Clothes for Hiking: a Guide for Beginners
If you’ve come across my site, chances are you’re an absolute beginner in the backpacking and hiking game. The outdoors seem tantalizing yet intimidating, and you’re afraid that without the right gear you’ll end up lost, finding yourself in the evening newspaper on the comedy page. Clothes for hiking cause a lot of that anxiety, because there’s so much to choose from … and it all seems so expensive!
Don’t worry! We’ve all been there.
Wearing proper backpacking clothes is a crucial step to staying safe and comfortable on a trip. Thankfully, as a budget beginner you can find good clothes for hiking at very reasonable prices.
Like all other posts on my website, this post has a very specific goal: rather than inundating you with loads of information, I will show you the absolute basics for your first low-risk, simple two- or three-day trip. From there you can decide how invested you want to get into hiking.
Of course, if you enjoy your trip and want to invest in more equipment and gear, then pursue that dream! In fact, that is what you should do. However, my strategy (as a low-paid music teacher :P) with any hobby has always been to test the waters with as little as possible and see what I need from there. Heck, I grew up in Africa in the early 2000s – ingenuity and DIY mindsets were a necessity! 🙂
If you want a bare-bones explanation of what clothes you need for hiking, and are budget conscious like me, I hope this post gives you exactly what you’re looking for!
Fundamentals: The Four Hiking Clothes “Commandments”
No, this section isn’t song or movie quotes, but it does explain the key things to remember when looking for hiking clothes.
This is obvious in theory, but what does that actually mean? Certainly, they need to keep your skin safe, keep you warm in winter and cool in summer, and comfortable.
But the details make things more nuanced. Staying warm in the winter will look different than staying warm during summer nights, which means you’ll need different clothes to serve the same functions. I will cover these details later, but for now we just need to acknowledge that functionality should be seriously considered.
2. Weight versus Comfort
Aah, the age old ying-yang battle of packing: what do I need versus what I want. The good news is that hikers need to be comfortable. Even though folks might think you’re masochistic for roughing it in the first place, you’re not purposely trying to torture yourself by seeing how much pain you can endure.
Why? Because if you’re not comfortable, not only will you not have fun, but you could put yourself in danger by getting stranded with an obscene amount of junk on your back. A lighter backpack makes for a healthier, safer trip.
The trick, then, is to figure out how little you can get by with packing. In fact, if you plan ahead, you can pack very little and not have to worry about “emergency gear.” You won’t be lounging in luxury, but you’ll feel good about your balance between functional weight and comfort.
3. Moisture is Murder and Cotton Kills
Yes, that is exaggerated, but hopefully it got your attention.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER WHEN LOOKING FOR HIKING CLOTHES!
Wind is cold. Ambient air is cold. Tree branches are cold. But with the right gear you can seriously minimize their effects on you.
What you WON’T be able to get rid of is moisture. Moisture will stick around forever, leaving your body to constantly expend energy trying to warm up. Believe it or not, the biggest threat of moisture is not the outside world: it’s your own sweat!
Paradoxically, this means that if you try and dress too warm you’ll still end up wasting excessive energy. The trick is to dress as lightly as possible to prevent sweating while still being guarded from the elements.
Cotton is a big no-no for hikers because it soaks in moisture and never gets rid of it. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon are excellent alternatives, and merino wool is the preferred choice. These materials “moisture wick,” meaning they do not absorb moisture and actually make it evaporate faster.
To layer or not to layer, that is the question.
Except it’s not. Layering is an ABSOLUTE necessity, perhaps the most important thing to understand from this whole post.
Got that? If “cotton kills” is the most important thing about hiking clothes to remember, layering is the most important concept to understand.
Layering is an art, taking into account the last three commandments. Knowing your terrain, physical limits, weather, and comfort levels, you will layer your clothes to benefit your health as much as possible.
And it certainly isn’t random either. Here’s how it works:
Base layers are your underwear and first layer of clothes that rests against your skin. It should be light and moisture-wicking. Since the other layers are the bulk that keeps the cold out, the base layers work directly with your skin. They create a basic layer of insulation against outer moisture without trapping sweat either. And while they wouldn’t keep the cold out by themselves, they do help keep your body heat in.
Base layers are necessary for winter and recommended for shoulder seasons (spring and fall), but you probably won’t need them for summer. Also, thankfully, they are pretty simple to buy because there aren’t a lot of choices you have to make.
Mid layers are your main source of insulation from the cold. In keeping with the motto “cotton kills,” they should be as synthetic as possible. This layer is the most flexible and interesting to plan. It will also be your cheapest, most likely. Why? – Because you might already have clothes that fit the requirements!
There is one major rule to follow when planning mid-layers: you should NEVER have just one thick garment. Rather, you should have several thin ones you can take on and off as needed. When hiking, you should never get excessively sweaty. Wearing one big, fat sweater won’t give you the option to lighten up the insulation.
You can use long-sleeve fleece shirts or quarter-zip sweaters. Several windbreakers could work too. Whatever they are, just make sure they aren’t crazy thick. Of course, they should scrunch up easily for packing.
Full on confession though . . . I never actually cram my clothes into my bag, especially if I’m constantly taking them off and putting them on. Rather, I’ll just lay them across my backpack’s opening, flap the brain over them and ratchet up the buckles. Why not, it makes them easier to access!
Moisture murders, remember? I’ll probably say that several more times. If the base layer keeps body heat in and sweat away, and the mid layers create insulation, the outer layer keeps outer moisture and wind out. Think of it as a turtle shell keeping the elements out – that’s why people like to call them “outer shells.” Get a waterproof down jacket for winter, or a thick rain jacket (not just poncho!) for summer.
And voila, you are an expert now! From here on out, we just need to look at how these Four Commandments apply to weather, seasons, and good ol’ budgets.
Hiking clothes in the summer
Good news: hiking in the summer means packing less clothes, which means less weight AND money! Functionally, you want clothes that are breezy and prevent sunburns. Thankfully, this means lighter clothes, which means you don’t really have to worry about the whole “weight vs. comfort” debate OR layering. Win win, right?!
And while we’re at it, while moisture will affect sleeping at night, sweating won’t really cause problems during the day. So I guess now we got “win win half-win.”
You can wear either shorts or pants for your legs. Your options are pretty varied, although whatever you wear needs to fit tightly yet comfortably (so those elastic-worn shorts I lounge in at home . . . probably won’t want those . . .) Also, think about the terrain you’re going to be in. While shorts definitely keep you cooler, pants will better protect your legs from ticks and vegetation.
One more thing about pants: you certainly can wear jeans, but remember that if they get wet they won’t dry . . . like, ever.
Summer Hats and Shirts
Next, don’t get sunburns! Wear a big hat. Nobody cares if you look like an old man fishing out in the boonies.
As for your shirt, any synthetic shirt will work. Cotton might not be as bad during the summer, but sweat-soaked shirts are still uncomfortable and more hassle than you need. Any style works, but definitely go for light and simple over fancy-schpancy. Also, DON’T wear tank-tops – those backpack straps are ROUGH!
Now remember what I said about not worrying about layering earlier? “Worrying” doesn’t mean don’t think about it, just don’t stress over it. Depending on weather forecasts, a second fleece layer for the day or night might not be a bad idea. You can also add a jacket if needed, but I’m going to talk about them in the weather section next.
Summer Jackets and Ponchos
Summer weather is either perfect for activity, miserably hot, slightly cold in evenings, or wet with rain. The first three are easy to plan for. Just think about what you’d wear to a summer BBQ. Rain isn’t much harder: buy a rain jacket or poncho. A rain jacket will come in handy outside of hiking too, but you can also get a poncho for like 50 cents. Do what ya want!
For windy conditions, you can consider a windbreaker (you’ll notice some of my links in this article will be repeated across sections — that’s just because the same product can be used for different situations).
In general, any jacket you already have will work for cooler evenings.
Lastly, we come to shoes. If you’ve read my first page summarizing everything about backpacking, you’ll recognize what I’m saying here. Though possibly controversial, you could probably get away with normal tennis shoes for your first two- or three-day trip.
However, before you just plan on that, consider these extra factors: first, tennis shoes won’t dry any time soon if they get wet. Second, if you’re on really rough terrain they might not grip well.
If these are the case, you have two options. You could get hiking boots that will work for any season, or you can get lightweight trail runners for summer. While boots are applicable to more situations, they are more expensive and bulkier. The cost is worth it if you’re planning on hiking outside of summer.
If you plan on hiking in warmer temperatures all the time, runners could be fine. As usual, just take a few minutes to consider what you want to do with your hiking adventures.
Hiking clothes in the spring and fall
Spring and fall are considered the “shoulder seasons” because they bridge the other extreme two, and less people travel. In lots of ways, this makes hiking clothes for both seasons the same.
In regards to weather and temperature, they are an awkward mix of winter and summer. Temperatures have greater fluctuation and they are wet. Like, really, really wet.
Why? Just think about it. Summer has lots of rainstorms. Wet. Winter has snow everywhere. Solid . . . but eventually wet. Put them together and you get rain AND melting snow all mixing together in a sloppy mix of pure wetness.
Functionally speaking, we will need to plan for wet weather and dynamic temperatures (which will depend on the month you’re hiking). Think of it this way: pack like winter, but not as intensely. You can afford to pack less, and relax more with layering (though still be serious about it). So sadly, this means you will have to start caring about “weight vs. comfort” a little bit.
Waterproof pants are essential. Unless you’re putting something light over jeans, I would forget them entirely. If you are planning on hiking in winter, then you can wear long underwear and lighter pants. If you don’t have long underwear, you can find thicker pants.
So what kind of “waterproof pants” should I find, specifically? Either hiking pants or rain pants. In other words, pants that are not for freezing weather, but are still made for physical activity.
Spring/Fall Shirts and Jackets
In keeping with our no-water theme, moisture-wicking synthetic shirts will be just as essential as they are in winter. Depending on weather, they can be long or short sleeved (also consider you can wear long sleeved jackets). For layering, you can get away with three layers: synthetic shirt, thicker shirt, jacket.
Lastly, no matter what jackets you bring, a durable rain jacket (or waterproof windbreaker) is ESSENTIAL! In the hiking world we call them “hard shell outerwear” because they keep the elements out like a turtle’s shell. Cute, right?
Hiking clothes in the winter: the big bad beast!
Finally, we get to winter. Aaah, what a beast.
Because freezing conditions can be dangerous, you should be extra vigilant about planning for winter clothes. On a positive note, once you’ve gotten all your winter gear, you’re 85-90% geared up for the other three seasons!
Functionally speaking, winter clothes must keep you warm, conserve energy, and keep out wet snow. Pretty obvious, but also means a lot of strategy. You’ll want more clothes than any other season, but they shouldn’t be bulky. Unfortunately, this makes the “weight vs. comfort” debate uber-important.
Synthetic underwear is a must. Your layers will help you control insulation, but underwear provides a foundational protection against the cold and automatically raises your temperature a bit. Thankfully, you can get it for around $30 on Amazon! Basic ones should be good for an average winter, but if you’re going extreme, you’ll want the thicker ones.
Next, you will want a synthetic base layer. This can be pretty flexible, but keep it thin and light. Yes, like summer wear! Remember, we will add the bulk of insulation in layers over the underwear and base layer. The layer closest to our skin should help to keep cold out, but more importantly keep us dry. Hence the synthetic material and its moisture-wicking properties. I use an everyday button up polyester shirt and a quarter-zip jacket over it if needed.
See what you can scrounge up yourself, but if you can’t find anything, here’s what I recommend:
For base layer pants, you can wear anything thin that is not cotton. We will put snow pants over it and you already have long underwear, so it functions as insulation between the other two layers.
The mid-layers are where you can get creative and thrifty. Try to have two or three light jackets that you can put over each other. For packing purposes, it’s helpful if they can be tightly stuffed. If they cannot, just cinch them under your bag’s flapping brain!
Lastly, the outer layer needs to be a waterproof jacket that can keep out the wind and elements. Preferably, down stuffing is best. You can find these guys all over the place in outlet stores and discount shops. Just one tip here: an outer layer jacket is not something to skimp on — make it one of your higher-priced items! The rest of your layers will be useless if wind and wet can cut right through them!
For pants, just buy snow pants or snowboarding pants. I got some for $40 on Amazon, and they did the trick. They function the same as your down jacket.
Next we come to boots. For every other season you can get away with tennis shoes for a first trip, if you really wanted to. DO NOT DO THAT FOR WINTER! Just like your jacket, splurge on boots! Not only do they keep your feet warm, but they will help with terrain and keeping your legs warm. My suggestion is to get general four-season boots, that way your winter boots can be used all year round! Yaay budgeting!
Lastly, you will want thick merino wool socks. I bought some nice ones for $20 at an Eddie Bauer outlet. However, I quickly realized I would want to spend a bit more on “hunting merino wool socks,” which are even thicker (just cause my feet suck). You know your body best. You can and SHOULD pack extra pairs of socks: you won’t believe how much sweaty socks and kill your feet. Most clothes should not be packed twice for backpacking, but socks are the rare exception!
Sleeping clothes for all Seasons!
But wait, there’s more!! Now that you’ve figured out what you need for the right season and weather, we need to think about sleeping. Remember, we’re stuck out there all night, right!
Believe it or not, sleeping clothes are pretty similar across all seasons – even winter.
Here’s why: you want to wear less layers so you don’t sweat — even in winter! Weird, right? The more you think about it, the more sense it makes though.
When you are encased in a sleeping bag, it retains more of your body heat. It won’t keep all the heat, of course, but it keeps enough to make sweating happen relatively quickly. As I’ve stated repeatedly, if you are moist, your body will use more energy to warm you up, even if the bag is already warm.
This situation creates two factors to consider: first, you want to dress as lightly as possible. Even having just long underwear and a thin layer over it can be good enough. Second, setting up an efficient heat-saving shelter and sleeping bag is more important than your choice of clothes. Let me repeat that: your shelter setup will make your break your good night’s sleep, NOT clothes.
How to stay warm when you sleep
I will review these factors in my shelter page, but since they relate to the same function of clothes (to keep you warm at night), here are some tips for a warm shelter:
- An insulated sleeping pad, or at least another form of insulation to put between you and the ground. It’s actually cheaper to use the second option, since an insulated pad can cost around $150 alone, at least! Since most cold comes from the ground, insulation will prevent it from seeping up AND will reflect your body heat back towards yourself.
- Move around a bit before getting in your bag to warm up. Just don’t sweat!
- Move around in your sleeping pad to release some heat inside.
- “Dead space” is all that extra room in your sleeping bag that your body doesn’t fill. The more dead room, the more wasted heat/energy. If you have extra clothes or squishy equipment, stick it in your bag around you!
- This might seem odd and slightly morbid, but helps: wrap a giant jacket around your neck. This will “seal” the space around your neck where cold air could seep in.
- A sleeping bag liner can help raise the temperature, and is relatively cheap at around $20. They also keep your bag clean, which has several long-term benefits: first, less cleaning equals longer usability. Second, body oils can make the insulation less effective over time.
- If things are really cold, boil water and put it in a metal water bottle. Put this bottle under your arm or between your legs. Just make sure to wrap it up if it’s scalding hot!
- Use toe warmers if your feet get freezing like mine. Just make sure to wear at least two layers of socks, and don’t put the pad directly against your skin — they can heat up to over 100 degrees F!
What’s the Difference: Windbreakers, Rain Jacket, and Down Jackets?
Before concluding my article, I wanted to briefly review what the uses are for windbreakers, rain jackets, and down jackets. Sometimes their uses can overlap, so it’s could to know what you’ll need them for so you can potentially save money that way.
Windbreakers do just what their name says — they create a barrier against the wind so it doesn’t freeze you. They are almost always waterproof too. Rain jackets, as I’m sure you know, prevent you from getting wet. Because windbreakers have to stop big gusts, they have more weight and “poofiness” to them. Rain jackets are usually pretty thin. If you think you will be in a situation where you’ll need a windbreaker, you can use it as a rain jacket as well.
Down jackets can be used in all three situations. If you need to layer though, you will want a thinner jacket underneath it. Weather will dictate the kind of jacket you want.
And there you have it! Like your tent and backpack, the hiking clothes items will be the pricier purchases in your gear list. However, with careful planning you can stick to a low budget without risking your safety. In summary, here are the factors to consider:
- What will the weather and temperature be?
- How will my terrain look?
- What function will my clothes serve?
- How little can I pack while still being safe?
- How should I layer?
- How can I keep my body as dry as possible (more so for seasons that aren’t summer)?
- Where are those extra socks?
Now that you’ve got food logistics figured out and know what to wear, it’s time to figure out your shelter and sleeping gear next!
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