I’ll be the first to say there are no absolutes in hiking. Practices and equipment choices that suit one hiker may not suit another. Questions I often get asked include ‘Is a down sleeping bag better than a synthetic one?’ and ‘Are trail runners better than boots?’ as well as ‘Are trekking poles worth using?’ All valid questions (and arguments) for another time.
But what about the question of long sleeve tops and pants versus short sleeve tops and shorts? In relation to this question, I’m a firm believer in there not being ‘one single answer’ but even then there are some exceptions so let’s have a look at the pros and cons of both options. To keep it simple, I’m avoiding the variations for example, a long sleeve top with shorts etc!
I’ll own up here and say that for around 90% of my hiking activities, I wear a long sleeve top, and long pants for 100% of the time.
I like to cover up. I have worked outdoors for most of my life, spending long hours in a range of extreme conditions. Living in Australia I am very much aware of the impact of UV exposure and skin cancer. On rare occasions in the past when I haven’t chosen well and failed to cover up properly, I’ve ended up very sunburnt. Usually in these instances it’s been in the Australian Alps where the UV levels are much higher than at sea level and sunburn comes on much quicker to exposed skin even though the air temperatures usually aren’t as severe.
There are obvious benefits of covering up. Exposed skin loses body moisture. Losing too much moisture through evaporation means you’ll lose energy making it harder to hike. Not a big issue if you are doing short days but it you are travelling hard, fast or for multiple days then you’ll feel it.
Long pants also keep you warmer which is not necessarily something you want in the middle of the summer but at those times, a lighter weight material is the way to go. For most of the year I wear a long sleeved top that is very lightweight that works well in midsummer by itself or in combination with other layers during the colder months.
Long clothing also provides protection from all the creepy crawlies. March flies, mosquitoes, ticks, leeches and to a minor extent snakes, are all common in areas I hike (thankfully not all at the same time!). The March flies in our alpine areas can, and do, bite though thinner clothing; and they hurt. Travel the Australian Alps over summer and autumn with bare skin and you will pay the price.
Ticks are my other pet peeve and they are common particularly along the NSW coastal area where they will always find bare skin. Long pants won’t necessarily stop snakes but they will certainly help if a snake is only half heartedly trying to bite. If I am going into a particularly snakey area I will wear long gaiters – it’s just counterintuitive to me to wear shorts and long gaiters and I just don’t find this combination very comfortable.
Last but not least long clothing will provide some protection from sharp spiky vegetation.
Kuhl Radikl Mens Pants – for me, these pants are warm enough in sub zero temperatures and cool enough when it gets hot to be my year round pants
Having just given long clothing a big wrap there are times when I do occasionally deviate from my ‘long’ preferences, at least in part.
However, I never, ever wear shorts while I’m hiking but I do appreciate a good pair of convertible pants. My reasoning for this is that below the knee is usually where my pants get dirty and convertible pants allow me to zip the bottoms off the pants and wash them while still wearing the shorts.
Every so often, I will wear t-shirts and strangely enough, it’s not during the hotter days but often during the early summer mornings before sunrise. As soon as it gets hot, I’m back to wearing a long sleeve top. A bit counter intuitive I know but I just find that between all the creepy crawlies and the UV radiation, I prefer to be covered up.
Wilderness Wear Cool Merino Short sleeved Tee – I’m a big merino fan and for me this is an early morning top when the weather is warmer
Prana Zion Stretch convertible pants – this image shows one of the legs zipped off which allows you to clean the lower leg of the pants (the part that tends to get the dirtiest) while still wearing the shorts
So in the great debate of long versus short, the majority of hikers I come across on trail wear long pants and long sleeved tops in the cooler months, and in the hotter months will switch to long pants and short sleeved tops. Shorts are not so common on the longer trails and, in my experience tend to be more common on shorter day hikes and well formed trails.
Ultimately the choice is yours but consider the pros and cons of each option. If you are new to hiking and are doing some longer hikes, start off with long pant and top option until you feel comfortable that the short option will suit your needs.