When it comes to hiking, most people wear either hiking pants or shorts. Both garment types can be great for outdoor activities. Hiking pants are very versatile because they protect your legs against vegetation, terrain, insects and sun. Since they completely cover your legs, they are a great option for hiking year-round, although in winter you’ll probably want to wear thicker pants than in the summer. In warmer weather, it is tempting to switch to hiking shorts because they provide superb breathability and ventilation. Furthermore, a good pair of shorts also provides unmatched comfort.
I mostly hike in hiking pants but that’s due to the nature of my hikes, where the level of vegetation on the trail is mostly unknown. I have three different pairs of hiking pants (Montane, CimAlp and Apricoat) which together fulfill my needs no matter the conditions on the trail. Nevertheless, shorts are indeed a better option for some trails in warm weather. Below I’ll explain the advantages of hiking pants and hiking shorts respectively. We’ll also look into the so-called convertible pants.
Table of Contents:
Advantages of Hiking Pants
Insulation and Versatility
Hiking pants provide better insulation than shorts because they cover your legs completely. Therefore, they are not only suitable for hiking in warm weather, but also in moderate and cold conditions. Hiking pants of course vary in insulation. Some are very thin and provide little warmth while others are made of thick soft shell fabrics for subzero temperatures.
Nevertheless, most hiking pants are suitable for 3-season hiking. For example, my Montane Terra Pack pants are perfect for hiking in summer, fall and spring. In very cold conditions, softshell pants are the way to go. Softshell pants provide sufficient insulation for low temperatures and are also water- and wind-resistant.
Hiking pants are definitely more versatile than shorts. They can be worn for a longer period each year and they’re also perfect for hiking in quickly changing weather conditions.
Protection against vegetation and terrain
The main reason why I rarely wear shorts for hiking is that shorts don’t provide as good protection against vegetation and terrain as hiking pants. I often hike on technically difficult trails (via ferrata) and overgrown trails where bushes and branches are continuously in touch with my legs.
I have had bad experiences doing via ferrata trails in shorts. It happened to me more than once that I bumped my knee into sharp rocks which immediately made it bleed. Now, pants don’t provide some magic protection from bumps and bruises, but they do prevent sharp rocks from cutting directly into your skin. The stronger the material, the better the protection. If you often hike in areas with allergenic vegetation (poison oak, poison ivy etc.) you might also want to wear hiking pants instead of shorts to avoid rashes and other allergic reactions.
Protection against insects and animals
If you hike in an area known for mosquitos, ticks or snakes you’ll probably also want to wear hiking pants instead of shorts, no matter the weather. Hiking pants provide good protection against mosquitos and make it less likely for ticks to attach to your skin. If you want to prevent tick bites, it’s a good idea to wear light-colored pants because they’ll allow you to easily spot dark-colored ticks potentially clinging onto you. In terms of snakes, pants don’t provide 100% protection against a snake bite, but they do lessen the amount of venom that penetrates the body.
Protection against UV radiation
When it comes to protection against UV radiation there are two ways to go. You can cover your skin with sun protective clothing (read more here) or regularly apply sun cream. Shorts require that you apply sun cream on the lower legs which can be annoying because you’ll have to apply it every few hours, depending on the strength of the sun. Sweat will of course make the suncream wear off faster, although using a water-proof version will somewhat mitigate the effect of the sweat.
You don’t need to apply suncream if you’re wearing proper hiking pants, which are made of a tightly woven fabric. They will for sure provide some level of sun protection in any case, but the best is if you wear a pair with a verified UPF rating, which most high-quality brands will provide.
Hiking pants do not necessarily have more pockets than shorts. However, the side pockets of hiking pants are always more comfortable to utilize than the side pockets of shorts. When you put something into side pocket of shorts it always results in that thing banging against your knees and thigh. That’s not the case with hiking pants as the fabric beneath the side pocket prevents the contents to move excessively.
Advantages of Hiking Shorts
Shorts provide much better ventilation than hiking pants and are thus perfect for hiking in warm weather. In shorts you’ll sweat less, and you won’t have the clammy feeling 15 minutes into the hike. However, note that shorts are made of different materials. I recommend going for thin shorts because shorts are not a garment that should provide insulation.
High-quality hiking shorts are also more comfortable than hiking pants within the same price range. They provide better freedom of movement because fabric doesn’t affect your stride as much as with hiking pants. Shorts also cause less of a swishing sound from the fabric when you walk, which is a minor advantage, depending on how sound-sensitive you are.
What about convertible pants?
It’s been a while since I had convertible pants, but I do still clearly remember the advantages and disadvantages of convertible pants, which are called so because they can be converted into shorts by zipping off the lower portion of the pant legs. The good thing is that this process is quick and modest(!) compared to changing into a pair of hiking shorts that you brought along, if the temperature increases and vice versa (depending on the time of day, weather changes, level of altitude or shade provided by vegetation etc.).
However, convertible pants rarely provide as good freedom of movement as normal hiking pants. They generally don’t have articulated knees and the horizontal zipper might chafe you. If you’re buying convertible pants, remember to check out that the zipper is padded or equipped with a storm flap on the inside to avoid chafing. I’m not a big fan of convertible pants and do believe that it’s better to simply buy a pair of thin high-quality hiking pants. Remember that some hiking pants can be rolled up and fastened with snap fasteners to something like capri pants length, like prAna’s Stretch Zion and Halle pants for men and women respectively. Hereby you get some of the ventilation which hiking shorts provide.
So, should you buy a pair of shorts or a pair of hiking pants? If you’re looking for a versatile garment which you can use year-round, hiking pants are the obvious choice. Most hiking pants are suitable for summer, spring, autumn and even warmer winter days. They provide good protection against vegetation, terrain, insects and sun. Furthermore, hiking pants are also better than shorts in terms of pockets. Shorts, on the other hand, are a great option if you mostly hike in warm weather on well-groomed trails. They are more comfortable than hiking pants and provide better ventilation.
I’d love to hear about your thoughts on hiking pants and shorts. Write them in the comments section below.