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Hail the Almighty “Work Shirt”

The One Hiking Shirt We Never Go Without

Sun, wind, bugs, cold. One type of hiking shirt offers substantial protection against all these elements. Yet it weighs only about 8 or 9 ounces (227 or 255 grams) and, when it’s in your pack instead of on your back, it easily compresses to softball size. We call them “work shirts,” because hiking—and writing about it—is our work, and we never go to work in the backcountry without either wearing or carrying one of these shirts.

Most work shirts have a UPF rating of 25 to 50, so they’re an effective sun-shield for your neck, torso and arms. Most are made of tightly woven, wicking, quick dry, all-synthetic material that provides substantial wind-resistance, and creates a barrier against biting insects. When worn over a synthetic T-shirt, and especially when worn over a lightweight, long sleeve, zip-neck, a work shirt adds surprising warmth considering its minimal weight and packed size.

Work shirts are also uniquely versatile. You can fine tune your comfort by rolling the sleeves up or down, or varying how you button the front, which you can’t do with a T-shirt or zip-neck. On scorching hot days, dunking a work shirt in a stream or lake, wringing it out, then wearing it is like stepping into a walk-in refrigerator. You can do this with other shirts, but work shirts hang more loosely, so they’re more comfortable when wet, and they dry faster.

For all the above reasons, we’ve almost abandoned synthetic T-shirts for hiking. During summer, a work shirt, sometimes worn over a long sleeve zip-neck, is all the upper-body clothing we need 75% of the time. If it gets so windy that our work shirt isn’t enough, we wear our Gore-Tex shell. No need for an extra, intermediate, wind-shedding layer.

Specifically which work shirts do we recommend? Mountain Hardwear has long made their Canyon Shirts in several, solid colours for women and men. And they’ve continued to tweak the design, improving it over the years. It’s excellent. Other manufacturers are less consistent, annually changing how many work shirts they offer (usually only one or two), what they call them, and how they’re styled.

We dislike work shirts with big, front pockets, which add bulk and weight, yet are useless for hikers. We’d like to see more work shirts available in something other than solid colours, simply for aesthetic variety. But mostly, we just wish more gear companies would recognize the importance of the work shirt, so we’d have a bigger selection to choose from.

If you’re still hiking in T-shirts, try wearing a work shirt next time. We think you’ll agree, they’re superior.

Walk on!