I’m not by any means an amateur hiker and I’ll admit – I’ve done my fair share of hiking in jeans. Even though we all know hiking pants are more comfortable, they’re lighter, and they’re better at wicking moisture, sometimes you just don’t really care. They’re just pants after all. If you can wear them every day, you can also go hiking with them, right?
In this article, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of hiking in jeans, and figure out whether it’s worth it to invest in a pair of good hiking pants or not.
Can You Hike in Jeans?
Obviously, you can go hiking in jeans, regardless of what any survivalist tells you. Some people think that whenever you go hiking, you should be prepared for anything and everything – You should bring a knife, matches, SOS devices, bear sprays, e.t.c., but I don’t think that’s solid advice. On simple day-hikes on popular routes, or sometimes even several day-long hikes, it’s perfectly fine to wear jeans and not worry too much about bringing the right gear.
In fact, we used to hike exclusively in jeans just a few decades ago. In the ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s, most people hiked in jeans. So what happened? Did we become weaker and we can’t survive without expensive hiking pants anymore? Of course not. We’ve just made a lot of useful improvements in hiking gear, and we’ve grown accustomed to them.
That said, a lot of times hiking in jeans just isn’t sensible. The improvements in modern hiking pants definitely outweigh the slightly pricier cost of regular jeans. In short, you shouldn’t hike in jeans in winter, in rain, and on very long, difficult trails. But on shorter hikes, it’s perfectly fine to wear regular jeans.
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Benefits of Hiking in Jeans
Hiking in jeans isn’t completely terrible. Down below, I’ll cover all the pros of hiking in jeans and why some people prefer them over modern hiking pants.
Jeans Are Extremely Durable
Original Denim (the material from which Jeans are made) is actually made from 100% cotton. It’s just weaved in a special, reinforced pattern, which results in a more abrasion-resistant and durable material compared to most cotton fabrics.
In fact, jeans became so popular not because of their looks, but because of their durability. Jeans were invented in 1972 by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, and at first, all jeans had metal rivets in them to make them more robust. In the beginning, they were popular with gold miners and other workers, and by the 1930’s they became popular worldwide.
This means that jeans are usually more durable compared to regular hiking pants. If you’re bushwhacking, or just walking on rough trails in general, then jeans might make sense just because of their durability.
Jeans Are Cheaper Than Most Hiking Pants
While a normal pair of jeans costs 20-50$, a pair of good hiking pants usually costs 50-200$, depending on what kind of hiking they’re meant for. Most of us already have some kind of jeans at home, which means that you won’t have to spend extra money on a new pair of hiking pants.
Properly Fitted Jeans Will Be Very Comfortable and Breathable in the Right Conditions
If you bring a pair of jeans that fit you well (loose enough to not feel too tight when performing physical activities while still being tight enough around the waist) they’ll perform almost identically to a good pair of non-cotton hiking pants. That said, they’ll be breathable and comfortable only in the right conditions. They’ll do good on dry, not too warm, or too hot days. If you wear a pair of thermal bottoms underneath, they’ll even do pretty well in winter.
Jeans Look Good
In my opinion, about 80% of all hiking pants look pretty ugly. I’m talking about the loose green/beige type with 10 different pockets. Jeans on the other hand always look good. And I think this is the main reason why a lot of people who are new to hiking choose jeans over hiking pants – they just look better.
That said, not all hiking pants look bad. If you find the right pair that fits you well – they’ll look as good as a pair of jeans. One tip is to look at the rock climbing section the next time you’re shopping for a new pair of hiking pants. They usually look better than hiking pants, they’re more durable, and they’re made from the same material as most walking pants. For instance, the prAna Stretch Zion pants look fairly good, in my opinion, at least when compared to most other hiking pants.
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Disadvantages of Hiking in Jeans
Upon first glance, jeans might seem perfect for hiking, but that’s just not true. While wearing them on simpler, shorter hikes is fine, it’s a much wiser choice to wear hiking pants in other instances.
Once Jeans Gets Wet, They Become Heavy, Abrasive, and Lose Any Insulation Properties
Although a lot of modern jeans aren’t made from 100% cotton anymore, almost all denim fabrics contain a bit of cotton. And as everyone knows, cotton is the worst fabric choice for hiking gear. That’s because cotton soaks up water very easily.
And while regular cotton is a bad choice for hiking gear by itself, denim fabrics are even worse, because they soak up even more water, and they become much more abrasive when they’re wet. You’ll most likely notice some irritation on your skin after a long day of hiking in jeans.
In fact, jeans can in some instances even be dangerous. If it’s going to be cold and raining, jeans should be your last choice of hiking pants because when they’re wet, they don’t provide any insulation and even accelerate the transfer of heat, which could cause hypothermia.
Jeans Take Forever to Dry
Once jeans become wet, they dry much longer compared to synthetic fabrics. Think about the last time you did laundry – which items took the longest to dry? Probably, jeans. When hiking, staying dry should be one of your top priorities, because it can lead to blisters, cause hypothermia, lead to all kinds of abrasions and infections, and in general causes you to be uncomfortable and miserable. So if you’ll be hiking in rain, forget jeans and get synthetic pants, or better yet – rain pants.
Jeans Are Much Heavier Compared to Hiking Pants
Denim is a fairly heavy fabric, and a pair of jeans will usually weigh 0.34 – 0.45 kg (12 – 16 oz). Hiking pants, on the other hand, will weigh less. A pair of walking pants (single layer, no weatherproofing) will usually weigh about 0.22 – 0.28 kg (8 – 10 oz), and a pair of softshell rain pants (2-3 layers, windproof, waterproof) will weigh about 0.39 – 0.45 kg (14 – 16 oz), similar to what an average pair of jeans weigh. It may not seem much, but when you’re hiking for longer distances, every gram counts.
In Winter, Jeans Will Freeze
If you’ve lived up north, where it gets below freezing in the winter, you know that jeans will freeze. The snow melts from the warmth of your body and then freezes when the temperature drops below a certain point, and this results in more loss of body heat and uncomfortable hiking. On shorter hikes, it isn’t really an issue if you’re wearing long, insulated boots and you’re wearing synthetic or wool thermal bottoms underneath. But on longer hikes, it isn’t advised.
On Longer Hikes, You’ll Start Chafing, Especially in Hot Weather
Chafing is a result of extended skin exposure to humid, abrasive environments. It can usually be avoided when hiking by wearing breathable synthetic or wool underwear in combination with a pair of synthetic hiking pants. If it’s hot outside, jeans are neither breathable nor moisture-wicking. And what’s worse – they’re much more abrasive than synthetics, so if you’ll be hiking for extended periods with jeans, you’ll most likely experience some form of chafing or skin irritation.
Jeans Can Rip Very Easily
Although jeans are extremely durable, due to the way they’re weaved, once a small hole is punctured, it can very easily rip into a long and nasty hole. I used to wear skinny jeans back in the day, and I know this very well because once I awkwardly stumbled and ripped my jeans right across my butt, which wasn’t an enjoyable experience, to say the least.
Thicker jeans would probably last a pretty long time, but cheaper ones, which aren’t made from 100% denim could actually rip very easily on certain trails with a lot of rocks and sharp bushes.
What Kind of Jeans Are Best for Hiking?
If you’ll be hiking in jeans, it’s a good idea to choose jeans that aren’t made from 100% cotton denim. Most denim jeans nowadays have a bit of Spandex or Lycra synthetics in the fabric, which make the fabric more elastic, breathable, tear-resistant, water-repellant, and quicker-drying. So instead of going with 100% cotton jeans, choose some kind of synthetic blend.
Another important factor is fit. Skinny jeans will be much, much more uncomfortable when hiking. I know that because I wear tight jeans regularly, and I regret wearing them anytime I’m doing something physically demanding. Instead, choose loose-fitted jeans, which will be more breathable, comfortable, and result in a “less-sweaty” experience.
That said, no jeans are ideal for hiking. If you’ll be hiking in the rain, cold weather, or very hot temperatures, you should invest in a pair of good hiking pants. Jeans are bad at moisture-wicking, breathability, comfort, and abrasion, which make them a pretty bad choice for hiking. On shorter hikes, of course, it won’t really matter that much, but if you’re planning a three-day hike, you should look into getting a pair of good non-cotton hiking pants.
How Do You Wear Hiking Boots With Jeans?
If you aren’t sure what’s the best way to wear jeans together with hiking boots, down below I’ll cover three ways, starting with the best one.
Option 1: Let Your Jeans Slide Over the Boots
If your jeans are wide enough, the best option would be to let them slide over your hiking boots. If your jeans will get wet from the grass, you won’t feel that, and less debris will get inside the boots. One negative though is that the jeans will get dirty pretty quickly.
Option 2: Cuff Your Jeans
The second option would be to cuff your jeans one or two times until they’re just slightly over the boots, or slightly above them. This will still give some protection from debris getting inside the boot, and in my opinion, this option is also the best-looking one.
Option 3: Tuck Your Jeans Inside the Boots
The last option would be to put your jeans inside the boots. This is the least favorable option, as it will allow for a lot of dirt to get inside the boot. Usually, it’s also the least comfortable one, because your ankles will be brushing against your jeans, and it might result in some bruises or even blisters.
What Kind of Pants You Should Use Indead of Jeans for Hiking?
In another article, we talked about what kind of non-cotton pants are the best for hiking, so I’ll just give a quick summary over here. Essentially, hiking pants are divided into walking pants, rain pants, softshell pants, and hardshell pants, and each one is made for a different occasion. If you’ll be hiking in dry weather, walking pants should be the best choice, but if you’ll be walking in colder weather with some rain possible, then a pair of softshell pants would be ideal.
In terms of material, you definitely need to go with synthetics. The most ideal choice for the material would be 90-98% nylon with 2-10% elastane/spandex/lycra. This mix of materials provides the best breathability, fit, water-repellency, odor resistance, and durability.
Other than that, the pants should be water-repellant if you’ll be hiking in rain, and consist of 2-3 layers if you’ll be hiking in cold weather. They should fit you nicely – not too loose or too tight. Other things to look out for are at least one unzippable pocket, elastic waist tightening system, good wind resistance, and weight, which should be as lightweight as possible.
Why Are Hiking Pants So Ugly?
While most hiking pants do indeed look ugly, not all of them do. Most manufacturers make them in the typical green/beige loosely-fitted style with 10 different pockets, and a lot of people (me included) think they’re ugly. But over the years, I’ve found that not to be true. You can go to your nearest Decathlon or REI store, and I can guarantee that you’ll find at least one or two pairs that look pretty good. One tip that I could give is to also check out the rock climbing section because rock climbing pants are made from the same materials and they also perform really well for hiking. Essentially, they’re hiking pants, just better-looking. For instance, the prAna Stretch Zion rock climbing pants look really good in my opinion.
A lot of hikers will tell you that hiking in jeans is a bad idea, but I don’t agree with this opinion. For day hiking in good conditions (no rain, not too cold, not too warm) they perform almost as well as a pair of good hiking pants. However, for longer hikes or for hiking in worse conditions, a pair of good, synthetic hiking pants are recommended. Jeans perform really poorly when they’re wet- they weigh much more, they become abrasive, they take forever to dry, and they lose all insulation properties. So if you have the budget, it’s definitely worth it to invest in a pair of good hiking pants.