Technically hiking doesn’t require any special clothing, and if you are just getting started with short, simple trails, my recommendation is to just get out there. Just make sure to layer so you can add or subtract as your temperature changes and always bring a lightweight rain jacket for hiking when there’s even the slightest chance of rain. Once you start to advance to more challenging conditions and terrain, however, what clothes you wear hiking can be the difference between having fun and being uncomfortable (and possibly unsafe) – whether that be too hot, too cold, or wet.
It took me hiking over 200 miles on the John Muir Trail and an 11-day trek to Everest Basecamp to really dial in what hiking apparel I like best, so I wanted to share the specifics of what’s currently in my gear closet in 2020. If you’re heading somewhere specific here are some of our favorite packing & gear lists to reference:
- California Beach Vacation Packing List
- Hawaii Packing List for Hikers & Outdoor Enthusiasts
- W Trek Packing List for Hiking in Patagonia
On every single hiking or backpacking trip, I go on, I am wearing some combination of the best hiking clothing pieces detailed below.
Wicking Hiking T-Shirt
For hiking you’re going to want a moisture-wicking, breathable tee. Patagonia’s Cool Capilene T-Shirt is my favorite for hiking and for everyday wear. This shirt provides 50+ UPF sun protection, and it’s a flattering and well-fitting shirt that won’t hold onto sweat or odor as you’re moving around. I also appreciate that it doesn’t cling.
The Patagonia Cool Capilene shirt comes in both men’s and women’s versions, and a long sleeve version, too. Lately I’ve been choosing the long-sleeve version, in order to protect my skin from the sun, especially when hiking at altitude. Even with long-sleeves, it breathes well and never leaves me feeling too sweaty.
If you’re more of a tank top girl, that works too!…but keep in mind that if you wear a tank top when you hike, you may experience some rubbing on your shoulders from your pack. If you want a tank built for the outdoors, the REI Active Pursuits Tank Top is a budget-friendly tank top that is great for hiking. It wicks moisture, dries quickly and the stretch fabric moves with you.
New to Hiking? Read: Back to the Basics – Hiking 101 Tips
Warm Long Sleeve Layer
Layering is important so you can stay warm in changing conditions. If the weather takes a turn for the worse or you’re out longer than you think you’ll be and the temperatures start to drop, you’ll be happy to have an a midweight baselayer with you.
One of my go-to choices for a mid-weight hiking baselayer is the Patagonia Capilene Thermal Zip-neck. Maybe you’re seeing a trend here, but I like Patagonia because of their environmentally friendly practices (this shirt is made from 50-100% recycled content). It’s warm, yet breathes well, and because of how small it packs down, I almost always bring this hiking and backpacking. I also wear it to bed on camping trips.
Some outdoor women prefer the wool. Made from sustainable merino wool, this Icebreaker 200 Zone Half-Zip baselayer is incredibly soft and very warm. They are pricey, but this is one of the more durable wool layers I own and also serves as a functional layer for winter sports. I also prefer Icebreaker over other wool brands because they have strong animal welfare standards.
Packable Insulated Jacket
If there’s any chance of it being cold, I bring my Arctery’x Atom LT Insulated Hoody. It’s super lightweight (it feels like you’re wearing a cloud), warm, and packable, and the hood is a great addition for keeping your head warm on windy days. The cut is flattering (it doesn’t make you look like a marshmallow), and it’s long enough so you don’t get any backdraft. This is a great jacket for cold weather hiking and camping, and it also makes an effective and comfortable layer under a ski shell.
For additional insulated down jacket options, see this blog post.
The Patagonia Houdini is hands-down the best lightweight windbreaker I’ve tried. This jacket is made for warmer weather where you want some protection from wind or bugs (or even the sun). It’s also water-resistant and breathable which is great if you’re in a location prone to periodic light rain. A traditional Gore-Tex rain jacket (see below) is important if you’re hiking in an area prone to lots of rain and where it can get cold.
The weather in the mountains can be unpredictable, and you need to be prepared. Getting wet can not only be uncomfortable, but it can also be dangerous. If there’s a chance of rain, I pack my Outdoor Research Aspire Rain Jacket which is made with a Gore-Tex Paclite membrane which will keep you dry in heavy downpours. It’s got a fully adjustable hood, vents, and packs down into its own pocket.
Read our entire guide to finding the best lightweight rain jacket for travel and hiking.
Any old shorts will do as long as they are comfortable. I love hiking in spandex/yoga shorts because they provide for the most mobility, and there is no loose fabric that can get caught on branches or other obstacles on the trail.
For the least expensive option, go to Marshalls or TJ Max where you can usually find some cute yoga shorts in the exercise section. Lately, my go-to spandex shorts have been the Road Runner Sports Compression Shorts. They hit right at the mid-thigh, aren’t too tight in the waist, and are flattering on that hiney.
If you’re not a big fan of hiking in spandex or are looking for shorts that are more versatile check out the North Face Aphrodite Shorts. They have an elastic waistband (COMFY!), and the shorts are loose-fitting but not baggy or saggy. My favorite feature is the pockets. I’m so used to hiking without them in my spandex, I forgot how useful pockets can be. It made it easy to access my phone for photos or to carry my ID and credit card if we were headed to the store. Finally, the material dries quickly, whether they are wet from a swim or stream crossing.
Another great pair to check out is the Patagonia Baggies. They are great versatile active shorts that also looks cute for walking around town post-hike. A tried and true favorite, these are water-resistant and even have mesh pockets, so you can get them wet without having to think twice. They’re also lightweight and stretchy, with an adjustable drawcord to boot.
When it’s cooler, you can probably guess that I swap out my spandex shorts for leggings. Not only are leggings a comfortable and multi-functional piece of clothing, but they’re also super flattering and work well for almost every activity. Whether you’re hiking, going on a long drive up the coast on CA-1, or hanging out in town post-yoga, these Prana high-waisted leggings are a go-to. As a bonus, they wick sweat so you don’t feel hot or uncomfortable when you’re on the move.
If you don’t like spandex, I recommend these REI Co-op Taereen Pants, which are cute, stretchy, and lightweight and can be worn on the trail or around town.
For those extra cold days when you need something thicker, these Patagonia Peak Mission Tights will keep you warm. They’re cozy and warm for cold weather hiking yet moisture-wicking so you’ll be comfortable while you’re on the move.
I don’t typically pack rain pants on day hikes unless the forecast predicts heavy rain. If you are backpacking, however, it’s always a good idea to have a pair of these just in case you get caught in a downpour. These REI Co-op Talusphere Pants are great because you don’t have to take your boots off to get the pants on.
These days I’m loving the Nike Swoosh Sports Bra. I pretty much wear them everyday, even when I’m not hiking. They’re supportive enough for hiking (I’m a D Cup) and other outdoor activities even though they don’t have underwire. They are very comfortable, wick sweat, and can also double as a bathing suit when you stumble on that perfect swimming hole.
Quick Dry Undies
Quick dry undies are essential for staying cool, dry, odor-free, and clean on the trail, and there are a bunch of options to choose from. I’ve pretty much tried them all. Patagonia, Ice Breaker, Ex-Officio…and who takes the cake? These Ex-Officio Hipster Briefs. These cute hipster panties stay put so you aren’t dealing with wedgies, and you won’t have any panty lines. The only downside of these is they stretch over time.
If you prefer a more traditional cut, check out the Ex-Officio Bikini Briefs. These underwear are also great for traveling when you don’t have access to a washing machine. Soap em up in the sink and within an hour they are dry and ready to go.
We feel so strongly about finding the best pair of hiking underwear we’ve written an entire guide that includes all of our favorites.
Cotton socks slide around and are infamous for causing blisters – so when you are hiking you should always choose a light wool sock, even in summer. Wool actually helps reduce sweating and keeps the sock snug against your foot to prevent unwanted rubbing. My preferred sock for hiking is made by a company out of Vermont called Darn Tough. They are cushioned in all the right places and over 22 days with these on the John Muir Trail, I didn’t form a single blister.
A hat is key for being comfortable when hiking on sunny days – I almost never hike without one. Really any old hat will work as long as it’s lightweight, comfortable, and protects you from the sun. I personally like wearing something that provides maximum sun coverage, and my #1 favorite sunhat is the Wallaroo Sedona Hat. Alternatively, I’ll hike in a regular baseball cap type of hat, like this United by Blue Trucker Hat
Ever since I did my Everest Basecamp Trek, I love wearing a Buff when I hike. A Buff provides extra sun protection on your neck, and they can be used to cover your face in the wind. Right now, I’m finding a buff extra useful in the time of social distancing as a way to cover my face when I encounter people on the trail.
Any pair of sunglasses will do, but the pair I’ve been rocking for the last few years are the Oakley Feedback Aviators. They are lightweight and have no-snag nose pads, which means the nose pads don’t get stuck on your hair! Plus they block 100% of harmful UV rays.
Arguably one of the top three most important gear decisions for hiking. It’s essential to have a good pair of sturdy and comfortable hiking shoes with good traction. For a low ankle, hiking shoe, I love the Sawtooth II BDry by Oboz, which is lightweight, yet sturdy and waterproof with a grippy bottom that gives you plenty of traction for hikes in all types of conditions and trails.
If you prefer a high ankle boot with a little more support that you can also use for backpacking, then the Oboz Premium Bridger BDry is an excellent shoe with just the right amount of cushion and no break-in period required. A portion of the sales from this shoe also go to support Yellowstone Forever, the official non-profit of Yellowstone National Park.
Don’t forget a daypack to carry your essentials for day hiking. I like the Osprey Mira 22 Liter Daypack for long day hikes so I can carry lunch, my camera, and extra layers. If you don’t need to bring lots of extras and want to stay as lightweight as possible, the Gregory Maya 16 is a smaller option that still has enough space to store snacks, water, and layers.
I hope this blog post gives you a good idea of what to wear hiking so you can be comfortable on the trail.
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