The Best Hiking Pants? Key Features to Look For

Snow-free hiking opportunities are here, which means that it's time once again to dig out your fair-weather gear from winter storage. As I went through this annual ritual over the weekend, I noticed one much-used item that will soon be in need of replacement: my hiking pants. Here's what I'll be looking for.

The GI III hiking pants from Patagonia have it all
Pants not shorts
First of all, I nearly always hike in a pair of lightweight nylon pants rather than shorts. I prefer the protection they offer, from the sun, from biting insects, and from the many branches, shrubs, rocks, and other leg-scrapers out there on the trail. (I don't find these pants overly warm, given their lightweight and breathable material.)

A smooth bunch-free waist
This is crucial. The waist belt on your backpack usually sits over the top of your pants. If the waistline gets bunched up anywhere under a fully-weighted waist belt, it's going to hurt. Not initially, perhaps, but after miles of hiking the discomfort and chafing can become quite irritating and uncomfortable. In particular, watch out for belt loops or any other extra pieces of material around the waist that might dig in as you hike.

Deep pockets
Years ago, I lost a brand new pocket knife when it slipped out of my pants pocket while I was sitting down for lunch. Ever since then, I carefully evaluate pockets to determine if they are sufficiently deep to retain everything in them, even when I'm lounging or sitting down. Pockets that hang freely, rather than are stitched directly into the leg fabric for their full length, usually perform better.

A map pocket
I prefer to hike with a map that I can easily access without having to take off my backpack, which allows me to regularly check my location and progress throughout the hike. A deep cargo pocket on the side of a pant leg works particularly well for this and is highly recommended.

No zip-off legs
In general, I'm not a big fan of so-called convertible pants, which feature zip-on, zip-off lower legs to convert from pants to shorts and back again. In most cases, I find the zipper around the lower thigh to be noticeable when I'm moving and affect how the pant legs hang (or "drape" as the lingo goes) on my body.

Adequate ankle coverage
As a tall person with a 36-inch inseam, it can be challenging to find hiking pants long enough to extend down over the top of my boots and help keep dirt and grit out. For less gangly individuals, this is less of a problem.  

Color conundrum
My current pants are a light beige, which stays cooler in direct sun than darker colors. The lighter color, however, does show dirt and grim much easier than a dark brown or black set of pants. Toss up on this one....

Enjoy the early start to this year's hiking season!

“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.