The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

How to Choose Hiking Pants

The Hardwear AP pants are a tight fitting and pretty stylish pant designed for all sorts of outdoor uses. Here we are testing them on a hike in Smith Rock State Park  OR.
Wednesday April 29, 2020
Our Editors independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Learn more

There are many factors to consider when picking out a pair of hiking pants. Here we outline some of the things to look for in each model before you make your next purchase.

Pants in this category are marketed for hiking. However, in practice, most pairs in this category often offer additional versatility. If you are planning a longer backpacking trip, you may want to do some glissading. In environments with big temperature swings, models that can be rolled up (or converted into shorts) when the mercury rises can be a lifesaver. If hiking isn't your preferred activity, but you like to work hard outdoors, you may be looking for something that will stand up to the challenges of day-after-day wear. Many people also wear hiking pants for climbing, yoga, or simply as part of their everyday style. Know that just because a model is called a hiking pant, it can almost certainly do a lot more.

Hiking pants come with an array of features and functionality that make some better for certain activities than others.
Hiking pants come with an array of features and functionality that make some better for certain activities than others.

Types of Pants


Hiking pants can be divided into a couple of different categories based on their design.

Traditional Pants


These are great for hiking because they keep you warmer than shorts and they protect your legs from bug bites, abrasion from rocks and thorns, rain, and exposure to the sun and wind. They are best for trips that are cool and wet, as well as those that are hot with a lot of sun exposure.

Some standard pairs of pants are suited explicitly to colder or wetter weather. Models like the Fjallraven Vidda Pro and Arc'Teryx Lefroy fall into this category. Though they often don't have a mechanism specifically designed to secure them, because of the elasticity of the material, the legs can usually be rolled up and stay reasonably secure. We wouldn't embark on a backpacking trip, trek, or thru-hike without at least one pair of pants, however, the downside is that they aren't terribly versatile, so you would want to consider bringing a pair of shorts as well.

For those looking for a pair of pants that they can also wear in town or at work on casual Friday, traditional pants tend to offer more of an 'outdoor lifestyle' look than other varieties.

The Quandary is relatively affordable and super comfortable. We also like their simple look for wearing around town on top of their great hiking performance.
The Quandary is relatively affordable and super comfortable. We also like their simple look for wearing around town on top of their great hiking performance.

Convertible Pants


Convertible pants have a zipper around each leg, usually just above the knee, which allows the wearer to unzip and remove the lower part of the pant leg. Many hikers like the versatility this style offers because it saves space and reduces weight in a backpack (since you don't have to carry a whole other pair of shorts). Another benefit to the convertible is that it is effortless to wash the legs — the part of the garment that gets the dirtiest — without having to remove the whole pair of pants. This is especially beneficial if you are on an extended trip and only have the one pair. The leg zippers on convertibles can also be opened halfway to provide a vent without removing the whole leg.

The Renegade Cargo Convertible pants were the some of the most versatile in our review  in large part due to the fact that if you are too warm  you can simply unzip the lower leg and you are left with shorts.
The Renegade Cargo Convertible pants were the some of the most versatile in our review, in large part due to the fact that if you are too warm, you can simply unzip the lower leg and you are left with shorts.

On the downside, almost all pairs of convertibles require the wearer to remove their shoes or boots to get the legs off, so the effort needed to make a midday switch is often just enough effort that hikers don't actually do it. Other potential drawbacks are chaffing at the zipper, as well as the convertible pants "style" with a visible seam across your thigh — it's just not our favorite look.

Manufacturers will often offer models that come in standard and convertible versions.

Roll-Up Pants


As another alternative to traditional pants, some models come with buttons on the lower leg or elastic in the cuff. Both enable the pants to roll up into a higher capris-style. These features can offer just enough relief in hot temperatures and are much less of a hassle to adjust mid-activity than a pair of convertibles. We recognize that any pair of pants can be rolled up, but formalizing the feature means that the legs will stay in place during activity for as long as you need them to.

A quirky feature of these pants is that they have buttons to help them stay rolled up at the bottom  and on the inside of the pant leg is a strip of reflective tape for increased visibility while bike-riding at night.
A quirky feature of these pants is that they have buttons to help them stay rolled up at the bottom, and on the inside of the pant leg is a strip of reflective tape for increased visibility while bike-riding at night.

For example, the Prana Stretch Zion includes sewn on buttons that hold up the cuffs if you give them 2-3 rolls. These work well regardless of calf size but limit how high the cuffs can roll up if you want to use the button.

Tights


Tights have become increasingly popular in men's clothing lines. Their benefits they offer over the other types discussed above are mostly about style preference. However, as a matter of function, it can be helpful to have a form-fitting pant if the terrain has a lot of bramble and brush that looser pants may otherwise get snagged on.

Sizing, Fit, and Mobility


As a general rule, we prefer hiking pants that are relatively form-fitting, but not restrictive. Some people prefer a looser fit, but in our experience, a pair that is too baggy is heavier, flaps in the wind, and gets caught on trailside brush. On the other hand, if a pair of pants is too tight, they will likely cause chaffing, will limit mobility, and will likely wear faster around the knees, crotch, and glutes. Models with articulated knees (that is, fabric that is cut to match the shape of the leg) and gusseted crotches (the diamond of fabric in the crotch that increases mobility and reduces stress on the garment) are typically the most comfortable and offer the most mobility. Materials are also important; pairs with a higher proportion of spandex are often stretchier and more comfortable.

Some pants have a gusset (strip of fabric across the middle) in the crotch that helps create a little more room  even when the pants are meant to be more form fitting.
Some pants have a gusset (strip of fabric across the middle) in the crotch that helps create a little more room, even when the pants are meant to be more form fitting.

If you prefer a looser fit, then you should check out the Fjallraven Vidda Pro. Tighter fitting pants with excellent mobility include the Patagonia Quandary and the The North Face Paramount Active. For us, pants that are right in the middle (neither baggy nor form-fitting) include the Prana Stretch Zion and the Outdoor Research Ferrosi.

Some models have different (usually softer) material on the inside of the waist to reduce abrasion.
Some models have different (usually softer) material on the inside of the waist to reduce abrasion.

It is worth noting that hiking pants tend to stretch and loosen with the repeated, continuous wear of a backpacking trip, meaning they will feel a little baggier until they are washed and dried again. Hikers also tend to lose weight and lose inches on their waist during long-distance hikes. For this reason, we recommend looking for a model with an integrated belt, drawstring or belt loops, which will allow you to adjust the fit if you are going to be on the trail for many weeks.

Climate and Destination


Though hiking pants typically suit a range of weather conditions, some factors will separate pairs that are meant to keep you cool in a dry heat versus ones that will insulate you in cooler or wetter climates.

Hot and Dry


Intense heat might inspire you to hike in shorts and forego pants altogether. However, protection from the direct rays of the sun, wind, and spiky flora can make or break a backcountry adventure. In these conditions, convertibles are often a great, flexible option. Lighter fabrics like those found on the Patagonia Quandary and Outdoor Research Ferrosi offer valuable protection without the heft. It is also important to consider the breathability of your pants, as well as the color, which we talk more about below. We typically hike in shorts if we are heading out in the heat for one day, but think that pants are an essential piece of clothing for multi-day hikes.

Hiking along an exposed ledge on the way to some cliff ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument  we happy to have a thin  lightweight pair of hiking pants.
Hiking along an exposed ledge on the way to some cliff ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument, we happy to have a thin, lightweight pair of hiking pants.

Cool or Temperate


For spring, fall, or hiking at high elevation, we tend to almost exclusively wear pants because of the protection they offer against cold and wind.

Made of thick and heavy fabric and lacking any features to help with ventilation  the Vidda Pro pants are best used in cool weather  as we verified here in the snow.
Made of thick and heavy fabric and lacking any features to help with ventilation, the Vidda Pro pants are best used in cool weather, as we verified here in the snow.

One significant consideration is that the spring and fall can bring wetter weather in many of the most popular backpacking regions — mixed with colder temperatures and you have the ingredients for hypothermia. If you are caught out in a rainstorm, you will likely want pants that repel water well. A reliable durable water repellent (DWR) coating is a must in these conditions, as well as nylon fabrics, which absorb much less water than cotton and dry significantly faster. With this in mind, almost any of the pants in this review work well. If we are likely to regularly encounter cold weather and rain, we are going to bring fully waterproof rain pants to use when needed.

Wet


For rainy days and truly wet climates, we recommend bringing along a pair of rain shell pants. This addition is especially important when combined with cold temperatures, which can take an outing from just uncomfortable to dangerous fairly quickly.

Even if the overall fit is more relaxed  some pairs fit snugly around high-ankle boots for a tighter seal in poor weather.
Even if the overall fit is more relaxed, some pairs fit snugly around high-ankle boots for a tighter seal in poor weather.

DWR Coatings and Weather Protection


Most manufacturers will use a durable water repellant (DWR) coating on the outside of many outdoor garments. Especially in the case of waterproof clothing like hardshell jackets or pants, the DWR coating is essential to keep water off the face of the fabric so that it can maintain its breathability. Hiking pants are not typically fully waterproof, but a DWR coating can offer enough water resistance to keep you comfortable. If left untreated, the (usually nylon) fabric would absorb and retain water, leaving you soaked in a rainstorm.

DWR coatings will help your pants shed the water from a gentle rain before it has the opportunity to soak through, but in most cases will not keep you dry in a real downpour. Also, DWR coatings wear off over time, especially if you subject your pants to especially abrasive activities, or wash them often. Naturally, we notice that the coating tends to wear off first in the areas around the knees, lower thighs, and butt. We recommend re-applying it to ensure your pants continue to perform. A good option is Nikwax Direct Wash-In.

Only a couple pairs of men's pants in our review do not come with a DWR coating applied. It is also worth noting that not all DWR coatings are created equally and protection can vary widely.

Before jumping in the shower  we tested the Quandary under a simulated light rain and found that their DWR coating was quite effective at preventing moisture from soaking in  rather forcing it to run off.
Before jumping in the shower, we tested the Quandary under a simulated light rain and found that their DWR coating was quite effective at preventing moisture from soaking in, rather forcing it to run off.

UPF Rating


While all garments naturally offer a bit of protection from ultraviolet rays, many of the hiking pants we reviewed specifically market their UPF rating, 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 of wearing hiking pants instead of shorts. The Prana Stretch Zion, Patagonia Quandary, and Outdoor Research Ferrosi are a few models that boast UPF 50 ratings. Other pairs had lower ratings or made UPF claims but did not specify a certain number.

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 common in 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 1/25, or 4 percent of the sun's UV rays through, 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 receives a UPF protection rating based off of a couple of different factors: construction, dyes, and treatments. By careful selection of fiber type, such as nylon and polyester, both of which 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 have UV sun protective properties, adds to the garment's rating. Lastly, specific chemical treatments can be added to the clothing to boost their 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, people with very fair skin or those that burn easily will especially benefit from extra protection from UPF rated clothes. If you are traveling to within the tropics, high altitude, or areas near water or snowfields, UPF rated clothing is for you. At the very least, knowing that a garment has a rating may provide a little peace of mind if sun exposure is a big concern for you.

Color


Color can be an overlooked aspect when selecting an outdoor garment. Most people pick the color of their pants or other clothing based on style, that is, what looks the best. In practice, color can make a big difference, especially in the sun. Luckily, all of the pants in our review come in a few 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.

Testing hiking pants on a beautiful day hike around Sparks Lake  Oregon Cascades with South Sister in the background.
Testing hiking pants on a beautiful day hike around Sparks Lake, Oregon Cascades with South Sister in the background.

In general, we prefer white, tan, beige, or other light-colored garments for hiking in the heat. We prefer black or different dark colors for hiking in colder seasons or higher altitudes. The color of your pants not only affects how hot they feel in the sun but also, how quickly they will dry out. White and other light colors reflect light, so they 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 and potentially sweatier.

Conclusion


A good pair of hiking pants can be a real lifesaver out on the trail, and it pays to have the right type for your adventure. Whether you are in the desert heat or cold and rainy climes, there are a lot of options from which to choose. We hope that this article and our hiking pants review help you find that perfect pair.

A good pair of pants can be one of your best friends in the forest.
A good pair of pants can be one of your best friends in the forest.

  • Share this article: