Hiking Clothes 101 | What to Wear

A guide to the best performance hiking clothes and backpacking layering systems.

Updated on August 4th, 2020
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© Yoni Sperer

Most backpackers love to buy gear and talk about gear. Because equipment is so much fun, it is effortless to focus on the big three - tent, backpack, and sleeping bag - and overlook the other essentials, such as clothing. Properly planning your clothes is crucial to a fun and safe trip.

Be prepared for any situation with this guide to the best performance hiking clothes tested and written by ultralight Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.

Hiking Clothes Fundamentals

The weather will be the biggest factor impacting what hiking clothes you decide to wear. Keep in mind you can add or remove clothing items as the weather's demands evolve. Let's discuss 5 best practices and common mistakes to avoid.

1. Choose your fabrics wisely:
 Choose clothing that helps you stay warm and dry as much as possible. Merino wool is a must-have because it is warm and insulates when wet. It is also relatively odor-resistant, which can be a significant advantage in the shower-less backcountry. Nylon, polyester, and polypropylene synthetics are also good choices. These fabrics are moisture-wicking and fast-drying. They generally are more durable and rip-resistant than wool as well. Stay away from cotton and denim, which absorb water when they get wet, take forever to dry, and provide minimal insulation.

2. Layer your clothes:
Layering is precisely what it sounds like - layering several items of clothing on top of each other. Layering several smaller and thinner pieces versus one larger item allows you to remove or add clothing to adapt to ever-changing weather and body conditions. The ability to adjust to these small variations is why layering is so advantageous.

  • Base Layer: the clothing closest to your body designed to trap your body heat (shirt).
  • Mid Layer: the second layer designed to insulate your body (jacket/ fleece).
  • Outer Layer: the exposed layer shielding you from rain and wind (rain jacket/ shell

3. Plan your 2 sets of clothes: 
Keep in mind when you will be wearing the clothing. Carry two sets of clothes - what you hike in and what you sleep in. The hiking clothes are generally synthetics that get sweaty and need to dry fast. Long sleeve wool keeps you warm as the sun goes down. Also pack light and water-resistant camp shoes to wear at night.

4. Hiking shoes over hiking boots:
 Boots have been around since the dawn of hiking, but they might not be your best option. Many hikers now choose to wear low-cut footwear that takes the best of a boot and mixes it with a running shoe. These hiking shoes and trail runners are lightweight and dry quickly, making them ideal for long-distance hikes.

5. Consider your environment:
 As you choose your clothing, you need to consider the environment in which you will be hiking. These are the main conditions to consider:

  • Rain: if hiking in humid tropics or dry desert, prepare for a fair amount of rain. You'll need rain-specific items to ensure your gear and clothes don't get soaked - rain jacket or poncho, pack liner, etc.

  • Temperature/ Elevation: places like the desert can get extremely hot during the day and very cold at night. Consider the temperature range of your location AND the temperature at the highest and lowest points. Large changes in elevation (example: 14,000 ft summit and 7,000 camp site) can significantly impact the temperature and subsequently, your clothing.

  • Exposure: some trails are more exposed than others and leave you vulnerable to the elements (ie - sun namely, but also wind). Packing an umbrella, for example, is a great way to create shade where there is none.

  • Trail: Rocky, sandy, muddy, etc. The actual trail will mainly impact the footwear you bring. Hard soles with aggressive tread, gaiters, sock liners, etc.

woman wearing warm hiking clothes at sunset

© Ashley Hill

The 3 Main Hiking Outfits to Plan

In the following section, we break down three common hiking outfits: worn hiking clothes (left), camp clothes (middle), and additions for cold-weather (right).  


A. Hiking Clothes

Buff, baseball cap or sun hat: A Buff is light and somewhat elastic, making it a comfortable and versatile headband. It'll keep your hair back, prevent sweat from streaming down your face, and block all sorts of bugs and debris from falling in your hair. A Buff can also double as a face mask on mornings you'll want to sleep in. If sunny, obviously, a hat can help. Consider one with neck coverage if necessary.

Synthetic shirt: No need to get fancy with your synthetic shirts. Synthetic short-sleeve shirts from Walmart could work. Pack two t-shirts and wear each for 2 or 3 days of hiking until the next trail town.

(see Best Lightweight Hiking Shirts)

Shorts (+ optional briefs): Hiking pants often use thick, heavy fabric and be loaded with pockets and zippers. Pants work well in cold temps, but you can get hot in them quickly. For most conditions, simple and light running shorts with built-in mesh underwear (like a swimsuit) are preferable. If you are worried about chafing, feel free to wear underwear. Use the same principle as the t-shirts—wear each pair of shorts for 2 or 3 days of hiking until the next trail town.

(see Best Lightweight Hiking Shorts)

Socks (+ optional liners): Your socks should be wool. Consider wearing sock liners to help reduce the friction between your socks and your skin. You'll be glad you to have them if you wind up getting some bad blisters. 

(see Best Hiking Socks)

Shoes (+ optional gaiters): Boots are more durable and supportive, but trail runners are preferable because they are lightweight, breathable, and dry fast. Boots keep your feet steamy, which creates blisters. They are also a nightmare to dry after stepping into mud or hiking in the rain (nearly a daily occurrence). Long live trail runners. We also recommend ultralight gaiters to block tiny pebbles and pine needles from wiggling into your shoes.

(see Best Hiking Shoes and Gaiters)

B. Camp Clothes

Wool beanie or buff: The wool beanie helps to insulate you on cooler nights by the fire or when sleeping in your tent. 

Long-sleeve base layer: After a long hiking day, you'll want to get out of that sweaty shirt and climb into a warm, clean, and dry long-sleeve baselayer. Only wear this baselayer at camp once you are done hiking and sweating for the day.

Long underwear: Change into merino wool long underwear at night at camp, so you are warm and dry after hiking.

Camp shoes: Camp shoes give your feet a welcome break from your hiking shoes or trail runners. Choose a shoe that is lightweight, waterproof, and comfortable to wear around camp.

(see Best Camp Shoes)

C. Weather-Specific Clothes

Down jacket: Filled with air spaces that trap your body heat, a down jacket offers the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any type of insulation. These jackets are warm, lightweight, and compress down to fit in your backpack comfortably. You'll want one with a minimum of 700 fill when temperatures drop below 40 degrees.

(see Best Down Jackets)

Baselayers: The base layer is the layer of clothing closest to and touching your body. It is designed to trap your body heat. You can wear it at night at camp in warmer weather or underneath your clothing in winter conditions.

(see Best Merino Wool Baselayers)

Hiking pants: Though we recommend running shorts for warm weather hiking, hiking pants have their place. These pants protect your legs from brush and thorns when bushwhacking or hiking on lightly-used, overgrown trails. They also provide a layer of warmth for cold weather hiking. Choose a pair with zip-off legs so you can turn them into shorts if the weather turns warm.

(see Best Hiking Pants)

Rain jacket: A rain jacket is a must-have when the weather turns wet or windy. While it is helpful to have such a durable 'shield' of a shell, a simpler and lighter rain jacket would be just as good. Another option is a poncho, which protects you from the rain, breathes well, and can double as a pack cover. Some people also prefer to carry an umbrella which protects from the sun as well as the rain.

(see Best Rain Jackets and Shells)

Gloves and Glove liners: Gloves are crucial to keeping your hands warm both while hiking or at camp. You'll need gloves while holding your cold metal trekking poles. You could also add glove liners for extra protection in the cold and snow.

(see Best Winter Gloves and Liners)

Down pants: Only needed during cold weather backpacking, down pants keep you warm and toasty when you break for camp in the evening. They also can be worn inside a sleeping bag when temps go from cold to frigid.

Sample Packing List

Item Count (pcs) Use Suggested
Beanie/ Head Insulation 1 Camp Arc'teryx
Camp shirt 1 Camp Patagonia
Camp pants/ long underwear 1 Camp Minus33
Camp shoes 1 Camp Crocs
Buff/ Headwear 1 Hiking Buff
Synthetic shirt 2 Hiking Starter
Rain shell 1 Hiking Outdoor Research
Shorts 2 Hiking Nike
Hiking shoes 1 Hiking Brooks Cascadia
Socks 2 Hiking Darn Tough
Sock liners (optional) 2 Hiking Injinji 
Gaiters (optional) 1 Hiking Dirty Girl Gaiters
Mid layer insulation 1 Winter Mountain Hardwear
Baselayer insulation 1 Winter Smartwool
Hiking pants 1 Winter ExOfficio
Gloves 1 Winter North Face
Glove liners 1 Winter Icebreaker

Open List in Packfire


How do I waterproof my pants/clothes?

Most hiking or rain clothing comes with a waterproof membrane, an outer waterproof layer, or both. You can often restore the DWR waterproofing on a piece of clothing by placing it in the dryer for 10 to 15 minutes under medium heat. This brief heat exposure can reactivate the DWR finish. You also can reapply the DWR by spraying the outside of the garment with a spray-on or wash-in DWR treatment.

Why is cotton terrible for hiking?

"Cotton Kills" is a common phrase uttered among hikers and for a good reason. Cotton gets wet and stays wet. Not only is a damp shirt super uncomfortable, but wet clothing and cold temperatures are a deadly combination.

Ladies: Should I wear a sports bra to hike?

Heck yeah, you should wear a sports bra. A quality sports bra not only provides support where you need it the most, but it is usually made with moisture-wicking material to help keep you dry. Sports bras also make it easy to change clothing at camp without exposing yourself to your shelter mates. Even women with small breasts who don't need as much support will benefit from the anti-sweat material and privacy benefits.

Can you wear jeans or sweatpants hiking?

Nothing stops you from wearing jeans or sweatpants while hiking, but it won't be a pleasant experience. Jeans and sweatpants will trap in sweat. You'll feel damp and clammy while hiking. You also are more likely to chafe with all that moisture. If it rains, jeans and sweatpants get wet and stay wet.

Is it better to hike in shorts or leggings?

You can wear leggings for hiking and many people, especially women, do. Leggings are not any better than wearing shorts. It comes down to personal preference. Some people like the breathability of shorts and their loose fit, while others like the tights' constricted feeling. If you do wear tights, just choose a pair suitable for your conditions. You can purchase lined tights for the winter or breathable tights for the summer.

Do I really need hiking pants? How about rain pants?

Choosing to bring hiking or rain pants comes down to personal preference and weather conditions. You can wear shorts during the day and a base layer pair of pants at night in most circumstances. Most people don't want the extra weight of a pair of hiking pants, but some will carry them for wearing around town when they are washing their hiking clothes.

This necessity of pants changes In cold or rainy conditions, though. When it is snowing or sleeting, a good pair of waterproof pants are a must-have to keep you warm and dry. Likewise, hiking pants are essential in cold weather when you need that added warmth on your legs. 

READ NEXT: THE Ultimate Backpacking Checklist

Kelly Hodgkins photo

About Kelly Hodgkins

By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.

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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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