Adventure 101: How to Choose Functional and Stylish Outdoor Gear

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Rachel Off Duty: Woman on a Mountain

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This post was created in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods and Stylinity. All thoughts, opinions, photography, and styling are my own.

3 years ago, I went on my first camping trip. It was with a guy who would eventually become my boyfriend, but back then, he was just a crush. I was excited and apprehensive, but you know what scared me more than camping in the wilderness for 2 nights in a row for the first time in my entire life? Figuring out how to look cute and feel cute while doing it. I had a man to catch, after all! I remember painstakingly scouring the internet for hiking pants that weren’t just another pair of hideous, shapeless cargo trousers. But at the time, what appeared to be nothing more than men’s pant shapes recut in smaller sizes are all that made up about 90% of my options as a woman. This was my first experience with how tricky and frustrating it could be to try to look good while dressing appropriately for the outdoors. Was it too much to ask to have both style and function? Clearly, it was.

Flash-forward several hikes and camping trips later, my outdoor adventure wardrobe has grown considerably. Luckily enough, these days, big brands like Columbia, Patagonia, and The North Face are all stepping up and finally producing highly technical outdoor clothes not just for men, but for adventurous women, too. Outdoor gear giants and fashion labels alike are even stepping up to the plate – from Prana to Betsey Johnson – to meet our needs. 3 years ago, I needed to search online for days just to find a simple pair of pants, which I ultimately ended up purchasing from an unfamiliar brand on page 12 of their search results. Now, everything from online marketplaces to physical retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods seem to be carrying a bigger-than-ever assortment of women’s performance gear at extremely affordable prices. So, if there was ever an ideal time to fall in love with the great outdoors as a woman, it’s now.

Rachel Off Duty: Woman by a Waterfall

You might be sitting there asking yourself why any of this is important. Because sure, yoga pants and crop tops will do the trick on short hikes, no problem. But, if you’re thinking of taking your relationship with the great outdoors to the next level (say, 4 hour hikes and longer), you’ll want clothes that help you perform, not clothes that are only good for the ‘Gram. And, take it from me – when you’re outdoors, your hair and face will probably be a hot mess anyway, so clothes that can withstand the elements and make you look and feel your best despite not having showered in days are a pretty big deal!

Here’s where to start:

Adventure 101 – How to Look For the Right Gear

Before considering style, your outdoor gear should focus on 3 things: fabric, fit, and function.

  • Fabric

    • If there’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way, it’s to steer clear of cotton, because it’s terrible for insulation and it holds onto moisture, meaning you’ll be miserable if you sweat or get caught in the rain. Growing up in Hawaii, I’ve gone on many hikes wearing cotton workout clothes, going swimming, and then putting those same clothes back on, only to be wet and miserable for what felt like years when I should have been dry in minutes. Instead of cotton, look for synthetic fabrics or natural materials that are known to perform well, like merino wool or fleece.

  • Fit

    • Whether you like your clothes to be form-fitting or loose, make sure that when you’re trying something on, you have full range of motion. And, consider whether or not you’ll need to layer any clothes underneath or on top.

    • For pants, leave room for 1 pair of long underwear underneath.

    • For tops, you’ll want to plan for a base, mid, and outer layer. Your base (long-sleeve tops, tank tops, etc) can be snug, and should be moisture-wicking in case you sweat. Your outer layer should always leave room for at least 2 layers to fit comfortably underneath, and should ideally be water-resistant or waterproof.

  • Function

    • Look for technical specs like waterproof material, zip- or button-closure pockets, hoods, breathable fabrics, etc., depending on the type of activities you’ll be doing. If it looks great but doesn’t make you more efficient in any way, skip it.

Get The Basics: 5 Pieces to Kick-Start Your Outdoor Wardrobe

Once you know what to look for when it comes to fabric, fit, and function, you can start to build a versatile, stylish outdoor wardrobe. I always try to look for functional pieces in a variety of (mostly neutral) colors that fit me well and complement each other, so that I can mix and match almost anything while I’m on the go. I also try to select outdoor clothes that I won’t mind pairing with casual everyday clothes whenever possible, so I can wear outfits like the one pictured here, and get the most use out of my gear even when I’m not on a trail or at a campground. In the past 3 years, I’ve grown my wardrobe slowly over time, investing in new pieces every few months or as needed. I don’t have a huge assortment of gear by any means, but what I do have has served me well on dozens of trips and adventures so far.

Here’s where I recommend starting out when it comes to building up your outdoor wardrobe:

Rachel Off Duty: Woman Wearing a  Jacket

1. Outerwear

The 3 most important jackets to own are a running jacket, a fleece (insulation layer), and a rain jacket (shell/outer layer). The running jacket is the most versatile, and can be used for anything from light jogging or hiking to serving as the base layer for additional jackets on top.

In my opinion, your rain jacket is where you should focus your style efforts the most – since it will be on top of everything else, it’s the most likely to get seen, after all. I chose this olive green Betsey Johnson parka from Dick’s Sporting Goods recently, and love how the deep green color, mesh detailing, and adjustable straps at the waist make wearing a rain jacket much more flattering than I ever honestly thought possible.

2. Tops

The two tops I reach for again and again when I’m packing for a hike or a camping trip include a performance (moisture-wicking) tank top and a quarter-zip long sleeve. Ideally, your tops should be on the snug side, to make it easier for you to layer jackets on top if you get cold.

3. Pants

You want a pair of pants or leggings that are durable, so they won’t snag or tear easily, and that are functional, with things like useable pockets (on the thigh!! Not the butt or the hip) or transitional buttons / zippers to roll your pants up when it gets hot. In addition to the first pair I bought 3 years ago, I now also own a looser pair from Prana that I use when I go to colder climates, so I can easily layer one or two pairs of leggings underneath if I need to.

Rachel Off Duty: Sorel Women's Boots

4. Shoes

Trust me when I say that a sturdy pair of hiking boots makes a world of difference when you’re walking on uneven ground. In fact, if you only have $100 to start your outdoor gear collection, start here, because there’s nothing worse than uncomfortable footwear when you’re 3 miles into a hike with nowhere to turn if you develop a blister or get your tennis shoe wet.

For any outdoor shoe, the two top things to look for are waterproofing and a sturdy ankle support. I own two pairs of outdoor shoes – 1 pair of Timberland hiking boots for long-distance hiking, and 1 pair of Sorel waterproof combat boots (pictured) for shorter treks and casual adventures.

Rachel Off Duty: Woman with a Backpack

5. Day Pack

Last but not least, invest in a decent pack to carry little things like water and snacks when you’re out. You can get these pretty inexpensively online – I got a $30 pack online (not pictured below) that even came with a hydration bladder and a straw, and it’s perfect for day trips and casual hikes alike. When looking for a pack, look for one that has adjustable straps for both your chest and your waist, so the pack doesn’t shift around while you’re walking.

Start small, piece by piece, until you build up a capsule collection of outdoor gear that you can use over and over again. Invest in sturdy, well-made pieces every so often rather than buying cheap, quick items all at once. Whenever possible, try on clothes in-person at outdoor equipment retailers to best understand how different brands and materials fit and feel, so you can make smarter decisions about your purchases. Then, once you’re familiar with the brands and sizes that work for you, it will make it easier to make future purchases online. This is exactly how I grew my wardrobe over the years, and how you can, too.

Looking for guidance to kick-start your next adventure? Feel free to check out my latest road trip and camping guide to get some inspiration to hit the trail!

Shop this outfit here and find deals from Dick’s Sporting Goods here.


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Rachel Off Duty: How to Choose Functional and Stylish Outdoor Gear
Rachel Off Duty: How to Choose Functional and Stylish Outdoor Gear

Hey there! I’m Rachel, a travel writer and a full-time advertising / marketing expert. In 2019, I traveled more than 25 times while working 9 to 5, and since then I’ve committed myself to living a more adventurous life, even if it means bringing my laptop along for the ride.

Are you hungry to travel more, but overwhelmed with how to juggle work and play? You’ve come to the right place!

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4 Responses

  1. This content is amazing. Always see people recommending locations with pictures and reviews, but not advising on dressing for the occasion. Really enjoyed this and would love to see you expand more on it in the future 🙂

    -For example, what’s the difference between a running jacket and a rain jacket in your book?

    Keep it up and thank you

    1. Thanks Doug, glad you found this guide useful! In my book, the main difference between those is material – I’d want a running jacket to be comfortable, moisture-wicking, and breathable. And on the flip side, I’d just want a running jacket to be water-resistant and keep me dry. When I’m camping and it’s cold out, I’ll usually wear a running jacket, followed by a fleece or puffer, and topped off with a rain jacket or windbreaker!

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