What to Wear - How to Dress for a Day Hike
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
I recently talked about last-minute purchases for vacation in Shopping for Our Trip. I usually look into our hiking and camping gear to make sure there isn’t anything we need to upgrade or replace immediately before leaving. That being said, I didn’t talk much into what exactly it is that we wear (or the detailed information about what we pack) for our hiking trips.
One of the absolute most important things for a hiking trip is ensuring comfort. I have had plenty of bad experiences hiking (and running, for that matter), specifically where the shoes I had simply were not working out.
Let’s take a trip back in time. The year is 2014. Zac and I have everything we need for a camping trip packed up in our little 2010 Ford Fusion, but I need some new shoes. We head on over to the closest TJ Maxx, and I find myself a sweet pair of New Balance shoes for cheap.
Fast forward to the trip. We are hiking the trail to see Rainbow Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I am sporting my cool TJ Maxx shoes for the occasion. Within no time at all, my feet start to hurt.
I am not smart enough at the time to carry Body Glide or blister prevention, and there are no band-aids in sight because we also don’t think to have a first aid kit. I am trying my hardest not to complain about my feet because I love hiking, but they keep hurting more and more.
Finally, I say something to Zac. Shortly after, he finds us a sweet shortcut for the route. The shortcut is very visible (meaning other people have taken this route plenty of times), but is more steep than the “main” trail. We take off in that direction. With my feet hurting, I am happy to climb this intense terrain instead of dealing with more mileage.
We hike upwards, upwards, upwards. We continue climbing but do not ever find where the “shortcut” meets the main trail. A half hour has passed by this point. We get high enough up that we finally have some service on our phones and Zac checks his maps. “Uh oh,” he says.
“Uh oh what?” I ask. “What’s the map say?” He slowly hands over his phone and I can see the blip on the map where we are located - and the trail we were supposed to be on nowhere close to us.
At this point, we have to turn back because we have gotten too far away from the trail to even hop back on. As we start trekking back down the ridiculously steep hill, I slide straight onto my butt, tearing up the backs of my arms in the process.
Eventually, we get to the waterfall. It is gorgeous, of course, but we are both tired and I am grouchy because of my feet, the detour, and the fall. We make our way back (on the actual trail), and head to our campsite.
I take off my shoes, and there are pools of blood in each of them. The backs of my heels are so torn up from my shoes that they are completely raw, have soaked blood through my socks, and have left pools of blood on the insides of my shoes.
The moral of the story is that I was a bit concerned I was being a baby about my feet hurting during our hike. When I took my shoes off and saw pools of blood, though, I realized I was actually a total badass for hiking through that the entire time.
A little fun fact is that Zac actually had planned to propose to me on that hike, but decided against it when he realized the mood was absolutely not right. Instead, we got to our campsite, I switched into some flip-flops, we got some food, then we decided to head out to Blue Holes Falls. Blue Holes Falls was a very short hike (less than .25 miles round-trip) so I honestly just sported my flip-flops to avoid additional pain in my feet.
The water there is blue as can be, and people can swim in it when it’s nice enough. He got really close to me, started trying to hug me, and I thought for sure he was trying to throw me into the water. Little did I know that he had an engagement ring in his hand, so when I tried to push him away (again, I thought he was trying to throw me in so I was in self-defense mode), I nearly knocked the ring into the water.
Lord, what a story that would’ve been - I would’ve knocked my own engagement ring right into a giant body of water before he could even propose.
Anyway, the true moral of the entire story is that those shoes sucked. They were absolutely awful, and it was a ridiculous idea to buy a new pair of shoes from TJ Maxx for a hiking trip without ever even attempting to break them in first.
This picture honestly does not do Blue Holes Falls justice, but I love that it was taken in 2020, six years after our engagement in that exact same spot.
This is where the importance of shoe and clothing choices come in. Obviously, for me, the answer is not New Balance. The answer (for everyone) should be what is comfortable. Everyone has a different opinion of what is comfortable, though, so a lot of it is about trial and error. Hopefully, some of the errors I have had can help others avoid them.
Things to Think About for Hiking Shoes
My go-to hiking shoe has always been Merrell. The shoes I have currently are very similar to Women's Moab 2 (but mine are older).
Regular height, mid-rise, or tall boots are going to impact people differently. I tried regular height first, but had issues with my ankles getting too tired after long hikes and rough terrain. Mid-rise boots are perfect for me.
Wearing the shoes before difficult hiking is a great way to work toward breaking them in. Cool of the Wild has a great step-by-step process on finding the right boots and ensuring they are appropriately broken in.
Please do not wear a pair of hiking boots for the very first time for a 5+ mile hike in thin socks.
Making sure to pay attention to sock choices is important, but can often be overlooked. A lot of socks intended for hiking are thicker than “normal” socks or athletic socks. It doesn’t seem like much, but the different thickness can really make a big difference in how the shoe fits.
I love Smartwool socks like these.
Just to be safe, though, it never hurts to carry a small stick of Anti Blister Balm. Having band-aids in a first aid kit is definitely a good idea too.
Things to Think About for Clothes:
Just like with shoes, it’s always a good idea to make sure to wear clothes before a hike. Wearing a new pair of pants or new sports bra (sorry, guys, but you all know that women do it) for the first time on a hike is not a great idea.
First and most importantly, layers all the way. For a hike, it is absolutely necessary to wear layers to ensure comfortability in any possible weather changes.
To get the most awkward layer out of the way first, the underlayers. I will not share my underwear preference - I would hope that anyone reading this already knows what kind of underwear works for them after years and years and years of wearing underwear.
The first layer for women, though, that might be less talked about is the importance of a comfortable sports bra. My go-to for hiking or pretty much anything else is the Bomber Bra.
The next important step is ensuring the base layer is, of course, comfortable. Have you ever heard the comment that “cotton kills”?
According to the NOLS Blog, back in the day, backpackers were taught heavily to avoid cotton. It does not have moisture-wicking properties like many synthetic fabrics do, so sweat and water do not evaporate very quickly with cotton.
This is important to know because cotton is not a good option for places where it can get cold (if the hiker sweats, the water will stay trapped in their shirt, making them very cold very quickly).
Cotton is, however, good for places where the hiker wants to stay very cool: the desert, on a rafting trip, etc.
It also has great properties to help with sun exposure.
Chill Tank and Brilliant Leggings
I typically wear either shorts or leggings for our hikes. Whichever I choose, I am obsessed with options that have pockets. My favorites for hiking are the Brilliant line, with options like these, and the Hustle shorts, with options like these.
For the last layer, I will go for a sweatshirt and/or a jacket. When we hike in Colorado, I never set out without a windbreaker or rain jacket. Their summers have rainy weather every afternoon, so it’s always best to be prepared.
Bomber Jacket (Windbreaker)
If the weather is cooler, of course, a warmer outer layer would be a good idea as well.
Finally, I almost never leave for a hike without a hat - whether that be a trucker hat or a stocking cap, I always have something to wear. In the summer, it’s nice to have some of the direct sunlight away from my face. I feel that it needs no explaining, but in the winter, stocking caps are life.
As mentioned in my story about Zac’s proposal, Body Glide is an absolute lifesaver too. Six years ago, though, I had no idea it could be so beneficial for hiking. Another really important piece for hiking, of course, is a hiking pack or hydration pack, but I already spoke to that in another post.
There it is - my hiking gear in a nutshell. After getting back from a few 6+ hour-long hikes with no clothing dilemmas, I feel that I have a pretty good grasp on what works for me, at least. It's always about what works for each person, though, so as I mentioned before - a lot of it is trial and error. My biggest recommendation would be to try things out for short hikes or walks near home before heading out for any long-distance treks. Blister-free and chafe-free make for a much better hiking experience!