Figuring out what to wear on a hike is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a hiker. Variable weather conditions can make dressing for any trek a bit difficult, especially if you’re new to outdoor adventures.
So, what should you wear for beginner hiking?
The short answer:
As a beginner hiker, we recommend convertible hiking pants and other cotton-free clothing that is quickly and easily changeable with the weather conditions.
The most important things to remember when picking out clothing for a beginner hike are that you should always dress in layers and that you should try to avoid cotton as much as possible. Ultimately, the temperature and conditions you face on the trail will dictate your clothing choices, but wearing clothes that are comfortable and durable is of the utmost importance.
There’s no one answer as to what you should wear on a hike, regardless of your experience level in the mountains. Every hiking trip—and every hiker—is different, so what works for you might not be the same as what works for someone else.
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at some best practices for dressing for a hike so you have the knowledge you need to make the most of your time in the great outdoors.
3 Clothing Rules to Follow as a Beginner Hiker
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: Your clothing has a major impact on your experience as you hike.
So, what clothes should you wear as a beginner hiker? It’s impossible to give blanket statements as to what you should wear while hiking because it all depends on where you are planning on adventuring. Instead of telling you specific items of clothes to wear, however, we can give you some general guidelines for how to dress properly.
Some crucial clothing guidelines to follow while hiking include:
1. Dress in Layers
Dressing in layers is a must for any hiker. Layering clothing can help you adjust your wardrobe to meet the needs of changing weather conditions as you trek.
This often means wearing a moisture-wicking base layer (a synthetic wool t-shirt like the Patagonia Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt), an insulating mid-layer (a fleece or puffy jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Stretchdown Hoody), and a waterproof outer layer (a rain jacket like the Marmot Precip Eco).
Even if you don’t wear all of these layers at once, you can at least keep spare layers in your backpack so that you have them available during your hike.
2. Avoid Cotton
Cotton is a great fabric as far as comfort and budget-friendliness are concerned. But it’s not ideal for use in the mountains. The issue with cotton is that it actually makes you colder when wet, so it can be dangerous to wear in cold, wet climates.
For a very short hike in a hot, dry place where the chance of rain is very low, cotton isn’t a horrible option. But it’s generally best to avoid cotton and stick to synthetic or other natural fibers instead.
3. Make Comfort a Priority
You won’t perform at your best on the trail if you’re uncomfortable. So, regardless of what you wear while outside, make sure it’s comfortable. Hiking isn’t a fashion contest, so focus more on function and less on design whenever possible. This is particularly important as you select footwear for hiking as you want to hike in shoes or boots that provide comfort, durability, protection, and traction as you walk.
Study the Weather and Terrain – Plan From There
Again, it’s impossible for us to give you specific recommendations of what you should wear as you hike because it will all depend on the conditions you’re expecting during your outing. Normally, wearing synthetic t-shirts and pants with a pair of hiking boots works well. You should also pack a rain jacket and warm jacket (at a minimum) on all trips.
But instead of focusing on specific items of clothing that you should bring for your hikes, it’s best to use guidelines like what we’ve listed above to aid your decision-making. Dressing in layers, avoiding cotton, and prioritizing your comfort can go a long way toward selecting an appropriate outfit for your next hike.
What Should You Not Wear While Hiking?
If you’re new to hiking, it might surprise you to learn that there are actually relatively few things that you should avoid wearing while hiking. There’s no “dress code” so to speak on the trails, so you can go ahead and wear nearly anything you’d like so long as it’s comfortable and appropriate for the conditions you expect to face in the mountains.
However, there are some things that are best avoided during hiking trips, namely cotton and anything you don’t want to get wet or dirty.
Cotton isn’t a good idea for hiking because it can make you cold when it gets wet, which isn’t ideal in wet and windy locales. Keep in mind that “cotton” includes everything from denim to those white socks you can get at Costco. As a general rule, all things made of cotton (and all cotton-blend fabrics) aren’t great for hiking.
You also don’t want to wear anything that you aren’t willing to get wet or dirty as you hike. Trekking is often a muddy affair, so if you’ll be upset about a spot of dirt on your white Air Force 1s, then maybe don’t wear them on your hike.
Of course, there are plenty of materials and items of clothing that aren’t ideal for hiking (think flimsy shoes and fancy button-up shirts), but most non-cotton athletic-type clothing will work for a short hiking trip. Just remember to dress in layers for maximum comfort on the trail!
Is it Better to Hike in Shorts or Leggings?
Both shorts and leggings can make for good apparel in the mountains, but it all really depends on what’s most comfortable for you.
Shorts are a nice option if you’re hiking somewhere that’s really hot, but they don’t provide you with any protection from the sun, bugs, and brush that you’ll encounter on the trail. (Pro tip: Don’t wear shorts while bushwacking. You’ll thank us later).
Leggings are a worthwhile choice for three-season hiking, but only if they’re something you find comfortable to wear as you exercise. The advantage of leggings or yoga pants for hiking is that they provide some protection for your legs (bugs can still bite through them) while also staying stretchy and comfortable.
We personally opt to wear softshell hiking pants because they offer a lot of protection from the elements while also providing a good amount of comfort. But it’s up to you to decide what’s best for your needs.
The Key to Hiking Clothing? Dress in Layers
Figuring out what you ought to wear while hiking can seem a bit daunting as a new hiker, but it doesn’t have to be. The key thing is that you dress in layers, avoid cotton, and prioritize your comfort above all else.
Considering these general principles while also using your own judgment to assess the weather and trail conditions before your trek can help you pick the perfect outfit for any hiking trip. When in doubt, bring more spare clothing than you think you need so that you’re ready for whatever conditions you might face in the mountains.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.