A guide to hiking shirts for backpacking and trail running.
Thru-hikers share their insights from the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.
© Frick and Frack (@lnapier_)
When choosing the right hiking shirt, considering nature's elements and the climates you’ll encounter during your thru-hike are vital in selecting the appropriate garment. Should you go for short sleeve or long sleeve? Polyester, merino wool or even cotton? A button-up or a pullover? Just like the vast weather conditions you’ll likely encounter throughout your hike, there are many types of hiking shirts designed with specific climates in mind.
Among the many hiking shirt styles and features we’ll be talking about in this article, we will also cover important considerations to look for when picking a hiking shirt, along with listing top options that have the best fabric technology available today.
Short-Sleeve Athletic: A short sleeve hiking shirt is a very versatile piece of clothing to have on your next thru-hike. Not only is it great for warmer temperatures, but it can also be used as a base layer for added warmth underneath of another piece of clothing.
Long-Sleeve: If your skin’s sun-sensitive or you will be trekking through brush and bushes, then a long-sleeve hiking shirt is the way to go. Not only will the extra fabric protect your skin, but in the winter, the extra sleeve length will provide more insulation. And if you get too warm? Just roll your sleeves up and Voila – you’ve got yourself a temperature flexible garment.
Button-Shirt: The most versatile of the three common hiking shirt styles, a button shirt is great for temperature control, layering, and sun blocking. With the unbuttoning of a button you can easily begin cooling yourself down, and with most button shirts having collars, you can also ‘pop’ your collar for added sun protection on your neck. Another great feature? If you’re a fan of pockets, a button-down shirt will be your best option in having pockets as added features—some even with zippers.
MATERIAL: Merino wool, polyester, cotton vs blends
SYNTHETIC – Polyester and synthetic fabrics are excellent to have on your back when facing wetter climates. Along with being cheaper overall than merino wool, synthetic fabric is also extremely moisture-wicking, and in the chance that it does gets wet, it dries quickly. This is one of the most common fabrics you’ll find in any good outdoor clothing store. The only downfall is that most synthetic fabrics don’t have strong microbial properties, so if your hiking shirt gets stinky… it’s likely staying that way until you wash it.
"I usually go with a long sleeve button up "traditional" polyester hiking shirt for sun and bug protection. I like that they dry fast and breate well. They do smell quicker than merino wool though." - Paul "PIE" Ingram (aka @pieonthetrail)
MERINO WOOL – Although it’s the most expensive option in hiking shirt fabric, merino wool specializes in being breathable and wicking water away from your skin. Another bonus, is that the fabric has natural antimicrobial properties that help prevent odors from building up. So, if heading out on a long thru-hike this could be a good investment, as you could get away with wearing your hiking shirt quite a few times before it needs hitting the wash.
"My other go-to option is merino wool. It is soft against the skin, keeps the funk at bay and is warmer when wet. It doesn't dry quite as quickly and, of course, costs more but it is worth it in my opinion." - Paul "PIE" Ingram (aka @pieonthetrail)
BLENDS – A hiking shirt that’s mixed with a blend of nylon and spandex will be more durable and flexible than one composed of only polyester. So, if you’re looking for a garment that will be more fitted, flexible, and move with your body, picking a hiking shirt that has a higher blend make-up will be the way to go. Unfortunately, blends provide less breathability and odor-control than merino wool and synthetic fibers.
COTTON – Although cotton can be great for many things, being the fabric of your hiking shirt is not one of them. Cotton provides low breathability and can actually stop your sweat from evaporating. If this fabric gets wet, it’s staying wet for a lot longer than the other fabric options on this list. There is one climate where wearing a cotton shirt might be a good option, and that’s in the desert where the coolness of wet fabric could be a good relief. However, this is still a heavy debate among many hikers.
"If you want to spend a little cash the long sleeve button up REI shirts are solid and last a long time. If you're on a budget, head on down to your local goodwill and grab a cheap Hawaiian shirt. Either way you can't go wrong. Basically anything not made of cotton will do." - Andrew "Reptar" Forestell (@reptarhikes)
COMFORT: The right fit and flat seams
When it comes to the comfort of your hiking shirt, there are many features to take into account. The overall fit, style, flexibility and even the way the seams are sewn together and where they land are a few of the most important things to pay attention to.
A lot of hiking shirts have now switched to a ‘flatlock’ seam design, which means the seams don’t overlap and stick out so they won’t create chafing. Also, you can buy hiking shirt styles that are either more fitted or that hang a little loose depending on what you find most comfortable. With fitted styles the shirt will move with you, while a looser fit will allow for more airflow and ventilation.
SUN PROTECTION: UPF 30 or above
Getting a "high UPF" shirt may or may not be necessary. All shirts come with some level of inherent sun blocking. However, for those with more sensitive skin or for those that venture higher and sunny elevations, you will want to pick a shirt with a high UPF rating. A few considerations could be to choose a shirt with long sleeves, a collar for added neck protection, and a shirt with a UPF rating of 30 or above.
A UPF rating in clothing is like the SPF rating for skin in sunscreen. It will tell just how effective a fabric can be against ultraviolet rays. The higher the UPF rating, the higher level of overall sun protection your garment will have. If a garment has a UPF rating of less than 15 it is not considered to be UV-protective.
There are many factors that go into setting the UPF rating on a piece of clothing, including the color of the garment, the overall construction and its specific fiber makeup. Darker colors are well-known for absorbing more UV rays, while lighter colors will help to repel them. Among the fabrics, polyester and nylon are best at blocking UV light rays, while cotton is among the least effective. When buying a UPF rated garment, keep in mind that reading the washing instructions is important, since how you wash the item could either increase or decrease the overall rating.
DESIGN: Roll-up buttons, zippers, pockets and more
Hiking shirts come in a vast variety of designs ranging from pullover crewnecks and V-necks to the old standby button up. Among these designs, there are styles with zippers, roll-up tabs, pockets and built-in vents that can run up the sides, under the arms or directly along the back. Whereas a polyester T-shirt would be better for trail running, day hiking or taking part in sports activities, a button-up shirt would be more ideal for longer thru-hiking, as most styles are more durable and the fabric doesn’t have to be washed as often. With button shirts, there are also options that have zipper, snap or button pockets that could be very useful in securing important items. Although, keep in mind that these added features can make the shirt warmer overall.
ADDITIONAL FUNCTIONS: Antimicrobial treatment and bug-repelling ability
If you’ll be out on the trail for an extended period, then picking a hiking shirt with strong antimicrobial properties will help in keeping you and your shirt smelling clean. If you will be hiking through mosquito and bug alley, picking a shirt with built-in insect repellent technology may be a real-life saver.
Fabric: 100% Polyester
UPF Rating: 30
Weight: 4.6 oz
Price: $40 at Moosejaw
Created with Columbia’s Omni-Freeze ZERO technology, this short sleeve pull over hiking shirt has built in blue rings that react with sweat to automatically lower its fabric temperature, helping in keeping you cool. With a classic fit and comfortable stretch, this hiking shirt is offered in a crew neck option for men, and V-neck option for women.
Fabric: 87% Merino Wool, 13% Nylon
UPF Rating: 20
Weight: 4.7 oz
Price: $75 at Moosejaw
Made from Merino wool mixed with Nylon, the Smartwool crew short sleeve hiking shirt is built for durability while staying ultra-soft. Flatlock seams at the shoulders and sides offset any chance of chafing from your backpack straps, and the merino wool naturally wicks moisture away from your body, making it a great versatile option in warmer temps or a great layering piece in cooler climates.
Fabric: 100% Polyester
UPF Rating: None
Weight: 4.8 oz
If budget is a concern, you're going to like the Starter short-sleeve athletic shirt. At only $13, this polyester shirt is breathable and fits well. Starter's DRI-STAR technology helps the shirt dry quickly, keep you cool, and stink less. You'll appreciate the smooth seams and tagless collar, for they together ensure your pack will sit nicely on your back without causing chafing. The fit of this shirt is "athletic", meaning it'll be snug and will move with you as you hike. Get it a size up if you prefer a more relaxed fit.
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Fabric: 51% Polyester, 45% Tencel, 4% Spandex
UPF Rating: 15
Weight: 4 oz
Price: $58 at Moosejaw
Here's what our friend Lindsey Falkenburg (aka tandemtrekking) had to say...
"Oiselle is a Seattle based company founded by a female CEO. Technically, their clothing is made for running in but I find it works really well for hiking as well. I love their shirts because they use fabrics that are both technical and beautiful. The details on their clothing is unique and really gives you the feeling that you stand out. These clothes are made by women, for women. And did I mention they are comfortable as all get out, stylish and they don't come in garish bright colors that offend the eye when you're out in nature? I can't get enough!
I recommend their Flyout Collection - there are a number of different options in terms of tank, t-shirt or long sleeve. The fabric is unlike anything I have ever worn, it is super light and comfortable and breaths really well. Plus, you really have to sweat in it for multiple days for it to start smelling!"
Fabric: Omni-Wick Ripstop 100% Polyester
UPF Rating: 40
Weight: 8 ounces
Price: $55 at Moosejaw
A classic long sleeve, button-front hiking shirt, the Columbia Silver Ridge Lite is available for both men and women. It’s Omni-Wick fabric has an antimicrobial treatment that prevents odor from building up, and pulls moisture off the body allowing for any sweat to dry quickly. There are also 2 front zip pockets that help for safe storage of personal items.
Fabric: 100% Nylon
UPF Rating: 30
Weight: 6.5-8.5 oz
This long sleeve, button front hiking shirt has built-in Insect Shield Technology using odorless Permethrin and is also equipped with Flow Thru Ventilation to keep you cool and dry while out on your next adventure. The Insect Shield ingredient blocks from mosquitoes, ticks, ants and chiggers just to name a few pests, and is bonded to the fabric of the shirt, making it guaranteed to repel bugs for the garment’s life. This shirt has been said to run small for women.
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Fabric: 95% Nylon, 5% Spandex
UPF Rating: 35-50
Weight: 4-6 oz
Antimicrobial: Underarm only
Price: $50 at REI
The Rei Co-Op Sahara shirt comes offered in a short sleeve or long sleeve option, with UPF ratings ranging from 35 to 50 depending on which style. This button-front hiking shirt is lightweight, great for warmer climates, and has snap front pockets for secure storing of items. The underarms are also treated with LAVA XL odor resistance, which helps to keep odors at bay and the shirt smelling clean. The men’s option also features vents along the back and a sunglass loop on the chest.
Fabric: 85% Nylon, 15% Spandex
UPF Rating: 50+
Weight: 5.4-7 oz
Price: $60-85 at Outdoor Research
Available in long or short sleeve, the Astroman hiking shirt is a highly rated, highly sun-protective shirt that’s a favorite among climbers. The Nylon stretch fabric is durable, lightweight, and flexible which allows the shirt to bend with ease and fold down to a very compact size. The high UPF rating of 59+ is a bonus, and the built in Sun Snap Collar can snap in place, going the extra mile in sun protection for your neck.
Fabric: 100% Recycled Polyester
UPF Rating: 50
Weight: 3.7-5.4 oz
Price: $40-50 at Moosejaw
A great hiking shirt option for either the trails or on the water, this quick dry, high performance knit long sleeve provides high sun protection and HEiQ Fresh Durable odor control technology. Made from recycled material, the Capilene is also Fair Trade Certified sewn, is designed with thoughtful sleeve construction to avoid chafing, and is built for high sweat or wet activities.
Fabric: 100% Polyester, Phasic FL with DAO fabric
UPF Rating: 25
Weight: 4.2 oz
Antimicrobial: Durable anti-odor finish
Price: $79 at Moosejaw
Designed with trail runners in mind, this long sleeve pullover crew is made from sweat-wicking, flex-fit polyester that keeps you dry and cool while working up a sweat. The style has a trim fit that works and moves with the body to keep this shirt close fitting for improved moisture-wicking. The Motus LS Crew also features built-in reflective blades on both sleeves for visibility at night.
Fabric: 100% Polyester
UPF Rating: 50+
Weight: 4.5 oz
Price: $10 at Walmart
One of the less costly hiking shirts on our list, the Hanes Men’s Long Sleeve Cool Dri T-shirt can be found at your local Wal Mart or Target. Designed from Jersey Knit, this lightweight long sleeve keeps you cool, dry and smelling clean with its FreshIQ Odor-resistant technology. Although a great hiking shirt option for its price, be weary that there have been reports of the sleeve stitching unraveling.
TEMPERATURE: Check the temperatures of your trip and wear shirts according to these ranges...
Cold (below 40 degrees): Dressing in layers will be best when hiking in colder temperatures. Having a solid merino wool base layer paired with a good hiking shirt that helps to regulate your body's temperature will keep you warm and insulated. Stick to fabrics that aren’t cotton, because if cotton gets wet it can take a long time to dry which will leave you wet, cold and one very unhappy camper. Choosing a hiking shirt that’s made of a synthetic blend or merino wool would be a great option, as these fabrics are quick drying and adjust to your body's temperature.
Cool (40-60 degrees): When hiking in this temperature range, it’s important to pick a hiking shirt that will keep you comfortably warm when staying still, but still able to cool you down for when you're working up a sweat. A lightweight, polyester blend shirt should do the trick in helping to regulate your body temperature. Whether you’re warming up while hiking at an incline, or keeping cool while heading down a mountainside, a fabric that’s able to adjust to the various levels of your body temperature at this range is key.
Warm (60-80 degrees): A light, synthetic, hiking shirt will help pull any extra moisture away from your body when hiking in warmer temperatures. Finding a shirt that allows easy sleeve length adjustment from long to short sleeve, or that has built in vents could be a great benefit for an easy alteration in this warmer temperature range.
Hot (80-100 degrees and above): A thin, loose, hiking shirt will help keep you cool and comfortable when hiking in hot temperatures. Sticking with breathable fabrics like nylon or polyester will help to keep chafing from your backpack straps away. A looser fit will also provide nice ‘breathing room’ between you and your shirt's fabric, and if you opt for a lighter-colored garment, you’ll also help to reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorb them.
SUN: Protect your skin with UPF clothing and/or a long-sleeve layer
Contingent on where you're hiking, considering the amount of sun exposure you’re going to face could be an important factor in choosing your hiking shirt. Nowadays, there are shirts equipped with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) sun protection ratings that, like most popular sunscreens, are effective in providing extra sun protection for allotted amounts of time. Another good rule of thumb is to wear a lightweight, breathable long sleeve shirt to keep you well-covered.
HUMIDITY: Pick fabrics that match your trips moisture level
When hiking in wet terrain, one of the most beneficial things you can do you for yourself clothing-wise is to stay far away from cotton. Since cotton holds water, wearing it in wet climates can quickly put you well on your way to a wet, chilly and miserable rest of your hike. Picking out a wicking-specific fabric like polyester, wool or nylon will help to keep away any excess moisture so you stay good and dry.
By Katie Licavoli: Katie Licavoli is a content writer, author and outdoor enthusiast. When not reading or writing away, she's out running, hiking, backpacking, snowboarding, or sailing the great lakes in northern Michigan.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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