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What To Wear Hiking: Dressing For Your First Hike

Hiking is like any other outdoor exercise. It pits you against the elements, and how you dress for it doesn’t always match the weather outside.

What’s “weather-appropriate” while hiking is different than what’s “weather-appropriate” when you’re just standing around.

Layers matter when hiking. So do fabrics.

And while you may not need an entire closet of new clothes to hike, having a few specialized pieces can make a big difference in how comfortable (and safe) you are on the trail.

What Should I Wear Hiking?

Some clothing items are hiking staples.

You will wear these regardless of the time of year or what the weather is like outside.

Staple hiking clothes include:

Hiking Shoes or Boots

Hiking puts great demands on your lower body and feet, and appropriate shoes are a necessity.

Hiking shoes or boots should be sturdy in both their soles and uppers, providing sufficient support to the foot and enough thickness to guard against spiny plants, rocks, and other debris you’re likely to encounter (or trip over) on the trail.

A good hiking shoe is also water-resistant (trails can stay wet for a good long time after a rain) and have better grip/traction than your standard athletic shoe.

If you have ankle problems (like me!), you may be better off with a low boot that provides ankle support, instead of a lower shoe.

And while the best way to pick your hiking boots or shoes is to try them on in-person (seriously, we recommend this), we have tested quite a lot of hiking shoes/boots.

For some hiking boots we stand by, see Trail Tested: Best Women’s Hiking Boots for Beginners [Any Season or Terrain].

Hiking Socks

While you don’t need hiking-specific socks for your hiking boots or shoes, you do need performance/athletic socks.

A good hiking sock is made of synthetic (or wool), moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating material, and has plenty of cushioning.

This cushioning helps reduce shock when hiking over hard surfaces, such as stone, and on steep descents, while the moisture-wicking properties keep feet dry and comfortable even under sweaty or wet conditions.

Socks with a compression band, or even full compression socks, can also be beneficial for increasing blood flow, reducing cramps/soreness, and providing support to the legs.

Not everyone will like the feel of compression while hiking, but it can help with post-hike recovery.

Here are some socks (both compression and non-compression) we really like for hiking:

Hiking Pants

When it comes to hiking pants, material trumps all.

As long as you avoid cotton and wear an appropriately thick pant for the weather, you’ll likely be comfortable.

While there is some debate amongst hikers as to the suitability of wearing shorts or skorts on the trail, and suitability definitely varies by trail, they ARE temperature-favorable options for hiking in the heat.

Many hikers simply prefer to wear long pants simply because of the potential dangers on the trail.

At the very least, most hiking trails have some prickly plants/limbs and insects hikers will have to contend with, while others can have more extreme dangers from poison ivy to rattle snakes.

A pant leg is just one line of defense again hiking trail hazards, which means hiking shorts and skorts may be best reserved for paved, graveled or dirt trails with some distance from underbrush and plant life.

Whatever the length of your hiking pants, just make sure they are an appropriate (non-cotton, moisture-wicking) fabric and quick-drying, like these ones from REI or these ones from Columbia.

Hiking Shirts

Like hiking pants, when it comes to hiking shirts, it’s all about material.

But coverage matters too.

Long-sleeved shirts of an appropriate thickness, like this Athleta Uptempo Top and this REI Long-Sleeve T-Shirt are ideal, because they offer protection from both brushes with plant life and the sun.

Hiking Jackets and Lined Pants

At 50 degrees and lower, you will definitely want to add a jacket to your hiking wear and will likely want a lined pant too.

For easy in-and-out day hikes where there’s no chance you’ll get lost or stuck o, a breathable lightweight jacket, like this adidas Hooded Hiking Jacket or this  Arc’teryx Insulated Hoodie, should suffice.

For colder temperatures or anything beyond the simplest day hike, you should have a warmer (waterproof) jacket with you (and lined pants, if you’re not already wearing them).

Puffer jackets are ideal for colder-temp hikes, because they are lightweight, warm, and pack up small.

Hiking Underwear

When it comes to hiking underwear, the important thing to remember is that all fabric rules still apply and hiking can be jarring.

So, stay away from cotton and choose underwear/sports bras that can handle medium impact. 

General Notes on Hiking Attire

No matter what time of year it is, the three most important components of hiking wear are the same: flexibility, protection, and temperature-regulation.

Sticking to the following basic rules should help you keep dry, comfortable, and safe on the trail.

Hiking-Wear Rule #1: Avoid cotton.

Cotton holds moisture, making it hard for sweat to evaporate, which makes you feel hotter in the heat and colder in the cold.

Stick with synthetic fabrics (or wool), which are designed to wick moisture and breathe.

Hiking-Wear Rule #2: Dress for both the hike AND the temperature.

While the temperature doesn’t tell the whole story when dressing for a hike (you can expect to feel 10 to 20 degrees warmer when actively moving), it does tell you how much back-up clothing you need.

Unlike other activities which keep you closer to civilization, a hike takes you away from easy access to amenities, and anything can happen, so it’s best to be prepared.

Whatever you wear on your actual body for your hike, make sure you have enough clothing to survive the temperatures if something should happen and you get stuck along the trail.

This isn’t as essential for EASY in-and-out day hikes.

But any time you’re wandering from where a lot of other people are, you need to be ready to batten down.

In the heat, being prepared means carrying plenty of water.

In the cold, it means carrying plenty of clothing and some form of temporary shelter.

Basically, dress to hike, but carry enough clothing to stay warm while you stand still.

Hiking-Wear Rule #3: Accessorize for the conditions.

If you’re prepared, hiking is a year-round activity, but the accessories you need change throughout the year, dependent on temperatures, conditions, and where you hike.

A brimmed hat is ideal when it’s sunny or rainy. (A light neck gaiter can also help protect your neck).

A warm hat is ideal when it’s cold. (Along with gloves and warmer neck gaiters.)

If you will be hiking in open spaces with little shade, you need sunglasses most of the time (even when it’s cloudy) to protect your eyes.

You also need sunscreen on any exposed parts of your body.

Clothing accessories are the best way to gear up your pack for changing conditions along the trail.

What to Wear to Hike in Heat or Cold

While these are the basic rules of hiking wear, as weather conditions become more extreme, you’ll need to make some changes to your clothing to keep comfortable and safe.

For a deeper dive into dressing to hike in more extreme temperatures, see:

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