Picking the Best Hiking and Trekking Clothing and Equipment
Here are our recommendations for ensuring that your outings outdoors happen with comfort, performance, and safety. Hopefully your time in the outdoors will be a continuous thing throughout your life. However, even if it’s just for a special journey or “bucket list” trip, you want to make sure you make the best investment and not waste money on the wrong stuff.
Comfort and performance are straightforward, but we also mention safety deliberately. It’s not exaggerating to say that your safety in many situations can depend on having not only the right equipment, but also appropriate clothing. In fact, you’ll see frequent mention of cotton being the “fabric of death”. It sounds dramatic, but this refers to how it’s an awful material for clothing in cold and wet conditions and can easily get you into big trouble.
Let’s dive in and discuss what you want and why. It’s safe to say that for most climates and situations, the concept of layering is powerful. It’s not just about cold conditions, but also anytime that you’re going to face a broad temperature range in even a single day. This can be due to the weather and due to your own activity level. Once you add elevation into the mix, then layering becomes a requirement to your clothing approach.
Underwear and Base Layers
It all starts here at what is directly in contact with your skin. Here, there are synthetic materials available for various sports underwear, but we are huge fans of wool. Wool is an excellent natural fiber that wicks moisture away from your body to keep you dry and regulates temperature extremely well. Have you ever seen an uncomfortable sheep? ?
Our strong advice to most things is invest in quality stuff that will last and you will save money over buying cheap poorly constructed products that you need to discard and replace. Our recommendations for wool underwear are Icebreaker and Smartwool. We also recommend Ex Officio for synthetic underwear that is fantastic for outdoors adventures and everyday life. Our recommendations for wool base layers go to Ice Breaker and Smartwool. Patagonia also makes well-regarded synthetic fiber base layers that you can also consider.
How many you need to buy will be a personal choice around comfort and ability to wash your clothes during your trip. Another wonderful thing about wool is that it’s naturally odor fighting and you can wear them for many days and not get disgusted. Synthetic materials, on the other hand, can easily have you turn your nose after a couple of days. Underwear is light and easy to pack, so 4-6 pieces might be great while top & bottom base layers might be fine around 2-3 pieces.
Hiking and Trekking Pants
We’ve changed our habits over the years to almost never wear shorts anymore in the real outdoors. The reason is that modern active pants are so comfortable and breathable that the disadvantages of wearing shorts makes them unnecessary. Long pants will protect you from abrasion, hot surfaces, no need for sun screen and the attracted dirt & product mess, protect from tick bites & other unwelcome intruders, and just overall cleanliness.
While base layer recommendations stay the same for virtually all activities and environments, recommendation will vary for hiking and trekking pants. Here, you need to consider your environment and the specific climate and temperature ranges you will be facing. For example, we opted for tougher trekking pants that had extra abrasion and weather protection for our recent Mt. Everest Base Camp Trek in Nepal which was in the middle of winter. If we were to do this same trip during the Spring or early Fall, however, we would’ve opted for lighter hiking pants.
Specifically, we opted for so-called soft-shell pants that are made of a highly technical fabric and offer not only abrasion protection, but are also weather repellent and breathable. Here are some brands that do a particularly good job: Mammut and Mountain Hardwear, but you can also consider Outdoor Research and Marmot.
The beauty about buying specific hiking or trekking shirts is that you probably shouldn’t. If you pick your base layers well in terms of comfort, fit, and warmth, you really shouldn’t need a separate assortment of hiking shirts. You can opt for a technical button-front shirt for style or additional layering, perhaps. If so, then Patagonia and The North Face are good choices. But, again, we almost never find a need for this and you can and should simplify your packing (and invest elsewhere).
Just like the base layer, you want to continue the well-designed outfit with a highly capable insulation layer. You can look at what’s on the market in this category in two broad categories; various thickness/warmth fleece layers (Polartec 100, 200, etc.) and more specialized & technical synthetics (Polartec Power Stretch, Wind Block, or various “puffy” pullovers, jackets, and vests.).
This can get confusing quick having so many choices and combinations, but we recommend having one mid-weight fleece jacket as it’s hard to go wrong with this approach. We recommend Patagonia and The North Face.
What you want for this layer is something that is highly moisture and wind resistant. There are, again, a lot of choices and ways you can go here. But, for hiking and trekking in moderate conditions, we recommend a simple shell layer to nicely supplement your base and insulation layers. It can be what’s called a hard-shell or a soft-shell, which act and feel just like they sound. Soft-shell outer layers may not have all the weather-proof abilities of a hard-shell, but they are an excellent choice for most conditions and are surprisingly good at most everything. Here are some we recommend from Mammut, Marmot, and The North Face.
Comfort and clothing are highly personal things and people have unique needs in terms of warmth. Depending on the conditions you expect and time of year, many people prefer to also have a “puffy” jacket that uses either goose down or synthetic insulation to stay warm at night, when not exerting themselves, or in very cold conditions. Here is a classic choice from The North Face.
- Head – We love Outdoor Research hats for sun protection, especially a wide-brimmed one. You’ll also want an Icebreaker or Smartwool beanie underneath for higher elevations or colder temps. You can also opt for a Patagonia knit cap.
- Neck – It weighs close to nothing and takes no space, but it can produce an enormous difference in your comfort & warmth. We’re talking about the super versatile Buffs and we recommend a thin Buff and a thicker polar Buff.
- Gloves – Depending on time of year and conditions, it’s wise or consider a thin pair for general warmth and a thicker weather-proof one for harsher conditions. Outdoor Research and The North Face are both excellent brands to consider.
- Trekking Poles – These can be a tremendous knee and thigh savers for you and we highly recommend a pair. They will help you not only for impact of going downhill, but also trick trails can become more assured with four feet instead of two. As well, going uphill with an effective striding motion with your stick can become a full-body workout instead of just relying on your legs to do all the work. Leki is an excellent classic brand and we also recommend, our personal favorite, Black Diamond.
- Sunglasses – You need to protect your eyes with quality sunglasses, especially at high elevations and harsher sunlight conditions. The most noteworthy mountain brand of sunglasses is Julbo.
- Socks – We highly recommend Darn Tough Socks and those from Smartwool. You really can’t go wrong with either of these excellent brands. We recommend about 5 pairs.
Hiking & Trekking Boots
Clothing is critical to comfort and safety in the outdoors, but equally important is how happy your feet are. You can be perfectly comfortable, health, and well-fed during your adventure and something as simple as a couple of blisters can mean you will be evacuated by a helicopter. This is not far-fetched as we had this exact thing happen to a fellow trekker last winter on the way back from Mt. Everest Base Camp.
What we recommend is a sturdy and full-featured hiking boot that will last you many years, keep your feet happy, and provide excellent performance out on the trail. While a heavy backpacking boot may be too much, we recommend not straying too far lower on the scale of durability and support. As a reference, Julie wears the Zamberlan Vioz 996 and Shawn wears the Lowa Camino GTX hiking boot. The Zamberlan is a full backpacking boot, while the Lowa is a heavy-duty trekking boot for lighter pack journeys. Both are excellent for the toughest of treks and in 4-season conditions.
Sometimes, you’ll also see a recommendation to bring a separate “trainer” or lighter trail shoe on your extended treks. It’s definitely a good idea to have something other than your main boots for going to the bathroom in a Nepali tea-house at night or just to take a break from wearing your boots all day and having something more cozy in the evening. If you did want a trail shoe, solid choices are Merrell and Salomon. But, you may consider just a light and easy-to-pack pair of Crocs, instead.
Clothing and boots are critical for your comfort & performance on the trail, but your pack will also play a key role in how happy you will be out there. The technology of packs is changing rapidly and even a 5-year-old pack can be considered ancient today. The good news is that today’s packs are amazing in their features, thoughtfulness, comfort & ergonomics, and weight. There are several top brands, but it’s virtually impossible to go wrong with Osprey and Gregory packs.
If you are doing a lighter adventure or have the luxury of much of your gear not being on your own back, then around a 40-liter day-pack is ideal. If you have all of your journey’s needs on your own back, then a 60+ liter extended backpacking pack is what you’ll want.
Here are additional items that you’ll want to bring on your trek:
- Headlamp – The most popular ones are those from Petzl and Black Diamond. You don’t need anything special, anything around $30-40 should be more than sufficient.
- Towel – The most effective and easy to carry are microfiber travel towels.
- Sleeping Bag Liner – If you’re trekking an established route and sleeping bags are provided for you, a sleeping bag liner is something you may want to consider for hygiene and/or warmth.
- Electrolytes – You want to replenish those minerals that you lose during your trek and a fantastic way to do that and liven up the taste of your water is with Hammer Nutrition Fizz. You just drop one or more into your water container and you’re ready to go.
- Personal Wipes – Beyond toilet paper, you’ll want some hygiene wipes to get you clean and refreshed after your do your business.
- Toiletries – You should bring what you need, but be mindful of bringing more than necessary and how much waste you’ll generate. The basics should be sufficient like toothbrush, toothpaste, tooth floss, a small amount of concentrated soap, aspirin, sun screen, lip balm, and blister moleskin.
For easy reference, here’s a checklist of recommended items:
- Underwear (4-6 pieces)
- Base layer (top and bottom, 2+ pieces each)
- Insulation layer
- Hiking pants (2+ pieces)
- Outer layer (weather- and wind-proof)
- Sun hat (wide-brimmed)
- Warm head cover (beanie or knit cap)
- Buffs (1 x light and 1 x warm)
- Gloves (1 x lighter and 1 x weather-proof and heavier)
- Socks (5+ pairs)
- Heavy-duty trekking boots or backpacking boots
- Backpack (40L dayback or 60L+ backpacking variety)
- Trekking poles
- Sunglasses (extra pair is smart as this is a critical piece often and you’re in trouble if one breaks or is lost)
- Travel towel
- Sleeping bag liner
- Personal wipes
- Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, tooth floss, soap, aspirin, sun screen, lip balm, and blister moleskin