I’m not exactly Cher Horowitz in Clueless, but I definitely have a closet full of pants. There are jeans and cords, dress pants and light summer pants, yoga pants and leggings, joggers and “all terrain” travel pants that are light and comfortable. If your wardrobe looks even a little like mine, then, you might be asking yourself if you really need hiking pants, too.
If you’re just getting into hiking, you might be slightly surprised to discover the sheer volume of new clothes you apparently need to go for a walk. There are hiking boots to keep you from losing your grip on a muddy trail, a base layer to wick moisture and help to regulate your temperature when you’re getting sweaty and there’s a cold wind, then there are mid layers, insulated jackets, waterproof jackets, so many jackets. So you could be forgiven for wondering if you can cut down on your costs a little and just use some clothing you already own.
As we’ve already explained in our article on wearing gym clothes for hiking, it’s definitely possible to make do with general exercise gear, assuming you also have protection against the weather (extreme cold and moisture) but there are always benefits to hiking-specific clothing like hiking pants, which is why it exists in the forest place. In this article, we’ll explain the key characteristics of a pair of hiking pants, and help you decide whether you really need them.
What are hiking pants?
The best hiking pants come in many shapes and sizes, from simple legging-style trousers like the Montane Ineo Pro all the way to the rugged Fjällräven Keb Trousers. They should all have some characteristics in common, however.
First, hiking pants should be light, comfortable and have a little stretch in order to allow you to hike and scramble without restricting your movement. They should also be made from a breathable fabric, for when you’re working up a sweat, and may have zipped vents on the inner thighs so you can dump some heat. Hiking pants are almost always made using synthetic materials which means they should be quick drying if you get soaked and don’t have your rain pants.
Hiking pants should also offer a bit of protection from the various elements that nature hurls your way on a hike, be that a prickly bush on an overgrown trail, a cold wind or even in some cases, a light rain can be staved off with a DWR treatment.
Hiking pants intended for really cold conditions will be insulated, while those meant for spring, summer and fall may come in hybrid models, such as the Columbia Men's Silver Ridge Utility Convertible Pants which can turn into shorts when things heat up.
Are hiking pants worth it?
Hiking pants definitely sound technical, if you choose the right pair, but are they really necessary? After all, they can easily cost upwards of $200 for a good quality pair and you might have some old cargo trousers kicking around that you’re certain will fulfill at least some of the requirements of hiking pants.
In truth, whether or not you need hiking pants really depends on what kind of hiking you’re doing. That is to say that if hiking for you really means gentle-to-moderate walking on a well-maintained, low elevation trail in a place or season where the weather is fair, you can most likely get away with doing it in leggings, joggers like the Royal Robbins Women's Spotless Evolution Jogger or really any pair of pants with a bit of stretch and breathability that’s suitable for active pursuits.
However, if you’re going into more remote areas where there might be some bushwhacking involved, a sturdier material is helpful to protect your legs from thorns and sharp branches and while jeans are much more protective, there are other good reasons not to wear them for hiking, especially if you’re likely to see any rain.
If you’re expecting any kind of extreme weather, which is always a possibility in areas of elevation, you’ll want to start to think about wearing something that offers you a little protection from wind and rain. Clothing that holds onto moisture can mean you get really chilled on a hike and that can leave you vulnerable to conditions like hypothermia. You really don’t need insulated pants unless you’re hiking in very cold climates at high elevations, but breathable and quick drying fabrics are a must.
That said, for hot hikes where you don’t want to wear shorts (perhaps you want to avoid ticks or snake bites), warm weather hiking pants should be designed to let you hike more comfortably with thigh vents whereas regular workout trousers might leave you feeling pretty clammy.
Finally, the lack of pockets that a non-hiking specific pair of pants might present isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, because you can make that up with a backpack or even a fanny pack, but a little stretch definitely goes a long way when you’re climbing over boulders or sitting down on the ground for lunch.
Basically, if you’re likely to see any challenging conditions at all, from weather to trail hazards, then you’ll be happiest wearing a pair of hiking pants.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.