Choosing the Right Clothes for Hiking
There aren’t many countries in the world where you can face such extremes, from the sub-zero conditions of the Snowy Mountains to the relentless heat of the Gibson Desert and the heavy humidity of the Daintree Rainforest.
The perfect set of clothes for all these different environments will vary widely, so we’ll start off with what you need to know about basic walking kit for fine, dry conditions, about 15 – 20 deg C, and expand a bit from there. Note we will not be able to cover the gear for ALL conditions you might encounter in this one blog. But we’ll start with the basics.
Selecting the right clothes can help make your day, or make you miserable, so it pays to choose your hiking gear wisely
We’ll start at the bottom with base layers and work our way up to outer layers.
Base Layer – Undershirt
This is the layer that touches your skin, and there are two extremely important factors at play. How comfortable it feels, and how well it allows moisture to pass through to the outer layers.
Consider the following advice on fabrics:
Cotton doesn’t breathe, and is probably the worst fabric you could choose for hiking. If cotton gets wet, it is cold and clammy, and will not dry. In cold conditions, you’re looking at a great recipe for hypothermia. Just don’t go there.
Wool will keep you warm but is heavy and slow to dry when wet. Think of the classic fisherman’s jumper. It can be a bit itchy scratchy too, especially right next to the skin. Perhaps not great for a base layer. But see below…..
Merino Sheep are originally from the UK and are the mainstay of the Australian and New Zealand wool industry. Walking clothes made from merino are totally different to those made from “regular” wool. Here’s why….
Making garments luxuriously soft to the touch.
Absorbs sweat & vapour, and allows the moisture to evaporate, keeping you nice and cosy.
Helps you stay cool in the heat, and warm in the cold.
Unlike synthetics, for example, Merino won’t smell after you’ve been wearing it for a few days.
And finally, it’s static free, wrinkle resistant and flame retardant! If you were going to invent a fabric that’s perfect for hiking, this is actually what you would create.
If you can afford it, buy Merino – eg look for brands like Icebreaker (NZ), Merino Country (Australia) etc. Many outdoor stores have their own brands too. My personal preference: a short-sleeved merino T-shirt.
However, keep in mind where you will be walking. In some parts of Australia, at certain times of year, a merino base layer will be way too hot. See below for alternatives.
If you can’t afford merino, then synthetic is the way to go. Synthetics such as polyester are generally quick to dry, lightweight, breathable and good at keeping you warm. Mixes of synthetics and merino may also be available.
Mid Layer – Trekking shirt
If it’s a bit cool, but not quite cool enough to walk wearing a jumper or fleece on top of your base layer, you could wear a trekking shirt.
Or, if walking in warmer sunny conditions, which can often be the case in Australia, we recommend a trekking shirt without a base layer.
Look for synthetic blends that are good for wicking moisture away from your skin, have good UV protection ratings, and good ventilation. Long sleeves will give you more protection from the sun, or roll those sleeves up half way for the best of both worlds. A high collar will protect your neck from the sun too.
Mid Layer – Jumper
Before buying a jumper, consider the fact that layering is the best way to keep yourself comfortable and manage your body temperature while walking. Several lighter warmer layers are far better than one big bulky super warm layer.
Your body temperature is going to rise significantly when you start to exert yourself, so even half way up Everest you’ll want to take some layers off. And then when you stop moving, you’ll want to put them on again.
This is the case no matter where you are, and what the conditions are, so keep your big bulky woolly jumpers at home, and consider again the advice on fabrics above.
Merino wool is a fine choice for those warmer mid layers too. Long-sleeved lighter weight tops and slightly heavier options are available.
A ‘Fleece’ is in the wardrobe of almost every hiker. Contrary to the name, these are generally made from synthetic polyester and not wool. But they’re long-lasting, easy to care for, and easily fit underneath a jacket to keep you warm when the ambient temperature drops. Also a good choice for mid layer warmth.
Outer Layer – Waterproof Jacket
A really good waterproof jacket will keep the rain and wind out, and will keep you comfortable inside. This is one of those items of gear where it is definitely worth paying a bit more. A cheaper jacket will keep out the rain but will keep the sweat locked in too. It’s the technological advances in modern fabrics that enable them to keep rain out AND let your body “breathe” so that you’re not wet with sweat inside your jacket. That’s where your money goes!
Gore-Tex was invented in 1969, and for a long time was the undisputed ‘king of fabrics’ for waterproof jackets, effectively keeping the rain out and regulating your body temperature at the same time.
Now there’s a wider variety available, such as eVent, Flashpoint, Patagonia H2NO, Neoshell, North Face’s Haven’t, and Marmot’s Membrane. All have varying degrees of effectiveness, depending on the conditions.
Most hiking jackets will keep the rain out for a certain period of time. However please be aware, all jackets will eventually ‘wet out’ if you walk long enough in torrential conditions.
It’s just how long until they fail that makes the difference. The cheaper rain jackets, for example, might only last an hour or so. Choose wisely.
There are two measures of waterproofing on a jacket.
Basic water resistance is tested by placing the fabric at the bottom of a tall cylinder, and then filling it with more and more water until the water starts to seep through the fabric. This gives it a Hydrostatic Head (HH) reading. You’ll need an HH of at least 5,000 mm for basic waterproofing – that means the fabric can hold off a column of water that is 5000 mm tall. If you’re going to be out in bad conditions for lengthy periods (eg England’s Coast to Coast walk), then look for an HH of 20,000 mm plus.
Another gauge of water resistance is the jacket’s Durable Water Repellency (DWR), which is a measure of how effectively water simply rolls off the garment, as opposed to soaking in. This also affects the breathability of the garment. DWR will eventually wear off, and how fast it does so depends on how often you use your jacket. Note that there are products out there that allow you to restore the DWR of your jacket.
This is the ability of a fabric to both repel the rain, and also allow your sweat to evaporate. A fisherman’s waxed jacket, for example, will repel the elements extremely well, but all the sweaty goodness building up inside will remain there.
And if you’re hiking, you’ll eventually start to sweat no matter what the conditions. Without a breathable fabric that allows that sweat to evaporate, you’ll get chilly very quickly as soon as you stop walking. That’s clearly not ideal in very cold conditions. See note above for cotton and the risk of hypothermia.
All hiking jackets are given a breathability rating, directly related to the fabric they’re made from. You can use this to gauge how much your body will be able to breathe inside your jacket.
How is this measured? There are two numbers involved. The first you’ve already met. HH – the Hydrostatic Head rating. The higher the HH number, the more waterproof the fabric. The second number is a measure of how breathable the fabric is. This is normally expressed in terms of how many grams (g) of water vapour can pass through a square meter (m2) of the fabric from the inside to the outside in a 24-hour period. In the case of a 20k (20,000 g) fabric, this would be 20,000 grams. The larger the number, the more breathable the fabric.
A breathability rating of 5,000 – 10,000g/m2 for regular everyday wear, but for serious hiking, you’d want a rating that is at least 15,000g/m2 if not more!
Some jackets have zips under the arms, unsurprisingly called – pit zips! These are a useful addition to a jacket to enhance ventilation when walking.
Open the zips at the start of your walk, keeping you cool, and preventing the build-up of sweat. But if it’s raining heavily or cold, it’s best to keep them closed.
If you’re buying an expensive jacket, with excellent breathability then having pit zips isn’t really important (many manufacturers of high-end jackets are phasing them out as fabrics become more breathable while still staying waterproof). However, on cheaper, more affordable jackets, pit zips can be a handy way to help you stay cool when walking in the wet.
More important for some folks than others, however, good advice is that lighter colours make you easier to spot in an emergency. Up to you…
The final consideration, as always, is budget. If you’re going to be hiking a lot, invest as much as you can in your jacket. It really will make a difference.
Our opinion is that Gore-Tex is the best in terms of durability. The alternatives need to be washed and treated more often, however in the end, the decision is yours.
Pants / Trousers
Long pants will protect you from the cold, vegetation, and insects. So even if you think it’s warm enough for shorts, consider the type of environment you’re heading into. Is it swampy? There could be insects or snakes. Is there high scrub? You might get scratched.
Here’s what else to think about.
You want something that’s durable and quick drying. Unless you’re heading into the snow, a lightweight material is best. Synthetics such as polyester or nylon are good, and you should never wear jeans. Jeans = COTTON. Enough said!
Spandex leggings with a pair of shorts can also be a reasonable option, so long as it not going to get too cold.
Best to wear pants that don’t need a belt. However, if you do have a belt, make sure it’s not going to rub against your backpack.
Zip-off pants legs
Some hiking pants come with zips that turn them into shorts. These are a nice versatile option and are generally made of lightweight material.
For cold conditions, a set of thermal leggings under light-weight hiking pants could be useful. Or invest in a heavier, warmer set of hiking pants.
If you’re guaranteed nice weather, get hot quickly when walking (your leg muscles generate a lot of heat) and you’re not bothered about getting scratched or bitten, go for a lightweight pair of shorts. Even if you go for a dip in a billabong, they’ll dry out quickly, and you can be on your way.
Once again try to avoid heavier fabrics, as they’ll just weight you down as they absorb moisture throughout the day. See notes above regarding belts too. And if cooler, you could combine shorts with some thermal leggings.
Waterproof Pants /Trousers
Waterproof pants are generally a thin, lightweight shell and are worn over shorts or regular pants. If cold and wet conditions are expected (eg parts of Tasmania, Victoria and NSW High Country etc), waterproof pants are a must. Again information on waterproof ratings versus breathability can be useful. Look for pants that have zips running down the whole length of the legs. This allows you to put them on easily without having to take your boots off first. If those zips are two-way and can be opened from the top, you can open them up for a bit of venting when the going gets hot. Also useful for walking through wet shrubs after the rain!
The right sock depends on the footwear, which depends on the conditions to be expected on your journey. The most important factor, of course, is that your socks are comfortable and prevent you from getting blisters.
Avoid cotton socks at all costs. They are a guaranteed recipe for blisters!
Wool-synthetic blends socks are the way to go. Look for good padding on the heel and around the ball of your foot. You might need to pay a bit more for good hiking socks, but for happy feet, this is definitely worth the investment.
In general, there are three different weights of sock to consider:
Lightweight socks are extremely breathable, but have less padding, and are often used for shorter hikes or in warm conditions. E.g. specialist running socks.
A good pair of padded, mid-weight hiking socks are your go-to for almost any walk you want to take on. Buy a couple of decent pairs, you’re ready for just about anything.
You’ll only need a pair of these if you’re planning on spending a reasonable amount of time in the snow, and even then, your regular mid-weight socks will serve you well for a while.
Some people swear by these. Having a very thin, lighter weight pair of socks inside your regular socks can be very effective for wicking moisture away from your feet and avoiding blisters. Alternatively, try a set of cheap sock length pantyhose! They work in very much the same way.
If you don’t have any liners, try two pairs of thin socks to prevent blisters. They’ll wear against each other, rather than the shoe rubbing against you. Regardless, you should always take a spare pair of socks with you. If your feet get wet (i.e. sweaty), there will be friction and blisters can start to form. A pair of spare socks can be a handy solution.
So there you go. Clothing sorted.
As always, it’s about preparing for the conditions to be expected, and preparing for the conditions you don’t expect, and making yourself as comfortable as possible at all times.
With the right clothing, you won’t even notice what you’re wearing, BUT with the wrong clothing, you’ll be miserable.
So good luck, and as always – we hope to see you out on the track!
Comment below with your questions or call us on +61 3 9597 9767.