A review of my favorite long sleeve hiking shirt: A thrift store, polycotton blend, dress shirt
Since moving out West nearly fifteen years ago, I have discovered the importance of protection from the harsh UV radiation found at elevation.
Due to my gene pool, I tan very well (Thanks, distant ancestors who invaded southern Italy! 🙂 ). However, NO ONE truly tans well at 10,000+ feet.
The sun destroys the skin at best and can cause cancer at worst. Not good.
The solutions are simple: Slather yourself up with sunscreen or wear the appropriate clothing.
I do not like sunscreen for extended trips. Esp on backpacking trips, the sunscreen clogs the pores, collects dirt, gives an “unclean” feeling, runs into your eyes, is something extra to pack and is just plain messy.
So my choice for sun protection is clothing — a wide-brimmed hat of course to cover the face and a long-sleeved shirt. The rolled down sleeves cover the arms and the collar, paired with the hat, cover the neck.
In the non-humid climates, I tend to hike in; the long sleeves actually keep me cooler by making a micro-climate as well. Naturally, long sleeves help with bug protection too. A button-down shirt lets you roll up the sleeves as needed and unbutton the shirt for added ventilation.
Now, you can buy plenty of long sleeve shirts made for hiking, travel and sun protection. They are sharp-looking, of high quality and will make you look like you stepped out of a gear catalog or a safari. They can be $50+ each as well.
But on any extended backpacking trip, you are beating the crap out of your shirts. They get perma-stains between the combined forces of the pack straps, salt from sweat and dirt.
A $50 shirt may still be usable at the end of 4+ months of backpacking, but it will look like, to use a technical term, crap.
Being a self-proclaimed dirt bagger with a utilitarian bent, I can’t see why I’d want to spend $50+ on a shirt that is going to look like a thrift store shirt at the end of the trip.
So what to do? Buy the hiking shirt from the thrift store, to begin with! 🙂
My shirts of choice are the old poly-cotton blend dress shirts that are ubiquitous in any thrift store. For the princely sum of $5, I achieve the desired sun and bug protection. Or I’ll raid my closet for old shirts!
Yes, there is cotton in these shirts, but the thin fabric does dry quickly. If it does get cold and rainy, I change into a thermal anyway regardless of the shirt I am wearing.
I also find these shirts very comfortable, breathe better, and feel less clammy than a “technical” shirt or a nylon button down for three-season use. I’ve tried the so-called hiking or traveling shirts and prefer the cotton-blend ones now. And many of the “real” hiking shirts make me look like a reject from an Indiana Jones cosplay convention.
What about longevity? Not only have these shirts lasted me the length of a thru-hike, but they were serviceable enough to wear AFTER a thru-hike too. The only reason why I discarded the shirts are that there is a fine line between being a dirt bagger and looking homeless. The shirt was structurally sound; they just seemed a little, ah, worn. The shirt only had to go after a while. ( Esp after being married. 😉 )
Now, there are times when it makes more sense to wear the more expensive shirts. If the trip is more of a cultural journey and less backcountry oriented, it pays to be a little more presentable. No reason to be a literal Ugly American. 🙂
If I am representing a group or a person or paid for my services, perhaps the thrift store shirt is not the best choice, either.
Otherwise? I’ll buy a thrift store special. For $5 I can beat it up, make it dirty, have it full of sweat and it will take a lickin’. As mentioned, I’ve also been known to recycle old “casual” dress shirts from my closet, too. These shirts look good enough to wear outside of hiking and meet the critical non-dirt-bagger approval! 😉 The classic plaid Western snap style shirts of 65/35 polycotton blend are ones I’ve gravitated to in recent years. Even new, I’ve found them for $20 or less in stores.
I’ll put the $50 I saved for more important things. Like a post-trip burger and beer!
Overall summary: A simple shirt that may already be in your closet works well for hiking. Practical, durable, inexpensive, and perhaps even preferable to a “real” hiking shirt.
EDIT DEC 2019: A very in-depth science-based post validates my experience in detail. Check it out.
But I have to say I’m with Paul on this one: for a measly $20 you can get a good-looking hiking shirt that’s lighter, more breathable, and dries faster (or just as fast) as the Kuhl or Montbell at a quarter of the price. Oh, and it won’t kill you.