A Guide to Hiking Pants

Blue jeans are great, aren't they? They look good and are rugged, with quality jeans lasting years. Yet, there’s a dark underbelly to wearing blue jeans for outdoor uses. They’re heavy. They’re hot. They become useless—even dangerous—when wet. And you need a knife or scissors to change a pair of blue jeans into a pair of shorts.

Convertible Hiking Pants
A Convertible Hiking Pant. The lower legs zip-off, turning the long pants into comfortable hiking shorts.

Happily for hikers, blue jeans are now best left back at home or camp. Hiking pants have rescued hikers who need a versatile, comfortable and practical set of pants for hiking and backpacking.

Hiking pants are lightweight, quick-drying pants (made from various types of nylon) that are ideal for hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Hiking pants are lightweight, come with plenty of pockets, have no bulk and dry fast. Even better, many hiking pants are “convertible hiking pants,” which means the legs can zip off—turning the pants into comfortable hiking shorts.

As I spend much time hiking, I decided to prepare a short guide about these wonderful types of pants. If you enjoy hiking, consider buying several pairs of hiking pants. To put it simply, once you start hiking in hiking pants, you'll never go back to hiking in blue jeans again.

This article covers the following topics:

The Many Benefits of Hiking Pants

Lightweight - Made from strong nylon, hiking pants are lightweight—weighing less than even a cotton pair of shorts. On longer hikes the large weight savings allows for more comfort—and thus enjoyable—hiking.

Quick Drying - Due to their nylon construction, hiking pants dry very fast. If the pants get wet, they will dry out often times within minutes –even while wearing them. Unlike blue jeans or other cotton fabrics, nylon hiking pants do not hold or absorb water. For this reason, hiking pants are the pants are ideal for hiking trips where stream crossings need to be made or where there’s the potential of stormy, wet weather. The ability to keep the “pants dry” is especially important in mountain areas, where cold temperatures often accompany rainy weather. A hiker wearing wet blue jeans in cold temperatures will, let's just say, not have an enjoyable hiking trip.

Quiet - Quality hiking pants are made from specialized nylon that is both “soft” and "quiet". Quality hiking pants, when worn, do not make that “nylon rubbing” sound like lower quality nylon pants and other poor quality nylon clothing make. This “quiet” not only gets rid of an annoying trail side irritation to the ears, it also allows for better wildlife viewing.

Pockets - Hiking pants usually have many, and often large, pockets. These pockets always come in handy, allowing for easy storage of maps, small digital cameras, lip balm and other items best stored “on person” instead of in a waist pack of daypack. The many pockets on hiking pants also make it easier to go “ultralight.” The pockets are perfect to store maps, sunscreen, lip balm, munchies, phones and other small items "on person" instead of buried in a pack.

Comfort - Hiking pants are one of the most comfortable pants a person can wear. Hiking pants are light—so light they are easy to forget that they are even there. Moreover, hiking pants—properly sized—are also roomy. With a hiking pant, you'll never have to worry about the pant “crimping up” or rubbing against the skin (which often happens with blue jeans on longer hikes). A hiking pant essentially allows for unlimited flexibility. Hikers who journey off-trail or scramble along the rocks will come to enjoy this benefit greatly. Also, hiking pants often have elastic waistbands. While not exactly stylish, elastic waist bands are comfortable since it allows the pant to move with the motions of the hiker’s body.

Convertible Shorts - Many hiking pants convert easily to shorts. These types of hiking pants are called “Convertible Hiking Pants.” Convertible hiking pants have zippers about 1/3 the way down the pant. Just unzip the lower part of the pant on each leg and the pants convert to excellent hiking shorts.

Leg Protection That is “Cool” - Because hiking pants breathe (sweat isn’t trapped inside the pant), hiking pants keep the legs cool while still protecting the legs from twigs, thorns and other hazards found when hiking—especially off-trail. Off-trail hikers will quickly come to appreciate how the pants protect the skin while still allowing the legs to remain cool.

The Two Styles of Hiking Pants

There are two “styles” of hiking pant available, the convertible hiking pant and the standard hiking pant. Each style has their benefits and specific uses.

Convertible Hiking Pants vs. Standard Hiking Pants

Convertible hiking pants convert to hiking shorts by use of a zipper that allows the lower 2/3 of the leg to zip-off.

By contrast, a standard, non-convertible hiking pant is just that—a pant. The standard hiking pant often has zippers on the lower part of the leg, to make it easier to remove the pants without needing to remove boots. However, standard hiking pants can’t convert to hiking shorts.

There are benefits and drawbacks to each style. The standard hiking pant, since it lacks the zipper across the upper-leg, has a much cleaner, sleeker appearance. Even up close, quality standard hiking pants almost pass for a nice looking pair of casual, dress pants. Moreover, everything else equal, a non-convertible pant is a “tad lighter” in weight than a convertible pant is—since the zipper and extra fabric needed to cover the zipper isn’t needed.

Which Style to Choose?

Which style to choose depends on the type of hiking a person does and whether the person will use their hiking pants for “other things” beyond hiking. For example, I wear my hiking pants “around town” much of the year. The lightweight and breathability of a hiking pant is ideal for everyday tasks such as shopping, walking downtown or simply going to a neighbor’s barbeque. For these activities, I find the non-convertible pant ideal, since the look just like a normal casual pant.

But for hiking, the convertible hiking pant simply can’t be beat. I enjoy the flexibility to start a hike in long pants, change over to shorts during the warmer temperatures of mid-day, then back into long pants as temperatures fall in the evening. In terms of pure flexibility and practicality, the convertible hiking pant is better than a standard hiking pant.

Shopping Considerations

While not the fanciest pieces of equipment, there's still a number of considerations anyone shopping for hiking pants should consider.

Attached Belt

Many hiking pants come with a belt. Some, however, have the belt permanently attached. I suspect most people like having a permanently attached belt. I, however, don’t. First, I rarely use a belt—so having one attached to the pant isn’t ideal. And second, if I do use a belt, I want the ability to detach it from the pant—not have it essentially “sewn in” to the pants waistband. Which style you want depends on your hiking needs, but before buying a pair of hiking pants be sure to check whether the belt (assuming the pant comes with one), is detachable or whether the belt is “permanently sewn in” to the waistband.

Elastic Waistband

Many hiking pants have elastic waistbands, but not all do. I dislike pants without at least a “bit” of flexibility in the waistband. Besides allowing the pant to be useable due to weight variations, the ability of the waistband to “move and flex” as I move makes the pant much more comfortable. Yet I know many people dislike elastic waistbands (for reasons I never quite understood!). So the choice of whether to buy a hiking pant with an elastic waistband comes down to personal preferences. Just be sure when buying a hiking pant that you check to see what type of waistband the pant uses.

Pockets & Pocket Sizes

All hiking pants have at least two pockets—the two traditional hand-warmer pockets found on all other types of pants. However, many hiking pants also have one or two large cargo pockets just below the hand-warmer pockets. I find these large cargo pockets indispensible for storing cell phones, small snacks, my wallet and my sunglasses while hiking. If there’s a drawback to the pockets, it’s that they slightly add additional weight to the pant and, well, don’t look as nice.

Cargo pockets are so “last year” when it comes to fashion and style. Since I value function over form, the look of the cargo pockets aren’t an issue for me. But I suspect it will be an issue for some people. So again, when shopping around for a hiking pant, check and see if the pant has cargo pockets, where those pockets are located, and how big/bulky they are.

Quality Is Paramount

Hiking pants take lots of abuse. They’ll be dragged across rocks, have thorns and twigs snapped against them, and still have to travel mile after mile. Because of this, poor quality hiking pants are a recipe for unpleasant things happening when out on the trail. That unpleasantness can range from having the button “pop off,” to having a pocket “spring a leak,” to developing large rips in the pants themselves.

But beyond the durability, there’s another equally important reason to buy a quality hiking pant instead of a Big Box store brand. Quality hiking pants are made from special nylon that is soft and silent. A high-quality hiking pant feels almost “blanket soft” when it is touched. Similarly, high quality pants—when you rub the fabric together—make no sound.

By contrast, lower quality pants are made from cheap nylon. Besides being prone to rips and other problems, this nylon is stiffer, harder and is loud when the nylon rubs against itself (which happens when walking).

So, to put it bluntly, if you’re looking to buy a hiking pant I suggest spending a bit more money to buy a quality pair instead of dealing with the hassles of cheaper pants. A quality pants last far longer and you’ll enjoy wearing it—day after day, mile after mile.

Waterproof or Not?

Some hiking pants are waterproof. Waterproof hiking pants have a layer of gore-tex or similar types of membranes applied that still allow the pant to breathe while keeping the rain out. Not surprisingly, waterproof hiking pants are more expensive than the non-waterproof styles.

For hikers who spend lots of time hiking in wet weather, a waterproof hiking pant is mandatory. This is especially true for backpackers. But for “fair weather” day hikers, having a waterproof hiking pant might not justify the extra cost.

Where to Buy Quality Hiking Pants

Let’s start with where not to buy them. Avoid buying hiking pants from Wal-Mart and similar type big box stores. While those pants are fine for quick-growing kids, if you’re an adult it is better to spend a bit more and buy a quality pair. I once owned a Wal-Mart pair of hiking pants and quickly grew to dislike it.

Offline, hiking pants are widely available at outdoor sporting good stores that sell quality, technical gear. In particular, I’ve had good luck buying hiking pants offline at both REI and Cabela’s.

However, just be warned that common waist sizes and pant lengths are often difficult to find offline. When I’ve bought pants through REI and Cabela’s, both times I’ve had to order them online and have them delivered to my local store.

Online, quality hiking pants are available at:

  • Amazon.Com - Amazon has the largest selection of pants, but that's also a problem. To sort through the vast array of pants sold, I’d suggest making sure you buy one of the recommended brands I suggest below.
  • Backcountry.Com - Excellent selection of high-quality hiking pants. If you're searching for a quality pant, Backcountry is a good place to start.
  • Cabela's.Com - Cabela's sells Columbia and several other brands of hiking pants, in addition to their own private label "Guide Wear" pant. I've bought two pair of Guidewear hiking pants and they've performed flawlessly.
  • Campsaver.Com
  • Columbia.Com - Best place to find the full selection of Columbia pants, which I like very much.
  • Eastern Mountain Sports
  • Patagonia.Com
  • REI.Com

Good Brands of Hiking Pants

There's a multitude of different brands of hiking pants available. So many, in fact, that it is sometimes difficult to choose among them. So to help people narrow the list, I'll suggest the following brands.

  • Arc'Teryx
  • Cabela's - Their guidewear brand is excellent.
  • Columbia - Reasonably priced, durable and functional.
  • Marmot
  • Mountain Hardwear
  • Outdoor Research
  • prAna
  • The North Face

There are ther good brands of hiking pants available. These are just the brands I know, have used and am familiar with. But this list is a good starting point when shopping among the multitude of hiking brands available.