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Dressing for Style & Safety in the Mountains

Dressing for Style & Safety in the Mountains

Summer may seem like it’s passed us by at breakneck speed, but I stand by my belief that there is still adventure abound to be had this season — in fact, some of my favorite hiking weather is upon us as things cool off just a little bit and nature makes its preemptive move toward Autumn and in to Winter (sorry, too soon?!) 

Autumn is a fantastic time to be in the mountains. The early season mosquitos, ticks and black flies have simmered down (though still best to always be prepared just in case!), the beauty of the mountain summer vegetation is still vibrant and lively, and the crowds begin to slowly start thinning out, allowing for some respite on the trails.

But the glorious Fall weather can be somewhat deceiving; often well-intentioned hikers don’t realize the weather extremes of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It is easy to assume that if it’s hot down below, it’ll be the same up above. My boyfriend, who works for the Forest Service, was just up in alpine areas this past week and said that the temperature was in the 40’s up there, even though here in town we had beautiful summer weather. As an experienced outdoorsman, he was prepared for the drastic change in temperature as he climbed. But sometimes, even the most experienced hikers can find themselves unprepared. Hypothermia is a serious danger up there, and should never be taken lightly.

A brief overview of hypothermia

Hypothermia is when your body’s core temperature drops to a level that impairs normal cognitive and muscle function. Wet clothes, dropping temperatures, lack of fuel for the body or injuries acquired on the trail can contribute to hypothermia, even in the summer. This is why packing appropriate clothing and ample snacks is so crucial when embarking on your adventures, in addition to always telling someone back home when you expect to return, where you’re hiking, and what trailhead you’ll be parked at, so that if you don’t show up, someone can call for help immediately in the event that you might be injured out on the trail. 


What type of clothing to wear

DO NOT wear cotton 

Though this may seem overly foreboding, “Cotton kills” is a phrase sometimes heard in the outdoors community. Sweat, stream crossing mishaps or rain and mist will soak through cotton clothing, causing it to lose its insulation. Though this may feel good initially if you’re hot from all that physical exertion, it’ll eventually cause your body’s temperature to drop rapidly once you stop moving to take a break, or you hike into exposed areas above treeline where it may be cold and windy.

DO wear quick-dry synthetic materials and wool.

Synthetic quick-dry blends designed specifically for physical exertion and outdoor adventures won't lose insulating capacity the way cotton will, plus it (surprise!) dries more quickly. Wool garments are known for their superior ability to maintain our body’s thermoregulation, even when wet. Merino wool is an excellent choice. 

Proper layering. 

Layering up is absolutely the key to safety (and style!) while out  on the trails, regardless of the season. As they say, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. I’ll outline some basics about how to strategically dress and prepare for a safe, fun day out on the mountains this month. Keep in mind that winter months will require an alternate packing list!

Base layers

Base layers are the garments that are closest to our skin.

  • Wool athletic socks.
  • Synthetic/wool underwear & sports bra (confession: I totally wear lace underwear when I hike sometimes because it a) is sometimes more economical to buy, b) can dry surprisingly fast depending on the material (but be sure to check tags!)  and c) who doesn’t want to feel sexy?
  • Quick-dry/synthetic/athletic leggings, shorts or hiking pants (don’t worry, zip-offs are not required if that’s not your thing!) Personally, I like athletic shorts so that I don’t overheat (and then I can cover up with additional layers later).
  • Quick-dry/synthetic/wool shirt or tank top designed for athletic use.

Mid Layers

Mid layers are the clothing items worn over the base layers. Good for when you’re just getting started on a cool morning, for throwing on when taking a break so that you don’t get cold, or adding on as you climb in elevation and the temperature begins to drop.

  • Quick-dry/synthetic/wool pants to cover bare legs if you plan on spending extended time above tree line. For this, some people just use the zip-offs; others skip this step and just throw on rain pants for when they get into the alpine zone (see below in the “Outer Layer” section.)
  • Long-sleeved wool or micro-fleece top.

Outer Layers

These layers are crucial — I’ll bring most of these regardless of whether the forecast calls for rain or not. Weather patterns in the mountains change rapidly, and plus, rain gear is good for thermoregulation even if it’s dry out.

  • Rain pants 
  • Raincoat
  • Sun hat (the sun burns in the alpine zones!)
  • Wool or fleece top/jacket (heavier than your “mid” long sleeved shirt, especially important for additional insulation on the higher peaks). You can wear your raincoat over this for additional warmth as needed.
  • Warm hat

A few additional tips:

  • I *always* bring a headlamp with extra batteries, even I am expecting to return well before dark.
  • Bandannas often come in handy!
  • Extra socks/clothes are useful if you *know* you’re going to be hiking in the rain and are anticipating a need to change into dry clothes.
  • Bring plenty of water and healthy energizing snacks (I usually bring a little more than I think I’ll need)

Have fun.

Don’t let any of this scare you from adventuring out into nature this summer! Instead, merely use it as a general guideline for safety when preparing for your journey, which can be tweaked to your own personal needs and style. If you feel uncertain about what the weather might be like, I recommend checking out the higher summits forecast put out by the Mount Washington Observatory. This will give you a better idea of what to expect, depending on what elevations you plan on hiking to. 

Happy trails!


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