While the nine pants we tested all fit into the broad category of hiking pants, the reality is that these products are useful for more than just walking outdoors. If you are planning a long backpacking trip, there is an entire slew of other things that you might find yourself doing in addition to hiking. You might want to go swimming, wade a river, or climb a rock or tree. You may need to collect and chop wood, climb a summit, glissade a snowfield, or do yoga in camp after a long day (or before another one!). Luckily, the makers of these pants have you covered, and in most cases you will be able to do all these activities and more in a single pair of pants.
Types of Pants
All of the pants reviewed here are designed as hiking pants and can be used for day hikes, multi-day backpacking trips, epic thru-hikes, and for a variety of other uses as well like car-camping, traveling, or rock climbing. In general, however, we found that these pants can be divided into a couple of categories based up their respective designs.
One of the primary features to consider when purchasing hiking pants is whether to go with a convertible pair that zips off into shorts, one that rolls up into capris, or just stick to traditional long pants. The opinion among hard-core hikers is varied. Below we have described the options in more detail, including the pros and cons of each type.
Standard Pants are, well, you know… pants. They have two long tubes made of clothing material to put your legs through, reaching just past your ankles in most cases, and being held up by a constricted opening around the hips. Yeah, yeah, we all know about pants. Pants are great for hiking because they keep you warmer than shorts and they protect your legs from abrasion from plants or rocks, as well as from exposure to the sun and wind. In order to deal with the problem of potential heat build-up, the vast majority of the pants we tested employed a combination of mesh-lined pockets and strategically located open vents behind the knees or in the crotch area to keep a hiker cool on a hot day. The KUHL Kontra Air and the REI Co-op Screeline were two pairs that had significantly more vents than the rest. On the other hand, some standard pairs of pants are designed specifically with colder or wetter weather in mind, and didn't bother to include much venting features. These were the Fjallraven Vidda Pro, as well as our Top Pick for Wet Weather, the Arc'teryx Perimeter Pant. We would never embark on a backpacking trip, trek, or long through hike without at least one pair of pants, but if a standard pair of trekking pants was our choice, we would always also bring shorts.
Convertible pants are a pair of normal pants that have a zipper on each leg, usually just above the knee, that allows one to unzip and remove the lower part of the pant leg, thus creating shorts. Many hikers like the versatility of having essentially two different layers without adding much volume or weight to their pack. Rarely when on an overnight backpacking trip will a long layer not be required in the cool evenings. The versatility that convertible pants allow is huge. If the leg bottoms get dirty, they can be taken off and washed in a creek without having to remove the whole pair of pants, zippers can be opened halfway to provide a vent without removing the whole leg, or the bottoms can be unzipped and scrunched around the ankles like gaiters.
On the other hand, many people notice that even when they own convertible pants, the bottoms either stay on all the time or remain in the pack all the time, because the effort required to take them on and off is sometimes more annoying than the benefit provided, particularly if you also have to remove your shoes to convert your pants. Often, hikers tend to have a preference for either always hiking in shorts or always in long pants, in which case the convertible pants are unnecessary. The zippers on convertible pants add a bit of weight. One pair of convertible pants might end up weighing more than a pair of wind pants and light hiking shorts, rendering the multi-function unnecessary. Other downsides are that due to the construction of some of the pants, the zipper flap can chafe, and you have the convertible pants "look" by having either a seam across your thigh, or a zipper at the bottom of your shorts. Some manufacturers handle this problem better than others.
In this year's review, only the KUHL Renegade Cargo Convertible allowed one to wear them as either pants or shorts. This was not the first pair of KUHL convertible hiking pants that we have tested, and we continue to like them for the durability and ease of use of their convertible zipper, and the fact that they look pretty much like a normal pair of pants when not converted. On the other hand, like most pairs of convertible pants, one can certainly notice the feel of the zipper and fabric seams as they brush against the lower quads when you walk. Two other pairs of hiking pants in our review come in both convertible or normal options, and this year we chose to test the normal options. These are The North Face Paramount 3.0 as well as our Editors' Choice winning Prana Stretch Zion. Both of these were among the highest performing pants in our review, so we highly encourage hikers with a soft spot for versatility to check out these convertible alternatives.
As another option for keeping cool, some hiking pants come with buttons on the lower leg that aid in their ability to be rolled up into shorter capris style pants. This can be just as relieving in hot temperatures as shorts, much less of a hassle, and doesn't add any weight. Admittedly, this can be done with any pair of pants by simply adding a few rolls to the cuffs, but snapping the cuffs up using small buttons means that they will stay put without having to be adjusted many times per day.
The Prana Stretch Zion included sewn on buttons that hold the cuffs up if you give them 2-3 rolls and then button. These worked well regardless of calf thickness but didn't allow you to roll the cuffs up as high as other pairs if you wanted them to stay buttoned. The Mountain Hardwear Men's Hardwear AP Pant also included this feature, with the added bonus that when rolled up and snapped in place, a small tag of reflective material becomes visible, nice for when you are riding your bike through town in low light.
Sizing, Fit, and Mobility
The best fit to look for in a hiking pant is one that is relatively form fitting, but not too tight in any way. Some people prefer a looser fit to avoid constriction, but in our experience a pair that is too baggy leads to extra material flapping around, a real annoyance when hiking for long distances. Get a pair of pants that is too tight and they can be restrictive and can cause chafing on the legs. Models with articulated knees and gusseted crotches will be the most mobile and comfortable while walking. Pants that have some stretch in the material, such as a percentage of spandex added, will allow for easy movement and a comfortable fit.
If you prefer a looser fit then you may want to check out the REI Co-op Screeline or the Fhallraven Vidda Pro. Tighter fitting pants with incredible mobility due to integrated elastic materials were the Patagonia Quandary and Arc'teryx Perimeter Pant. For us, pants that were right in the middle included the Prana Stretch Zion and The North Face Paramount 3.0. Unfortunately, we found the Mountain Hardwear Men's Hardwear AP Pant to be a bit too tight and not stretchy enough, especially in the upper thigh and lower pelvis region, to really inspire us to hike for long distances, but that may have been particular to the shape of our head tester.
It is worth noting that hiking pants tend to stretch and loosen as you wear them day after day on a backpacking trip, meaning they will just get baggier. Also, if you wear them many days in a row on long-distance hikes, it is likely that your weight will fluctuate, and your perfect pants won't fit as well as at the beginning of the trip. This is a good reason to look for pants with an integrated belt, drawstring or belt loops, which will help to customize the fit.
Climate and Destination
Another factor that is important to consider when trying to choose the correct pair of hiking pants is what sort of climate you will be hiking in, or what the climate at your destination will be. Discussed below are some things to be aware of for given climates and weather conditions.
Hot and Dry
Deserts or Low Elevation Summer
Hiking in deserts or in the summer can provide the trickiest conditions for knowing what kind of pant to choose. On the one hand, the sometimes desperate heat might inspire you to simply hike in shorts and forego pants altogether. But then again, having protection from the sun and the wind, not to mention foliage that most likely has sharp stickers all over it, can be of critical importance, especially if you are traveling for many days and water is hard to find. In these circumstances, convertibles can be a great option so you can choose as you go. Lighter fabrics like those found on the Patagonia Quandary or KUHL Kontra Air can be very effective for providing protection without being too heavy. It is important as well to consider the breathability of your pant, as well as the color (discussed more below). In general, we tend to simply hike in shorts if heading out in the heat and sun for one day, but think that pants are an important tool for multi-day hikes.
Cool or Temperate
High Elevation or Spring/Fall
For spring and fall hiking, or while hiking at high elevations, we tend to use pants almost exclusively for the protection they give against cold and especially wind. While there may be moments (or days) when we feel hot, we can usually alleviate this problem by simply rolling up the cuffs of our pants. One simple pair of pants means less weight, less fuss, and less items in the pack. While there might not be anything wrong with having a convertible option, it is not something we feel that we specifically need.
What can't be overlooked, however, is the fact that during spring and fall, and at higher elevations, we are far more likely to encounter wet weather on our hike or backpacking trip. The weather forecast is a critical component to how we will choose to dress. Regardless, if you are caught out in a thunderstorm or rainstorm, how well your pants repel water to stay dry is not to be taken lightly. A good DWR coating is a must for repelling water, and fabrics made of nylon absorb much less water than those that contain cotton. For these considerations, almost any of the pants in this review would work well, although we would probably avoid wearing the Mountain Hardwear Men's Hardwear AP Pant or the KUHL Kontra Air, which are both made predominantly of cotton, and thus tend to absorb much more water. While the Fjallraven Vidda Pro is also made largely of cotton, you can use the Greenland Wax treatment to ensure that it repels water effectively. If we are likely to encounter cold weather paired with the chance for rain, we usually bring rain pants to use over the top of our hiking pants when needed, as becoming just slightly wet can be totally debilitating if it is genuinely cold out.
For truly wet climates, or for trips where you see that the forecast is going to have you getting drenched, we recommend bringing along a pair of rain shell pants. This is especially important when cold temperatures are involved, because cold and wet leads to hypothermia. You can also check out our Top Pick for Wet Climates, the Arc'teryx Perimeter Pant, which outperformed all the competition when it came to water repellant, absorption, and fast drying time. That said, it still wasn't as good as a pair of waterproof rain pants.
DWR Coatings and Weather Protection
While we are on the topic of weather protection, it is worth talking a bit about the DWR coatings we found on this batch of hiking pants. A durable water repellant (DWR) coating is added to the outside of many outdoor garments by manufacturers to help them repel water. Especially in the case of waterproof/breathable garments like hardshell jackets or pants, the DWR coating is essential to keep water off the face fabric so that the garment can breathe. In the case of hiking pants, a DWR coating is much appreciated because they are not waterproof, so will not naturally repel water on their own. Left untreated, the fabrics these pants are made out of would absorb and hold water, leaving you completely soaked in even a gentle rainstorm. DWR coatings will help your pants to shed the water from a gentle rain before it has the opportunity to absorb, but in most cases will still not keep you dry in a true downpour. Also worth noting is that DWR coatings will wear off over time, especially if you subject your pants to especially abrasive activities, or like to throw them in the wash a lot. Naturally, we notice that the coating tends to wear off first in the areas around the knees and lower thighs and on the butt. Once the DWR coating has begun to wear off, you will need to re-apply it to ensure the repellant nature of your pants. A good option is Nikwax Direct Wash-In.
Only one of the nine pairs of men's pants covered in our review did not come with a DWR coating applied, the Mountain Hardwear Men's Hardwear AP Pant. In our water resistance testing these pants performed pitifully compared to the others, so we are not sure why they chose to forego the extra protection. However, despite including a DWR coating, the results varied widely for the rest of the pants. Remember that these materials are not naturally waterproof, so the DWR coating is the only thing keeping them from soaking up and absorbing rainwater, and their performance really can't be expected to be anywhere close to that of a true hardshell. In most cases the DWR coating did a good job of repelling most of the water, but all of the pants did experience some degree of wetting. The KUHL Kontra Air, with its cotton weave, absorbed the most water for a pant that included a DWR coating, while the Arc'teryx Perimeter Pant was the most water repellant.
While all garments naturally offer a bit of protection for the skin from ultraviolet rays, five of the hiking pants reviewed specifically describe their UPF rating as much higher, usually UPF 50. Especially when hiking at high altitudes, in the summer, or in the desert, protection from the sun is one of the main advantages to wearing hiking pants instead of shorts. The need for this level of protection can be greatly enhanced for people with very fair skin who burn easily. The Prana Stretch Zion, Patagonia Quandary, and KUHL Renegade Cargo Convertible are three pants that boast UPF 50 ratings. Four other pairs had lower ratings or made UPF claims but did not specify a certain number. To find out a garment's specific UPF rating, check out the specs chart at the top of the individual reviews. Read on below for more information regarding UPF ratings if they are a factor in selecting the right garment for you.
What is the difference between UPF and SPF?
SPF (Sun Protection Factor) measures the amount of time it takes skin to burn, which is why it is commonly found on sunscreens. UPF Rating (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) is a rating for clothing that measures the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin through the fabric.
What do the ratings mean?
Like an SPF rating, the higher the UPF number, the more protection the garment offers. For instance a shirt with a rating of 25 allows approximately 1/25th, or 4 percent of the sun's UV rays through it, and a pair of pants with a UPF of 50+ allows less than 2 percent. Clothes with a rating of under 15 UPF are not allowed to claim a UPF rating, but for comparison, a plain white cotton t-shirt has a rating of about 5-8 UPF, allowing about 20 percent of the sun's rays through, which is still far more effective than wearing nothing at all.
How does it work?
Clothing is given a UPF protection rating through a couple of different factors: construction, dyes and treatments. By careful selection of fiber type, such as nylon and polyester, which both do a great job of repelling the sun's rays, and a dense, tight weave, the fabric itself can let very few rays of UV light through. Certain dyes also affect the amount of radiation that can penetrate through the garment. The color has no effect, but the dye itself, which can be engineered for UV sun protection, adds to the garment's rating. Lastly, certain chemical treatments can be added to the garment to boost its rating.
Do you even need clothes with a UPF Factor?
All clothes protect against the sun's rays to some degree, and most likely you have never gotten a sunburn underneath your shirt. However, certain skin types, such as people who are very fair-skinned, may benefit from extra protection from UPF rated clothes. Certain regions of the world may require extra sun protection, such as near the equator or areas near water and snowfields. Also, people who spend a great deal of time at altitude, where the sun's rays are more intense, may demand more from their clothing. Wearing clothing with a UPF rating is not essential for spending time outdoors, but it does assure that you are exposing yourself to less harmful rays.
Color can be an over-looked consideration when selecting an outdoor garment. Most people pick the color of their pants or other clothing based upon style, that is, what colors they like the best, but in reality choosing the right colored outdoor clothing can make a big difference in the garment's performance and also how you will feel in different conditions with it on. Luckily, all of the pants in our review come in many different colors, so this shouldn't affect which garment you select, but it is something to consider once you have chosen the pair you want to buy.
In general, we prefer white, tan, beige, or other very light colored garments for hiking in the sun or in warm climates. We prefer black or other dark colors for hiking in colder seasons or higher altitudes. It is our experience that the color of your pants will drastically effect how hot they will feel in the direct sun, and in many cases how quickly they will dry out. White and other light colors reflect light, so will tend to absorb much less heat from the sun, thereby keeping you cooler and less sweaty. Black and dark colors absorb light, as well as heat from the sun, keeping you much warmer, potentially sweatier, but also possibly helping you dry out faster. Using this knowledge in conjunction with the temperatures or climate that you will be hiking in can make a huge difference in your comfort level, and is quite literally something we always consider when heading out on a hike. We have many options of clothing in both dark and light colors and choose ones that match the conditions and location of our daily hikes.
Advice from Thru-Hikers
Lastly, we leave you with some advice from Austin and Veronica Palmer, who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail during the summer of 2011 and the PCT during the summer of 2014, on what they look for in a good pair of hiking pants to wear for over 2,000 miles straight.
For a long distance hiker with a limited amount of space and weight to carry things, the more uses one item has, the better. That means both of them, and many hikers they met along the way, loved convertible pants. Veronica wore an earlier version of The North Face Paramount 2.0 Convertible Pant - Women's for the entire length of the Appalachian Trail and half of the PCT, and wore the Columbia PFG Aruba Convertible Pants for the other half. Austin wore convertible pants on the PCT as well. They used all three modes: long pants, shorts, and capris, and found that having a lot of pockets was an extremely useful feature to keep important items organized and easily accessible.
Overall, they both agreed that the most important considerations are to choose a pair that is durable enough to withstand months of hard use, can adjust to weight fluctuations either with an included belt or drawstring, dry quickly, and allow for modifications in a wide range of temperatures.