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It was a cold morning in Banff, Alberta, Canada and I went out for a quick climb up Sulphur Mountain. I thought I’d be fine wearing a long-sleeve flannel—as the weather forecast didn’t call for rain. But I didn’t consider that my flannel was made from mostly cotton, and whether or not it rained, I’d end up wet with my own sweat.
The weather in the mountains can change in the blink of an eye and, when I got about halfway up, the clouds started rolling in. Naturally, I started to haul my butt to the top as fast as I could, hoping to reach the gondola station at the summit before the rain started coming down.
I managed to get to the top just as it started to drizzle, but it didn’t matter—I sweat through my nice warm flannel and it clung to me like a wet rag.
The cotton had absorbed my perspiration, making me just as wet and miserable as I would have been if I was caught in the rain. Shivering and sipping coffee in a ridiculously expensive cafe at the summit, I waited for the rain to ease to little avail.
Dreading a cold, soggy, sweaty descent, I admitted defeat and paid the exorbitant price for a gondola ride down with all of the gawking tourists. Never again will I wear a cotton flannel while hiking—or hit the trail without a waterproof shell in the mountains.
You don’t want to end up soaking wet with sweat or, worse, taking the gondola down either.
But figuring out what to wear hiking might seem complicated.
Fortunately for you, I’ve teamed up with Columbia, one of the world’s leading sportswear and camping equipment brands, to share some of my favorite pieces and recommendations on how to wear them.
Founded back in 1938 in Oregon, their gear was designed to stand up to the rainy, windy and unpredictable weather of the Pacific Northwest. You can be sure these guys know a thing or two about keeping comfy (and dry) while hiking.
After all, they say there’s no such thing as bad weather—just the wrong clothing.
There are a few things to keep in mind when picking out the best hiking clothes: the type of fabric, the season and weather, and how you’re going to layer each garment for maximum versatility.
The brilliant part about layering is that a small number of products can serve a wide range of purposes across all seasons in all environments. If you buy the right gear, you can use many of the same clothes in every season.
Some basic rules apply to both men and women, and many products serve as two-in-one and even three-in-one, so your layers come built in. But just remember, the fewer layers you wear, the less versatile your hiking clothes become.
The best piece of advice I can give is to invest in quality gear. It’s not always the cheapest, and though two products may look exactly the same in photos, there is a big difference between a piece of gear that costs $30 and $300. It’s not just branding—it’s the fabric, design, overall quality and, most importantly, the technical features.
Quality gear lasts for years, so when you do the math, replacing a cheap fleece every six months works out to be a lot more expensive than buying one now that will last for five years, ten, or even the rest of your life.
So do you know what quality gear to get?
What to Wear Hiking: How (and Why) to Layer Your Clothes
As you hike, your body temperature (and the outside temperature) changes, as does your need for different types of layers—wicking, insulating and protecting layers.
First of all, you’re gonna sweat. Don’t worry about it—everyone does. It’s your body’s natural response to exertion. So, you’ll need clothes that wick sweat away from your body, rather than sticking to your back and leaving you a soaking wet mess.
Of course, the amount of wicking, insulation and protection you ultimately need depends on a variety of both internal and external factors, including your metabolism (whether you tend to run hot or cold) and the weather outside.
However, the fundamental process for layering is actually quite simple:
1. Base Layer
Base layers are meant to wick sweat and help to keep you either warm or cool, depending on the weather you’re dressing for. The main purpose of your base layer is to keep your sweaty bod dry. Since base layers sit right next to the skin, it’s important that they draw sweat away from the body and into the fabric. From there, moisture is dispersed across the surface of the garment where it evaporates into the air. That’s what’s called “wicking.”
You should always wear a base layer with wicking properties so that you can break a sweat while scrambling up a hill without getting chilled or clammy later. That means wearing synthetic fabrics like polyester or a natural fabric like Merino Wool—NO cotton. Silk can also be used in a base layer, although it’s not as common with hikers and can be expensive.
Wearing a snug base layer traps body heat in cold conditions so that you can stay warm. In warmer conditions, you’ll want a loose-fitting base layer, which will allow air circulation to draw body heat away from you.
If you’re hiking in the midday sun, base layers with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) help protect your body from the sun and it’s harmful UV rays. Also, a good base layer will protect your skin against chafing, which is really important on a long hike.
2. Mid Layer
The mid layer is an insulating layer that retains or regulates body heat. This layer is all about keeping you warm by trapping your body heat in its fibers. Mid layers act as your insulation on the trail in cold weather, but they can also serve as an outer layer in fall or the spring once the sun goes down. It’s important that mid layers be breathable, though.
But how can something retain heat and remain breathable at the same time? It’s a matter of science, garment construction and blending fabrics. This is the technology that you pay a premium for when purchasing high-quality hiking apparel. There are a few routes you can go depending on the temperature and whether you need a lightweight mid layer or an insulating mid layer.
Cheap mid layers might keep you warm, but they might not breathe, which means, if you sweat, all that moisture is getting trapped next to your body with no way out.
The same goes for outer layers. You can be more versatile by wearing two mid-layers—a lighter one and a heavier one. This will give you more flexibility so you can take one off if the weather changes or you get sweaty. There are also “interchange” jackets (see below) that can offer multiple options.
Sometimes the issue with hiking in cold weather is that you bundle up against the cold, but then end up sweating and shedding layers as your body warms up from the physical exercise of the climb. Then, as soon as you stop for a break and cool down, you’re freezing. To avoid this, wear fabrics like Merino wool that are designed to help regulate body temperature more effectively.
Clothing itself doesn’t generate heat, it keeps you warm by trapping your own body heat. So the mid layer should be the one that insulates you.
3. Outer layer
Your outer layer is a shell layer that shields you from the elements, keeping water and wind out while allowing moisture to evaporate from your base and mid layers at the same time. When it really starts pouring, you can zip up your outer layer and know that the clothing underneath it will stay dry. This is really important, because if you get wet in the rain then you can get seriously chilled.
Fabrics like GORE-TEX are designed to protect you from the wind and rain. If a fabric is labeled as “water resistant” it will stand up to drizzly, breezy conditions but not heavy rain. And if it is “waterproof” it will be more expensive but will keep you dry in heavy rain and will be more durable as well.
Looking for something that will keep you really warm in the cold? Look into jackets filled with duck down and soft shell jackets with fleece lining. You’ll need to add a rain shell to stay dry.
It’s also possible to find jackets with synthetic insulation rather than duck down. Science has been trying to mimic the efficiency of down for years and they continue to get closer and closer. While a synthetic jacket won’t compress as well as a down jacket, it has one advantage over down: It keeps it’s insulating ability better when it gets damp. (Plus, it is usually inside a shell material that will offer added wind and water resistance.)
The Best Fabrics to Wear on a Hike
Merino Wool: Great for Base Layers
Many consider Merino sheep the softest and finest wool in the world. Regular wool is around 40 microns, but Merino wool is only 15-24 microns in diameter.
What does this mean? Well, it means that wearing Merino wool feels nothing like the wool clothing you may have worn in the past. It’s not rough, itchy or scratchy—nor is it thick or heavy. Rather, it’s light, comfortable and stretchy, and it can wick moisture away from your skin while keeping you warm.
Merino wool will even keep you comfy when it gets wet. So, if you accidentally step in a creek while wearing Merino wool socks or you sweat through your Merino wool base layer, the fabric will still stay soft and comfortable rather than pinning against your body and becoming cold and heavy.
Oh, and Merino wool also has “anti-stink” properties as it doesn’t allow bacteria to grow—something your tent-mate will appreciate!
Nylon: Great for Base and Mid-Layers
Nylon is a man-made material that you might be more familiar with in stockings and lingerie, but it is also used in hiking clothing. It’s thin and flexible, but also extremely tough and durable. (Plus, it’s easy to roll up and compress to a small size in your backpack.)
Clothiers originally invented nylon as a cheap, durable alternative to silk and reserved it for the war effort in WWII because it was so useful. Nylon is a great hiking clothing material because it’s water-resistant.
So, when you get all sweaty the fabric won’t absorb it. It will push your sweat to the surface, where it will readily evaporate. Plus, nylon is super durable and you can wear it again and again on multiple hikes.
Polyester: Great for Base and Mid-Layers
Polyester is another synthetic material that has a lot of advantages for hiking. Similar to nylon, it also wicks moisture away from your skin and dries quite quickly. Designers invented polyester in the 1940s. Today they use it in a range of sporting materials, and it is really popular within hiking gear.
Also, if you are hiking in the rain and your polyester clothing gets wet, it will dry out quickly. Another perk of polyester is that it provides protection from the sun. It is usually woven in a very tight pattern, which blocks the sun’s UV rays from getting through.
It also folds or rolls up really small, so your polyester hiking pants won’t take up much room in your backpack. One of the only downsides of this material is that some people don’t like the way it feels against their skin. Also, polyester is a flammable material, so be careful and don’t sit too close to the campfire!
Sometimes companies blend polyester and nylon together so that you can enjoy the best of both worlds. There might even be a little bit of spandex to make the material more stretchy.
Bamboo: Great for Socks and Base Layers
Bamboo? I know it sounds strange, but you can find clothing made out of Panda food.
Fabric made from bamboo fibers has some advantages. It wicks moisture away and is more breathable than cotton. It has a lovely silky feel, it is lightweight and it has natural antimicrobial qualities that make it anti-stink. This means that it works well as a base layer or a pair of socks that won’t make your tent-mates groan with disgust when you take your boots off.
However, the downside of bamboo is that it is not as durable or hard-wearing as other fabrics. Many hikers report that their bamboo clothes and socks don’t last as long as clothing made from other fabrics (although, it IS often cheaper than Merino wool).
Really… Anything Mentioned Above Is Better Than Cotton
So, what should you actually wear when you hike? The rules are simple: Avoid 100% cotton and stick with blends and purely synthetic garments. (Oh, and denim jeans are never a good idea.) It’s one of the most absorbent textiles ever made—holding up to 27 times its weight in water—making it one of the worst fabrics to wear on a hike.
While this may feel like a lot of information to take in at once, outdoor clothing companies like Columbia do the hard work for you. If they tell you a certain shirt was made for hiking—or for any particular purpose—rest assured that they know what they’re talking about and follow their recommendations.
Or, keep reading and just follow mine.
Summer Hiking Clothes
The summer months bring, obviously, the hottest weather, which means you need the fewest pieces of gear. That’s why summer hiking clothes are typically light, short-sleeved and wicking, but it’s also important to remember sun coverage.
What to Wear on Top
Wicking T-shirt – Pick a cotton-free wicking t-shirt as your base layer. Especially in summer, you likely won’t need anything more.
For men, the Sol Resist™ is made from a blend of synthetic fabrics and is both highly wicking and offers effective UPF 50 sun protection.
For women, the Solar Chill™ is a stylish polyester t-shirt/base layer with wicking properties and sun protection.
Lightweight Hoodie – Bring a lightweight hoodie in case the weather cools down, you need extra sun protection or you need another layer for whatever reason. If rain is in the forecast, you might swap this out with a rain shell—or bring both, depending on how much you want to carry.
The men’s Whiskey Point™ Hoodie is made from a polyester blend—so it’s wicking—but also provides UPF protection from the sun. It’s an excellent all-rounder hoodie that you can wear on the trail or to a brewery for a cold one after your hike.
The women’s Pilsner Peak™ Hoodie is a similarly useful all-rounder hoodie for women. It’s a cotton/polyester blend, so it’s absorbent and promotes evaporation at the same time.
What to Wear on the Bottom
Hiking Shorts – You’ll want something wicking, breathable and flexible, so as not to limit your range of motion.
The men’s Silver Ridge™ Convertible Pant is a fantastic choice for maximum versatility. If you need pants, just zip on the legs. Want shorts? Zip ‘em off. You can also wear these in most seasons.
I’m personally not a fan of convertible pants—they’re just not my style—so I prefer to wear trail running shorts when I hike. The Titan Ultra’s™ are a staple in my bag.
Women are slightly more spoiled for choice when it comes to stylish shorts to wear hiking. The Anytime Outdoor™ Capri not only looks good but it’s water repellent and stretchy for maximum comfort.
Extra Summer Hiking Essentials:
The Creek to Peak™ cap has zero cotton, so doesn’t absorb sweat. It’s breathable, stylish and keeps the sun off your face.
If you’re worried about the sun, a neck gaiter is exactly what you need. If made for hot weather, like the Solar Shield™, you’ll stay cool while it wicks perspiration (polyester at its finest!) and blocks harmful UV rays from the sun.
I tend to steer clear of chemicals in anything I wear, so I turn to Raw Essentials for the best organic, toxin-free sunscreen on the trail.
Spring Hiking Clothes
Picking out what to wear on a hike in spring is pretty similar to summer. Spring is similarly as warm as summer, though you might find that it gets cooler in the evenings, so pack a layer to prepare.
Spring is also slightly more rainy, which means you need to choose your hiking outfit based on inclement weather. Pack a raincoat for rainy spring days, and maybe choose a slightly thicker base layer/wicking tee. Otherwise, it’s mostly the same.
What to Wear on Top
Wicking T-shirt – Once again, in spring, you’ll want to wear a light wicking tee. Since this is likely the only layer you’ll be wearing for most of your hike, you want to make sure it’s a quality garment.
For men the Zero Rules™ short sleeve tee uses Columbia’s Omni-Freeze ZERO™ technology with sweat-activated cooling properties. It offers sun protection and comes in bright colors which are great for photos!
For women, the Titan Trail™ short sleeve tee also uses Columbia’s Omni-Freeze ZERO™ technology. It’s antibacterial and comes some fun, bright colors as well.
Softshell (or light wicking hoodie—see summer options) – A softshell layer is perfect for spring or cool evenings. A softshell should wick away moisture while regulating your body heat and keeping you warm at the same time. Usually a softshell will feature stretch fabric or fabric panels for added comfort during aerobic activities.
The men’s Ascender™ is a zip-up hooded softshell jacket that’s wind and water repellent making it a versatile addition to your hiking wardrobe.
The women’s Kruser Ridge™ softshell is a wind and water resistant shell that is great for hiking up mountain trails or just hanging out around the campfire in the evening.
Rain shell/outer layer
The women’s Arcadia™ II Rain Jacket is a breathable, packable rain shell that comes with a hood – which will keep the drizzle off your head. It also has a drawcord adjustable hem, so you can cinch it up tight and stay as dry and warm as possible.
Not only does the men’s Watertight™ II Jacket have waterproof material and an adjustable storm hood, it also can be stuffed into its own hand pocket so that it can be easily stored at any time.
What to Wear on the Bottom
Hiking Shorts – As outlined above (in summer), I recommend the Silver Ridge™ convertible pant (or Titan Ultra™ shorts) for men and the Anytime Outdoor™ Capri for women.
Autumn Hiking Clothes
Layering in autumn can be tricky, because the temperature can fluctuate quite a bit during this season. In the middle of the afternoon the warm autumn sun means you can hike in a t-shirt, but later in the evening the temperature dips and it can even go below freezing at night.
However, unless it’s really cold, I don’t like wearing long-sleeve base layers in autumn. I prefer short sleeves for maximum versatility, but that’s just me. Some people prefer to hike with long-sleeve base layers.
What to Wear on Top
Wicking t-shirt (long sleeve)
The Women’s Silver Ridge™ Lite Long Sleeve is a wonderful autumn hiking shirt. It is long sleeve so it will keep you warm on those chilly mornings, but it will also wick your sweat away later in the day when it gets warmer. Plus, it also offers UPF 40 sun protection.
The Women’s Outerspaced™ III Half Zip Fleece is incredibly cozy – you’ll feel like you are being embraced in a cuddly hug while wearing it. You can wear it by itself on mild days, or layer something over it on cold days.
Guys, if you aren’t up for rocking some leggings on the trail, you could also consider these Silver Ridge™ Stretch Pants. They even have UPF 50 and they repel stains (in case you drip melted chocolate from your s’more on them when you are sitting around the campfire.)
Winter Hiking Clothes
The main challenge of hiking in winter? Wearing clothing that will keep you warm when you are standing still, but won’t turn you into a sweaty mess when you have to exert yourself on that steep slope.
Therefore, wicking materials are extra important at this time of year, as well as high-quality insulating layers that are breathable. Fleece works well as a mid-layer, as it will capture your body heat and keep you warm and comfortable. It stays warm even it if gets damp and it will dry quickly. It also breathes well, so you won’t have to worry about overheating.
However, since your fleece is breathable that means that the wind will blow right through it. So you’ll need to have a shell layer on top to block the wind. (Or, if you want to go really high tech, you can go for a Wind Fleece layer. It includes an inner wind-blocking membrane.)
If it’s really cold, you will need some extra insulation. Look for clothing that is made with duck down. It traps heat within the air pockets between the tiny feathers and keeps you extremely toasty.
What to Wear on Top
Heavy base layer (You can also choose light or midweight base layer depending on how cold it is outside)
This Men’s Heavyweight Stretch Shirt has a half-zip, so that you can adjust it if necessary. The designers made it from a fabric that wicks sweat away from your skin, and it’s very warm – yet not bulky.
Thick mid-layer insulation/fleece
The Women’s Mountainside™ HW Fleece just might be the fuzziest, coziest thing you’ve ever worn. You’ll feel like a mountain goat, born to live amidst the cold and rainy peaks.
The Men’s Steens Mountain™ Full Zip Fleece is super versatile – you could wear it on a long backpacking trip or just a jaunt to the shop on a chilly day.
An alternative to a single heavy mid-layer is to add an extra lightweight midlayer and then layer with an insulated midlayer on top of that If it’s going to be really really cold, this is the way forward. It adds an extra layer and allows for extra versatility, so that you can adjust your clothing as the day goes on. Of course, this also depends on how much you want to spend and how much you want to carry. If you are on a long backpacking trek where every extra bit of weight in your luggage matters, you might want to bring as few pieces of clothing as possible.
If you are heading out on a hike somewhere really cold, opt for a down-insulated jacket. It will be highly compressible for easy packing and it offers more warmth for its weight than any other material. Also, since down jackets are usually designed with down inside a shell material, the jacket will resist against wind and water, as well.
Or, you could opt for an Interchange Jacket. (For example, the Women’s Ruby River™ Interchange Jacket or the Men’s Horizons Pine™ Interchange Jacket.) This type of jacket is not cheap, but it’s a game changer. It has two different layers, an outer waterproof layer and an inner layer with of thermal material. This makes it a jacket that you can wear three different ways. You can wear them zipped together for ultimate warmth. Or you can wear the inner layer on a chilly day. Or the outer layer by itself when you want rain protection but don’t need extra warmth.
Shell (Note: If you buy an interchange jacket, you will not have to use a shell; your rain protective layer is attached.)
The Women’s Outdry™ Hybrid Jacket is ideal for a rainproof shell. It’s waterproof, breathable and fully seam-sealed, so it will keep you dry no matter what weather you encounter.
The Men’s Watertight™ II Jacket is designed to stand up to even the heaviest of rain. So, when the clouds start to turn grey, you don’t have to panic.
Last but not least, you can’t forget about the accessories that will keep your extremities warm and comfortable.
What should you be looking for in a hiking sock? First of all, it should cushion your feet to make them comfier. It should also keep your feet warm in cold weather. It’s also important for your socks to have moisture-wicking properties, as wet, sweaty socks will rub against your skin and create blisters (a hikers worst enemy).
When shopping for socks for winter hiking, look for thicker ones. They tend to wear longer and the thickness can also help you to improve the fit of your boots. In the summer, seek out thin Merino wool socks with anti-odor and wicking qualities.
The seams should always be flat so they don’t rub against your foot and the fit should be snug but not tight. You can also look for socks that have antimicrobial properties, so they prevent bacteria and odors, unless you want your trail nickname to be “Smelly Feet McGee.”
Any underwear that you wear while hiking should have moisture-wicking properties. It will help to prevent chafing and cool you down.
Don’t wear anything that will rub against your skin and cause irritation. In other words, this is not the time to wear your sexy lace thong. (Even if you are on a hiking date with someone you like.)
Hiking Boots/Shoes/Trail Runners
The shoes or boots you choose for a hike are extremely important. They are the difference between feeling fine at the end of the hike, or having excruciating blisters and sore feet.
A good pair of hiking shoes will have support for your ankles, as well as cushioned soles. They should also have gripping rubber outsoles so that you won’t slip when walking on roots, gravel, grass or rocks. Waterproof material is important. Having wet feet on a hike is the absolute worst and will lead to chafing, blisters and overall misery.
Personally, I prefer to be quick on my feet, and I opt to hike in trail runners instead of hiking boots or shoes. They’re lighter and pack easier, too, so they take up less space in your main luggage.
Neck Gaiter or Scarf
Wrapping yourself up with a neck gaiter or a scarf will help you avoid the cold. It’ll brace wind that stings your face and blows down your neck. You can also use them in the summer to keep your neck from burning in the sun.
What’s a neck gaiter? It’s a super-versatile little piece of microfiber moisture-wicking material that you wear—you guessed it—around your neck, almost like a sleeve. During the winter it will keep your neck and chin warm. And during the summer it keeps your neck from burning while wicking moisture away from your skin.
Hat for Warmth or Cap for Sun Protection
Scientists have recently debunked the myth that you lose most of your body heat through your head. But even so, it’s still important to keep your head and ears warm. Wear a cozy hat when you are hiking in cold temperatures. It’ll protect you from the elements.
In the summertime, you’ll want to protect yourself from sunburn and heat stroke with a cap. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat will protect your hair, eyes and skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Whatever accessories you choose to add on top of your gear, don’t be a miserable fool like me. Don’t drench yourself in your own sweat and shiver at the top of a mountain.
The right hiking clothes can mean the difference between an uncomfortable ordeal and a thrilling, rewarding hike. When your clothes are keeping you warm and dry, you can focus your attention on those stunning views. You’ve worked so hard to reach them.
So what are you wearing for your next hike? Let us know in the comments!