Hiker Trash Fashion: The Benefits of Hiking Dresses and Skirts

You’ll come across all different fashions along the AT. You’ll run into hikers that will wear zip-off pants (but never zip them off), guys wearing hot pink booty shorts, track shorts, skorts, running tights or god help you, guys wearing nothing but a pack towel around their waist – yes, I have indeed seen the latter, no it wasn’t on the summer solstice and thank god I had known the guy well enough by then to not really be too alarmed, it wasn’t a pleasant sight, and we told him to never do it again.  You may also see occasional skirts, dresses, or kilts.

Once the weather turns warm, you’ll find me hiking in a dress…with hairy hiker chick legs. 😉 In my opinion nothing beats a good hiking dress, and I don’t understand why skorts exist. The following is a list of pro’s and con’s for hiking dresses and skirts.

The Pro’s:

  • unmatched air flow to keep you cool
  • easier to change into camp clothes without flashing someone you don’t want to flash
  • peeing is 75% easier (see the end of the post to find out how to increase the percentage of ease)
  • you can be as muddy as you want and still feel at least a little girly
  • With dresses: you eliminate the need of a hiking shirt. One less item of clothing to worry about
  • Also with dresses: you don’t have to worry about your bottoms riding low.

The Con’s:

  • you may experience some initial chaffing, but in reality, no more than you would if you were wearing track shorts. And it goes away – your inner thighs will quickly become like leather
  • if you are clumsy and enjoy tripping/slipping/falling down, like me, you will flash someone. It’s just a fact of trail life, and most won’t mention it. They’ll be too busy laughing at the fall – especially if you have mastered slow motion falling.
  • with Skirts, at least in my experience because of my body shape: they have a tendency to ride up and get turned around.

Some of you might be thinking, “but wont bugs get up in there? Won’t I end up with mosquito bites on my ass or ticks in my bush?” These thoughts did once worry me too when I was first thinking about making the switch, but I soon found that this wasn’t an issue at all. I never had any bugs up my dress (in my ears, eyes and mouth yes, but not under my dress), and I wore it from Daleville, VA in May, all the way to Katahdin in August where I retired it.

If you are interested in trying out a hiking dress for yourself, I recommend looking at Columbia’s PFG Freezer III dress. Columbia labels it as a fishing dress, but as the dress I wore on the AT, it worked amazingly well for backpacking- I give it a 4 out of 5 star rating. It has Columbia’s Omni-Freeze and Omni-Shade technologies – which means, it’s designed to keep you cool, dry, and protected by UPF 50 sun protection.

  • The color held up after 3 months of constant wear in the sun – held a new dress to my retired one: the only way to tell them apart is the holes (I fought a guardrail in Rangeley and it won)
  • it held it’s shape after days of wear and no washing
  • as a little black dress it never made me over heat
  • nor did it “attract more bugs”
  • very little issue with salt rings
  • The only reason I give it a 4 and not a 5 is because, while it dries quickly when on your body, it wont really dry hanging up overnight. It’s not a deal breaker at all, but it certainly made for some chilly mornings until my body heat dried the dress
  • As you can see by the photo at the top of the page, the dress came to just above my knees. For reference I am 5’8, I had a size small, and the dress had been washed the night before. This is the perfect length, not too long that it gets in the way, but long enough to be able to bend over.

I would also recommend the Columbia Baja Beauty dress, which I purchased at the same time I ordered my new Freezer dress. After testing on both day-hiking and backpacking trips, it gets a 3 out of 5 rating. With their Omni-Wick and Omni-Shade (though this is only rated to UPF 15) technologies, it definitely keeps you dry and protected, but I did find that on a 2 night trip it lost some of it’s shape and salt stains were evident on the navy fabric. It definitely works better for day hikes or 1 to 2 night trips with temps in the mid-60’s with low humidity. The length is also a bit of an issue with this one. I got a medium (because of my post-trail-20), and it hits me about mid-thigh, which means I have to be a bit more cautious when bending over to pick stuff up.

There are other “hiking” dresses out there, but most have a small percentage of cotton, have weird straps, or are very heavy.

If you aren’t quite sold on hiking dresses, but want to try out a hiking skirt, there are many more solid options out there for you – Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, Columbia, REI, and so on, seem to all have one or two good options.  I would also suggest looking at Purple Rain Skirts, they have big pockets that are low enough not to interfere with a hip belt and big enough for a phone/camera/snack, a wide stretchy waist band (think yoga pants), come in a variety of active fabrics and colors, and Purple Rain is a long distance hiker herself.

I’d also like to take some time to talk about unda-pants.

Underwear on the AT is another interesting “fashion” topic. Before my hike, I thought the whole commando thing was ridiculous, and I pretty much vowed to never lose my underpants. They lasted 9 days on the AT before I put them in my trash bag. They did not make a come back when I switched to my hiking dress (***this is how you improve your ease of peeing percentage!!***), nor did they come back when I came home. I have a whole drawer of underpants – I love saying the word….unda-pants – (and bra’s ) that are just chilling there waiting, and wishing, for they day I decide to wear them again…..out of habit, as much as respect, I have not thrown these out.

On trail, no underwear means

  • one less thing you have to worry about cleaning
  • no wedgies
  • makes peeing easier for both men and women
  • it’s freeing
  • and, in my opinion, I feel cleaner.

There are the hiker’s who started out commando, the converts, and the ones who carried their extra underpants on the outside of their packs to dry all the way to Katahdin.

A word of advice for female hikers, I suggest still carrying 1 pair of underwear in your pack – they do come in handy when you get your period (especially while wearing a dress/skirt) because that freaking tampon string just loves to get in the way. Also the underwear comes in handy for those times where skinny dipping is just not convenient – like in PA at Caledonia SP, where they have a pool, with a water slide (Open Memorial Day-Labor Day 11-7 according to the website).

Caledonia's water slide. (Please ignore the water bubble)

Caledonia’s water slide. (Please ignore the water bubble)

I grabbed a bikini when I stopped home in CT to take the place of underwear. While it’s a little extra weight, came in handy many times and I didn’t have to worry about the occasional chlorinated pool water eating away at synthetic underwear (the pair I had been carrying around for these reasons was very see-through by the end of my pool time at CSP).

There will always be different views on clothes, just like trekking poles vs no trekking poles or hammocks vs tents, but in the end, you’re going to hike in whatever is more comfortable for you,  with underwear or no underwear.

I just hope that it isn’t a pack towel.

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Comments 20

  • Avatar
    jim marcum : May 15th

    I want to do this

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Katrina : Apr 28th

    Thanks for the great article,do you have any recomendations on where to find this on sale?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Katherine : Dec 22nd

      I got mine, the PFG Freezer just like the author’s, on sale at Cabela’s over the summer. Should be able to find it for <$35 if you're not in a hurry.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Allie : May 4th

    This was really useful! I’m wondering if you ran into any smelliness issues with the Freezer dress. I’m shopping for a hiking dress right now and had been looking at merino wool because sometimes polyester gets really stinky, in my opinion, but merino is so expensive!! Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Raven : Jul 12th

      Hey Allie,
      Sorry about the late reply, but I never had any smelly issues with my Freezer dress. Last yr on the Long Trail I washed it only once during the 28 days I was out and slept in it most nights too (I get lazy). I just wore it on a day hike last week and my hiking partner did not mention anything about me smelling extra funky.
      Raven

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Katherine : Dec 22nd

      Also, the style of the freezer dress totally avoids your pits.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jeff : May 25th

    I am a male who enjoys wearing a skirt while hiking or driving long distances. For stealth reasons I wear a denim skirt that looks like cut off jeans except the legs are not sewn together. No one has noticed them while hiking in national parks, restaurants, gas stations, super markets, etc. I have them shortened to just above the knees. I sit on a tee shirt while driving, so I carry it in to a restaurant or anywhere I will need to sit and place it on my lap like a napkin. That’s how I handle modesty and not flashing anyone. I have worn with and without underwear. I prefer microfiber briefs. It keeps male anatomy from friction with the skirt and depends on the tightness of the skirt and the fabric. My favorite fabric is stretch. I prefer pockets to keep my keys, Swiss Army knife, etc. I thoroughly enjoy the freedom of movement, unlimited stride, and ventilation. I have tried several kilts and prefer a skirt with an elastic waist band and shortened to above the knee. Hanes makes two models, one elastic and one with a waist tie. Both are good. I also like tennis skirts by Bolle, NOT skorts which defeats the purpose. If chafing is a problem, try Jockey skimmies or similar under garment I can’t think the name of. I like Jockey NO Pantyline promise briefs, or microfiber full briefs. No friction. You can pack several and they weigh almost nothing. I feel very liberated, comfortable and have never had a negative comment or stare. I have tried several skirts and kilts. I think kilts are too heavy and wool is impractical. I am allergic to lanolin. I have never flashed anyone and use a tee shirt over my knees when sitting. I would like to try a wrap around because it will seem easier putting on over boots. I am not modest, but make no effort to expose any parts. I am also a nudist/naturist and walk and hike nude, We no places where have complete freedom. We feel we are on a higher plain than people who don’t practice nudism..We are confortable, practice good hygiene, and don embarrass fellow hikers or each other. We have done a lot of co ed skinny dipping, It brought friend closer together. I an not a serious back backpacker. I am a nature photogrer who uses game cameras and calls predators for photocomoyiyions.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sara : May 26th

      “and calls predators for photocomoyiyions”

      Calls them for what, Jeff? 😀

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Jeff : Oct 28th

        I use animal calls to attract predators to photograph. Please forgive my lousy typing. I usually depend on spell check.

        Reply
  • Avatar
    susan scheuble-isip : Jul 12th

    Raven, what do you do for sun protection as those dresses still allow a lot of exposure? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Raven : Jul 12th

      Susan –
      I’m terrible at putting sunscreen, so honestly, I don’t use any sun protection. But Sawyer makes some great sunscreen! And the dress itself is rated up to at least 30 UPF
      Raven

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Katherine : Dec 22nd

    Yes! I just discovered the joy of the hiking dresses. That same one. So far I’ve only put it to the test on a two-nighter with my son (larger load, shorter distance) and a bunch of day hikes.

    Raven: Did the non-flat seam directly on top of the shoulder ever bother you?

    I’m very eager to try this for comparison: http://www.montbell.us/products/disp.php?cat_id=3218&p_id=2304123&gen_cd=2

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Raven : Jan 28th

      Katherine, none of the seams ever bothered me! And I wore/wear the dress 90% of the time without a sports bra.

      I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts on the Montbell dress! It definitely looks like it’d be a good hiking dress. But I’m not one for short sleeves. Give me tanks or longsleeves any day of the week.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    windflier : Dec 23rd

    Lady Hike is coming out with a line of dresses soon. I am eager to try them. still need more practice on the pee-ing tho LOL

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Raven : Jan 28th

      I’ve had nearly three years and I still manage to mess up and pee on myself/fall over while peeing every once in a while. And I always end up laughing at myself and pulling out the whipes. Thankfully most of my mishaps go unnoticed by other hikers!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Deb : Feb 27th

    I love my Macabi skirt!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Christina : Apr 2nd

    I just found this while searching about wearing dresses while backpacking. I’m planning on doing so through Europe solo this summer, but while I’ll be walking a lot, I won’t be hiking or camping, and I’ll be in big cities pretty much the entire time, in hostels. I wanted to bring dresses and only maybe one pair of pants since leggings/dresses means I’m packing way less weight than if I need shirts and pants.

    Considering that, I was wondering if you had any advice on where to store my passport while traveling and wearing dresses, if you’ve had that issue? I know to bring a bunch of copies, and I’m betting I should keep the original in the lockers at hostels when I can, but some might not have that option, and I figure there must be a better way than using a money belt under the dress and having to shove my arm up my dress (I’ll be wearing opaque leggings so no, I wouldn’t be flashing everyone if I had to do that) any time I needed to get my passport from it.

    Do you happen to have any advice on that front?
    Thanks!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kevin Draper : Jun 19th

    Every time I see a woman hiking in a dress I get jealous because it looks so much easier and more comfortable. And with men’s plumbing, you’d think we would have been hiking in dresses years ago! OK, that does it. I’m going to find one of these (if I can find the right size) and try it out later this summer.

    Thanks so much for the great article and great idea!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Miss Tenacity : Aug 7th

    Thanks so much for this pro/con list, and the Columbia suggestion. Definitely wondering how long it took to get your shoulders to not chafe wherever the pack straps met skin and the tank dress wasn’t covering skin? I am inclined to go with a short-sleeve for that reason.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Doctari : Aug 12th

    I hike in a kilt, since switching from shorts I have tried shorts TWICE, never again! I also go commando for the same reason s mentioned above!
    My kilt is by Stillwater Kilts, Their “Thrifty kilt” model. $25.00 last I looked. Made of Acrylic so dries wicked fast yet hangs like my wool kilts.

    Reply

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