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The Essential Guide to Hiking Clothes

Stefan Loble
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My son only likes to hike if the route is a veritable rock scramble. Like, straight up. But for the rest of us, hiking is more nuanced; and I think is so deeply satisfying because the pleasure is primal. Carrying one’s self across the land goes way back to the dawn of our brains.

Which is why it’s such a shame when the wrong gear impacts a trip. It shouldn’t take a lot to enjoy a hike, but sometimes the inclusion of a few key items can make all the difference.

To help, we put together this guide to our favorite gear and go-to clothes for hiking. It’s our complete recipe for what should go in anyone’s bag to give a trip the best shot at turning out great. 

What To Wear On A Hike

There are two concepts to abide by in packing for hiking: moisture wicking and layering.

It doesn't matter what the temperature is - when you're active, you’re going to be moist. The build-up of heat generated as you move can flip to chills once you slow down. The solution is to wear technical fabrics that wick sweat from your body so moisture doesn’t condense and make you cold. Another way to put it: don’t wear cotton in any significant form - in your shirt, your socks, your underwear - as it chills you when it's wet, and dries slowly.

The second technique is one of layering, such that you can respond to changes in temperature to remain as comfortable and dry as possible.  When you're moving, you'll want to wear less and can shed layers to release heat. That is, until you stop - or get up high into the elements - and need to bundle up again. Layers help accomplish this. The first thing I do when I stop for lunch or make a peak is layer up, because I know I'll immediately begin to cool down. It's hard to have fun when you're not warm.

OBJECTIVE: Be warm and comfortable on trip. Bonus if you don't have to buy a new wardrobe.

T-Shirts and Base Layers for Hiking: Ok, we’re biased, but we think the best outdoor t-shirts are our Threshold tees that wick moisture, resist odor, and dry fast. If I can wear one for a five-mile run, hang it on my chin-up bar to dry and wear it again the next day, you can too.
Hiking Socks: Where the comfort of your feet is critical, you want a soft, durable, well-cushioned sock that will feel good after miles of wear. Darn Tough and Smartwool set the standard using blends of poly and wool that manage moisture. For many people, socks are the place where wearing wool feels the best. And, they will last for years.

Hiking Pants & Shorts: For intense hiking, like squeezing through canyons, or a high alpine adventure – wear a stretchy legging. Running tights or joggers are a good choice. If the hike is more like a strenuous walk, we recommend our Ascender chinos as a great pair of lightweight hiking pants for men.


Along with our Palma chino and Petaluma ponte pants for women, each of these pants have stretch, wick moisture, and have our handy phone pockets for keeping your device easily accessible, yet out of the way. We tested our technical pants in pouring rain, during warm summer walks, and on high peaks layered with tights underneath – and they excel every time.

There is one more deeply satisfying benefit, which is that you can own fewer things. What you pack for a trip can easily support a hike. And afterwards, when you finally reach that hot meal or cold beer, you can feel normal... like yourself... whatever the setting may be.

Hiking Jackets: Staying warm up top is key to enjoying the efforts of your labor (and hopefully a good view). To keep off the chill, reach for a fleece and go with an option by one of the outdoor clothing companies like Patagonia or REI, who make multiple weights and configurations to fit your trip.
 

Hiking Vests: Another secret weapon - and one of my personal favorite pieces of gear - are the men's and women's light down vests from Montbell. They pack super small, but add serious warmth to any outfit via their 800 fill down fill that weighs just 9 oz overall. When I arrive at the summit, this is always the second thing I put on, after...
A Warm Hat: It’s simple. It’s small. Bring a regular warm hat (maybe our technical cap?) you can wear during a hike, to be warm up top and enjoy the view.

Outerwear: Depending on the weather, you may or may not choose to bring outerwear such as a lightweight rain shell. Because I use my shell more often to block wind, a better choice is something ultralight, like Patagonia’s Houdini jacket that weighs just 3 oz.

Hiking Backpacks

Talk to people who love bags, and they will invariably reveal that they own a large collection of them. Different bags for different uses – which can make selecting the be-all-end-all bag quite a challenge.

OBJECTIVE: A bag that fits you, is comfortable, and doesn’t add excessive weight on its own.

Here are the considerations we prioritize: 

 

  • Lightweight - today’s bags are so strong and durable, you might as well go for a lightweight one. A heavy weight bag will most likely last longer than you want to keep the bag. Check the specs before you buy.
  • Simple - Anytime there is a compartment or divider or zipper in a bag that you don’t use, it results in needless weight. Instead, we prefer simple bags that can be organized with our packing cubes.
  • Right sized - A fully packed bag is one with 10-20% room because you can more easily move things around to get at what you need, and not be compelled to leave anything behind. 
  • Hip belt - Everything except the smallest daypack is likely to come with a hip belt. That alone would be reason for sizing up, as you want the weight on your hips.
  • Fit - For the load to be distributed correctly, the bag has to fit your torso. Check the size guide when you buy one. Thankfully now, bags made specifically for women are no longer uncommon
  • Waterproof - Self explanatory, but surprisingly can be hard to find. It takes a lot to soak a bag through, and real weather protection comes down to the zippers. Some bags include a rain cover to simplify.

 

Backpacks: Osprey makes highly respected outdoor bags in a number of sizes, and Tortuga's Setout backpack functions well in the city or on the trail.

Footwear For a Hike

Once upon a time, all hiking boots were heavy. Then lightweight hikers came on the scene, and there was a brief war of camps between the purists and the modernists. That is, until lightweight hikers got to be really good, and people realized it is a matter of the right tool for the job.

OBJECTIVE: Light and comfortable footwear that you don’t think about on the trail.

Best for Most Hikes: For most hikes, a lightweight hiker is preferable. They are lighter (which means far less fatigue from lifting your foot) and more comfortable. They are also cheaper than a full leather boot, and can more often be used for general activities. Gore-Tex materials can help them be water resistant and still breathe to a degree. But, don’t expect them to be perfect for a variety of reasons, including sweat. The right sock is key.
When to Trade Up: The rule for trading up to a heavier boot is all about terrain. When spending long hours hiking over rocks, the poking and flexing on our feet gets tiring. This is exacerbated by carrying a heavy load - like on a backpacking trip. A long trip or weight of a pack argues for more support, because you will be fatigued, and could use a more sturdy boot like these Vasques to keep you in line.

 

Note, whatever it is you MUST wear your boots around town to break them in first. It’s faster with lightweight boots, but if you don’t soften them up before a day out, you may be sorry. 

Other Hiking Gear + Provisions

If you have the heat on your body, and something to carry you kit in, the next question is what to bring.

OBJECTIVE: A pack full of key items that enhance your trip, and nothing more.

Hydration: #1 on this list is water. Not just when it’s hot out, but when it’s cold too. Cold usually means dry, and you need to drink. When dehydrated, people get tired and grumpy. Bring more than you think you need as you can always drink it, or dump it out. In order to maximize space, we use water bags like the 2L DuoLock SoftBottle from Platypus, combined with our favorite water bottles to fill and drink out of more easily.
Snacks: Keep ‘em coming. But, we try to keep it from being a constant sugar train. Throw some salty in there (crackers), protein (jerky and cheese), classic combos (like apples and almonds), and at least one super special treat (like better-than-jerky biltong from Brooklyn Biltong). My finest ever snack moment was eating a cold, syrupy fruit cup that I had carried through Utah canyons for days, and finally broke out with my feet dangling over a ledge hundreds of feet in the air.
First Aid: Planning for injuries is a very personal decision, but even the minimalists among us carry these two things related to first aid when they hike: blister patches (the best are Hydro Seal) and Advil. When hiking with kids, the best weapon is to instruct in advance: if you feel something you have to tell me early so we can address it. Lastly, one of our teammates swears by the $5 emergency blanket that comes in handy - like for lining a leaky tent - but can also go a long way if ever stranded.
Navigation: We have two simple things to consider: first, print any maps or guidebook descriptions to have on real paper. On a complex backcountry route, I give a copy to everyone. (Plus, the camaraderie of huddling over paper is way more fun.) Second, due to temperature fluctuations and the extra effort it takes for your phone to search for a signal, it will drain much faster than you think on the trail. It’s worth bringing a charger, at least a minimal one like the Travel Card.
Light: Based on the number of hikes we’ve pushed into hours of darkness, we now make sure to have at least one headlamp in the group. The technology is so impressive that a basic one like this Petzl Tikkina is both powerful and economical.

Go the distance, but enjoy

I know people who like to move extremely fast and travel light. But who also don’t stop to take in the view for very long. 

We go a different direction. I’d rather carry an extra layer to spend time and really enjoy a moment up top, and not be cold. It's not uncommon for us to bring a story to read to the group; maybe a hidden bottle of wine, or the ultimate luxury hot lunch. Tossing a stove into a daypack can bring that little bit of campfire celebration into a single day out.

Whatever you do, your best tool is placing some thought into what should be in your pack ahead of time.

That's before you go. Because on the way out - if you're with me - you may have less choice in what you carry, due to that big rock I snuck onto your pack while you weren't looking.

 

Bluff on,

Stefan Loble

 

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