How To Choose Hiking Clothes

How To Choose Hiking Clothes For Your Next Adventure

What you wear on the trail matters—for comfort and safety, of course, but also for how it makes you feel. You know your favorite clothes can make you feel better, whether you’re going on a date or giving a presentation, and dressing for adventure is no different. But choosing the right technical apparel—from pants to waterproof jackets—is different than getting dressed for a night out. Here’s what you need to know about materials and layering essentials so you can build the perfect kit.

Materials 101

Fabrics used in hiking apparel fall into two major categories: natural and synthetic, each with its pros and cons.

Synthetic

Baselayers, shirts, and pants in this category are typically made from nylon or polyester (nylon is more durable, while polyester is more breathable), often with some spandex for extra stretch. These materials are excellent at wicking sweat away from your skin and dry quickly. They’re also more durable than natural materials, and usually more affordable. On the downside, they’re made from petroleum. But more and more brands are using partially or completely recycled synthetic fibers. Synthetics also tend to get stinky quickly, but antimicrobial treatments are often applied to help keep garments fresh a little longer. 

Synthetic fibers, often polyester, are also used to make the insulation inside puffer jackets. Synthetic fill retains some insulating power when wet, dries fast, and costs less than natural fills. But jackets made with synthetic insulation are heavier and bulkier than down-filled jackets, and don’t last as long.

Natural

Merino wool is the most common fabric used in natural baselayers and shirts (bamboo, Tencel, and rayon fall under this category, too). Merino is comfortable (itchy wool is a relic of the past), great at regulating temperature, good at wicking, and naturally resists odors. But it wears down faster than synthetics, dries more slowly, and usually costs more. Some of the top-performing baselayers today are made with a blend of synthetic and merino fabrics, delivering the best of both worlds.  

On the insulation side, down from geese and ducks is a premium fill. It’s highly compressible, boasts the best warmth-to-weight ratio among insulation choices, and lasts a long time. You can also find responsibly sourced down today, which addresses concerns about the humane treatment of animals. Weaknesses: It costs the most, dries slowly, and loses all insulating power when wet. Most down these days is treated with a special water-resistant coating to help it handle wet weather.  

Layering Essentials

First layer

You’re going to live in baselayers, shirts, and underwear on the trail. They should fit comfortably—not too snug, which impedes mobility, and not too loose, which makes it harder for wicking fabrics to do their job. Try layering over the top of baselayers to check fit. 

Midlayer

Fall through spring, you’ll want to add a midlayer for warmth and a bit of wind protection. These vary quite a bit in terms of style and fabric weight, but they can be made from synthetic fibers (including fleece) or wool. Some are pullovers, while others have a full zipper, and they come with or without a hood. Fleece is a good choice for a thin midlayer, but can be too bulky when used in warmer pieces.

Insulation

Essential for cool to cold weather, insulating jackets or vests supercharge warmth by trapping body heat. Puffer jackets with either synthetic or down fill are the best choices in this category; less often, you’ll find fleece jackets or wool-stuffed garments. 

Shells

Your outer layer is designed to protect you from rain, snow, and wind. The most protective kind of shell is a hardshell, which is fully waterproof (and sometimes windproof, too). The most technical hardshells include a waterproof/breathable membrane sandwiched between a face fabric and an inner liner; these are the most comfortable to wear, and also cost the most. Some more affordable hardshells use an exterior coating, but this construction doesn’t breathe well and can get steamy during high-effort pursuits. 

Softshell: One step down from a hardshell in terms of protection, these offer some water and wind resistance, but prioritize breathability over weatherproofness. They’re ideal for cool, dry weather, such as in high alpine conditions. 

Windshell: Typically very lightweight, windshells are not waterproof, but they provide a welcome layer of protection.  

Socks

Don’t forget your feet. Technical socks use either all synthetic materials or a combination of wool and synthetics, designed to wick sweat and dry quickly (and prevent blisters). 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.