What to Wear Hiking, For All Seasons, Weather Forecasts & Destinations
Over the course of the pandemic, hiking has grown exponentially more popular and it looks like this renewed love of all things outdoors will continue in 2022 and beyond. Anyone who is looking to venture into the wilderness—even if it’s only as far as your nearest park—should know what to wear hiking so you’ll be comfortable and prepared for anything the trails may have in store. Here, we’ve provided a checklist of some basic requirements, as well as more in-depth information that’s tailored to each season. Note: We have one serious hiking rule to cover before anything else: Always pack additional warm and/or waterproof layers in your backpack, as well as shelter and extra food and water.
You might feel silly sticking a fleece jacket, warm pants, a blanket and a small tent into your daypack when the forecast is sunny and 75 degrees, but day hikers are more vulnerable to deadly accidents than backpackers because they’re more likely to be caught unprepared. If you wander off the trail (either on purpose or accidentally), take a wrong turn or take a tumble, there’s a high chance you may find yourself spending the night, or even multiple nights, out in the wilderness. According to a study by SmokyMountains.com, those who come prepared with warm, dry clothing, additional sustenance and shelter of some kind are significantly more likely to survive than those who don’t.
So, play it safe and bring the extras along. Now, onto the fun stuff: what to wear hiking so you feel and look good.
What to Wear Hiking: The Basics
When you’re new to the hiking game, it’s easy to overthink things and overpack. The better alternative is to be strategic about what you bring. “Many new hikers carry way too many things, which can make hiking more challenging on the body than it needs to be,” says Chad Alexander, expert hiker, founder and personal trainer at Fitness Minimalists. “It is common to see people carrying two or three bulky cotton sweaters, five T-shirts and five pairs of socks, but experienced hikers keep their packs as light as possible with only the highest-quality and most lightweight essentials.”
- Opt for sweat-wicking materials. Cotton is not your friend out on the trails (and don’t even get us started on denim) because it retains water, meaning any ounce of sweat will stick to your T-shirt, socks or undies and hang out there for the entirety of your hike.
- Make sure you have the proper footwear. For some, this means getting a pair of true hiking boots with extra ankle support, but for others, trail running shoes or even your regular sneakers will suffice (by which we mean shoes with ample traction and foot support, not casual streetstyle sneaks like AllBirds or Converse).
- Choose clothing you can move in. This might sound obvious, but you want to make sure you have a full range of motion, so you can clamber up and over rocks, raise your arms to move a tree branch or squat to sit on a rock.
- Pants are better than shorts. This is not a universal rule, but generally speaking, you’ll be better off in a pair of durable hiking pants over shorts. Why, you ask? If the trail you’re exploring has any overgrown bushes or grassy patches, low branches, protruding rocks or other obstacles—as almost all trails do—shorts leave your legs vulnerable to scratches, cuts, bruises, Poison Ivy, ticks and other dangers.
- Layers are your best friend. Can’t decide between a long-sleeve and a T-shirt? Wear both. Not sure if you’ll want a lightweight anorak or a heavier fleece? Bring both. Worried your legs will be cold in shorts? Throw some pants in your pack, too. When in doubt—and even when you aren’t in doubt—you should always pack or wear extra layers.
What to Wear Hiking for Each Season
The best thing to do when planning your ensemble is to check the weather report for the day of your hike, as well as the day before and the 48 hours following. This will give you a better sense of the conditions on your hike day and help predict how they might change. We’d also suggest packing one layer beyond what you think you’ll need (just in case).
- Spring/fall: Long-sleeve shirt or T-shirt, wind breaker, fleece pullover, shorts or pants
- Summer: Tank top, base layer, windbreaker, shorts or pants
- Winter: Long-sleeve shirt or T-shirt, sweat-wicking base layer, fleece or puffer, waterproof shell, waterproof rain pants
What to Wear Hiking in Spring and Fall
We’ve combined these two seasons because they’re more similar than you’d think. Both can be somewhat unpredictable in terms of weather—rain one day, 70 degrees and sunny the next, all followed by chilly winds and gray skies—so it’s even more imperative to layer up. Make sure to wear or bring along a waterproof or water-resistant anorak that can also guard against wind chill. They’re often super lightweight and easy to squash into a corner of your backpack and they really come in handy should the weather start to turn.
“For cooler-weather hikers, wool is great because it can absorb some moisture without making you feel wet or clammy. This is especially nice if you find yourself perspiring or stuck in a little rain,” the pros at Gorp, an outdoors and travel website tell us. “Many synthetic fabrics are also good. We like a nylon or poly blend because it makes the fabric so darn tough. Just be sure the poly or nylon is less than 20 percent, or the garment won’t be breathable.”
Depending on the forecast, you can opt for any combination of the following: tank tops, T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, wind breakers, fleece pullovers, shorts or pants. Make sure to pick a backpack that’s large enough to hold any layers you’re not currently wearing, in addition to your food, water and other necessities. You’ll also want to consider brimmed hats to protect your eyes and face from the sun, or warm beanies and gloves for chillier days.
Shop our favorite spring/fall hiking layers: The North Face wander T-shirt ($40); L.L.Bean fleece pullover ($99; $85); REI Midweight base layer top ($50); Columbia trail pants ($60); Patagonia Ahnya Pullover ($89); Kuhl Freeflex Cargo Shorts ($79); Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap Stretch Rain Pants ($129); The North Face paramount convertible pant ($79); Athleta hiking pants ($139); The North Face rain jacket ($89); Cotopaxi weather-resistant jacket ($150)
What to Wear Hiking in Summer
There are two main things to keep in mind when dressing for summer hiking: environmental hazards (like ticks or Poison Ivy) and staying cool and dry. As mentioned earlier, pants are better for protecting your legs along the trail, but they may feel too heavy come midday. Regardless of the layers you choose, always pick pieces that are made from sweat-wicking fabrics and opt for looser silhouettes in lighter colors over darker, tighter fits. Also look for pieces with built-in UPF sun protection and don’t forget to bring extra sunscreen so you can reapply it every few hours. We also highly recommend wearing a hat with a wide brim that covers your face and neck and keeps you cool. If you sweat a lot, you might even want to stick a second dry T-shirt in your pack to change into halfway through your hike to prevent chafing.
Shop our favorite summer hiking layers: Black Diamond rain shell jacket ($149; $120; Prana tank top ($39); Athleta tank ($59); L.L.Bean hiking shorts ($55); Cotopaxi tank top ($23); Athleta hiking shorts ($59); The North Face UPF shirt ($79); Kuhl hiking pants ($139)
What to Wear Hiking in Winter
To be frank, we don’t recommend hiking in the winter unless you live someplace relatively warm, like Southern California, Tennessee or Georgia. Snowy conditions can be very dangerous (think avalanches, hidden crevasses and sudden white-out conditions), especially if you’re not an experienced hiker. Even in places where snow and ice aren’t a concern, you need to be smart about the clothing you wear. Start with base layers made from sweat-wicking materials that are fitted but still allow a full range of movement. Then add an insulated mid-layer, like a fleece, puffer or other warm pullover, before topping everything with a waterproof, weather-resistant outer layer. Come prepared with gloves, hats, neck gaiters and extra warm socks to keep your extremities comfortable while you walk. And while sneakers may have seen you through the trails during the rest of the year, we highly suggest investing in some weather-resistant boots if you plan to explore the great outdoors between November and March. They’ll keep your feet much warmer and usually have better traction on icy paths or hard, frozen grounds. One last tip: Pack an extra headlamp or a flashlight. There are fewer daylight hours during winter, and you don’t want to get caught in the dark by accident. (Also, stow your light source deep in your pack so the batteries are less likely to get drained by the cold.)
Shop our favorite winter hiking layers: Odlo zip top turtleneck ($110; $88); L.L.Bean rain pants ($89); Icebreaker thermal leggings ($140; $91); The North Face fleece jacket ($139); Columbia long hooded jacket ($150); Mountain Hardwear White Peak down parka ($400)