Hiking Essentials - What to Bring
Please note: if you'll be hiking with Wild Earth Adventures, you'll find a list and brief discussion of recommended items of equipment and clothing that you'll need for our trips on the Trip Info & Fees page. If you're new to our trips, please go to that page first.
This page offers a much more detailed discussion of everything that's appropriate for day hiking, whether you’ll be venturing out from home or hiking from a wilderness campsite. It makes sense to bring these things for safety and comfort in the natural world.
Additional items that pertain solely to camping and backpacking (sleeping bags, tents, etc.) are briefly discussed on our Wilderness Camping & Backpacking page.
The protection of your feet should be given top priority when hiking. Foot pain or discomfort can quickly take the fun out of hiking, and an injury could prevent you from walking at all. Hiking boots are designed to provide comfort and support for the feet and ankles while walking on rough ground.
Wearing them will reduce the wear and tear on your feet and minimize the risk of an injury. They'll also help keep your feet dry when hiking in wet conditions. But be aware that since hiking boots need to be breathable, most so-called "waterproof" hiking boots will eventually let water in. Only plastic or rubber boots can be truly waterproof, but hiking boots aren't usually made of such materials because your feet can become hot and sweaty in no time (not good).
By definition a shoe is cut below the ankle and a boot usually goes up well above the ankle, typically from 4 to 7 inches high. Modern hiking boots are usually amply padded, but shouldn't offer a lot of flexibility at the ankles. Most have a rugged lug sole (like a tire tread) that will provide good traction on a variety of surfaces. The sole should also be somewhat rigid, which makes maintaining balance while walking on sharp rocks or tree roots much easier.
A minority of hikers “get away with” wearing sneakers or other soft shoes on even the most rugged hiking trails. Some resist wearing boots because of the sense that they’re too heavy or uncomfortable (which at one time was more likely to be true than today), or because of a bad experience with poorly-fitted boots.
Less-experienced hikers may be unaware of the risks. Without boots it’s much easier to twist an ankle or sustain a more serious injury by slipping or stumbling and falling. Also, if the trail is wet, sneakers will be soaked almost instantly, and in cool or cold weather this will be uncomfortable and occasionally even dangerous.
The most sensible choice for day hiking is a light-to-medium-weight boot that will provide decent support but also a bit of flexibility. In the past, breaking in boots could be a major task, but with today’s lightweights there’s little or no breaking in required, and such boots are often extremely comfortable. Some of the very lightest, however, don’t provide enough ankle support. To keep the risk of an injury to a minimum, make sure your boots don't flex much at the ankles.
In buying boots the most important thing of all is finding a good fit. Buying online or by mail order is always a risky business, since there’s probably at least a 50% chance or better that a particular pair of boots that are your size nevertheless aren’t a great fit. Because of the hassle involved in shipping them back, you may be reluctant to return boots if the fit is close but not quite right -- whereas in a store you can keep trying things on until you get the one that’s best for you. Even if you don’t live near a store that carries hiking boots, it’s worth making a trip to purchase them.
Some aspiring hikers decide on boots based on their appearance, or a particular brand recommended by a friend or salesperson -- taking only a few moments to try them on, and then discover later that the boots don’t fit properly. Spend as much time as necessary in a store walking around with the boots on.
If you decide to buy, wear them at home for a while before taking them on a hike. Many stores will accept returns if the boots haven’t been worn outside -- although a growing number of stores will now take boots back if they're unsatisfactory for any reason, even if you've hiked in them. If you have any doubt about the fit, don’t buy them. And ask at the store about whether the boots you may want to buy are returnable or not once you've worn them outside.
Until you get a pair that feels really good (although if you're new to hiking boots, you'll need to adjust to some unfamiliar stiffness), keep trying different boots, other stores, or return to shop for boots another time. Comfortable boots can make hiking a joy, while poorly fitted (blister-or-pain-producing) boots could very easily spoil the whole experience.
It’s best to buy hiking boots and all other gear from a store that specializes in top quality equipment and clothing, and that has knowledgeable salespeople. A good salesperson can help a lot with the process. Useful tips include that it’s important to have plenty of space in front of the toes so that when you’re hiking steeply downhill, your toes won’t bang against the often hard inside front of the boot.
Try kicking the floor to see if your toes hit the front. They shouldn’t. At the same time, there mustn’t be too much space around the ankles, or your foot may constantly slip up and down at the heel, leading to general discomfort and possible blisters. Be sure to wear heavy hiking socks when trying on boots (some stores have “try-on socks” available).
Remember that no brand of boot will fit everyone. The shape of your foot may not conform to that of the boot, and your usual size might not provide a good fit. Keep trying on different boots until you find the right one.
Most boots require some maintenance to sustain a long life. Leather will eventually dry out and usually requires the application of wax or oil to avoid cracking. Some hiking boots are reasonably waterproof when purchased, while others will require an application of waterproofing. The procedures vary depending on the particular boots and the materials used in making them. A salesperson will usually have information about caring properly for the boots being purchased.
Other kinds of boots (and less-protective footwear, including sandals) are sometimes used for hiking. Among the many alternatives are “work boots,” army boots, and various outdoor boots. Some are rather similar in construction to hiking boots, and may be perfectly adequate. Most, however, will not offer nearly as much ankle support (there may only be thin leather or nylon around the ankle).
Certain boots are insulated for cold weather, which means they’re probably going to be too hot for use during the warmer seasons. Boots that come up much higher than the ankles will sometimes be uncomfortable for hiking. If you already own boots that you believe might suffice, try venturing out on a reasonably rough hiking trail and see how well they do.
Good hiking boots will give years (and hundreds or even thousands of miles) of service. The best boots tend to be somewhat expensive, adding up to an investment, although some of the nylon lightweights remain quite reasonable in price. Top quality hiking boots generally run in the range of $100-$200, although you can also pay a lot more. Some of the lightweights are available for as little as $50-$75 or less, especially on sale.
Bargains exist, but beware of inexpensive boots than may be on the flimsy side and probably aren’t going to last long (and in fact could come apart on the trail, leaving you in the lurch at the worst possible time, which we’ve witnessed happening to unfortunate hikers quite a few times over the years).
Rainwear for Hiking
Rain must always be considered a possibility in the mountains of the northeastern United States, no matter what the forecast may be. It can come suddenly and unexpectedly, especially in the higher mountains. Temperatures occasionally drop drastically during a storm, high winds may arise, and the rain itself can be quite cold. Anyone hiking without rainwear in such conditions could be in trouble. In the worst possible case, getting soaked and badly chilled might mean life-threatening hypothermia.
Most rain doesn’t turn out to be a big deal, however, and it often doesn’t last long. But having protection is essential. Those of us who hike in a variety of mountain and wilderness settings get in the habit of ALWAYS bringing raingear along. The exception, of course, is if you're hiking in the desert or other areas that receive little or no precipitation.
In all other places and circumstances it’s best to carry rainwear, no matter how positive the weather forecast may sound or how beautiful the morning sky appears. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself caught in an unpredicted storm, and having the rainwear along will make life a lot safer and more comfortable for you.
Many people place an unreasonable amount of trust in weather forecasts, and this is a habit well worth breaking. Accurate predictions are especially difficult to obtain for mountain areas, where changeable weather tends to be the norm. It makes sense to pay special attention to any warnings about severe weather, but otherwise it’s best to have few expectations and be ready for ALL possible weather. There are many days when rain is predicted that turn out to be dry and sunny in the mountains, and other days when the rain does materialize without a hint of warning in the forecast.
In choosing rainwear you have an ever-growing number of options, including quite a range of expensive high-tech raingear. For a long time one of the most popular choices was a simple nylon poncho, with hood attached. Ponchos are still worn by quite a few hikers, and a poncho has advantages that include being loose-fitting and “air-conditioned,” it typically protects the body down to the knees, and it can double as an emergency tarp when opened up.
Disadvantages include the fact that you can step on the bottom of the poncho and stumble when hiking up a steep trail, and in high winds a poncho may snap and capture the wind like a sail. Those are some of the reasons why lightweight rain jackets and parkas are much more in favor these days. Since they're not nearly as long as ponchos, on a rainy day it's helpful to wear lightweight rain pants as well -- less important in warm weather, nearly essential on cold days.
While you can easily spend $100-$200 or more for top-of-the-line rainwear, you should also still be able to find a simple rain jacket for $50-$75 or less, especially online. The lighter and more compact the better, so you can keep it in your day pack whenever you're hiking. Avoid all vinyl and other cheap plastic rainwear. While it might do in an emergency, vinyl can easily tear and come apart when snagged on a bush or tree branch, and may not hold up for long in a strong wind.
It’s vital to drink water while hiking. You’ll usually need to bring along what’s required for the entire hike. The water you may encounter in the natural world -- in rivers, streams, lakes and ponds -- must always be considered suspect because of the potential for contamination. On some Wild Earth Adventures hikes we do drink water from remote springs located high in the mountains, but other sources may be risky.
Your need for water varies depending on a number of variables, including your water intake during the previous couple of days, air temperature and humidity, whether you’re hiking in direct sunlight or shade, what kind of physical condition you’re in, and how strenuously you’re exercising. Insufficient intake of water can have serious ramifications, especially in hot weather, when you could be at risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Symptoms of dehydration can include dizziness, fatigue, and headaches. Most headaches that occur during or after hikes, in fact, seem to be caused by dehydration. When in doubt, don’t skimp on water -- drink as much as possible while hiking. In recent years there have been quite a few articles in the media warning about the danger of drinking too much, which really applies only to people going to extremes (especially while racing, etc.) In the experience of some of us, insufficient intake while exercising is a more common problem.
Individual needs naturally differ a lot, but for most people a bare minimum of one liter or quart of water may suffice for a few hours of relatively easy hiking in cool weather -- although your body will actually lose much more water than that, and you’ll need to make up the difference afterwards. In warmer temperatures, and for more strenuous hiking, a minimum of 2-3 liters or quarts is recommended, and a gallon for long-distance, hot-weather hiking.
However much you bring, it’s still possible to become a bit dehydrated, and thirst alone won’t tell you how much your body needs. To avoid the potentially unhealthy consequences of dehydration, it’s a good idea to drink plenty of water throughout the evening following a hike (and also try to drink lots of water the day BEFORE you’ll be hiking, so you’ll be starting the hike fully hydrated).
A large assortment of water bottles and other liquid-carriers are available. Hard plastic water bottles have been popular for many years, and the ones made for hiking are almost indestructible. In contrast, the bottles that spring water is sold in, made of thin plastic, will sometimes split open under pressure inside your pack or when dropped. Useful sizes for hiking include 1, 1 ½, and 2 liters.
In warm or hot weather you can put your water bottle in the freezer overnight, if you want, to have ice water for the hike. If you do this, be sure to leave a half-inch or so of air space at the top of the container (since water expands when freezing, and could crack even the sturdiest bottle if it’s full to the brim).
In cold weather some people prefer to bring a thermos filled with tea, coffee, hot chocolate, soup, etc. The only drawback of a thermos is that it’s bulker than other containers. Be sure that any thermos or other container you bring is completely unbreakable. Bringing anything in a glass container is taking a foolish risk, since it could easily shatter inside your pack if the pack is dropped or banged against a rock.
A day pack is a small frameless backpack that has enough room for everything you’ll need on a day hike: lunch, water, rainwear, extra clothing, and perhaps a few small additional items like bug repellant, a camera, etc. A day pack is by far the best way to carry these things, as it leaves the arms and hands free and doesn’t interfere with movement.
A shoulder bag might do in a pinch, especially for a short hike, but it’ll be less comfortable than a pack. Attempting to carry anything in your hands tends to be tiring and cumbersome. Hiking is easiest and most enjoyable when you have both hands free, and you may need to use your hands at times for support or balance, or to hold onto a walking stick or hiking poles.
Day packs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Many have multiple pockets or compartments that provide a means of organizing the items you bring. To some extent, the larger the capacity, the better, because in colder weather you'll want to be able to pack in additional layers of clothing (without such capacity you may have to tie some items of clothing around your waist, which is less than ideal).
Virtually all packs are initially coated for supposed waterproofness, but one should never trust that a pack will keep all water or moisture out, especially after it has been used a number of times. Any items that you want to keep dry, like extra clothing, are best wrapped in plastic bags. You can also buy a rain cover for your pack (or if you wear a poncho in the rain, it will cover the pack and provide rain protection).
Day pack prices generally range from $40-$80 and up. Much less expensive packs are widely available in non-outdoor stores, but many are of lower quality and not nearly as durable. A good pack should give several years or more of service.
Any day pack you’re considering buying should be tried on with some weight inside. Many of them will feel comfortable, but the positioning of the shoulder straps and other design features won’t always be right for your back.
There are also many larger packs on the market, including medium-size “weekender packs”, designed for light overnight use, and full-size internal or external frame packs made for extended overnight trips. These are unnecessarily large for day hiking.
Map and Compass
If you’ll be hiking with an organized group like Wild Earth Adventures, you won’t need to bring a map, a compass, or a guidebook. If you’ll be hiking alone, however, or with friends, it’s essential that you (or one or more of your companions) carry a map and compass and know how to use them. At some point it’s not a bad idea to obtain and carry a compass even when hiking with a group.
Entering a wild natural area alone without a compass or map is asking for trouble, since your potential for getting lost is greatly increased. Carrying a guidebook for the area you’ll hiking in is also recommended, assuming one is available. The best way to learn how you use a compass, or to read a hiking map, is from other hikers or the person who’s guiding your group hike (books are also available on the subject).
In recent years many more hikers are carrying GPS or a smartphone, of course, that they're using for navigation -- and sometimes have no map, compass, or other means of finding their way. Remember that any device can fail and leave you in the lurch. Also, not everyone is aware that GPS can have errors and give wrong readings in remote areas.
The author of these words, who hikes in wild areas 3-4 times a week, runs into an average of several lost people per year -- and some are carrying devices that they depended on to find their way. EVERY group or individual should carry at least one map and compass and know how to use them, period!
First Aid Kit
This is another item that you don’t necessarily need to bring if you’ll be hiking with a club (since the guide and others will have one), but in any group it should be mandatory that one or more persons carry a kit. This is an item that can be purchased or you can put together your own.
Serious injuries are fortunately rare on hikes, but minor cuts or scrapes do periodically occur (getting poked by a sharp branch, for example, or skinning one’s knee on a rock). Items to be brought should include bandages of various sizes, adhesive tape, and antiseptic cream. Also essential is an elastic Ace-type bandage in case of a twisted ankle, which is one of the most common hiking injuries. To avoid potential blister problems, include moleskin and molefoam.
The presence or absence of biting bugs isn’t always predictable, but it makes sense to bring insect repellent when hiking during the warmer seasons -- preferably a small container of concentrated repellent. Whether or not you’ll encounter biting insects is affected by such variables as air temperature and recent rainfall. At times the repellent will prove essential for your comfort, although some of us find we rarely need it.
The effective ingredient in most commercial preparations is “Deet” (Diethyl-meta-toluamide). Repellents with the highest concentrations of Deet are probably the most effective -- but for years there’s been considerable controversy about Deet, which is a "slightly toxic" chemical in larger doses.
Some people have allergic reactions to the chemical, and there’s research that suggests very real health risks in using it. For that reason, some of us choose to avoid all products that include Deet, and instead prefer using “all natural” bug repellents, usually herb-based, that are on the market. While these generally aren't as powerfully effective, they nevertheless seem to do the job reasonably well, and they're almost certainly safer to use.
Sunscreen and Sun Hat
It’s important to avoid extensive exposure of your skin to the sun. In recent years there’s been increasing evidence that some limited “unprotected” sun exposure has health benefits, so it's important to refrain from always covering up with clothing or sunscreen. But there’s no doubt that in strong sunlight we have to be careful.
In the forested areas of the Northeast (including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and nearby states where Wild Earth Adventures hikes take place) we get lots of protection from shady trees during the leaf-season (May-October). One must take care to cover up, however, on open mountaintops, or above treeline, or when spending an extended time, for example, on the shore of a mountain lake. Carrying a sunhat and bringing sunscreen are especially advisable when hiking during the warmer months, when the sun’s rays are more direct and potentially damaging.
Regarding the need for sunglasses, there are differences of opinion. Except for snow hiking, or skiing in the sunshine, especially at higher elevations, some experts believe sunglasses are unnecessary for healthy eyes, which have the capacity to adjust to widely varying amounts of sunlight without harm. Some of us have hiked without sunglasses in the shady forests of the Northeast for many years with no ill effects. Other experts claim that sunglasses should be worn.
Carrying a small whistle is recommended in case of an emergency, especially getting lost -- which is unlikely when hiking with a group, but always within the realm of possibility. The piercing sound of a whistle can carry much further than the typical human voice. A series of three blasts is the usual signal for help. It should only be used for an emergency, which hopefully you’ll never encounter, and not for play (any use could be interpreted by others in the area as a call for help).
Flashlight with Spare Batteries
While this is an item that belongs on any camping trip, it can occasionally prove important on a day hike as well, especially during the months when the sun sets early. If you’re on your own, it’s possible to be seriously delayed because of an injury, or underestimating the distance to be hiked, having difficulty following a trail, or perhaps discovering late in the day that a critical section of trail is closed or impassible because of, say, flooding -- requiring that you return the long way. In other words, sooner or later while hiking on your own or with friends you may find yourself on the trail after dark. If you’re “guiding your own hike” it’s also sensible to carry a watch, so you’ll know how much daylight remains.
Without a flashlight there's a risk that you could end up spending a night in the woods without gear or clothing for camping, and in cold weather this might put you in a serious predicament. When you’re not hiking with a group, it’s smart to always carry a small lightweight flashlight with spare long-lasting batteries (and preferably an extra bulb).
When “nature calls” on a hike you may need some toilet paper, so it’s best to include at least a small amount of toilet paper, packed in double plastic bags for protection against possible rain or other moisture, in your pack. Bathrooms are sometimes situated at hiking trailheads, and on occasion you’ll pass an outhouse or other facility during a hike, but more often than not your only option will be to use the woods.
Here’s another item that’s not really necessary when hiking with a group (since some of your companions are sure to have one), but on your own or with friends, bringing a knife for practical use is considered essential. Swiss Army Knives have dominated the market for many years, and the fancier ones have a toolkit of useful items (scissors, small screwdriver, can opener, etc.). A simple knife with a folding blade should be adequate.
When hiking alone or with a friend or two it’s wise to carry matches as well. Should you somehow manage to get lost or injured, and be forced to spend a night out, the ability to start a fire for warmth could be vital and even life-saving. Also, in certain circumstances the smoke from a fire could help any rescuers locate you. Bring waterproof matches, or for protection keep them sealed in double plastic bags, or in a waterproof container.
Walking stick or hiking poles
Some hikers like to use a staff or walking stick, which can aid in balancing. In recent years hiking/walking poles have been heavily promoted and have become quite popular among many hikers. Those who have had knee problems or leg injuries often report that hiking poles are especially helpful in taking the weight off the problem area.
While some people like to use such walking aids, others prefer to walk with their hands free -- it’s totally a matter of personal preference. A walking stick or hiking poles have particular proven value for balance during stream crossings on rocks, or any time when some tricky balancing is required. Walking sticks and hiking poles are available for sale, of course, but it’s easy to procure a makeshift hiking stick on the trail by finding a fallen branch of the suitable size. You can often find one or more of them at a trailhead, left by hikers, and sometimes at stream or river crossings as well.
Food for Hiking
Lunch will usually be your main meal on the trail while hiking. Presumably you’ll have breakfast prior to leaving home for the hike, and supper or dinner at the end of the day. A substantial breakfast is highly recommended, especially before a challenging hike, since you’ll be making considerable energy demands on your body.
The importance of eating well during a hike shouldn’t be underestimated. A day of exercise is not the appropriate time to fast. Food is required to fuel your body, and on a long hike many calories are burned from the exertion. If the day is cold, additional calories may be needed to keep you sufficiently warm. Along with lunch it’s good to have some other foods to snack on, especially if you’ll be hiking for many hours.
Almost anything may be brought on a one-day hiking trip, although the most perishable foods (soft fresh fruit, for example) are best avoided in warm or hot weather. Aside from ever popular sandwiches, your many options include such items as cheese and crackers, small tins of sardines or cans of salmon or tuna, and “gorp” (“good old raisins & peanuts,” which can be a trail mix of any kind, especially nuts, dried fruit, and anything else you want to add). In the proper container it’s possible to bring almost anything else, including salads, yogurt, or you name it.
It’s a good idea to pack all food in sturdy double plastic bags and/or plastic containers, to avoid possible leakage inside your pack. Self-sealing (Ziploc-type) bags are especially popular and useful for this purpose.
A small percentage of hikers bring a little stove for heating soup or cooking other food, but even a mini-stove takes up quite a bit of space in a day pack, and there’s a lot to be said for keeping things simple. Most of us are content with a cold but nourishing lunch (and there’s always the option of bringing soup or a hot drink in a thermos).
Items to Leave at Home
Radios, CD players, Ipods
If you’re hiking alone or with friends, there’s nothing to keep you from bringing anything you want, including a radio, CD player, or whatever. But the more you stay electronically plugged in to the (high-stress) world most of us reside in during the week, the more of Mother Nature’s pleasures and benefits you’re going to miss out on.
On Wild Earth Adventures hiking trips we ask participants to leave radios, CD players, and other such items at home, or at least in the car, or make sure they’re turned off. If you bring a cellphone, it's important to make sure the ringer and volume are turned off, to avoid disturbing other hikers.
If you were to play music out loud you’d be almost certain to annoy other hikers, many of whom are in the woods, at least in part, to get away from everyday noise and to soak in the natural sounds. Even playing an Ipod or other device with earphones means you’ll be denying yourself an opportunity to absorb the relaxing, tranquilizing, healing effects of natural sounds like moving water (rushing streams, lapping waves) or wind blowing through pine boughs, or birdsong, or croaking frogs, or chirping crickets. Those of us who love music can nevertheless easily learn to live without it for a few hours or more, and will benefit from the soothing sounds and relative silence. Some people bring their devices to the woods because of a fear of boredom. Yet with time, most of us discover there’s really no reason to ever be the least bit bored in the wilder places, where the pleasures are simple but as rich as any in this world.
Talking with friends on a cell phone (or texting) while hiking will obviously take you away from the hiking experience, at least temporarily, as well as from the company of fellow-hikers. If you’re addicted to your cell phone, hiking in the natural world is a great way to temporarily break the habit. Any of us can learn to wait till after we’re done hiking, and are back home or en route, before checking phone messages, e-mails, or text messages. For participants who ride with us from NYC, we almost always make a 10-minute bathroom stop in each direction, and that's the perfect opportunity to call someone if you need to.
Many dog-owners love to bring their dogs hiking, but most domestic animals don’t really belong in the wild and have a tendency to get into trouble there. Some dogs get loose and harass or harm wildlife. And many of us fairly often encounter unleashed dogs that bark and present threatening behavior to passing hikers, which can be one of the most annoyingly disruptive experiences possible on a hike. On the other hand, few people will raise objections to meeting a quiet, well-behaved pet on the trail.
We don’t permit dogs or other pets on Wild Earth Adventures trips, but they are, in fact, allowed in many but not all parks and wilderness areas (private preserves in particular often ban them). In the majority of locations where we hike, dogs are required to be kept on a leash, a rule that many dog owners unfortunately ignore. Where pets may legally be brought, it’s still important for owners to make sure the pet doesn’t damage vegetation, contaminate water sources (the animal’s waste should always be buried), disrupt the piece and quiet sought by many hikers (it’s especially inconsiderate and irresponsible to bring a dog that behaves in a menacing way toward hikers), or tangle with wildlife. If this isn’t possible, please leave your pet at home.
Clothing for Hiking
What clothing you’ll need will vary a great deal depending on the season, where and how high in the mountains you’ll be hiking, and local weather and temperatures. If it’s warm or hot you’ll obviously need little clothing, whereas in the cold your comfort and sometimes even survival will require being adequately dressed.
In many mountain areas the weather is so changeable that it’s necessary to be prepared for a wide range of possibilities. It’s vital to always have extra clothing along, which will provide a safe margin of comfort should it be much cooler than expected. In some of the highest mountains of New York and the Northeast (which we visit on some Wild Earth Adventures overnight trips, but not for day hikes), sleet or snow occasionally falls even in summertime. When you’re hiking in these areas, warm clothing should never be left at home, regardless of the forecast and how warm or hot it might be at the beginning of the day. This advice holds for most of the higher mountain ranges throughout the country. Conditions can change rapidly, and without sufficient clothing you could be left dangerously vulnerable.
Layering is the recommended way to dress in cool or cold weather. Rather than bringing one or more heavy, warm garments, it’s better to carry and wear several lighter layers. Each layer traps air and adds additional insulation. As you begin to feel cold or to overheat, you can put on or take off layers accordingly. Your body will let you know when you’re overheated or underheated, and it’s important to heed these messages. Failing to respond means inviting discomfort or worse.
The best time to put on additional clothing is at the first sign of being cold. If you wait till you’re really chilled, it’s much more difficult to warm up. Likewise, when you’re starting to sweat and feel more than a hint of overheating, it’s time to shed a layer or two. If you wait too long, your clothing may get drenched with perspiration -- and later on, when resting. you’ll be more susceptible to chilling, especially if the day is windy and cool.
Cotton clothing is very comfortable and understandably favored by many people. Yet cotton has a truly serious drawback for hiking and other outdoor activities, namely that it provides absolutely no insulation or warmth when wet. If there’s any possibility of getting caught in the rain, especially when it’s cold, wearing all-cotton clothing is extremely risky. Even in temperatures of 50-60 degrees F, getting soaked to the skin in cotton could lead to a case of hypothermia.
Rainwear will normally provide some protection, but in heavy rain it’s still difficult to keep the clothing underneath completely dry. If your clothing gets wet it may be impossible to stay warm enough. And even on a dry day, the moisture from sweat will reduce the insulating ability of cotton clothing. Which is why, once again, wearing cotton can be risky, especially when hiking in higher mountain ranges or anywhere cool-to-cold temperatures are even remotely possible.
Synthetics, wool, and silk have the great advantage that they will, in contrast, provide effective insulation when wet. Thus when hiking it’s wise to always carry and/or wear some clothing that’s partly or entirely made of synthetics (which come in many forms and under many brand names), or wool, or silk. It’s certainly OK to wear some cotton items (T-shirts, etc.) in warm, dry weather -- but having synthetic or wool clothing along as well is highly recommended for safety and better protection in case of rain.
Carelessness about dressing can often be witnessed along hiking trails, and it’s especially prevalent among inexperienced hikers. Many of us grow up without paying much attention to the functional nature of clothing, and when we get cold, we’re rarely far from a house or apartment or car or other warm place to duck into.
Some men, in particular, are raised to tough it out and ignore discomfort. This can be dangerous in the natural world. There’s no external source of warmth available when you’re miles from the nearest highway, and you can’t always count on your body’s ability to generate the necessary heat -- especially when you’re cold, wet, and tired. On occasion, in unusually severe conditions, carelessness or absentmindedness about clothing could literally mean one’s life.
Heavy synthetic or wool socks have long been the first choice of many hikers. A heavy sock provides extra cushioning in your boots, giving some additional protection and reducing the impact of each step. Since cotton will provide no warmth at all when wet, many of us avoid cotton socks altogether for hiking, even in the summer (when cool temperatures and wet conditions are possible in the mountains). Having cold feet is never a pleasure, and feeling chilled is always worth avoiding.
Many hikers also wear liner socks, which are thinner inner socks worn next to the skin. Liner socks will help diminish any rubbing and friction on the feet -- reducing the possibility of blisters or sore spots, and providing a bit of extra warmth in cold weather. These socks are available in synthetics, silk, and wool. While some of us routinely wear them while hiking, liner socks are especially recommended when you have new boots or are hiking on unusually rough trails.
In warm or hot weather your feet may overheat. If that happens you may want to remove your boots and socks whenever you take a break (and in maybe even cool them in a stream or lake, when available).
For maximum comfort and freedom of movement, it’s best to wear pants that are loose-fitting. Although jeans have long been popular for outdoor activities, and they’ll withstand lots of abuse, they have serious disadvantages for hiking. At times you’ll need to stretch your legs at quite an angle when hiking uphill or downhill, and jeans are often too constrictive. They’re also usually made of cotton, and they’ll absorb an amazing amount of water, making for miserable hiking when wet. The recommended choice for hiking is roomy nylon pants, which are available in stores that sell hiking gear and clothing.
Shorts give your legs the maximum amount of freedom, of course. They’re especially good for warm or hot weather -- the air-conditioned way to go. A major drawback of wearing shorts while hiking is that your legs are simultaneously exposed to any available biting insects, as well as possible unfriendly plants (poison ivy, thorny bushes, etc.) that might lie along the path. Some trails may be somewhat overgrown, meaning bare legs may get scratched as you push your way through bushes. Shorts are best for wide and/or well-maintained trails that aren't unusually rugged. When in doubt, bring shorts in your day pack and change into them if conditions are suitable. A convenient and popular alternative in recent years has been “convertible pants” that allow you to zip off the pant legs and quickly convert the pants to shorts.
It’s especially important to avoid cotton underwear, particularly for your upper body, if you’ll be hiking in potentially cool or cold temperatures. Underwear is the most likely of all layers to become damp from sweat, and in cotton you’ll get chilled much more easily. Synthetics or silk are wiser choices if anything other than warm weather is a possibility.
Thermal underwear is usually unnecessary for day hiking except when temperatures are below freezing. Wearing thermal underwear entails the inconvenient of having to remove other layers to get to it, which may be necessary if you overheat. It’s much easier to take off and put on outer layers or garments as needed. But anyone who hikes in cold (especially sub-freezing) weather should own a good set of thermal tops and bottoms for hiking in such conditions.
A T-shirt by itself will often be enough for the upper body on a warm summer day (although additional clothing should always be brought in case the temperature drops). A regular short-sleeved short would be OK, but it’s good to bring at least one long-sleeved shirt along as well -- since at some point you might need to protect your arms from the sun, or perhaps from insects, or from the cold. A heavy wool or synthetic shirt is appropriate in cooler temperatures, and will often be the equivalent of a sweater in warmth.
Fleece or Wool Sweaters
Old-fashioned wool sweaters are still very acceptable and suitable for hiking, but fleece and other thick synthetic garments have taken over in large measure because they’re especially lightweight and durable, and some of them wick moisture away from the body. On all Wild Earth Adventures trips, and whenever you’re hiking in the mountains of the northeastern United States, you should always bring the minimum of a fleece sweater, even during a summer heat wave (because of the potential for severe temperature drops, which are common during thunderstorms).
When deciding what to bring, keep in mind that two lighter layers are preferable to a single heavier one, since with thinner layers you can better regulate the amount of insulation needed at any particular time.
Down Jacket, Down Sweater, Down Vest
Down-filled garments have the advantage that they’re quite warm but compress into a small space, so at least one such item should easily fit into your day pack. Down, however, must be kept dry at all costs, so it should never be worn in the rain, and probably not even brought when rain is likely. When wet, down will give you little or no insulation, and it also takes forever to dry out. Because down is a “disaster” when wet, it’s sometimes said that down doesn’t really belong in the sometimes rainy mountains of New York or elsewhere in the northeastern United States -- and that it may be worth carrying the extra weight of synthetics for safety’s sake.
A down vest is a popular alternative to a regular sweater. Also appropriate in cold, dry weather would be a light down jacket, sometimes called a down sweater. You might not need these items while actually hiking, but if it’s a cold day or the temperature drops, they’ll be useful or necessary during rest breaks, when your body needs extra insulation. Then again, the temperature might be lower and the wind stronger than expected, and you might require several layers to keep comfortable even while moving.
A heavy down or other jacket will usually be too hot for hiking except in extreme cold, and too bulky to fit in your day pack. Whenever possible, try to avoid items that can’t be stuffed into your pack, especially garments with a thick outer shell that won’t compress easily. If they won’t fit, you’ll need to tie them around your waist when you’re not wearing them, and if you encounter rain they’ll get wet (which would be tolerable for synthetic clothing, but unacceptable for down-filled garments).
Shell Parka or Windbreaker
A shell parka or windbreaker is a thin garment, usually made of nylon or other synthetic material, with a hood, and typically water repellant or waterproof. This item is recommended to go over other clothing, especially in cool, windy, or damp weather -- providing a good barrier to the wind, protection from the rain, and a surprising amount of added warmth for relatively little weight and bulk (in part because it traps an additional layer of air). It may be worn over many layers or few. In recent years the non-waterproof varieties of such garments have been disappearing from the market, and many shell parkas or windbreakers are now advertised to be completely waterproof (and they're more expensive).
Gloves or Mittens
Hands and other extremities may need some protection even in temperatures that are not very cold, especially in you’re out in the rain and/or wind. It’s a good idea to pack at least light gloves or mittens if you could encounter temperatures below 50-60 degrees F or so -- and thick padded mitts or gloves in winter. Mitts will usually be warmer than gloves. Be sure to avoid thin leather gloves, which provide minimal warmth and tend to wet through very quickly.
Cap or Hat
A wool or synthetic knitted cap or other outdoor hat is highly recommended for cool or cold weather, since a significant amount of heat is lost from your head it it's uncovered. You may notice a surprising improvement in how warm and comfortable you feel after you simply cover your head.
Swimming is an appealing option to many of us when we’re hiking in the vicinity of a suitable lake, pond, river, or stream in warm weather. Bring a swimsuit along if you like. Otherwise, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt will do as a substitute. Skinny-dipping is possible in some areas, but it’s not acceptable everywhere, and there isn’t always privacy. Regulations regarding swimming vary from one locality to another. In many wild natural areas you can swim wherever you want, whereas in other areas, smaller parks in particular, swimming may be forbidden or restricted to public beaches.
[This discussion of Hiking Essentials continues on the Hiking Safety page].
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