Your Complete Summer Hiking Outfit
Breathable, light, durable, and weather-resistant: here's everything you need to be comfortable outdoors this season
Summer brings its own unique challenges for your wardrobe. It’s hot out, so clothing needs to be as light and breathable as possible. But that can mean sacrificing protection and durability. In most places, summer also means thunderstorms, so in addition to getting rid of your sweat, the clothing you wear this season needs to shed precipitation.
Is there such a thing as a single outfit that’s breathable, durable, quick drying, and water-resistant? I think I’ve found one that fits the bill. And all of the pieces here are available for both men and women.
Pants and Jacket
Outdoors, you want to wear full-length pants rather than shorts to protect your legs from the sun, bugs, and brush. The obvious compromise is that pants don’t breathe as well as shorts. And in the past, fabrics that were capable of standing up to activewear outdoors made this problem worse.
Fjällräven set out to address this issue with its new G-1000 Air Stretch fabric, which combines the strength of long cotton fibers with the abrasion and water resistance of polyester, all while providing a degree of movement that’s alien to both fabrics. It’s also exceptionally thin and breathes like linen. Air Stretch resembles ripstop canvas and is used across the seat and front of Fjällräven’s new Midsummer pants ($145) and for the hood, shoulders, and outer sleeves of its Midsummer jacket ($200).
The brand employs poly-cotton blends in thicker versions of G-1000, too, but in those applications, waxes on the fabric add water resistance. As I explored at length a few years ago, cotton fibers are hollow and posses a slight negative charge; this means they attract, absorb, and hold on to positively charged water molecules to a degree that’s incredibly problematic outdoors. Air Stretch, however, which is the lightest fabric in the G-1000 range, is not waxed. And while it can be made more water-resistant by applying wax, doing so risks compromising the breathability of the fabric, thereby reducing its suitability for hot summer conditions.
If you run items from Fjällräven’s new Midsummer range under a tap, Air Stretch will ultimately soak up water and stay damp for about half an hour, even if it’s exposed to direct sunlight. The even lighter recycled polyester-stretch material that composes the body of the jacket and trousers performs similarly.
I’m explaining all of this so there’s no misconception about the role that items in the Midsummer range are intended for: they’re durable pieces of clothing that remain exceptionally comfortable in hot weather. They are not suitable as outerwear in cold, wet weather. But it’s that trade-off that makes them so perfect for hot conditions.
I spend a lot of time hiking off-trail through dense pine forests and thick sagebrush, both of which can wreak havoc on minimal-weight trousers and exposed skin. But after several weeks of wear, the Midsummer trousers demonstrated no signs of damage whatsoever. And while they do retain water if I submerge them, they shed light rain and moisture from wet plants just fine. They’ve proven totally comfortable on hot afternoon hikes, at least in the high eighties we’ve had so far here in Montana. For even hotter temperatures, Fjällräven includes generous ventilation zips above the knees—the perfect location for maintaining the protection of true pants across the lower legs, while adding the ventilation of a pair of shorts across your thighs.
For the same reasons that long trousers are a better option in the outdoors than a pair of shorts, carrying a light jacket is a good idea even at the height of summer. The Midsummer jacket is made from the same materials as the pants. Its resistance to wind and mild precipitation is all you’ll need for early-morning starts or a late-evening chill, while remaining cool enough to don over a merino T-shirt into the mid-seventies.
Another thing proper pants and a jacket are good for is keeping mosquitoes and ticks off your body. While very determined skeeters are capable of biting through G-1000 Air Stretch, that’s easily remedied with a permethrin spray. The trousers also include drawcords at their ankles. Cinch those down over a tall sock, and ticks will be unable to get in.
On the subject of adaptability, I applied Nikwax’s Cotton Proof treatment to both the Midsummer jacket and pants a few days ago. It adds an additional level of water resistance without sacrificing breathability, and it’s as easy to apply as running your clothes through the wash. Which brings me to the final benefit of G-1000 Air Stretch: because it’s not waxed, you can just pop these pants and jacket in a washing machine without risking a reduction in their performance.
Our columnist Andrew Skurka detailed the benefits of wearing lightweight trail runners the other day. I only disagree with him on one point: ankle protection. I like to wear Altra’s Lone Peak 4 Mid Mesh ($130), an ankle-high version of the brand’s popular trail runners.
I’ve detailed the same shoe in its waterproof form, but in the summer, I prefer the mesh ones, which forego a waterproof membrane, making them exceptionally breathable and quick to dry. These things are so comfortable, you’ll forget you’ll wearing them. Going for the boot-like mid rather than the low-cut shoe means dealing with a tight-fitting upper that makes the Lone Peak hard to put on or take off, but that piece also adds a little insurance for your ankles on uneven ground and from brush, rocks, or anything else that might cause injury while walking around or during a fall. Such protection comes at a weight penalty of only two ounces per pair—totally worth it if you tend to leave well-trammeled trails behind.
The theory of wearing nonwaterproof shoes outdoors is that, due to their proximity to the ground and their position at the bottom of your legs, your feet are going to get wet no matter what. This may happen while crossing a stream—and fording is always safer than jumping—or as rain runs down your pant legs. If your feet get wet inside a waterproof shoe, they’ll stay wet. If they get wet inside a breathable shoe, the heat you generate as you move, plus the mechanical action created by the movement of your foot, will rapidly push the water out of your shoes. So your feet end up drier more often if you forego the waterproof membrane. (You should still wear a waterproof boot in winter conditions, however, and the taller the better.)
None of the above is possible if you wear a sock that retains water. And in the summer, you want that sock to be as breathable as possible. In very hot, very wet conditions, such as those experienced in a boat, a synthetic sock may be the best option since polyester and nylon fibers do not absorb water. But in the variable conditions you’ll find on land, I think merino wool is the best option.
You can read more about the technical properties of wool in this rant I wrote about flannel. The only thing that makes merino different from other types of wool is that it’s softer and more comfortable next to your skin as a result. It retains the same warm-when-wet, cool-when-hot properties as other wool fibers. And all that makes it a perfect material for socks. This time of year, you’re going to want the lightest, most ventilated merino socks possible. And the best I’ve found are these Smartwool PhD Ultra Light crew socks ($20). Opt for a taller one rather than the no-show kind to help keep ticks off. You can and should spray socks with permethrin for that same reason, too.
Everything that makes merino comfortable on your feet will make it comfortable on your upper body. The lightest options you can typically find are in the 125-to-130-weight range.
Fabric weights are determined by how much a square meter of a given fabric weighs and are typically expressed in grams per square meter. The lighter weight a fabric is, the thinner and airier it’ll be. If you want to benefit from merino wool’s naturally temperature-regulating properties and next-to-skin comfort in hot summer weather, you want the lightest shirt you can find. This Icebreaker pocket tee is a good example.
The trouble is, merino is pricey stuff to begin with, and spinning it into a very light fabric requires special tooling and processes. So lightweight merino T-shirts tend to cost you. Our example Icebreaker shirt is $110.
Luckily, you can protect your investment. The tricks to making ultralight merino clothing last include washing it infrequently, and doing so in cold water on your machine’s gentle cycle, then hanging it up to air-dry. Putting merino-wool garments into your dryer will eventually result in holes developing in them. Cared for properly, that $110 T-shirt should easily withstand a couple years’ worth of very regular wear.