For outdoor enthusiasts, hiking shorts are a staple in 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 technologies, such as anti-odor fabric. We have found that it can be challenging to prioritize and focus on what would be best. First off, we will differentiate hiking-oriented shorts from other types of shorts.
Hiking Shorts vs. Running and Fashion Shorts
While it's easy enough to own all three types, what truly distinguishes them? As modern trends ebb and flow, there are many instances where the lines become heavily blurred. Nonetheless, certain elements about each type that can be easily identified. To help define a short 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 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 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 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. Given the more practical stitching, spacious pocket design, and tech fabric, it's fairly obvious how they are constructed for heavy outdoor use.
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 lightweight. 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 back 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 a key or chapstick. Pockets for your hands are not typical.
With nothing but casual outings in mind and no expectations to perform or sweat in, fashion shorts are exactly that — fashion. The vast array of materials and designs is incomprehensible, but the main, and most important aspect is the aesthetic. Stitching is thoughtful, creative, feminine, or inconspicuous; materials are usually heavier and not meant to be breathable, and pockets tend to be small and not very functional. The use of zippers and button closures are characteristic of jean-inspired looks; drawstrings and elastic waistbands are casual and lounge-wear oriented. While hiking shorts also utilize these various 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 settings. From the casual to the Avante-Garde, colors and patterns dictate the look of the short, far 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.
Key Hiking Essentials
When we brainstormed what facets to test for, we knew that all of them would be performance based. As mentioned above, 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.
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
- Patagonia Baggies (Size S) - 4.5 inches - Runs large
- Columbia Sandy River Cargo (Size XS) - 6 inches - True to Size
- ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad (Size 2) - 8 inches - Runs large
- KUHL Splash (Size S) - 10 inches - Runs small
- Columbia Back Beauty (Size S) - 11 inches - Runs slightly small
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 hike with the most difficulty you're willing to face. 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 thigh, but we understand this can be a tough expectation. If you're willing to budge on the flexibility, at least make sure you can fully 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 North Face Aphrodite 2.0 is a prime example 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.
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 for 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. One of the most breathable options is Columbia Sandy River Cargo. Differing in fit, from low-profile to baggy, respectively, this model breathes so well, but it isn't comforting against 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 like the OR Wadi Rum and Patagonia Stand Up offer average results. While added length implies more insulation in general, the knee-length Columbia Back Beauty is open enough at the hemline to allow ample air circulation. Similarly, the KUHL Splash, despite being mostly made of cotton, has enough nylon to perform above our initial hesitations.
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 athletic wear 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 KUHL Splash is hailed for the cross-activity potential, multi-seasonal appeal, and the modern cargo-like design. The more singularly athletic designs, such as the Columbia Back Beauty, are not as aesthetic to wear around town in our opinion but are typically more useful across a wider range of sports. On the flip side, the OR Wadi Rum is an example of a short that, at first glance, looks more like a casual fashion short as opposed to something for hiking due to its 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.
A rising standard for outdoor apparel, water resistance is something that is usually expressed in the product description (and something that continues to expand in development - at least in the marketing wording). Something to look for is fabric treated with DWR (durable water repellent), such as the Patagonia Baggies, or for a brand's own hip version of repellency. Columbia's OMNI-SHIELD technology is both water and stain resistance, and it utilized in the Columbia Back Beauty. It's best to test a manufacturer's claims yourself if this aspect is a priority. Or, if you're here, you've maybe left the testing up to us. 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 when spills, light rain, or stream crossings are encountered.
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. The Columbia Sandy River Cargo isn't built with OMNI-SHIELD repellency, but it does have a natural tendency to bead water when wet. The North Face Aphrodite 2.0, however, is an example of a short that is perfect in the summer heat but is not what we'd refer to as water resistant.
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 wish to throw in. In some ways, features can end up being a nuisance, such as the optional belt that comes with the Columbia Sandy River Cargo. The belt does nothing to aid in the closure of the shorts because the elastic waistband is already snug and there is also a plastic snap and zip fly closure. A purely stylistic feature, it adds weight and is cumbersome.
An example of well-thought-out advantages is the ExOfficio Sol Cool Nomad, which won the crown in this metric. Offering sun protection, moisture wicking capabilities, anti-odor resistance, and five decently sized pockets (two of which have zippers for extra security), they are 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, water resistance 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.
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 a blend of an appropriate balance of technical features; this combination ensures a fun-filled day of hiking. Make sure to refer to the main overview as well as individual reviews for a broad perspective on how the shorts rank in comparison and how much they cost.