What to Wear Hiking: Experts Share the Best Hiking Clothes

Woman standing at the top of a mountain

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

Fresh air, a sense of accomplishment, and hours spent in a beautiful place—those are some of the best parts of hiking. The worst parts? Chafing, sweaty clothes, and sore feet. Fortunately, the worst parts are (mostly) avoidable if you follow a few basic guidelines about how to dress for a hike. 

Dressing properly for a hike isn’t about fashion. It’s about keeping you comfortable and safe. Your clothing and gear need to move with your body, so avoid jeans and heavy fabrics. It’s also important to wear clothing that keeps you safe, including shoes that you know won’t give you blisters and materials designed to dry quickly, so you don’t suddenly start freezing when you step into the shade wearing sweat-drenched clothing. 

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend hundreds on new gear or follow complicated rules. Knowing what to wear on a hike is easy. Here’s your go-to cheat sheet.

What to Wear on Top

There’s no hard-and-fast answer on what style of shirt to wear on top, but there are a few features you’ll probably want.

Look for shirts with flat-lock stitching to prevent rubbing and redness. Flat-lock seams connect fabric pieces end-to-end instead of overlapping. That creates very smooth seams less likely to irritate your skin.

Ensure anything you wear on top is moisture-wicking and quick-drying. Moisture-wicking means it’ll carry your sweat to the outer layer of the fabric, and quick-drying means you can go from soaking wet to nearly dry in a matter of minutes. Fabrics that don’t meet these criteria include cotton and linen, which should always be avoided for hiking. According to Nicole Snell, a Fjällräven guide and adventure guide at L.A.-based Black Girls Trekkin’, consider natural or blended wool for the most versatile options. “Wool is breathable, keeps you warm even when it’s wet, keeps you cool even when it’s hot, and is a durable material,” said Snell.

You should always have a waterproof jacket with you, even on day hikes where the forecast calls for sun. Fortunately, many jackets from brands like Stio, Arc’teryx, and Eddie Bauer fold into their own internal pockets, occupying minimal space in your hiking pack. Look for a jacket with a DWR (waterproof coating), plus an additional waterproof rating if you often hike in wet conditions. Jackets are rated on an mm moisture scale, depending on the brand. Look for something rated to 16,000mm (16K) or above if you anticipate encountering heavy rain. 

What to Wear on the Bottom

Deciding what to wear on the bottom while hiking is mostly the same as what to wear on top: comfortable, quick-drying fabrics. 

Shorts, pants, or even hiking skirts or skorts are all good options, depending on your personal preference. If you’re long-distance hiking, make sure to try your bottom layer on with your pack to ensure your shorts don’t ride up or down or pinch when your pack is strapped around your hips. If you’re one of those people who never know what to wear, convertible zip-off pants may be a good option. 

If you hike in very rocky terrain or plan to do a lot of scrambling, you’ll likely want a fabric designed to withstand abrasion, like those made with ripstop materials or nylon, a material so durable they use it to make rock climbing ropes. 

If you don’t expect to encounter bushes, tree branches, sharp rocks, or rough campsites, you may find that hiking in yoga-style tights or breezy gym shorts works for you. 

Some additional features to look for in bottoms include zipper- or Velcro-secured pockets, cinch-able hems if the inseam is too long, and an adjustable waistband if they stretch out on the trail. If you’re going to wear a belt, look for a stretchable belt without a big buckle. 

(By the way, make sure to choose quick-drying underwear, too.)

What To Wear on Your Feet

If you only take away one piece of advice from this article, it’s this: always break in your shoes. Even lightweight hiking sandals have a break-in period, and nothing will sideline you faster than a blister on your heel or toes.

Hiking footwear generally falls into three categories: hiking boots, hiking shoes, and hiking sandals. Hiking boots tend to be heavier and more supportive and are ideal for multi-day backpacking trips. Hiking shoes have the same grippy outsole (bottom) but are generally more flexible and lighter weight. Because they don’t cover your ankle, they offer less support (though tying them correctly provides more ankle support than you’d think.)

The last option is a hiking sandal. These sandals have grippy bottoms like a shoe or a boot but generally have just a few thick straps across the foot and heel. They offer the least support but are popular with ultra-light day hikers and for use on trails with multiple stream crossings. 

Waterproof shoes are generally more expensive, so if you don’t expect to encounter standing water, you can likely opt for a non-waterproof pair (they may still be water-resistant.) Waterproof shoes are often a bit less breathable, so a non-waterproofed option can keep your feet cooler during long hikes. 

Be sure to try your shoes on in the store and break them in while wearing your hiking socks. Hiking socks come in thick, thin, tall, and short options. Tall socks are best if you’re hiking through brush. If you’re hiking through muddy terrain, consider investing in a pair of gaiters, which strap around your feet to keep mud and snow off your socks and pant leg. 

What Accessories to Wear

Some hikers find that less is more when it comes to accessories, while others love having a full pack. But the basics for almost every hike are the same: a hat to offer sun protection and sunglasses to prevent eye fatigue and block UV rays. Avoid wearing a visor as they expose you to UV rays, which cause dehydration, sunburn, and headaches. Otherwise, baseball caps or floppy sun hats are great options. 

For sunglasses, look for a polarized pair. Polarized lenses reduce glare and help prevent eye strain during periods in bright conditions. Most major outdoor brands make dozens of options, or you could find more fashion-focused options from brands like Maho Shades or Costa del Mar.

Other accessories you may want or need depending on the weather include gloves, a wearable mosquito face net, or a pull-over hiking buff to use as everything from a beanie to a scarf to a sweatband. 

Many hikers also wear fitness trackers to map their hikes, track their statistics, and help them follow preloaded routes. Brands like Polar, Garmin, and Fitbit all make easy-to-use options. 

How to Layer

Wearing extra layers will keep you warmer than wearing thicker fabrics and have the bonus of being removable in case the day warms up more than expected. Dress as if it’s going to be colder than you expect—you can always shed layers, but you can’t add extra layers if you didn’t pack them. “Summits are notoriously windy and colder than the lower elevations, so I make sure to pack at least one extra layer. How many layers you bring will ultimately depend on your own threshold for cold,” said Snell. “The weather can change at any time and your own body temperature rises while hiking.”

You might want your outer layer to be an SPF fabric. Most materials offer the equivalent of a 5 to 10 SPF rating, so harmful sun rays can still get through to your skin. Most major outdoor brands make SPF hiking clothing. 

Finally, when evaluating how to dress, look at the nighttime low. While hiking is generally a safe activity, if you get lost or injured and are unable to find help quickly, you may be on the trail after dark. You’ll appreciate having extra warm clothing once the sun goes down.