What to Wear While Hiking in the Desert and Mountains

grand canyon vistas

Buck Farm overlook – Grand Canyon

Are you a hiker, or outdoorsman who loves to play hard outside, fall, winter, and spring—and sometimes summer in the high mountains? Then you know the challenge of dressing comfortably.

Outdoor activities make you hot one minute, cold the next!

Temperatures below about 55° Fahrenheit are cold enough to induce hypothermia; but when we are fully exerting, we can sweat even in temperatures well below freezing. Sweat conducts heat away from the body, making you cold.

What to Wear While Hiking

What to wear for a hike? The key to comfort is smart management of what you wear and your body temperature during activity. The following strategies will work for you.

Select the Correct Base Layers

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Thunder River – Grand Canyon

When determining what to wear for hiking, your first step is to: pick the right base layer. It has to wick moisture from your body and be warm enough, but not cause you to overheat. Choosing the right outdoor equipment is among the most critical of hiking essentials.

  • In spring and fall, a non cotton midweight, moisture wicking long-sleeve top with a zip-neck for venting will provide the most comfort and move sweat away from your body. It also dries a lot faster than conventional cotton clothing. Merino wool offers soft fibers and a wide comfort range in fast-changing conditions.
  • In very windy or extremely cold conditions, it is essential to include a lightweight top, for maximum wicking. You can wear this under a warmer long-sleeve with a high zip-neck to keep your core temperature at a comfortable level.
  • For hiking wear while day hiking, choose one piece of outerwear which breathes very well and blocks the wind.
    Waterproofing isn’t essential (unless you expect a long period of snow and cold temperatures), so go with a more-breathable soft shell or a ventilated, ultra light wind shell. On multi-day backpacking trips, light but warm outdoor gear is essential. Pack a waterproof-breathable shell and a midweight, insulating middle layer, such as a down jacket. Find one that’s warm enough for windy conditions but is breathable. Keeping dry helps you maintain a comfortable core body temperature in the summer and avoid hypothermia in the winter. Merino wool is an excellent base layer and will keep on insulating even when wet. SmartWool, Ibex and Icebreakers are good brands. Fleece middle layers, another good choice, include Polartec which provide warmth in a variety of conditions. Mountain Hardwear is an excellent brand and they feature many choices of windbreakers.

Adjust throughout the hike

Nankoweap - best Arizona hikes

Nankoweap – Grand Canyon

Layering your clothing is critical in order to maximize your comfort while hiking in the outdoors. You can make quick adjustments on the fly. Don’t add or remove a layer at the first hint of discomfort—conditions could change within minutes. Regulate your body’s temperature through brief periods of heat or cold by modifying your exertion level slightly.

In determining what to wear while hiking in the desert, you should also be mindful of your body’s temperature. Be sure to add a layer before you get too chilled or your core temperature plummets. Shed a layer before you’re sweating profusely. Anticipate when you’ll need to adjust layers. Put on another layer right before you reach an exposed, windy pass or start a long descent in cool temperatures. Shed a layer before starting a big uphill slog.

It’s also a good idea, when feasible, to exert yourself less to minimize sweating in cool or cold conditions. Damp clothes can make you cold by conducting heat from your body. Although sweating isn’t entirely avoidable, you can slow to a pace that keeps you warm without sweating much. It’s important for your body to generate heat in order to dry out your base layer. For long descents, put on a breathable jacket and continue maintaining a moderate pace, to keep your core warm and dry out your base layer.

Gloves and headwear are invaluable when deciding what to take on a hike. They will help you to stay warm and should be within reach. Keep them accessible in your pants or jacket so you can make changes on the move.
And don’t forget! Stay hydrated by drinking water roughly every 15 minutes. It’s important, to eat high energy food every hour or two to refuel and maintain your core temperature.

With these tips, you’ll master the art of regulating your body temperature while on the trails so you can avoid overheating or freezing. Hike light, stay comfortable and enjoy!


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About the Author
Mitch Stevens has been leading hiking and backpacking outings throughout the southwest for over ten years. As a Sierra Club hiking leader, writer and photographer, he has promoted the enjoyment and conservation of our remaining wild lands. Born and raised in New York City, Mitch came to discover the great outdoors and fall in love with Arizona’s special places. Through his countless trips across the state and region, Mitch made it his mission to encourage fellow hikers and enthusiasts to protect the beauty of the desert. Now, he continues to embrace his fascination with the desert beauty by creating and leading multigenerational tours throughout the southwest. His experience coupled with his passion for the great outdoors make him a unique tour guide and outings leader.