Whether you’re walking a local nature trail or tackling Machu Picchu, chances are good that you’re going on some kind of hike sometime this summer: A whopping 35 million Americans hike annually. When choosing your attire and accessories, it’s all about preference and personal comfort, says Liz Thomas, a long-distance hiker who broke the women’s unsupported speed record hiking the Appalachian Trail—all 2190 miles of it—in 2011. “Newbies have a tendency to think that hiking gear has to be a bit uncomfortable because that’s the nature of the activity,” she says. “Not true. If it doesn't feel right in the store, it definitely won't be right when you're a night or two into your trip.”
Regardless of your distance and preferences, having a few specific items—a stashable jacket, lightweight but snug socks—can make your outing much more enjoyable. Keep reading for Thomas’s tips about what pieces of equipment are absolutely essential when you go off-road, plus some top product picks for hikes this summer.
“Protection from the sun, including sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, and lip balm, is super-important during your hike,” says Thomas. A painful sunburn after your outing can ruin the experience, but that’s not the only reason you should be wary of UV rays; you might encounter bright, direct sun, which can make it hard to concentrate, enjoy the scenery, or even find your way back to the car, she says.
Our pick: Electric California Knoxville S Sunglasses ($120)
These lightweight shades have anti-slip, grippy pads along your nose and temples to keep them in place while you trek. Plus, their lenses protect against 100 percent of UV rays, give a crystal-clear view, and are infused with melanin to protect your retinas and help your eyes stay relaxed.
“As a hiker, I always carry a lightweight jacket, even on shorter trips, because weather can change quickly,” says Thomas. “A lightweight windbreaker is my MVP piece of gear because it has the versatility to keep me warm in a breeze or when clouds cover the sun, but it isn't too hot when moving. I've also used it for extra sun protection when I'm hiking at high altitude in very sunny areas, bug protection, or as a breathable rain repeller.”
Our pick: Altra StashJack ($130)
This thin jacket can pack down into its own pocket for easy storage when you warm up, and it boasts flat seams (to prevent chafing) and reflective strips to keep you visible. Its smartest feature is an opening along the back—so you can put it on over a backpack or take it off without stopping.
3. SHORTS OR PANTS
What you wear depends on a lot of things, like the conditions, weather, and season, says Thomas. In general, she recommends looking for materials that are lightweight and breathable, so you can layer up and then stash unnecessary items in your backpack.
Our pick: Stio Tensleep Twill Short ($55)
These shorts are as soft and comfy as cotton but wick moisture—to help you stay dry no matter how much you sweat. They’re great for treks in rugged conditions because the fabric is reinforced along key stress points, like along the bottoms of the pockets.
4. WATER BOTTLE
When looking for a water bottle or hydration pack, always go with the option you find easiest to use, says Thomas: “If the lid always gets stuck or you have to suck very hard to get water, you're less likely to use it—which can create a mental block against drinking as much fluid as you need.”
Our pick: HydroFlask Standard Mouth Bottle ($27.95) with sport cap ($6.95)
This BPA- and phthalate-free bottle is made of double-wall, vacuum-insulated stainless steel that will keep your H2O cool all day (and up to 24 hours). Pop on the sport cap for easy sipping on the move.
The socks you wear are often an afterthought, but they definitely shouldn’t be when you hike. Pick the wrong pair and you could wind up with blisters in no time. Thomas suggests looking for a tight knit weave to keep dirt and dust out, as those can irritate the skin, and socks that won’t make you sweat, since moisture can cause blisters.
Our pick: Fits Light Hiker Quarter Socks ($18.99)
These socks, made mostly of Merino wool, hug your foot snugly—so they stay in place. They’ve got extra cushioning in the heel, toe, and arch, and the fabric is lightweight to keep your feet cool and comfortable.
When it comes to your shoes, comfort (especially around your toes) is key, says Thomas: “Hiking requires your feet to do a lot of repetitive motion, so restrictions of movement can sometimes lead to pain and, in worst-case scenarios, bone bruising, tendonitis, or fractures.” She advises sizing up to allow plenty of room for your feet when you’re making your way down a hill.
Our pick: Adidas Terrex Swift R GTX Shoes ($140)
Even though these shoes have a breathable, waterproof Gore-Tex lining to keep your feet dry no matter the weather, they’re extra comfortable because of a molded sock liner. Their outsole is also grippy enough to handle the most rugged terrain.