As you become more experienced as a hiker and backpacker, you pay more attention to how your gear works for you and makes your hikes more comfortable. You’ll examine your backpack, sleeping bag, shelter, and other gear to make sure it meets your needs.
Don’t forget to evaluate your clothing as well. You should always consider your clothing an essential part of your gear setup, as it can make or break a hiking trip. You will need clothing that is versatile in different temperatures and conditions, manages moisture, and keeps you safe and comfortable.
I’ve spent hours researching the best system for your hiking clothing – your trail uniform, so to speak. I’ve drawn on my own experience learning from mistakes and considering my favorite clothing to put this guide together. I’ve also put together recommendations from even more experienced hikers to help you put together a clothing system that will make your hiking adventures even more enjoyable.
Top Considerations For Your Hiking Wear
Regardless of what you choose to wear out on the trail, there are come things that you should always consider when putting together your trail uniform.
- Versatility – Many fabrics can be worn in both warm and cool temperatures. Look for fabrics such as merino wool and synthetic that will keep you warm when the temperature drops, but is breathable and light for warmer temps.
- Moisture-wicking – No one wants wet clothes on the trail, and not just because it’s uncomfortable. Wet clothes can be dangerous if the temperature drops too much. Select clothing that will wick moisture away from your body and dry quickly.
- Don’t Forget About Comfort – You may have the most advanced fabric shirt available, but if it doesn’t fit well, or if doesn’t feel right, it’s not the right shirt for you. Be sure to wear what you can be comfortable in.
What To Wear When Hiking
Your outer layer plays an important role in protecting you from the elements and keeping you comfortable. Depending on the time of year, your outer layer can look very different.
During the spring and fall seasons, you will likely see moderate temperatures during the day, but cooler temperatures at night that might require adding layers for warmth. Also, during the spring and fall there is more potential for inclement weather such as rain or wind.
T-Shirt – A merino wool or dri-fit synthetic t-shirt might be an adequate top layer during the spring or fall, so long as temperatures are warm enough. Short sleeves will leave you more exposed to the sun and to mosquitoes, so sunscreen and bug repellent are a necessary part of your outfit.
Recommended T-Shirt: Under Armor Men’s Tech 2.0
Recommended Merino Wool T-Shirt: Sheep Run Men’s Merino Wool T-Shirt
Long-Sleeve Shirt – A long-sleeve shirt, again made of merino wool or synthetic materials, is a perfect outer-layer top for the spring and fall seasons. While still lightweight and breathable, a long-sleeve shirt provides much more warmth when the wind picks up or the temperature starts to drop. They also protect against the sun and bugs.
There are plenty of options here – you can choose a button-up collared shirt, a hooded pullover, or a long-sleeved t-shirt, depending on your style preference.
Recommended Long-Sleeve Shirt: Outdoor Research Men’s Echo Hoodie
Rain Coat – A good, breathable, waterproof rain coat is a must have during any season, but especially during the spring and fall. A lightweight, hooded rain coat can be put on in a moment’s notice to protect against rain and heavy wind. Rain coats not only repel water, but can provide warmth against cold winds.
You should be sure to find a rain coat that has ventilation, either under the arm pits or on the back or chest, as poorly ventilated rain coats can trap heat and cause you sweat too much. You may also want to purchase a slightly larger rain coat to accommodate layering over shirts or coats.
Recommended Rain Coat: Marmot Precip Lightweight Rain Jacket
Insulated Jacket (Puffy Coat) – A good puffy coat is lightweight, compressible, and keeps you warm when the temperature drops in the spring or fall. Made from down or synthetic materials, a puffy coat will provide warmth in common settings: during a mid-day break for lunch, at camp at night, and even as part of your sleep system when temperatures can drop to near-freezing. Hooded puffy coats provide even more warmth to the body.
Down jackets are generally lighter and more compressible, but lose much of their ability to insulate when wet. Meanwhile, a synthetic down does keep you warmer when it is wet, but will weigh more and take up more space. In any event, an insulated jacket is pretty much a must-have for any hiking trip.
Recommended Puffy Coat: Outdoor Vitals LoftTek Jacket
Fleece Pullover – Some hikers choose a fleece pullover instead of an insulated jacket, even for spring and fall trips. Fleece is a good option to keep you warm, and does not lose it’s ability to warm your body when wet. If you are anticipating a particularly cold or wet trip, this might be a good option in addition to a puffy coat, which you can wear in a layering system with a shirt and rain coat, by itself, or even with a puffy coat.
I would recommend getting a lightweight fleece jacket or pullover, preferable one with a zipper at the neck so you can regulate your temperature.
Recommended Fleece Pullover: The North Face Tka 100 Glacier 1/4 Zip
Shorts – You might find that wearing shorts, even in spring and fall, is more comfortable for you. Synthetic running or athletic shorts are becoming more popular for hikers, because they are lightweight, comfortable, dry quickly. Some of these shorts come with a liner, providing extra support.
While shorts do not protect against bugs, the sun, and bushwhacking, many hikers swear by them in almost any conditions. Their level of comfort makes them so popular, and a definite option for your trail uniform.
Recommended Shorts for Hiking: Souke Sports Running Shorts
Hiking Pants – A good pair of lightweight, synthetic hiking pants that can protect against sun, bugs, and repel moisture and wetness are a top option for hikers during the spring and fall months. Especially if bushwhacking is required, pants do well to protect against scratches and cuts to the legs.
Recommended Hiking Pants: Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Hiking Pants
Rain Pants – Rain pants are an optional piece of gear that can nonetheless be very valuable when the weather turns ugly. While some hikers choose to go without rain pants, a lightweight, breathable, waterproof pair of pants will act as a warm layer against moisture and wind.
Recommended Rain Pants: Frogg Toggs Pro Action Rain Pant
Base Layer/Camp Clothing – During the spring and fall, temperatures will likely require a warm layer under your top layers, at least at night in camp and overnight, as well as some early mornings.
You always plan on taking lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking base layers that you can wear by themselves at camp, in your sleeping bag, and even on the trail if the temperature requires.
You can also find base layer tops and bottoms that have different warmth ratings. Some light layers are appropriate for summer, others for spring and fall, and some are warm enough to be worn during the winter.
Recommended Base Layer: Meriwool Base Layer (Top); Meriwool Base Layer (Bottom)
You will likely do most of your hiking and backpacking during the summer, so these are the clothes that will wear the most. In reality, the clothes that you wear during the summer will not be much different from those that you wear during the spring and fall, with a few exceptions.
Shirts – Your shirt collection should not change too much from spring/fall to summer. You can still wear short-sleeve shirts during the summer, as well as your long-sleeve shirts. I actually prefer to wear longer-sleeve shirts during the summer, as they provide good sun protection and still are breathable to keep me cool.
Rain Coat/Puffy Jacket – You should still bring your rain coat and puffy jacket with you during summer months. A rain coat by itself is a great layer for warmth during cooler periods of the day or when wind and rain become a factor.
Likewise your puffy jacket will be great to wear in camp when both the outside temperature and your own body temperature start to drop. Even in the summer it can get cold in the evenings – if you or your clothing is still damp from the day’s hike, you will get the chills. Your puffy jacket will be a great option during those times as well as a good warming layer for your sleep system.
Fleece Pullover – This is one piece of clothing you can leave at home, especially if you have a puffy coat and/or rain coat. Always be sure to check the weather before you go, but this is one item that can probably stay at home.
Shorts/Pants – Just as you can wear shorts during cooler temperatures, you can consider wearing pants during the summer. You can find lightweight, breathable pants that will be comfortable even during warm temperatures. They also should provide all the protection you would need against wind, rain, and bugs while still keeping you cool.
Rain Pants – Just as during the spring and fall, rain pants are optional during the summer. Generally, you should not have to worry too much about rain, wind, and cold during the summer for your legs – your hiking pants and a base layer should provide all the protection and comfort you need.
Base Layer/Camp Clothing – The only change you might want to make to your base layers is to perhaps find some that aren’t quite as warm – but otherwise these are great to wear in camp and overnight.
The greatest change to your trail uniform will come during the winter months – when moisture and temperature can put you in real danger if you are not dressed properly. You will need to wear clothing that allows you to properly layer (discussed more below) to protect against wind, rain, snow, and cold temperatures.
Shirts – During the winter, a dri-fit T-shirt might just be useless. Because you will be relying more on a base layer and coats that protect you from wet and cold, you won’t rely as much on a T-shirt. You can still bring and wear a lightweight long-sleeved shirt that can breathe well and wick away moisture from your body.
Rain Coat/Puffy Jacket – Your outer shell during the winter needs to be a waterproof and windproof jacket with a hood. It should also be heavier than the rain coat you might prefer for spring, summer, and fall. This will be your first line of defense against the elements, so pay attention to its ability to repel water and wind first and foremost.
You will also need to size up a bit with your rain coat, as you will need it to fit over your puffy coat. You will often wear your puffy coat as your outer layer, but when weather starts to get wetter, your rain coat will become necessary.
This puffy coat should also come with an attached hood and should insulate better than a puffy coat you bring for the spring, summer, or fall. Pay attention to reviews from certain puffy coats to make sure you are getting one that will keep you warm during winter nights – when you will need it the most.
Recommended Rain Coat (Winter): The North Face Resolve Jacket
Fleece Pullover – In the winter, a fleece pullover could become a vital part of your layering system and your sleep system. If you are wearing a base layer against your skin, you could skip a shirt and put on your fleece pullover next, under a puffy jacket and/or rain coat.
At camp and as you sleep, this fleece pullover will be a vital layer to keep you warm – even if it gets wet or you are a bit wet from your hike. Finding a pullover with a hood is not as necessary if you have a hood on your coats.
Shorts/Pants – I would not recommend wearing shorts during your winter hiking trips. Stick to windproof and waterproof hard shell pants that will make sure you stay as dry as possible. Some pants are lined with fleece on the inside to provide extra warmth. You should be careful about these pants, as they might make you sweat if too warm, which can be dangerous once you stop hiking and the temperature continues to drop.
The pants you wear during the spring and fall may just be acceptable for winter hiking, so long as you layer properly, with an outer layer that can repel wind and rain, and possible a base layer underneath your pants which will give you added warmth.
Rain Pants – Rain pants or an outer shell that is windproof and waterproof will be much more important during the winter. A relatively lightweight, comfortable, breathable shell of rain pants will keep you dry and warm despite nasty weather.
Base Layer/Camp Clothing – During the winter, your base layers become all the more important. You will not only wear these layers at camp and overnight, but you also may very well have them on as you hike.
You will want relatively lightweight base layer clothing made from merino wool or warm synthetics which will keep you warm even when wet and dry more quickly. But be sure to look for base layers that will keep you warmer in colder temperatures. Your summer base layers may not cut it overnight during the winter.
Recommended Base Layer (Winter): Minus 33 Midweight Bottoms; Woolx Explorer Midweight Top
The beauty of wool socks is that they can be worn at any time of year and do a great job of keeping a hiker’s feet comfortable. Merino wool is the fabric of choice for most hikers and backpackers, regardless of the time of year.
Wool socks provide warmth even when they are wet, they dry faster than other fabrics, and do not get heavy when they are wet – all vital characteristics for a hiker or backpacker. Your only real variation on socks depending on the season is the thickness – you can get thicker, more padded wool socks for the winter.
Some hikers like to wear sock liners underneath their hiking socks. Liners are a thin pair of socks that reduce friction between your feet and your shoes/boots and wick away moisture that can soften your feet and cause blisters. These properties can also help keep your feet warmer. Liners are by no means required, but many hikers swear by them once they start wearing them.
Recommended Hiking Socks: Darn Tough Full Cushion Hiking Socks
Recommended Sock Liners: Fox River CoolMax Liner Sock
Your shoes will vary depending on the season. As the weather gets worse and moisture and cold become a larger part of the equation, it just doesn’t make as much sense to stick with your favorite pair of summer hiking shoes.
Spring/Summer/Fall – In most cases, you should be able to wear the same shoes or boots for most of your hiking trips. And while you might want to wear waterproof boots, especially in the spring or fall, many hikers are not as hung up on them so long as their footwear can purge extra water and dry quickly.
Trail runners are becoming more and more popular among hikers – and not just thru-hikers – because they are lightweight, comfortable, and can purge water and dry more quickly than other shoes, including hiking boots. If you want more protection, you can wear waterproof hiking boots, but be aware that even these types get wet and allow moisture to reach your feet. And they do not dry nearly as fast.
Regardless of the season, you will want a pair of shoes or boots that provide comfort to your feet and are durable.
Recommended Hiking Shoes: Merrell Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe
Recommended Trail Runner: Altra Lone Peak 4 Trail Runner
Winter – Trail runners or lighter, non-waterproof boots and hiking shoes are much less desirable during the winter. You will possibly be hiking in snow, and at the very least you will be hiking in much wetter areas. Given how much colder your winter hikes will be, keeping your feet wet will be of much greater importance.
Look for winter hiking boots that are rated 20 degrees below zero. That may sound like overkill, but keeping your feet warm and dry will be of paramount importance during winter hiking trips.
Recommended Winter Hiking Boot: Salomon Men’s X Ultra Mid Winter CS Waterproof Hiking Boot
A wool or fleece beanie is a vital part of any hiking trip for me – even during the summer. It is something I wear every night in camp and as part of my sleep system. If it gets too warm, I can always take it off and pack it away, but I never leave home for a hiking trip without it. And combined with a hooded puffy jacket and/or rain jacket, it is an essential piece of a trail uniform for winter.
Recommended Beanie: Outdoor Research Wool Hat
Baseball Cap/Sun Hat – A good sun hat can be really important during the spring/summer/fall hiking seasons. I mainly wear one for protection from the sun, as my head is shaved and exposed. Wider sun hats can cover your entire head and neck area, while baseball or trucker hats with a mesh back leave your neck and ears exposed.
Fleece or wool gloves are a great, lightweight option to keep your hands warm during any season. Of course, as the winter season begins, you will want warmer, more water resistant gloves. But, no matter the season, keeping your hands warm on the trail, at camp, and overnight is a huge plus.
Recommended Gloves: Outdoor Research Sensor Gloves
Buff – A buff, or neck gaiter, is another piece of my trail uniform that I never leave home without – even in the summer. Most buffs are made from merino wool or synthetic fibers and are extremely versatile.
Buffs can be worn around your neck like a scarf, pulled up over your ears and head, or as a bandanna. They keep you warm during cooler temperatures, but also can provide protection from the sun. They can also become a part of your sleep system to keep your head and neck warm during the night.
Buff – Merino Wool Buff
Summer – Many thru-hikers love to wear ankle gaiters, which are worn with hiking shoes or trail runners and tightly cover the space between the shoe and foot. Made from nylon or other synthetic fabrics, ankle gaiters do a great job of keeping sand and small rocks out of your shoes. Some trail runners, most notably Altras, come designed with attachments for ankle gaiters.
Recommended Ankle Gaiters: Altra Trail Gaiter
Spring/Fall/Winter – During those months when hikers have to deal more with the wet from weather, plants along the trail, or a muddy trail itself, ankle gaiters are pretty much useless. In order to keep their legs and the inside of their shoes dry, some hikers wear longer, waterproof gaiters.
Recommended Waterproof Gaiters: Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters
Umbrellas – If you have good rain gear, umbrellas might seem like overkill. And for rainy hikes, they might just be. However, umbrellas are quite helpful when you will be hiking long periods exposed to the sun, with no trees to protect you. A small trail umbrella in this case is a good option to consider.
Recommended Hiking Umbrella: Snow Peak Umbrella
Sunglasses – Be it summer or winter, spring or fall, sunglasses are an important protection for your eyes against the sun and its glare. I recommend a good pair of UV-rated sunglasses for any hiking trip.
Recommended Sunglasses: Oakley Twoface Sunglasses
Important Tips For Hiking Clothing
Pay Attention To Your Fabric
Throughout this article I have referenced wool and synthetic fabrics for all of your clothing. Your fabrics are key to having a comfortable hike. Remember the old adage: COTTON IS ROTTEN!
Unlike wool or other fabrics such as polyester, spandex, or nylon, cotton will not dry quickly when wet. It will get heavier as it gets wet, and it will not keep you warm if it is wet. All these factors are a recipe for extreme discomfort, if not outright danger, if weather conditions are difficult.
Just leave anything that is cotton (including underwear!) at home when you go hiking.
Layering Is Key
Properly layering as you hike will probably be the determining factor in your level of comfort on the trail.
All of your clothing should work together in a layering system that keeps you dry, comfortable, and protected from the elements. During the summer months, you will want lightweight, breathable clothes that wick away moisture. However, if it rains, you can just add a rain coat as a top layer and retain your same level of comfort.
In the winter, a warm base layer can provide a foundation of warmth and dryness. You can add layers such as a fleece pullover and warm pants to provide more warmth and better protection against the elements. Another layer or outer shell can provide a final protection against wind and rain that will keep you warm and dry.
Depending on the time of year and your level of comfort, a proper layering system will require simply adding or removing a layer of clothing to keep you feeling good.
This Isn’t A Fashion Show
Don’t ever worry about how you look or what other hikers are wearing. So long as your trail uniform keeps you dry and comfortable, wear what you like!
Protect Yourself From The Sun
Your clothing can provide you with almost all the sun protection you need. Just be sure that if you choose to shed layers and/or wear clothing that leaves part of your body exposed to the sun, that you still protect those areas.
Sunscreen should be an essential part of your trail uniform, as it can provide the same level of comfort in the summer as a warm coat provides during the winter.
How Much Clothing Should You Bring On Your Hike?
The amount of clothing you bring on your hike really depends on your level of comfort. If you want to have a clean set of clothes in your pack, that is fine. But remember that extra clothes mean extra weight (especially in the winter) and less space in your pack.
Unless your hiking trip is more than week long, I would recommend only the clothes you will wear as you hike, plus the following:
- Puffy jacket
- Rain coat
- 1-2 extra pairs of wool socks
- Wool/Fleece beanie
- Lightweight gloves
- Base layer/Camp clothes
- 1 extra pair of underwear
In the spring, fall, or winter, you might add a fleece pullover, heavier gloves, and a heavier outer shell for wet weather.
However, if you can bear wearing and hiking dozens of miles the same clothes for several days in a row, do it. Is the extra weight on your back over that time worth smelling a little bit better?