Hiking pants are an essential piece of any outdoor kit: they defend your legs against weather, UV rays, and many natural hazards. Some can even serve double duty as acceptable business-casual wear (at least in some offices). But a good pair can be hard to find. This is especially true for women, since there are so many variables at play: leg length, hip width, thigh-muscle circumference, butt size. Whether you are short or tall, petite or plus-size, you probably have a very specific list of criteria when you look for pants.
So we set out to find the best hiking pants for a variety of conditions and body types. Over three months, six women and I tested more than 30 pairs from 24 brands. In the process, we logged close to a thousand miles on trails spanning the globe from South America to Asia.
How We Test Hiking Pants
Our testers were all avid hikers, running the gamut of body shapes and sizes—tall, petite, lean, muscular, curvy. We ranged in age from 25 to 59 years old. Among us were several gear writers, a photographer, an actor, and a couple professional guides. We weathered storms and waded through knee-deep mud puddles in Patagonia, climbed through waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada, baked under the Jordanian sun, biked and hiked our way across the Mongolian steppe, and soaked up rainforest humidity in Peru.
Best Do-It-All Pants
Eddie Bauer Guide Pro ($80)
Pros: They’re water- and dirt-resistant and come in many inseam lengths.
Cons: The logo is prominent, and the color fades over time.
These do-everything pants are not only great for hiking but also for climbing, bike riding, lounging next to a campfire, and even wandering around town. They’re made from a stretchy nylon-spandex fabric that’s super lightweight, won’t turn frumpy after days of continual wear, and offers UPF 50+ sun protection.
A durable water-repellent (DWR) treatment means they shed rain as well as dirt and slop. Case in point: one tester accidentally dumped an entire plate of hummus all over her lap in Jordan. It washed right out with a hotel-bathtub laundry session, and the pants were dry again soon after.
Another thing the Guide Pro gets right is pockets. Hip and cargo pockets can drastically alter the fit or aesthetics of hiking pants; while they’re useful for carrying such essentials as lip balm, money, or your phone, they can ruin a flattering, trim silhouette. The Guide Pro features laser-cut seams that lay flat against your leg for a more streamlined look. (Though we wish the pockets were deep enough to fit an iPhone.) If it weren’t for the prominent First Ascent logo on the thigh, which screams “outdoors only,” we’d give these a ten out of ten for aesthetics.
But these pants didn’t seize the top spot because of looks and performance alone: Eddie Bauer makes them in a crazy amount of sizes (0 to 24W) and inseam lengths (29 to 35 inches). Nearly everyone will be able to find a great fit. For this reason, the Guide Pro beat out our runner-up, the stylish Outdoor Research Ferrosi pants ($80). We loved the Ferrosi’s lightweight ripstop fabric and seven neutral color choices, but the 31-inch inseam came up short for our long-legged testers.
Best Lightweight Pants
Columbia Featherweight Hike ($80)
Pros: They’re lightweight, quick drying, and have an elastic waistband.
Cons: The ultralight fabric abrades more readily.
These nylon-elastane pants are so feathery that wearing them feels like wearing nothing at all—perfect for hot, humid weather, when you still want coverage and SPF 50+ protection without sweating uncontrollably. Our testers wore them on multiple sweltering, muddy hikes to explore the Incan ruins of Peru and were thankful that they dry in a flash.
In terms of features, everything about these pants is designed with simplicity and clean lines in mind. To achieve a trim aesthetic, Columbia opted to forgo the cargo pockets that are so common on hiking pants. Instead, two unobtrusive zippered hand pockets offer enough storage for small essentials like lip balm while lying flat against the thigh for minimal bulk.
That design approach extends to the waistband. In place of the standard button fly and belt loops, Columbia used wide, flat elastic that avoids the need for a belt altogether (and eliminates the muffin top that so often results from ill-fitting pants). This affords all-day comfort, especially when wearing a heavy pack. Our only gripe: we would love to see the Featherweight available in different inseam lengths and more colors.
The barely there feel and super stretch of the fabric gave them a notch over the Arc’teryx Creston pant ($130), our runner-up in this category. We loved the Creston’s lightweight fabric and minimalist look but found it slightly less stretchy. Those seeking a lightweight pant with features like belt loops and side pockets should look here, while those who prize simplicity and freedom of movement should turn to the Featherweight.
Best Wet-Weather Pants
Bight Gear NeoShell Nuker ($299)
Pros: They have an integrated waist adjustment, a minimalist aesthetic, and are extremely breathable while offering full-weather protection.
Cons: They have no pockets, and the DWR needs to be reapplied over time. They’re also pricey.
Sideways rain, hail, snow, relentless wind, knee-deep mud: these pants can handle it all. Normally, locations with consistently variable weather, like the Pacific Northwest, require raingear that you constantly take on and off to avoid marinating yourself from the inside out. The NeoShell Nuker does away with that annoyance. They’re made from Polartec NeoShell, an air-permeable fabric that’s extremely breathable yet fully waterproof.
Traditional waterproof-breathable fabrics require high temperature and humidity to actually allow moisture vapor to escape through the membrane. But Polartec claims that its NeoShell fabric allows a small amount of air through the membrane in order for your body’s heat and sweat to escape before it’s turned to vapor. Put simply, it’s better at regulating your body temperature. And best of all, the soft-shell-like fabric is quiet.
As a result, these pants are incredibly versatile. Throw on a base layer for alpine climbing or cold-weather hiking, and ditch it when the temperatures climb (we found them comfortable up to around 65 degrees). The slimness of the pant legs means there’s no extra fabric in which mud, rain, or snow might pool. Bight also added grommets at the cuff for do-it-yourself elastic-cord stirrups that keep the pants in place over your boot laces, which is great if, like me, you hate wearing gaiters.
With no pockets, the Nuker caters to minimalists. One feature that does make a difference is a low-profile elastic waist belt for hassle-free adjustment.
The seven-eighths-length side zips are useful for removing the pants over boots, but we’d love to see two-way zippers instead, for more adjustable venting. As a comparison, we appreciated the hidden vent zips on the water-resistant Mammut Zinal pants ($159), the runner-up in this category. If you plan to hike in more temperate climes that see only occasional rainfall, these would make a fantastic alternative.
Best Pants for Tall and Short People
Prana Halle Straight ($89)
Pros: They’re extremely stretchy, quick drying, and have an integrated waist adjustment. They also come in multiple inseam lengths.
Cons: The pockets are shallow, and the waist runs loose.
When you’re shorter or taller than average, finding a pair of hiking pants that fit properly can be difficult. Thankfully, a few brands let you choose from a variety of lengths. Our favorite in this category is the Halle Straight, which comes in inseams ranging from 28 to 36 inches.
All of our testers agreed that one of the Halle’s best features is the adjustable drawcord, which helped avoid the dreaded waist gap. (This is especially key in stretchy hiking pants, since fit can change from day to day, and even hour to hour, when you’re on the trail.) The pants also roll up to the knee and secure with a snap closure, ideal for river crossings, warm-weather days, and biking around town.
They’re made from Prana’s Stretch Zion fabric, a nylon-spandex blend that’s treated with a DWR finish to help fend off moisture and dirt. From a wet spring hike to Vernal Falls in Yosemite to a rainy outing in the UK’s Lake District National Park, our testers were impressed with how quickly the pants dried out on the trail. This is what gave the Halle an edge over our runner-up, the North Face’s North Dome ($90), which also comes in a variety of inseam lengths. While crazy comfortable, the soft cotton-elastane fabric is not water-resistant and takes longer to dry. The North Dome is ideally suited for climbing, fair-weather hiking, or even travel and office life.
What to Look For in Hiking Pants
The models we tested are all marketed as hiking pants, but these days we expect a little more versatility from our apparel. Choosing the right pair starts with identifying how you’re going to use them. If you are planning a thru-hike, you may want pants that dry quickly and can convert into shorts on hot days. If you do a lot of traveling, climbing, or biking, you might want a pair that serves double duty. Here are some general things to consider.
As a rule, you want fabric that’s highly breathable, quick drying, and water-resistant, as well as something that sheds dirt easily. The pants should be light enough so you don’t overheat when working hard, but they should also protect you if the weather turns south or you’re hiking through rough terrain. If you’re headed to cold, snowy, or particularly windy and rainy climes, you’ll want to consider soft-shell pants, which are more protective than simple DWR-treated nylon.
At their most basic, pants are supposed to protect your legs. But there are plenty of details that can change how a pair functions. The feature that varies most widely between pants is pockets, in particular the number, size, and placement of them. Some have large cargo pockets, some have small and slim pockets, and some forgo storage altogether in favor of a minimalist design. You’ll also want to decide how stretchy you like your pants, what kind of waistband you prefer (elastic? something with a built-in, adjustable belt? or belt loops?), and whether you want a pair that’ll convert into shorts or cross over into other sports.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to assess is fit. But there are a few objective measures that can help you narrow things down. Built-in waist belts or drawstrings or elasticized waistbands can all help you fine-tune fit. If you’re tall or short, look for pants that come with multiple inseam-length options. The ability to adjust the cuffs with a drawstring cinch is an added bonus for short hikers. Fortunately, most companies have begun to give women a wider variety of options to suit preference and body type.
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Lead Photo: Threlkeld Outdoor/Cavan