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Pants Or Shorts For Hiking: Which Should You Wear?

You could be forgiven for assuming whether to hike in pants or trousers is just a matter of how hot or cold it is outside. However, there are a number of factors that may influence your choice of clothing. So, it’s best to find out in what circumstances pants or shorts are best for hiking.

Whether you should wear pants or shorts for hiking comes down to trail conditions and personal preference. While pants offer better protection, shorts may provide more comfort and freedom of movement. Whichever item of clothing you choose, it’s best to wear those specifically made for hiking.

Since there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to whether pants or shorts are the best option, this article will discuss which item is better in certain circumstances. Personal preference will play a large role in your choice, but this article will outline the main benefits of shorts and pants.

Should You Wear Shorts Or Pants For Hiking?

When considering whether to opt for pants or shorts for a hike, the main influences should be the conditions and your personal preference. There is no right or wrong answer as such. It may make more sense to wear one or the other, depending on the conditions of your hike.

A little homework will help you reach your decision. This includes knowledge of the route, something made a lot easier in the age of the internet, as well as the weather forecast throughout the anticipated duration of the hike.

We will now look at two questions you should consider before settling on pants or shorts for your hike.

Which Offers Better Protection?

There are times when wearing pants is more advantageous than wearing shorts. However careful you are in watching where you are going, everyone loses focus from time to time. A stumble on a trail can cause you to graze your leg or knee. Hiking pants, and in particular ones with knee protectors, provide more protection than shorts.

The same applies if you’re hiking off the beaten path or on a narrow or overgrown trail. Pants offer protection against thorns and brambles, as well as plants such as poison ivy that can cause a severe rash. If you know your hike will involve some bushwhacking through areas of dense vegetation, then you may want to leave the shorts at home.

Bugs are another factor to consider. Bugs are more prevalent in certain areas and in certain climatic conditions, but they can soon make your day an unpleasant one. Pants can offer protection against bites from midges, mosquitoes and ticks. Lyme disease can be carried by ticks and is one of the primary reasons to wear pants when hiking in grassy or wooded areas.

Some areas will have further pest concerns for a hiker, such as snakes and spiders. Wearing pants provides an extra layer of protection from a snake or spider bite, both of which can cause serious harm. Again, knowing an area and what to expect will help you make a more informed decision over whether pants or shorts are the better choice on the day.

Which Offers More Comfort?

Comfort is a major factor in being able to enjoy your hike. Discomfort from any source will soon have you concentrating on that source rather than the nature around you. On a hot or humid day, shorts are the better option for many hikers. Pants can offer ventilation, but shorts cannot be beaten for ventilation, and they can help prevent overheating.

Some people prefer shorts because they feel freer and offer more range of movement. These hikers like the fact they don’t the feel the fabric of the shorts constantly on their skin, particularly when they are getting a good pace on or tackling an incline. However, while shorts can be fine while striding at a decent pace, you can suddenly start to feel the cold once you stop.

Of course, while shorts may be the preferred choice in summer months, pants tend to be the best option in cooler conditions. Experienced hikers know temperatures can soon drop on elevated trails, just as they can during longer hikes that extend into the evening and beyond. Therefore, packing a pair of pants to change into is a good idea in anticipation of this if you choose to start with shorts.

Hiking pants also offer good sun protection when there are high UV levels. Although you should apply sun cream, if you are expecting to be out in a hot sun with little or no available shade and UV ratings are high, then hiking pants offer better protection than shorts. A nasty case of sunburn is not the lasting memory you want of your hike.

Personal Preference

Protection and comfort are key elements when deciding what to wear for any given hike. However, everybody has a personal preference for the garment they feel most at ease wearing. This should still be weighed against the conditions to help you make a more informed choice on whether pants or shorts are the more suitable option on a given day and on a particular trail.

Of course, you can always take preventative measures to try and offset any disadvantage if you prefer shorts over pants. Long socks worn with shorts can help prevent insect bites and rashes from poisonous plants. You can apply and reapply sun cream on days when UV ratings are high and wear more breathable hiking pants in humid conditions.

However, the key point is to be aware of the circumstances where trousers may have the edge over shorts and vice versa, and plan accordingly.

Are Leggings Or Shorts Better For Hiking?

The choice to wear leggings or shorts for hiking is a personal preference. Leggings have gained popularity among hikers as advancements in materials have made them a viable alternative to hiking pants. Leggings are lightweight, stretch to fit the shape of your body and sit closer to the skin.

Once again, personal preference will play a large role in what you choose to wear, but as with pants, there are some additional points about leggings you should consider before making your choice.

1. Protection

Leggings still offer protection from most bug bites, as well as from tall grasses and plants that can cause skin rashes. They may not offer the same level of protection as hiking pants, but they still offer more protection than shorts.

Leggings designed for hiking will be made from more durable materials and are therefore less likely to snag and tear compared to regular everyday leggings. Hiking leggings can also come with protective knee pads, offering more protection against cuts and grazes than shorts.

2. Breathability

One of the main benefits of shorts over pants is breathability. Shorts offer better ventilation and allow you to feel freer when hiking. Leggings offer more breathability than pants and restrict your movement less. Leggings feel lighter too, and the combined effect of these factors is to place them on a more level playing field with shorts in terms of breathability.

However, because they are skin-tight, leggings offer less resistance on a windy hike. You can experience drag on shorts when hiking in the wind and this can affect your stride. Leggings reduce wind resistance, allowing you to continue your stride and retain a more efficient rhythm in heavy winds.

3. Compression

The skintight nature of leggings provides a light compression on the legs. This offers some support to the muscles, and the compression can also aid those who have a history of suffering muscle cramps over longer hikes by boosting blood flow. One drawback can be some people may find leggings a little uncomfortable on the calves when wearing hiking boots.

4. Snug Fit

While the stretchy nature of the material offers benefits, the tight fit of leggings is not to everyone’s taste. Finding hiking shorts that fit perfectly can sometimes be an issue, whileleggings may sometimes feel too snug. Not everyone wants such a snug fitting garment that displays body shape so clearly and may prefer looser fitting shorts instead.

Leggings are increasingly being designed with pockets, something that used to be an issue. Pockets to carry belongings are important for many hikers, and previously most leggings did not have pockets. If having certain items immediately at hand is important to you, then shorts may be the better option, although leggings are catching up. Plus, not all shorts have pockets!

5. Warmth

Although cool conditions are not a major issue or obstacle to some people who like to wear shorts, others are more susceptible to the cold,and leggings can help retain warmth. Leggings have long been used as base layers to help retain body heat, and this is a benefit they can provide hikers too. As well as retaining heat, leggings will wick away sweat and moisture.

Leggings are made from a variety of materials, so you need to match the material to the conditions. In summer, a lightweight fabric such as polyester or a polyester mix is usually enough, but in winter you may want to wear leggings lined with wool for added warmth.

Why Pants Are Good For Hiking

Pants remain a popular choice for hiking and with good reason, as they offer many benefits, including:

  • Protection from insect bites, including mosquitoes, spiders and ticks
  • Protection from venomous snake bites
  • Protection from rocks and stones if you fall
  • Protection from brambles, thorns, and tall grasses where ticks may reside when hiking off the trail
  • Prevention of dirt and stones from getting into your hiking boots, if the cuffs of your pants are tucked into your socks
  • Better insulation to help keep you warm, particularly useful when ascending a trail and temperatures start to drop
  • More pockets for storing important personal belongings
  • Prevention of chafing through higher inseams

Why Shorts Are Good For Hiking

While there are times when it is clearly apparent shorts may not be the best choice, there are some real benefits to wearing shorts in the right conditions. These benefits include:

  • Shorts don’t restrict your movement, allowing a freer range of motion
  • Better ventilation makes shorts more comfortable to wear in warmer conditions
  • Shorts do not trap and retain heat or moisture, allowing your legs to remain cooler
  • Less material means shorts feel lighter to wear
  • Less material also means less chance of snagging
  • Legs will get wet during a rain shower, but you will have less soggy material to hike in
  • Shorts are quieter, which can be the icing on the cake when hiking for the tranquility nature offers
  • Easier to pack and carry extra pairs of shorts

Is There A Hybrid Option Between Pants & Shorts For Hiking?

When weighing up the benefits of pants versus shorts, you may start to wonder whether there is another option, one that could offer the best of both worlds. To some extent, convertible pants can provide such a hybrid solution.

Convertible pants are also called zip-off pants, which gives you a strong clue in terms of how they function. These are hiking pants with zippers either above or below the knee that allow you to quickly convert them into hiking shorts.

Therefore, if the weather suddenly warms up, you can have the ventilation benefits of shorts by removing the section of the pants from below the knee. When the sun starts to drop, or you decide to head off the trail where there could be thorny bushes and more insects, then you just convert them back to pants.

This versatile garment can be a good option if you are on a budget and don’t want to purchase a selection of hiking pants and shorts to suit different hiking conditions. They may not always look as stylish, but they do offer a practical solution, particularly if you want to pack light without additional shorts and trousers.

What To Avoid Wearing When Hiking

So far, we have discussed the benefits of hiking pants, leggings and shorts. However, can you wear any style of trouser or shorts for hiking? The answer to this question is a resounding no. You should always wear the most suitable clothing for hiking for reasons of comfort, enjoyment and safety.

The great outdoors should be open for everyone to explore, but you will enjoy the experience far more when kitted out correctly, and this includes pants and shorts. The following are some of the items you should not wear for hiking.

1. Denim

While jeans may seem a good sturdy garment suited to hiking, denim absorbs water rapidly. Whether it is rain or sweat, denim will absorb the moisture, but without having the capacity to wick the moisture away.

Therefore, denim quickly becomes saturated, which is not a pleasant outcome while hiking. You are also more susceptible to loss of body heat, particularly if it’s quite windy, as jeans can lose up to 95% of their thermal properties when wet. Wet denim is also likely to chafe.

The attraction of denim is that it’s relatively inexpensive, but denim is also a difficult material when hiking on more strenuous terrain and on steep ascents, as it doesn’t offer much flexibility or breathability.

2. Cotton Pants

Cotton shares the same trait as denim in that it is highly water absorbent. Cotton can absorb up to 27 times its weight when wet. This is additional weight (certainly not welcome when hiking) that will tire you out sooner, as well as make you more susceptible to the cold.

Once you are wet, cotton does not dry quickly. The fabric does not improve much as a viable option when hiking in warmer conditions either, as it absorbs sweat to make for an uncomfortable hike. Because cotton does not dry quickly, once the temperatures start to drop, you will still have wet pants and they won’t insulate you from the chillier conditions. This often rules out sweatpants for hiking.

3. Loose Or Bulky Pants

Unnecessarily loose or bulky pants just create a greater potential for snags that will rip the material. As well as ruining your pants, a rip can cause you to lose insulation and body heat on a hike in cold temperatures.

You also want to wear clothing that fits properly when hiking. You don’t want pants or shorts that flap around in the wind or threaten to slide down your legs. Loose pants can also begin to rub, so make sure you purchase a pair that fit you properly.

4. Stiff Materials

Just as you don’t want materials that are too loose, you don’t want to go to the other end of the spectrum and buy materials that are too stiff, thinking they must be more durable. Hiking pants and shorts need to be durable, but they also need to be flexible to allow for inclines and any scrambling over rocks.

Stiff materials will affect your ease of movement. Hiking pants should fit properly without impeding your movement and should be made from nylon, polyester, spandex or wool.

5. Your Best Trousers

This should go without saying, but hiking is not a fashion contest, and you should leave your posh pair of trousers or shorts at home. Always wear genuine hiking gear when possible, or at least wear outdoor active wear.

Final Thoughts

Every hiker has a personal preference on wearing pants or trousers for hiking. Consider the conditions of the trail and the climate. Also consider whether you need the extra protection of pants against insect bites and for off-trail bushwhacking, or the better ventilation and movement shorts offer.