Hiking Clothing Essentials


Adequate hiking outfit is a key to your overall readiness to face the various challenges that await you on the trail. Comfortable and reliable hiking clothing should provide protection against the cold (in the winter), heat and sun (in the desert and summer), wind, and precipitation. 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.’

Nowadays, thru-hikers and ordinary nature lovers often look for multifunctional apparel capable of maintaining their comfort in any conditions on and off the trail. This means that hiking clothing must have certain features and characteristics to effectively keep the wearer dry and comfortable in various temperatures and conditions in order to be able to respond to changing environments. Moreover, hiking apparel should be durable, breathable, and as light as possible without losing its insulative properties.

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 layered 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.

The classic layered clothing system consists of three or more layers. Each one of them has different functions than the other two. For example, the inner layer called also base layer is designed to wick moisture away from the body, disperse it to prevent chilling, and to transport it efficiently to the outer surface of the garment. The second layer called mid layer has one main function and it is to prevent heat loss from the body through trapping air and providing insulation, while the main task of the outer layer is to protect the other two layers from the elements.

Inner layer - base layers and shirts

The inner layer should be comfortable next to the skin as well as moisture-wicking and quick-drying to ensure quick and efficient moisture transportation in order to prevent chilling, encourage evaporation, and keep the body cool (or warm) and dry.

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 and backpacking.

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 is strong and durable, breathable, abrasion resistant, hydrophobic in nature, wicks well, dries quickly, is readily modified, and on top of that, it is relatively inexpensive. These properties and characteristics make polyester the most widely preferred fiber in the textile and apparel sectors and one of the most widely used fibers for outdoor and extreme weather clothing. On the contrary, it’s uncomfortable to wear next to the skin (especially in hot conditions), retains odors (stinks after a short workout) and feels clammy when wet. Polyester is often blended with other natural fibers, mainly to use its advantages over other fibers such as its durability and the ability to maintain moisture management. It’s interesting to note that most people don’t know just how popular this fiber is among the manufacturers of clothing because they often use various commercial names for polyester and its modifications such as Terylene (first polyester fiber created in 1941), Coolmax (modified polyester), Dacron, Microfiber etc.

Merino wool is widely used in activewear and sportswear, especially for base layers because of its superior water vapor permeability and quick-drying properties. 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 (merino wool fiber can absorb up to 35% of its dry weight in moisture vapor) than polyester due to the fiber’s construction. The biggest downside of merino wool is that it is much more expensive than polyester. It is worth adding that some manufacturers blend merino wool and other fibers for better thermoregulation and comfort.

Thermals made of polypropylene, a petroleum-based synthetic, might be a good inner layer, although this textile has a reputation for becoming stinky. Nowadays, polypropylene is rarely used for base layers. Clothes made of an all-cotton material, though soft, breathable, and comfortable, are not the best choice for backpacking as cotton absorbs and tends to hold moisture. This means that cotton base layers and shirts aren’t recommended for night hiking when temperatures drop. However, wearing a cotton shirt is actually a great choice for desert hiking because it’ll keep you cool for longer than other fibers. What seems like an inappropriate choice for other environments is welcomed in a desert climate - there won’t be chafing because your shirt will dry off quickly in the desert (since it’s is hot and dry).

Choose lightweight, loose-fitting, and light-colored shirt from polyester for warm weather hiking. It’ll wick the sweat from your body and dry quickly to provide good airflow and cool comfort on the trail. Choose a shirt that fits better under outer layers for cold weather hiking. 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.

Hiker on a cliff

Second layer - fleeces, sweaters, and softshell jackets

The mid layer should provide thermal insulation for additional warmth and comfort. Thermal insulation of a given fabric depends on several factors. Among them:

  • The ability of the material to trap enough air inside the core of its fibers.
  • Weather conditions such as temperature, presence or absence of wind etc.
  • The lining/shell and its air permeability.

Wool clothing is traditionally chosen for the cold because it feels warmer when wet than most other fabrics. Down is another widely used material for manufacturing mid layers as it is light, durable, traps air and provides excellent insulation. However, it absorbs huge amounts of moisture (which significantly reduces its insulative abilities) and is slow to dry. Hence, the outer shell of your down garment should be at least water-resistant in order to keep the down fill dry. Classic fleece tops are often manufactured from polyester so they inherit many properties typical for polyester fibers. For example, they are lightweight, durable, breathable, water-repellent (or hydrophobic) and quick-drying. A fleece top traps air between the fibers in the pile for additional insulation even in wet weather and the thicker the pile, the warmer it is in general (be warned that there’s a tradeoff between warmth and breathability and dexterity). Another fleece alternative (actually, it’s somewhere between mid and outer layers), suitable especially for cold weather or winter sports, is a softshell jacket. Softshells are designed for intense activities and combine freedom of movement, wind and water resistance, breathability, and abrasion resistance. Though softshells offer more protection than fleece against wind and precipitation, they are designed for maximum comfort during your outdoor activities in normal conditions. In extreme conditions, you can use a layered clothing system of four garments - base layer, fleece, softshell, and hardshell. Keep in mind that softshell jackets are heavier, less breathable, relatively slow to dry, and more expensive than fleece tops.

Outer layer - insulation jackets and shells

The outer layer should not only add warmth but it is also expected to keep you dry and protected from the elements. Most outer layers are manufactured from windproof and waterproof or water-repellent fabrics. Aim for something large enough to cover all your layers beneath. Keep in mind that the more waterproof the material, the less breathable it probably is. A waterproof breathable shell that is soft and light works well in most conditions, though in harsh weather conditions you will need an insulation jacket to protect you from cold, wind, and precipitation. 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; there are other similar materials on the market as well. Waterproof fabrics are much heavier, and when they aren’t breathable enough, the insulation is getting wet from trapped perspiration. To avoid this, the outer layer should have excellent moisture management properties in order to allow moisture transfer from the body to the outside environment. Important things about waterproof breathable garments:

  • Waterproofness and breathability are contradictory requirements so, when buying a waterproof breathable jacket, you’ll have to choose between protection and comfort.
  • Waterproof membranes won’t function properly when clogged with dirt and sweat.
  • In rainy conditions, the breathability of your clothing might be compromised. This happens when water is absorbed by the outer shell layer (treat it with a durable water repellent in order to avoid that).
  • During strenuous activities, you sweat a lot so even the most breathable outer layer cannot keep you dry as you’ll get wet from the inside.

Thick clothing reduces the breathability of your garments further.

Two hikers with hooded jackets near lake

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.

Convertible pants for hiking are usually manufactured from quick-drying fabrics such as polyester and nylon. Zip-off pants are good for hiking in variable temperatures and changing weather conditions, especially if a big temperature change is expected due to elevation gain or loss. If it gets too hot/cool, you can always zip off/on the legs and it won’t take you more than a minute to do so. Convertible pants offer good protection from heavy vegetation when hiking on maintained trails as well as when the weather turns cool or windy during your summer hiking trips. The downside of the convertible pants is the presence of zippers as they can be especially annoying, especially when hitting your knee while walking or pressing into your knees when you kneel down.

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.

There are many different kinds of hiking pants suitable for various environments and temperatures so you have plenty of choices. The most important thing in a pair of hiking pants is to keep you dry and cool and not to allow moisture buildup inside your clothing.

Accessories - headwear, gloves, and others

Proper headwear such as warm hats, balaclavas, face masks, headbands, neck gaiters etc. is important on cold days to conserve body heat. Hoods provide protection against rain and snow. Head nets protect well against bugs such as mosquitos and flies, however, be warned that head net won’t effectively protect you against bites unless you wear it over a ball cap so that no netting is flush with the skin. A visor to shade the eyes from the sun is an ideal addition together with a sun-protection hat. 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.

Finger dexterity and sensitivity are significantly affected when the ambient temperature drops, especially if it gets lower than 4.4 C (fine finger functions are almost entirely lost at that temperature). This will impair the ability of your hands and fingers for performing fine tasks so you’ll need a pair of gloves or mittens to protect your hands from cold. Gloves and mittens are essential for hiking in cold environments. For snow or winds up high, a waterproof glove or at least wind-resistant outer mitt is necessary. Insulated mittens are better than gloves for cold conditions, though, in extremely cold weather, your best option is to use a layered system of two or more layers. Traditional layered systems consist of an inner layer (usually liner gloves) that keeps your hands and fingers warm and an outer layer (mittens or outer mitts) that protects your hands from rain and snow. Of course, there are various possible combinations that you can use depending on the weather conditions and your preferences.

Fingerless gloves, or ones made of thin silk or synthetic material, are good for operating cameras. 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.

Lonely hiker under the forest rain

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. The main problem with waterproof clothing is that it is ineffective in keeping you dry. How’s that possible? The answer is both easy and intuitive. The reason is that your shell fends off water coming from outside but it doesn’t let internal water vapor to escape, which leads to moisture buildup inside your clothing system. This moisture:

  • Seriously reduces your garment’s capacity for ensuring thermal insulation.
  • Leads to an unpleasant feeling of clamminess.
  • Leads to excessive cooling.

That’s why you need waterproof breathable clothing. 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.


To sum up, layering your clothing is essential for hiking. In short, a layered system with a suitable base layer, fleece top, convenient trousers, and wind resistant and waterproof breathable jacket, provides versatility for almost all conditions. Wear the underwear and the outerwear for active situations, adding the fleece in harsh weather.

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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