Happy Hiking in Hiking Shirts

Sometimes in life, we are stupid. We ignore the obvious, and trudge forward locked in by ingrained habits. And it’s embarrassing to admit, that was me when it came to the shirt I wore when hiking or doing other activities in hot weather.

Columbia Tamiami Hiking Shirt
Columbia makes several fantastic hiking shirts that are also inexpensive. This particular shirt is the Columbia Tamiami II. See more Quick-Dry Columbia Hiking Shirts at Amazon.Com

Even worse, I ignored the bleeping obvious. For years I wore hiking pants (lightweight, nylon pants designed for hiking) during my treks in Glacier National Park and elsewhere. Yet the thought of shopping for a shirt designed for hiking never crossed my mind. And so, for years, I wore a top-line North Face hiking pant while trudging around in whatever cotton t-shirt buried in my closet caught my interest on any particular day.

Then—following a day where I smelled worse than normal after a hike in Glacier Park—I had an epiphany. Surely, somewhere, there must be a quick-dry, lightweight nylon shirt that’s similar to the nice pants I wore. So I raced to the local Walmart and discovered some nylon shirts. But alas, my trip to Wal-Mart created nothing but despair, as the nylon was hard, grainy and noisy. Wearing the shirt was akin to wearing an old tent.

But undaunted, I visited the local outdoor good store that sold specialized outdoor gear. And there, buried in a seldom visited (or cleaned) part of the store, my search ended. Hanging from the rack, perhaps awaiting my arrival, was a Columbia nylon shirt that was ultralight, had two perfect pockets, and was fully breathable. And which, when worn, felt like silk to the skin.

So I plunked down my credit card and walked away with my first hiking shirt—a style of shirt that soon resulted in a radical remake of my summer wardrobe. Within days many old ratty t-shirts found the trash as I discovered how incredibly comfortable the hiking shirt was, not just for hiking but also fishing, floating and going to a backyard barbeque.

So why do I bring this sordid tale to light? Simple. To help anyone planning a hiking trip in Montana (or elsewhere) during the hot summer months avoid the pitfalls that I wallowed in for years—such as smelling like a half-drowned dog by day’s end.

This article covers the following topics:

What Is a Hiking Shirt?

A hiking shirt is, as the name suggests, a shirt designed to meet the rigorous demands of hikers and backpackers. Despite its name, however, many hiking shirts work equally well for general summer wear—whether that be the backyard barbeque or rafting a beautiful Montana river.

Most hiking shirts are constructed from ripstop nylon. The ripstop nylon used in hiking shirts, however, differs from nylon used in backpacks, tents and tarps. The ripstop nylon of a hiking shirt is very soft and thin. The softness of the nylon prevents the shirt from “making noise” when a person wears it. Indeed, quality hiking shirts are identified by the lack of noise when the shirt fabric is rubbed together. Also, quality hiking shirts should feel soft against the skin, with an almost silk-like feeling.

The primary purpose of a hiking shirt is to keep the hiker cool and dry. As such, quality hiking shirts are exceptionally breathable—with some shirts allowing a slight breeze to penetrate the fabric of the shirt.

The breathability of a quality hiking shirt makes them ideal for outdoor activities during hot or humid weather. Hiking shirts are also ideal for water sports. Unlike cotton shirts, the quick dry nylon found in hiking shirts don’t retain water. As such, hiking shirts dry, quite literally, in minutes.

The Many Benefits of Hiking Shirts

Using a dedicated hiking shirt instead of a cotton shirt for hiking provides many benefits for serious day hikers and overnight backpackers. Here’s some of their key benefits:

  • Stay Cool & Dry - Constructed from highly breathable nylon, a hiking shirt allows heat and perspiration (also known as sweat) to escape. This, of course, keeps a hiker cool—even during periods of strenuous activities. Some styles of hiking shirts also have a vented back panel. The vented panel keeps a hikers' back dry—even when wearing a pack.
  • Lightweight - Hiking shirts are very light—and usually weigh half as much as a typical cotton t-shirt. This makes them perfect for ultralight backpacking, where every ounce matters.
  • Packable - Hiking shirts, since they are constructed from nylon, take up virtually no space inside a pack or suitcase. Moreover, hiking shirts pull triple duty, working superbly not just for day hikes but also for travel and overnight backpacking.
  • Not Smelly - Since the design of hiking shirts wicks water away from the skin and the fabric is very breathable, hikers remain dry and cool. This prevents bad odors from developing. Remember, it is the build-up of sweat (on the hiker and in their clothing) that causes bad odors during activities. By staying cool and dry, most odor problems hikers have "magically disappear."

Suggested Hiking Shirts

There’s dozens of brands and probably hundreds of styles of hiking shirts available. For this reason, shopping for a shirt is often a chore.

So to help anyone shopping for a shirt, I’ll make a few suggestions.

Columbia Hiking Shirts

The various styles of hiking shirts made by Columbia are my favorites. Indeed, they are not just my go-to shirt for hiking and backpacking, but also for general warm-weather wear and float trips.

Columbia Blood & Guts Hiking Shirt
The Columbia "Blood & Guts" Quick-Dry Hiking Shirt. View more Quick Dry Columbia Hiking Shirts at Amazon.

The omni-wick technology works wonders in wicking away moisture, while the tough yet thin ripstop nylon allows the slightest breeze through the fabric. In short, Columbia hiking shirts are soft, quiet, and extraordinarily breathable. In my opinion, Columbia’s hiking shirts are the best shirts for hot, humid weather.

Columbia has several styles of hiking shirts, some of which are also labeled as “fishing shirts.” My favorite style is the Tamiami (I have six of these shirts). The Tamiami has a relaxed fit, mesh back panel, two large chest pockets and is so light that it often feels like you aren’t wearing a shirt at all. The Tamiami isn’t the most stylish shirt, as it values function over form. The cut is loose and relaxed, and the vented mesh back panel looks, depending on viewing angle, a bit strange when viewed from behind.

But if you value function, the Tamiami is a superb hiking shirt. Mine have lasted years, and have survived bushwhacking, cat chewing (my cat loves chewing on the shirts buttons), washing in streams and countless other abuses. If you plan on strenuous activities during hot or humid weather and wish to remain cool and dry, and can live with a “lack of style,” then the Tamiami shirts from Columbia are for you.

A few other shirt styles from Columbia share the Tamiamis features, but have a slightly different cut and different pocket alignment. The “Blood and Guts” style has a sleeker cut and isn’t as loose, while still keeping all the features of the Tamiami. The Bahama style is almost identical to the Tamiami except for a different pocket alignment (it has covers over the chest pockets).

Overall, if you can’t decide which hiking shirt to buy, my suggestion is to start with hiking shirts from Columbia. As a bonus, Columbia hiking shirts are one of the least expensive hiking shirts sold. Finally, unlike many other hiking shirts, Columbia’s shirts are available in a wide variety of colors. The Tamiami shirt has—at last count—sixteen different colors available, allowing anyone to find a color they like (my favorite color is Sail).

The two best places to buy Columbia hiking shirts are at Amazon and through Columbia’s own website. Amazon typically has the best prices, while Columbia.Com usually (although not always) has every size of every color in stock.

REI Sahara Button-Down Hiking Shirts

The REI Sahara button-down hiking shirts are also excellent. I own two of these shirts (short-sleeve style) and have no complaints.

Sahara shirts are also made from a quality, soft and silent ripstop nylon. The shirts are loose and roomy, but have a tighter fit than Columbia shirts. Being an REI product, the Sahara shirts also come with REI’s excellent warranty and return policy.

Overall, if you have a slim build and don’t like excessively loose clothing, then an REI Sahara shirt might just be for you.

As a bonus, REI’s button down Sahara shirts are quite attractive both on and off the trail—they have the “style” that most hiking shirts from Columbia lack.

REI Sahara shirts are sold in all REI retail stores as well as through REI’s website.

View REI Sahara Hiking Shirts at REI.Com

Shopping Considerations

Pockets? And How Many? - I’m a fan of pockets on my hiking shirts. Indeed, I don’t think I can have enough pockets. My Canon S series digital camera always rides in one pocket, making it quick and simple to take photos of anything interesting. Maps, bug dope, sunglasses and a changeable array of other items (depending on the hike) get tucked into other pockets.

Sahara Short-Sleeve Hiking Shirt
An REI Sahara short-sleeve hikign shirt. See more Sahara Hiking Shirts at REI.Com.

Yet, shirts with bulky pockets—while having superb function—lack in form.

The large pockets also detract from the shirts appearance for everyday uses.

The number and size of pockets is a personal preference. There’s no one right answer. But for my own hiking needs, function always trumps form, which is why I buy hiking shirts that have, at a minimum, two large chest pockets.

Pull Over or Button Down? - Whether a hiking shirt is a button down or a pullover is, again, a personal preference. I prefer button down shirts, since they usually have a looser cut and more pockets. Equally important, button down shirts offer more “cooling options.” If you get too hot, you can unbutton parts (or all) of the shirt. With a pull over shirt, there is no option to “open up” a shirt to cool off.

Loose or Snug? - Loose shirts lack style but are comfortable on the trail. Loose shirts are also cooler, since the shirt provides better ventilation.

Ease of Care - Any hiking shirt you buy should have simple care instructions. This is especially true if the shirt is used on backpacking trips. A good hiking shirt should require no fancy care and can be cleaned, if needed, “on the trail” with some water and muscle power.

Fabric Noise - All hiking shirts are quick dry and made from various nylons. However, the nylons quality varies from shirt to shirt. Some hiking shirts, particularly inexpensive ones bought at Wal-Mart (such as those from the White Sierra Brand), use a cheap nylon that feels grainy to the touch. When the fabric is rubbed together the nylon is also noisy. By contrast, my favorite Columbia and REI hiking shirts are made from a nylon that is soft to the touch and completely silent.

Where to Buy Quality Hiking Shirts

Hiking shirts are widely available both online and off. Offline, the best places to buy quality hiking shirts are at specialty outdoor retailers. In particular, REI and Eastern Mountain Sports are both excellent offline retailers to shop for hiking shirts and shorts.

Online, Amazon has by far the largest selection of hiking shirts.

View All Hiking Shirts at Amazon

Other good online retailers to shop for hiking shirts include: