Pants or Shorts for Hiking – Tips by a Pro Hiker

hiking with shorts

You know the saying “the shorter the pant the better the hike”

I came up with that

Almost all my hiking trips for the past 9 years were done with pants because I was uncomfortable with how my legs look, but I finally got the confidence to try shorts and I feel like I have been missing a lot– however, choosing between shorts and pants is not that easy because both of them have upsides and downsides, but if you were to ask me to answer the question, ‘Should I wear shorts or pants for hiking’ i would say;

It is up to you to make the decision to wear hiking pants or shorts. Shorts will give you the maximum agility and freedom– however, it is preferable you wear pants if you want protection from the sun and insects. If you are not sure you can also try convertibles that way you can switch to both whenever you want.

Pants

hiking pants
  • Sun Protection
  • Abrasion protection from plants and rocks
  • Protection from allergenic plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac
  • Protection from ticks and other insects
  • Wind resistance

Hiking pants are not the best-looking fit, most of them look like egg cartons, however hiking fit is all about functionality not looks, you can get a good-looking pair of jeans but they won’t be nearly functional as hiking pants. to be honest I feel like hiking in denim jeans should be illegal.

Insects are the reason why most hikers prefer to wear pants, insects such as spiders, bees, and especially ticks can be a problem when hiking. more often not tick bites won’t cause any harm aside from redness and itching that will go within an hour– however, some ticks can carry diseases such as a bacterial infection called Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease which can cause fatigue, pain, muscle aches lasting for a long time, and can be fatal if not treated with the right antibiotics

Pants also help you to prevent some allergenic plants from contacting your skin. poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac- these are plants you might come across on your trail, and they can be quite painful. I have once encountered what I assume to be poison ivy, they are quite common in the United States, they can cause blisters and itching for hours if they come in contact with your skin.

Not to forget pants also provide wind resistance and sun protection, some hiking pant manufacturers include the amount of UV protection the pants will provide, for instance, the hiking pants I use are 50 spf.

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Pants are hotter
  • Heavier
  • Longer to dry

Hiking pants are expensive, the average price of a decent quality hiking pant is about $80, the reason they are so expensive is the materials they are made with; a good quality hiking pant is made from high-grade nylon which is very lightweight, breathable and quiet when rubbed together.

Even though nylon pants dry way quicker than cotton pants, compared to shorts you can say they take longer to dry out, if you are planning on a hiking trip where you have to cross rivers or hike on a dumpy place your pants will get wet and can take time to dry out completely.

If you want the most agility and speed pants can drag you down. The right width also matters when picking hiking pants. You don’t want something tight that will restrict movement but you also don’t want something very wide.

When shopping for pants you should always stay away from cheap pants. Let us be honest here, most cheap pants have a crappy quality. I have tried pants that feel like you are wearing a plastic bag from Target, when choosing a hiking pant there is a lot that goes to it, read this post from gear lab wear they test and review hiking pants, these pants on amazon are what I use when I feel like wearing pants and they are really good.

Shorts

hiking shorts
  • Lightweight
  • Excellent range of motion
  • Very breathable
  • Easy to layer
  • Cheaper than pants

After years of hiking, I finally got the confidence to wear shorts on my hiking trips. The agility and the range of motion you get with shorts is just so unmatchable I almost cried thinking of all thru-hikes I went with pants, I feel like kung fu panda when I am wearing hiking shorts.

There are however different types of hiking shorts- there are shorts that are specifically made for hiking, there are convertibles, and last but certainly not least there are running shorts.

Running shorts and hiking shorts are almost the same– however, convertibles are quite different, if you don’t know what convertibles are, those pants with zip-off legs that become shorts in seconds when needed.

For protection against abrasion, I highly recommend using tights under your shorts for both men and women. Trust me you will also look cooler wearing tights under your shorts, if you don’t like that look you can also wear long socks that can cover your legs.

Most hiking shorts have a lining so you don’t need to wear underwear, which really can save you some space in your backpack that you would otherwise put extra underwear in.

One other nice thing about shorts is they are not as expensive as pants, you can get a good pair of running shorts for 20 bucks on Amazon, or if you want to step it up you can get a short that is specifically made for hiking, they tend to be a little more expensive but they are much superior than typical running shorts.

The hiking shorts I use are called Patagonia Nine Trails. I bought them from rei, they are pretty much what I use for my hiking trips.

Cons:

  • No protection from abrasion
  • No sun protection
  • Less pocket space
  • Look

Shorts alone won’t provide any protection from UV rays so sunburn is common with people who hike in shorts, if you can it is best if you apply sunscreen every 2 hours but in most cases that is impossible because your legs are not going to be clean and applying sunscreen on dirty skin is not a pleasant thing to do.

Another downside is they won’t protect you from what is out there on the trail, so you might end up with a lot of cuts and bruises when you are done hiking.

You also have to accept the fact that with shorts you are going to have fewer pockets. The shorts I use actually have 4 pockets. They are not big but I manage to carry my phone, sunscreen, pocket knife, and some miscellaneous items.

How you look with shorts is also a big factor– personally, I don’t like how I look in shorts cause my legs look like tree branches. If you remember Pinocchio with shorts that is how I look, if I look like that and have the confidence to wear shorts anyone can.

Shorts with tights

shorts with tights
  • The agility of shorts with the warmth of pants.
  • More packable and better drying than pants.
  • Sun protection
  • The leggings protect you from ticks

Layering shorts with tight is a very effective way to get the agility you would get with shorts and the protection you would get from pants. However, not everyone loves the short with leggings look, if that is the case then your last choice is going to be convertibles.

Sun protection is also something you get when you layer tights with shorts, how every dark-colored tights on your skin can get pretty toasty when there is direct sunlight hitting your leg, so make sure you get something breathable and lightweight.

I have hiked the John Muir Trail (200+ mile plus), and The Sendero Histórico hike(700+ mile) in Spain with shorts and thighs and I have never been happier with my fit.

Cons:

  • Abrasion resistance is not that great.
  • Look

The abrasion resistance you would get from tights and leggings is not as great as with hiking pants, bee sung can easily pass through your leggings, plants can scrape your legs past your tights– however, ticks can’t get you unless they climb up your legging which is very very rare.

A lot of people don’t like how they look with legging nor do I but I would prefer functionality over looks, when you are on a hike nobody cares about how you look so it is all on your head, try to remember the time when you saw someone on a hiking trail and laughed at their fit not often i hope.

Convertibles

Convertibles are still one of my favorite fit for hiking, they are such an effective way to get both shorts and pants in one piece of clothing, they help you to save space in your backpack.

They can get a little expensive though, a decent pair of convertibles can cost you anything from $50 to $90. a decent quality pair can be pretty effective.

Final thoughts and weather

Weather is very important when picking hiking wear. pants are preferable in cold weather, they provide a little insulation– however, shorts are better in a rainy season at least for me, pants get wet and sticky that can be very annoying.