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:
- 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 shown below.
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 Midweight Base Layer: 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 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.
North Face Thermoball Hooded Jacket: I wore this jacket night and day on my 11-day trek to Everest Basecamp (check out my Everest photos here!). It’s super lightweight and I never felt sticky or sweaty in it, and the hood was a great addition to keep my head warm on windy days. The cut is a flattering cut (doesn’t make you look like a marshmallow), and it’s slightly longer so you don’t get any backdraft. The Thermoball jacket is made of Primaloft – a synthetic material – that still provides insulation when it’s wet, scoring points over down. This is a great jacket for winter-hiking and also makes an effective and comfortable layer under a ski shell.
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 liking in an area prone to lots of rain and where it is 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 bring my North Face Venture 2 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, pit zips, and it’s totally windproof.
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 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 SmartWool Midweight Long Underwear Bottoms.They are made of merino wool. extremely comfortable, including the waistband, and can double as pajama 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.
Sports Bra & Quick Dry Undies
You can’t go wrong with Icebreaker for anything that is going to touch your skin and that hold true with the Icebreaker Meld Zone Sports Bra. It’s supportive enough for hiking (& also the gym) even though it doesn’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.
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.
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.
Don’t forget a daypack to carry your essentials for day hiking. If you’re new to hiking try to stay as lightweight as possible. The Osprey Raven 10L 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.
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