Being well-dressed in the wilderness has nothing to do with how you look but a great deal to do with how comfortable you are, how warm, how dry — and perhaps how well. In general, old clothes are better than new ones as long as they are in good repair, and loose-fitting clothes are preferable to tight ones provided they do not bunch up.
Dress in layers whenever you go hiking. Several lightweight shirts will insulate better than one heavy one. Layering also lets you match your clothing to the changing weather: three layers for a chilly morning, one during a warm afternoon, two for a cool evening by the campfire.
Avoid elastic bands, tight straps, and anything that binds or constricts; irritations intensify quickly on the trail. Cotton T-shirts prevent sunburn and protect against chafing from pack straps on hot days. Fishnet mesh undershirts and bottoms are the better choice for your base layer and they are good for all seasons. Wear them underneath your shirt as they trap warm air, worn alone they allow for ventilation. Thermal underwear and woolen long johns are warm in winter and comfortable on chilly evenings, but they can get steamy inside while hiking.
Basic Clothing Layer
Many hikers and backpackers swear by army-style fatigue trousers with large cargo pockets, but any loose-fitting cotton or woolen work pants will work well too. The problem with western-style denim jeans is that, like cowboy boots, they are designed for horseback riding, not walking. The tight crotch, especially with a new pair, can restrict movement, even to the point of being painful. Avoid bulky belt loops, big buckles, and similar items around the waist. They can become sheer instruments of torture under the waistband of a heavy pack. Bring a long-sleeved, long-tailed cotton or woolen work shirt, depending on the climate you are hiking in. It’s a good idea to carry one or two woolen sweaters for extra layers of insulation when needed.
Outer Clothing Layer
A lightweight (5-6 ounce) water-repellent nylon parka shell is a good windbreaker and fair protection from rain. A zippered neck opening allow you to let heat out and fresh air in without removing an entire layer. Down-filled shirts, vest, and jackets are unbeatable insulation as long as the down remains dry. They require the same care as filled sleeping bags. Bulky down-filled parkas are hardly needed except in near-arctic conditions. A rain poncho can cover both you and your pack and can double as a tarp. To keep it from flapping in the wind, sew cloth strips on it to tie around your waist.
Cotton, Wool, and Synthetic Fabrics
Hiking clothes come in many types and fabrics. Be aware that clothing does not generate heat; it conserves the heat your body produces by surrounding your body in dead-air space. Complications arise because the skin also expels about a quart of water a day — even more when you are active. If this moisture remains next to the skin, it drains body heat away through conduction and evaporation. Both cotton and wool absorb moisture but in different ways. Cotton fibers swell, eventually closing the spaces between them to form a solid soggy wall, the wetter cotton becomes, the poorer the insulation it makes.
On the other hand, wool fibers act like conduits or wicks, carrying water away from the body while preserving their own shape and texture. Even when soaking wet, wool maintains a good insulating air layer. For extra warmth, wear wool next to your skin. To keep cool, wear a light layer of cotton.
Synthetics, such as nylon, do not absorb moisture; they are of value as insulation only if no water collects between the fibers. Tightly woven, they may be almost impermeable, making for good protective outer wear. However, a fabric that keeps rain out also keeps water in. Though protected by a rainproof jacket, you can still find yourself and your clothing sopping wet. Attempts to resolve this dilemma, have in recent years produced a “wonder fabric” sold under a variety of trade names. It is formed by laminating a thin resin film between two layers of nylon. Its tiny pores are said to repel liquid while still allowing water vapor to escape.
Why You Should Wear a Hat
There are tiny blood vessels on the top of our head that keeps the brain cool by continuously giving off heat. When the sun is beating down — even if the air is cool at higher elevations — the body’s natural ventilating system can be blocked. The body compensates by cutting down the blood supply to the brain. Mental activity is slowed, and the rest of the body overheats, perhaps resulting in sunstroke. You can guard against this danger by wearing a headscarf or lightweight hat.
In cold weather the body sacrifices the hands and feet for the sake of the brain. When the demand for warmth is great, blood vessels in these extremities constrict, forcing blood up into the head. Because heat continues to be lost from the top of the head, the process can escalate, possibly leading to hypothermia or frostbite. When your hands and feet start to get cold, put on a wool hat to help conserve your body’s warmth.
A hat is also the best way to keep the sun’s rays from burning your face. Pick out a high-quality hiking hat with a wide brim that is waterproof, lightweight and breathable. You’ll find it very handy to shed rain if you run into showers or a storm.
Going Shopping for Hiking Gear?
Here is some expert advice from REI Co-op of the basics you will need to outfit yourself for any hiking excursion. Choose wisely because the best clothing will make all the difference in the quality of your outdoor adventure.
- Avoid denim jeans: Jeans that are too tight will not comfortable on long hiking trips. They will end up chafing you.
- Sturdy and comfortable pants:These types of pants will help you move freely and at the same time keep boulder and branches from tearing through.
- Pick nylon, polyester, nylon wool underlayers: These
are the best materials since they dry fast as they move sweat off skin so use them for underlayers such as socks, long underwear, t-shirts, briefs, and sports bras. Handling moisture well makes these fabrics a good choice for most of your clothing too. Cotton is okay but holds water and dries slowly, you’ll feel more sweaty when it is hot and chilly if things turn wet and cold.
- A jacket that is warm: Choose a simple polyester fleece jacket or a water-resistant polyester or down filled lightweight puffy jacket if conditions are colder.
- A jacket for rain: Find a breathable, waterproof jacket. Breathable is important so you can sweat. In very wet weather you may want to include rain pants.
- A hat with a brim: Protect your head and face from the rain and sun. Sunglasses are important to include as well.
- Hiking boots: Footwear should be more than just sneakers. Your feet and ankles need support and protection. Read more here about what you need to look for when choosing the best hiking boot for your needs.
Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains
I’ve hiked just about all the day trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. Even the longer ones can be done without camping overnight. There are no words to be said about the experience of meeting a black bear half-way up the mountain dining on a honey log, then standing up to observe our small party of hikers deep in the wilderness. Or to walk along a stream on a winding trail only to have the woods open up to a small meadow of exquisite wildflowers covering the sunlit floor like a carpet. Our family is certainly fortunate to live so close to a major national park, but in most every part of this country within a short drive you can experience a hiking adventure and have contact with nature, even if just for a couple of hours. To have a great time, remember to dress with appropriate clothing and don’t forget to take along a camera!