This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
We get it. Stretchy leggings are just so comfortable. And they’re kind of sexy. And they go so well with a brightly colored top, which definitely looks better on the ‘gram. So why would you wear anything else if you go hiking? For one, you should not go hiking for the photos. Pictures are just a nice byproduct of the experience itself. Second, those bright printed leggings with sheer detailing on the side are simply the wrong choice for treks of any significant length. And it’s not about us policing what women can and can’t wear or what looks more legit — it’s about the hard fact that leggings were simply not built for the outdoors. Here’s why and what you should wear instead.
Leggings are tight where you don’t want them to be.
You might appreciate the snug fit, but when you’re hiking and sweating, you want breathability in that area that’s susceptible to infection. You don’t want the sweat to pool there.
And just what kind of undergarment were you planning to wear under those leggings? Thongs, so as not to have panty lines? Just let the idea of a 10-mile hike in a thong sink in. And if you have those nifty nylon undies that don’t show under leggings, yay for you. But are they breathable?
Leggings get nasty.
Unless you’re on a two-hour morning hike, leggings will not smell great after a long day of hiking, and will be especially rank beyond that. If you’re on a longer backpacking trip, you’re not going to be excited about pulling those things back on when you crawl out of your sleeping bag in the morning.
Leggings are often too short.
Many leggings end mid-calf, leaving your ankles and the area just above them exposed. That’s a prime spot for irritation from stinging nettles, poison ivy, or poison oak, the itchiest of North America’s poisonous plants. It can take up to three weeks for a poison oak rash clear up; and the irritation can last even longer in severe cases. Plus, mosquitoes love ankles, and exposed calves also offer ticks, which lurk in grasses, shrubs, and low-lying plants, an opportunity to get under your skin, literally.
If you’ll be scrambling over rocks and or past branches, your leggings can tear. A good pair of hiking pants is made to withstand all that. High quality hiking pants can last 10 years, still holding their shape and color.
Leggings aren’t great for cold.
They keep the moisture from your sweat right next to your skin. When it’s really cold, you definitely don’t want leggings. You want hiking pants with athletic long johns underneath.
Leggings don’t have pockets.
This is perhaps the biggest reason leggings suck for hiking. It’s ridiculous enough that we wear evening dresses that require us to carry a bag to stash our money and phone — only to have to figure out where to safely stash said bag when want to dance. Guys, meanwhile, avail themselves of one of the best clothing inventions ever: pockets. Do you really want to bring the feminine inconvenience of non-pockets to the great outdoors?
You may find leggings better looking — if you’ve comfortably solved the panty line problem. But just where were you planning on putting your phone to take pictures of that better look? When leggings do have pockets, you’ve just ruined the sleek look by jamming your phone next to your thigh.
If it’s cold, you could put your phone in a jacket. But as noted, leggings aren’t ideal for cold weather. Or you could put your phone in your backpack, which means you’ll have to stop, take your arm out of one side of your backpack, and swing it around the front to open the pocket to grab the phone to then take a photo. By that point, your group will have left you behind.
And please don’t plan on hiking with your phone in your hand all day. Not only might you actually need free hands when trekking through steep sections, you’ll also seriously boost the odds of losing or damaging your phone. More importantly, you’re hiking to disconnect and be in nature. Don’t hold your phone for the next five hours.
Hiking pants solve all of these issues.
This is where hiking pants come in. They solve every one of the issues noted above. First and foremost, they have pockets. The best hiking pants have thigh pockets that either zip or velcro shut. You can just reach down to grab that phone when you need it; take pictures, return your phone to the pocket, and zip it shut.
Depending on where you’re hiking, you may want to keep cash and valuables in your other pocket. If you’re trekking somewhere overseas, knowing that your passport is always in your pocket is reassuring. Even just hiking locally, if you’re going to be capping your long day outside with a beer at a tavern, you’ll appreciate having cash on your person while you set down your backpack.
Hiking pants were, in fact, made for hiking. They are durable and breathable, and they also whisk away moisture — rather than keeping it next to your skin. You can wear comfy underwear, and even long underwear if the weather calls for it. And if it’s hot, you can use those hiking pants that have zipper-off legs and turn them into shorts. Hiking pants are flexible for all kinds of climbing and amazingly durable. It’s really hard to tear or scratch them.
Hiking pants are long enough to cover ankles, and you can wear longer socks without looking silly. We are actually fans of knee-high, compression stockings, which can give you more energy by improving blood flow and prevent the formation of varicose veins — so they’ll keep your legs looking good.
And when it comes to looks, those earth tones actually appear cleaner a lot longer than other options. Peanut butter and other hike-ready snack foods seem to stick to leggings; not so much to hiking pants. Sure, they may be dorky, but you should be more concerned about gaining the respect of fellow hikers on the trail than gaining Instagram followers. The fact is, hiking pants make you look like a pro who knows what they’re doing and belongs outside.
Good hiking pants can come with a sticker shock, and spending a lot of money on an item of clothing that is admittedly pretty ugly can be a hard pill to swallow. Especially when an equally expensive pair of designer leggings can get a lot more mileage at the gym, doing errands, or just lazing around the house. But a good pair of hiking pants will last you a long time. If you make use of them, they’ll become like old friends.
The best hiking pants to buy
One of our favorite hiking pants is the Patagonia Quandary. They have a single zippered thigh pocket that’s a perfect place to stash your phone; plus one of the two back pockets is also zippered. They come with SPF 50 protection and you can roll up the legs to capri length when it’s warm. They have belt loops, so you can wear a really cool belt to make it a hipper look; but they also have hidden drawstrings if you prefer to go belt-free. They come in three colors — earthy shale, khali green, and cool grey. And at $79, they’re cheaper than a lot of pocket-less leggings.
The prAna Halle pant is one of those pants that you might actually wear off the trails as well. An $85 pair of these has basically everything you’d want in a pair of hiking pants: a zippered thigh pocket, snap-closured back pockets, a roll-up feature to turn the pants into capris, and SPF 50 protection. They’re also water repellent and have belt loops for that hip belt. Plus, they come in a whopping eight colors. The Halle pant works with a lot of body sizes, since it comes in three inseams, the largest being 36 inches.
Which brings us to one legit concern with hiking pants: It’s harder for plus-sized women to find sizes that fit. Columbia Sportswear is the best brand for more curvaceous, outdoorsy women. Its Women’s Saturday Trail pants are only $65 and come in regular and plus sizes, and you can get them in five colors, from olive green and “truffle” to gray, deep navy, and black. The fabric is comfortable and stretchy, and comes with zip-off legs for heat. The big minus is the pants only have one small zippered pocket, but the hip pockets are pretty deep.
When it’s okay to wear leggings
If you really don’t think hiking will be a frequent activity for you and aren’t willing to invest in a pair of hiking pants, then yes, hiking in leggings is still better than hiking in jeans, which can get wet and stay wet, don’t offer any flexibility for climbing, and chafe…big time. Leggings are also fine if “hike” is a strong word for the activity, and you plan on doing a more accessible, well-maintained trail with minimal elevation gain and extremely low mileage. We’d rather you get outdoors and moving than spending too much time standing in front of your closet, fretting about what to wear. But consider this: If you do spend the money on some proper hiking pants, even if you’re not a hiking person, you’re more likely to try and get your money’s worth and become a hiking person.