We investigate the best way to dress for a day on the walking trail
The clothes you wear while hiking will impact on your comfort and safety. While specific garments are a matter of personal choice, some types of garments will offer more flexibility, safety and comfort. With the right range of clothes, you’ll be comfortable in any conditions. Here’s an overview to help you choose the right hiking clothes for you.
Pants or shorts
Whether you walk in pants or shorts will depend on the conditions that you’ll be hiking in and your own personal preference. Shorts are cooler to walk in, while pants are warmer and can help protect your legs from insects and from scratches in scrubby conditions. Outdoor shops sell purpose-designed hiking shorts and pants (as well as pants that zip down to shorts) which offer comfort, flexibility of movement and good pocket design. If you’re after a cheaper option, make sure you choose choose a garment made from a lightweight synthetic fabric such as polyester or nylon rather than cotton. Synthetics are lightweight, sturdy and don’t hold on to water, keeping you drier than fabrics such as cotton.
A cool top for warm conditions
You’ll need a lightweight top to keep you cool in warm conditions (and for when you warm up while hiking uphill). A lightweight synthetic top is best as it will keep you cool and dry. A cotton shirt or t-shirt is not ideal as it will hold on to water – it will get sweaty and stay sweaty. When you stop walking and cool down, it may be uncomfortable, damp and chilly. Singlet tops are best avoided – they expose your shoulders to the sun and are not very comfortable with backpack straps.
Tops for warmth in cool conditions
You will need a warm long-sleeve top such as a fleece top to keep you warm. Depending on conditions, you may need another warm layer as well. It is better to wear two or more lighter-weight warm layers rather than one heavy warm layer. The extra layers add versatility and the layering traps warm air, keeping you better insulated.
A good set of thermals is a great investment if you plan on doing a bit of hiking. Thermals are lightweight and keep you warm and they also wick moisture away from you body, keeping you dry and comfortable. Consider polyester or merino fabrics – merino will be less smelly after walking than polyester.
A good rain coat is essential for hiking. A raincoat will add a layer for warmth, it provides a wind block and it provides a rain block. The best raincoats for hiking are made from a waterproof and breathable fabric such as Gore-Tex. These fabrics allow vapour moisture (sweat) to escape through the fabric, keeping you more comfortable. Even if you don’t have breathable-fabric rain jacket, some kind of waterproof rain jacket is a hiking essential. You should always bring your raincoat in your day pack when you hike.
Consider waterproof trousers if you’re hiking full days in cool or wet conditions or in alpine conditions. Waterproof trousers aren’t an essential for a lot of day walking in normal conditions.
On many walks you’ll need two hats – a hat for sun and a hat for warmth. Whether in sunny or cloudy conditions, a sun hat is essential when you are spending a full day outdoors. A beanie or warm hat is important to keep you warm in cooler weather. Wool or synthetics are the best materials.
Socks and gloves
A good padded pair of hiking socks is a good investment to keep your feet comfortable. Some people like to wear a lightweight pair of socks under their thicker socks – this ‘sock liner’ helps to keep feet dry and prevent rubbing and blisters. Gloves or mittens are a great bonus in chilly conditions.
Gaiters are lower-leg protectors that cover the top of your boot and your lower leg. They are often used in wet weather, muddy conditions, scratchy undergrowth, or for snake protection. They are not necessary for many day walks on established trails.
Layers, layers, layers
When you’re hiking one of the most important clothing considerations is your ability to add or subtract layers. If you warm up, you’ll need to be wearing a lightweight top to help keep you cool. If the wind picks up you’ll need a raincoat to break the wind-chill. If it’s cool but not raining, you’ll want a comfortable and warm long sleeve top. And you need to be able to transition through these layers easily as conditions change on the trail. The four-layer top system and three-layer pants system is a good rule of thumb to cater for most conditions:
The four-layer top system
1. Thermal layer
2. Lightweight top
3. Warm layer
4. Waterproof jacket
The three-layer pants system
1. Thermal pants
2. Hiking shorts or pants
3. Waterproof over-pants