How to Buy Hiking Pants
Overwhelmed by choices? Camping & Hiking expert Talia Peterson shares a few things she learned on finding the perfect hiking pants.
There is nothing worse than being deep into the backcountry in a pair of pants that feel like they are strangling your legs. Hiking pants are one of those key items in your closet that can absolutely make or break a hiking or backpacking trip. From materials that increase comfort and durability to convertible pants, there are so many options to pick from. Knowing what will fit you perfectly can oftentimes feel like searching for a needle in a haystack.
As a girl on the taller side, with legs about a mile long and a tiny torso, finding a good pair of versatile hiking pants took many years of trial and error. Everything on the shelves of our local outdoor shops fit tight in the hips, too loose on the waist, and way too short—frustrating to say the least. Everyone’s body will of course fit pants a little differently, but figuring out what will work well for you doesn’t have to be a headache. So here are a few things I learned finding the perfect hiking pants.
I hated hiking in pants for a long long time. Running shorts, leggings, I bounced through it all because I couldn’t settle on something that fit, breathed well, and moved with everything I needed them to do. Once I found a pair that really worked, I realized there are a whole host of advantages to pants in the backcountry. Sun protection, weather protection, warmth, abrasion-resistant from rocks and vegetation just to name a few.
In fact, there’s only a few instances where I wouldn’t grab hiking pants. But from scrambling over boulders, scree fields, stream crossings, hiking through dense brush, or week over week usage on a long expedition, a great pair of hiking pants can take it all. In warm weather a good pair of pants provides protection from the sun, and as it gets colder it provides coverage and an efficient layering system to keep you warm and dry.
Fit for Your Activity
Not all pants are made equal, and while your blue jeans might be perfect for a casual evening out or ranch work, they are going to be hot, heavy, and restrictive after 5mi of scrambling boulders and navigating terrain up your backyard mountain. Where and what we’ll be doing in a pair of hiking pants is a key consideration in making sure we find something that not only fits well but also performs for the activities we’re doing.
This includes where you’ll be doing most of your hiking and when, what extra activities you may look to do on your hikes, and how long you plan to be in the backcountry. Folks hiking three seasons in Alaska will have different needs than someone hiking summers in Utah—things like breathability, UPF sun protection, quick-drying, and abrasion and water resistance.
Nylons, Spandex, polyester, or elastane are the dominant materials you’ll find in most hiking pants, which in various blends and weights will help dictate their thickness, durability, and comfort. For warmer weathers we of course want lighter-weight fabrics that breathe well and dry quickly. As temperatures drop, you are going to be looking for a thicker fabric that can ideally expel heat and wick moisture as our bodies work. Make sure they don’t hold sweat that can make our body temperatures plummet as we stop hiking.
Nylon-dominant fabrics will greatly increase durability, but stretch is a huge factor for me when it comes to pants. This is particularly important for range of motion and when lunging, squatting, or scrambling, ensuring that the fabric moves with me instead of digging in and restricting my movement. I tend to then look for fabric a little heavier in the nylon/elastane department as opposed to more polyester.
Waterproof or Water Resistant?
Many hiking pants are going to incorporate some level of water resistance to the materials they use. On the surface, a fully waterproof pair of pants sounds great if a random thunderstorm rolls in right? Eh, not always. What we lose from a more aggressive waterproofing is breathability. Water repellent treatments help keep the fabric from holding water from first exposure. You’ll want to look for products with a DWR finish (durable water repellent), if you plan to hike in areas with heavy or aggressive rainfall. Adding a pair of rain pants to your hiking pants selection may be a good call.
Hiking pants can come with a wide variety of features that can make them advantageous as your hike gets more technical. Many hiking pants feature an articulated knee and a gusseted crotch for a greater range of movement for scrambling or climbing (we’ll talk about this more in a minute). Deeper or cargo pockets for snacks and knick-knacks and elastic waistbands. I find my favorite feature is zippered pockets, which can secure my phone, wallet, knife, snack bar, and so on.
Weight & Warmth
This is mostly going to be a bigger consideration for extended expeditions and four-season recreationists. Finding a good balance in your warmth to weight ratio is vital as the temperature drops or weather variability increases. Of course, as colder temps and snow potentially enters the forecast, finding heavier-weight fabrics will hold the warm air closer to your body. Wind and waterproofing decrease how quickly moisture and wind will pull warmth off your body. For more extreme conditions, a base layer will keep you comfy unless there is snow, at which point full shell pants are needed.
Take Your Measurements
After material, the first thing you need to know in searching for pants is your measurements, especially when you may not have the luxury of trying a bunch of different pants on before picking one. Take your waist, inseam length, and hip measurements. Most manufacturers have a sizing chart to work from and making sure to match your measurements with their recommendations will ensure a more true fit. I usually try to match my inseam first and then work back to the waist when pants have some adjustability options. For a fixed waist without belt loops, I usually match my waist first. For long- or short-legged folks, finding brands that do runs of different inseams is vital to a good fit. Brands like prAna and Mountain Hardwear, for example, are the two I’ve found that really fit me well and often have inseams in short, regular and tall.
Style and Fit
For most of us, we are going to want hiking pants that fit close but not tight on the hip, loose through the leg, and terminates just at the top of the boot. This allows for a full range of movement, and breathability without the cuff coming up and getting stuck on your boots (my biggest pet peeve). There is a lot of personal preference that will factor into deciding which will be the best fit for you, but here are a few perks and downsides to consider.
Roll-up, Zip Off, or Traditional?
Roll-up style hiking pants are going to be great for hikes, or outings where being able to shorten some for stream crossing, or a little extra breathability will be important. Zip-off or convertible hiking pants will largely be for you folks that swear by shorts and cannot stand pants as the weather warms. With that said, I do find that adding a zipper mid-pant leg (especially in a women’s cut) comes with a huge reduction to the mobility of the material, and can constrict that area around your leg when squatting or scrambling. Cargo or traditional-cut hiking pants are usually my go-to. One thing I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, is the more I like full coverage from my pants legs, and the less I’m bothered by the heat. I’m usually dying to get into shorts after a few miles on the trail.
The Gusseted Crotch
I know it sounds goofy, but the gusseted crotch is a game-changer for fit. In a regular pair of pants, the inseam runs from the center of the crotch down to the ankle. The gusset on a crotch is a diamond-shaped panel, and it drastically increases the range of motion. The extra material means that when bending or lifting legs independently (i.e. stepping up or squatting) there is more give before the material pulls in weird ways.
If a pant doesn’t have belt loops or an integrated belt, it’s an absolute deal-breaker for me. Some have an internal waist, others more traditional. I will always combo with a good lightweight belt regardless. Having the ability to keep my waist snug and in place is vital.
- Pros: Lightweight fabric and a great option for us longer-legged hikers. Pockets are thoughtfully placed and zipped for security. The waist belt is functional and drawstrings at the ankle keep the legs close to the boot.
- Cons: For colder temps, these may not cut a windchill well. They are much better suited for three-season hiking and climbing.
- Pros: Variety in fit, and ultimate stretch. For a more casual brand these shine as a well-rounded technical hiking pant. Slightly heavier fabric, internal waist drawstring, and traditional pockets with an additional zippered thigh pocket make these as stylish as they are functional. They come in regular, short, and tall inseams, as well as a straight and boot cut.
- Cons: Not the most breathable pants on the market, but they are comfortable (for me at least) up into the 80s. No gusseted crotch but the super stretchy fabric makes up for that.
A few others to consider: Arc'teryx, Columbia, Patagonia, and Outdoor Research all make great quality hiking pants as well—each with their own styling and fit tendencies.
Pants are a vital item in your gear line-up, so don’t be afraid to be picky. Make sure you have a clear idea of what the majority of your hiking is going to look like and be informed about the materials you’ll need. Once I find a brand that fits my body well, I stick to it and will usually buy several pairs I really like. The best hiking pants are the ones that fit you well and provide ultimate comfort and function for your adventures!
If you have any questions on finding the best hiking pants for you and your needs, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.