Finding the right clothes for your hike can be surprisingly tricky. Factors such as the length of your trip, the weather (as well as how changeable it is expected to be!) and the kind of terrain you'll be facing are all important factors to consider.
This guide will help you navigate the sea of options available, from getting to grips with the number and type of layers you need to the best materials for your trip.
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Aside from shoes, layering is perhaps the most important element of your hiking wardrobe to get right. As you’ll no doubt already know, wearing multiple layers rather than one or two bulky layers gives you a much better ability to regulate your temperature and stay comfortable during your hike.
The question is, what layers do you need, and what should they be made of?
● Base layer
Your base layer is the clothes you wear next to your skin, and can be anything from underwear to T-shirts and tights that are designed to wick away sweat while keeping you warm. This layer of clothing has two main purposes: to help keep you dry by moving away perspiration, and to regulate your body temperature by keeping you cool in summer and warm in the winter.
The best materials for this include merino wool or synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene, which allows unrestricted movement and is fantastic at wicking away moisture from the skin, and Capilene®, which provides a particularly good base for cold-weather hiking.
● Mid layer
Your mid layer is what you would usually consider to be everyday clothing - essentially short or long-sleeved T-shirts, which can be worn alone if the weather is good, but are often paired with a base layer and insulating layer for warmth.
The best material for this layer is, as you might expect, very weather-dependent. Cotton, which is generally a poor choice in cooler conditions as it has no insulating properties when wet (and takes a long time to dry), can be excellent in warm and dry conditions as it keeps you cool.
In colder conditions, and if you expect to wear several layers, synthetic materials are usually best. These include nylon and Capilene®, while wool is a suitable natural option - but bear in mind it takes a long time to dry if it gets wet, and can be a little bulky.
● Insulation layer
As its name suggests, your insulation layer gives you additional warmth in cold conditions. It should preferably be lightweight and breathable as well as warm to prevent a build-up of sweat, which can then cool your body down, not to mention make your walk rather uncomfortable. Lightweight fleeces are among the best options, being far less heavy than wool and fast-drying.
Fleece tops come in three weights, with lightweight for mild climates or aerobic activity, midweight for slightly cooler climates or moderate activity, and expedition weight for cold conditions or low activity.
Goose down and merino wool are also very much worth considering - each has excellent insulating properties. The former does not insulate well when wet, while the latter manages to maintain its performance in wet conditions.
● Outer layer
Also known as your shell layer, your outer layer protects you against wind, rain and snow. It’s particularly crucial in poor conditions not only as a first layer of protection from the elements, but also to keep wind and rain from reaching the layers underneath and rendering them ineffective.
Virtually all outer layers will be treated with a durable water repellent (DWR). Breathability is just as important as water resistance, because without it moisture cannot escape from your inner layers, which in turn will make you cold and uncomfortable. Non-breathable items that you might find useful include ponchos that you might throw on for a few moments in a sudden downpour, or overtrousers to protect lightweight trousers in damp conditions.
For the best balance between waterproof and breathability, choose clothes treated with membranes such as GoreTex or eVent.
Also take a look at any extra features that may increase comfort - adjustable openings, such as cuffs, vents, and storm flaps can make all the difference.
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Next you’ll need to pick some hiking trousers. As with tops, the material you select will be very dependent on the weather you expect - lightweight cotton hiking trousers are a good idea for warm and dry conditions, but something with a DWR coating will make for a much happier hike if rain is likely.
You also need to look beyond materials to the design of the trouser itself. Articulated knees, for example, allow a full range of movement, which is particularly crucial if you're be scrambling over rocks or tackling tricky descents. A gusseted seat, meanwhile, provides extra fabric to make sure that your trousers won't split if you need to stretch.
Finally, don't forget to invest in appropriate hiking socks. As with all hiking clothing, different kinds are designed to cater for different conditions. A lightweight hiking sock, for example is best for warm conditions or easy walks. They have few insulating properties, but will wick away sweat and provide more cushioning than a standard sock.
If you need extra cushioning, such as on longer or trickier hikes, midweight hiking socks offer this; indeed, they often have additional padding built in to support high-impact areas. They are also suitable for cooler to cold conditions.
For long, cold or particularly tough hikes, mountaineering socks are best, offering the most cushioning and the most warmth.
If you plan on wearing the latter, remember to invest in some sock liners to wear underneath to wick away sweat and reduce abrasion.
Now you know all about what kit you need, you can start thinking about where to go - get a little inspiration with our favourite walking holidays.