We'll start off this article by explaining the different types of hiking pants available, how to size and fit them correctly, and then highlight various features, such as materials or water resistance, which you'll want to consider when purchasing your next pair.
Types of Hiking Pants
There are three main styles of pants for hiking: ones that function only as long pants, ones that can also roll up to a crop or capri length, and ones that have removable legs and convert into shorts. Of course, there are many other options out there that you can hike in, such as leggings, capris, shorts, skorts, etc., but for the sake of this review, we will focus on these three technical designs and their best uses.
Standard Pants (no convertible options)
This type is designed to be worn as long pants, with no conversion options. While you can always roll them up at the ankle to increase airflow, with no way to secure the roll they may not stay up and require more frequent adjustment over longer periods of time. Standard pants are more versatile when going from work to play to dinner, but are less versatile in varying weather conditions. Without the option to convert to shorts, if you're taking a standard pair into the backcountry you'll most likely want to pack a separate shorts layer, which can add weight to a pack. These pants might offer fewer features, but are a simpler, lighter weight approach, as they can forgo all the extra buttons and zippers found on a fully convertible pair. For those hikers planning to travel in cooler weather, tick country, or who want full sun protection, these are a great option.
Roll-up pants have the option to securely affix the lower end of the pant leg in a cuffed position. This keeps the pant ends off of the shoes and ankles, and adds ventilation to the whole leg, as well as your feet. While you can roll up any pant leg, they don't always stay in that position, particularly if the material is soft and doesn't have a lot of structure to it. There are many ways to secure the roll, most of which involve a long tab of material that lies inside the pant and is exposed when you go to roll it up. That tab then buttons or snaps on to something on the outside of the pant. You might think that having movable lengths of fabric floating around inside your pant leg is annoying, but this was never the case for us, and we barely noticed them there. If you are highly sensitive to those types of things though, then our Editors' Choice winner, the Marmot Lobo's Convertible Pant - Women's uses a small loop of bungee cord to secure the roll and was the least noticeable of the bunch.
Many hikers prefer the versatility of wearing layers with multiple functions. Multi-use clothing simplifies the layers that you need to pack and is adaptable to changing conditions. Zip-off pants are extremely versatile, allowing you to switch between pants and shorts depending on the weather. They also have a definitive look and feel to them, and for every hiker that swears by them, you're bound to find at least one who does not like them in the least. We ride the fence here at OutdoorGearLab, acknowledging that they have a useful purpose and function, but some limitations as well. While it could just be a case of to-ma-to/to-mah-to, there are some things to consider when choosing between a standard or roll-up pair and a convertible one.
While zip-off legs offer a lot of versatility, consider what conditions you'll use that feature for. It's practical for a long day hike or a backpacking trip, but if you are heading out on a two-hour hike with little chance of a change in weather or elevation, you'd probably be fine in one or the other depending on the temperature. If you bring a pair of convertible hiking pants as your only bottoms on a backpacking trip, and then find yourself soaked from a river crossing or wanting to jump in a lake, you'll be stuck with a wet bottom even if you take the legs off. A better option there would be a standard pair of pants and a lightweight pair of board or baggy shorts. This might also be preferable if you wear bulky hiking boots. None of the models that we tested in this review could fit over a pair of hikers, so we had to stop, take our boots off, and then the legs. At that point, it would have been easier to "drop-trou" for a second and whip on a separate pair of shorts, rather than hassle with the zippers.
With hiking pants having more tapered legs these days to follow other fashion trends, there might be little room between the zipper and your leg. It is quite uncomfortable if you feel a bulky zipper rubbing against your leg with each step you take, and it can also limit your mobility. Once you convert them to shorts, the zipper around the opening has no give to it, which can leave the shorts feeling tight around our legs while walking and particularly while sitting down. Long story "short," if the pant fits, wear it, but don't feel like you have to wear a convertible pair in the mountains, as there are many other options out there.
Always grabbing a pair of yoga pants when you go hiking? Check out a dedicated pair of hiking or running tights instead. Some people love the feel (and look) of tights for hiking, trail running, or just every day wear. Tights have some distinct advantages over pants, including less chaffing over long distances, and a compressed and supportive feel. Running and hiking tights typically have multiple panels for greater range of motion and less sag, and are usually made with moisture-wicking materials. They might keep you hotter than a pair of pants though, and don't have the same versatility as convertible pants.
Sizing and Fit
The fit of your pants should be comfortable and unrestricted while allowing for full range of motion. Stretch and mobility are important, as you do not want to be limited by your outdoor clothing. Your gear, including clothing, should enhance your experience, and finding a proper size and fit for pants will increase the comfort and enjoyment of your hike. When selecting a pair, we'd recommend erring on the side of "too loose" rather than "too tight." If they pinch or restrict you in any area that will only be compounded by the mile. That also leaves you the option of wearing a baselayer underneath on cool mornings and evenings. Whether you choose a pair with wide legs or tapered ones is really up to you, but if they are cut close to the leg then make sure they have articulated knees to help with mobility.
Finding the right rise of the waist for your body is also important. Whether you prefer low, mid or high-waisted pants the rest of the time, when it comes to hiking pants there is a sweet spot in the middle. If your hiking pants ride too low, your hip belt might push them down; too high and the extra material can bunch up under the waistband, causing pressure spots and leaving you uncomfortable. With a mid-rise pant that sits at the hips, there will be some overlap of the hip belt and pant waist, which helps keep them in place but hopefully avoids too much going on around your hipbones.
If trying on a pair in the store, grab a backpack as well and try the two on together. A quick lap around the store should tell you if it's a good fit, or not.
The length of the pant/inseams is another critical aspect of sizing and fit. Pants that drag on the ground will eventually drag your enjoyment level down too. Ones that are too short won't provide the coverage you need from sun, rain, or ticks. Most manufacturers offer a range of inseam lengths these days, so if you are taller or shorter than average (most pants are sized to fit women between 5'4 and 5'6 inches tall), then look for models that come in Tall or Short inseam lengths. Finally, when it comes to the waist, keep in mind that most models will stretch out a bit over the course of a day. An internal drawstring is an excellent alternative to wearing a belt, and we prefer to buy hiking pants that have them.
Features to Consider
With so many options and features available on hiking pants today, which ones are worth it and which ones are all hype? We'll discuss the various features available below.
Abrasion and Tear Resistance
Abrasion and tear resistant materials are the next steps in high-tech fabrics. While tents and backpacks have used "ripstop" Nylon for years, those materials are just finding their way into the apparel market. While no one wants to hike in "parachute pants," the latest fabrics are providing the ripstop feature in a comfortable material. Abrasion-resistant fabrics, like the kind used on the Marmot Lobo's, resist wear and pilling caused by surface friction. Are these fabrics worth the extra cost they might transfer to the overall price? If you hike in locales with lots of spiky plants, rough rock, or find yourself butt-scootching more often than not, then yes, they probably are.
We don't typically think of water resistance when purchasing a t-shirt or sweater, because that's what our rainjacket is for. And while you can also buy rain pants, it's just one more thing to carry in your pack and a hassle to put on and wear if it's only drizzling out. Hiking pants that offer a good amount of water resistance are great for those drizzly days, or for water sports like canoeing or standup paddleboarding on days when you don't plan on going in all the way, but are likely to get splashed a bit. Some of the models in this review, like the Marmot Lobo's, Arc'teryx Gamma LT, and The North Face Paramount 2.0 Convertible Pant - Women's, have a durable water repellent (DWR) coating applied to the fabric. This enhances their ability to repel water and makes water drops bead up and roll right off the pant.
Just because something has a DWR coating does not make it waterproof though, or even water resistant. The Prana Halle and Patagonia Quandary pants' coating did little to stop water from saturating through, and all of the fabrics wetted out eventually. If you plan on hiking in a wet environment, both a water-resistant pair and a pair of rain pants is the way to go, and you can check out our Women's Rain Jacket Review if you're in the market for that layer as well.
While all clothing offers some degree of protection from the sun's rays, there is a large amount of variability in what can penetrate. A plain white cotton shirt lets about 20% of ultraviolet radiation pass through it, which means that you could still get a sunburn even though you are wearing clothes. Many manufacturers are now designing ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) clothing that offers a great deal more protection from harmful radiation. The ratings let you know how much radiation can penetrate the material: a UPF 25 material lets only 1/25th of the radiation through, or 4%, and a UPF 50 material only 1/50th, or 2%. The higher the UPF rating, the better sun protection offered from the clothing layers.
Whether or not this is necessary depends on a few factors, including your environment and risk factors. If you plan on being out on the water, or hiking at elevation and over snow (where UV radiation is reflected back at you), then UPF rated clothing makes sense. Those with fair skin or who burn easily would also do well to wear UPF clothing, and it's a good choice for anyone else who wants to limit their exposure to damaging rays. It's also a good option for thru-hikers who might be showering every other week or so. As the layers of sunscreen build up and clog your skin, you can start to feel pretty scuzzy. A UPF rated long-sleeved shirt and hiking pants can help limit the amount of sunscreen you need to apply (and carry all that way). Many of the models that we tested had a rating of 50 or 50+.
Destination & Primary Use
Finally, we'll offer some recommendation based on hiking locations and your primary desired use.
Hot and/or Dry Conditions
Desert Hiking, Low Elevation Summer Hiking (below 6,000 feet in most regions)
Hot and dry climates demand performance gear that allows for plenty of breathability while hiking. If you intend to hike in desert regions and/or low elevation regions, particularly in the summer, a lightweight pant that ideally converts into shorts will be best. Arid environments tend to be cool in the mornings, especially in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, and very warm/hot through the day. For this reason, a pant should be warm enough for the mornings and lightweight enough (or have the ability to convert into shorts), for rising temperatures. Ventilation and breathability are important features for hiking in desert environments so that heat does not interfere with your hiking comfort.
High Elevation (above 9,000 feet in most regions), Spring and Fall
When cooler temperatures are a consideration, think about finding a pair that layers well but also breathes well. In high elevation regions and where cool/cold temperatures are likely, it is important to consider versatility for sensitive weather patterns. Water-resistant features such as a DWR coating will keep water absorption to a minimum. At higher elevations where you might find snowfields and or large bodies of water, consider UPF rated clothing. The sun's radiation intensifies in these environments, and a UPF layer will minimize the absorption of UV rays through your clothing. See the section above on Sun Protection and UPF clothing.
Temperate Climate, Weekend Backpacking
Mid-high elevations (6,000-9,000 feet in most regions)
For models that are suitable for temperate climates, mid-range elevation levels, weekend trips, and other adventures, comfort is key. Focus on features that add to your comfort level, such as pockets that carry your camera, hiking essentials, etc. For those who hike leisurely, the fit should be comfortable and accommodating. The ability to layer up or convert is an important consideration if you seek a pair that is suitable for three seasons (spring-summer-fall + winter depending on location). More emphasis may be placed on comfort for models in this category as unforeseen conditions, abruptly changing weather patterns, high elevation environments, and long distances are not a consideration. Find a pair that you are comfortable wearing for hours or even a few days.
Long Distance Hiking/Backpacking
Are you planning months along one of the long-distance trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or Long Trail? It is important to have a pant that is versatile enough for everything the natural environment can throw your way. These trails traverse long distances over weeks or months of hiking. A pant that is capable of washing easily in creeks, drying overnight, wading creeks, layering up for cold weather, and slimming down for summer heat is a tall order. Additionally, they should be comfortable enough for the long haul. Find a pant that is adjustable in the waistband as you are likely to fluctuate in size over the course of a long hike, and pants tend to stretch after multiple days of wear. Convertible hiking pants that zip off to shorts are great options for long distance hiking since they allow for multiple uses in one piece of gear. A lightweight roll-up style is also a great option if you prefer to keep everything as a single piece of clothing (as opposed to having two pant leg pieces plus the main short, which has a potential for one piece to be misplaced). Most long distance hikers will consider weight as an important aspect of all of their gear and clothing.
Climbing pants are a somewhat of a separate category, although many people enjoy hiking and climbing together. Some considerations that are important in a hiking pant are the same for a good climbing pant, such as mobility and breathability. There should be no restriction for the harness to be worn safely and comfortably over the pants, which is a similar fit for underneath a backpack waist belt. Consider pockets that are placed lower on the leg and options to roll up the ends so that you can see your foot placements better.
Fastpacking and Trail Running
If you're breaking into the increasingly popular sport of "fast-packing," or looking to try running your trails instead of hiking them, you'll want to consider a different kind of bottoms than traditional hiking pants. Loose material can start to chafe when running, and the extra support from a pair of tights can feel nice when moving fast over rough terrain.