This is the second part of a series.
What do you wear? You may think a visit to the local outfitter store is needed before you can go backpacking or camping. If you go that route, the chances are they will try and sell you what they stock, which normally name brand top of the line clothing and gear. That stuff is not cheap or needed in most cases. While you may want to do that, I wouldn’t recommend it. My first “real” hike was in items I already owned. I wore gym pants (nylon baggy type not yoga pants or tights), a synthetic shirt, hat, rain jacket, tennis/running shoes, cotton socks, and used an old college backpack. It was a muddy and sloppy mess because it had just finished raining, but I had a lot of fun and decided I wanted to do more of this.
My clothes continue to evolve. Clothes are some of the heaviest items you carry. Extra clothes are super heavy. This is another reason you weigh and make a list of everything. One general rule is to avoid cotton. There’s a phrase that “cotton kills.” While you won’t instantly drop dead if you wear cotton in the woods for a few hours, it is highly discouraged for a couple of reasons. Cotton fibers hold or retain moisture and this is less than ideal. Moisture is heavy. Have you ever been caught in the rain wearing blue jeans? Did you notice they immediately got extremely heavy and took forever to dry? Moisture in your socks plus the friction of walking can quickly cause blisters. Cotton isn’t that warm compared to other materials, especially when it is wet.
Aim for wool or synthetic materials. I would suggest starting the clothes conversation in an area you wouldn’t think of starting. Two of the most influential areas to enjoy your time outdoors are your feet and undergarments. You want comfortable socks and shoes because walking with blisters is not fun. Neither is chaffing in the private areas. If you have never experienced either one of these, take my word for it!
Shoes. Historically, hiking boots were the normal and common thing to wear. Unless you have weak ankles and/or will be hiking on very rocky trails, I’ll suggest moving to a shoe. Merrill makes various hiking shoes and I wore a pair for many years without issue and Merrill Moab Ventilators are a very common choice. Last year I switched to a trail runner type shoe and I’ll never go back to Merrill. They are much more comfortable and durable to me. When you get serious, I suggest going to a store that specializes in running shoes. Talk to the salesperson and tell them what you are planning. Try on every single shoe they have in your size and find what fits you the best. The very last pair I tried on were my favorite. If you are curious, I am using Altra Lone Peak shoes.
While we are discussing shoes, let’s address the waterproof vs not waterproof shoe. The first pair I bought for hiking were waterproof. I thought it was a great idea. Waterproof shoes have a few issues, though. One, they don’t breathe so my feet stayed hot and sweaty. Second, if water can’t get in, that also means that IF water gets inside your shoe, your feet stay wet because there is no way the water can leave the shoe. After an experience where my shoes stayed wet for 3 days, now I prefer non-waterproof shoes. If (or when) my feet get wet, the water drains out and my feet dry out over time while I’m hiking.
Socks. Find socks that are specially designed for hiking. Generally, they are wool and remember to avoid cotton unless you enjoy blisters. Wool is one of the few materials that keep you warm even when it is wet. That’s important – especially because my shoes are not waterproof! These are not the loose thick wool socks your grandparents wore. My hiking socks are thin and fit snug. I have tried many brands and there are even more brands that I didn’t try, but I really like a brand called Darn Tough Socks from Vermont, USA. They aren’t cheap (around $20 USD for a pair), but it is worth every penny to not have blisters! Plus, the socks have a lifetime warranty. If you wear a hole in them, you can send them back and they will send you a new pair.
Undergarments. I’m not trying to get too personal, but this can make a huge difference in the enjoyment level of your outdoor adventure. Once again, stay away from cotton! Some people prefer the liners in hiking/running shorts or pants. I had a very unenjoyable experience with them so I either cut them out or look for something without a liner. Your experience may be different. I like a longer synthetic boxer brief that prevents the “high thigh” area from chaffing. As I mentioned earlier, trying to hike with chaffing issues is just a slow torture with every step! I prefer the 6” boxer brief from exofficio. They are comfortable, light, and dry quickly.
Pants/shorts. I prefer to hike in convertible pants. Others people like shorts. Some men even hike in kilts. You have to wear something down there, and convertible pants work best for me. Once again, synthetic is the way to go since they are thin and dry quickly. One of the reason I prefer pants is tick/bug prevention. I treat all of my outerwear with Permethrin which lasts about a month with no smell and through multiple washings. If you are against chemicals, HYOH. Where I spend most of my time, the ticks and chiggers are relentless most of the year (even during the winter) AND I spend some time off trail. The treated pants protect me from ticks and chiggers and the pants material protect my legs (to a lesser degree) from the vines and thorns I always find myself in the middle of. Because they are going to eventually get holes in them from the fire or torn, I typically buy the cheapest pair of pants that I like. If I was hiking a clear and maintained trail such as the Appalachian Trail, I would probably switch to shorts.
Shirts. This may sound really strange – especially when the temperature rises, but try a wool T-shirt. Not only do they keep you warm when they get wet (such as in the rain) but wool has a natural odor resistance property, great moisture wicking properties, dry quickly, and the “new” merino wool is surprisingly not itchy. Sure, it cost more, but it is totally worth it – especially when you can find them on clearance online. If a wool T-Shirt is out of your price range, then there’s nothing wrong with wearing a synthetic shirt. I still have several that I wear on occasion. After several days, the synthetic will retain body odor much more than a wool T-Shirt, but for a day or two it will be fine.
Rain Gear. If you are hiking in the rain, you will eventually get soaked. Either from the rain or sweating in rain gear that doesn’t “breathe.” I personally wear a rain jacket with zippers in the arm pits. While it will keep me warm-ish from the cold rain and wind, I can unzip not only the front but the “pit zips” for ventilation if I get too hot. If I am cold I can close all the zippers to retain some body heat. You can purchase cheap rain gear or expensive rain gear. Find what works for you just realize you won’t stay dry if you are hiking in the rain. It’s about staying comfortable. Rain gear can be heavy but a rain jacket can also do double duty as a windbreaker. I try to find multiple uses for items when I can to keep from carrying extra items (and weight).
Headgear. I have really thick hair so I don’t really care for a hat most of the time when I’m not in the woods. Hiking, I almost always have one. It covers up the messy hiker hair and keeps the sun or rain out of my eyes. I will wear a trucker style (all mesh in the back) baseball hat when I’m hiking in sunny areas to shade my face. I don’t wear sunglasses when I’m hiking – that is just something else to lose. I also have a vented hat with a brim that goes all the way around I wear in the rain to keep the rain out of my eyes. When the temperature drops, I have a fleece or wool beanie I wear.
Spare clothes. This is where lots of extra weight can be added to your pack. I plan on hiking in the same stinky pants and shirt from the previous day. If it rains or I’m near a water source, they may get washed if possible. I do carry an extra pair of socks and underwear. I wear one and rinse/wash one. They dry overnight and are repacked for the next night. I also carry a pair of nylon short and another t-shirt to sleep in. I will probably carry a jacket except in the warmest weather. I DO NOT carry a full set of spare clothes. So I wear a set, only sleep in shorts/T-Shirt, and have a set of socks and underwear I rotate. That may seem gross to many of you, but when you discover how heavy and bulky clothes can be, it helps change your mind. If you carry two full sets of clothes and you hike for 4 days while alternating, you now have 2 full sets of stinky clothes.