When I’ve hiked with friends who are new to hiking, they always would ask me what they should wear. I grew up hiking so I always found this question little odd. I would tell them, “you just wear workout clothes or just something you are comfy in.” But the more I’ve hiked all around the country the more I realize this is actually a pretty solid question. So in short the answer to what to wear hiking, is workout clothes, but the long answer is, well continue reading.
Don’t wear denim (or cotton)
I used to wear blue jeans all the time. I associated hiking with blue jeans and hiking boots. Denim is tough and holds up to the abuse hiking gives. And these are good qualities. You can roll in the dirt, slide over rocks, and walk over prickly vegetation in them. But on the other hand, denim is also cotton. And cotton isn’t the best material for hiking.
Cotton is slow to dry. So when you slog through that muddy puddle and the bottom of your pants legs get wet, you’re going to be feeling that for the rest of the hike. This is especially bad in cold weather.
I once went hiking in the snow in blue jeans. That cold moisture climbed up my pants legs. By the end of my hike my legs were wet up to my knees. And with the freezing temps, it was not comfortable.
Another time I found myself having to swim across a creek to get where I was going. This time it was August. But my jeans never dried. I was hot and sticky, and tired of being wet.
But another time I was wearing all quick-drying clothes, and I fell into the creek in the middle of winter. I was completely dry within an hour.
Read about when I fell in the creek here.
Quick-drying material is your friend.
Most people who ask me what to wear hiking, usually also ask, “Do I wear my tennis shoes?” Tennis shoes are great to wear hiking if that is all you have.
I just wouldn’t wear them if you think you might encounter snow because they will not keep your feet dry unless they have some kind of waterproofing like Gortex. Even if they do have some form of waterproofing, you want to make sure you are not in snow that is deep enough to come up over your ankles and get in your shoes.
If you really want to ensure comfort, I recommend you wear a shoe that does have some sort of waterproofing. When you hike, you most likely will encounter mud, mud puddles, and streams. I hate it when my feet get wet. I really hate it. (Side note, I live in the southeast which is pretty moist and damp. If you live in the arid desert, you probably don’t need GORE-TEX.)
Many debate the issue of needing ankle support. I like wear hiking boots with ankle support because I am quiet clumsy and tend to roll my ankle. However, many people are using trail running shoes designed for running on rough terrain. Trail runners will give you the grip and comfort that a hiking boot has but without the bulk.
Hiking sandals are also something that is debated. I hike in my Chacos. But I have to make sure my feet are good and calloused, or I will get bad blisters. Others argue that there is no support, and the grip is not as good.
Layers are your friend
When you hike, you are exercising. And like when you exercise you get really hot and sweaty. Then when you slow down or stop and you get cold (hot summer months excluded here). I always bring a jacket to wear when we stop for lunch or to take in the view.
Sometimes I wear a quick-drying T-shirt, a quick-drying long sleeve T-shirt, and a fleece pullover. So when my friends ask what to wear hiking shirt wise, this is what I tell them – multiple quick-drying layers. It varies depending on how cold it is and how many layers I need.
Some of my friends wear pants that unzip at the thigh so they can be pants or shorts. I don’t wear them because I think they make me look fat, but anyways. These pants are also great for crossing streams that are higher than where you can roll your pants legs up to.
Running tights versus hiking pants
Sometimes I wear running tights; sometimes I wear hiking pants. This one really depends on the trail. If the trail has a lot of brush and understory to hack through, you want a wider-legged pant. This way you have a buffer between your leg and the briers or other things that stick.
What to wear hiking
When it comes down to it, you really just want to be comfortable. Hiking is exercising. So when thinking of what to wear, just think of what you would wear if you exercise outside. But take into consideration what the trail might throw at you.