Hiking Clothes: What to Wear Hiking (…and what not to wear)

Whether you’re planning a weekend hike or a lengthier excursion in the great outdoors, wearing the wrong hiking clothes can put a damper on things real fast. If you don’t wear the right fabrics or the materials aren’t sufficiently waterproof, you could end up extremely uncomfortable and find that your hike has turned into something of a chore.

Today, we are going to walk you through exactly what to wear when hiking (and what not to wear!), so you can focus on many happy trails ahead instead of having to worry about your hiking clothes.

What not to wear on a hike

Before we delve into what to wear on a hike, it’s important to know what you shouldn’t wear as well to save you needless time and trouble. The following are pieces that may have a place in your closet at home, but shouldn’t necessarily come with you out on the trail: 

  • Denim jeans — We get it, you love your trusty pair of denim. The trouble is, denim not only doesn’t breathe well but if you start to sweat or encounter damp conditions, it will hold onto the moisture and weigh you down. When you’re planning your hiking outfit, leave the denim back at the camping tent.
  • Cotton — Likewise, cotton doesn’t wick moisture. When you sweat, you’ll feel gross and sticky. If you encounter chilly, weather, you’ll be chilled to the bone before you know it.
  • Non-breathable shells — Breathability is key. While non-breathable shells provide durability and waterproof factors, they trap moisture and heat inside, which could cause you to become very overheated or chilled, depending on the conditions you encounter.
  • Overly heavy base layers — Unless you plan on hiking in very frigid temperatures where you’ll need long underwear, avoid super thick and heavy base layers. You can still find durable, warm fabric that is lightweight and breathes well. 

The ultimate hiking attire checklist

Now that you know what not to wear hiking, here’s a quick rundown of the clothing you should wear on a hike. We’ll delve into the right fabrics and features to look for further down.

  •  Moisture-wicking T-shirt
  • Long-sleeve shirt
  • Moisture-wicking undergarments
  •  Fast-drying shorts or pants (depending on the weather and terrain)
  • Lightweight jacket or fleece layer
  • Terrain-appropriate shoes or hiking boots
  •  Wool or synthetic socks 
  • Wide-brimmed hat

Here are some additional hiking clothes you may want to bring if you’ll be venturing out in cold or rainy weather conditions.

  • Long underwear
  •  Insulated vest or jacket
  •  Rain clothes (pants and jacket) 
  • Fleece pants
  • Wool hat
  •  Mittens or gloves 
  • Gaiters
  •  Bandana 

The best hiking outfit fabrics

 Wool is your first fabric option for what to wear on a hike, and while itchy material might be the first thing that comes to mind, the Merino wool attire of today is anything but that. Merino wool hiking clothes are designed with very fine fibers that breathe well, wick moisture, dry quickly, ward off odors, and are soft on the skin.

A more cost-effective alternative to Merino wool hiking attire is polyester or nylon. These synthetic materials also dry quickly and wick moisture like a dream, but they don’t always ward off unpleasant odors quite as well as Merino wool does. The good news is that many manufacturers incorporate antimicrobial treatments into synthetic clothing design to fight bacteria that cause those odors.

 Fleece jackets are designed from polyester as well, and they are very warm and comfortable with soft yet sturdy fibers. Nylon or polyester jackets (such as rain jackets) often feature unique laminates and coatings that help to shield you from harsh weather elements.

Though not ideal if you’ll be going on a really rigorous hike, silk is another good option for certain hiking clothes. Treated silk is chemically altered to promote better moisture wicking, but it’s still better for lighter hikes. 

The right way to layer hiking clothes

The following are your best options for choosing your base, mid, and outer layers for what to wear hiking.

The base layers

If you’re headed out on a cool-weather hike, a base layer is a must to keep you warm and dry. For underwear, it is purely a matter of personal preference of the style and fabric you pick, provided you steer clear of cotton as mentioned before.

For the ladies, you’ll want a pullover sports bra sans clasps, so you don’t get uncomfortable marks during your hike. A camisole or tank top makes a nice, lightweight base layer to keep you warm on cooler days or keep you cool if you’re hiking in the summertime.

For colder temperatures where you need a super-insulating base layer, you can pick long underwear in lightweight, midweight, or heavyweight designs as you require. Choose the weight based on the lowest temperatures you expect you will encounter and whether you tend to run cold or hot metabolically. A crew neck style top works well for cool temperatures. You can even wear the bottoms under your pants or shorts for warmth or to shield your skin from UV rays.

The mid layers

For cooler hikes where a single layer won’t suffice, you’ll need a mid-layer in your hiking attire. It is usually advisable to bring a lightweight fleece jacket or top and a puffy jacket. You can add or remove a layer as needed based on the anticipated weather conditions of your trip.

When hiking on chilly days, a fleece jacket will keep you warm and dry. You can pick lightweight, midweight, or heavyweight fleece as you prefer. For very frigid temperatures, fleece pants are another mid-layer you may want to consider. If you’re dealing with moderate weather, a fleece jacket will suffice. For hiking trips where the weather could get very chilly, bring a puffy vest or jacket along. 

The outer layer

If you want to avoid getting soaked in a sudden onslaught of rain, consider packing rain pants and a rain jacket that offers sufficient breathability and waterproofing capabilities. Outerwear can also come in really handy if you encounter gale force winds.

FAQs About Hiking Clothes

What are some key features to look for in hiking clothing?

Hiking clothing should be lightweight, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying. It should also be breathable and offer protection from the sun and insects. Look for clothing with flat seams to prevent chafing, and consider items with pockets for storage.

What should you wear as a base layer for hiking?

As a base layer for hiking, wear moisture-wicking fabrics like synthetic materials or merino wool. This layer should be snug-fitting to trap body heat and keep you warm.

What should you wear as an outer layer for hiking?

As an outer layer for hiking, wear a waterproof and breathable jacket to protect against rain and wind. This layer should also be lightweight and packable, and should fit comfortably over your other layers.

What type of footwear is best for hiking?

For hiking, wear sturdy and supportive hiking boots or shoes with good traction to prevent slipping. Look for footwear with waterproofing and breathability to keep your feet dry and comfortable.

What are some clothing items to avoid wearing when hiking?

Avoid wearing cotton clothing when hiking as it absorbs moisture and takes a long time to dry, which can lead to chafing and hypothermia. Also, avoid wearing denim and other heavy fabrics that can weigh you down and restrict movement.

Final features to consider

When you’re considering what to wear hiking, one of the foremost features to take into account is the clothing’s moisture-wicking abilities. Any fabric that comes into contact with your skin should be able to draw this moisture away from you and to the outer layer of the material so it can dry fast without causing you to feel sweaty or chilled. 

When picking your outer layer for your hike, it needs to be both windproof and waterproof to protect you from harsh weather elements, so you don’t catch a chill.

All the layers you pick should be breathable, or you risk staying wet and clammy just from your own sweat, not to mention any contributing weather conditions. You should also look for hiking attire that offers sun protection, such as a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating to safeguard your skin from harmful UV rays.


About the Author

Trey is a lifelong hunter and avid camper. He lives outside Denver, CO with his wife Kaci and their lab mix Ziggy. They spend as much time as possible outdoors - hunting, fishing, and camping.

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