Shorts or Pants for Hiking: The Great Debate, Settled!

Can’t decide between shorts or pants for hiking? Let us settle the debate! Learn which of the two options is best for you (and in which conditions) in our comprehensive guide.

Jolanda Lapegna Avatar
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Should You Wear Pants or Shorts When Hiking?

Wondering whether to wear shorts or pants for hiking?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • Hiking shorts or pants? The pros and cons of each
    • Tips to help you choose which to wear for each hiking trip
    • All the best alternatives including leggings, skorts, and convertible pants

When spending time outdoors, wearing the right hiking attire can make the difference between a good time and a miserable one. One of the trickiest decisions to make for most of us concerns leg coverage – do we want the full-length coverage and protection of pants or the light, airy freedom of shorts?

In this short guide, we’re going to attempt to settle the debate once and for all: should you wear pants or shorts for hiking? We’ve also included some advice on alternatives like zip-off pants, skorts, and leggings. Read on to learn more!

Pants or Shorts for Hiking: All You Need to Know

The Argument in Favor of Wearing Shorts

Lighter

Shorts simply weigh less than long pants. While the weight savings might seem insignificant, ounce-counting minimalists will jump for joy!

They Keep You Cooler

Wearing shorts, of course, can help you cool off in warm weather. Since shorts are cut off above or at the knee, they allow for more airflow and breathability. No matter how ventilated hiking trousers might be, there’s nothing like a cool breeze on your legs in the scorching heat! 

So if it’s hot (80s or above) and other factors allow it, ditch the pants and treat yourself to the cool breeziness of hiking or running shorts. 

Man hiking in mountains with sun shining on him
When the suns blazing down, a cool breeze on short clad legs is a godsend.

Less Noise 

Shorts are arguably quieter than pants. Some types of hiking pants make an undeniable “swish, swish” rustling noise as you walk. While this might not bother everyone, it can drive some noise-sensitive hikers crazy. If you like your peace and quiet in the great outdoors, therefore, you might be better off wearing hiking shorts. 

Less Restrictive 

Shorts don’t cover as much of your legs so they allow for a greater range of motion. Whether it’s jumping over a log, scrambling over boulders, or jumping for joy as you reach a summit, there’s no denying that shorts are less restrictive.

Hiker running uphill in shorts wearing sunglasses
Sometimes the greater degree of movement you get from shorts will offset any downsides. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

Better in Light Rain

One of the most frequently cited reasons that hikers love shorts is that they fare better in light rain.

Despite all the advances in modern, quick-drying fabrics, most hiking pants still need considerable time to dry after getting wet. Some people prefer the feeling of shorts in rainy weather rather than the feeling of cold or damp fabric on their skin while on a hike. 

With all this being said, you need to watch out for heavy rainfall. Without pant legs to absorb some of the rain, you risk water droplets running down your legs and right into your socks and hiking boots. Not only is this incredibly uncomfortable, but it can also lead to other issues like blisters and chafing. 

Easier to Keep Dry 

If you’re hiking on wet or muddy terrain, your pants can get dirty or wet around the ankle and shin. Since wet pants tend to sort of “suction” around your legs, it can lead to a pretty uncomfortable experience. Shorts can help you avoid this problem during wet or muddy hikes. 

Hiker walking through forest in the rain
Long pants can uncomfortably ‘suction’ around your calves in wet weather.

The Argument in Favor of Wearing Pants

Sun Protection

If you’re hiking in sunny weather, sun safety becomes important. By covering more of your skin, hiking clothes like longer pants offer better protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays. This is especially important if you’re hiking on a sunny trail with little shade. 

But believe it or not, you can get sunburned even on a cloudy day. So before you swear off your long pants, be sure to check the actual UV index for the day. 

Protection From Cuts and Scrapes

Tripping and falling while out on a hike is common. If you do slip, you’re going to be real thankful you’re wearing pants! By covering your skin, wearing hiking pants can help protect you from cuts and scrapes from sharp rocks or branches. 

Wearing long pants is particularly important if you regularly head into rugged terrain, where you’re more likely to scuff your ankles and shins on rocks and bushes. 

Hiker with grazed leg using a first aid kit to treat it
Wearing shorts leaves your legs more vulnerable to scrapes and grazes if you fall.

Protection From Poisonous Plants 

If you regularly hike off-trail, you probably already know the danger of certain plants like poison ivy or poison oak. Full-coverage hiking clothing like pants can help protect you from brushing up against any nefarious plants. 

Just remember that wearing pants is not a guarantee that you won’t fall prey to a nasty rash. All it takes is for you to inadvertently touch your face for a rash to occur. 

If you’re not sure of the local plants or flora, fight the urge to venture off the beaten path! 

Three leaf poison ivy plant
Wearing pants is an easy way to avoid brushing up against poson ivy.

Protection From Bugs/Ticks

If you live anywhere ticks are prevalent, you probably already know the importance of wearing pants while hiking. A common method for preventing ticks is to wear long pants with the cuffs tucked into socks. That way, ticks, mosquitos, and other creepy crawlies have no way of accessing your bare skin. 

If you do opt for pants to protect you from insects, remember to choose fabrics that are lighter in color. That way, it’s easier to spot bugs like ticks against the lighter-colored fabric. 

Remember that wearing pants doesn’t make you immune either! You’ll still want to check yourself thoroughly for ticks and bugs after every hike. 

A tick lodged into skin
Still remember to check for ticks even if you do wear pants on the trail.

Protection From the Wind 

Longer pants can provide some much-needed protection on extra-breezy days. Not only will they help keep your legs warm, they’ll also protect you from any small debris (sand, dirt) that’s being blown around and attacking your skin like legions of tiny airborne pins. 

Extra Warmth

Seems pretty obvious, right? When you wear longer pants, less of your skin is exposed to the elements, which keeps you nice and toasty warm. By providing better insulation, pant legs offer more protection from cold weather conditions. You can even buy pants that are fleece-lined for extra warmth.

Temperatures can drop quickly as you ascend. When choosing between shorts and pants don’t forget to account for temperature differences due to elevation! 

Silhouette of hiker standing on a mountaintop
Don’t forget to factor in temperature drops as you ascend higher. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

Prevent Chafing 

If you’ve ever experienced chafing then you know how miserable it can be. Hiking is already a sweaty activity, and the repeated motion of walking combined with extra moisture from sweat can cause your thighs to rub together and even lead to painful rashes. Hiking pants or leggings tend to offer better protection against chafing than shorts. 

More Storage

Many hikers prefer pants simply because they offer extra pockets for storage. If there are certain small items you don’t want to keep in your backpack, then a pair of long pants with cargo and rear pockets will be a good fit for you! 

hiker wearing thin water resistant jacket
Pants often have the added advantage of multiple pockets!

Alternatives

If neither shorts nor pants strike your fancy, there are some other alternatives. 

Convertible Hiking Pants

Convertible pants, also called zip-off pants, are trousers where the bottom half of the legs can be zipped off, transforming them into shorts. Their ability to become both pants and shorts offers both versatility and weight savings. 

Convertible pants are also a great option for backpacking, thru-hiking, or any time you expect that the weather might change suddenly or frequently. Being able to transform your pants into shorts allows you to adapt to various terrains and temperatures. 

hiker crossing a river
Unexpectedly need to ford a stream? Convertible pants at the rescue.

The negative is that historically convertible hiking pants were bulky and quite unsightly. Thankfully, modern iterations of convertible pants are tackling these challenges. These days, you can find convertible pants that are lightweight, breathable, and easy on the eyes.

Leggings and Yoga Pants

Leggings and yoga pants are other popular choices that strike a balance between the coverage of pants and the versatility of shorts. Most outdoor brands now offer leggings designed specifically for hiking that are built with features such as rip-resistant fabric, pockets, and even built-in bug-repellent.

Most fans of hiking leggings will also tell you that they are the most comfortable option by far.

Hiker with trekking poles standing on top of mountain wearing leggings
Leggings are a happy medium between shorts and pants in coverage and versatility metrics.

Skorts

A hiking skirt (or skort) is another option. These are skirts that have built-in shorts underneath to prevent wardrobe malfunctions. Hiking skirts offer style, breathability, and a great range of motion. 

Jeans?

Technically, jeans are also an alternative to both hiking pants and shorts. But while you can hike in jeans, it doesn’t mean you should! Jeans lack the breathability, moisture-wicking capabilities, and comfort of other alternatives. Worst of all, if jean fabric gets wet it takes an incredibly long time to dry. 

While you might get away with it on a short trek, if you plan on doing any regular hiking, do yourself a big favor and invest in some non-cotton pants or shorts. 

Three hikers, one in pants, 1 in leggings and 1 in a kilt
Pants, leggings, or perhaps a kilt? ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

The Verdict

In conclusion, hiking pants or alternatives like convertible pants or leggings are going to be the better option in most situations. 

Hiking pants simply offer more protection against the elements, the sun, poisonous plants, branches, bugs, and rough terrain.

If you’re worried about overheating, remember that most modern hiking pants are made from durable but lightweight materials and designed with ventilation in mind. 

While it might be tempting to wear hiking shorts on hot days, you need to make sure you’ll be hiking on a well-groomed trail that is free of ticks, brambles, and poisonous plants. You’ll also want to keep in mind that conditions on the trail can change rapidly, so if you do wear shorts, come prepared. 

Happy Hiking!

There you have it! There really is no right or wrong answer when it comes to what you wear on your pins while hiking. However, we hope the above demonstrates that certain factors make choosing one or the other a better option in different conditions. 

Let us know whether your team pants or shorts in the comments box below! And please feel free to share this post with your friends!

Last update on 2022-12-06 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Jolanda Lapegna Avatar

Jolanda is a full-time writer and life-long outdoor enthusiast. Growing up on a small island off the Eastern Canadian coast, she spent most of her childhood hiking, swimming and fishing in the Atlantic ocean.

After a short stint in the corporate world, Jolanda quit her day job to write full-time and check out what lies beyond the Canadian shores. Ever since, she’s been hiking, biking and kayaking her way across 11 European countries and counting.

Jolanda currently lives in the beautiful, Tuscan countryside. When she isn’t hanging out in the woods or at the beach, you’ll catch her foraging for mushrooms and truffles with her truffle-dog, Red.

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