Choosing the right clothing for walking and hiking

What gear to wear when walking in the country

Walking is a great activity for fitness, but before you get started, it's essential to find the right clothing. Choosing the right walking boots, jacket and even socks can be the difference between an enjoyable walk and a blister-ridden limp. Here's the  guide to choosing the walking equipment that's right for your needs.

Walking boots

Not much can ruin your outing more than an ill-fitting pair of boots! If you are taking up hill walking for the first time then it is good advice to choose comfort over durability. After all, if your feet are in extreme pain after your first few walks you might give up hill walking altogether! Invest in a tougher, longer lasting pair once you know you enjoy hill walking and once your feet have toughened up. Modern fabric boots offer great comfort, are lightweight and are also fully waterproof but will not be as durable or long lasting as traditional leather walking boots.

ImageEveryone has different size and shaped feet so make sure you take the time to visit a reputable outdoor retailer who offers a specialist walking shoe fitting service. There is a bewildering array of boots available and experienced staff will guide you to the right choice based on your intended walking activities.

It is difficult to select the boots most appropriate for your activity since the characteristics that make a great summer walking shoe will make it useless in winter, therefore some compromise is always needed to select a good ‘all year round boot’ (unless you have an unlimited budget!). Store staff should always give you good after sales advice but always ‘wear your boots in’ gradually by going on short distance walks first and then increasing the distances before committing to a long route.

Walking socks and gaiters

All your hard earned money spent on boots will be wasted if you don’t back it up by investing in good quality walking socks. An eternal debate still goes on about the benefit of wearing two pairs (one thin ‘liner’ pair and a thicker outer pair) or just one thick pair. This is best left to individual preference but a thin liner sock will, in theory, wick sweat away from your foot, keeping it dry and also add another layer to absorb friction. Both of these functions will reduce the chance of developing blisters.

Good hiking socks will offer padding in the ‘impact areas’ i.e. the heel and toe, but be thinner elsewhere to allow the movement of sweat away from the foot. Always avoid cotton as cotton clings to sweat moisture increasing the chance of blisters. Any moisture will also cool rapidly when activity stops, increasing the chances of cold feet or in extreme conditions, frostbite.

For wet weather hiking, invest in a pair of gaiters which prevent rain and snow from entering the top of the boot and also protect the upper boot from wear and tear. There is an array of gaiters available and they can be relatively inexpensive for a decent pair. However, it is worth considering a pair that offer a ‘venting’ flap to allow heat to escape as your lower legs can become very hot when walking in gaiters.Base layer

Generally all outdoor clothing (including footwear) adheres to a principle known as the ‘layering system'. The layering system is often regarded as a three layer system although there can be exceptions to this rule.

The ‘base layer’ or the layer worn next to the skin functions to draw sweat away from the skin (the base layer is often referred to as a wicking layer). Moving sweat moisture away from the skin is essential in leaving the skin dry, as in cold conditions any moisture will rapidly cool once activity stops leaving you uncomfortably cold or in extreme conditions leading to a risk of hypothermia. The base layer picks sweat up from the skin and actively moves it into the next layer of clothing.

Mid layer

The ‘mid layer’ is worn over the base layer and its primary function is insulation or conservation of heat energy and is most commonly a ‘fleece’ type garment. (A second function is to allow sweat vapor picked up by the base layer to continue its journey away from the skin and ultimately to the outer layer where it will evaporate.) Mid layers vary in thickness and composition and your selection of garment will be determined by the type of activities you will be doing. Also, it can be warmer and more versatile to wear two thinner mid layers rather than one thick one.

The third or ‘outer layer’ performs two important tasks. Since the base and mid layers are not waterproof an essential function is firstly to prevent the elements i.e. wind, rain or snow from coming into contact with the other layers of the layering system. Secondly, and just as importantly, the outer layer needs to allow as much of the sweat transported away from the skin by the base and mid layers to escape Outer layer into the atmosphere and evaporate. As mentioned earlier, any trapped sweat moisture will rapidly cool once activity stops leaving you uncomfortably cold or in extreme conditions leading to a risk of hypothermia.

Although referred to as a ‘three layer’ system, the layering system is versatile and not all of the layers will always be worn at any one time, i.e. if it is not raining then the outer weatherproof layer may be stowed in a bag or during periods of intense physical activity, mid-layers may be removed and carried. The most important feature of the layering system is to maintain dry base and mid layers — much more insulating than wet garments.

When buying clothing for hiking always avoid cotton!Cotton clings or holds on to sweat making it unsuitable for outdoor activities since this retained moisture will rapidly cool once activity stops.

Always avoid denim also. Like cotton, denim ‘holds on’ to moisture once it is wet and is not suitable at all for hiking.

Walking garment features

We have now looked at the principle of the layering system but when buying individual walking garments for each layer, for example, jackets, trousers and fleeces, it is worth considering the different features found in garments:

  • Jackets. There are many different materials available from different manufacturers, all claiming to be the ‘best’ available. If the truth is told there is actually very little to choose between the top performing fabrics but it is essential to choose a jacket that is weather-proof while still allowing the sweat generated by your body to escape. Gortex is by far the most popular choice of fabric and is available in different forms. Gortex Paclite is extremely thin allowing for extremely lightweight garments which also allows sweat to escape very efficiently. Paclite garments are highly suited to activities where weight is crucial and you generate a lot of sweat, for example, adventure racing, orienteering or mountain biking but it should be remembered that for any activities other than day walks with very light day sacks that Paclite is not very durable and will not withstand heavy backpacks on the shoulders. 
  • For general hiking, select a jacket made from standard Gortex or Gortex XCR or similar material from another manufacturer. When selecting a hiking jacket, consider features such as reinforced shoulders to avoid abrasion from backpack straps. Other features to consider are the location of hand pockets — if you will be wearing a harness for scrambling or mountaineering then select a jacket with chest pockets that will still be accessible. The hood is a very important feature of any jacket and you should ensure that it is easily adjustable and will accommodate a mountaineering helmet if you are likely to use one. Other features to look for are ‘pit-zips.’ These are zippers located in the under-arm area of the jacket which allow you to let out heat and sweat and regulate your temperature.

    When choosing waterproof over-trousers for hiking, it is good advice to select a pair with full length zips. These allow you to easily put the trousers on while wearing walking boots, crampons, snow shoes and even skis! For hill walking do not select Gortex Paclite trousers, even though they are light to carry, they will not be very durable. Select Gortex or Gortex XCR or trousers made from a similar fabric.
  • Walking hats and gloves. Pay particular attention to protecting your extremities (fingers, nose and ears), from the elements. Approximately 60 per cent of body heat is lost through the head, so in cold conditions put a hat on to conserve heat. Also, remember in hot conditions it is just as important to wear a hat to protect your head from the sun. For the hands, mitts offer better insulation and warmth than gloves but offer limited dexterity. However, some mitt designs have a movable flap allowing fingers to be exposed for dexterous work. Invest in an insulating pair of fleece gloves that can be protected by a thin pair of weatherproof outer gloves or mitts.

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