If you’re just getting into the world of hiking, you probably only recently learned that cotton is a bad choice of material for hiking pants and hiking gear in general. But if not cotton – then what?
I’ve done my fair share of summits and even a 36-day thru-hike, all-year-round – in snow, heat, rain, wind, and mud. In this article, I’ll share my knowledge and experience on hiking pants, so you can find out what kind of non-cotton hiking pants you should get.
Let’s begin by choosing the right material for your next pair of hiking pants, and continue by finding out all the other knick-knacks that they should come with.
Why Cotton Is a Bad Material for Hiking Pants
Cotton is a great fabric for everyday use – it’s comfortable, it looks good, it’s easy to manufacture, and it’s cheap. But cotton is notoriously bad for hiking, and usually, it’s one of the first things that people learn when they’re getting into hiking.
Cotton soaks up water incredibly well, and when it does, it becomes heavy, uncomfortable, and more abrasive. Cotton pants and other cotton hiking gear will basically become unusable in rain. Even in hot weather, cotton will absorb much more sweat and perform much worse compared to synthetics. In the right conditions, cotton gear could even cause hypothermia.
Best Materials for Hiking Pants
The best choice of material for hiking pants is some form of synthetics. Usually, it’s a mix of elastane and nylon/polyester. Any form of synthetics will vastly outperform cotton hiking pants, but the best choice is usually an 85-97% nylon / 3-15% elastane blend.
Most hiking pants are made from fabric that is made from 3-15% Elastane. This (as the name suggests) makes the fabric more elastic and tight-fitting. Usually, pants with more elastane also make them more comfortable.
Spandex and Lycra are actually trademarked brand names for Elastane. It’s the same material, just with minor differences. But generally, Spandex and Lycra are considered a bit better than regular elastane, as they’re manufactured specifically for high-performance situations.
The vast majority of hiking pants are made mostly from nylon. Nylon is a great material for hiking because it’s very durable, it doesn’t absorb oil (our sweat is mostly oil-based), and it absorbs only a tiny amount of water (3-4%).
If you’re looking for a new pair of hiking pants, I’d suggest going with a material that’s 85-97% nylon.
Some hiking pants are made from polyester, instead of nylon. On paper, polyester is better than nylon, because it doesn’t absorb any water. But what makes it inferior to Nylon (at least when it comes to hiking) is that it absorbs oil, and our sweat is mostly oil-based. This means that Polyester will start to develop unpleasant odors much quicker compared to nylon.
Polyester is still a much better choice than cotton, and it’s a viable material for day hiking pants, as the odor-attracting properties aren’t really relevant there. But I wouldn’t go with Polyester for thru-hiking. Take it from me – I had two pairs of polyester underwear on my thru-hike and I had to switch between them very often.
Read next: Are Polyester Socks Good For Hiking?
What Should You Look Out for When Buying Hiking Pants
There are a lot of things that go into making a solid pair of hiking pants, so I’ll try to explain the most important ones that you should understand when you’re looking for a new pair.
Understand the Differences Between Walking, Softshell, Hardshell, and Rain Pants
Hiking pants come in many different types, but most of them can be divided into four main groups.
Walking pants, other called trekking pants are made from a single layer of fabric. They’re usually very breathable, which is good for hot weather, but not so much for very windy and cold environments. They also won’t come with any kind of water resistance, so they aren’t ideal for hiking in rain. For hot, dry environments, such as my 36-day thru-hike in Spain, walking pants are the ideal choice.
Softshell pants, on the other hand, are made from multiple layers of fabric, usually three. The outer layer provides water resistance, the middle layer is breathable and flexible, and the inner layer is a thicker material that’s soft and warm to the skin (usually, made from fleece). The main difference from walking pants is that softshell pants are more durable and provide some water resistance. They’re an ideal choice for day hikes in cold, dry environments, where you’re expecting a lot of physically demanding activities.
Hardshell pants are very similar to softshell pants, only they’re made from more durable, waterproof fabrics, and the inner layer isn’t as comfortable to the skin. The main difference is that hardshell pants are waterproof while still providing some sort of breathability. They won’t do good in very physically demanding situations though, as you’ll probably start sweating quite a lot. They’re ideal for mountaineering and very cold, wet environments.
Rain pants are usually made from one or two layers of fabric, and they’re the least breathable out of all four options. That said, they’ll provide the best protection from the rain. They aren’t intended for extended use though – you’re supposed to put them on over your walking pants when it starts raining.
Personally, I hike in walking pants, as they’re the lightest and most breathable. If I’d be thru-hiking a very rainy section, I’d probably bring another pair of lightweight rain pants to put over my walking pants. This is usually lighter than bringing a single pair of softshell or hardshell pants. But for colder 1-2 day summits, I’d choose softshell or hardshell pants, depending on the weather. I wouldn’t have the time to switch between the two pairs and a softshell/hardshell would be more durable.
Moisture-Wicking / Waterproof Fabric (Not for Every Occasion)
If you’ll be hiking in rain for extended periods of time, you should choose pants that are fully waterproof. Rain pants and hardshell pants are good options for this occasion. If you’re expecting light rain you could go with a softshell option, as it will be more breathable. In light rain in hot climates, regular walking pants should do completely fine, as they’ll dry very quickly anyway.
The hotter the weather, the more breathable your hiking pants should be. In very hot climates, go in regular walking pants – long or short, depending on the environment and the trail conditions. Next in line go softshell pants, which are also pretty breathable. Hardshell and rain pants are very bad at breathability, so don’t choose them for physically demanding hikes.
Windproof Pants for Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Mountain Summits
In the colder season, depending on where you live, your best bet would be to go with softshell or hardshell hiking pants, which have a windproof layer. When it comes to keeping your legs warm, they do a pretty good job at retaining the heat. It’s more about keeping the warm temperature inside, rather than insulating, so the windproof layer will help you stay warm even when the cold wind is picking up.
Hiking pants should dry very quickly, especially ones that aren’t waterproof. Any synthetics usually dry very quickly, so if they’re made from Nylon, Polyester, or elastane, they should dry fairly quickly.
Hiking is all about keeping your base weight low, so look for lightweight hiking pants. The lightest options will usually start at 250 g (8.8 oz), so if you manage to find something below 300 g (10.5 oz) it’s considered lightweight.
Elastic but Not Too Tight
Hiking pants are usually made elastic by blending in Elastane, Spandex, or Lycra. The more elastance, the stretchier the pants will usually be. It comes at a cost though because elastane is less durable than Nylon. So if you want more durability, choose a blend with 3-5% elastane, but if you’d rather have more comfort, go with 10-15% elastane.
Elastic Waist Is Better Compared to Buckles
Elastic waist is hard to nail just right, especially when buying over the internet and if the pants aren’t specifically elastic themselves. But let me tell you – it’s worth it to find hiking pants that don’t come with a buckle and fit you perfectly. They’re much more comfortable, especially when you’re carrying a heavy backpack with a tightened hip belt. Even if the pants come with a buckle, try to get ones with a minimal, thin buckle, as it will be less likely to dig into your stomach with a hip belt on top.
Comes With at Least One Pocket With a Zipper
I did my thru-hike with pants that had no pockets, and it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world, because I had a fanny-pack around my waist. But for day hiking pants, I’d rather have a pocket that’s secured with a zipper, where I could safely keep my phone and keys.
Sometimes, Convertible Pants Are Better
Convertible pants, where you can unzip the lower ends of the pants to turn them into shorts are a solid choice if it’s very warm during the day and cold at night. It’s better than bringing two pairs of pants. Another alternative is to bring very lightweight running shorts that you can wear during the day, and put on thermal pants underneath when the evening comes. I went with the latter option on my thru-hike because it was very hot during the day.
Rock Climbing Pants Are Excellent for Hiking (And Often Better-Looking)
If you’re searching for hiking pants, remember to check the rock climbing section as well. They’re made from the same materials, they’re lightweight and durable, and a lot of the time, rock climbing pants look way better than hiking pants.
So What’s an Ideal Pair of Non-Cotton Hiking Pants?
A lot of situations require a different pair of hiking pants. But for the most general, all-purpose pair I’d choose a pair of softshell hiking pants that are made from (roughly) 97% Nylon / 3% Elastane, they’d come without a buckle, be as lightweight as possible, and have at least one secured pocket where I could keep my phone and keys. They’d be breathable enough to use in most situations while still providing a bit of wind and rain resistance.
To someone who’s new to hiking, hiking pants can often be overlooked. People used to hike in cotton pants or jeans just 30 years ago, and there’s nothing wrong with using cotton pants when hiking today. But nowadays, with new technology and materials, we have a much larger variety of pants, each made for certain weather conditions. And compared to regular cotton pants, they perform much, much better. So if your budget allows – definitely invest in a good pair of hiking pants.