Hiking is a great way to get outside, get exercise, and have some fun!
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, people across the country have been embracing more physical and outdoor activity. Working from home can give us cabin fever, but in many cases it also frees up a lot of time otherwise spent commuting. When you add in restrictions on traveling and taking vacations, closures or avoidance of fitness clubs and gyms, along with current summer season, it’s no surprise that participation in everything from cycling to hiking to fitness walking is spiking.
To help readers out, this month I’m presenting a series of instructional and gear guides for women who are ready to expand their horizons and trying something new. For those interested in getting into any kind of cycling, I previously presented a Buyer’s Guide to Road Bikes, a Buyer’s Guide to Mountain Bikes, and Buyer’s Guides to the Best Cycling Accessories to keep you safe and make life easier, as well as the Best Women’s Cycling Apparel.
Today we head to the trails for those interested in trying hiking. It’s a favorite pastime of mine, and probably the easiest new sport to take up, no lessons needed, just a matter of playing it smart and starting out with the right gear for safety and comfort.
You don’t have to climb high mountain peaks to enjoy the charms of hiking.
The good news is you don’t need much. The bad news is being unprepared is dangerous. Living in New England, I’ve hiked New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington repeatedly over the years, and every time I go, I am amazed at what I see people wearing as they start up the trail. Jeans, sneakers and cotton sweatshirts are no match for a mountain infamously known for some of the wildest and worst weather in the country, even on a seemingly benign summer day. Not surprisingly, a lot of people have died on Mt Washington, in every single month and season, not from technical climbing accidents like Mt. Everest, but from dressing inappropriately for a simple day hike. I’ve seen the same thing with woefully ill-prepared tourist day hikers in Wyoming, in Colorado, in South America. Mountains, big and small, are still mountains, and the wilderness, even in a local state park, is still the wilderness. That means you can still get lost, you can still get dehydrated, weather is imperfect everywhere on the planet, and you need to respect that and prepare for that.
More good news – it’s not that hard. A good pair of shoes, a good jacket and just a few other essentials, from the right clothing to a good pack and hiking poles, will get you out there the right way.
If you give hiking a try this summer, soon you will want to head into all kinds of gorgeous natural … [+]
I am a big fan of gear that is really made for women, whereas the outdoor industry has an infamous tradition called “shrink it and pink it,” making men’s stuff smaller and in different colors and calling it women’s gear. One way I like to make sure I am looking at the best gear that’s really for women is to use women-specific retailers. In my cycling pieces I heartily recommend Terry Bicycling for all things biking, and in this this case for hiking stuff, the clear solution is Title Nine. They have everything from swimwear to sports bras to running wear, and lots of hiking stuff. Title Nine carries the best of women’s clothing from established brands (Patagonia, Kuhl, Kari Traa, Ortovox, etc.) but increasingly in recent years, their own label, and it’s good – I really like the Title Nine Clamber hiking pants. It is also a great value proposition, and best of all, one stop shopping as they have just about every clothing category below: shells, insulated layers, base layers, socks and so on.
Tecnica’s Forge boot and Plasma shoes (shown) are the world’s only instantly customized hiking … [+]
Shoes & Boots: I’m starting here because this is the foundation of hiking – footwear. The big choice is low or high, as in shoe or boot. The traditional hiking boot that comes above the ankle offers the big benefit of ankle support and protects against twists, but is generally most important if you are carrying a heavy pack and/or covering really rugged, rocky terrain. For most hiking, especially day hiking, low is fine. You trade the extra ankle protection for much lighter weight, which means less wasted energy and fatigue with every step, and today’s models still offer a lot of support and great traction and are widely available in waterproof versions. Personally, I have both and choose based on the trip and terrain – for most regular day hikes I go low, and switch to boots when I know it is going to be more arduous. But the bottom line is that a lot for newcomers to hiking don’t need boots, and will prefer the comfort of trail shoes.
As we will see with many categories of gear, there are lots of great brands and no one best hiking boot – that is, unless you think custom for your feet is best. In that case, check out Tecnica’s Forge and Plasma series. This leading Italian ski, climbing and hiking boot manufacturer pioneered the only system for custom heat molding of boots to your feet in retail shops across the country. It only takes 20 minutes and permanently molds the essential fit points of the boot, like around your ankle bones, to you through a special heating process. You also get heat molded insoles. There’s nothing else like this on the market, I have a pair, and in addition to as perfect a fit as you will find, these are high quality boots to begin with, waterproof with GoreTex and Vibram soles.
The full heavy-duty trekking boot version is the Forge GTX (industry shorthand for products with waterproof GoreTex fabric built in), and they also make a series of mid-height and low lighter weight trail shoe models, also heat customized and waterproof, the Plasma series.
Light, comfy, waterproof and perfect for most day hikes, Salomon’s new women specific Vaya is now my … [+]
One drawback, especially in these times, is that you have to go into a specialty retail store to get the Tecnica models molded to your feet. For off the rack hikers, I have used Salomon trail shoes for years and love them. The choice of many competitive world class trail runners, these are very light and comfy, yet stable, durable, waterproof (the GoreTex versions) and have great support and sticky soles with excellent traction. It’s like a running shoe for hiking. The top model has long been the XA Pro 3D GTX, and I’ve had several pairs, but I just switched to the new, even lighter and women specific Vaya GTX, and I hiked very comfortably in it right out of the box, for multiple days, with no break in required. It’s my new go-to.
Otherwise, when it comes to hiking footwear the world is you oyster with lots of great brands and options, and it ultimately comes down to fit, though I always go waterproof. Check out brands like Keen, Mammut, Danner, Asolo, Vasque, Merrell, Columbia and Garmont.
The best material you can buy for a waterproof hiking jacket is GoreTex ShakeDry, used in jackets … [+]
Rain Shell: This guide is aimed at novices, so let’s assume you are planning on starting your hiking career now, in summer and not with a winter ascent of a high peak or an Arctic expedition. We are not even talking about camping or overnight self-supported backpacking trips, so you are probably hoping to enjoy single day hikes in warmer weather without rain. But you can never be sure. For this reason, the best and most essential piece of hiking apparel you can invest in is a lightweight, highly breathable, waterproof and windproof jacket. Thanks to the revolution in outdoor technology over the past few decades, there are tons of brands and models that are waterproof and will absolutely keep you dry, especially if you go for something made out of one of the several waterproof variations of industry leading GoreTex fabric, common to many quality brands. But waterproof is not enough. You are hiking, it’s summer, so breathability and light weight are also really important, and while many fabrics claim to be breathable, there is no standard for this word: the actual amount of air and moisture they can exchange while remaining waterproof varies – a lot. Keeping the water from outside off is great, and easy, but not so great if the result clammy condensation inside.
I have a lot of waterproof jackets from a lot of top manufacturers, and all stop the elements. But the best weatherproof material for warm weather hiking (or biking or any other aerobic sport) is Gore’s lightest and most breathable waterproof material, GoreTex Active Shake Dry. It is paper thin, ultra-light, packable and more breathable than its peers, while remaining waterproof and totally windproof. ShakeDry lives up to its name, as rain beads on the surface such an extreme degree that you can shake the jacket out after wearing in the rain and it is almost completely dry in seconds.
I have two ShakeDry jackets and they work great. If you get a heavier weight waterproof shell, you cannot make it lighter, but if you get a light one, you can always wear it over a fleece or other insulating layer, so it works year-round. And since you are hoping not to need it anyway, it is much more packable. That’s a way to stretch your budget while still having top quality gear. Unfortunately, not as many manufacturers have started using the next generation material as other variants of GoreTex fabric, so ShakeDry can be hard to find. The easiest is Gore itself, as they have a lot in their GoreWear clothing division – I hike in the women specific GoreWear H5 jacket, but it has recently been discontinued, and hiking jackets rolled in with running, so the best current model with a hood – essential for hiking – is the R7. Other tech-driven outdoor gear companies offering these garments include Dynafit and Hoka One One. Because it is so ultra-breathable, there is actually more ShakeDry availability in hooded running jackets, but these work just fine for hiking.
Patagonia’s Nano Puff Jacket and Vest (shown) have become iconic and beloved choices for women’s … [+]
Insulating Layers: You may not need these as much in the summer, but if you take up hiking now, chances are good you will still love it in the fall. In any case, there are still cold days, early morning, differing regions, tons of reasons to be prepared and fortunately, hiking isn’t a technically specific sport when it comes to clothing – the same great mid-layer jacket that works for skiing the powder can be used for hiking in the forest.
As long as you stick to the top specialty outdoor brands, you can go more by style and color and weight/warmth of what you like, as they all make really good mid-layers. Your basic choice is fleece or puffy insulation, and I like the latter, especially the cutting-edge synthetics like PrimaLoft Gold and Polartec Alpha (like GoreTex, both are used by many brands). The puffies are cozy, and work great on their own, sitting around a fire or hiking on cool but dry days, and most still have a water-resistant shell that can handle drizzle and light rain. Get a hood even if you plan to wear it under a hooded shell, because sometimes you won’t, and even if you do, the shell isn’t warm, and this greatly increases versatility.
Synthetic insulations have gotten very close to down in warmth for weight, but generally work better if they get wet, and there is less concern over ethical sourcing. The gold standard in this category is Patagonia’s Nano Puff Hoody jacket, beloved by active women everywhere, recipient of lots of awards and acclaim. The ripstop ultra-light shell has durable water repellent treatment (DWR), it’s Bluesign (a top eco-friendly certification) approved, filled with PrimaLoft Gold Eco, the top tier synthetic, which uses recycled materials and retains 98% of its insulation value when wet (whereas down loses almost all of its warmth). The signature quilting pattern, using small rectangular boxes instead of more common horizontal bands, and keeps the insulation from shifting and clumping for more even warmth. The women’s fit is great, it comes in several colors, and Patagonia is a legendary producer of reliable, high-quality outdoor gear. However it’s hardly the only choice: similar mid-layer jackets (which can also be warn by themselves in many conditions) are widely available and some top brands include Eddie Bauer, Helly Hansen, Stio, North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Black Diamond among many others.
Merino wool is the best technical fabric for active performance base layers, like these tops and … [+]
Base Layers: Again, there are a ton of great choices, but I am extremely partial to merino wool, and have been overjoyed to see this classic material making a huge resurgence in the outdoor world. I think it’s fair to say that today 100% merino or merino and synthetic blended fabrics have become the top choice of the most knowledgeable, serious and avid outdoor athletes. Wool has always been great for cold weather, but today’s ultra-thin, soft, high tech takes are also great for blistering hot weather. It has all the desirable properties of the most space age synthetics, but in a natural fiber that is comfy, sustainable, and durable. Unlike many synthetics, it doesn’t get stinky, and if you have to pack light for a multi-day trip, you can wear the same piece again. Long distance trail hikers who wear the same socks day after day swear by merino.
It is naturally wicking, highly breathable, not at all itchy, and it lasts through washing after washing, hike after hike. I have tried all the latest and greatest synthetic tech from top brands, and I still rarely choose to wear anything else as a base layer for hiking, cycling or skiing. There are a couple of top pioneering brands that have always specialized in Merino and make a very full range, from socks to underwear to sweaters, mid-layers, jackets, and even wool-filled puffy coats. By far the most prominent are New Zealand’s Icebreaker and the U.S.’s Smartwool. A smaller but notably high-quality domestic player is Colorado’s Voormi, which has even managed to produce cutting edge waterproof merino garments. And I’m glad that wool specialist Ibex is back in the game. You won’t go wrong with any of these great brands, but now just about every top outdoor gear manufacturer has embraced merino.
Legendary merino wool apparel specialist Icebreaker, from New Zealand, makes a full line of top … [+]
Socks: Along with the shell, this may be the most important piece of hiking clothing you buy. However, like the other categories, there are a lot of great high-quality brands you can’t really miss with. The overall trend has been, as in skiing, to much thinner styles in an industry once focused on heft, and this makes your feet more comfortable, less sweaty, and keeps friction, which causes blisters, down. Also, today’s hiking shoes and boots are so much be more supportive and shock absorbing you don’t need that as much in the sock. Finally, as in base layers, merino now totally rules the sock industry. Top brands, all of which I have tried and would recommend, include Smartwool, Icebreaker, Darned Tough, Point Six, Farm to Feet, and Fits.
Title Nine’s Clamber Pants are a favorite of women hikers.
Pants & Shorts: Again, hiking is not as sport specific as something like cycling, and as long as you are comfortable, with a breathable material that doesn’t chafe, you can’t go too far astray on your bottoms. However, if you want to get “real” hiking gear, one of the top brands for shorts and pants is Prana, despite being much better known for yoga wear. Prana’s hiking cuts are the real deal, and models like the Halle Pants, Summit Pants and Kinetic Capri, in addition to great fit, pockets and sport features, have tech like DWR finishes to keep you dry in light rain, wicking materials, Bluesign approved fabrics and 4-way stretch. I mentioned the Title Nine Clamber pants above, and other standout names in hiking pants and shorts are Eddie Bauer, Patagonia, Icebreaker, Craghoppers and Mammut.
Clothing made of InsectShield fabric repels ticks, mosquitoes, and other bugs, like these hiking … [+]
Note: If you are hiking where it’s buggy or there are ticks, bug protection is a big deal. Instead of smelly spray, consider using clothing made of InsectShield, which is impregnated with permethrin and very safe, but works well, especially for repelling ticks. Like GoreTex, InsectShield fabric is used by many of the companies above, but also has its own line of surprisingly good hiking pants and shorts, plus all kinds of tops, hats, bandanas, even gear for your dog. I live in the heart of Lyme disease country, take my dogs into the woods almost daily, and have not had a tick problem since I started wearing Insect Shield. That’s a big deal.
Made for women, comfy, and very well equipped, Osprey’s Mira 22 and MIra 32 packs are perfect for … [+]
Pack & Hydration: Ideally you want to carry as little as you need, while being able to carry what you really should have, including rain gear, layers, a snack, first aid kit, water, etc. Packs are rated by capacity in liters, and generally 45 and above is a backpack meant for overnight travel. Full size daypacks run in the 25-40 rage, while 20 and under tend to be streamlined light day packs for carrying water and few essentials. This can be fine if you have multiple packs, but if you are looking for just one, I’d suggest something around 30 that can do it all, from a short outing to a full change of clothes and layers in cool weather.
Water is the most important thing you can carry, and most day packs have two outside pockets for water bottles that are easily accessible. But for any hike over two hours, or in hot weather, it’s easier -and safer – to use a hydration bladder. This is a bag filled with water that goes inside your pack and has a hose you drink though. The advantage is that it holds more water with less bulk, is better situated on your back for carrying, and most importantly, the ease of the hose means you drink more often because you don’t have to reach back and remove, open, close and replace a bottle.
It may sound like a broken record, but there are lots of great packs and decent hydration bladders on the market. However, in this category I will cut to the chase and go with a no-fail recommendation – Osprey Packs. This Colorado-based company is famous among backpackers for its pioneering tech, quality so good everything is backed with a lifetime unconditional guarantee, and they have long made a full line of women specific packs in all sizes and categories. Best of all, Osprey also happens to make the best hydration bladder on the market – I tested several leading candidates for a trip to the Alps last year. It has an easy full-top opening, which makes it much simpler to fill, clean and dry, comes in different sizes, has a stiff back which makes it easier to slide into packs when full, has a very good, no-leak valve, and the nozzle and pack have a mating magnetic connection so you can attach it wherever you want on your sternum or main strap for ease of access.
It gets better – the top Osprey daypack models come with the hydration bladder (if you already have a pack, you can buy just the hydration bladder and hose separately), and you won’t find a better deal in a solid do-it-all pack then the one I use regularly, the Mira 32. It has a full-suspension back with air between you and the pack to prevent clamminess, great straps, hip pockets, just the right amount of well-organized storage space, a dedicated hydration bladder pocket, an expandable outside bucket pocket for extras, and comes with the bladder. It even has a built-in rain cover, a feature usually found only on bigger and more expensive packs. I err on the side of too much capacity, but it also comes in a smaller Mira 22 version.
Poles: Last but definitely not least, you should get hiking poles – even if you don’t think you need them. Interestingly, in Europe, where alpinism and mountaineering were born and where hiking is much more popular, most day hikers use poles religiously, but it has never been as popular in this country. That’s a shame, but here’s why you want them. 1. You get a better workout, as using poles much more fully engages the upper body in hiking. That’s reason enough. 2. It’s safer – using poles gives you two more contact points and if you stumble over a root you are less likely to fall and you can more quickly correct a potential rolled ankle incident. Bottom line, it’s harder to get hurt with poles. 3. You are more efficient going up steep climbs. They make it easier, and you’ll get to the top sooner. 4. They take pressure off your knees and quads on the descent, which is, counterintuitively, where your legs really burn.
Any of those four reasons is enough, but together they mean you should use poles. I like three-part folding models which get small enough to attach to the side of your pack (the Osprey Mira 32 above has a pole holder). Also, because you choke up to shorten them when ascending steep terrain, good models have grips built specifically for this with a second molded hand position built in, and/or a longer handle section you can move up and down, not just one place to put your fingers. Also, good ones have replaceable/interchangeable baskets so you can swap a wider one for use in snow, for winter hiking or snowshoeing. The top brands making a wide range of quality hiking/trekking poles are Black Diamond and Leki.