What to Wear Hiking

Wicking: Important in a base layer, or any apparel that touches skin, this is a fabric’s ability to pull moisture (sweat) away from you and move it to the fabric’s outer surface, where it can dry quickly. That lets you break a sweat without feeling clammy or chilled.

Insulating: Important in your mid layer, this ability is key to your staying warm. Clothing doesn’t actually generate heat, but, if it’s efficient at insulating, then it’s good at holding in the heat that your body produces.

Waterproof and windproof: Important in an outer layer or “shell,” this keeps the elements from saturating your clothes with rain, or chilling you when wind whisks away the heat your body produces. Note that jackets that are water and wind “resistant” do not totally block rain and wind, so they offer only moderate weather protection. And jackets that are waterproof might not also state they’re windproof, though they will be.

Breathable: Important in all your layers, this helps your wicking layer dry out more quickly. When your layers don’t collectively breathe, then perspiration that’s wicked off your skin dries inefficiently and you can end up getting soaked by your own sweat.

Waterproof/breathable: Advanced shells offer this coverage combo, though even the most sophisticated technologies prioritize blocking wind and rain. So they struggle with breathability when humidity and exertion levels are high. Coated nonbreathable shells are a fraction of the price, but can feel like you’re wearing a trash bag in a sauna.

Sun protection. Clothing that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating will help protect skin against the sun’s damaging UV rays. Read Sun Protection (UPF) Clothing: How to Choose to learn why this is important for any hiker and any environment.

Basic Fabric Choices

Here’s a primer on some popular fabric options for outdoor apparel:

Wool: Old-school woollies might have been itchy, but today’s wool clothing is not. Merino wool, in particular, has fine fibers that make it soft, breathable, moisture-wicking, reasonably quick to dry and not prone to retaining odors.

Polyester/nylon clothing: More affordable than merino wool, these synthetics excel at wicking sweat and drying fast, and many clothing choices incorporate recycled materials. One downside of synthetics is a tendency to smell funky, which is why some garments have an antimicrobial treatment to neutralize odor-causing bacteria. Most “techie” trademarked fabrics are some form of polyester or nylon.

Fleece: Fleece jackets are actually made out of polyester, though their warmth is as much a function of their soft, thick fibers as it is the material’s chemical properties.

Polyester/nylon jackets: In their “hard shell” form (think rain jacket or the outer layer of a puffy jacket), these synthetics, often in combination with special coatings or laminates, protect you from rain and wind.

Silk: Because of its modest wicking ability, silk isn’t ideal for a strenuous hike. Treated silk performs better because it’s been chemically modified to enhance wicking. Silk’s soft, luxurious feel is nice, but it’s not particularly rugged nor odor resistant.

Cotton: Notoriously inefficient at wicking and drying, cotton excels at soaking up sweat, staying wet and chilling you. In a sweltering heat, you could choose to wear it if you don’t mind feeling clammy and sticky. But when conditions turn cool, cotton next to your skin is a recipe for hypothermia, which is why longtime hikers say “cotton kills.”

Base Layer: Undergarment Options

undergarments for hiking

On a cool hike, a little bit of warmth in the form of long underwear might be in order, and a lot of wicking ability is always important in your next-to-skin layer.

Underwear: Whether it’s boxers, briefs, boy shorts, bikini briefs or something else, it’s fine to go with your personal preference here. Cotton is still a no-no, though, and you want something with a low profile and supportive fit. You also want your underwear to be non-chafing, which is why seamless designs are a good option for hiking.

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