Hiking is one of the easiest activities to get into, as it doesn’t require any specialized equipment: shoes, a shirt, pants, and a backpack - probably all things you already have. However, those who want to enjoy walks in the woods more than a few times per year should probably invest in more technical clothing that will keep them warm, dry, comfortable, and injury free.
While there are endless opinions about the best hiking boots and backpacks, hiking pants seem to get considerably less attention - which is unfortunate since they’re the piece of clothing that protects your very means of transportation.This guide will help you choose the pair of hiking pants that will be most suitable for your needs. As you read through it, think carefully about the type of terrain you want to hike and about your personal preferences for fit and appearance.
How to choose the right hiking pants
To zip off or not to zip off?
This is probably the biggest question in the world of hiking pants – do you want pants, shorts, or something in between? Shorts offer excellent mobility and keep you cool on hot days, but they also leave your calves open to scrapes, thorns, and poison ivy. Full-length pants provide protection from the environment, but can be unpleasant on hot days and will get wet if you need to ford a creek. The solution to this conundrum: zip-off pants.
Start off your hike in full-length pants, zip off the bottoms as you get warmer, and zip them back on for chilly evenings. Sounds like a fantastic idea, right? It is in theory, but the vast majority of people who buy zip-off pants leave them as either pants or as shorts, rarely converting to the other. In that case, the flexibility they offer is largely useless. Since zip-off pants usually aren’t as comfortable or functional as a great pair of pants or shorts, it only makes sense to buy them if you’re actually going to use them bot ways. The only way to know whether zip-off pants are right for you is to try hiking in them a few times and see how often you get the urge to covert them.
Maybe roll-up pants are the right choice for you
An alternative to zip-offs is to wear full pants and then roll the cuffs up to make them capri-length. This will feel slightly cooler without adding an annoying zipper in the knee area.
You can roll up any pair of pants, but some are definitely easier than others. Those made from thicker material will stay rolled up longer, but you can’t roll them as high. Thinner material will roll higher but will need to be adjusted to stay in position throughout the day.Some manufacturers include a cloth tab inside the pant leg that can be hooked onto an exterior button. This will ensure that they stay rolled up, though some hikers complain that the tab irritates their leg when the pants are worn at full length. Like with zip-offs, the best way to decide if they make sense for you is to go hiking in them and see if you end up rolling them up and down during the hike.
How should they fit?
This is definitely a point of personal preference, but hiking pants come in two general varieties: baggy and slim fit. Baggy pants are usually 100% nylon or a cotton/nylon blend, while slim fit pants incorporate some stretchy elastic fibers.
The benefit to wearing baggy pants is that they’ll feel cooler temperature-wise. This is especially true if they’re made from lightweight nylon, in which case you’ll feel a cool breeze running up your pant leg.
The downside is that they’re less fashionable. If you don’t feel like changing before going out in the evening, people are going to know what you were doing all day. There’s nothing wrong with that though - who would be ashamed of a day on the trail?
Baggy pants are also less versatile; they’re not a good choice for mountain biking, rock climbing, or any other sport where you need to worry about your clothes snagging on something.
Slim fit hiking pants look a bit more like slacks, with a tapered leg and less billowing at the ankle. While you might think tighter pants would reduce mobility, the elastic in them usually has enough stretch that you won’t have any trouble doing steep climbs or the contortions necessary for rock climbing.The downside to form-fitting pants is that they have less ventilation, on average. They’ll feel warmer than baggy pants, and you’ll probably sweat more in them. It’s not a major difference, but it’s noticeable enough that you probably don’t want to wear them for mid-summer hikes in the desert.
What kind of material should they be made of?
Nothing says weekend warrior more than a hiker wearing jeans. Denim may have been invented as workwear for miners, but it does no favors to those of us enjoying the wilderness. It’s hot, it dries slowly, and it inhibits our movement (try making your way over a boulder in a pair of skintight Wranglers). Do not wear denim!
Hiking pants, almost by definition, need to be constructed of synthetic materials. Cotton is usually unacceptable (cotton shirt, socks, and underwear are all problematic for hiking) because it doesn’t dry very quickly and absorbs far more moisture compared to synthetics.
Nylon is a popular choice because it’s lightweight, strong, and doesn’t absorb moisture, so it dries very quickly. Polyester is another popular and quick drying synthetic fabric.
Blended fabrics like cotton/polyester or cotton/nylon give the best of both worlds: they dry relatively quickly and have less of the “performance look” that comes with synthetics. This makes for a more versatile pair of pants that can be worn for hiking in the mountains but not look out of place if you want to visit a restaurant with your trail mates before heading home.Some pants also have elastic fibers embedded in them to give some stretchiness. These pants usually have a slimmer fit and stay closer to the skin. The tighter fit also makes them look more like normal pants and less like billowy performance wear, while the stretchy fibers prevent them from killing your mobility.
How do I stay dry?
Besides purchasing a hiking pants made from synthetic, quick-drying fabric, you might also consider buying a pair that has a water-repellant coating. The coating prevents rain droplets from soaking into the fabric, instead lets them roll right off.
The coating does not make the pants waterproof, though. If you hike in a downpour or ford a stream wearing pants with a water-resistant coating, they’re still going to get soaked. It’s just a little something extra to protect against light rain.
If you’re thinking about hiking somewhere that gets serious rainstorms (think southeastern Alaska), you’ll want to spring for a pair of fully waterproof rain pants that can go over your regular hiking pants.Rain pants are not hiking pants, though; they’re just an additional layer to protect you from very heavy rain - no different than your jacket. They aren’t very breathable, which means you’ll get sweaty, and they would be uncomfortable to continue wearing after the rainstorm has passed.
How durable do my pants need to be?
Great question. Hiking pants come in varying thicknesses; some are made for gentle trails with little to no overhanging brush, while others are designed for bushwhacking and scrambling across sharp boulders. Knowing the kind of terrain you’ll be encountering is important when selecting any of your equipment (not just your pants, but also your boots, backpack, and shirt).
Unless otherwise specified, most hiking pants are made of fairly thin material. The fabric is tough, but still thin enough to allow maximum mobility and not trap too much heat.
If you see yourself doing crazy scrambles where your legs, particularly your knees, will scrape against sharp rocks, you’ll want a pair that has reinforcement in these areas. Some pants even have pockets over the knees that allow you to slip in kneepads.The downside is that these reinforced pants are typically warmer, less stretchy (bad for mobility), and quite a bit more expensive. Unless you know that you’ll be hoofing it through rough terrain, choose a medium-weight fabric that will trap less heat.
Should I be worried about ultraviolet protection?
The answer is a disappointing maybe. Many hikers think the skin covered by their clothing is completely safe from sunburns, but that’s only partly true. Your t-shirt might be letting in as much as 95% of the UVA light and 20% of the UVB, the latter of which causes sunburns.
Blocking 80% of the UVB rays is nothing to sneeze at, and you’ll need to carefully consider whether it’s worth shelling out extra money to block an extra 18% of the rays. However, since you probably aren’t applying sunscreen to the areas covered by your clothes, this can leave you at risk for sunburns and even skin cancer.There’s plenty of hiking clothing out there that’s specially designed to block UV rays, using a combination of tightly weaved fibers and light-absorbing dyes. Most hiking pants designed to protect against UV radiation have an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 50, which means that 98% of the damaging light is blocked.
This helpful video from Consumer Reports delves into the effectiveness of UPF clothing, and demonstrates that much of the clothing we already wear provides quite a bit of protection.
Top 5 best hiking pants
Most of the pants on this list have a relatively minimalist design. There are some pockets, but since most hikers prefer to keep their gear in a backpack, they don’t go too overboard. However, if you prefer to keep all of your tools at arm’s reach, the TacLite’s are going to be the best option for you.
The best thing about these pants is how durable they are, with features like sturdy belt loops and extra reinforcement over the knees and rear, and they’re made from a polyester/cotton blend that’s impervious to those pesky thorn bushes.
While much of 5.11 Tactical’s product line is military-themed, the TacLite pants are surprisingly some of the most normal looking hiking pants you’ll ever see. They’re even dressy enough that you won’t need to think twice before heading to a restaurant or bar after a day on the trail.
You should note that the TacLites use a fairly thick fabric that might feel too warm in the summer heat. They also don’t zip off, so there’s not much chance for ventilation either. The thick cotton blend will stay wet longer than similar nylon pants, making them a poor choice for wet trails or ones that require stream crossings.But the TacLite pants are perfect for hikers who are on a budget but still want something durable. The numerous pockets are great for those who want to have lots of gear ready at a moment’s notice, without the delay of searching through a backpack. They’re not great for hot weather hiking (too thick) or rock climbing (too baggy).
The first thing you’ll notice about a pair of Silver Ridges is how lightweight they are, so much so that you’ll be looking down to check that you actually put your pants on this morning. The elastic waistband makes them even more comfortable, and they come with a fabric belt, so that’s one more accessory you won’t need to remember.
If you want to go even lighter-weight, the bottoms zip off to convert to shorts with a 10-inch inseam. If you’re around six feet tall, they’ll end just above your knees.
These pants are 100% nylon, which ensures that they’re quick drying but does come with a few drawbacks. The first is that there’s zero stretch in the thighs or knees, which is particularly problematic because they already have a slim fit.
If you’re a rock climber, or even just the occasional scrambler, you’re going to feel that tightness when you take a big step or need to rotate your leg into an awkward position. However, the lightweight nylon is really thin and isn’t suitable for abrasive activities like rock climbing; they’ll be torn to shreds in no time.
Secondly, nylon is noisy. There won’t be any mistaking who’s coming as your pants will make a swooshing noise that will be heard far down the trail. Possible replacements for bear bells? Probably not, but it’s worth a shot.
A pair of Silver Ridge pants will be good for hikers using well-trodden trails that don’t require too much scrambling, and they’re also a good choice hiking in hot weather. However, they’re not durable enough for technical terrain, and they can feel constricting on the knees.
Don’t let this company’s fame in the yoga pants market make you doubt their hiking credentials. PrAna manufacturers some amazing pants, and they look good enough that you can wear them off trail without looking like a mountain man.
What you should be considering is that a company famous for their yoga pants might know a thing or two about flexibility. The Stretch Zions have a lot of elasticity in them, so you’ll never be limited on range of motion. Combined with an abrasion-resistant fabric, these are great pants for scrambling, when you’ll need all the flexibility you can get.
The tight fit means that there won’t be much breeze running up your pant leg, so they can feel warm on a hot day. As they’re designed to look like normal pants, there’s no option for zipping off the legs either.
PrAna’s Stretch Zion pants are great for hikers that need to go from the trail to the office or vice versa. They don’t look like regular hiking pants, but still provide all the protection you’d expect. They can get a little warm on hot days, though, and they’re not the cheapest pants on the market.
The Paramout Peak II pants have long been a favorite among hikers, as they’re some of the toughest pants on the market. They’re made from 100% nylon and finished with a durable water-repellant coating, which is great for rainy weather and coastal hikes.
But these pants aren’t just durable, they’re also quite comfortable, with an elastic waistband and a loose fit. If you’re someone who does steep trails or has to crawl over numerous boulders, these pants will have enough give in them to keep you comfortable throughout.
The Paramout Peaks II’s are also made out of a fabric that strikes the perfect balance between being lightweight enough but still tough enough to get you through the day, though it isn’t the softest. If you start to overheat, the lower legs zip off to convert into a pair of shorts with a 10-inch inseam.
One of the drawbacks to most pairs of convertible pants is that the shorts are way too short. The zipper needs to be located above the knee to prevent chaffing, and thus the majority of zip-offs have a “European” look, with their 8-inch inseams. If you’re taller and don’t like showing off a lot of leg, the Paramount Peak II’s are the convertible pants are for you.
The only major drawback to these pants is that they’re a little baggy. If you’re a rock climber or planning on hiking through thick brush, you’ll want something that stays closer to the skin.
These are a good all-around pair of pants. The fabric isn’t the softest, but they’re incredibly durable and have the zip-off legs that make them a flexible choice. They’re a good choice if you aren’t sure what kind of hiking pants you need.
When the trail gets rough, these are the pants you’ll want to be wearing. At first glance, they’re a fairly standard cotton/polyester blend, but what makes them so tough are the reinforcement patches.
The ankles, shins, knees, and rear all have an extra layer of protection against abrasion, and there are even pouches to hold knee pads, making them the ultimate scrambling pants.
All that protection comes with a cost, both literally as they’re priced at over $200 and figuratively as they’re quite heavy and would be unsuitable for hot weather. Ventilation openings extend from the hips to the knees and along the calves, but even so, these pants are built for more temperate climates.
Just because these pants provide the highest protection for your legs doesn’t mean they aren’t comfortable, though. The interior seams around the knees have been covered with a fabric patch to reduce chafing, and there’s some stretchiness near the joints to prevent them from feeling like you’re walking in a suit of armor.
They come in some pretty funky colors, like bright yellow paired with olive, navy paired with turquoise. But Scandinavians are known for their aesthetically pleasing designs, so maybe these colors are just fashion forward.
The Keb Trousers are the go-to option for people who need tough pants; no other pair is even close. However, the high price tag and bulky fabric make these a specialty item - if you aren’t scrambling over sharp rocks, you probably don’t need them.
What's the best pair of hiking pants for you?
When choosing your hiking pants, always consider how and where you are going to be using them. What season will you be hiking? What kind of terrain will you be covering? How wet are you likely to get?
The best hiking pants for you will be the ones that fit your specific needs. For instance, bulletproof pants like Fjallraven’s are great if you’re constantly rubbing against razor-sharp rock faces, but their thickness will be a hindrance in hot weather and totally unnecessary if you’re just traversing some gently rolling hills. Conversely, a pair of pants like the Columbias might turn into unintentional shorts when their featherweight fabric is dashed against rocks on a gnarly scramble.There’s a good chance you’ll need a couple different pairs of pants of you enjoy hiking variable terrain, but if you’re going to buy just one pair, you’ll need to make some compromises. Consider the pros and cons of each, and then get out there and enjoy those mountains!