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Thru-Hiker Clothing: What Gear to Wear on the Trail

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It can be difficult to know what hiking apparel you should take on the trail with you. There are many different variables that factor into what makes a good hiking attire. For example, what type of weather will you encounter? Will it be hot or cold out? Do you want your clothing to dry quickly?

This article discusses what types of clothes make up a good hiking outfit and how to choose them based on the area where you’ll hike to help you figure out what to wear hiking.

Choosing the right clothes for hiking will require understanding the weather, season, and outside variables to your comfort. I wish it was as simple as choosing these clothing items and you will be perfect and have an amazing experience on the trail.

Instead, the path is massive and meandering and it requires some fiddling with by performing shakedown hikes and torture testing gear to see how it will last on the trail for 5+ months. Knowing how your gear will perform will help put your mind at ease.

How to Choose Hiking Clothes

While the big three gear choices may make up a majority of your pack weight, your clothes are the most important hiking essentials that will be with you the entire trip so they need to fulfill comfort, warmth, and durability.

So when starting to figure out the clothing you will want to wear for your thru-hike you need to think about the destination, the temperature, and understand what will work out best. Thankfully I will dive into all this!

You’ll have a few keys to successfully planning your clothing system, you will need to learn to layer effectively, understand where your comfort level is with some key materials, be ready to encounter many different weather types, and be prepared for it all to change in a heartbeat.

Primer on Layering

Layering is the process of what it sounds like, having multiple layers of clothing you can add or subtract as you get hot or cool off. Most mornings you will be in cooler weather, warming while you hike and power through the miles then cool with the end of the day.

Layers allow you to easily adapt to what the outdoors throws at you making sure you stay comfortable all day.

Primer on Comfort

There is a vast amount of different fits, materials, and garments that will all need to be tried out prior to starting on your thru-hike, you will want to stay comfortable while on rugged root-filled terrain, rocks, and overall rough rugged, and brutal terrain.

Some will enjoy merino wool clothing, others will find it itchy and uncomfortable, it is much better to know how you will react to clothing to maximize your comfort on the long trails along with what fits your body well.

Primer on Weather Impact

While the well-worn pathways on the AT and other long trails may seem pleasant they head up mountains, mountains are well known for their ability to alter the weather and these changes can be dangerous to you if not well prepared.

You will want to always keep ahead of the weather, checking with your GPS or phone to have a plan together, when you know rain is coming you can make plans to cover ground before it starts and wait it out or know it will go on for days which means just focus on making miles instead.

Primer on Preparation

Now preparation means that you have all the correct gear for what you know you will encounter overall, this means wind and rain gear and everything beforehand as you won’t be able to just go “pick it up”.

There is nothing bad that can come from being overprepared for any trail conditions you may encounter, bringing the right gear will ensure your continued safety and progress towards your goal of a completed thru-hike, cutting corners could end it.

Fabrics on Thru-Hiking Clothing (Materials Matter a LOT)

There are a solid amount of options available in the hiking world to choose from, what you choose to wear will depend on what your needs are for the hike.

Some fabrics have a better reputation than others and it is important that you know what they are to find what will work best for your hiking clothes.

Merino Wool

This wool comes from sheep, primarily in New Zealand. This is the absolute BEST FABRIC for most backpacking gear, unlike the synthetics and blends merino doesn’t absorb odors which makes it perfect for multiple days out sweating up a storm.

Merino, unlike other wool, has a longer thread overall which leads to way lower levels of the traditional wool “itchiness” that used to plague wool garments.

In addition, merino wool is amazing at keeping you cool on hot days, and that it keeps you warm on cold days, a perfect trail match. Wool also keeps a majority of its warmth when it is wet, which makes it an ideal material for any environmental issues.

Alpaca

Alpaca, unlike wool, is actually hair but the way it functions is incredibly similar to the wool from sheep. Alpaca powers some of the more beloved shirts coming from sites like the Appalachian Gear Company and while not cheap they are perfect hiker gear.

Alpaca hair, like wool, doesn’t absorb the odors that will come from a hiker like other synthetics will making it last much longer before needing a wash.

Polyester

Clothing made from polyester has made a name for itself in the hiking world, with its quick wicking abilities and fast drying times making it incredibly popular.

Polyester is what you will find on rain shells to keep water out of your clothing, it is what you will want when you need to wear your clothes over and over again or just can’t be bothered with laundry.

Nylon

Similar to polyester in what it is used for, nylon is what you will find synthetic backpacking bags made from.

Nylon, however, has the ability to hold up to its own weight without breaking over time which leads it to be incredibly popular with hikers wanting reliability when they are relying on their gear.

Fleece

Before the popularity of modern synthetic materials, fleece was what many relied on for a warm layer to take them through the harsh winters.

Fleece is what you will want if your hike takes you into cold weather from time to time and what can be found in bottom layers or extra layers depending on what you get.

Down

For the puffer jackets and insulative gear, down is what is found in the warmth of your insulation layers as it compresses down very small yet can provide a vast amount of heat retention.

Down, unlike what you will find with synthetics, has one big drawback is that it loses its insulative properties when wet which means a humid or very wet trail can be a downfall for this gear for hikers.

Synthetics

The new materials that have made their way into the hiking world are what you will find being used in place of what was once popular fleece.

Synthetics are what is found with high-end insulation clothing for hikers, they also have the ability to provide heat even while wet making them more suited to very humid and wet areas to provide continual warmth.

What to Wear Thru-Hiking: The Staples (AKA Basics)

Now let’s jump right into the main clothing, the staples, that everyone will need while on a thru-hike of nearly any length. Each of these clothing items is what you will see everyone wearing on the trail, what they wear is what works, what works though may not look or sometimes feel good.

I recommend that before starting that you try out what is listed below just for a few days to get a feel for what each type is like and what will work. This is your journey, after all, what you wear should be what you are comfortable in!

Socks

Many will overlook hiking socks when planning out their gear but you want to look at your feet is vital to your success when your feet fall apart you no longer can make any forward progress so they need TLC and care.

Merino wool socks from companies like Darn Tough are favored due to their strong performance and the ability to get replaced if worn through, but always check policy as this can change.

For myself, I need to wear a pair of Ininji liner socks inside the wool socks as I seem to have a tendency towards blistering and these help me to cut down on big bad blisters for little cost and better comfort.

For socks, most will have two pairs to swap for wearing on the trail and then a set of “sleep” socks which are only used to rest in and not wear around and get dirty and grimy, this has worked well for me to this point as well.

Underwear

For guys and girls, having comfortable undies is important to your comfort on the trail and for many, these will be more expensive than they are used to spending.

You should look to avoid cotton underwear due to its ability to absorb moisture, most will look to buy ExOfficio brand underwear itself as they have a very good track record in the thru-hiking world and they are durable and breathing material overall.

There are merino wool options available if you want to pay a little more that may be even nicer for those sweaty days, for most thru-hikers you will want to have 2-3 pairs depending on the hiker with two being standard.

Pants / Shorts / Leggings

Much of this will depend on the weather and conditions along with your ability to deal with them, some I know love to hike in shorts all the time, like myself.

Many women will prefer leggings and shorts as a combination, many guys will opt for something similar to keep up their overall body heat levels while on the trail.

Others will prefer to hike in a pair of hiking pants as this offers heavy-duty protection from what the weather can throw at you and what you may brush up against.

There are loads of options here and you may need to mix and match on some shakedown hikes to find the right combination for yourself to maximize your gear performance.

Shirts

Much like the gear above, shirts are very much a personal preference as some go no sleeves, tee-shirt, long sleeves, button-ups, or any other shirt type.

Where you can get the most bang for your buck here is to get the right materials for the shirt as these will absorb loads of dirt, grime, sweat, and other outside things like rain.

With all this being absorbed to cut down on stench you would be best served to look at purchasing merino wool gear like Solstice Hoodie from Ridge Merino or an Alpaca shirt or hoodie from somewhere like the Appalachian Gear Company.

These also can be washed clean with ease whereas other synthetics in gear like UA shirts will absorb this smell making it hard to get rid of even after multiple washes.

Puffy Jacket or Vest

Your main source of warmth on the trail at the coldest points is your puffer or puffy jacket, these come in many shapes and sizes along with using down or synthetic insulation.

When you are contemplating what puffy jacket to get the most important thing you can look at is what temps will I be needing this around and what other layers do I have to go with it? Most thru-hikers tend to prefer down fill as it is able to be squished to an amazingly small space in your backpack.

Whereas a synthetic fill doesn’t collapse as much along with it offers much-improved performance in humid and wet weather as it won’t lose the heat-trapping as down will.

Additionally, many people look for a set amount of pockets, or a hood to add on additional utility beyond just an outer shell so knowing if these will help or benefit you is a good opportunity before purchasing anything specific.

Waterproof Jacket (& Maybe Pants)

Rainproof gear can be as cheap as the ubiquitous FroggToggs or go into the hundreds with super high-quality rain jackets and pants or kilts!

The issue with going cheap on this gear is that they can fail pretty fast and without much cause, this can leave you in a predicament on the trail if you are between towns and you are in the middle of a solid rainstorm.

Most gear will still wet out in a storm, some gear will wet out much earlier than other gear depending on the methods and materials used to create the moisture barrier in the rain gear.

Hat / Cap / Beanie

This will be very much a personal gear choice, they can be good to help keep the rain off your face or to keep the heavy sun off your face just as much along with keeping your head warm.

As to a beanie, they will help keep you from losing heat as a large amount of body heat is lost through heating your head.

Gaiters

Gaiters help you by covering the area between your shoe and the calf muscle area, this can help to cut down on little rocks and twigs getting into your shoe and causing irritation.

They can also help to keep water from getting into your shoes, or snow during the wetter hiking seasons, along with help keep insects out and away like ticks and other bugs along with another place for bug repellant that’s off your skin.

Accessories: Gloves and Neck Gaiter

There are additional normal warming gloves and then there are also sun gloves, one helps keep you warm and the other is aimed at sun protection when in heavy sun areas like the desert area on the PCT and CDT.

Along with these almost everyone will carry a neck buff or neck gaiter to help with the keeping sun off you and minimizing sunburns, these are very useful as they are used for a towel, headband, hat, neck cover, nearly anything a buff can help with.

Building a Layering System (Understanding How Layers Work)

An important function of your clothes is to have them work together to make what is called a layering system. This has the ability to bring you from the coldest temps up to the warmest temperatures by adding and removing simple layers.

To dress in layers the first layer, or base layer, is what will be touching your skin, this helps regulate body temperature by transferring heat or taking heat away as needed.

The second layer is what you will put on top of the base layer, this is your mid-layer which provides an insulation system to keep and hold in warmth.

Your last layer is the outer layer, this is to protect you from other elements like rain, heavy winds, and cold weather.

Building your clothing in this style of the layering system is the perfect way to organize clothing to maximize performance while hiking. When perfected this allows you to add on, or take away layers (the mid-layer and outer layer), to keep your body’s temperature regulated.

Let’s dig into each layer to provide more specifics to what they do so that you can build your perfect clothing layer system.

Base Layer

Your base layer is what will be touching your skin, this is what pulls the moisture away from your body.

When it is cold outside the base layer will help wick the moisture off your body to help keep you dry and warm. This helps to prevent hypothermia from taking hold and causing you issues.

If it’s hot outside and your base layer doesn’t pull the sweat away you can build up heat pretty fast and potentially cause what is called ‘heat stroke’ or hyperthermia which can lead to death if not treated.

Mid Layer (Insulation and Warmth Retention)

The insulating mid-layer is a moisture-wicking material that traps your body heat. Moisture-wicking fabrics are best suited for this layer. This should be made of items with the thickest synthetic fabric or natural wool layer.

Your mid-layer is typically items that hold in the warmth, so these will be items like the puffy jacket, fleece or similar pullovers, and other warm clothing items.

Outer Layer (Shell Layer)

This layer is the one most start to cheap out on, there is gear out there for less than $30 at Walmart, FroggToggs, a brand that produces rain jackets that provide you protection from the wind and rain out on the trail.

The big issue with this is that they are not breathable which is still important as you may end up drenched in your own sweat but protected from the rain, not only this is they are still prone to failure.

There are some very solid gear options like the VISP here, they are both rain jackets and rain pants and are one of the longer-lasting and high-quality rain protection clothing that can last the entirety of your thru-hike.

Additionally, when you choose quality gear like the VISP they have better craftmanship like using multiple layers of waterproof/breathable fabric that’s completely stormproof yet has a very breathable feel.

Seasonality Evaluation for Thru-Hiking Clothing

The season or seasons you will hike in need to be considered as to your clothing as it is far more important during the winter, for example, to keep your feet dry whereas in the summer if they get wet they will have ample time to dry and warm back up.

Your clothing and layering system should be very different for a 4 season hike versus a typical 3 season hike, when you add on winter you really must gear correctly for it.

Clothing Considerations When Hiking in Spring

Most thru-hikes will start in the Springtime, this is due to the melting of snow and the start of better days with more sun and less snow, though for many areas this season comes with heavy rain and wet conditions overall warmer weather ensures better, more enjoyable hiking.

Spring is going to typically require better performing wet weather gear or a plan to handle more consistent wet weather as over time gear can wet out and you need to have a plan on how to stay dry when this begins to happen so you keep your clothing and you dry and warm.

As Spring starts to blend into Summer you will experience more and more warm weather but note that when you are heading up into the mountains weather can flip on you in a heartbeat so always stay prepared!

Clothing Considerations When Hiking in Summer

As Summer hits for near all big trails in the US this will mean hot weather and pleasant hiking for others, you may see far more people on a day hike and section hikers out on their summer excursions while on the trail making it far busier than you may have gotten used to.

This is when many hikers will move to their lightest clothing layers, many choosing to wear shorts and a tank top, or ladies sometimes down to sports bras and shorts as it is warm and in many places humid and you will not be cold in most places.

This is where you could send some of the excess gear to your home if you know what you can live without with the ability to have it sent back to you later on as you will be hiking until the fall hits and you need to have that gear back again!

As Summer begins to end the encroaching of fall begins along with the approach once again of colder weather and that warmer set of clothing to carry you through to the trail end.

Clothing Considerations When Hiking in the Fall

Fall ushers in the changing of the leaves in many areas and with it come the colder temperatures and bad weather back into the mix again, if you are hiking in the fall time you need to begin thinking about what’s in your pack again.

Fall presents the last great hiking chance of the year with the last bits of what are usually warm weather and not too cold conditions but it can come on quick.

You will need that gear you planned for Spring back in your pack, this will more than likely be what you found yourself not needing during Summer. If you sent it home you will need to get it sent back to you or look at buying some better replacement gear while on the trail in town.

Continuing your hike into the Fall means you need to make sure once again that like in Spring you keep your feet as dry and warm as possible. As to Winter hiking, I will go over the weather but living in Texas means it is very much different for me than most others so I will say research where you will be when Winter hiking.

Clothing Considerations When Hiking in Winter

Winter hiking is very dependent on where you will be when hiking, for someone in the Southern USA this will be heavily different than someone in the North USA. In the south, you will more than likely have much warmer and more humid weather whereas the north will have snow, ice, and supreme cold with little humidity.

Everyone else will fall between these two, but you can be assured Winter will always give you some bad weather you will have to handle, understanding what you are going into will let you evaluate gear much differently.

Footwear for Thru-Hiking

Hiking footwear is more interesting to a certain point than clothing that is really material and warmth-focused, your feet will take a beating over 2000+ miles that they have not been prepared for in your lifetime.

You used to only hear about “hiking boots” when people went on long hikes, these continue to be loved by many but in recent years with all the gear becoming ultra-lightweight there has been a convergence to trail runners becoming the more dominant shoe for younger hikers.

There are some key differences between each though and many should understand these before making their decision to purchase their pair of hiking shoes or boots related to their durability, cost, weight, and the support they provide which may be important.

What Are Common Footwear Options for Thru-Hiking

The two main options are hiking boots and trail runners, I personally love Altra trail runners and see why many moves on from boots personally as my feet feel incredibly light, dropping that Frankenstein-type feel of lead boots.

Trail Runners

Trail runners have exploded in overall popularity with thru-hikers due to their good tread for gripping the uneven ground and super lightweight form and amazing breathability.

Their trade-off is in much less leg and ankle support which can matter with heavier gear and pack weights, in addition, trail runners have a significantly decreased lifespan.

The trail runners typically need to be replaced around 500 miles which means on a long trail like the Appalachian Trail you may need to replace them four times.

Hiking Boots

A pair of hiking boots, unlike trail runners, has slowly faded out of fashion in thru-hiking with the exception of older hikers and hikers who are aware of ankle issues prior to starting any attempt boots with ankle protection are important.

Boots provide an amazingly solid structure that helps provide extra ankle support and legs while carrying heavy loads in your pack and they tend to have a much longer lifespan which could make it through an entire trail with proper care along the way.

The issues here will be the overall boot weight and effort they take from movement, not only are they heavier, but the solid structure means what you can do is less flexible also.

Choosing the Right Thru-Hiking Shoes

The right balance between trail runners and boots depends on what you prioritize in your hike, many hikers go for trail runners due to their overall lightweight and better mobility over the durability of clunky hiking boots.

Choosing the Right Camp Shoes

Camp shoes are important as they are what you wear when you are at camp and they should be as open to air as possible to let your feet breathe and relax from a hard day on the trail.

Some will bring and wear flip flops, others bring hiking sandals, but the most common are the Crocs due to them being open and very light in weight. Personally, I found shoes from Xero that I like and wear called the Cloud which is minimal and easy to put on and hold to your feet.

Choosing Function Over Fashion my Final Thoughts on What to Wear Thru-Hiking

When looking to choose hiking clothes you need to look more for their function than to high fashion, they are going to get abused by you, the environment, and they will not look pretty after a day out on the trail.

Instead what you should look for are clothes that are lightweight, durable, have good ventilation, have pockets or other space for the things you need to carry and that can keep you dry.

This means what should be focused on should be the material itself which will determine if it is quick-drying or not along with what is in the material to help ventilate.

In addition, what you wear hiking should be what is most comfortable for what you need to do and what the environment calls for.

Bringing a whole lot of clothes because it looks cool isn’t what you want as many will find out on their first morning that what they have brought just doesn’t cut it against what nature has in store for them.

If you are interested in gear overall I have a good guide to take you through different pieces here.

Example Gear List