What Clothing To Wear on a Day Hike
You have heard the saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. When it comes to hiking this couldn’t be more true.
We tend to hike in all sorts of weather and situations. Or we venture to places where the weather can change quickly. And it’s the clothing that we wear that is the difference between being reasonably comfortable no matter the weather, or having a horrible time, or even worse finding yourself in a dangerous situation. It can be that extreme in hiking: choosing the wrong clothes could potentially be deadly.
In this blog we explore how to best to dress for a day hike. A day hike for you might be a 4.1km East-West Track in the You Yangs or it could be a full day hike like the Federal Pass Track in the Blue Mountains. I’m a believer in being fully prepared so what you wear on a short day hike won’t differ much to what you might take on a full day slog. Clothes are light. Pack them.
The Erskine River Walking Track near Lorne, Victoria, in the Great Otway National Park. A beautiful 15km, 5-6 hour day hike on the Great Ocean Road. Yep, the namesake for Ottie Merino's 'Otway Fern' colour.
Here’s what I recommend you wear or pack for a day hike. We’ll go from top to toe. (Don't want to read the whole thing? We've popped just the the list in bullet point form below.)
Wide Brimmed Hat
There’s generally a rule of thumb with hats. The daggier it looks, the better it will protect you. Probably put away that cool basketball cap—though any hat is better than no hat—and choose one that has a wide brim and shades your face, ears, and neck. The humble ol’ legionnaires hat you might’ve worn as a kid—”no hat, no play”... does that take you back?—is a decent option.
What’s the benefit of wearing a beanie? Well, it’ll keep your head warm. Some will tell you that you lose an awful lot of warmth through your head but the science suggests otherwise.
But, that doesn’t mean you don’t want to keep your head like every other part of the body warm. And in really cold conditions the insulation will be required.
Choose a beanie that can be pulled down to cover your ears. In crisp conditions your ears will get cold, quick.
A good merino beanie will wick moisture too, keeping you drier and warmer for longer.
If merino wool isn’t your thing go synthetic. Whatever you do, don't choose a cotton beanie. (Do they even exist?) Once it is wet—with your sweat or rain—it will stay wet for a long time, undoing those thermal qualities.
In good conditions you might not need to wear your beanie and you’ll don the hat instead. But, keep it in the bag anyway just in case. I consider my merino beanie to be part of my ‘just in case’ kit. Better in my daypack than at home, right?
I probably don’t need me to tell you why to wear sunglasses when hiking. So, I won’t.
Wear them. They’re sensible. And choose a pair with polarised lenses if you can. Especially if you want to spot some trout in that stunning mountain stream you’re hiking alongside.
Chance of snow—and snowblindness—sunnies are a must.
A neck warmer is an optional piece of hiking clothing. But, in these COVID times they double nicely as a mask, should you not want to breathe over your fellow trail users. And, they can also be used as a bandana, balaclava, hand towel, and many other things.
I don’t actually carry one, but many do. Or, a lightweight alternative like a Buff.
Merino Wool T-Shirt
I wear a short sleeve merino t-shirt for most of my hiking. An Ottie Merino of course. A long sleeve is a good idea for insulation and sun protection.
Why merino wool and not some other material? Well, we’ve written all about the benefits of merino wool here. Merino has many many upsides over synthetic materials and don’t even get us started on cotton. Whatever you do, don’t hike in cotton. Not only can it become really uncomfortable when you’re sweaty or if you get hit by a downpour, but it’s hypothermia waiting to happen in extreme conditions. We've written too on how merino keeps you both cool and warm—say it with me... wonder fabric!
Hiking the East-West Track in the You Yangs Regional Park, west of Melbourne. The You Yangs is a great day hike destination only an hour or so from Melbourne CBD and really close to those in the western suburbs. Loads of different hiking tracks to do. Oops, where's his (my) hat?
Some old school ‘bushwalkers’ like to wear old, oversized synthetic dress shirts they find in op shops when hiking. It’s a bit of an aesthetic really. And, there are plenty of benefits in dressing like this—a nice stiff collar to keep the sun off the neck, they’re pretty breezy if you leave them somewhat unbuttoned, and long sleeves. But, you’ll stink.
Now, the stuff to keep you warm.
“But, can I wear my all in one jacket/parka when I am hiking?” I hear you ask. Well, you can but in hiking we prefer to layer our clothing. The benefit of layering is you can shed layers as you warm up and add them as you cool down.
A few years back I was hiking the Travers Sabine Track in New Zealand. The day started at Upper Travers Hut and I would be making the entire 30km journey back to St Arnaud that day. The hut and the upper valley around it was cloaked in thick snow. I started my day fully layered up. Thermal top and bottoms. Shorts over the thermal bottoms. Fleece. Rain coat. Gloves and merino beanie. It was freezing. But, I knew I would warm up as I pushed down the valley and as the sun rose higher in the sky. An hour in I was down to a short sleeve merino t-shirt, shorts over the long johns still, and just the beanie on my head as it was comfy. The beauty of layering.
I own a few fleeces in various weights. I tend to carry my lightweight Berghaus Prism PT IA fleece with a full-length zip most of the time.
Can you wear a down jacket instead of a fleece on a day hike? I love down jackets but you’re going to cook. Plus, they’re bulky—especially under a rain jacket—and your backpack is likely to crush the back of your jacket stopping it from doing its thing. Popping in your toasty warm down jacket is nice at camp or in the hut, but they’re not so practical on the track unless you’re in crazy cold conditions.
In fancy hiking speak we refer to this as a ‘shell layer’. It’s job is to keep the rain and wind off. This is a non-negotiable. You should always have a rain jacket in your backpack.
No ands-ifs-or-buts, keep a raincoat in your daypack.
I recently bought a Patagonia—yes, yes Patagucci—Torrentshell 3L and have put it to the test in some pretty wet conditions up in the Australian Alps and it came through with flying colours.
Pack a good rain jacket no matter the hike.
A pair of lightweight insulated gloves takes up no space in your pack and will keep the fingertips nice and warm should the temperature drop. On most day hikes, my gloves live in the daypack unused along with my beanie but there if I need them.
Nothing much needs to be said here. I’m not your mother! :)
Merino undies will keep you dry, comfy, and odour-free.
To pant or to short, that is the question. Personally, I’m a shorts guy. I wear them year round on the track no matter the weather. In cold conditions I’ll layer. I’ll throw some merino bottoms underneath and then remove that layer when I warm up. (I’m a fashionista, what can I say.) Or I’ll just wear shorts.
Occasionally I’ll wear some Mountain Hardwear climbing pants.
It you’re into it or if you’re up in the alps, carrying a pair of waterproof rain pants isn’t a bad idea. I’ve never worn them and have always gone the longjohn + shorts route instead but they’ll obviously keep you dry. Unless of course you experience ultra sweaty legs—things can have breathability issues I hear.
"Thermals? On a day hike?" I can hear many people’s hands rubbing their chins at the moment, in wonder of whether this is sound advice. But, why not?
This comes back to emergency prep. We tend to go into a day hike expecting to come back that night. But what if something happens? Having a set of thermals in the pack could come in handy. Are they weigh sweet f-all.
A most underrated piece of gear, the gaiter. They’re not snake proof but they will give you a pretty good chance of avoiding a bite to the ankle. (More on snake safety here.) You can get them in knee and ankle high varieties—I prefer the short ones—and not only will they help with snake protection and build a bit of confidence passing through that prime bit of red belly bracken down near the creek but they’ll help protect your legs from all sorts of prickles and thistles and to keep the mud and water out of your boots or shoes.
Merino. Your choice on length—I'll go a long sock if I'm wearing a boot and an ankle sock if I'm wearing train shoes. Check out the Humphrey Laws we stock. They’re ethically made in Australia just like us!
Said it before, will say it again. No cotton.
Trail Shoes or Hiking Boots
And we reach the end of the list and the bottom of your hiking body.
It's the great debate in hiking: hiking boots vs trail shoes. I've almost entirely moved to the trail shoe camp in recent years, but that's mostly because I don't do a lot of hardcore stuff. Mostly short and day hikes, with the odd multi-dayer thrown in.
A good sturdy hiking boot or trail shoe will allow you to comfortably keep on your feet all day. My boots are by Scarpa and my trail shoes by Salomon. In recent years I have shifted almost entirely to trail shoes. I tend to drag out the boots on long, multi-day hikes where the terrain may be more varied and fatigue more present, so the risk of misplaced steps and ankle injuries are greater.
Here’s a great blog by our mate John Feeney on how to choose hiking boots.
Here’s the ‘tl;dr’ version of this day hike clothing list, if you’re wondering:
- Merino Wool Beanie
- Polarised Sunglasses
- Neck Warmer/Buff
- Merino Wool T-Shirt
- Rain Jacket/Shell Layer
- Merino Wool Socks
- Hiking Boots/Trail Shoes
This list of clothing to wear when day hiking may seem like an overkill for a short stroll through the Dandenong Ranges or Adelaide Hills but the beauty of a day hike is you can carry a small pack with minimum weight, so you have plenty of room to spare to throw in a few extra lightweight pieces of clothing ‘just in case’ or for maximum comfort and cosiness should the weather be a few degrees colder than you expected up in the hills.
In fact, I made this mistake recently. Checked the weather forecast for Melbourne. Fine, mild conditions. No wind and no rain. We drove an hour west and there was a drizzle the whole hike and the wind had picked up. It wasn’t cold, but the rain coat came in very handy to keep the rain off and the wind from hitting our slight damp bodies.Want to learn more about Ottie Merino? Check out some great hiking content? Maybe even snag a discount code from time to time? Sign up for emails.