What to Wear: Clothing While Hiking
(2nd in a 5-part Series on Gear Picks)
Neatly folded up hiking apparel, never to smell this nice again.
Before my first thru-hike, I bought exactly one item of clothing brand new. I still have that item (a dress!) and it will be with me for many trips to come. Everything else was bought earlier, typically for trail-running. Note: in thru-hiker convention, items worn while hiking are typically not counted in pack weight. Here I won’t list grams and such.
Montbell Wickron Stretch Trail Dress
$49 direct from MontBell. Lightweight, quick-drying, with sun protection. With my arm sleeves it afforded me comfort and a haven from the Colorado sun. Really comfortable overall, though I could have used an XS size rather than S. MontBell told me they don’t make XS and I could get the equivalent if I bought Japanese sizing since they run smaller. That seems like a lot of extra work. And I’m not that tiny (34 chest, 38 hips, 28 waist). I figured a small should fit, but it was pretty roomy on me. Still really love it.
Arm Sleeves and/or Sun Gloves
Outdoor Research UV Arm Sleeves AND Outdoor Research Sun Gloves
I STRONGLY recommend both arm sleeves and sun gloves if you’ll be hiking above a few thousand feet. I’m in my early 40s and really starting to notice sun damage from a lifetime of “eh, who cares” sunscreen use. COVER UP! Bonus is that, with arm sleeves, you might only need a short-sleeve shirt for hiking: the arm sleeves offer a little warmth even when not needed for the sun.
Bottoms, For Ladies!
Going the shirt and pants route? Consider leaving behind those old-school hiking pants with zip-off legs. They’re heavy, complicated, and might not even be that comfortable under your hip belt. In recent years the prevalence of trail running shorts on thru-hikers has been quick and transformative (and note that with most running shorts you won’t need underwear as they have a liner built-in). Here are some of my favorites, chosen for decent length (no chafing, some sun protection) and minimal waistband stuff going on:
- Oiselle Long Roga Shorts: everyone on the planet seems to love these shorts. Good pockets, as well.
- Tasc Performance Challenge Shorts (5″): Good length, UV protection, and glowing reviews.
- PATAGONIA STRIDER PRO shorts (any length, your choice!): details change constantly with pockets appearing or disappearing from year to year. That said, these remain some of the comfiest and longest-lasting shorts I have ever owned. Quick-drying and flattering as heck.
- The North Face Better Than Naked Shorts: Kind of hard to source, but usually on Amazon for $50. Also, eBay isn’t a bad place. Ridiculously light and ephemeral. They’re the cuben fiber of shorts. Don’t abuse them too much and they will love you in return. They are SHORT, just be warned.
Undergarments: panties, bras, oh my!
Firstly, let me put a shout out for going commando. ESPECIALLY with a dress or skirt. Here’s the strategy I would use on every thru-hike from now on: carry one pair of favorite underpants, wear sporadically ‘as needed’ to balance out the commando days. Some hikers carry two pairs, but there’s no need for that. Even if you are not a fan of going without, you can survive a day or less after rinsing out your one pair (200′ from water sources, minimum!!) and hanging them on your pack to dry. (Oh, yes, on the outside of the pack! Thru-hikers are a practical lot.)
Ex Officio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Bikinis: The only underpants I recommend. They’re awesome.
What about sports bras? My advice is take your current favorite sports bra, the one that never bothers you no matter how boring it looks, and take that along. That’s it. I found one that doesn’t chafe (usually) and fits well and that’s what I hike in. It’s from Target. I think your sports bra is even more important for thru-hiking comfort than your underwear: after all, you’re wearing your pack right over its straps. Choose wisely, and TEST first!
Like sports bras, you do need to experiment a little and see what works. Here are my favorites over the miles, for several reasons and purposes.
- Darn Tough Light Hiking Socks, $20 (I like crew height): best thing about these (if you keep your receipt!) is that if you wear them out, send them back for a new pair. For realz.
- DryMax Trail Lite Crew Socks, $15: When you just want your darn socks to dry out quicker. If you suffer from a lot of foot sweatiness, DryMax might help.
- SmartWool Cabin Socks, $20+: finally, SLEEPING SOCKS. It’s a good idea to put something clean over your tired and grimy feet before you slide everything into your fancy sleeping bag. When it’s time to go night-night, SmartWool is my pick. Get a thinner style if you want less weight and/or warmth.
Everyone’s feet have a shoe preference, based on history, shape, and lots of other factors like pack weight. But look down at the feet of 100 current thru-hikers and you’ll see probably 50+ pairs of Altra trail running shoes, often the Lone Peak model. Lone Peaks acquired beloved status on long trails about 5 years ago and their dominance can be seen in the tread left behind on any section of the PCT. I wore them for most of my Colorado Trail thru-hike last fall, with zero issues.
What should influence your shoe choice? First, your own hiking history. If you have always always always hiked in full-grain leather hiking boots, you will be most comfortable in those, for now. But if your pack weight is significantly less than 30% of your body weight, consider testing out trail running shoes. Light-begets-light in this case. By having less weight on your back, you could need less structure around your feet. And you’ll need to strengthen your feet, too, if they’ve been bound up in boots until now. Already a trail runner? You might be ready to jump right into a pair of Brooks Cascadias or Altra Lone Peaks straightaway.
Followup Notes and Comments
Clothing will always be a lot of personal preference. Some folks like to keep things as cheap as possible, even purchasing items at that “Wal-store” place and justifying the low cost with how many miles they can squeeze out of running shorts or whatever. I have some bias against that place: I’d rather paw through the running shorts section in any thrift store. This way, you’re supporting either a charity or a local business, and getting more use out of something that might have otherwise been thrown away. Heck, I’ve even bought Target brand stuff at thrift: $4 instead of $17.99 is still pretty awesome. And it’s a far cry from a brand new name brand pair of shorts at $50+.
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