An essential component of your hiking gear are hiking pants. There are countless options, and they are all of exceptionally high quality these days. It’s safe to say that in this particular area, there have been significant advancements in a relatively short amount of time. The pants that are currently available on the market are unquestionably much more comfortable than their predecessors. The material used to make hiking pants is, in my opinion, much more comfortable now than it was in the past, and it seems to be getting more and more so with each passing year.
Since this is a buying guide, I should probably add a few notes on what to consider when selecting the best hiking pants for your needs. Let’s begin with the positive news. I don’t believe you need to spend a fortune on a good pair of hiking pants if you are a typical hiker who only does day hikes. The price will be discussed in more detail below, but for now, I thought a brief introduction would be appropriate. It’s always nice to start things off on a good note.
Types of Hiking Pants
Hiking pants come in roughly three different categories. Let’s begin with a succinct description of each type. In this section, I won’t go into great detail; I’ll do that in the sections that follow.
Good Old Fashioned Pants: The first kind are classic pants. Nothing distinguishes them from other types of pants aside from function and style, of course.
Convertible Hiking Pants: Convertible hiking pants are the second. These hiking pants have removable bottom legs that let you convert them into a pair of shorts. Typically, zips that run perpendicular to the leg are used to remove the bottom portion of the pants.
Roll-up Hiking Pants: These roll up into shorts. Very useful for providing additional ventilation when needed.
Things To Consider When Choosing Hiking Pants
This is the area where I have seen the most noticeable changes over the past ten years. Generally speaking, nylon and polyester are the main synthetic materials you’ll find in hiking pants. But many of the contemporary hiking pants on the market are made of a very soft, stretchy fabric that is primarily made of nylon and a small amount of spandex or elastane.
I’ve actually been struck by how much more comfortable these hiking pants are than those that were even readily available a few years ago. I attribute the change to the different material combinations. What I’ve also observed is that the material make-up of this kind can really support some of the other essential features that you want your hiking pants to have, namely breathability and water resistance.
Of course, this varies depending on the style of pants and how they are used. To put it another way, summer hiking pants will naturally have a lighter construction and fabric weave than heavier pants designed for winter. A heavier pair of pants will also likely have a thicker, more durable fabric weave and additional water resistance properties on the fabric’s face; more on that later.
Ripstop is a term that is often used to describe the material construction of good hiking pants and other hiking equipment. Fabrics that are reinforced during the weaving process are called ripstop fabrics. Naturally, this makes them stronger and more resilient, making them the ideal choice for the types of challenges you’ll be putting your hiking pants through on the trail!
Is there a material that works best for hiking pants? There isn’t a single material that works best, but a combination of materials like nylon, polyester, and elastane is preferable. You need a sturdy, stretchy fabric that will allow you to move freely while hiking. Additionally, cotton and linen should obviously be avoided because they aren’t the best materials for hiking pants.
For some people, the weight will have a greater influence on their purchasing decision than for others. That is to say, a day hiker may be much more content to carry a little extra weight in their hiking pants than a thru-hiker or a backpacker going on an extended trip of a week or more.
As a general rule, your hiking pants will be lighter if they are more suited to hot weather, such as a summer hiking pant option. As already mentioned, a significant factor in this is the material used. It makes sense that, in general, the material used in summer hiking pants will be thinner than a pair of hiking pants you would need to wear in winter. Now, I’m a little hesitant to say that because even in places with hot weather, the temperature can drop dramatically at night. An illustration of this would be a desert: really hot during the day, but much cooler at night (occasionally very cold). Similar to this, on a sunny winter day in some locations, it may be chilly in the shade but hot in the sun.
Weight shouldn’t be a major concern for the average day hiker, so you can choose whatever feels cozy to you. For a backpacker, it becomes an even more important consideration because you’ll probably want the most compact and effective option available.
Of course, each person will have a preferred size. Your hiking pants should, above all else, feel comfortable (of course). I believe that having good mobility in them is crucial, so having some bagginess is beneficial. On the other hand, you don’t want to take this too far.
You will undoubtedly need to have good knee and crotch mobility. You will be moving those areas the most and into the widest variety of positions when you hike over varied terrain, so you definitely want a little bit of freedom in movement. Some pants will have features like articulated knees and gusseted crotches, which are good to watch out for as they will offer more mobility and increased abrasion resistance.
Summer hiking pants are typically a little bit baggier than winter hiking pants. This makes some sense because you need more ventilation in hotter weather. I always like my hiking pants to have a little bit of bagginess. However, I’ve discovered that some more contemporary hiking pants can be quite snug in terms of fit while still being very flexible in terms of movement. These pants use the same spandex combination as mentioned above.
In general, and this may be stating the obvious a little, but when it comes to sizing, aim for what feels comfortable to wear and pay extra attention to the knee and crotch areas. A little bit of bagginess can help the air circulate better during the hotter months of the year. But don’t go too far, as too much bagginess can be irritating. Think of flapping in strong winds.
You need breathable pants for hiking, just like for any other activity. This has a lot to do with the composition of the material in the preceding section. To allow your legs to breathe and for sweat to escape from your skin, your hiking pants must have some level of breathability.
While crucial, that only constitutes a portion of the process, and I believe that extra features like ventilation zips for speedy ventilation are fantastic additions. However, we’ll discuss that in more detail below. When your hiking pants are well-ventilated, they will dry out more quickly if they get wet. I can’t emphasize enough how crucial that is. Since your hiking pants will inevitably become wet, the sooner they can dry, the better.
Water Resistance / Waterproof
When it comes to hiking pants that are advertised as waterproof, I’m a little hesitant. In my opinion, your rain pants should be used to handle waterproof capability when hiking. For autumn and winter, having some water resistance on a pair of thicker hiking pants can be beneficial. Simply put, it means you don’t need to put your rain gear on for a light downpour.
A DWR (Durable water repellent) coating of some sort will offer this. This rests on top of the fabric and collects water, which then rolls off. However, the DWR coating won’t last forever, so periodically reproofing the coating on your hiking pants with Nikwax or a comparable reproofing product is necessary to maintain good water resistance.
I’m not overly concerned with hiking pants’ water resistance for summer hikes. In the hotter summer months, if the pants have good breathability and get a little damp, they typically dry out pretty quickly.
I simply put on the rain pants over my hiking pants if the rain is too heavy until it stops. As I previously mentioned, I always prefer to wear waterproof rain pants as an outer layer over my hiking pants in case of serious rain, but this may not always be as comfortable in some situations, like in extremely muggy weather Depending on where you hike, you’ll need to figure out what setup suits your needs the best.
The composition of the material should more or less cover this, and its ability to be waterproof may also be somewhat helpful. However, it’s a good idea to have sturdy hiking pants that can withstand a strong windstorm. Again, where and when you hike will determine this. You will most definitely need your hiking pants to protect you from the wind if you venture into the Scottish highlands on a windy late-autumn day.
On the other hand, if you are outdoors on a hot summer day in Utah’s Zion National Park, it might not be a top priority.
Some summer hiking pants will be made of a material that has an additional UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) capability.
The UPF rating for clothing measures the amount of ultraviolet light that can pass through the fabric and is measured in units. This is how the ratio functions. A garment with a UPF of 40 ensures that only 1 UV unit will reach the skin if 40 UV units fall on the fabric.
It’s important to remember that by default wearing regular clothing will offer some level of sun protection. It is uncommon to actually get sunburned through clothing when you are outside in the sun.
As a general notem if you hike in intense sunlight or in specific areas or environments, such as deserts, I personally believe there is no harm in having some UPF capability in your summer hiking pant.
I seek out hiking pants with detachable bottoms in the summer. This implies that you can easily convert your hiking pants, also known as convertible hiking pants, into shorts. I have a pair of lightweight hiking pants from Columbia that do this, and they work great. Just above the knee, there are two zips around the pants, and the lower portion zips off with ease. Really helpful for days when you’re not sure if the sun will shine or not.
While wearing shorts in the sun is a smart move, if the temperature is too high, you might be better off leaving them on to shield your legs from the sun. The removable bottoms’ ease of removal and washing is another convenient feature. The part of your pants that will absorb the most dirt while hiking is the bottom. If you can’t wash them for a few days while you hike, you can simply detach the bottoms and rinse them in a river or a sink, or wherever is most convenient.
Roll-up hiking pants can also produce the same result by converting your pants into shorts. These have roll-up bottoms that can be worn as shorts or Capri pants. In actuality, most hiking pants will roll up just fine, but these ones will have a tie feature so you can keep them closed when they’re rolled up.
Ventilation zips are a crucial component I really like to have in more robust hiking pants. These function similarly to pit zips on a rain jacket. They typically have a mesh material underneath, which when opened, allows for good airflow as they run along the side of the hip. I really like them because they’re a very quick and efficient way to control the temperature in your hiking pants. Breathable material is one thing, but in my opinion, the quick venting option is what really counts.
When you start to perspire a little more from the added effort as you climb a steep mountainside, you can open them. If it starts to get too cool, you can simply zip them back up when you reach a plateau or begin to descend.
Boot zips are another common feature to look out for when it comes to zips. These zips extend from the bottom of your hiking pants to roughly where your ankle bone meets the ground. When they are open, they can aid in slipping boots on and off and provide a small amount of ventilation.
Additionally, hiking pants frequently have a waist-securing mechanism. It will either have belt loops where you can attach your preferred belt, but many hiking pants will also have integrated belts or drawstrings of some sort. When you fill up the many pockets at your disposal with stuff, you need something to help keep the pants comfortably up and secure. A belt, integrated or otherwise, is useful because it allows for some weight moderation.
Last but not least, if you plan to use a harness, you might want to look for hiking pants that specifically state that they are harness compatible. Not a necessity for the majority of average hikers, but something to keep in mind.
This could have been included in the material section above, but it deserves to be mentioned separately to draw attention to it. Almost all good hiking pants ought to be fairly simple to maintain. So washing and drip drying should to be pretty simple.
Before making a purchase, it is worthwhile to investigate this matter. If your hiking pants are made of a very specific material construction, you may need to care for them in a more specialized manner. For example, by using special detergents. This idea bothers me; I prefer to be able to wash my hiking pants quickly and easily, along with other muddy sports equipment. I have my rain pants, which require extra care and attention (reproofing them occasionally, etc.), and that is enough for me.
Having hiking pants that can be hand-washed is also a good idea. Even giving them a quick rinse in a bathtub or bucket with detergent can be helpful if you are on a long trek and can’t get to a proper washing machine facility. Most hiking pants’ material composition makes this possible, but still, it’s something to keep in mind when thinking about care and attention.
I advise owning at least two pairs of hiking pants: one pair for the summer that is lighter and serves a few specific purposes, which I list below, and another pair for the winter that is, of course, a little bit heavier to keep you warmer in colder climates.
It should be possible to convert the summer hiking pants into shorts. In contrast to roll-ups, I prefer the ability to remove the bottoms using zips, but whichever option you prefer should be acceptable and have the same result.
The hiking pants for autumn and winter should be made of a tougher material because they need to be significantly warmer while remaining breathable. I prefer a blend of synthetic fibers, such as nylon and polyester, along with some spandex or elastane to give the fabric a little more stretch. You should look for ventilation zips in your winter pants because, in my opinion, they are really good at regulating temperature.
Your hiking pants should be breathable both in the summer and the winter. As was already stated, breathable material is a must-have for hiking pants because, in general, the quicker the pants can dry, the better.
Each pair should have at least two hand pockets, and a few back pockets are also beneficial. Another option for securing something away is to use one or more zipped pockets.
As previously mentioned, I’ve seen a significant improvement in the quality of hiking pants over the past ten years, and they continue to get better. In the years to come, it will be interesting to see how technological advancements help further improve the quality and functionality of hiking pants, as they do with all hiking gear. I believe it should only be positive.