The Ultimate Hiking Apparel & Gear Buying Guide

Hiking clothing shares a lot of common purposes with normal everyday clothing. In general, clothing is supposed to keep your warm, dry, and protected from possibly harmful outside influences. Furthermore, most of us simply do not want to run around naked. A lot of the everyday purposes of clothing become much more important in Hiking and other Outdoor Activities as the extreme conditions force you to rethink about why exactly you are wearing your chosen pieces of clothing. In this article, we shortly review the basic purposes of Outdoor Clothing

Maintaining your Thermal Equilibrium

People often refer to ‘warm clothing’ when they are talking about Outdoor Apparel such as sweaters and jackets. However, the purpose of your clothes is not to increase your body temperature. Your clothes are supposed to help you maintain a Thermal Equilibrium where you lose as much heat as you are generating without your body having to either produce extra heat or lose it through sweating. The more your clothes are able to help you maintain your thermal equilibrium, the less energy your body has to use to do so.

Keeping you Dry

Keeping your skin dry helps preserve body heat and increases your general comfort. Keeping you dry has two parts:

Protection from Outside Moisture: Clothes should protect you from rain, snow, and other possible sources of water.

Protection from Body Moisture: Clothes should move body moisture (sweat) away from your body.

The process of protecting against outside moisture while keeping body moisture away from your skin is a difficult combination that requires your clothes to work in a waterproof but breathable way.

The 3 Layers System

Base Layer / Thermal Underwear

The Base Layer is the first layer of clothing you put on and it is in direct contact with your skin. For Outdoor Activities, it is very likely that you will be sweating, cooling down, sweating, cooling down, etc. It is important that your clothing works in a way that it can cool down quickly but not too much. This is where the base layer comes in:

Purpose of the Base Layer

A common problem in many Outdoor Activities is ‘after-exercise chill’. Cotton T-shirts and other common underwear capture the moisture of sweat in their fabric and after your body has already cooled down and stops sweating, the wet cotton will keep on cooling your body down. Not only is this uncomfortable, but it also forces your body to increase its heat production and it increases the chances of under cooling. The base layer should not retain moisture but transport it away from the skin, thereby countering ‘after-exercise chill’.

Base Layer Materials

The materials used for Base Layers change constantly as manufacturers come up with new high tech synthetic fabrics or re-invent older materials like wool. In general, they all have common characteristics:

The materials absorb only a very small percentage (< 1%) of their weight in moisture. In practice, this means that they retract moisture from your skin and dries very quickly.
The fibers are very lightweight but very durable.

They are treated to decrease the tendency of base layers to itch and smell due to body odors and/or fungi.

Insulation Layer

The Insulation Layer is the second layer of clothing which is put on after wearing the base layer. The purpose of the Insulation Layer is to retain body heat and the best way to do so is by creating a layer of still or dead air around your body. This still air will seriously decrease the heat exchange between your body and the outside world.

Fleece / Bunting / Pile

The Insulation Layer mostly consists of polyesters that are treated in a way that makes the fibers stand up and trap air between the fibers. This trapped air forms the protective layer of still air forming the main insulation. The most popular materials are:

Fleece: Fleece is mostly made out of polyesters. A dense knit of polyester fabric is taken and passed through a ‘napping’ machine. On one side of the fabric, the machine will pick out and rake up the fabric loops, creating a fabric with a tight solid weave on one side and a fluffy air retaining surface at the other side.

Bunting: This is fleece that has been ‘napped’ on both sides, creating a tight solid weave with wooly air retaining at the surfaces on both sides.

Pile: This is single-sided Fleece that has undergone more ‘napping’ and has been processed further to create a much thicker open fabric.

Characteristics of Fleece / Bunting / Pile

Fleece, Bunting, and Pile combine a few characteristics that Longer, Warmer Days Ahead! Get the inside line on making them so suitable as Insulation Layer materials. First of all, they possess the ability to retain still air which insulates and prevents body heat loss as outlined above. Besides this, the treated Polyesters used have almost the same moisture-transporting qualities as Base Layers. They transport moisture to the outer layer and dry very quickly.

Outer Shells

The third and final layer in the Three-Layer System is the Outer Shell which is the only layer with direct contact to the outside world. The Outer Shell serves three main purposes:

  • Protection from wind and outside moisture like rain and snow.
  • Getting rid of body moisture
  • Protection from chafing, cuts, scrapes, and other outside damage.

Before high tech fabrics were developed, these purposes were performed by separate pieces of clothing. Nowadays, however, Outer Shells can be waterproof, shock-absorbing, and breathable windbreakers or outdoor jackets.

Outer Shell Materials

The theory behind Outer Shell materials is the fact that a water drop is much larger
in size than a water vapor molecule. In essence, combining waterproofness with breathability boils down to finding a membrane with a pore size much smaller than a water drop but much bigger than a water vapor molecule. In 1976, Gore-Tex was developed which is a membrane of a petrochemical polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Since 1976, many variations of Gore-Tex have been developed which fall under the category name of PTFE laminates.

Judging Waterproofness

Keeping outside moisture out is probably the most important task and, unlike breathability, waterproofness depends on more than just the fabric. Here are some guidelines on judging waterproofness:

The most important factor remains the fabric. AsThe waterproofness of a fabric is measured in pounds per square inch (psi) of water pressure. Standard ISO 811 signifies the testing of the waterproofness of fabrics under their actual usage conditions. For an outdoor clothing Outer Shell, a score of 40 psi would signify a good state of waterproofness.

Seams – Just like in Outdoor Tents, seams are the vulnerable spots in Outer Shells. Seams should be sealed and coated well to prevent leaking. If possible, look for as little seams as possible and avoid seams in vulnerable places such as shoulders and upper back.

Zippers – Zippers are another weak point in your defense against moisture. Nowadays, waterproof zippers do exist so ask around. Otherwise, look for zippers that are well-shielded.

Using the Three Layer System gives you the best possible protection from outdoor conditions. At the same time, the system is flexible enough to change specific parts for better, worst, or specific conditions. In most cases, the Three Layer System pertains to upper body clothing. The torso and neck area are the most important things to insulate as they protect your body core. In extremely cold conditions, however, this Three-Layer System can be used for full body protection.

Hiking Shirts & Jackets

Clothing that is meant to protect your torso like Shirts and Jackets are the most important pieces of clothing. Your torso houses all your vital organs and your core warmth. All the basic Functions of outdoor clothing are important for all your body parts but become even more important when it comes to your torso. This is also why the Three Layer System is most widely used for torso clothing.

In this section, we will look at the different types of Hiking Shirts and Jackets starting with Base Layers and moving all the way up to Mountaineering Jackets and full body suits.

Thermal Underwear & Base Layers

As explained in the Three Layer System section, the first layer will be the one responsible for extracting moisture away from your skin. Base Layers are mostly lightweight, durable, and they dry quickly. Base Layers and Thermal Underwear shirts are mostly long sleeved, thereby covering your entire torso and arms. Outdoor & Hiking T-ShirtsShort & Long Sleeve T-Shirts

T-Shirts are popular in casual clothing in which case they are mostly made out of cotton and other water-absorbing fabrics. Outdoor T-Shirts come in both long and short sleeved versions and use outdoor fabrics to give them more moisture-wicking qualities. Many of the snug, moisture-wicking versions can also be used as Base Layers.

Button Down Shirts

These are also very popular in casual clothing but they have some properties and materials that make them more useful for outdoor conditions. Button Down Shirts are mostly used in warm weather conditions and often feature very lightweight but durable fabrics with UV protection, great ventilation, and moisture-wicking qualities.

Fleece Shirts & Jackets

Fleece Jackets are the most widely-used Insulation Layer as outlined in our section on the Three Layer System. They combine the insulation qualities with moisture-wicking property to move moisture to the outer layer. Pure Insulation Layer Fleece Shirts are meant to be used together with an Outer Shell and will be very bare without many pockets or features. Fleece Jackets are more versatile and can also be used without an Outer Shell. Fleece Jackets are often treated to make them more water-resistant.

Softshell Jackets and Windbreakers

Softshell Jackets mostly combine the functions of the Insulation Layer and Outer Shell Layer in the Three Layer System. They are typically less waterproof than hard shells but have increased breathability and flexibility. Soft Shells mostly have a more comfortable fit and less bulky, making Soft Shells ideal for Outdoor Activities that require more intense upper body and arm movements like skiing, climbing, and bouldering.

HardShell Jackets

Waterproof and breathable Shell Jackets finish off the Three Layer System by giving protection against all outside influences. These shells are mostly thin, lightweight, and in bright colors. Shell Jackets with attached hood greatly improve protection against rain and strong winds. Again, there are many variations that add moisture-wicking and insulating properties to the outer shell to make them more functional.

Mountaineering & Down Jackets

Just like mountaineering Pants, mountaineering Jackets are for the coldest of conditions and can be worn to reach the highest summit on this planet. Like Sleeping Bags, they are often filled with down and have a baffle system to guarantee an equal insulation around your body. They are designed to maximize heat preservation and use high filling power (700+) Down to decrease bulk.

Full Body Suits

Instead of having a separate down filled Jacket and Mountaineering Pants, you could opt for a Full Body Suit which better encapsulates air around your entire body. Down Filled Full Body Suits are the very best when it comes to surviving extremely cold conditions. Full Body Suits use high-quality fabrics and construction to ensure the best waterproof, breathable, insulating, and moisture-wicking properties possible. A Full Body Suit can easily cost $1000 but they are the very best you can get and your best bet in surviving the most extreme conditions the planet has to offer.

Hiking Footwear

When you think about hiking, the first piece of shoe that comes to mind are hiking boots. But the choice of footwear actually depends on the weather and the time of year when you’ll hike.

Sandals – Hiking sandals are obviously used in the summer. They are great for ventilation and lightness. They keep your feet sweat-free, but they don’t give you the same support and protection like boots.

Hiking Shoes – Shoes will give you more protection than sandals, and are the safest choice to choice most of the time when not in winter.

Hiking Boots -They will give you way more protection than sandals and shoes, obviously. It’s a personal preference if you like it better with shoes or boots. Depending on where you live, you will want to wear winter boots for hiking.

Hiking Socks

Our feet are very complex structures that are both very sturdy and vulnerable. To better protect our feet, we wear socks together with Hiking Boots. In Hiking, the importance of good socks increases greatly. In this section, we will take a detailed look at Hiking Socks.

Purposes of socks

Hiking Socks need to be able to perform the same functions that our everyday normal socks do but only much better:

  • Socks should reduce friction between your feet and your boots, thereby minimizing the wear and tear on both your feet and boots and reducing the chance of Blisters.
  • Socks should provide your feet with an additional cushioning layer which further protects your feet from bumps, scrapes, and chafing.
  • Socks should protect your Hiking Boots from all the possibly damaging materials our feet shed during walking like moisture.
  • Socks should help your feet maintain their thermal equilibrium by insulating against heat loss while at the same time letting through excess heat and extracting moisture from the skin surface.

Materials & Construction of Socks

Just like everything else in Hiking and Outdoor Activities, socks have also greatly progressed in their sophistication. Modern-day socks often combine a number of materials at different parts of your feet to satisfy that foot part’s exact needs. For instance, you will often find some combination of strong fibers to deal with the added friction in the toe and the heel. On the calves, more stretchable fabrics are used to guarantee a snug fit for different sizes of calves. Wool, cotton, and silk are some of the most common natural materials found in Hiking Socks. Some common synthetic materials include Acrylic, Polyester, Polypropylene, Nylon, Teflon, Lycra, and Spandex.

How to Buy Hiking Socks

Here are some tips in choosing and buying the right Hiking Socks:

  • Hiking Socks often come packed in sealed packages and most of the time, you will not be allowed to take them out of the package and try them on. However, many larger outdoor shops will have one pair of socks for trying.
  • As explained in the previous paragraphs, socks often use different material constructions at different parts to cater to the needs of that foot part. In more technical socks, the manufacturer will often have added details about their choices. Read them and ask your salesperson for advice, especially if you know that you sweat a lot or have certain Feet Conditions.
  • Hiking Socks often come in size ranges rather than exact sizes. In an ideal situation, you would find socks that have a size range where your boot size is in the middle of the range. In that way, you are sure that the sock will not be sloppy or over-stretched.
  • When you go out and buy Hiking Socks, you will want to take your Hiking Boots into account. Thicker Hiking Socks can make snug boots too close-fitting, thus increasing the friction and causing discomfort.

Hiking Rain Gear

During a Hiking trip, the day may begin with a lot of sunshine, but it can be raining afterward, especially when the altitude increases. Every hiker should come in prepared since the weather can change drastically. Hence, having different pieces of Hiking Rain Gear can come in really handy.

Rain jackets and rain pants are the usual pieces of Hiking Rain Gear. Being waterproof, rain jackets and rain pants serve as an effective outer layer. Despite high winds and heavy rains, these can keep you dry, comfortable, and protected from different weather elements.

When shopping for rain jackets, choose the one that has a hood, which is either permanent or removable. Moreover, hoods especially the ones that have drawstrings and visors can keep the rain from streaming into your face.

Another consideration when buying rain jackets is the length of the sleeves. Always choose long-sleeved rain jackets that have adjustable cuffs for these will allow your hands to be covered. You can use rain mittens to keep your hands warm.

The closures on your rain jacket and rain pants should be sealed securely to prevent the rain from seeping into your inner clothing. However, your rain jacket and rain pants should be breathable enough to allow sweat to escape. These should not allow humidity to build up underneath.

Aside from rain jackets and rain pants, nylon ponchos are also an effective outer layer. However, they are only suitable for rain showers and not for thunderstorms. Ponchos would usually billow up during heavy winds, soaking everything underneath. Nevertheless, ponchos allow air flow, making them breathable outer layers.

All your pieces of Hiking Rain Gear should fit in your backpack. Moreover, they should be lightweight enough to carry. All in all, they should be waterproof, wind-resistant, and lightweight. They should also allow air flow and prevent moisture buildup for you to remain dry and comfortable all throughout your Hiking trip.

Trekking Poles

Part of the standard equipment of a hiker or a backpacker is Trekking Poles. They are essential especially when you are in the hills or mountains.

Benefits of using Trekking Poles

Here are the benefits that you can get in using Trekking Poles:

  • Trekking Poles improve your balance and stability, especially on uneven terrain or when carrying heavy loads.
  • Trekking Poles reduce stress on your lower body by letting your arms take some of the strain. This means that using Trekking Poles could save you a lot of energy.
  • Trekking Poles help you to improve your breathing and walking rhythm, thus helping make better use of energy.

What you need to know before buying Trekking Poles

Most poles are very similar in terms of basic design and features. Some common features are listed below:

  • All Trekking Poles are lightweight and made of strong aluminum alloy.
  • Most of the Trekking Poles have 3 telescoping sections. This is for the users to make them customized to their own height and/or different types of terrain. Another advantage is that the Trekking Poles can be packed down quite short for transportation.
  • The Trekking Poles have a straight ski-pole type grip. These are usually made of durable, grippy, and shock absorbing rubber.
  • Look for an adjustable wrist loop. These come in very handy as it will save you a lot of energy because it transfers the load off your hands onto the wrists.
  • All Trekking Poles have a replaceable tungsten carbide tip, for durability and grip on the rock.
  • A small basket goes together when you buy your Trekking Poles. These are designed to stop the pole from sinking into soft ground or mud. If these pole baskets wear out – then you can easily buy replacements for them.

Very fancy Trekking Poles are designed to be anatomic and anti-shock. Anatomic models feature grips that are bent forward by about 15 degrees, reducing stress on the wrist by keeping it in a more neutral position during use. The disadvantage of this design is that it does not pack down as small as the regular Hiking Poles.

Anti-shock models feature built-in shock absorbers to increase user comfort. These Trekking Poles are heavier and more expensive.