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How to Choose the Best Hiking Shorts for Women

A pile of hiking shorts ranging from the long  nearly knee-length inseam to the more youthful shorties.
By Sara Aranda ⋅ Review Editor
Monday October 21, 2019
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For outdoor enthusiasts, hiking shorts are a staple of the wardrobe, no matter if you're in the mountains or the city, though the character of the surrounding culture will certainly influence style preferences. Depending on whether a short or long inseam makes sense to buy will differ from one person to the next. In addition, the accessible terrain and personal agendas will dictate the necessity of features and advanced material technologies, such as water-resistance. Since it can be challenging to prioritize and focus on what's best, we help break down this category down by discussing the differences between hiking-specific shorts from other types of shorts.

Hiking Shorts vs. Running and Fashion Shorts


While it's easy enough to own all three types, we had to ask ourselves, what actually distinguishes them? As modern trends ebb and flow, there are many instances where the lines become heavily blurred. Nonetheless, some aspects about each type can be easily identified. To help define a pair made for hiking, the first difference is the intention behind the product, and the language used to describe it.

Manufacturers are usually extensive with their descriptions and suggested uses. For the context of being outside, brands will express keywords such as "for varied conditions", "outdoor adventure", or "technical trekking". The materials used will often be described as "durable" or "breathable." This will extend into a list of features and qualitative measurements deemed pertinent for outdoor travel, such as sun protection and overall weight.

Another element is the standard use of synthetic blends, i.e., nylon, polyester, and sometimes cotton-based materials with added spandex. When movement and exertion is the main task, synthetic materials are inherently thin and, for the most part, moisture-wicking and stretchy. Other benefits of nylon and polyester are natural mold resistance, baseline durability, and greater ease of cleaning. In conjunction with these performance-minded facets, hiking shorts will also traditionally have pockets. Since walking is the main exercise here, being able to carry small items is expected. The pockets should also be big enough for your hands to fit into without resistance.

The final elements we'd like to point out are a combination of inseam length and athletic styling. Hiking shorts will traditionally be much longer than fashion and running shorts (although there are arguably many long fashion shorts), with the prime inseam zone being somewhere between 5 and 10 inches. Stereotypically, the shorter the inseam, the more youthful the vibe, and the longer the inseam, the more mature and practical-based. Often given more simple stitching, spacious pocket design, and techy fabric, it's fairly obvious how they are constructed for heavier outdoor use.

The three award winners happen to cover a wide range of inseam lengths.
The three award winners happen to cover a wide range of inseam lengths.

Running Shorts


The act of running requires a lot of flexibility and space for the legs. Because of this, running shorts are far more minimally designed and fundamentally ultralight. Many styles involve the dolphin, or split-short, design, which is the most breezy and drastically shortened type. The split refers to a tapered and triangularly shaped cut between the front and rear sections of the shorts, allowing for the utmost venting at the sides of the legs. In the most extreme cases, the height of this split can meet the waistband. Another design for running shorts, but not as common, is the body-con spandex type that borderlines full-coverage underwear. This is the most aero-dynamic, of course, and is a standard among professional racers.

With similar use of synthetic materials as those for hiking, the differences reside in the general lack of need for things like water resistance or added sun protection. The priority for running is to utilize material that is not cumbersome (i.e., high mobility) and is highly breathable. Depending on how much you run, a low-mileage jaunt, even when it's raining out, won't be an issue for shorts that absorb water readily. The ultralight and synthetic nature will dry very quickly. A small feature that is common is a very tiny stash pocket stitched into either the waistband or the side of the shorts for keys or chapstick. Pockets for your hands are not typical.

The bagginess of the Patagonia Baggies aids in their ability to vent.
The bagginess of the Patagonia Baggies aids in their ability to vent.

Fashion Shorts


With nothing but casual to semi-formal outings in mind and no expectations to perform or sweat, fashion shorts are exactly that: fashion. The vast array of materials and designs are incomprehensible, but the main and most important aspect is the aesthetic. Stitching is thoughtful, creative, and often feminine. Materials are usually heavier and not meant to be very breathable, while pockets tend to be small and not particularly functional. The use of zippers and button closures can be characteristic of jean-inspired looks. While hiking shorts also utilizes a variety of similar types of waist closures, having a streamlined and lightweight nature is not as much of a priority for fashion.

The benefit of being trendy is, of course, the relevance of use in city and suburban settings. From the casual to the Avante-Garde, colors and patterns dictate the look of the short, typically outweighing the need for comfort and practical performance. Fashion shorts can also have longer inseam lengths, but more commonly have some of the shortest, such as booty shorts, also known as hotpants, on the extreme end.

The Stand Up from Patagonia is a cute pair of shorts made out of a cotton and spandex blend.
The Stand Up from Patagonia is a cute pair of shorts made out of a cotton and spandex blend.

Key Hiking Essentials


When we brainstormed what facets to test for, we knew that all of them would be performance-based. Long-term comfort, stretch, airiness, and added resistances are the fundamentals of a great pair of hiking shorts. Keeping these in mind will help you determine the technicality and bottom-line value.

With a high waist and 6-inch inseam  the Sandy River nylon shorts have all the characteristics of a traditional short for hiking.
With a high waist and 6-inch inseam, the Sandy River nylon shorts have all the characteristics of a traditional short for hiking.

We tested a range of inseam lengths from the super short to knee-length coverage. We defined the prime comfort zone for length to be between 5 and 10 inches. For comparison, here are the lengths and sizes of the shorts we had the pleasure of critiquing:

Short
  • Patagonia Stand Up (Size 2) - 3 inches - True to Size
  • TNF Aphrodite 2.0 (Size XS) - 3.5 inches - True to Size
  • OR Wadi Rum (Size 2) - 4 inches - True to Size

Moderate
  • Arc'teryx Creston (Size 2) - 4.5 inches - True to Size
  • Patagonia Baggies (Size S) - 4.5 inches - Runs large
  • Columbia Silver Ridge Stretch II (Size 2) - 5 inches - True to Size
  • Columbia Sandy River Cargo (Size XS) - 6 inches - True to Size

Long
  • Prana Revenna (Size 2) - 7 inches - True to Size
  • ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad (Size 2) - 8 inches - Runs large
  • Arc'teryx Sabria (Size 2) - 8.75 inches - Runs slightly small (slim fit)
  • KUHL Splash (Size S) - 10 inches - Runs small
  • Columbia Back Beauty (Size S) - 11 inches - Runs slightly small

Our lead tester is shown wearing the 8-inch ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad  which hits above the knees.
Our lead tester is shown wearing the 8-inch ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad, which hits above the knees.

Comfort and Mobility


Comfort and mobility are where the deal-breaking truly resides. When trying on a pair of shorts, if there are concerns for comfort right away, do not ignore them. Imagine an all-day and challenging hike. Will the shorts keep you happy and chafe-free? The waistband should not dig into you or feel absurdly bulky or hot. Bringing your knees up toward the abdomen should be a fluid motion. The material should not dig into the thighs, but we understand this can be a stringent expectation for us curvier ladies. If you have to budge on the flexibility, at least make sure you can sufficiently bring your knee to your chest with relative ease. This will make all the difference on the trail, particularly if you're a hiker who loves technical and rocky terrain.

Of the shorts we tested, more than half of them ranked above average for this metric, which is a good sign. The top award-winners are all great examples of a well-fitting, comfy, easy to move around in, pair. When thinking about the types of hikes you want to go on, comfort and mobility are going to be important no matter what, which is why these two factors bear the most weight.

A great length for a hiking short  the Prana Hallena is highly comfortable.
A great length for a hiking short, the Prana Hallena is highly comfortable.

Venting and Breathability


Arguably just as important as the metric above, this is where we begin to focus more on the technical performance of the shorts. Intended for the warmer months of the year and dry conditions, being breathable and well-ventilated will help mitigate excessive sweating and discomfort in the heat. Looser leg openings will vent more easily than shorts with a slim and next-to-the-skin cut. The majority of the shorts we tested scored high due to their thin and relatively weightless nylon or polyester construction. Differing in fit, from low-profile to baggy, the models that breathe the best, however, won't be as comforting in the wind or cold temperatures.

Even with short inseams, material that is denser and stiffer, such as those whose primary fabric is cotton, won't allow for optimal moisture-wicking and temperature regulation on muggy days. Ideal for when the sky is overcast (yet, who can predict that), thicker options may only offer average results. While added length implies more insulation in general, the knee-length styles are hopefully open enough at the hemline to allow ample air circulation.

The Back Beauty is baggy enough around the knees so that air circulation is not necessarily restricted by length.
The Back Beauty is baggy enough around the knees so that air circulation is not necessarily restricted by length.

Versatility


Trying to wrap our heads equally around style and multi-functional qualities, this metric is by far the most subjective and conditional. While versatility doesn't bear as much weight as the previous metrics, it's merely the icing on the cake, not necessarily a dealbreaker. For our practical needs, being able to hike across varied terrain during the summer is the most important thing. But if you're of a more fashion-oriented mindset or wanting athleticwear that can easily transfer between activities, it's best to make a list of the types of outings you will want to extend the use to. Whether it be the casual advantage of showing up to lunch in the same outfit you hiked in or the more technical advantage of being able to hop on a bike to commute home from the trailhead, versatility is a byproduct of comfort and mobility. To be as critical as possible, we contemplated whether or not each pair would also fare well in the spring and fall.

The top-scoring shorts in this metric are hailed for the cross-activity potential, multi-seasonal appeal, and modern design. The more singularly athletic designs are not as aesthetic to wear around town, in our opinion but are typically more useful across a broader range of sports. On the flip side, some shorts have, at first glance, a more casual fashion look to them due to color and creative stitching. If fashion is a priority, you'll still want to consider the functionality of the activity you intend to use it for.

The jean-like and trendy design of the OR Wadi Rum is highly versatile as city wear.
The jean-like and trendy design of the OR Wadi Rum is highly versatile as city wear.

Water Resistance


A rising standard for outdoor apparel, water resistance is something that is usually expressed in the product description (but sometimes it isn't even if the material naturally beads water). Something to look for is fabric treated with DWR (durable water repellent) or for a brand's own hip version of repellency. Columbia's OMNI-SHIELD technology, for example, is for both water and stain resistance and is utilized often for their athletic apparel. Still, we test a manufacturer's claims. When testing, the water should bead and remain so for at least a couple minutes before slowly absorbing into the fabric. This, of course, allows for ample time to brush water away or wipe away spills, light rain, or a splash from a stream crossing.

If all you want is a fun, summer short that you can go kayaking in as well, water resistance isn't as much of a necessity. Having a short that is perfect for water-play in the summer heat is typically a short that doesn't have high resistance since they are made to get wet and dry off quickly.

Features


Covering a wide range of accessory perks, features have to do with technical advantages like sun protection, the quality of pockets, the types of waistband closures, and any miscellaneous things that manufacturers end up throwing in. In some ways, features can end up being a nuisance, such as an optional belt or stash pockets that are too small for practical use. There have been cases where a belt does nothing to aid in the closure of the shorts due to an elastic waistband being already snug enough. A purely stylistic feature, it adds weight and is cumbersome.

An example of well-thought-out advantages is something that offers sun protection, moisture-wicking capabilities, anti-odor resistance, and several decently sized pockets (some of which may have zippers for extra security). Such shorts would be well-designed for travel and utility.

To better grasp this category, we suggest creating a list of the features that are the most important to you. This can help you decide on what aspects to prioritize. During the summer, sun protection or tricot-lined waistbands might not be the most practical or useful. One standard we like to uphold no matter what is having spacious pockets that don't easily let items slip out.

The deep pockets of the Aphrodite 2.0 have a narrow opening  which helps keep your items safely inside. You can also see the smaller zip pocket on the thigh.
The deep pockets of the Aphrodite 2.0 have a narrow opening, which helps keep your items safely inside. You can also see the smaller zip pocket on the thigh.

Conclusion


With these five essentials as a guide, deciding which shorts are the most useful and affordable for your needs should no longer a daunting task. In the end, we prefer the most comfortable shorts we can get our hands on, with an appropriate balance of technical features. This combination ensures a fun-filled day of hiking and activity. Make sure to refer to the main category overview, as well as the individual reviews, for a closer perspective on how the shorts we reviewed currently rank and how valuable they are.


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