Best Clothing for Trail Riding

Horse people are notorious for spending money on their horses, not themselves. The nice thing about trail riding is you don’t have to impress anyone with fashion. You can get by with a ratty t-shirt, frayed jeans, and a Goodwill jacket and no one will notice. No matter what you wear, however, be good to yourself and make sure it’s comfortable.

Here in Montana, comfort often boils down to one thing: 

Layering.

Oh, sure, there may be 24 hours in July when you can get by in a tank top alone. But throw in a change in elevation and a cold front, and you may find yourself huddled in your sleeping bag the second day without enough to keep you warm.

No, you can’t ride in a sleeping bag. Trust me, it’s been tried.

Shirts and Jackets

When choosing what to wear for your first layer, you’re going to need to guess the highest temperature of the day and pick an appropriate shirt. That way you’ll be wearing the right thing to strip down to. A simple, plain cotton t-shirt is usually fine for summer riding. If the forecast is for blue skies, you may want to consider a light-weight long-sleeved t-shirt, though, to give you sun protection. If you don’t wear long sleeves as the first layer, you will definitely want to have a long-sleeved light shirt as your second layer.  On hot days you’ll feel cooler with a double layer if the fabric of your first layer absorbs and wicks off sweat. 

Some swear by man-made fibers that wick sweat away and if you’re comfortable with synthetics next to your skin, they’re probably fine. But if you’ve never tried my favorite fiber: bamboo, let me tell you you’re really missing the best! You can get silky soft bamboo shirts in sleeveless, short-sleeved, and long-sleeved styles.

Whatever you pick, made sure you are completely comfortable in your first layer whether you’re sweating or dry.

Bamboo is the Best!

Sleeveless bamboo tanks are a great first layer any time of year because they function as an undershirt to keep you dry. Smooth and silky, they’re the ultimate hot wear shirt as long as you protect yourself from Big Sky’s summer sun. Bamboo also cleans up nicely during a quick rinse in a cold stream, and the fibers are naturally anti-bacterial so they won’t smell if you forget to pack the deodorant.

Always Have a Long-Sleeved Layer

Long sleeved western shirts are great to protect you from sunburn and biting flies. A true cowboy wears their shirt tucked in so that the opening doesn’t snag the saddle horn during dismounts. That’s also why snaps are a favorite–you don’t want to be losing buttons or get caught on your saddle when getting off.

Duck Over Fleece

For jackets, fleece is completely out unless you want to look like a puffball when your shedding horse rubs against you. We’re not a fan of water-proof or wind-proof synthetics that make noise when we move, either. Leather can get too heavy. Denim is fine on a dry day. Duck material, particularly if it’s waxed or treated for waterproofing seems about right. Before choosing a jacket, be sure to find one with a front closure which won’t snag your saddle. A style that ends at your waist seems the most comfortable to ride in.

Invest in Your Base Layer

Men love bamboo, too! In addition to being naturally anti-bacterial, it also holds its shape better than cotton and has a softer drape and feel. As a natural, sustainable material, it beats synthetics hands-down. Plus, it’s made to wash in cold water and dries quickly on a hanger. 

Does it cost a little more than cotton? 

Right now it does, but it holds up longer, too.

Flannel For Women and Men

The combination of organic cotton and bamboo creates and unbelievably luxurious flannel. This is one shirt men won’t let their girls steal!

My favorite flannel shirt for summer wear is one which has been almost worn out. I did not find any of those online, however, although you may try second-hand stores and websites. If it’s a retro shirt, look for 100% cotton.

Keep An Extra Camp Jacket Dry

Pockets and pockets and pockets!!! You may want to pack two jackets: a waist-length one for riding and a longer, warmer one for around camp (the one you keep dry all day so you have something warm to wear while you’re starting the fire.)

A wool jacket will keep you warm even if you get it wet and it won’t melt if campfire sparks land on it. Having a second, wind-proof jacket is a good idea if you are riding at elevation or out in the open.

Socks and Underwear

The correct selection of skivvies can make all the difference in how much you enjoy your trip. Back to Bamboo–it’s perfect for both women and men.

Bras are Extra Important

Of course the right bra is a completely individual thing. Some women specifically prefer front-closure bras in the wilderness so that they don’t have to get completely undressed to change a bra. And some women just wear the same bra like this bamboo racerback the whole time! Racerbacks drive me nuts, though, because I sweat down the center of my back.

My beef with bras with elastic straps is they slip off my shoulders when I ride and if I’m wearing more than two layers, they’re hard to get them back in place. A hair band slipped over the two straps in the back solves that problem.

Non-Binding Briefs

No matter what style you prefer, briefs must be breathable and non-binding when sitting in the saddle for long periods.

There are some interesting options for women’s hygiene in the wilderness that you will want to plan for. Riding with a pad is not fun. If you’ve never tried one, you may want to check out a Diva cup, a menstrual disk, or a change to your prescribed hormone pill.

Only the Best in Briefs

I can’t imagine how men rode horses any length of time back in the days of the cavalry and pioneers when drawstring muslin shorts were the norm in underwear.  These Marmot briefs are light years advanced from cotton drawers. Made of special sweat-wicking fabric, they feature a special pouch inside to provide comfort and protection. The longer legs are ideal for riding because they don’t bunch up. And the briefs are light and clingy so that they don’t create the bulk under longjohns. Men, if you’ve never worn a high-end, sweat-wicking pair of briefs, you owe it to yourself to give these a try.

Socks the Right Length

You may find that having a variety of socks on a trail ride is best: warm, soft ones to wear at night, water-proof ones if you’re doing a lot of stream crossings, and these boot-cut ones which are absolutely essential if you’re riding in a pair of traditional western boots. More than one trail ride has been ruined by the chaffing caused by socks which were too short to protect the shin against a cowboy boot.

Gloves

Gloves in the backcountry are more than just clothing. If you’re ponying a pack animal, they’re more like a vital piece of tack. Deerskin, pigskin, or cowhide…it’s your choice. Just don’t choose synthetic or cotton or you won’t be holding onto that rope very long.

Pants (or as we call'em: Britches)​

Breeches or Wranglers? Having comfortable pants that don’t chafe, pinch, bind, suffocate, or fall apart is critical on a trail ride, especially the longest ones. Thankfully, there are more choices than your baggy old chore jeans or your slippery schooling tights. Jeans with stretch are our favorite, but those without inside thigh seams are even better. Men seem to universally prefer western boot-cut jeans, but both men and women riders might want to consider waxed chinks to protect against sharp brush or soaking rain. And ladies, for cold weather riding, don’t forget the handy winter riding skirt which keeps both you and your horse warm.

Rain Gear

Does it rain enough in Montana to pack a rain jacket? Well, sometimes for long stretches it seems that it doesn’t. 

Until it does. Then suddenly, it may rain A LOT.

Your rain gear should be light enough to carry for days, even weeks, until you need it. But it has to be hard-core enough to take substantial wind and a direct pounding. Bonus points if it does double-duty in helping keep the seat of your saddle dry which can become a pond if not covered adequately.

Oilskin Duster

The classic Aussie oilskin duster will last you a lifetime of trail rides. To us it’s a little heavy and constricting, but it certainly keeps you warm! This is not our favorite, however, if you’re camping when it’s hot. You’ll get wetter from sweat than you will rain under the treated fabric.

Emergency Rain Jacket

My favorite rain jacket for day-long or short weekends when you MIGHT catch some rain but you’re just not sure are the Frog Tog jackets. Frog Togs are made in women’s sizes, but we usually order the men’s large and then share them. They’re extremely lightweight but tougher than the look. My favorite thing about them is they’re quiet and soft. They’re perfectly adequate for keeping you dry when you’re riding through an afternoon’s cloudburst. If you trail ride in Montana more than a few times, however, it’s worth it to invest in a slicker.

Full-Length Slicker for Real Rain

Is this where the term “city slicker” came from? My guess is old-time cowboys didn’t have the luxury of a decent saddle slicker which kept their legs dry and the rain out of their seat.

If you buy a slicker like this, you are going to want to have a layer of either wool or sweat-wicking synthetic under it so that your skin can breathe and you won’t get cold.