The most underrated brand for hiking and adventuring clothing is UNIQLO: the Japanese lifestyle clothing brand whose mantra is to “simplify the wardrobe”. Through years of rigorous testing in fairly extreme environments, I have concluded that UNIQLO is the best place for gear that is affordable, high quality, good looking, and technically sound. For context: on any hiking, backpacking, or canoe trip, my wardrobe contains over 50% UNIQLO items.
I wore the same UNIQLO shirt for 22 days hiking over 20km per day in the Appalachian Wilderness in 2016. It looks and feels brand new. Then, I wore a UNIQLO base layer under another UNIQLO mid-layer on all seven days climbing Kilimanjaro. Similarly, I wore that same shirt on a month long budget bike tour of Vietnam. Plot twist: I wore the exact same shirt to work for almost two years when I worked in a manufacturing facility because it is that good.
What is UNIQLO?
From big do-it-all players like The North Face and Patagonia to smaller companies like Smartwool and Mountain Hardwear, there are endless options when it comes to brands for hiking and adventuring apparel. UNIQLO is not explicitly an “outdoors” brand: it does not market to climbers, pro-kayakers, and backcountry skiers. They sell everything from dress pants and sunglasses to flannel pyjamas and jeans. Recently, however, they signed big name athletes like Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori – a testament to the quality of their athletic wear. They are a lifestyle brand that also makes fantastic high performing, low cost, long lasting base and mid-layers.
Why is UNIQLO the Best for Hiking, Travel and the Outdoors?
As is clearly outlined in my shpeil on affordable alternatives to expensive hiking gear, your clothing is a place you can afford to save. For base layers and mid layers, UNIQLO’s options are a fraction of the price of popular brands like icebreaker and The North Face. From years of experience, in terms of quality and performance you are compromising very little. Here’s a brief cost comparison. For a more detailed look into UNIQLO vs other brands, see my comparison below!
|Performance Wicking T Shirt||$15 (AIRism Scoop Neck T)||$99 (Icebreaker Tech Lite T Shirt)|
|Long Sleeved Base Layer||$30 (Extra Warm Heattech Crew Neck)||$60 (The North Face Warm Long-Sleeve Crew Neck)|
|Base Layer Bottoms||$20 (Heattech Leggings)||$60 (Patagonia Capilene Midweight Bottoms)|
|Base Layer Tank Top||$15 (AIRism Sleeveless Top)||$60 (Arc’teryx Tolu Sleeveless)|
Related: When Should I Spend vs Save on Gear?
Style, Simplicity, Non-Existent Branding/Logos, and VERSATILITY
I am ALL about city to backcountry crossover. Fewer items that can be used in more situations promotes packing light, which helps us all! UNIQLO is a winner because you won’t see a single UNIQLO logo visible on any of their clothing. A shirt is a shirt. Pants are pants. A coat is a coat. Why make it more complicated than that? This means that their clothing can be worn while travelling without obnoxiously labelling yourself. As I said, I wore my “hiking” shirt pretty well every day to work, too. Such is versatility in its finest form.
Quality & Durability
UNIQLO is built to perform. Their clothing is made to last. How do I know this? In 2016 I bought a long sleeved Airism shirt to wear on that 22 day hike I was talking about. Every day, it was worn under a fully loaded pack: fully susceptible to wear from branches, bushes, rain, sun, the hip belt, shoulder straps, dangling straps… the works! Today, that same shirt looks (and performs) like brand new. Here it is, two years later feeling fresh in Sri Lanka!
If you need any more proof as to the longevity of a shirt, I have worn this shirt on hikes in: Peru, New Zealand, Northeast USA, Alberta, Ontario, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Tanzania. Similarly, my UNIQLO T Shirt has been to all of those places as well as Vietnam, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Two shirts: infinite lives.
The Perfect Base Layers: AIRism and HeatTech
While I recommend other brands for your rain jacket/shell, waterproof items, insulating mid-layer (down jacket guide here), socks, and headwear; UNIQLO takes the cake for base layers. This is because of their in-house technologies that they put into their base layers. AIRism is their product line meant to keep you cool, whereas HeatTech is the stuff that will keep you warm. Disclosure: it works.
UNIQLO AIRism Review
Aside from my long-sleeved AIRism, my favourite UNIQLO shirt is an AIRism t-shirt. To prove how well this fabric breathes and cools: it was the only shirt I could bear wearing while biking in 40ºC humidity for a month in Vietnam. It was the only shirt I wore while working in a manufacturing warehouse with equal parts machinery heat and water molecules in the air. It is my favourite shirt: AIRism rules!
UNIQLO Down Jacket Review
I own and reviewed the Eddie Bauer Microtherm 2.0., and analyzed over a dozen other down jackets, too. It is by far a better jacket for active endeavours and insulation. In almost every category, it is a superior product. However, if you won’t be doing too much extreme activity and will spend more time walking around cities, the UNIQLO Ultra Light Down Jackets are amazing!! Reasonably priced, warm for their weight, and good looking/unassuming, they should be a staple for every traveler.
UNIQLO vs Other Outdoor Brands
UNIQLO vs Reebok T Shirts
For a month of cycling around 100km per day in Vietnamese humidity and heat that would melt my body into the bike seat, clothing choice was critical. I had one white Reebok tee (on the right). I had one black UNIQLO tee (on the left). Guess which one I chose to wear 99% of the time? Guess which one smelled better, wore better in the cities, dried faster, kept me cooler despite being a dark colour, breathed freer, and was order of magnitudes better than the other?? JUST GUESS!
Cost comparison: UNIQLO t-shirt – $15, Reebok ACTIVCHILL Tee – $50
UNIQLO vs Icebreaker Long Sleeve
For my second base layer in colder climates, I usually wear a long sleeved shirt. Before my journey up Kilimanjaro, I went to see a movie with my family. I forgot my sweater, which was the perfect excuse to buy a lightweight, $30 UNIQLO zip-up hoodie on a whim. Though I didn’t know it then, I would wear this long sleeved mid-layer literally every single day of my Kilimanjaro climb. Funnily enough, as seen in the photo, I wore it over my favourite UNIQLO tee. Also in my pack on this trip was a long-sleeved merino wool. As it turned out, I wore the UNIQLO zip-up all seven days of the hike and wore the $90 merino shirt twice – to bed!
It would be irresponsible and incorrect to say that AIRism is superior to merino wool. I simply have not done enough testing to make a bold claim like that. All I can tell you, however, is what happened, and sometimes actions speak louder than words.
Cost comparison: UNIQLO AIRism Hoodie – $30, Icebreaker Cool-Lite Long Sleeve Crewe – $130.
I’d like to point out that the merino wool long sleeve crew (right) is also a staple in my wardrobe. Especially on our end-of-September canoe trip in Killarney, the warming power of wool was much appreciated!
Where can I buy UNIQLO?
UNIQLO exists in 18 countries around the world. In Canada, you’ll find it in Ontario and BC. In the United States, there are stores in over ten states. UINQLO can be found in the UK, Spain, Germany, France and Australia, and in many Asian countries (as this is where the company began). Their online store is fine, however I always find the selection significantly worse online. Also, UNIQLO is very quick in changing their products as the seasons change. A lot of my favourites from them are only available in the summer, so it’s always worth checking back regularly.
UNIQLO: Your New Best Friend
Hopefully, this UNIQLO review and guide has given you all the proof you need to start investing in quality base layers. While the performance may not compare to merino wool, on any reasonable budget UNIQLO is the clear and easy option. I am more than happy to continue to buy and wear UNIQLO base layers. The function, quality, style, versatility and durability are unbeatable at the price. What are you waiting for? Get outside and go already!
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