Your clothing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike doesn’t have to be overly complicated—in fact, simpler is better because you don’t want to carry anything you’re not going to use. What you do want is clothing that is durable, doesn’t chafe or rub you the wrong way, and that is easy to care for because you’re going to be hiking all day, every day in it.
Overall, here’s the clothing I think is essential for a three-season Appalachian Trail thru-hike. This is the clothing I’d choose if I was to do another AT thru-hike.
a hiking top and bottom
a rain jacket
an insulated jacket
fleece or merino wool mid-layer sweater
gloves or mittens
fleece or wool beanie
multi-use neck gaiter
camp baselayers (top and bottom)
When you’re thru-hiking, you’re going to be generating a lot of body heat, so you want a shirt that’s going to be comfortable under a backpack and that will dry quickly when you perspire. Some people like merino wool shirts because stink less than synthetic shirts, but trust me, anything you wear is going to reek after a few days of hiking, let alone a few weeks.
Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail Tee
For Men and Women: The Capilene Cool fabric is incredibly lightweight and silky. It wicks sweat and dries rapidly, and the cut is long enough so it doesn’t bunch under a pack. These shirts are virtually indestructible, which is a good thing, on a long trail. I also like Patagonia’s Capilene Cool Tank Tops.
For Men and Women: This is a basic technical tee-shirt with a mid-range fit and a variety of colors. This shirt has flat seams for non-chafing comfort and a reflective hit on the back to keep you visible at night. It’s made entirely of polyester, so it’s easy to rinse out though and dries quickly. It’s also comparatively inexpensive and frequently on sale.
Do you prefer to hike in shorts or pants? For shorts, most hikers like a longer inseam—around five inches for women and eight inches for men. For pants, make sure they sit high enough that your pack’s hip belt won’t push them down, and always look for a flatlock inseam. Remember for this layer, you’re perfectly fine finding a pair of technical shorts and teeshirt at your local sporting goods store. Your hiking layers are one place you can skimp and not worry too much.
For Men and Women: A hiker fave, these Patagonia shorts will last for thousands of miles. There are several inseam options for both men and women, and they come in a variety of quirky patterns that will clash beautifully with your weird hiker outfit.
For Men and Women: This line of shorts has a perfect-length inseam, an airy feel, and are slit up the sides for maximum range of motion. The shorts are built with a DWR coating on the face fabric and have a boxer-brief liner to help prevent chafing. Yes, no underwear required.
For Men and Women: Buttery smooth with flat seams and a high, wide waistband—these running tights have such a good fit you can barely feel them, and they don’t sag or lose their shape after not being washed for 12 days straight. The waistband is wide and flat, so it doesn’t pinch, plus these are one of the only tights I’ve worn that aren’t constantly sliding down while hiking.
Don’t skimp on the socks. Choose a technical, hiking-specific sock that advertises arch support, reinforced toe and heel, and light padding. Sock height is up to you, but many hikers opt for a mid-height crew sock to help prevent debris from getting in your shoes.
Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew
For Men and Women. These are some of the most popular socks on the AT. All Darn Tough socks are made in the US, have a lifetime guarantee, and have perfected the fit and level of cushion. These are made from a tightly woven merino/spandex blend. If you ever wear them out Darn Tough will replace them for free.
For Men and Women. Swiftwick combines merino with Olefin fibers for a sock that doesn’t shift in your shoe, won’t slide down your ankle, and wicks moisture. These socks dry super fast and have a seamless construction so they don’t rub. They’re also available in all kinds of colors and rad patterns which makes them easy to sort at a laundromat.
For Men and Women. Yes, these are toe socks. You either love them or you hate them. Some hikers swear by using the liners under another pair of socks to prevent blisters/rubbing, and some hikers just like having their toes separated.
For Men and Women. Some hikers wear underwear, others don’t. No judgment either way. Ex Officio’s underwear is antimicrobial and made specifically for wearing, rinsing, and re-wearing (think travel and thru-hiking) and they have a variety of styles to choose from that suit a wide range of preferences, from boxers to full cut panties, bikinis, and thongs!
Your rain jacket should weigh less than 10 ounces and be long enough to cover your butt. A 2.5 or three-layer construction with an ePTFE membrane is your best bet here, as opposed to a PU laminate. In normal talk, this means the jacket is waterproof and breathable. Look for tags with Gore-Tex, eVent, or Pertex. Keep in mind that I’ve never found a rain jacket that keeps you totally dry in long, heavy rain. Water will eventually drip down your neck or you’ll get sweaty and clammy wearing it for 12 hours at a time.
Some hikers like rain pants—I’m not one of them, and I saw a lot being sent home on the AT. When they get wet and sticky, they tend to stick to your legs.
Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket
For Men and Women. Every few years, OR seems to redesign the Helium Jacket to be even lighter and more streamlined. The men’s model weighs just a hair over six ounces, and it’s built with 2.5-layer Pertex Shield. It’s simple and packs down to almost nothing, but it has an adjustable hood and chest pocket that’s perfectly sized to carry a smartphone.
For Men and Women. This ultralight rain jacket is available with pit zips and is highly breathable. It weighs less than five ounces and is cut long enough to prevent water from dripping down your pants. It comes with a waterproof zipper and velcro wrist cuffs to keep your wrists warm, all of the seams are taped, and it comes with an adjustable hood, which is a must-have for hiking in the rain.
Look for a jacket that weighs less than 12 ounces. To be warm enough, this usually means at least 800 fill-power down insulation. If you’re waffling between down or synthetic, synthetic fill has come a long way in warmth-to-weight ratio, but many people still swear by down. There are pros and cons to both—synthetic doesn’t pack down as small, but it keeps its warmth when wet. Down can be loftier, but get it wet and you’re hosed.
Feathered Friend Eos
For Men and Women: The Eos Down Jacket is the lightest offering from this top-of-the-line down sleeping bag and apparel company. Packed with 900-fill down, the women’s model weighs nine ounces, and the men’s model weighs 10.6 ounces. It has a deep hood and a more fitted feel than some boxier offerings. It’s also never on sale or discounted because it’s the best of the best and in very high demand.
For Men and Women: The Torrid APEX is the synthetic-fill jacket of your dreams. It has a similar warmth-to-weight ratio as high-loft down, but you won’t lose insulating capabilities if it gets damp. The Climashield Apex synthetic insulation is laid out in sheets, so there are no cold spots, and it weighs less than eight ounces.
For Men and Women. I’m still on the fence about whether 1,000-fill down is a real thing, but this incredibly lightweight jacket comes in under five ounces and has a unique baffle stitching pattern to help eliminate cold spots and keep the down in place. The downside of this jacket is that it doesn’t have a hood. But a fleece or wool beanie is usually sufficient to wear on the AT if your head gets cold.
Most hikers start their northbound treks in early spring, which can be quite cold through the Smokies. Southbound hikers will likely be hiking into late fall, which will also be chilly. Choose a hiking mid-layer with a natural or synthetic technical fiber that wicks sweat, stays as stink-free as possible, and is on the lighter / more packable side. Often your old ski base layer or that lightweight fleece collecting dust in your closet will work fine.
Smartwool Merino 250 Quarter-Zip Pullover
For Men and Women: This is the most packable option, and one of my favorites for fit and activity. I’ve had mine for six years, and there are a few runs in the fabric, but after thousands of miles of wear and being crammed in a pack, it’s in remarkable shape. Being wool, it resists the stink. It’s also surprisingly affordable.
For Men and Women. This full-zip hoodie has a microgrid fleece that adds plenty of warmth without weight. It’s easy to throw on and off, and the hood is an added level of helping prevent heat loss. I’ve sweated a lot in this layer and never notice it smelling.
For Men and Women. These hoodies have exploded in popularity with thru-hikers over the past two years, and each new shipment sells out quickly. It has an incredible warmth-to-weight ratio, a hydrophobic alpaca fleece fiber that doesn’t collect water and is absolutely the most odor-resistant material I’ve ever worn. These tend to run big, so order a size down if you’re unsure.
For Men and Women. A basic set of lightly insulated liner gloves are all most people will need, although touchscreen compatibility is handy for using the Guthook ARTHiker app. Early AT starters might want to pack a pair of mittens through the Smokies (holding onto trekking poles can get cold), but for the most part, simple liner gloves will do the trick.
For Men and Women. Similar to the gloves, any lightweight, snug beanie made from merino or other natural fibers will be perfect for cold nights at camp, or chilly hiking mornings. Stashing a beanie in your side pocket can help avoid donning and shedding layers—protecting your head will keep you comparably warm to an additional mid-layer.
For Men and Women. This is the do-it-all accessory that isn’t entirely necessary, but you’ll never be sorry you have it. I used mine as a headband in warmer weather, then pulled it down over my ears on colder days when I didn’t want to wear a hat. It’s great for wiping internal condensation off the walls of your tent or as a washcloth at the end of the day.
These are base layers to wear at camp after a long day of hiking. Your body cools off after hiking all day, and it’s really nice to be able to change into a warm dry set of clothes in camp for relaxing and sleeping in. The primary consideration with camp clothes is low weight, packability, and stink-resistance. A lightweight set of baselayers works great. They don’t have to be too warm or bulky, since you’ll be in your sleeping bag, or you can always throw a jacket over them at camp. They can also be used during cold snaps when you want a little more insulation or you can wear them in town when you’re washing the rest of your clothes at a laundromat.
REI Co-op Midweight Baselayer Tops and Bottoms
For Men and Women. These basic base layers can often be found on sale. They’re available in merino wool or synthetic fabric for hikers who find wool itchy. You can buy a name brand and pay more, but the quality of these REI baselayers is really good.
For Men and Women. Patagonia’s classic Capilene synthetic base layer material is breathable and warm, with a classic mid-range fit. They’re also virtually indestructible: I know people who’ve been using the same Capilene baselayers for over a decade. As a bonus, you won’t look like you’re walking around in your pajamas if you wear these as your town clothes during a zero-day.
If I had to sum up my clothing lessons learned while thru-hiking the AT, it would be this:
Plan to rinse out clothing on the trail every day, so with the exception of underwear and socks don’t bring extras. Even there, you want to keep your rotation minimal.
Buy quality where it matters, save money where it doesn’t. Your hiking layers don’t have to be expensive or fancy.
You can always correct your mistakes. There are towns and post offices up and down the AT where you can replace items or have new ones sent.
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About the author
Maggie Slepian is originally from the northeast and is currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Maggie has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, is *almost* done with the New Hampshire 48 4,000-footers, has developed backpacking routes in the Utah high desert, and spent the past five years testing gear and working professionally in the outdoor industry. Maggie spends as much time outdoors as possible, whether it's backpacking, peak bagging, bikepacking, mountain biking, climbing, skiing, or kayaking. She is currently a full-time freelance writer and editor, and is always busy planning the next backcountry adventure. Get in touch at maggieslepian.com.