The Best Hiking Shorts for Women of 2020
Best Overall Hiking Short
Prana is known for making comfortable clothing and the Revenna is no exception. We can sit, work, play in them all we want. With high marks in nearly all the metrics, they are modest, technical, and lightweight. No matter the activity, they breathe well and move with you, mobile enough to keep up and comfortable enough that you're be happy to wear them.
Running a tad large, the fit is one of the biggest drawbacks, particularly as the material stretches out over time and wrinkles easily. This wrinkling, of course, affects style. They also rank near the bottom for water-resistance, as we found them to absorb water during our tests despite being labeled as having a DWR coating. Still, there's no better all-around adventure short that we recommend more readily — the Prana Revenna is our favorite pair among tough competition.
Read review: Prana Revenna
Best Bang for the Buck
Columbia Sandy River Cargo - Women's
Quirky and yet fundamental, these shorts are technical and easy to move around in. They perform well beyond expectations, and the price is a deal-making jaw-dropper. The Columbia Sandy River Cargo is ultralight (without the belt) and has just the right amount of bagginess for ample venting. These shorts nearly have it all.
They are not as comfortable for all-day wear as a few of the others we tested. The waistband is irritating mostly due to it sitting high and snugly at the waist, and a few of the features seem to slightly miss the mark, such as the "cargo" accessory pockets (they are actually quite small). Regardless, the athletic and versatile nature of these shorts is what ranks them near the top, warranting them our Best Buy Award.
Read review: Columbia Sandy River Cargo - Women's
Best for Length & Versatility
More minimally designed than most, the look of the Arc'teryx Sabria is technical and streamlined. With a pull-on waistband and two small pockets on the thighs, they offer a neat balance between style and function. Water-resistant and durable, the length allows for greater versatility across different sports and activities, and across a wider range of temperatures and climate, all while being decently cute.
The slim fit and inflexible waistband were an obstacle around the hips. They are challenging to pull on for curvier bodies, but once they are on, the fit is perfect around the waist and thighs. Basically, we wish the waistband stretched more readily.
Read review: Arc'teryx Sabria
Best for Style and Function
Arc'teryx Creston - Women's
A fun, lightweight pair, the Arc'teryx Creston has become a favorite of ours for its combination of style and performance. The fabric is flexible enough for most activities and is one of the most water-resistant pairs we've tested thus far. We are also really grateful for the large pockets. This pair also won some of the most compliments when out and about in them, and we are stoked that the performance matches the good looks.
Since the material is highly water-resistant, the one downside is that breathability is rather average. All-day comfort also isn't as remarkable enough to be the best of the best, but they still wear well and transfer easily into town. We love their pop of color and cute cut, and that they are fun for more than just hiking.
Read review: Arc'teryx Creston - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
This comparison of women's hiking shorts is brought to you by OutdoorGearLab Review Editor Sara Aranda. Sara is a writer by trade, as well as a dedicated trail runner and climber. She divides her time between Yosemite and Boulder, Colorado, where there is ample opportunity for adventure. As a writer, she has been published by Alpinist, The Climbing Zine, The American Poetry Review, Boulder Weekly, and others. Sara's background as an outdoor athlete, from setting a Fastest Known Time to being a scrambling enthusiast, has equipped her well to identify the fundamentals and finer points of women's hiking short performance. As a result, we think you'll find this review to be a useful tool in selecting your own pair.
To start, we comb through all the current offerings from various manufacturers and select the strongest from an initial group of over 75 pairs. After purchasing, we begin to score them according to metrics we consider to be fundamental to this gear category. Our ratings in all these metrics are informed through field testing, primarily on trails in Colorado and Utah. We test water resistance by splashing the fabric of each pair side-by-side, taking note of how well the water beads and dries. We wear each model all day to get a well-developed notion of their relative comfort. With the average hiker in mind, we want to make sure we cover the basics thoroughly.
Related: How We Tested Hiking Short for Women
Analysis and Test Results
The best hiking shorts will not only keep you comfortable but will also be the most functional for your needs in the outdoors. Style and the total inseam length leave the first impressions, but overall performance matters most. With varying inseam lengths from 3 to 11 inches, these competitors have their own unique blend of fashion and practicality. All are made with synthetic materials, whether it be a hint of spandex in cotton or a durable fabric entirely constructed with nylon. The variety of materials makes for an interesting range of flexibility and technical features, but the metric with the most potential to be a deal-breaker is our first one: comfort and mobility.
Along the foothills of Colorado and in the vast desert of Utah, from mellow dirt trails to rocky, steep inclines, we want to see what these competitors are capable of. Plus, we've included both short and long inseam lengths to cater to different preferences and needs.
Price doesn't impact performance ratings, but they do influence our baseline impressions of the apparel's value, as a fair price is always a plus. Our pick for Editors' Choice, the Prana Revenna, isn't remarkably affordable but isn't overly expensive either. The Best Buy Award winner, the Columbia Sandy River Cargo shorts, are an example of how we celebrate the high value of an item that doesn't break the bank.
Comfort and Mobility
Comfort and mobility carry the most weight in our ranking system. This essential quality is based on all-day wear, general comfort and fit, the flexibility of the fabric, and the overall ease of movement. With fit, we are thankful that all the pairs we recently reviewed are either mid-rise or high-waisted, meaning that while sitting down or squatting, the waistband doesn't drop too low in the back. Too, higher rises typically increase the likeliness of finding comfort beneath a pack with a hip belt.
Scores don't necessarily shrink as inseam length increases, because they are dependent on the elasticity of the material. From technical terrain to the aimless stroll, each short is critiqued on whether or not our movement is ever impeded. Being restricted while trying to high-step, hike up a long incline, or simply walk out and about in a casual setting is a massive strike. Keep in mind that if something doesn't sit right within the first few miles, it'll likely only get worse, or all the more annoying, by day's end.
Exceeding our initial impressions, the Prana Revenna handles steep scrambles and hikes with ease. They are, by far, the most comfortable and flexible pair of shorts in our current test group due to the soft, flexible materials. With an inseam of 7 inches for the size 2 we tested, the fit was actually the only issue. We find the material to stretch out by the end of the day, particularly in the legs, which can lead to a baggier feel and look. This was limited to its look after a long hike, not its performance, so we didn't have much room to complain. For all the other pairs in our group, comfort scores were a little more difficult to praise.
For our testing purposes, we pay attention to how often, if at all, we have to adjust the shorts to maintain comfort and motion, especially when going up steep trails with steps. The ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad is notably restrictive in these situations, which heavily detracts from their overall mobility score. The Patagonia Stand Up shorts have a thicker fabric than all the others, to the point where the material bunches in the front quite readily while hiking. Even the stretch is minimal for high-stepping, yet the 3-inch inseam helps mitigate this issue.
An example of a pair with a long inseam that doesn't restrict movement as much is the 8.75-inch Arc'teryx Sabria. With a flexible and elastic design, they allow for endless movement. The fit, however, is on the slim side and the waistband itself hardly stretches at all. They are form-fitting in the hips and partially down the thigh, which can make sizing tricky for curvy bodies.
Venting and Breathability
We determined the second-most important metric to be venting and breathability. We want shorts to keep us cool and dry during the summer heat. Breathability is crucial for body temperature regulation. We consider how performance might be affected by the lack of venting, which only leads to discomfort. Largely influenced by the materials used, our testing reveals that the most breathable shorts are made with lightweight, synthetic blends.
The top performers in this metric are the Columbia Sandy River Cargo and Patagonia Baggies, both made with nylon. They are thin and breezy but differ drastically in style. They both have large leg openings and, thus, a baggier fitting around the legs, which adds to the ventilation factor.
Coming close in competition, other notable pairs include the Prana Revenna, mostly made of nylon, and Arc'teryx Sabria, which is made with a blend of nylon and elastane. Many of the shorts rank well in this category due to the fact that these shorts are made for summer hiking. The more cotton-based shorts, however, like the Patagonia Stand Up and the Outdoor Research Wadi Rum, have more limited capabilities when it comes to venting (but they are so short). Still, they work well enough and are adequate for the casual, warm-weather outing.
Being multi-functional is a benefit when you want to lean down your wardrobe or you live a place with distinct seasons. Thus, we feel that the balance between design and utility is an important thing to consider. Trendier designs transfer well to the city and can even stand on their own as casual urban wear if they are less traditional. More straightforward and athletic designs, in contrast, risk being rather unappealing for wear in town if fashion is important to you. But who says athletic apparel can't be stylish? This is a tough call and is admittedly subjective. We understand that different age groups are typically going to have different preferences (especially for inseam length).
So, for this metric, we appreciate pairs with multi-sport benefits. The more potential for other activities, the better the deal in the end. Examples of other activities we integrated into our tests include rock climbing, running, cycling, and stretching in the gym. Not all of the shorts are practical for some of these other things, so we took note of those sentiments and why we feel that way. Since this review is hiking focused, we focus on activities that prioritize mobility in the legs.
Another aspect we consider is the versatility among the seasons. The majority of the hiking shorts are designed exclusively for summer, but the longer inseams are also applicable to shoulder seasons and colder temperatures. This is why shorts like the Kuhl Splash and Arc'teryx Sabria score so high for versatility. Offering up relative style points and a longer length, they can be worn nearly year-round. Activity-wise, we can scramble and stretch in them with relative ease, and they provide decent comfort.
Scoring above average, the notable shorts are the Arc'teryx Creston and Prana Revenna, due to their ease of movement across a variety of sports. If you're after a rather youthful design, the Patagonia Stand Up is subjectively the trendiest of the bunch due to its 3-inch inseam and vintage-inspired high waist, but aren't very useful in the gym for us. They rank at the bottom for this metric. Another pair that doesn't fare so well, is the ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad due to its more singularly-oriented tourist style and its lack of flexibility for activities other than walking across non-technical terrain. The Columbia Sandy River Cargo and Patagonia Baggies earned average scores for their shorter inseams and baggy nature, which can limit, in our opinion, the varieties of use and style.
As a stand-out feature of outdoor apparel, we want to make sure the shorts that have resistance are rewarded for the advantage. Being completely waterproof would severely diminish the key aspect of breathability, so having adequate resistance while also having the ability to dry quickly and breathe is the perfect combination for summer ventures into the woods.
Water beads extraordinarily well on the DWR coated Patagonia Baggies, and, during our test, we were happy to find that the beading remained unchanged after several minutes. As in, there was no apparent absorption from what we could tell until after we rolled the water off. This was the case for many of the top-scorers. The ExOfficio and Arc'teryx Creston, all rank high with the Baggies. The Columbia shorts and the Arc'teryx Sabria rank a bit lower, with above-average scoring. There are only subtle differences between all the competitors mentioned above, ones that we only notice when we roll the water off the shorts. The more resistant the shorts, the more the water rolled without leaving any behind to soak in.
On the other side of the spectrum, it is unfortunate to find that quality shorts like the KUHL Splash and OR Wadi Rum have little water resistance at all. The Prana Revenna is detailed as having a DWR treatment but, during our test, we found the fabric to not bead at all and absorb water as quickly as the KUHL Splash. Even though water does absorb for these three pairs, the materials breathe well enough to combat the absorption with decent drying times.
When it comes to extra pockets and neat material perks, this is where every pair ends up being unique in its own way. Design features we've come across include a gusseted crotch, drawstring closure, button closure, or a contoured waistline. Material features include elements like sun protection or odor control. Pockets are the most obvious storage feature, and we make sure to critique the quality, depth, and security of the pockets. Brands like to have their own savvy word for their techy fabrics, but in the end, the performance, of course, speaks louder than words.
The ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad has come out on top in the feature category. With five pockets, anti-odor fabric, UPF 50, and other key features, the technicality and practical nature of these shorts are competitive. While the KUHL Splash also has numerous pockets, they aren't the most spacious. Their fabric also isn't the stretchiest, so when we add items to the pockets, the bulk can create an unwanted, tighter fit around our thighs.
When it comes to sun protection, the majority of the shorts explicitly have UPF ratings from 30-50. Most are of the longer inseams like the Columbia Sandy River Cargo, which has a UPF rating of 30, and the Exofficio Sol Cool Nomad, which is equipped with SPF 50.
Yet, the shorts with minimal distinctive features are still quality options. The Patagonia Stand Up is the most basic when compared to the others in this category. With four, albeit deep pockets, and durable stitching, they simply don't offer much else.
We averaged quick-drying scores in with the Features metric. The fastest drying models are, of course, the nylon or polyester-based lightweights, like the Arc'teryx Sabria and the Arc'teryx Creston, as the splash marks dried within minutes for these pairs. But those with mainly cotton construction, like the OR Wadi Rum, took over half an hour to feel completely dry to the touch.
The Prana Revenna earns the title for Best Overall, with the Columbia Sandy River Cargo taking the Best Buy award. The Arc'teryx Sabria is our Top Pick for those wanting a healthy combination of lengthy coverage, technical features, and decent comfort. In our minds, the best pair will move with your body, feel good, have ample pocket space, and dry quickly when the weather is hot or if water is encountered. And lastly, the Arc'teryx Creston is our Top Pick for a neat blend of style and function.
It's easy to get mixed up in the technical perks and stylistic features, but it's necessary to keep in mind the importance of comfort and mobility, especially if you plan to take extended trips in the backcountry. All said and done, we learned quite a bit about how the most basic-looking shorts can still pack an athletic punch. The elasticity of the materials used is a leading factor in how well each pair scores in our tests, as well as the level of comfort the flexibility contributes. The material of each pair influences all metrics, from the feel to the environments each pair succeeds in. If you're unsure of the style or fit of a particular brand, we recommend trying on a model in a local store to mitigate fit issues and unflattering bagginess. As always, we hope we've provided you with the necessary information to choose the best pair of hiking shorts for your upcoming adventure Happy trails.
— Sara Aranda