Hiking and backpacking can be a great hobby that keeps you fit, helps you build friendships that can last a lifetime, and makes you learn more about yourself than anything else as you’re thrust into situations that test your mental endurance, but it can also be a dangerous pastime for the unprepared.
In this ultimate guide to hiking essentials we’re going to cover the gear that you’re going to need to fill your backpack with for hiking to keep you safe on the trail no matter what is thrown your way.
The most important aspect of hiking is staying warm. If you’re hiking in the summer then your difficulties are lessened, since you can trade all your cold weather gear for water, but summer nights can still be bone chilling depending on where you are. If you’re hiking in the winter, then you need a lot more gear, and a lot more mental fortitude, so we’re going to cover all the gear you could possibly need.
Every moment that you’re on the trail you should consider if this moment could turn into a survival situation. You need to be completely prepared for anything, and your first line of defense is the clothes on your back keeping you warm, so you can spend the time in warmth setting up a habitable space to survive for a little while.
Insulation – The Best Clothes For Backpacking And Hiking
There’s a lot of gear that you’re going to need if you’re looking to hike during the winter, a lot of this can be omitted if you’re hiking during the summer, but we’re going to list everything that you could potentially need as a definitive list to help you out with winter, or cold weather in mind.
Obviously, we have our own opinions here at Paragon Trails as to what the best gear you should travel with is, but if you have any other suggestions, or additions to the article, we would love to hear about it in the comments down below.
Head Gear – The Best Balaclavas, Hats, Scarves, and Ski Goggles for Hiking and Backpacking
Balaclavas are head garments typically made of wool, fleece, or other synthetic materials, that fit over the entire head and protect the neck as well. As you’ll notice throughout the guide, wool, cashmere wool, or synthetic materials such as polyester polar fleece, or nylon, are the best for winter.
Cotton should never be used because if it becomes wet it will rob your body of heat and cause you to shiver and freeze.
Balaclavas are the optimal choice for keeping your head and neck warm during the winter because there’s no need for a scarf which can be annoying to manage as you’re moving around while hiking or backpacking, plus you can easily fit a hat over top of a balaclava, or wear ski goggles. If you’re interested in viewing our selection of the Best Balaclava Ski Masks for Hiking, and Backpacking, in Cold Weather then click on this link to see our top picks.
When it comes to scarves there are ways to tie a scarf that keep you from needing to readjust it, but we prefer the balaclava when it comes to winter hiking since it’s just so simple. Make sure that if you’re going into town you take off your balaclava though, so people don’t think you’re trying to rob their store.
Hats aside from the balaclava are great for keeping your noodle warm as well. As we stated earlier, a polyester fleece, or wool, are the best choice for any type of clothing during the winter and will keep you nice and toasty.
As a public service announcement the team here at Paragon Trails really wants to emphasize that you should not choose fur as your material of choice when it comes to staying warm. We don’t want to get into it too deeply because it is quite controversial, but there is a great deal of suffering involved when it comes to purchasing any type of fur whether it’s wild game, or not.
We love all of the fuzzy beasts on the planet, and want to see them happy, healthy, and thriving. If you’re looking to purchase fur then you should consider an animal that is raised in a loving environment and is simply trimmed for its fur such as a sheep, or an alpaca.
If you’re looking for an alpaca fur hat, or clothes, we will be writing an article in the future which lists the most humane and wonderful breeders which produce clothing for consumer use. Alpacas are winter creatures and their fur is exceptionally warm and a great choice for hiking and backpacking, but it is quite expensive.
With that public service announcement aside keeping your head and face warm are critical to your survival during winter wilderness adventures which means, if the winter wind is gusting, you may want to consider ski goggles as a part of your arsenal if you’re not using a balaclava that has it built in.
Ski goggles fit over the head with a cloth band that wraps around the head, and they have a plastic sheet that covers the eyes, and protects almost half of the face from the elements. If you’ve never used one before you’re in for a shock because they make traveling through the snow much more enjoyable. You never really notice how much wind is hitting your face until you have a ski mask to protect you.
With the proper equipment, winter travel on a trail, or even during mundane tasks, such as shoveling your driveway, are not bad at all. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to the Best Ski Goggles for Youth, Men, and Women, then you can click on this link.
Scarves are the least favorite option of the team here at Paragon Trail, but they do have their uses, if you’re not going to use a balaclava, which we have no idea why you would choose that, then you may choose a scarf in conjunction with a ski mask, and a hat.
Scarves should always be made from wool, or a synthetic polar fleece, and there are dozens of ways to tie a scarf which will be hands off and do not require you to mess around with them while on the move. If you’re looking for the best way to tie a scarf you can click this link for a demonstration.
Chest Gear – The Best Hoodies, Shirts, Jackets, and Coats for Winter Hiking and Backpacking
Hoodies are sweaters that have a hat build directly into them. Of course you know what a hoodie is, but what’s important when it comes to purchasing a hoodie for hiking is that if you want the best hoodie you need one made of wool, cashmere wool, or synthetic fleece.
Finding a hoodie made of wool is sort of rare because most commercial hoodies are made of cotton. As was stated above in the headgear section, it is essential that you do not use a hoodie made of cotton because you’ll be robbing your body of heat if the hoodies becomes wet which will definitely happen as you sweat during a hike. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide on our top picks for the Best Wool, Cashmere Wool and Synthetic Hoodies for Winter Hiking, then go ahead and click this link.
Shirts, in conjunction with a hoodie, are going to keep you very warm and comfortable if you choose them as your under layers. You’re going to want a long sleeve shirt to cover your upper body to retain body heat. Since you’re going to be sweating directly onto this fabric you’ll need a breathable material that wicks away moisture.
We suggest a synthetic material such as polyester, polyurethane, polypropylene, or a microfiber fleece for your shirt. You can find matching sets of shirts and long underwear that are made of these materials. If you’re looking for our top picks when it comes to the Best Shirts and Thermal Underwear for Hiking and Backpacking, then this link will help you out.
Jackets and coats are the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to staying warm, and arguably the most important. If you’re out in the wilderness your ability to stay warm is determined by a combination of your under layers, and your jacket’s ability to stop the wind.
Breathable synthetic materials are truly the way to go when it comes to jackets which is why you’re going to want one made of nylon, polyurethane, or polyester. If you’re going to be trekking in exceptionally cold weather, you may want to wear a light jacket underneath a coat to stay extra warm.
Jackets tend to be waist length while coats tend to be thigh or knee length, so if you’re braving the most extreme weather conditions, you’re going to want both. As we have stated numerous times (you’re probably getting sick of hearing it), a nylon, polyurethane, or polyester is also best for your coat’s material. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide which lists our top picks for the Best Men’s and Women’s Jackets and Coats for Cold Weather and Extreme Cold Weather, then follow this link.
Leg Gear – The Best Long Underwear, Leggings, Pants, and Snow Pants for Warmth While Hiking And Backpacking
Long underwear is your absolute best friend. Even if you’re not braving the most extreme cold conditions, you’re going to want to bring a pair of long underwear on your backpacking journey. If you choose the right material it will wick away moisture that accumulates on your body and move it to be dried.
You’re going to have to decide if you want a light, medium, or heavy material based on how cold the conditions will be. All of the following materials come in light, medium, and heavy variants, so no matter the conditions you can rock your material of choice.
Light weight long underwear is for moderate to cool temperatures, medium weight long underwear is for cold temperatures, and heavy weight is for below-freezing temperatures. Your best options are synthetics, such as polyester, merino wool, or silk because they trap heat and dissipate moisture the best.
Here we have a comprehensive guide to undergarments which catalog’s our top picks for the Best Thermal Underwear, Thermal Shirts, and Long Underwear for Men and Women, so you can stay toasty on the trail.
Leggings, a more popular trend for women these days, are typically made of spandex which is a polyurethane fabric. As I’m sure you’re aware of by now reading this article, a synthetic material such as polyurethane, or polyester, is a good choice for heat retention and wicking away moisture due to its price point and ability to retain heat.
Two other wonderful choices for legging materials are merino wool, and polar fleece lined leggings. These are a very high quality choice to stay extremely warm, and our suggestion when it comes to leggings.
All of these are really great choices though to use as an under layer, and will do the job when used with high quality pants. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide on the Best Leggings for Warmth in Winter, this article will help you out.
Pants, when combined with a quality base layer such as long underwear, or leggings, provide the next layer of protection against the elements. If you’re wearing only pants, with no underlayer, you’ll notice that you’re still cold, especially if you chose those denim pants made of cotton.
This is because if you don’t have the proper underlayer to help you retain heat, too much of your body heat is escaping through the gap between your leg and the exterior of the pants, or through the bottom of the pants by your leg, and you’re going to be freezing. You want to reduce the gap between your leg and the external material as much as possible to help you retain heat.
The best materials, as I’m sure you’re aware by now after reading this article, are synthetic materials such as polyurethane, or polyester, fleece lined pants, merino wool, and solid wool pants. If we were to choose the material we would suggest a solid synthetic such as nylon which is water resistant, lets your skin breathe, and provides apt warmth in the most wild winter conditions. If you’re looking for a guide when it comes to the Best Pants for Walking in Cold Winter Weather then this guide will be of great use to you.
Snow pants and rain pants accomplish the same goal. They keep water, whether in solid of liquid form, from absorbing into your clothes, and robbing you of your warmth. The most absorbent article of clothing you can select is cotton, which is why you’ll want to avoid it all costs.
Instead, you’re going to want to find a pair of snow pants, or rain pants that are a synthetic plastic material with a combination of polyester, polypropylene, or polyurethane to deflect the rain, and allow your skin to breathe underneath.
If you’re looking for a guide on the Best Snow Pants for Men and Women for Hiking and For the Money, then this guide will help you out. Also, if you’re looking for a guide on the Best Rain Pants For Backpacking, then this guide will help you as well.
Foot Gear – The Best Thermal Socks, and Hiking Socks For Men and Women, and the Best Hiking Boots, Trail Runners and Running Shoes for Hiking and Backpacking
Your feet are the most important part of your body when you’re walking for long periods of time which means you need to take care of them more than anything. Nothing can cripple you more than having injured feet because you chose the wrong socks, or shoes.
When it comes to sock, the best thermal socks for hiking are those that help wick away moisture. Your feet have the highest density of sweat glands on your body and are going to produce the most moisture during a hike, so you need a high quality synthetic material.
Typically the best socks are made of polyester, nylon, and lycra spandex. There is a particular brand that we prefer for hiking on the trail, Wrightsock, which produce very high quality socks that keep you from developing blisters as well. If you’d like to see a guide on our Top Picks for the Best Thermal Hiking Socks then go ahead and click this link.
Hiking boots, shoes, or trail-runners are arguably the most important, be-all end-all, piece of gear you will bring with you on a hiking trail. We really cannot stress enough how important it is that you size your shoes properly, and have adequate support for the arches of your feet and for your ankles.
Each person is different when it comes to their needs for shoes. Some people don’t need ankle support, while others need the most possible. Rolling your ankle is absolutely horrible and can end your thru hike, or day hike instantly. All of that being said, the majority of people don’t need to be wearing the heaviest hiking boots, but we’ve created a resource to help you make that decision for yourself.
We’ve created the ultimate comprehensive guide on How to Choose the Perfect Hiking Shoes, Boots, or Trail Runners here and strongly urge you to check it out to keep your feet safe on the trail.
As you can see there are dozens of pieces of gear just for body insulation, and there’s a good chance we missed a few, and we would love to hear from you in the comments down below with your questions, comments, concerns, and additions to the article.
As far as we’re concerned this is a living document and we will constantly be updating and improving it over time to provide you with the highest quality list of hiking and backpacking gear forever.
In addition to this article, we have one very important topic that we know you’ll need to study up on when it comes to preparing for your hike, the Ultimate Guide to Hiking Backpack Weight Ratios and Guidelines. Anyways, thank you so much for being such a wonderful community, and as always, have a wonderful day!