The key to being comfortable on the trail is layering. Whether you’re on a one hour hike or a multi-day trip, the weather can change at any minute, and to stay comfy you need to have layers. Additionally, your hiking apparel should be “wicking”, which means that it will “wick” the sweat and moisture away from your body so you remain comfortable on the trail. Anything fleece or polyester is wicking. Fleece vests and jackets are great!
Ok, so here’s the basics on layering. You need to have 3 layers:
- BASE LAYER: What you wear directly against your skin. Always avoid cotton unless you’re hiking in super hot, dry, desert conditions! That means wear nylon/synthetic underwear, and a lightweight thermal top to wick sweat away. Believe me, this is super important. This may be a little too personal… but my favorite underwear is Ex Officio Women’s Give-N-Go Bikini Brief. After a long day on a trail, they stay dry and eliminate odors. If you are hiking in cold conditions (ie, on a snowshoe trip or a winter, fall or early spring hike) you probably want to wear long underwear. Any synthetic material or silk will do well. Just make sure it isn’t too bulky to fit under your mid and outer layers. Want to know even more? Check out Hiking 101: Hiking Underwear.
- MID LAYER: This is what will keep you warm! Again, just make sure it isn’t cotton. A fleece vest is always great, and it gives you great flexibility. It is easy to put on over a base layer, it packs down small, and is lightweight. Want to know more? Check out Hiking 101: Hiking Tops
- OUTER LAYER: This is what will keep you dry if it rains or snows, and it will block the wind! The outer layer is also called a “shell”, so think of a turtle’s shell… it protects him from all the elements. Same for you! Common materials for shells are Gore-Tex, which makes the material waterproof yet breathable. The more you hike, the more you’ll want shell bottoms as well (aka Rain Pants). Just make sure your shells fit over your base and mid layers! Want to know more? Check out Hiking 101: Hiking Outerwear
Did you notice a common theme? NO COTTON!! Why not cotton? Because cotton fibers collapse when they get wet, so it takes a very long time for it to dry. Much better materials are synthetics (like polyester and fleece) and natural materials like wool. Wool is on the heavy side in terms of weight, but if you get caught in the rain or snow, your wool sweater will still keep you warm. Unless you are hiking in super hot, dry climates, I highly recommend avoiding cotton.
Hiking in Super Hot, Dry, Desert Climates: In the summertime, the hot and dry conditions in areas like the Southwest U.S. provide an exception to my no cotton rule…This is a tip from my friend Denise at Hit the Trail, a website dedicated to helping people plan trips to the Grand Canyon and the Southwest U.S.
“In the canyon during hot weather, cotton is actually the fabric of choice since it does stay wet longer and provides evaporative cooling. In fact, one of the best things you can do for a hot hike is to carry an extra wet cotton t-shirt in a Ziploc bag to put on later in your hike to cool yourself off.”