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How to Choose Hiking Pants for Women

Who says the desert is colorless? Checking out the amazing spring blooms  and testing hiking pants.
Wednesday May 6, 2020
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Each hiking trip is a little different. Between that and variable weather, it can be hard to know which pair of hiking pants is the best for you. Is the pair that you wear on a day hike in hot weather the same one you want for a long haul on the Pacific Crest or Appalachian Trail? And are convertible models better than plain old pants? We don't suffer from a lack of options in this category. We'll answer these questions and more in this article by putting our many years of experience to the page.

We'll start by explaining the different types of hiking pants available and how to size and fit them correctly. Then we'll 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 four main hiking pant styles — traditional long pants, leggings, roll-up pants that morph into a crop or capri length, and pants with removable legs that convert into shorts. Of course, there are many other options, like actual capris, shorts, skorts, and skirts. For the sake of this review, we focus on these four technical designs and their best uses.

Standard Pants


Standard hiking pants are straightforward, without dedicated design features to adjust their length. While you can roll them up to increase airflow, they may unroll easily and require frequent adjustments. Standard pants often have a more versatile style, in that they allow you to go from work to play to dinner, but are less versatile in variable weather conditions. For that reason, if you take these into the backcountry, you may want to pack a separate pair of shorts.

These pants might offer fewer features but are a simple, lightweight approach since they forgo the extra buttons and zippers found on convertible versions. For those hikers who want full sun protection, enjoy mostly casual day hikes, and who plan to travel in cool weather or where ticks or leaches reign, these are a great option.

Leggings


If you always grab a pair of yoga leggings when you go hiking, check out a dedicated pair of hiking or running tights instead. Tights have some distinct advantages over pants, including less chafing over long distances and a compressed and supportive feel. Running and hiking tights typically have multiple panels for a greater range of motion and less sag, and are usually made with moisture-wicking materials. Some people love the feel and look of tights for hiking, trail running, or just every day wear.

However, there are some downsides. They might keep you hotter than a pair of pants and are often too tight to roll up effectively. If they are on the thin side, and it's black fly or mosquito season, you're also likely to get more bites than your loose-pant-wearing friends. They can also snag on thorns and rocks.

Full-length pants with no convertible options are preferred by some. They tend to be slightly less expensive  offer full sun protection  and protect against ticks and scrapes as well.
Full-length pants with no convertible options are preferred by some. They tend to be slightly less expensive, offer full sun protection, and protect against ticks and scrapes as well.

Roll-Up Pants


Roll-up pants give you the option to strap your pant leg in a cuffed position, freeing your ankles. This feature adds a surprising amount of ventilation to your legs and feet. While you don't need straps to roll your pants up, they do help hold them in position. This is especially true if the material is soft and slick, which is common among technical hiking pants are.

Roll-up models are great for people who want a bit of extra ventilation and versatility but don't like zip-off models.
Roll-up models are great for people who want a bit of extra ventilation and versatility but don't like zip-off models.

Most roll-up pants have tabs on the inside and buttons or snaps on the outside. When you roll the pants, you expose the tabs and then secure them in place. While having loose fabric floating around inside your pant leg sounds annoying, we hardly ever notice them.

Having a way of securing a rolled-up cuff is key. Otherwise  most pant legs will quickly unroll.
Having a way of securing a rolled-up cuff is key. Otherwise, most pant legs will quickly unroll.

Zip-off Convertible Pants


Zip-off pants are versatile, switching between pants and shorts depending on the weather. A zipper rings the thigh or lower leg of these pants, allowing you to remove the lower portion. 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.

On the other hand, multi-use clothing can compromise optimal function in favor of versatility. For example, depending on zipper placement, these pants can chafe your legs. The length of the shorts can also be awkward, and the look isn't all that desirable for some.

A convertible pant can roll up to a crop and also convert to a short  giving you three length options.
A convertible pant can roll up to a crop and also convert to a short, giving you three length options.

The Great Zip-Off Debate


Zip-off pants have a distinct look and feel to them, and for every hiker that swears by them, you'll find others who will never wear them. Here are some things to consider when deciding if zip-off pants are right for you.

While zip-off pants offer a lot of versatility, consider when you'll want to convert these hiking pants to shorts, and how often that will happen. For example, you'll encounter a variety of situations on a long day hike or a backpacking trip. But a two-hour walk with little weather or elevation change will not demand much flexibility.

If you're tempted to go with zip-offs so you can take just one pair of pants on a backpacking adventure, but you get wet in a rainstorm or a river, you're out of luck. Another option is to pack a pair of standard or roll-up pants and a lightweight pair of baggy shorts. This is also a great set-up if you wear bulky hiking boots. Only one of the zip-off options we tested (the REI Co-op Sahara) can fit over a pair of hiking boots.

We had to stop, take our boots off, unzip the legs, and then put our boots back on. At that point, it's easier to just pull the pants off and pull on a pair of shorts. Dedicated shorts are also more comfortable than those with zippers in their hems.

Zip-off leg fail! We couldn't take any of the legs off over our hiking boots  which defeats the purpose a little. They did all fit over hiking shoes though.
Zip-off leg fail! We couldn't take any of the legs off over our hiking boots, which defeats the purpose a little. They did all fit over hiking shoes though.

Hiking pants often have flattering cuts and tapered legs to follow fashion trends. This is great for style points but can have downsides, especially in zip-off versions. It's uncomfortable to feel a bulky zipper rubbing against your leg with each step you take because of a closer cut. It can also limit your mobility. The zipper wraps around the pant leg somewhere between the thigh and the calf, keeping it from flexing to move with you at that location. That restriction can make the pants and shorts feeling tight around our legs while walking and 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. There are many other options out there. We find, in most instances, a pair of roll-up pants offer nearly as much ventilation as zip-off options (since air flows up the pant legs as well as across your ankles) while maintaining more sun protection and comfort.

Tights are great options for some - they are compressive  which is nice if you are hiking fast and/or running part of the trail  and help eliminate chaffing between the thighs. Flat waistbands pair well with a hip belt  and they are designed to be moisture-wicking.
Tights are great options for some - they are compressive, which is nice if you are hiking fast and/or running part of the trail, and help eliminate chaffing between the thighs. Flat waistbands pair well with a hip belt, and they are designed to be moisture-wicking.

Sizing and Fit


Your pants should be comfortable, unrestrictive, and allow for a full range of motion. Get weird when trying on hiking pants. Kick, take high steps, stretch, jump — do anything to push your body to make sure the pants move with you. Stretch and mobility are important. You do not want your clothing to limit you.

Your gear should enhance your experience. The proper size and fit will keep you happy and comfortable on your hike. We recommend erring on the side of "too loose" rather than "too tight." If a pair of pants pinch or restrict you in any way, it will only get worse by the mile. Looser pants also leave you the option to wear a base layer underneath on chilly mornings and evenings.

Whether you choose a pair with wide legs or tapered ones is up to you, but if they are close cut, make sure they have articulated knees to help with mobility. Also, check to see if you can roll them up at all, which makes a big difference in temperature moderation.

A wide-legged option (left) and a tapered model (right). No one style is better than the other  but you'll want to be sure you still have full mobility in a more tapered model.
A wide-legged option (left) and a tapered model (right). No one style is better than the other, but you'll want to be sure you still have full mobility in a more tapered model.

Finding the right rise is also essential. 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 backpack's 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 or in pain. With a mid-rise pant that sits at the hips, there is some overlap between the hip belt and pant waist, which helps keep them in place should avoid too much friction on your hipbones.

If trying on a pair in the store, grab a backpack as well and try the two together. A quick lap around the store should tell you if it's a good fit or not.

The pant's inseam length is another critical aspect of sizing and fit. Pants that drag on the ground will eventually drag your enjoyment level down too. They will also rip easier. Those that are too short won't provide the coverage you need from sun, rain, or ticks. Luckily, most manufacturers offer a range of inseam lengths these days. If you are taller or shorter than average (most pants fit women between 5'4 and 5'6 inches tall), look for models that come in tall or short inseam lengths.

Careful though, some "petite" and "tall" versions just cut off or add to the bottom portion of the pants without adjusting key placements like knee articulation for shorter or longer legs. Check comment sections to see if that is an issue for the pair that interests you.

Features to Consider


With so many design features available on hiking pants today, it's hard to know which ones are helpful and which ones are just hype. Here we run through the most common add-ons on the market, including abrasion and water resistance, drawstrings, and construction details like articulated knees and gusseted crotches.

From multiple pocket options to drawstring waists and DWR coatings  the amount and types of features abound.
From multiple pocket options to drawstring waists and DWR coatings, the amount and types of features abound.

Abrasion and Tear Resistance


While tents and backpacks have used "ripstop" Nylon for years, those materials are just finding their way into the apparel market. No one wants to hike in "parachute pants," but the latest fabrics are weaving abrasion and tear-resistant strength into comfortable material. Abrasion-resistant fabrics resist wear and pilling caused by surface friction. And tear-resistant pants laugh off briars and rough terrain.

These perks often come at a higher price point. If you hike in locales with lots of spiky plants or find yourself butt-scootching on rock and dirt more often than not, it probably makes sense to pay more for pants that will survive your adventures. If you're mostly walking on wide-open trails, you might not need it.

Ripstop nylon resists snags  and while it won't necessarily stop holes from happening (if you stab this material with a sharp knife it'll still make a hole)  it will help prevent them from spreading.
Ripstop nylon resists snags, and while it won't necessarily stop holes from happening (if you stab this material with a sharp knife it'll still make a hole), it will help prevent them from spreading.

Water Resistance


We don't need to buy water-resistant t-shirts or sweaters, because we have rain jackets. We also have rain pants, but they're a hassle to pull on, and we rarely wear them if it's just drizzling. Water-resistant hiking pants are great for those drizzly days quick rain showers or splashy water sports like canoeing or standup paddleboarding. Many hiking pants now feature a durable water repellent (DWR) fabric coating, which helps water bead up and roll off the pant without wetting it.

Not all DWR is created equal. Some of the models in this review, like the REI Co-op Sahara and Arc'teryx Gamma LT, have a very effective DWR treatment. Others are less so. The Patagonia Quandary's coating did little to stop water from saturating the pants. And a DWR finish does not mean that a garment is waterproof. All of the hiking pants we tested wet out eventually. For waterproof, you'll need true rainpants.

Related: Best Rain Pants for Women of 2020

Water beads up for a barely a minute on the Halle  then soaks right through  even though they have a DWR coating. These are not meant for wet weather use.
Water beads up for a barely a minute on the Halle, then soaks right through, even though they have a DWR coating. These are not meant for wet weather use.

Internal Drawstrings


If you're hiking with a pack that has a hip belt, then finding hiking pants with an internal drawstring is key. Almost all of the pants we tested tend to stretch out during the day (some far more than others), and the pressure of a hip belt or backpack can push your pants down. The drawstring keeps your pants in the right place without a thick belt, which is more to carry and is wildly uncomfortable under a hip belt.

Drawstrings are also great for long-distance hikes or extended international travel. Both situations disrupt your normal eating and exercising schedules, making it more likely for your weight to fluctuate.

Internal drawstrings help keep the pant in place without needing a belt  which is crucial if you'll be carrying a backpack.
Internal drawstrings help keep the pant in place without needing a belt, which is crucial if you'll be carrying a backpack.

Articulated Knees


Full range of motion is key to comfort on a hike, and articulated knees can help you achieve it, particularly if the hiking pant material is not very stretchy. This feature is a must-have for rock climbing pants, and very helpful in hiking pants if you're heading up steep trails or high-stepping over roots and rocks. Look for seams or what might appear to be the fabric bunching around the knees. This will make your high-steps easier.

High-stepping in the Prana Halle  a pair of hiking pants that double as great climbing pants.
Articulated knees aren't just helpful when climbing  but also heading uphill on the trail.

Gusseted Crotch


A crotch gusset is a triangle or diamond-shaped insert in the crotch of the pant. This detail alleviates the pressure caused by four seams coming together at one point, increasing your range of motion and comfort. Unfortunately, gussets are hard to find on women's hiking pants. While the men's version of the Prana Halle, the Stretch Zion Pant, has a large gusset, the Halle does not, nor do about half the models in this review. Luckily it's becoming more and more common to have a gusseted crotch as demonstrated by the Outdoor Research Ferrosi pants.

A gusseted crotch (right) can help increase your mobility and also your comfort level  however  not too many manufacturers are including them on women's hiking pants.
A gusseted crotch (right) can help increase your mobility and also your comfort level, however, not too many manufacturers are including them on women's hiking pants.

Sun Protection


All clothing offers some degree of protection from the sun's rays, but the amount of shade offered by different fabrics varies greatly. A white cotton shirt lets around 20% of ultraviolet radiation to pass through it, meaning that you can get a sunburn with clothes on. Many manufacturers now use fabric with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating, which offers more protection from harmful radiation. A UPF 25 material lets only 1/25th, or 4%, of radiation through. A UPF 50 material only allows 1/50th, or 2%, to pass through. The higher the UPF rating, the better sun protection offered from the clothing layers.

Cam remembering to cover her arms with a UPF rated shirt  but not her legs. Our legs often get overlooked when it comes to sun protection  but if you wear a pair of UPF rated pants you'll never have to worry about forgetting to put sunscreen on your legs again.
Cam remembering to cover her arms with a UPF rated shirt, but not her legs. Our legs often get overlooked when it comes to sun protection, but if you wear a pair of UPF rated pants you'll never have to worry about forgetting to put sunscreen on your legs again.

Whether or not this is necessary depends on a few factors, including your environment and risk factors. If you plan to hike at elevation, by the water, or over snow (where UV radiation reflects at you), then UPF rated clothing makes sense. Those with fair skin or who burn easily should also wear it. 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 don't have ready access to a shower. Layers of sunscreen build up and clog your skin over time, and 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). Many of the models that we tested had a rating of 50 or 50+.

Destination & Primary Use


To find your perfect pair of pants, you also need to consider where and how you'll be hiking. Here's some food for thought.

Hiking out at Red Rock Canyon  Las Vegas. Even the desert can have changeable weather.
Hiking out at Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas. Even the desert can have changeable weather.

Hot or Dry Conditions

  • Desert Hiking, Low Elevation Summer Hiking
Hot and dry climates demand high-performance and highly breathable gear. If you intend to hike in the desert or low elevation regions, particularly in the summer, a lightweight pant that wicks sweat away from your body is essential. Arid environments tend to be cool in the mornings, especially in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, and very warm/hot throughout 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. Long pants protect from the sun and sharp desert plants, however, so we like to keep our ankles covered in those environments. Ventilation and breathability are important features for hiking in desert environments so that heat does not interfere with your hiking comfort.

On a hot day in the desert it is nice to have a breathable pair that can convert into shorts.
On a hot day in the desert it is nice to have a breathable pair that can convert into shorts.

Cool Conditions

  • High Elevation (above 6,000 feet in most regions), Spring and Fall
When temperatures are cooler, think about finding hiking pants that layer well and breathe well, to prevent moisture build-up from keeping you wet and cold when you aren't moving. In high elevation regions and where cool/cold temperatures and storms are likely, it is important to consider versatility for sensitive weather patterns. Water-resistant features like 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. You can often get away without roll-up or zip-off options when you know you'll be chilly all day, so plain old hiking pants work well here.

Heading out for a hike at 9000' on Mt Charleston. We appreciated the thicker material of these hiking pants from Kuhl on this chilly day.
Heading out for a hike at 9000' on Mt Charleston. We appreciated the thicker material of these hiking pants from Kuhl on this chilly day.

Temperate Climate, Weekend Backpacking


For mid-range elevations, weekend trips, and other adventures where you're unlike to encounter extreme conditions, comfort is key. Focus on features like a great fit and pockets that carry your phone and essentials. We often find roll-up models versatile enough to easily cross a stream or add some ventilation on a hot day. The lack of a mid-leg zipper also makes them much more comfortable for your average hike.

The ability to convert to shorts as the day warms up is a great feature for summer hikes at elevation.
The ability to convert to shorts as the day warms up is a great feature for summer hikes at elevation.

Long Distance Hiking/Backpacking


Are you heading out on the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or Long Trail for months at a time? Then it's essential to have a pair of pants (or two) versatile enough for everything the natural environment can throw your way. You need a pant that is capable of washing quickly in creeks, drying overnight, wading streams, layering up for cold weather, and slimming down for summer heat.

Additionally, they should be comfortable enough for the long haul. You'll want an adjustable waistband since your weight will likely fluctuate, and pants tend to stretch after multiple days of wear. Convertible hiking pants that zip off to shorts can be good options for long-distance hiking since they allow for various uses in one piece of gear, though they can be less comfortable. A lightweight roll-up style is also a great option, especially if you're worried about losing one of the zip-off legs. Roll-up styles are often very comfortable as well.

Checking out the almost 800-mile long Arizona trail. A long thru-hike requires a good amount of planning and consideration of your gear.
Checking out the almost 800-mile long Arizona trail. A long thru-hike requires a good amount of planning and consideration of your gear.

Climbing


Climbing pants are a whole 'nother category, though many people hike and climb in the same pants. If you want a pair of pants that can pull double duty, make sure they don't restrict your movements and that they breathe well. Consider where the pockets are placed on the legs so they won't interfere with your harness. It's also nice to be able to roll-up the legs so you can see your foot placements more clearly.

Climbing in the Prana Halle pants. These are a climber favorite thanks to the articulated knees and slightly stretchy material.
Climbing in the Prana Halle pants. These are a climber favorite thanks to the articulated knees and slightly stretchy material.

Fastpacking and Trail Running


If you're breaking into the increasingly popular sport of fastpacking, or looking to try running your trails instead of hiking them, you don't want traditional hiking pants. Tights are probably a better option. 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.

Like to move fast on the trails? Consider a pair of hiking or running tights instead.
Like to move fast on the trails? Consider a pair of hiking or running tights instead.

Conclusion


Choosing the perfect pair of hiking pants can feel daunting. We hope that we've helped you think through the decision-making process to decide which factors are most important to you.

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