There are few things as grand and beautiful as the great outdoors; at the same time, there is nothing more challenging and unpredictable. Scientists have puzzled over the mysteries of Mother Nature and her many types of weather for centuries now, yet we still find ourselves hiding from the rain under the awning of the local cafe even though the meteorologist assured us we could leave the umbrella at home. When you’re out on a hike or enjoying a day at the state park, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a cafe awning to hide under if a sudden storm makes an appearance or a restaurant to take a break in if the sun gets too hot overhead. That’s why knowing what to bring and how to layer it when hiking is so important. Here are a few tips and tricks on how to know what to pack and what to wear on your next outdoor adventure.
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What you should wear on a hike depends a lot on where you want to go wandering; you wouldn’t wear the same heavy coat when trekking across the desert as you would when exploring the North Wisconsin woods. All hiking ensembles, however, can be broken down into four simple layers that you can then customize to better fit your hike: the base layer, mid-layer, fleece layer, and jacket or coat. Don’t worry if this doesn’t click immediately, we’ll go over each layer so that you know exactly what you need for your next expedition.
The base layer of your hiking ensemble will always be the clothes that are up against your skin, like long johns, tights, or leggings. Because this layer will be under everything you put on after it, you will want to choose base layer clothes that are thin and snug without being so tight that it restricts your movement. What kind of long underwear you choose will depend mostly on what you plan on doing in it. For higher-intensity activities, like rock climbing or a challenging hiking trail, go with a thin base layer that won’t make you overheat. Moisture-wicking material like Thermaskin is ideal for outings like these because it keeps your clothes from rubbing uncomfortably against your skin if you get sweaty. If you are planning on something with a lower intensity, like cool weather camping, more leisurely hikes, or football-watching in the stadium, break out the heavier long johns so that you can retain as much natural heat as you can. If you are going camping and aren’t sure about what the weather may hold for your party, go ahead and pack one of each. Lands’ End long johns aren’t overly thick or bulky, meaning they won’t take up too much space in your duffle bag.
What you wear as a mid-layer is often what one might think of as “normal clothes.” This is your jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt layer, and you can customize what makes up this layer however you see fit. Joggers, sweatpants, and leggings are all great options if you are doing the kind of hiking that requires your full range of movement to clamber over fallen logs or boulders that have decided to make the middle of your path their home. Comfy layers are also great for the casual hiker who simply wants to be as comfortable as possible as they’re enjoying the great outdoors. If you plan on stomping through brush or going off path (always check with your state park or forest rangers to make sure leaving the trail is okay, you don’t want to get lost!) you might prefer a tougher layer, such as a sturdy pair of jeans or cargo pants, that can stand up to the brambles you’re sure to encounter along the way. If you are going out on a snowy day and want to wear snow pants over your mid-layer, make sure you get a pair that won’t tear easily if you hit a pricker bush.
Fleece is a must-have on all outdoor adventures because of how comfy and convenient they are. Not only are fleece jackets and sweatshirts incredibly warm and perfect for cold weather, but they’re also fairly light, making them easy to stash away if you do get too hot on your hike. In addition, fleece dries out quickly if it does get wet and will fit snugly under heavy coats and jackets without being too bulky. From fleece vests that leave your arms free to pullovers that hold heat in on frigid cold days, you can find fleece to perfectly match any outdoor, or indoor, activity. You can even incorporate fleece into your base layer through fleece-lined leggings or into your mid-layer with warm fleece sweatpants. In super cold weather, pair your fleece jacket with fleece hats and gloves that can stand up to the elements while also keeping you warm and protected. If it warms up, toss those gloves into your backpack or stuff them into your pockets for later; you don’t need much space to store fleece!
When it comes to the top layer, you have options. Depending on your outdoor activity, you will either want a hard shell jacket, which has a tougher exterior that keeps out water and traps warmth, or a soft shell coat, which is much more breathable. Hard shell coats are good for trips where there is a risk for heavy rain because they won’t get soaked as easily as other coats. The only downside is that it’s easier to overheat in this type of jacket. Also, you are better off with a soft shell coat in extremely cold situations since the snow is less likely to melt and become a dampness factor during your expedition. If it is very cold, though, you might want to go ahead and bring both.
In the summer, you want to be sure you have a hard shell raincoat with you at all times. If you are short on space, look for one that is packable and can be stored in a small pouch when not in use. Packable jackets are great to have on hand just in case the meteorologist’s predictions are a little off on the day of your camping trip. For those in between seasons, spring for a hard shell - soft shell duo that you can easily swap in and out when needed. You can also wear a fleece jacket or pullover under your hard shell raincoat in case the warm sun goes behind a cloud while you are hiking. You never want to bring equipment that you don’t need when you go hiking, as it can quickly pile up and weigh you down, but if you aren’t sure about how the weather is going to behave on your trip, it’s worth bringing both a hard shell and a soft shell coat or jacket.
Some of the most important parts of your hiking ensemble end up being the smallest pieces, making them easy to overlook when you’re getting ready for your trip. Things like forgetting to bring a hat, having the wrong socks or gloves, and foolishly deciding that you probably won’t need that scarf can make or break a hiking trip, quickly turning uncomfortable. Swap the ankle socks for a pair that covers your entire foot and part of your calf to prevent your boots from rubbing blisters into your skin. You can also wear two pairs of socks for the same effect while also keeping your feet warmer. No matter what method you choose, bring an extra pair or two in a plastic bag so that you always have a dry set to change into if you get your feet wet. Constantly wearing wet socks can lead to a variety of serious health problems as well as being just plain old unpleasant. If you are hiking in colder climates, wet clothes make it much more difficult for your body to regulate its temperature, which can quickly result in you getting sick or getting hypothermia.
Hard shell mittens are a must for the same reasons; if you can avoid having wet gloves, your fingers will stay much warmer. Mittens are also a must-have for cold weather camping or hiking because letting your fingers stay together makes for less surface area that heat can escape from. On warmer days, however, you can swap in soft shell fabric gloves that are far less cumbersome as chunky mittens. Fleece is a great option for cool weather gloves, as well as hats because they dry easily and are great at keeping heat in. What you wear on your head is mostly up to personal preference (as long as you keep your ears warm!) so give fleece and wool a try before the big trip and take your favorite when the day finally comes.
When you think of a hiking backpack, you probably imagine a massive pack that towers over your head when you walk and can carry a gallon or two of water for those tough trek days. Luckily, casual hikers and campers can get away without all the fancy equipment and carry most, if not all, of what they need in a standard backpack. That doesn’t mean that all backpacks are created equal, though. You want one that can stand up to scuffs and scrapes, will protect your things against sudden rainstorms and the occasional drop in a puddle and has enough space to carry everything you will need when out in the great outdoors. Travel backpacks are great for this because they contain lots of different pockets and compartments, meaning you won’t have to dig in the single big pocket to find your keys at the very bottom anymore. A water-bottle holder is also a must-have, as staying hydrated is extremely important no matter what you’re doing. No matter what kind of backpack you decide to bring, though, make sure you try on the backpack you plan on taking before you load it up for the big trip. Adjust the straps so that your backpack sits comfortably on your back; you don’t want your hike to get cut short by sore shoulders.
Now that you have packing for the great outdoors down, here are a few extra tips on how to have a successful hiking trip when you have kiddos in tow. The idea of taking the kids for a day in the woods might sound outright terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be! The most important thing to do is have fun and be flexible; things might not go the way you had planned that morning, but that doesn’t mean the whole hike or camping trip is a bust. If the kids aren’t having fun, they won’t want to do it again, so keep an eye on everyone in your group and change the schedule if it feels like any of them are lagging behind. Giving the kids some control is a great way to get them involved and excited about your hiking trip. Let them set the walking pace and make decisions along the way, like picking where the group will stop for lunch or choosing the next trail. Start off with a short trail and give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to get from one end to the other; there might be frequent interesting rock stops along the way. If you reach the end and the kids are still roaring to go, pick another trail, but if the kids start to get tired halfway through, you’ll be thankful that you didn’t choose a longer path to follow. Don’t let all of these tips and rules weigh you down as you hike, though, as long as you and your family are having fun outside together, it’s a success in our book.