmth, and Weather. The initial layer should be a good, lightweight wicking layer that helps wick moisture away from your skin. The next 1 to 5 layers could be a series of warmer layers of varying thickness and material that can help keep your warm, but which you can remove at any point. Finally, you can add a lightweight, weather-resistant shell over the entire thing to help protect you from wind and rain. A rain poncho sort of counts here, but they aren’t really great for anything other than staying dry in a downpour.

Put Some Work Into Finding the Right Shoes

One of the most commonly asked questions I see on social media is “What shoes should I wear?” Right now, I can hear the gears in my friend Nick’s head turning as he prepares to launch into a well-practiced lesson on how to select shoes. Comparatively speaking, I’m no expert on shoes, and I found what worked for me through a process of trial and error. However, there are some basic steps you can take to find shoes in a way that is neither willy-nilly nor relies on advice.

Take the time to get your feet measured. You can get your foot’s length, width, and arch height measured at any shoe store, and the folks who work the shoe department can help you explore a number of possible brands that fit the needs of your feet. Try them all. Spend time walking around in them. Or better yet, utilize the liberal return policies at places like REI, and take the shoes for a test spin. You may have to wear them a few times before you get a sense of how well they fit and feel. The fit is important, as a poor fit can cause blisters, injuries, soreness, etc.

As for what shoe you try, well. . . . Nick, I know your head is going to explore as I say this, but honestly, do your research with somebody with some expertise, but after that, go with what works for you. Some people like heavy, high-top boots. Some people swear by trail runners. Some people like something inbetween. It’s hard to say that somebody’s right or wrong. And yes, you can get lost in the minutiae of midsoles, closed-cell foam, toe spring angle. . . knowing all about that is good, but it’s outside my scope of knowledge. Learn it if you want to be thorough, but I can’t take you much farther than this.

And oh – I know I said I’m a cheap bastard, but shoes are the one place where I won’t skimp. Don’t do your feet a disservice by buying cheap products that break down too easily. If you find the right shoe, but it’s over $150, ask yourself if a bought of plantar fasciitis is worth $60 in savings.

Light Colors, and Wear ‘Em Loose, Please

In a cold, dreary place, this isn’t really so important. But out here in California where the sun blazes most of the time, dark colored clothing can become a liability. Dark colors tend to absorb heat, which will make it harder to regulate body temperature. Light colors have more reflective properties, which tend to deflect heat and help with regulating body temperature.

Also, I know I’m going to lose some of the yoga pants crowd here, but loose fitting clothes that breath well are a better bet, especially when its warm. This allows better circulation to help regulate temperature. Some of the more expensive clothes have vents built in to facilitate circulation, but I’m not really sure how important this is. Also, wearing long-sleeves and pants will help keep your skin covered, and when the clothes have built-in UPF protection, it will help protect your skin even further.

Speaking of which. . .

Embrace the Wide Brim

Perhaps you want to wear a baseball cap, a beanie, or no hat at all. As Bobby Brown would say, that’s your prerogative. You can do what you want to do, but please keep in mind that a wide-brim hat carries several advantages.

First of all, most wide-brim hats contain UPF woven into the fabric, which helps keep UV rays off your head. Second, the brim extends beyond your forehead to keep more of your face and neck covered.

So, I’m sure there’s a lot more to say about clothes beyond what I’ve put here. You may care a lot more about it and have a lot more money to spend. If so, great! Go hog wild and deck yourself out in top of the line clothing after spending multiple hours scouring gear reviews. However, I want to let you know that I’ve hiked about 8,000 miles over the last 8 years, and through all of that time, the expensive clothes and fancy extras (gaiters, detachable pant legs) haven’t made a bit of difference. I’ve been just as comfortable and safe with multiple layers of Target clothing with a few inexpensive heavier base layers along with synthetic socks from Walmart to wear under my Altra Timps as I have with super-expensive threads from REI. These basic principles will cover you (literally and in the pun sense) in most casual and many more advanced hiking situations.

3 Replies to “The Hiker’s Handbook: What to Wear”

  1. Agree with everything here. I wear a hat with a flap in the back instead of the wide brim, but the result is the same. I get stuff on clearance all the time. I am still wearing the same shorts and pants that I’ve been wearing since 2009, with the same trekking poles, day pack, and nalgene bottles. I’ve been wearing one of my hiking shirts so long, it is bleached on the shoulders. I don’t skimp on shoes or socks. If it’s multi-day backpacking trips, I sometimes start experimenting with costly items, if it means enhancing comfort. As these bones get older, they don’t like all the weight. Cheers.

  2. Error under shoes. Should be “… bout of plantar…”. Autocorrect?

    Great article as always!

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. When hiking in our arid desert regions with their low humidity, I prefer a long sleeve cotton shirt that soaks up my sweat – it actually cools me down, and dries out relatively fast too. I can’t stand wearing synthetics in those conditions; I only wear them on “cold” hikes.

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