Hiker Couture in 6 Simple Steps

In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.
— Coco Chanel

Let me preface this post by saying that I wear a uniform for a living.  For the past 12+ years of my life, I have worn the same thing to work everyday.  This is perfect for me because it is simple and predictable.  The side-effect of having such a low maintenance work routine is that I have become literally incapable of picking out fashionable outfits in my non-work time.  Cleverly, I have solved this problem, by spending every waking minute away from my job either working out or hiking...thus, completely eliminating the need for an attractive wardrobe.  

When you find a pair of glasses in an old mining cabin, do not miss out on an opportunity to model them.  

When you find a pair of glasses in an old mining cabin, do not miss out on an opportunity to model them.  

When I say that I'm unable to pick out an outfit, I say it with all seriousness.  I am one of those people that needs those fashion delivery services in order to match clothes together.  I am the girl who has worn high-heels twice (not kidding) in my entire life.  I am the girl who will pick out a semi-cute outfit and then swap it at the last minute for jeans and a t-shirt, because that will be so much more comfortable.  I am the girl who accidentally wore pink and orange pajamas (shirt + pants) with the bedazzled word "DIAMOND" on the oversized front pocket to an orchestra practice when I was 13, because I thought it was a matching outfit (I guess, technically, it was).  

I hope I've set the stage.  I am not one of those girls that you will see looking "adorable" on the trail.  I am practical and I wear clothes that are also practical.  Last year, my husband and I did a 50 mile loop in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.  When we made it back to the trailhead, we encountered a group about to hike in.  One of the girls was wearing an adorable "trucker" hat, cute capri pants, an off the shoulder, loose fitting tee with a peekaboo strappy sports bra.  I have to admit - she looked cute.  She had clearly put a lot of effort into her outfit.  But my only thought was, "she's going to suffer."  Maybe she did, maybe she didn't  Maybe I'm just jealous that I don't look cute when I hike.  But over the years, I have learned that the amount of suffering involved with high intensity endurance sports like mountain climbing or backpacking is inversely proportional to the level of cuteness displayed.  If you put a lot of effort into looking adorable, and perhaps less effort into actually packing thoughtfully for the trip, it's probably going to hurt.  But, there is hope.  You can still hike and look semi-decent and look like you know what you are doing, all at the same time.  

Classic hiker chic : braid (for functionality, so my insanely long hair doesn't get tangled), crooked buff that I put on incorrectly, synthetic puffy jacket.  Stunned look.  Makeup : none.  Sunscreen by Beauty Counter.  

Classic hiker chic : braid (for functionality, so my insanely long hair doesn't get tangled), crooked buff that I put on incorrectly, synthetic puffy jacket.  Stunned look.  Makeup : none.  Sunscreen by Beauty Counter.  

I teach a Backpacking 101 class at a women's outdoor workshop every year, and one of the things that I tell my students is, "if you look super cute, you're probably doing it wrong."  I don't mean this exactly literally - some people just look cute by nature, and I'm not telling you to uglify yourself.  What I'm saying is that your focus should not be on picking out merely adorable outfits - it should be on functionality and necessity of those items.  For example, when I started backpacking a long time ago, I used to carry along an extra t-shirt with me.  I thought it would look nice and feel nice to have something clean to change into.  Turns out, it does ... for about 5 minutes... until the shirt absorbs the stench from my body pretty much instantly.  

Over the years I have streamlined my hiking fashion.  I have morphed from something most closely described as, "yard sale bag lady in gore tex" to a more minimalist, yet functional, approach.  With a few simple tweaks to your own wardrobe, you too can get a "knowing nod" from fellow hikers on the trail - they will sense your inner confidence immediately as a result of your, "I know what I'm doing" wardrobe.  

1.  Step one: you do not need to wear full length mountaineering gaiters on every hike.  

Don't get me wrong, gaiters have their place.  They have saved my pants numerous time from the fangs of my crampons on a climb.  When I first started hiking, I thought that gaiters were absolutely necessary.   Hitting the trail on a 90 degree day in the middle of summer with no snow in sight?  Better wear gaiters!  Believe it or not, you can amazingly hike without gaiters, most of the time.  Mountaineering gaiters are hot, and serve very little purpose in the middle of summer.  I even hike in snow without them.  In addition, companies like  Dirty Girl Gaiters make really lightweight trail gaiters that will prevent dust and rocks from getting into your trail runners.  

Currently, I have a pair of Mountain Hardwear Gaiters that I use for my climbing trips (when crampons or snowshoes are involved).  Otherwise, I just wear lightweight hiking pants, which keeps most dirt and rock out of my boots.  

My first climb of Mt. Baker in 2006.  No, just no.  

My first climb of Mt. Baker in 2006.  No, just no.  

2.  Step two: Just wear pants.  Or shorts.  But, please, just choose one.  

 When I first started climbing, I was under the impression that wearing long underwear with shorts on top of them was pretty much the definition of "hiking couture".  More than a decade later, I realize how incredibly impractical this method is:

  • it's hot, and difficult to roll up long underwear
  • if you have to cross a stream, it's hard not to get long underwear soaked if you can't roll them past your knee
  • you are now wearing three layers of clothes on your body - underwear, long underwear and shorts
  • why are you even wearing the shorts?  because you are self conscious about your butt?  what purpose do they serve?
  • In order to change into something "cooler", you have to literally strip down on the side of the trail to take off the long underwear.  if you were wearing pants, you could just roll them up, or zip off the legs (if you like that style of pant)
  • It looks ridiculous.  Sorry, but it does.  

Personally, unless I am going on a short dayhike, I prefer to wear lightweight hiking pants year round.  This is for a few reasons:

  • less sunscreen is needed
  • less bug bites
  • less scratches from trees and branches
  • I don't have to carry multiple options (i.e. shorts/pants, etc...)

Some people like the zip-off pants, but I prefer to keep my legs covered.  My current, absolute favorite hiking pant in existence is the Arc'teryx Palisade Pant.  I like that it is a higher-waisted pant, so it fits right under my waistbelt.  This eliminates the problem of having various chafing zones from my pack rubbing on my hips/waist, etc...  Arc'teryx recently changed the fit of these pants, so I am interested to see if it is an improvement or not.  

Preferably, all of your clothing should be merino wool or synthetic (not cotton).  

 

I can be critical, because I've been there.  Why, oh why??

I can be critical, because I've been there.  Why, oh why??

3.  Step three: obnoxious sunglasses improve performance and  make you look awesome.  

Sunglasses are absolutely critical on any wilderness adventure.  In this regard, I have one piece of advice: the more extravagant and ostentatious, the better.  Sunglasses look fun in photos, and they make you look 76% more awesome than you already are.  So, please, have fun with them.  No boring sunglasses allowed.  

For my normal backpacking trips, I like Oakley Miss Conduct Squared glasses, which are super light and I barely notice they are there.  When I am on snow for extended periods of time or on a glacier, I use Julbo glacier goggles in a ridiculously obnoxious fluorescent green color.  

Notice how the glasses just really tie the whole look together.  

Notice how the glasses just really tie the whole look together.  

If you find glasses more obnoxious than these, can you please let me know so I can purchase them ASAP?  

If you find glasses more obnoxious than these, can you please let me know so I can purchase them ASAP?  

4.  Step 4: If you have long hair, never, ever, ever, ever take it out of a braid or a bun.  Just leave it in there for the duration.  

Trust me on this, you will regret it.  Your hair will turn into one giant dreadlock, and you will not be able to untangle it (unless you brought a comb, in which case, shame on you for carrying unnecessary weight).  Just leave it in the braid or the bun.  You can wash it when you get back to civilization.  Those of you with short hair, I envy you, but I'm still not cutting my hair.   

I have tried washing my hair a few times in the backcountry - I usually have a little dropper bottle of Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap.  This might work well for people with thin hair that doesn't weigh 10lbs.  Unfortunately, I just can't seem to get a deep clean with this method, and I am left with a massive mane of hair tangled into a rat's nest so intense that I could actually use it as a camping pillow.  

Critical error on the Elk Park/Needleton Loop, Weminuche Wilderness, CO.  This is also a good relationship test, i.e. does your spouse still love you when you wake up looking like this?  

Critical error on the Elk Park/Needleton Loop, Weminuche Wilderness, CO.  This is also a good relationship test, i.e. does your spouse still love you when you wake up looking like this?  

5.  Step five: tuck in or cut off excess hanging straps

Did you know that once you own a backpack, you can cut off the excess straps that you don't need?  Yes!  It's your backpack, and you can do whatever you want with it.  In addition to not snagging you on every stick in existence, it has the added advantage of not taking away from the très chic look that you are trying to exude.  It's also an easy way to cut a few extra ounces off your total pack weight.  

My husband has a pack designed by a company called MHM - the pack is slightly heavy, but it has a really slick design where you can tuck away all of the excess straps into tiny holes specifically designed for that purpose.  

Totally missed everything in this photo, because all I can see is backpack straps.  

Totally missed everything in this photo, because all I can see is backpack straps.  

6. Step 6:  Accessories only work if they actually make sense.

There are a few hikes here in WA that are ridiculously popular - namely, Mt. Si (stay away!) and Mailbox Peak (stay far, far away).  I will very occasionally hike these trails in the summer, if I need to get in some elevation gain but I don't have a lot of time (side note: if you want to hike these trails, do yourself a favor and be on the trail by 0500 to escape the mob).  In the middle of summer there is no snow on these trails, and yet every single time I have hiked them, I invariably see somebody carrying an ice axe.  Why are you carrying an ice axe in the middle of summer on a dirt trail?  Other than possibly using the axe as a personal defense weapon - is there a reason to carry it?  If you know that there is 100% chance of not using the ice axe, wouldn't it make sense to leave it at home?

I love hiking accessories.  I affectionately call our hiking/climbing storage area the, "gear library."  I even love my ice axe - it is a thing of absolute beauty.  But I will not carry it if I know there is not a snowball's chance in hell of me using it.  Instead, I might opt for something like hiking poles.  When I first started hiking seriously, I thought that hiking poles were for old people (sorry to any elderly people reading this blog - I was seriously misguided).  I have since realized that hiking poles are for people who actually know what they are doing.  Hiking poles have so many benefits that I cannot even begin to quantify their practicality and usefulness on the trail.  Not only do they help take the stress of the knee joint, assist with balance and involve otherwise wasted arm strength in the hiking process ... they can also double as a tent pole or be used to ward off bears or people who are judgemental of your fashion style.

Personally, I like the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Poles.  They have flicklock bindings, instead of the twist bindings, and they are very compact when collapsed, so they are easy to attach to a pack.  

Accessorizing appropriately - a hike in Death Valley in March, even if you are climbing a mountain, does not typically require an ice axe.  

Accessorizing appropriately - a hike in Death Valley in March, even if you are climbing a mountain, does not typically require an ice axe.  

Perfect example of a spot where an ice axe would be an appropriate accessory.  (Red Ledges, Ptarmigan Traverse, North Cascades)

Perfect example of a spot where an ice axe would be an appropriate accessory.  (Red Ledges, Ptarmigan Traverse, North Cascades)

Summary: tying it all together.

I will never look ridiculously adorable while hiking, and I'm OK with that.  But I have refined my look over the last few years - I don't carry excess clothing anymore, I keep my hair neat and braided, and everything that I wear or use is functional and practical.  When it comes down to it, you're going to look great no matter what.  You're in the wilderness.  You're smiling and happy.  You are radiating an inner sense of well being that can't be matched.  You are filled with joy, inspired by nature and infused with molecules of pure goodness.  The reflection of a mountain is glinting in your eye, and the deep hum of the earth is reverberating in your heart.  When you look at your photos, when people see you - you are a reflection of the purest form of beauty in existence.  No crooked buff, no messy hair, no pair of completely unnecessary mountaineering gaiters can dim your inner glow.  So whatever works for you, I say "go for it" (with the exception of long underwear under shorts, please don't do that).  Remember, you're out there to look at mountains, not the other way around, and luckily, the mountains have almost as little fashion sense as me.

Obnoxious glasses - check.  Pants - check.  Necessary gaiters - check.  Jacket that clashes with surrounding landscape for contrast - check.  Smile bigger than Cerro Torre - check. Just below the summit of Cerro Solo, El Chalten, Argentina.  

Obnoxious glasses - check.  Pants - check.  Necessary gaiters - check.  Jacket that clashes with surrounding landscape for contrast - check.  Smile bigger than Cerro Torre - check.

Just below the summit of Cerro Solo, El Chalten, Argentina.