What to Wear Hiking, For All Seasons, Weather Forecasts & Destinations
With our usual seasonal activities cancelled or deemed no longer safe, 2021 is shaping up to be a banner year for outdoor exploration. Hiking, in particular, is growing exponentially more popular, and it looks like our newfound love of all things outdoors will continue well into spring (and hopefully beyond). Anyone looking to venture into the wilderness—even if it’s only as far as Griffith Park—should know what to wear hiking so you’ll be both comfortable and prepared for anything the trails may have in store. Here, we’ve provided a checklist of the basics, as well as more in-depth information for each season’s specific needs. However, 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 and warm pants, let alone a blanket or 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 good and look good.
What to Wear Hiking: The Basics
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. Besides being annoying and uncomfortable, this can also put you at risk for overheating in the hot sun, or hypothermia if temperatures drop. Stick to tech fabrics, like nylon or polyester, that are specifically engineered to wick away moisture, or, if you prefer natural fibers, wool.
Make Sure You Have the Proper Footwear
For some this means true hiking boots with extra ankle support, but for others, trail running shoes or even your regular sneakers will suffice (by which we mean true athletic shoes with ample traction and foot support, not AllBirds or Converse). No matter what, make sure your shoes are sturdy enough to handle the terrain, and if you plan to hop over any streams, you’ll definitely want to opt for waterproof styles, to keep your feet dry. Double check descriptions of your route and the weather report before you head out. BTW, Tevas, Birkenstocks or other open-toe shoes are not acceptable hiking shoes, unless you’re walking along a beach.
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. It doesn’t matter how good those skintight pants look while you’re standing in your bedroom if it won’t allow you to move comfortably out on the trail. Looser clothing also allows for more air flow around your body and is better at keeping you cool on warm-weather hikes.
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. If you do decide to wear shorts, choose a pair that gives you full range of motion and are made from durable materials (your spandex bike shorts, however trendy, likely aren’t cut out for a battle with boulders) and don’t forget to reapply sunscreen to your gams, front and back, throughout the day.
Layers Are Your Best Friends
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. Your body will warm up as you go, then cool down again if you stop for lunch, and weather conditions can change rapidly throughout the day. Dress in layers and toss others into your pack so you can be ready for anything and everything.
What to Wear Hiking for Each Season
While we can certainly give you a general guide to the best items to wear in spring, summer, fall and winter, 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 sense not only of what your hike day conditions are predicted to be, but also how they might change. If there was an unexpected drizzle the day before, there might be one again today, or if rain is predicted for the following afternoon, know that there’s a chance the precipitation could start early.
Below, you’ll find more information specific to each season, but you can also follow our handy layering flow chart. We’d suggest packing one layer beyond what you think you’ll need (just in case) and you should be good to go.
What to Wear Hiking in Spring and Fall
We’ve combined these two seasons because they’re more similar than you might imagine. 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, but can really come in handy should the weather start to turn. Depending on the forecast, you can opt for basically any combination of tank tops, T-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, wind breakers, fleece pullovers, shorts or pants, so be sure to pick a backpack that can hold any layer 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 T-shirt ($25); L.L.Bean fleece pullover ($55; $45); REI Midweight base layer top ($50); REI hiking pants ($100; $50); Backcountry Huxley 1/2-Zip Pullover ($110; $55); Patagonia hiking shorts ($59); Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap Stretch Rain Pants ($129; $77); The North Face hiking pants ($89); Athleta hiking pants ($98); The North Face rain jacket ($99); 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: avoid environmental hazards (like ticks or Poison Ivy) and try to stay 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 made from sweat-wicking fabrics and opt for looser silhouettes in lighter colors over dark and tight fits. Look for pieces with built-in UPF sun protection and don’t forget to bring extra sunscreen (and be sure to reapply often). 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.
Shop our favorite summer hiking layers: REI win-resistant jacket ($100; $30); Prana tank top ($39); Athleta T-shirt ($54); L.L.Bean hiking shorts ($55); Cotopaxi tank top ($55); Athleta hiking shorts ($59); The North Face UPF shirt ($69); Kuhl hiking pants ($139)
What to Wear Hiking in Winter
To be frank, we don’t necessarily recommend hiking in 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 isn’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 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 earth. One last tip: Pack an extra headlamp or flashlight. There are fewer daylight hours during winter, and you don’t want to get caught in the dark by accident. (Also, stowing your light source deep in your pack also make it less likely for the batteries to be drained by the cold.)
Shop our favorite winter hiking layers: Burton midweight base layer ($65; $52); L.L.Bean rain pants ($99); Smartwool Merino 250 base-layer leggings ($100); The North Face fleece ($149); Athleta lightweight puffer ($199); Backcountry Girdwood Gore-Tex Insulated Jacket ($400; $240)