Clothing for an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Our Recommended System, Fabrics, and Products
Dressing for a six-month Appalachian Trail thru-hike is deceptively simple, but actually takes a lot of strategizing. You have limited capacity for carrying clothing, yet you need to be prepared for rain, snow, sleet, freezing temperatures, humidity, and intense heat.
Also consider that you will be wearing these items every day—hiking, sweating, sleeping, crying in them—all day, every day. Each item needs to be carefully chosen and scrutinized for weight, durability, comfort, and intended use. Overall, the choice for each of these items (and the extras) is up to the individual hiker, but there are across-the-board standards for each of these items that are good to keep in mind.
Don’t panic, though. No matter what you choose, you can always send things home or add items to your system. You’ll also be able to adjust layers seasonally as warmer weathers comes and goes over the course of 2,200 miles.
A few bullet points to keep in mind as you put your system together.
- In a nutshell, most hikers will need the following: a hiking top and bottom, a raincoat, two pairs of socks, shoes, and a puffy. Optional / seasonal items include a mid layer, camp clothes, and town clothes.
- The Appalachian Trail is wet. Invest in good rain gear, but know that nothing is truly infallible against the East Coast rainy season.
- Prepare for weather extremes. A six-month thru-hike will see freezing temperatures and snowstorms, as well as extreme heat and humidity.
- Choose comfortable, packable, durable items.
- Know when to splurge and when to save. A $60 pair of technical shorts will be more or less the same as a pair nabbed from the Target clearance bin, but leave the six-pack of cotton socks at home.
These are the clothes you’ll be wearing day in and day out. Make sure they’re lightweight, breathable, comfortable, and ideally somewhat stink-resistant. You already know to avoid cotton—your choice is between synthetic or merino, or a blend of the two.
For underwear, choose a quality synthetic. It dries faster than wool and doesn’t scrunch up quite as often, which results in less chafing. Shop smart. Underwear should not be a place where you skimp. Sports bras should be built with flat-lock seams or other anti-chafe construction. They should have wide straps that don’t dig into your shoulders, and enough support for your shape and size. Choose a wide band that doesn’t pinch, and opt for stink-resistant, sweat-wicking materials.
- ExOfficio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Boxer Briefs (Men’s) $30
- ExOfficio Sport Mesh Bikini Briefs (Women’s) $26
- Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer Briefs (Men’s) $32
- Icebreaker Sports Bra $40-65
- Patagonia Active Mesh Bra $45
Hiking Shorts / Pants
Most AT hikers opt for shorts instead of pants. These don’t have to be name brand or technical—a pair of garish Walmart running shorts will work as well as a pricier option, they just might not last quite as long. Look for a higher rise and a wide waistband. This helps the shorts stay in place under your hip belt, and a wider waistband won’t pinch your skin as much. An inseam of ~3-5 inches is a good place to start. This is short enough for full range of motion, while reducing the chance of bunching or chafing. Short-shorts can work, too; you just have to know thine own thighs.
Carrying a pair of hiking pants (in addition to shorts) isn’t necessary, but if you’re really freezing you can nab a pair for the coldest section of trail and then send them home.
Hiking Shirt / Tank
This is another place where you don’t need the most expensive name-brand options. Durability will increase with a higher-quality item, but a synthetic Hawaiian shirt from the thrift store or a Target tank top will serve the same purpose as a $40 technical tee. If you’re going to be starting or ending at the colder end of shoulder season, you may want to fork over cash for a quality merino / merino blend shirt, as this will do a better job staying warm when wet compared to synthetics.
Look for crew-height, hiking-specific options made from merino or merino blend. Hiking socks will have additional cushioning in the heel and forefoot, plus support around the midfoot. It might seem overkill to invest in hiking-specific socks, but taking care of your feet on every level is an investment in the success of your thru-hike. Darn Tough is a thru-hiker favorite, though some are opting for toe socks in the name of blister prevention.
- Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion (Men’s || Women’s) $22
- Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light Mid Crew (Men’s || Women’s) $22
- Iniji Toe Sock Liners (Unisex) $10
This discourse can last forever. Choose the shoes that work for you, and read our other articles about how to choose them.
Your shoes should be flexible yet stable, breathable, not rub in the heel or forefoot, and need to be worn out of the box with no break-in period. Waterproof shoes on the AT aren’t the best bet, as they’re going to get wet eventually and then take longer to dry. Look for deep lugs, a rock plate, and a reinforced toe box. The shoes should last around 500 miles, so assume you’ll need 4-5 pairs over the course of a thru-hike. The first things to go will be the material on the upper (expect blowouts around the toe box), midsole support, and outsole traction depending on the trail section and your individual stride.
You know what works for you—stick with what you know and don’t switch models right before a thru-hike. You can’t predict how your feet will react to long-distance hiking, so it’s not a great idea to buy a bunch of pairs before you leave. Your feet will probably flatten and widen at least a half size during the course of your thru-hike, and once you find a pair that works for you, it’s easy to have them ordered and shipped to your next town stop.
Right now, hikers are really digging the zero-drop, wide toe box models from Altra. Boots are on the decline, with trail runners taking a majority of the pie chart.
- Altra Lone Peak (Non-waterproof version) $120
- Brooks Cascadia (Non-waterproof version) $130
- Salomon XA Pro 3D (Men’s || Women’s) $130
- Altra Timp (Men’s || Women’s) $130
Fleece or Merino Mid Layer
Not totally necessary, especially during the warmer months, but it’s nice to have a mid layer for chilly mornings. This is also something to throw on when you don’t want to risk your down getting wet. Look for a lightweight option that packs small. Microgrid fleece is great because you get similar insulating properties as full fleece, but the gridded pattern means less bulk and better breathability. Depending on the season, some hikers appreciate an additional long-sleeve (like a cheapo synthetic race shirt), but many of those get sent home.
- Columbia Benton Springs Fleece (Men’s || Women’s) $35
- Men’s Mountain Hardwear Microchill Zip-T (Men’s || Women’s) $55
- Patagonia Better Sweater (Men’s || Women’s) $149
- Men’s Patagonia R1 Pullover (Men’s || Women’s) $129
The Appalachian Trail is wet. Don’t neglect your rain gear. You’ll be hiking in your rain gear more often than you want to, and an ePTFE membrane will breathe better than a PU laminate. Look for a lightweight option (no more than ten ounces) with enough length to sit comfortably under a hip belt without bunching. Rain pants are up to you, but they can be annoying to hike in, not breathable, and often get left in a hiker box.
Additionally, some hikers swear by a hiking umbrella. This is a viable option on the AT, as the storms tend not to be as windy as trails through exposed terrain. If you’re going to hike with an umbrella, you can forgo the rain jacket and instead pair it with a light wind jacket layer, but that’s less common than the standard raincoat.
Note that our Frogg Toggs budget pick isn’t the most durable.
- Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite2 Rain Jacket (Unisex)
Other options include carrying an umbrella and a light rain jacket or wind jacket.
- Gossamer Gear Liteflex (Unisex) $39
Puffy Coat (Down or Synthetic)
You need one. Whether you go down or synthetic is up to you. Synthetic will maintain insulating properties when wet, but down has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio. Your down products will get wet, due to the damp environment. For this reason, we recommend laying your down products in the sun every day to help restore their loft. If you go the down route, look for a puffy with 700-950 fill down, ideally weighing no more than 12 ounces.
- Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket (Men’s || Women’s) $339
- Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Down Hoodie $379
- Patagonia Down Sweater $229
- Montbell Ex Light Down Anorak $269
This depends on the season, but most hikers carry a small beanie, some sort of hand protection, and a Buff / headband. Choose these based on technical performance and weight. You don’t need huge, bulky gloves unless you’re hitting the worst of the shoulder season. But again…. any more “wintry” items can always be sent home.
- Buff for sweat wicking / warmth / hair problems (Buff || Half Buff) $15-20
- Smartwool Merino Sport 150 beanie (Unisex) $25
- REI Co-op Liner Gloves (Unisex) $20
Camp Base Layers
This will depend on your sleep system and personal preference. If your sleep system is warm enough to stay comfortable on sub-freezing nights, you can forgo camp clothing. For most people, we recommend something comfortable to sleep in, preferably a merino base layer top and bottom. Consider these your sacred clothing, worn only at camp and never hiked in. If you’re going technical, choose a lightweight merino option for the top and bottom for warmth and stink-relief. If not, a nontechnical shirt and a pair of scrubs pants will work fine. Camp socks are a luxury, but having a pair of sacred socks can turn the worst hiker frown upside down.
Camp shoes are a luxury, but there’s nothing like taking nasty hiking shoes off and feeling the Freedom of the Crocs. Not to mention, foam clogs are as sexy as they come. Foam clogs (don’t have to be name brand) are ideal for camp shoes, but lightweight flip-flops or sandals work as well.
- Xero Shoes Z-Trek (Men’s || Women’s) $65
- Bedrock Cairn (Men’s || Women’s) $105-120
- Oboz Campster (Men’s || Women’s) $68-90
You only have to wear your rain suit once on an 80-degree day, feeling like a total weirdo sitting in the laundromat, before investing in a thrift-store special. Lightweight dresses for the ladies (or men, we’re not judging) and a spare pair of shorts and cheap shirt for the guys. If you end up hating carrying the extra clothes, ditch them in the next town.
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