TRAILCRAFT is a series of articles and video demonstrations that provide instruction on the fundamental aspects of traveling on trails in wilderness areas, like techniques for ascending and descending, negotiating tricky sections like streams and what to wear while hiking and trekking. This is the first article in the series.
Hiking Attire - Do's and Don'ts
Knowing what to wear while hiking can mean the difference between being comfortable even in pouring rain and being miserable even in the best weather conditions. This article provides an overview of relevant strategies, fabrics, dos and don’ts for your hiking attire.
The most important aspect of dressing for the outdoors is the concept of layering. Each layer serves a purpose in regulating temperature and moisture, allowing you to add and remove layers as conditions, weather and activity levels change. To understand how layering works, we will look at the function of each layer.
Base Layer : Your base layer is the layer in contact with your skin. This means it will collect the most amount of moisture as you work and sweat. So, it should have good wicking properties. Wicking is a fabric’s ability to pull away moisture from your skin to the fabric’s outer surface.
Best fabrics: Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, and wool are the best fabrics for base layers. Both have excellent wicking properties. Synthetics dry out faster than wool, and are more durable. However, they collect odour which is extremely hard to remove. Wool, especially merino, takes longer to dry and is more prone to abrasion damage, but is comfortable over a wider temperature range, insulates even when wet and remains odour free even after long periods of continuous usage. Merino wool is thinner, more lightweight and less itchy than traditional wool.
Our recommendation is synthetic materials for hot/humid weather base layers, and merino wool for cold weather base layers.
- Avoid cotton. Cotton has terrible wicking and drying properties. It will soak up sweat, stay wet, and chill you. This makes it a strict no-no in cold weather. It is acceptable in hot weather, some people also like the feeling of the cold, wet fabric against the skin.
- Sun protection. Especially while hiking in hot weather, when you may be wearing only your base layer, make sure it has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating that will protect your body from harmful UV rays.
- Base layer weights. Base layers, especially merino undergarments, come in different ‘weights’ - from ultra lightweight to midweight, heavyweight and expedition weight. Expedition weight layers will have substantially more insulation compared to lightweight layers. Most professionals, however, prefer thin layers even during cold conditions. This is because, during intense physical activity, even in cold weather, overheating is as big a problem as staying warm. Overheating causes perspiration, which further causes loss of body heat via evaporation. The purpose of a base layer is primarily to manage moisture. Leave insulation for the middle and outer layers.
- Zip neck: Try to invest in zip neck merino base layers. The weather in the Indian Himalaya is volatile and can change multiple times in the course of a single day. A zip neck provides an additional tool for thermoregulation and can save time required to stop and shed or add a layer.
Mid Layer : This is the layer primarily responsible for insulation. It helps you retain heat radiated by your body. The more efficient this layer is at retaining this heat, the warmer you’ll be.
Best fabrics: Wool, fleece, synthetic and down insulation are all good options for mid layers.
Wool has excellent wicking and insulation properties, insulates when wet and remains odour free after long periods of use. This makes it a good choice for base as well as mid layers in cold weather.
Fleece is a polyester fabric that comes in different weights like wool. Like wool, it also retains insulating properties when wet. Along with good insulating and drying properties, it is also highly breathable which makes for good active insulation. However, this means it is prone to windchill and you need a wind blocking shell while using fleece as a mid layer. Some technical fleeces offer an inner wind protection membrane, and a hybrid construction that uses more breathable materials at critical areas like the armpits.
Down is made from duck and goose feathers found below the tougher exterior feathers. Down has the best warmth to weight ratio, is highly compressible, and since it always comes in a shell, most down jackets have some wind and water resistance. However, down loses its insulation properties when wet and takes a long time to dry out. This means it must be accompanied by a shell in wet weather. Modern down jackets use DWR (durable water repellant) coating on the shell and water resistant hybrid down fibers. Down is the best option for cold weather mid layers while camping and hiking in winter.
Synthetic insulation tries to mimic down properties. Although it does not offer the same warmth to weight ratio and compressibility, it retains insulation when wet. This makes it a good choice for sustained wet conditions.
In summer condition, we recommend fleece and merino wool tops. For colder conditions, move towards down and synthetic puffy jackets.
- Zip neck: As with base layers, we prefer zip necks or even full zip mid layers for easier thermoregulation.
- Multiple mid layers: We recommend carrying two mid layers for a wide spectrum of conditions. As conditions get colder, you can switch layers or even use both. The best bet is to choose a combination of a wool/fleece layer and a down/synthetic puffy.
- Pants: Although for most conditions, a warm base layer in enough insulation for the legs, you can opt for fleece lined pants in more severe conditions for a lower body mid layer. In milder weather opt for regular abrasion resistant trekking pants - most offer some water resistance as well. While hiking on trails with frequent stream crossing, you may want to opt for zip off pants that can easily be converted into shorts.
Outer layer/Shell: The function of a shell or outer layer is to offer protection from the elements in a wide spectrum of conditions. Shells are broadly categorised into two types - hardshells, that are more waterproof and windproof but compromise on breathability, and softshells, that are water resistant and breathable but may not offer wind protection.
Soft shells: Soft shells are made for use in active pursuits. They emphasise breathability and the fabric is often stretchable for comfort during movement. They offer light wind and water resistance and are suitable for intense activity in mild, clear conditions.
Non breathable hard shells: These are typically made of coated nylon which is very water and wind proof but offers no breathability. These are suitable for rainy days with light to no activity.
Breathable hard shells: Also called technical shells, these offer the best of both worlds. There is no replacement for a breathable hard shell in sustained rain or snow. Some hard shells may offer water resistance while others will be completely waterproof. They are made of multiple (2-4) layers and also use materials that do not compromise on breathability. A good hard shell will be able to protect you from the worst of the weather for a long time.
- Avoid combined outers: Some jackets, especially ski jackets, combine an insulating layer with a technical shell. This serves the purpose of multiple layers and is not as expensive. However, we recommend using a separate technical outer shell as it retains the ability to thermoregulate for a variety of conditions by adding or removing outer and mid layers. With a combined winter jacket, you cannot separate insulation and waterproofing, which is often essential while trekking.
- Invest: A good technical shell can literally be a life saver. Although the best outer shells that combine waterproof and windproof properties with breathability can be expensive, it is arguably the most essential component of your layering system. The best shells offer taped seams, waterproof zippers, multiple layer construction and the perfect combination of breathability and protection from the elements.
- Lower body shell: Waterproof pants are just as essential as shells. Opt for one that has full side zips which means they can be worn and taken off with shoes.
It is important to consider clothing for extremities as well. This is often overlooked, although just as important as upper and lower body attire.
Gloves: Pack gloves according to the conditions you are going to be hiking in. For warm, dry weather, a pair of silk or wool liners is enough, moving on to insulated and waterproof gloves for colder conditions. Winter hiking at high altitudes may require the use of expedition weight mittens.
Socks: Make sure your socks are taller than your footwear and carry enough pairs. Go thicker or thinner based on the weather. While trekking for multiple days, you feet stay in damp conditions for long durations. This makes merino an excellent choice for socks.
Gaiters: Most commonly used in snow, gaiters look like leg warmers below the knee which prevent snow from entering your boots. They are also useful in keeping out mud, debris, bugs, leeches and rain.
Headwear: Carry a multiple layer system for your head. We recommend a buff/bandana for thermoregulation while hiking in mild weather, a full brim hat for protection from the sun in sweltering heat and a wool/synthetic insulated beanie for cold weather.
Boots: Boots are the first big decision you need to make for your hiking attire. This has been discussed in detail separately.
- No denim jeans/cotton shirts: cotton is a killer - it absorbs moisture, holds on to it and keeps you cold. It also absorbs 27x its weight in water, which means if your pack gets submerged during a stream crossing, your clothes can drastically increase your pack weight and drag you down.
- Polyester/nylon/merino: These are the best materials in terms of moisture management and thermoregulation. For insulation, down offers the best warmth to weight ratio.
- Sturdy and stretchy pants: Opt for pants made from abrasion resistant 4-way stretch fabric that can cope with the rigours of the trail and allow efficient movement.
- Shell: Invest in a good technical waterproof and windproof shell. This will be useful in a variety of situations and protect you from the worst of the elements.
- Extremeties: Don’t forget to carry a layering system for headgear, enough pairs of socks, and appropriate gloves.
- Anticipate conditions: Choose fabrics and layers according to conditions you’ll be trekking in - down for dry, extremely cold conditions, merino and synthetic fabrics for wet conditions. Forecasts may be wrong, so pack for colder, wetter, windier and hotter conditions that you expect.