The Importance of Hiking Clothing

Introduction

As Skurka outlines in his very informative book The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, ‘Clothing needs to help you stay cool when it’s hot, warm when it’s cold and windy, and dry when it’s wet; it also has to protect you against a scorching sun and abrasive brush.’

The importance of layering

Layering is essential, especially when hiking in the mountains. For your hiking outfit, your best bet is to rely on a clothing system composed of specialized items that can be easily adjusted and mixed and matched with changes in environmental conditions and your level of exertion. For example, mountainous steep terrain can cause a swift buildup of internal heat, especially while carrying a pack on sunny uphill sections. However, the high altitude also means that you and the environment can cool quickly, and more so if your clothes are wet from sweat. Therefore, it is important to have the ability to remove or add items easily.

Man in hiking clothing in front of a snowy mountain

Photo by Andrew Gosine

Loose, quick-drying trousers for men, quick-drying pants or long skirts for women, and shirts with pockets are good basic choices for your hiking outfit. Pants with zip-off legs are a good choice for variable temperatures because when it’s hot, you can easily zip off the legs to get convenient shorts.

Inner layer - base layers and shirts

Depending on the temperatures and the level of sun exposure, you can pick either a short-sleeve hiking shirt or a long-sleeve base layer.

The primary purpose of a hiking shirt is to manage moisture. This first layer of clothing should keep you dry by being able to wick moisture away from the skin to the next layer. In addition, it should also disperse this moisture so that it can evaporate more quickly into the atmosphere. Moreover, it should ensure good ventilation which is essential for intensive outdoor activities like hiking.

Polyester, an oil-based polymer, is the most popular fiber for hiking shirts. The performance of a polyester hiking shirt - and, for that matter, wool and nylon, too - depends primarily on the fabric’s weight, weave, and blend, plus the garment’s fit and styling. However, what makes polyester a premium hiking shirt textile? Polyester wicks well and dries very quickly, and it’s relatively cheap. On the contrary, it stinks after a short workout and is clammy when wet.

Some find that merino wool underwear next to the skin is the non-malodorous ideal for warmth and versatility. It is naturally antimicrobial and therefore more odor-resistant. When wet, it feels less clammy and less chilling. However, its fibers absorb more water than polyester due to the fiber’s construction. The biggest downside of merino wool is that it is much more expensive than polyester.

Thermals made of polypropylene, a petroleum-based synthetic, might be a good inner layer, although this textile has a reputation of becoming stinky. Nowadays, polypropylene is rarely used for base layers. Clothes made of an all-cotton material, though comfortable, are not the best choice as cotton absorbs and tends to hold moisture.

For warm weather, choose loose-fitting hiking shirt. For cold weather, choose a shirt that fits better under outer layers. No matter the temperatures, however, ventilating features are a must, as is a longer-than-normal torso length so that your lower back is not exposed to cold air.

Second layer - fleeces, sweaters, and softshell jackets

The next layer should provide warmth. Wool clothing is traditionally chosen for the cold because it feels warm when wet. A sweater or fleece top works well in wet weather and also dries quickly. Another fleece alternative, suitable especially for cold weather or winter sports, is a softshell jacket, which has decent breathability, stretch, and abrasion resistance, and which offers more protection than fleece against wind and light precipitation. However, it’s heavier, less breathable, dries more slowly, and is more expensive than a fleece.

Outer layer - insulation jackets and shells

The outer layer should not only add warmth but keep you dry as well. A waterproof, breathable shell that is soft and light works well. Aim for something large enough to cover a sweater or a fleece jacket. Keep in mind that the more waterproof the material, the less breathable it will be. Check to ensure that the seams have been properly sealed because moisture often seeps in through seams and zippers. Clothes made of genuine Gore-Tex fabric have a good reputation, and there are other similar materials on the market. Waterproof fabrics are much heavier, and their poor breathability leads to the insulation getting wet from trapped perspiration.

Hiking pants

The intended application will dictate the optimal fabric weight, fiber, and treatments for your hiking trousers. For cooler temperatures, a heavier stretch woven nylon fabric is preferred. For warm weather, a lighter and more loosely woven polyester or nylon - perhaps even with mesh vents - would be more comfortable. A permethrin treatment is a must for lighter, loosely woven fabrics during peak bug seasons; otherwise, bugs will bite through where the fabric is flush against the skin.

Softshell hiking pants are rugged, allow great freedom of movement, provide moderate warmth, resist wind, and repel water. Features you want include a thigh pocket, zippered gussets on the lower leg, and instep patches.

Hiking pants, whether convertible or not, should have a gusseted crotch and articulated knees for maximum freedom of movement. Stretch nylon is the best fabric option, though you may also desire mesh side vents for increased airflow. Down pants or fleece-lined pants are also good. Garments that can be easily put on over other clothing are the most versatile.

In short, a layered system with a suitable base layer and fleece top, covered with a waterproof and breathable jacket and trousers, provides versatility for almost all conditions. Wear the underwear and the outerwear for active situations, adding the fleece in harsh weather.

Accessories - headwear, gloves, and others

A hat, especially a balaclava, is important on cold days to conserve body heat (otherwise you lose heat through your head). A visor to shade the eyes from the sun is an ideal addition. Dark UV-protective glasses or goggles are also essential at high altitudes, especially on snow. Sunglasses should absorb all ultraviolet light and at least 90 percent of visible light.

Insulated mittens are better than gloves for cold weather. Fingerless gloves, or ones made of thin silk or synthetic material, are good for operating cameras. For snow or winds up high, a waterproof glove or at least wind-resistant outer mitt is necessary. If you are stuck, and inadequately equipped, use spare socks as mittens, and cover them with plastic bags or stuff sacks, to save your fingers.

Sunny-mist

Photo by Scott Murdoch

Waterproofs, ponchos, and umbrellas for rainy weather

It is difficult to stay dry while walking in rainy weather. Those wearing waterproof hiking clothes tend to sweat inside them. Gore-Tex or similar breathable jackets and pants with vents or zippered areas under the arms and down the legs are preferable because they ensure better ventilation. In an intense rainfall, no clothing can breathe, so you will get wet from the inside no matter what. In those circumstances, light clothes and an umbrella or loose-fitting poncho may be the best compromise.

Conclusion

To sum up, layering your clothing is essential for hiking. Remember that it takes time and practice to adjust hiking clothing so don’t hesitate to experiment and try various combinations to find out what works best for you.

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