In a previous post, we talked about how to layer winter hiking clothes for warmth and comfort. But there’s one part of the anatomy that always seems to trip people up: the pants area. How do you choose winter hiking pants that are warm enough but not too warm?
The problem with winter hiking pants
Conventional wisdom tells us to wear three layers of clothes when winter hiking (base, insulation, and shell). However, the legs, hips, and butt are in constant motion as you walk. For this reason, many people feel overheated when hiking in all three layers of pants.
At the same time, your butt and pelvis are part of your core. If they get chilled, your body will decrease circulation to your extremities to pump more blood to your torso and vital organs. This can cause your fingers and toes to freeze, which means you’re probably gonna have a bad time.
So how do you strike the perfect balance, accounting for rest stops and changing weather conditions? Here are the five clothing pieces I recommend adding to your winter hiking gear wardrobe.
1. Wicking underwear
Absolutely everyone, everywhere, doing everything.
How to wear it
If you’re ever been stuck in the cold for hours wearing wet, clammy, cotton undies, you know it’s lame AF!
You don’t have to get caught in a sleet storm or fall in the slush to get your underwear wet. Cotton will chill you by sucking up your sweat and then holding it against your skin for hours.
Yes, every time you stop for a break, your crotch and buttcrack will instantly freeze!
And if you’ve been hanging around this blog for more than five minutes, you know what I’m going to recommend instead.
ExOfficio Give-n-Go underwear are durable, fast drying, and will keep you way more comfy on your winter hikes. They offer a full line of styles for both men and women. For a detailed review, check out my blog post, How to walk across Asia with one pair of underwear.
2. Winter running tights or leggings
Warmer temperatures, zero precipitation, calm wind conditions, vigorous exercise, activities where there’s minimal chance of falling in the snow
How to wear it
While long underwear is great, I prefer to use running tights as a base layer. Probably the biggest advantage is that you can wear them by themselves and they still look great. Getting too hot in your shell pants? Just take them off and hike in your tights. It definitely beats the shorts-over-long-underwear look!
Because they’re form fitted, tights are also slightly easier than long underwear to layer.
In theory, running tights aren’t quite as warm as long underwear, because they stretch firmly against your skin without creating an air pocket. So decide for yourself if it’s worth the trade off. I’ve personally worn my winter hiking tights to 19,000 ft. three times now, and I’m still here to tell about it.
When choosing tights, consider the weight of the fabric. Thinner tights will be better for trail runners and others who are concerned about working up a sweat. Thicker tights work best for slower, longer hikes and colder conditions.
Power up your tights
If you’re hiking and snowshoeing in tights, gaiters are a great way to protect your ankles from snow. They also offer a bit of additional warm to your lower leg. I’m a big fan of the Outdoor Research Verglas Gaiters (men’s here). They’re reasonably priced, comfy, and easy to get on and off. And like all Outdoor Research products, they come with a lifetime guarantee.
3. Insulated skirt or shorts
When it’s almost warm enough for tights, but you want a little more protection for your bum and core.
How to wear it
So thanks to the growing popularity of down hiking skirts, this look is a little bit easier for women to pull off. Insulated hiking skirts are literally everywhere. You can even grab one at Costco. I’ve actually seen men hiking in insulated skirts here in Colorado. Seriously guys, they’re that comfortable!
If skirts aren’t your thing, a few companies also make insulated shorts for women and men. Again, women currently have a lot more options to choose from. If you’re having trouble finding what you want, check out a cross-country ski store or website.
Down skirts and shorts are very light and packable. So even if the weather is warm, they’re easy to throw in your backpack and take along. After all, you never might want a little extra warmth during a break or if the wind kicks up.
- Shop insulated skirts at REI.com
- Shop insulated skirts at Amazon
- Women’s Marmot Toaster insulated shorts at Moosejaw
- Men’s Jack Wolfskin Atmosphere insulated shorts at Moosejaw
4. Shell pants with full side zips
Cold, windy, rainy, and snowy conditions; activities that may involve falling or sitting in the snow.
How to wear it
Shell pants (a fancy word for wind- and water-resistant pants) are essential for those cold, wet, windy days when your legs need protection from the elements.
Unfortunately, shell pants can be really expensive. So if you’re a casual hiker who usually stays home when the weather is bad, you can probably get away with more affordable coated nylon pants.
However, if you’re planning to take long winter hikes into the backcountry, it’s probably worth investing in a waterproof-breathable pant. I talk more about the different kinds of waterproof breathable fabrics in my post, how to layer winter hiking clothing.
For winter hiking, I personally prefer hiking pants with the full side zips, because they’re easy to take on and off as the weather changes. There’s nothing more miserable than taking off your boots in the snow so you can slide on your pants!
There are currently two styles of winter hiking pants that I recommend for both men and women. Both offer waterproof breathable, full-zip pants a variety of sizes, including talls and petites.
Marmot’s Precip rain pants
These products have been around for several years have gotten rave reviews from hikers. I’ve owned two pairs myself and found them to be great value for the cost.
REI Talusphere rain pants
I just bought a pair of these for my mountaineering trip to Ecuador, and so far I really like them! They’re super stretchy, which makes them great for snow climbing and scrambling. And they kept me bone dry through a torrential downpour in Ilinizas National Park.
5. Insulated pants
Extremely cold temperatures, winter camping, activities that involve moving slowly or standing around.
How to wear it
Unless conditions are extreme, you probably shouldn’t hike in insulated pants. They’re just make you overheat and sweat, which in turn causes you to freeze when you stop.
However, if you’re in a situation when you’re going to be standing around outside (downhill skiing, winter camping, glacier skills class), you might want to consider wearing insulated pants.
When it’s really cold, I also like to carry a pair of insulated pants in my pack in case of an emergency. Because if I get hurt or have to assist another hiker, I could be hanging around in the cold for quite awhile.
Down pants are very warm and packable, but also very expensive. So they’re not really practical unless you’re getting into expedition-style mountaineering.
A more affordable option is the REI Teton Fleece Pant. These pants are affordable, low profile, and very warm and toasty. And like many REI pants, they’re available in a wide range of sizes, including petites, talls, and plus sizes.
Also worth a look: soft-shell pants
Our guide on Mt. Olympus (Washington) was a big fan of soft shell clothing over hard shells like Gore-Tex. He says the technology of soft-shell fabric has reached the point that it performs just as well in most conditions. I haven’t tested this theory, but since he’s based in Seattle, I tend to believe him! He did say that he still wears hard shells for skiing and extreme conditions.
What not to wear winter hiking: Insulated shell pants
Downhill skiing, winter camping, and other activities that don’t require a lot of exertion
Why NOT to wear them
Insulated shell pants (think ski pants) come in one temperature: HOT. They’re great for standing in the lift line in a blizzard. But they’re not versatile enough for vigorous aerobic activity, when you may need to shed or add layers throughout the day. As a hiker, backpacker, or mountaineer, you’re much better off with a layer system so you can add or remove clothing easily.
And there you have them. All my best tips on winter hiking pants.
Got any additional recommendations or tips? Comment to share!
Originally published Dec. 14, 2018. Last updated Nov. 24, 2019. (Fixed some broken product links.)