Walking day trip checklist

Hiking clothes: the basics

16. July 2020
Hiking clothes: the basics

Stylish and functional: decked out for hillwalking and trekking from head to toe

Which socks should I wear with my walking boots today? The striped ones or the ones with the flowers? Should I take the red or the blue jacket? I mean, it should match the shoes and socks. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the topic of the right sunglasses, okay?

Yes, these things are really important. After all, on the mountain, everything has to be perfectly coordinated. All kidding aside, the choice of the right hiking clothes should be well considered. One moment you might be hauling yourself over the mountain top soaked, through with sweat, while the next you’re freezing cold. What’s to blame? The wrong clothes.

The different elements of a hiking outfit should all complement each other. If, for example, you wear cotton underwear, the entire chain of breathability is broken from the very beginning – but you probably already know that. No? We’ll help you, then!

So, what are the right hiking clothes like? When you’re hillwalking or trekking, how do you deck yourself out from head to toe in a way that is both stylish and functional? We’ve got to the bottom of it.

Practically decked out from head to toe for hillwalking and trekking

When in the 18th and 19th centuries people in Europe gradually started to discover their enthusiasm for hikes through different cities, countries and landscapes, they wore completely ordinary everyday clothing. The clothes of the first hikers were trousers and shirts made of linen or hemp fabrics, shawls made of wool and, later, jackets and coats made of cotton, too. Partly for pleasure and partly out of scientific interest, they began to explore the world on foot. Their leather shoes may have been comfortable, but it took several decades until the invention of waterproof membranes and non-slip soles.

This made the hikes difficult and gruelling from today’s perspective, for the clothing was very heavy even when it was dry, and, after a solid downpour, it was even heavier. Windproof and well ventilated at the same time? No chance! Small packed dimensions yet still robust? No way! Functional layer system? No such thing!

Far from any of the comforts that modern hikers are loathe to sacrifice, the pioneers covered considerable routes over several hundred kilometres that even with today’s trekking gear would be challenging. They thus sowed the seeds for a popular sport that has spawned many functional innovations and which in the 21st century has experienced a downright boom with its outdoor companies and hiking tourism.

Comfortable walking boots with good grip

Hiking clothes: the basics

The right outdoor shoes form the foundations of carefree excursions in the fresh air.

Instead of analysing hiking clothes from “head to toe”, this description starts with the feet and then works its way slowly up the hiker. Without doubt, walking boots are the decisive “garment” in distinguishing between those going on a hike and those taking a stroll, as well as people in everyday and leisure clothing. There are many different kinds of walking boots, but they all have one important thing in common: a grippy outdoor sole that guarantees secure footing and perfect grip on hiking trails and terrain.

Soles for walking boots have a strong tread and are made of rubber compounds, which also ensures good grip on muddy forest paths, loose scree and slippery roots. Alongside many different inhouse designs and rubber compounds, many companies draw on proven sole technology from Vibram or Michelin. Some walking boots can also be resoled, providing an even longer life span.

There are big differences in the design and construction of hiking boots and outdoor shoes, from lightweight multisport shoes with permeable mesh fabric, to low-cut approach shoes with pronounced rock guards, through to hiking and trekking boots with high shafts and multi-zone lacing. For quick hikes on easy terrain, lightweight walking shoes are ideal. On challenging tours with a heavy backpack, high walking boots provide ankles with the required stability and protection against injuries.

Light hiking shoes and durable trekking boots are usually available with or without a waterproof membrane. Walking boots without a membrane are usually very well ventilated. At the first wet meadow, though, they quickly become soaked through. With walking boots that have waterproof Gore-Tex membrane or another comparable laminate, on the other hand, your feet stay reliably dry even in sustained rain and on snowfields in the mountains. Despite this, water vapour can still escape through the microporous membrane, ensuring they feel comfortable to wear. Since breathable membranes require a certain temperature gradient to best transport the moisture away, breathability may be restricted in hot and tropical areas. This does not, however, impact on how waterproof they are – that’s always a given.

Different companies and shoe styles use different lasts. This means that some walking boots have a somewhat wider design, while others provide the perfect fit for narrow feet. The cushioning and footbed are also optimised to do what they’re designed to do best, so the shoes might feel very close fitting and firm or particularly soft and comfortable. When choosing walking boots, it’s therefore worth considering the terrain in which you’ll be using the shoes the most. When trying on shoes, it’s best to put them on for a while in the afternoon or evening (on account of the fit, since feet are often somewhat swollen then) and walk around in them in your home. After about an hour or two, you’ll quickly be able to tell whether the walking boots fit nice and comfortably. When you’re going out into the country to wear your shoes in, you should do the first few kilometres on easy terrain before going on your first big hike. Over the course of the first few hikes, the shoes will keep adjusting better to the shape of your feet, and will usually become a bit more soft. This process is a little faster for walking boots made of synthetic materials than for pure leather shoes. Once they have adjusted perfectly to your feet, though, leather walking boots have a particularly comfortable fit. To make the choice of shoe even easier, here is an even more detailed buyer’s guide for walking boots.

Well-fitting walking socks

Hiking clothes: the basics

Ankle socks should always reach past the top of the boot. Style-wise, there is of course still room for improvement.

Without the right walking socks, even good walking boots are only half as good. It is only through the interplay between shoes and socks that you can achieve a high level of comfort and a pleasant microclimate around the feet. The choice of walking socks depends on the choice of walking boots. If there is a low shaft and for sporty shoes, the socks can also be shorter and more sporty. For high hiking boots, on the other hand, you want longer socks with cushioning reinforcements on the shaft, heel and around the toes. In any case, the walking socks must reach past the top of the boot to prevent pressure points forming.

Walking socks are either made of synthetic materials, which allow for a particularly good fit, merino wool, or a blend with merino wool and synthetic fibres. Merino wool creates a particularly comfortable climate for the foot, and provides warmth when it’s damp or even wet. Merino wool is also naturally odour resistant. After a multi-day tour, though, you’d rather stick your nose in socks made of synthetic fibres than in merino socks. Socks made of synthetic material have the advantage that they dry more quickly than walking socks made of merino wool. Whatever choice you make in terms of the material, the walking socks need to fit perfectly or pressure points and blisters can form. A good walking sock shouldn’t slip down, wrinkle up, pinch or squeeze, and still feels great even after a challenging tour in the mountains. You can also find all the important criteria explained in detail in the buyer’s guide for walking socks.

Comfortable base layers

Base layers serve various purposes when you’re hillwalking or hiking. They keep you nice and warm in cool weather, and on hot days they dry fast and quickly wick moisture away from the body. And they always fit comfortably, never chafe and don’t leave behind any pressure points. According to what’s required for the weather conditions, base layers for hikers are available in long-sleeved and long-legged versions, as boxer shorts, practical briefs, t-shirts or tank tops.

Alongside a good fit with comfortable elastic and stretchy materials, high-quality workmanship with flat seams is always strongly recommended. Sport shirts und base layers are predominantly made of merino wool, polyester, and blends with other durable und elastic synthetic fibres. Merino wool feels really great on the skin as the bottom layer of clothing, and provides comfortable warmth in the cold while also cooling you down when the outside temperatures are warm. Even when wet, merino wool keeps the body warm and, thanks to its natural odour-inhibiting qualities, base layers made of merino wool are still comparatively fresh even after a multi-day hike.

Synthetic sport shirts and underpants, which are often a little lighter, can wick moisture away even more quickly. This is why they often feel a little cooler against the skin. Some t-shirts and trousers come with odour-resistant technology that imitates the natural effect of merino wool. Both pure materials and a range of blends are popular with hikers, and it largely depends on which material feels best to you. It’s better for hikers to avoid underwear made of pure cotton and t-shirts made of cotton, though. Cotton gets saturated quickly and takes a really long time to dry out again. This means that it cools the body down unpleasantly and is uncomfortable to wear. To this add the fact that breathable hiking jackets and trousers can only wick moisture away properly if the base layer is also good at conducting dampness away from the body. With cotton underwear, the entire chain of breathability is broken from the very beginning. If you are not sure whether synthetic fibres or merino wool is better for you, you can find additional information and suggestions in the blog article on base layers.

Walking trousers, zip-off trousers and hiking shorts

Good functional walking trousers are characterised by good freedom of movement, a comfortable fit, and durable materials that are fast drying and quickly wick moisture away from the body. A range of materials is used for this, from cotton and various synthetic fibres through to Tencel, true hemp and elastane. This makes some walking trousers particularly elastic and others extra robust. Mountaineering trousers with Schoeller fabric and the robust G-1000 material from Fjällräven are just two examples of well-known, high-quality blended materials. Sometimes, walking trousers are specially reinforced at the knee and in the seat so that stressed areas are well-protected from abrasion and damage while keeping the trousers very breathable and flexible. Ergonomically preformed knee areas, elastic gusset inserts and individually adjustable waistbands round off functional walking trousers. To make it easier to choose the right walking trousers, you can find even more information on the different outdoor trousers available here.

Hiking clothes: the basics

To stop anything from getting wet, just take your trousers off…

Zip-off trousers, that is, walking trousers with detachable legs, are very popular with hikers because they offer a lot of flexibility. When it’s still cold in the morning when you’re starting out on a hiking tour, but the temperatures will keep climbing around midday, practical zip-off trousers can be transformed into short or knee-length hiking shorts in less than no time. Usually you don’t even need to take off your walking boots. These flexible trousers are also perfect for multi-day tours in variable temperatures and weather conditions, making your backpack much lighter since you can avoid having to pack extra pieces of clothing.

On warm summer’s days, hikers prefer to reach straight for short or knee-length hiking shorts. In terms of their material and their design, they’re similar in every respect to walking trousers with long legs. Breathability and freedom of movement are also the most important criteria for shorts. With elastic designs and practical crotch gussets, they support the sporty hiker in any terrain.

Weather protection is also an important factor for hikers. Many walking trousers provide good protection against the wind and have a water-repellent DWR treatment (Durable Water Repellent). This makes droplets of water simply roll off the surface instead of being absorbed by the material. In heavy downpours, though, even a water-repellent surface treatment has its limits. This is why hikers prefer waterproof outdoor trousers when it’s raining continuously. Hardshell trousers with breathable GORE-TEX® membrane or other waterproof laminates ensure dry legs even in heavy rain. In changeable weather conditions, lightweight hardshell trousers are particularly practical because they can be worn over normal walking trousers if necessary. Waterproof trousers with side zips are perfect for this as they’re easy to put on and take off. Lightweight hardshell trousers are very compact, and with their minimal weight they’re barely a burden in your walking backpack.

Hiking clothes: the basics

… and put your gaiters on.

When you’re walking through wet meadows or snow, waterproof gaiters are a great alternative to waterproof walking trousers. They protect you from the calf up, preventing snow or water from getting into your hiking boots from the top. The practical hiking gaiters only weigh a few grams and can be put on quickly when you need them without your walking boots having to be removed. If you need more advice in the choice of hardshell trousers and gaiters, the buyer’s guide for gaiters and the buyer’s guide for waterproof trousers are sure to be of help.

Hiking shirts, softshell vests und hardshell jackets

Plaid shirts made of quick-drying, functional material have been popular amongst hikers in the summer for a long time. These breezy shirts are really comfortable on warm days, easy to clean and robust at the same time. Sport t-shirts made of synthetic materials or merino wool will also stand you in really good stead. In cool and windy conditions, hikers often like to reach for softshell jackets or softshell vests and gilets. Functional hiking vests and gilets are very popular because they offer a good mixture of wind protection for the neck and upper body, but are well-ventilated around the arms and ensure comfortable freedom of movement. Many softshell jackets and outdoor vests and gilets are protected with a water-repellent treatment, too, so they also stand up to light rain well.

Hiking clothes: the basics

Style check on an outdoorsy guy. Today’s must-have piece: a plaid shirt.

In long-lasting, heavy downpours, a weatherproof hardshell jacket with a well-fitting hood is just what you need. Waterproof rain jackets and outdoor jackets are equipped with breathable membranes by GORE and other companies, ensuring that the rain doesn’t penetrate the jacket while still allowing water vapour to escape. Many hardshell jackets also have extra ventilation openings, for example zippered ones under the arms, ensuring extra ventilation on strenuous ascents. Waterproof jackets for hikers vary in terms of how light and robust they are. For tough mountaineering and walking backpacks, your hardshell jacket should be just as robust. As an accessory for day touring, on the other hand, what is often useful is a lightweight design that can be folded up and stowed away compactly. As well as classic waterproof jackets, some hikers also like to use rain ponchos or trekking umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain. Both have the advantage that your backpack’s straps and back panel won’t get wet in persistent rain. This is why some hikers also use a handy outdoor umbrella in addition to waterproof backpack covers and hardshell jackets, to prevent water from getting between their jacket and their backpack.

On particularly cool days, fleece jackets or insulating synthetic jackets are the perfect addition to your hiking outfit. They can either be worn “solo” over the base layer or as a practical mid layer under a hardshell jacket or softshell vest. Fleece jackets dry quickly, are soft, warm and easy to clean, so they are always really popular with hikers. The buyer’s guide for fleece jackets will help you find the right one from the wide selection.

Beanies, sunglasses and gloves

With this basic gear, you’ll already be really well equipped. Add to this the right walking backpack, maybe a pair of walking poles, and a water bottle or a hydration system, and let the tour begin! Because, however, the selection of backpacks and poles is just as diverse as the range of hiking clothes, we’ve dedicated entire articles to these topics: a buyer’s guide for backpacks and a buyer’s guide for  walking and trekking poles. But first, a few little helpers and accessories to complete your hiking outfit. It’s very important to choose the right headwear. A warm beanie or a soft headband made of fleece are perfect when it’s cold and windy. On clear, sunny days, a cap or sun hat helps protect against sunburn and sunstroke. Many hikers underestimate the intensity of the sun in the mountains. If the air is a little cooler, or a pleasant fresh wind is blowing, headache and nausea are practically inevitable. This is why it’s better to protect the head than to let yourself be roasted the whole day.

Perhaps it’s not exactly clothing, but when you’re hillwalking by the water or in the mountains, high-quality sunglasses to protect your eyes from harmful UV radiation are just as indispensable as good footwear and functional clothes. For most hikers, comfortably fitting sunglasses in category two or three are the right choice. If you’re hiking at high altitude and on snow and ice, you should even go for category four. You can read even more information on sunglasses and glacier glasses in the detailed buyer’s guide for sunglasses.

Lightweight fleece gloves or windproof softshell gloves are a fantastic addition on cold days. The thin gloves have a comfortable thermal rating while also guaranteeing good sensitivity when using walking poles. Many outdoor gloves are touchscreen-compatible, so they don’t have to be taken off to use a GPS device or smartphone.

A neck warmer, scarf or tubular cloth might not be needed on every day tour in the summer, but, whenever the weather turns, they will warm you up nicely and offer good wind protection.

Perfect functionality through an optimal combination of hiking clothes

Hiking boots, walking socks, trekking trousers, and hardshell jackets – walking clothes are a team and they all have to work together; their functional synergy is only as good as their weakest member. In plain English, this means that walking gear has to be coordinated, and can’t have any weak links. The best shoes are uncomfortable when your socks don’t fit, and a breathable waterproof jacket can’t wick away any vapour if the base layers have absorbed moisture underneath. A good fit and a comfortable feel are the sum of all (clothing) parts and make your life as a hiker more comfortable, easier and more pleasant.

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