What to Wear Hiking


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 – 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. If you’re heading somewhere specific here are some of our favorite packing & gear lists to reference:

On every single hiking or backpacking trip, I go on, I am wearing some combination of the best hiking clothing pieces shown below.

Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Wicking Shirt

For hiking you’re going to want a moisture-wicking, breathable tee. Patagonia’s Cool Capilene T-Shirt comes in both men’s and women’s versions, and a long sleeve version, too. It’s a flattering and well-fitting shirt that won’t hold onto sweat or odor as you’re moving around. It also doesn’t cling.

The only time I don’t wear this shirt is when I’m hiking on a hot summer day without a light daypack. In that case, any old tank top will do…but keep in mind that if you wear a tank top, you may experience some rubbing on your shoulders from your pack. If you want a tank built for the outdoors, the lightweight, breathable Prana Revere Tanktop is great for hiking. It wicks moisture, dries quickly and resists odor. Even when I got sweaty in Hawaii’s humidity, this Prana tank didn’t stick to my skin or feel clingy.

New to Hiking? Read: Back to the Basics – Hiking 101 Tips

Warm Layers for Upper Body

Layering is important and depending on how cold it is going to be, I have a couple of different options for this.

Smartwool Merino 1/4 Zip Top: If it’s a wee bit chilly, and I need a basic long-sleeve shirt, this is what I bring. It zips at the neck for extra warmth and breathes well due to the merino wool material. Because of how small it packs down, I almost always bring this backpacking, and I also wear it to bed on camping trips.

This long sleeve Smartwool base layer is a perfect hiking layer. Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Patagonia Hooded Down Jacket: If there’s any chance of it being cold, I bring this packable down jacket along. It’s super lightweight and warm, 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 slightly longer so you don’t get any backdraft. This is a great jacket for winter-hiking and also makes an effective and comfortable layer under a ski shell.

Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Windbreaker and/or Rain Jacket

 The Patagonia Houdini is hands-down the best lightweight (3.3 oz) windbreaker I’ve tried. It’s also water-resistant & breathable which is great if you’re in a location prone to periodic rain but it isn’t cold. 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.

This Outdoor Research rain jacket is essential if there's rain in the forecast. Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Read our entire guide to finding the best lightweight rain jacket for travel and hiking.

Exercise Shorts

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.

Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

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.

These comfy shorts are great for wearing hiking. Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Long Pants

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.

Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

If you don’t like spandex, I recommend these Dynama Pants, which are cute, comfy, and can be worn on the trail or around town.

For those extra cold days when you need something thicker, I recommend the North Face Winter Warm High Rise Tights. They’re cozy and warm for cold weather hiking yet quick drying and breathable so you’ll be comfortable while you’re on the move.

Rain Pants

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 North Face Venture 2 Half-Zip Rain Pants are great because you don’t have to take your boots off to get the pants on.

Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Sports Bra & Quick Dry Undies

These days I’m loving the Nike Swoosh Bra. I pretty much wear them everyday, even when I’m not hiking. They’re supportive enough for hiking 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 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 Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Hipkini Briefs. These cute hipster panties stay put so you aren’t dealing with wedgies. If you prefer a more traditional cut, check out the Give-N-Go Bikini Brief.  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.

Wool Socks

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. I love cozy SmartWool socks for lazing around camp at night, but 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.Darn Tough socks are one of our hiking clothing essentials. Not sure what to wear hiking? Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Hiking Shoes

 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. This comfy pair from Oboz is lightweight and breathable, with a grippy bottom that gives you plenty of traction for hikes in all types of conditions and trails. You can read more about our favorite hiking boots & shoes in our guide to finding the right pair.

Hiking Backpack

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’re new to hiking and want to stay as lightweight as possible, the Osprey Raven 14L is small enough so it won’t move around when you do, with a magnetic bite valve on the hose so it doesn’t flap around, but stays securely in place. Even though it’s small, it’s big enough to store your snacks and extra layers, and won’t make your back hot or sweaty while you’re outside exploring.


A daypack is essential for carrying snacks, water, and extra layers when hiking. Learn how to dress for both function and comfort on the trail in a variety of conditions with this hiking apparel guide.

Read our complete guide to finding the best daypack for hiking.

I hope this blog post gives you a good idea of what to wear hiking so you can be comfortable on the trail.

Got questions or comments? Leave a note below or join the conversation in the Bearfoot Theory Outdoor Adventurers Facebook group.

There are 27 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

27 Comments on “What to Wear Hiking

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  1. Yesss, Darn Tough! So glad to see them getting a shout out…since I found them a few months ago, they’re the only sock I’ll wear running or hiking.

      Same. I’m still wearing the two pairs that I took on the John Muir Trail a couple years ago and they are like new.

    Thanks for the list! I love your site. I’m preparing for a JMT hike this summer in July and I’m trying to figure out which pants to bring: I have Marmot Lobo convertible hiking pants/shorts, leggings, and the same REI fleece pants you mention. The leggings are a little heavy, so I’m leaning towards leaving them behind, but it just feels strange to not bring leggings along. Thoughts?

      Leggings are a must for me. I just got these Arcteryx leggings and I think they are going to be my new go to: http://bit.ly/22gDLDc I haven’t hiked in them yet, but I skied in them the other day and really liked them. I also like these tights by Mountain Hardwear: http://goo.gl/qTLBmx.

      If you bring leggings then you can probably swap out the convertible hiking pants for a pair of shorts.

        Hi Kristen! This post was super helpful! It looks like the Mountain Hardwear leggings are pretty much sold out everywhere now. Also, the link to the Arcteryx leggings doesn’t seem to go to a specific product. Do you have any recommendations for other leggings/tights? Thanks!!

          Ah sorry about that and thanks for letting me know. I’ll update the post now with some new links.

    Glad to see that my list matches your almost exactly! Different brands here and there but the same exact list. I’m a big fan of spandex shorts and pants specifically because my thighs touch and having anything baggy at all will leave me pretty chafed. Thanks for sharing!

    These are great choices! My pack list is very similar, including the merino long sleeve and same Patagonia Nano Puff. The only thing I would add for those new to hiking/camping: Check out Uniqlo. The Heattech and Airism lines are a great and affordable option for base layers, underwear, etc. I also like their ultra light down vests for another packable layer.

    When you did the JMT did you switch out of your boots and wear the Tevas for water crossings? Can’t really imagine hiking with wet shoes/socks! Thanks

    It was a very Informative and helpful list but I understand it was mostly directed towards ladies. Leaving aside the socks, boots,rain jacket and down jackets, could you add something specifically for men. I mean with your experience you could easily gather what is popular among competitive male hikers.

    This addition would make this a very comprehensive and wholesome piece.

    In any case it was a very helpful article. Many thanks to you. And do keep writing your thoughtful and very practical article’s. I have found your blog the best among all others I have read till now.

    Thanks and the very best.

    i just bought myself the la sportiva nucleo gtx hiking boots and i absolutely love them! a sales person at rei recommended them, after i tried on about 3 pairs at the store. it felt so good after i put them on, they feel so light! i’ve hiked with them at yosemite and i love them!!

      Angie, I have a pair of the La Sportiva Nucleo’s as well! Great to hear they are working for you.

    Hi ! I just discuvered your blog and I really love it ! I am from France and live in a city close to the montains (Grenoble) and a blog like yours is like my bible ! Keep writting posts with a lot of advises for beginiers and others !
    (sorry for the mistakes, I am not used to write in English!)

    Great guide dear. Very informative. I recently researched and wrote an article on best hiking shoes for women that are comfortable and stylish. It seems companies out their focus on comfort than how the gear looks. I guess for me as long as the boots are comfy, waterproof and kinda chic, I will be happy.

    hello just wondering what month you went in and how cold was it?

      Hi Maddy, we hike year-round. Is there a specific trail you are inquiring about?

    Merci pour tous les bons conseils!
    Reste une question… Je devrai marcher à peu près 25 km par jour pendant 6 semaines sur un terrain de difficulté moyenne à difficile avec des montées et des descentes, dans un climat chaud variant de 10 à 30 degrés.
    Je me demande encore si je dois opter pour des souliers de marche avec ou sans GORE-TEX.
    Le GORE-TEX me tiendra au sec de l’extérieur en cas de pluie mais rendra mes pieds humides à l’intérieur et donc risque d’ampoules.
    Le GORE-TEX est parfait pour l’hiver mais pour l’été, je n’en suis pas si certaine. J’ai l’impression qu’ils seront trop chauds.
    Que me conseilles-tu?

      Hi Jocelyne, you are right that Gore-Tex might be a bit too hot in the summer. If you’re going to be hiking in a warm climate you might want to consider a more breathable option. Also don’t forget to pack extra socks and change socks frequently. When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (20+ miles a day) I often changed my socks at least 3 times a day; this helps keep your feet dry and protects you from blisters.

    Hi there
    i Work as a mountains guide in morocco atlas mountains i did a lot of treks with a lot of people its very usefull for me what you mentioned in your article thank you very much

    In your picture where you are standing by the JM Wilderness Inyo sign – what is hanging off your pack waist belt (orange) and what do you use it for? Thx

    Great list!
    Totally team hiking leggings! Don’t go without anymore 😀
    Nothing else to add besides: I also “wear” natural sunscreen on my skin and self-made lip balm on my lips 😉

    You made such an interesting piece to read, giving every subject enlightenment for us to gain knowledge. Thanks for sharing the such information with us to read this…

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