What to Wear Hiking: 9 Must-Haves According to Hiking Expert
The basics of what to wear hiking are; shoes, socks, trousers, shorts, leggings, underwear, t-shirt/base layer, jumper/jacket, hat, gloves, sunglasses and a backpack.
But that’s just a basic overview. There’s a ton of factors to consider. Trail length, terrain and weather conditions all play a part. As do your safety and comfort.
Over years of hiking, I’ve experienced well-marked trails, rambling adventures and guided expeditions.
I’ve made countless mistakes with my clothing choices. But I’ve learned something from each of those errors. In this article, I share my advice and tips on choosing the best clothing for hiking.
Remember to research your hike before heading out. Don’t go into it blind. Knowing what lies ahead of you will allow you to make the most informed decisions about what to wear while hiking.
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Trail conditions and personal preference play a big role in determining the best hiking footwear. Some folks like chunky hiking boots no matter the weather or terrain. Others will have different footwear for every occasion.
As a general rule of thumb, the tougher the terrain, the more support you’ll need from your shoes. We recommend hiking boots for a rocky mountain trail, but walking shoes or trail runners may be more suitable if you’re on smoother terrain.
Top Tip – To prevent small stones, dust and debris from getting into your shoes while hiking, consider a pair of gaiters. They weigh almost nothing and go over the top of your shoe, creating an extra protective barrier.
When it comes to protecting your feet on a hike, socks are almost as important as shoes.
Avoid cotton and instead opt for merino wool or synthetic blend options. Cotton holds onto water and takes a long time to dry. This can cause rubbing and blisters. Merino wool and synthetics are moisture-wicking, meaning they pull sweat and moisture away from your feet. They also dry fast and are super comfy against your skin.
Hiking in winter requires different socks to hiking in summer. For cold climates, thicker, more insulated socks are preferred. But in summer, thin, moisture-wicking socks are a solid choice.
No matter the time of year, I love Darn Tough socks. They’re ultra-comfortable and hardwearing. They come with a no questions asked, lifetime guarantee too. If you get a hole in your Darn Tough socks from too much walking, they’ll replace them at no charge!
It’s also possible to get good waterproof socks for hiking in wet or boggy terrain — they’re also very useful in winter. They’ve been around for a long time but until recently, didn’t perform as advertised. Now, companies like Sealskinz make effective and reliable waterproof socks.
Again, trail conditions will determine the best choice of leg covering.
Lightweight walking trousers are a good choice year-round. They protect you from the elements and reduce the chance of getting bitten by ticks or mosquitos.
Some hikers, myself included hike in shorts year-round. I use a pair of old board shorts which are quick-drying and super comfy. When it gets cold, I throw on a pair of leggings under my shorts. They still allow full range of movement but add a significant amount of warmth.
If you’re undecided on the shorts vs trousers debate, get some zip offs. They might not be the best looking choice but they’re certainly the most versatile.
A lot of women hike in just leggings. This saves carrying extra shorts or trousers!
My leggings of choice come from Lucy Locket Loves. They’re predominantly made for women but fit men well too. They’re cooling in the summer but offer good insulation for colder months. Plus, they come in a range of jazzy colours and designs!
For wet hikes, we recommend taking rain trousers. They weigh very little but offer a ton of protection against the wind and rain. It’s good practice to always keep a pair in your hiking bag just in case the weather turns.
Once more, avoid cotton. Look for hiking underwear made from merino wool or synthetic materials. They’re kinder to delicate skin and help reduce chaffing. They’re also quick drying and super lightweight.
Sports bras are recommended for women but only about 50% of the female hikers I know use them. Many opt for their most comfortable standard bras.
A t-shirt or sun hoody makes an excellent base layer. I recommend hiking in a long sleeve top for protection against the sun and added warmth on cold days. You can always roll the sleeves up if need be. A base layer made from moisture-wicking and fast-drying materials is best.
A jumper, fleece or insulated jacket is a must have for any hike. The weather can change quickly. Make sure you’re always prepared.
Jumpers and fleeces tend to come in three categories: ‘lightweight’, ‘middle weight’ and ‘heavyweight’. Lightweight options weigh the least and offer the least insulation. Heavyweight fleeces sit at the other end of the spectrum, offering a ton of insulation for a big weight penalty.
Puffy jackets are recommended for cooler hikes or overnight trips. They are usually filled with down or synthetic materials.
Down is lightweight and compresses very well. However, it loses its insulation properties when it gets wet. Synthetic fill is often a little heavier and doesn’t pack quite as small, but it still offers good insulation even when wet.
When it comes to regulating your temperature during a hike, it’s best to wear a lot of thin layers rather than one big coat. This gives you more control and makes packing your bag much easier.
On hot days, especially during the summer, you’ll want protection. A sun hat, whether it be wide-brimmed or a classic cap, helps keep you cool and prevents sun burn. Many summer hiking hats will include a sun cape to protect the back and sides of your neck.
In colder months, a woolly hat will keep you warm and protect your head from harsh winds.
No matter the season, I always recommend a buff or neck gaiter. Depending on how you wear your buff, it can be used to keep the sun off your head or neck. It can also be used as an extra insulation layer for colder hikes. They work well as hairbands, ear protection and you can wear them on your wrist when not in use.
I swear by Turtle Fur neck gaiters. They’re comfy, moisture-wicking, offer protection from the sun and look great!
It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, a good pair of sun glasses should go with you on every hike. This is especially true if you’re hiking somewhere with little protection from the sun. Mountains and snowfields are as bad for your eyes as a cloudless desert so it pays to be prepared.
Ensure your sunnies of choice have lenses that offer proper UV protection. It’s also good to opt for sun glasses that wrap around your face slightly as this protects your eyes from more angles. Bigger lenses are generally better for the same reason too.
Your hands are super important. Whether they’re wrapped around your hiking poles or swinging free at your sides, you want to protect them.
On sunny days, it’s all too easy for your hands to get burnt. And trust me, having sun burnt hands is nasty. A pair of thin sun gloves will protect your skin. They’ll also help wick moisture away, keeping your hands cool and sweat-free.
During the winter, or on colder trails, you’ll want a thicker more insulated glove. Waterproof options are best because you don’t have to worry about rain.
Insulated gloves are even more important if you’re on an overnight backpacking trip in cold climates. You’ll have a lot of setting up to do when you pitch your tent for the night and having cold hands makes this a miserable experience.
I recommend Sealskinz for their waterproof gloves. They’re comfortable and effective. Even the well-insulated models deliver enough dexterity to be able to pitch a tent or undo a zip.
You won’t get far without a backpack. How else are you going to carry your food, water and extra clothing?
Hiking backpacks come in all shapes and sizes. The best choice will come down to a mixture of personal preference, length of your hike and the terrain.
For example, a 20-litre hiking pack will be ideal for day hikes in the summer but will prove little use on a long multi day trail. A 20-litre pack might be a little small for use during winter or in changeable conditions, even on a day hike.
I wholeheartedly recommend Osprey backpacks. They offer a huge range for almost every activity you can imagine.
Sun cream, insect repellent and lip balm. When I first started hiking I constantly forget these three magical items from my pack. And I have to admit, it made for some miserable hikes.
You can get sun cream for hikers with a roll on design — similar to deodorant. This makes it compact and lightweight. Ensure your sun cream is factor 50 or it won’t offer enough protection.
Insect repellent can also be purchased as a roll on. It’s miserable sitting at camp being eaten alive by mosquitoes.
Lip balm is also a must. Our lips get sunburnt very easily so always opt for lip balm with spf protection. But it’s not just good for protection. Lip balm soothes sore and cracked lips — which are just another part of life for hikers.
Choosing exactly what to wear hiking can get complicated. The basics remain the same for most trips but you’ll want to make adjustments depending on your hike. For winter walks, you’ll need plenty of insulating layers to keep you warm. In the summer, light and airy clothing will protect you from overheating.
A rocky trail will necessitate different footwear to a smooth grassy track, and a coastal cliff path is going to throw up different challenges to hiking through a forest — your clothing will need to reflect this.
By knowing the bare essentials and understanding the trail ahead of you, you’ll be able to choose the correct clothing for your hike.