Shorts or Pants for Hiking? The Ultimate Guide

Last Updated on 06/03/2023

Shorts or Pants for Hiking

Shorts or Pants for Hiking, Which Are Better?

Deciding between shorts or pants for hiking depends on many things, but mostly the weather. This guide discusses the benefits and downsides of hiking in shorts vs pants and the many different factors that should influence your decision. 

Hiking in pants makes total sense in the colder months, but in summer, the reasons to wear shorts to hike in often outweigh the reasons to wear pants. Of course, both have their advantages, and many people have a particular preference one way or the other. Everybody has one thing in common, though, is that we don’t want to feel uncomfortable on our hike.

There are some ways around getting FOMO for shorts or pants when hiking. For example, you could wear pants but take shorts in your backpack and vice versa. You could also wear some convertible hiking pants that zip off into shorts, giving you the best of both worlds. Finally, you could get some lightweight pants with zip open vents or even compromise with some 3/4 length shorts and use some boot gaiters.

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, if you follow our advice, you will be able to make the most informed decision without wasting any time. Neither one is better or worse in general, but there are times when one will be far superior to the other in specific situations. The key is to predict and estimate the types of influencing factors before you encounter them. We explain further down.

6 Benefits of Hiking Pants Vs Shorts

The benefits of hiking in pants instead of shorts are heavily weighted towards protecting your legs from all the elements. While hiking in jogging bottoms isn’t for everyone, lightweight trekking pants can be worn by anyone with relative comfort. Here are just a few of the advantages of hiking pants vs shorts:

Hiking Pants Offer Sun Protection

Arguably the biggest reason to wear hiking pants instead of shorts on a hot day is to protect yourself from the sun. Unless you have magic skin and don’t get sunburnt, you must also apply sunscreen every 4 hours with shorts on. Sunscreen can feel greasy and sticky as well as melt off when you start to sweat.

Wearing pants instead of shorts for hiking will provide UPF 50+ (in most cases) and protect your entire legs from harmful UV rays. So if you don’t want to get burnt, or just don’t like wearing sunscreen on your legs, then lightweight hiking pants make perfect sense.

Hiking Pants Provide Insect Protection

The added insect protection is arguably the second-best reason to wear hiking pants in the summer instead of shorts. Biting insects can be a nuisance, but trousers are the safer option when you start to add things like ticks and leaches into the mix if you have ever trodden on an ants nest before, you will also understand the importance of being able to tuck your trousers into your socks. Some hiking pants even have insect deterrent fibers sewn into the fabric.

Hiking Pants Prevent Irritating Plants From touching Your Skin

If you’ve ever hiked through long grass, then you know that certain types can cause a rash on your legs. In a more extreme category are plants like poison ivy, stinging nettles, brambles, and thorn bushes which are hard to avoid on specific hiking trails. Hiking pants protect your legs from getting torn to shreds by thorns and avoid nasty reactions to dangerous plants.

Hiking Pants Keep Your Lower Legs Warm

Hiking pants offer the obvious advantage of keeping your legs warmer than shorts. You can wear full-length base layer pants underneath if you want or even fleece-lined trousers, but with shorts, you have to act tough and pretend that you like it.

Even the most lightweight hiking pants will keep your legs warmer than shorts. So when you start to gain elevation, and the temperatures drop at the same time as winds pick up, that thin fabric barrier will really help keep your legs warm.

Hiking Pants Create Wind Protection

Even on a sunny day, if the wind is cold and blowing strong, pants might have the advantage over shorts for hiking. Windstopper fabric and waterproof pants will block close to 99% of wind but even a lightweight, breathable fabric will block most of it. Not only can cold wind freeze your legs if it’s cold but if you are hiking on sand or fine dirt this can blow into your legs and feel like thousands of tiny pins are stabbing you.

Hiking Pants Help With Rain Protection

Even if your hiking pants are not waterproof, they still protect your legs and boots from getting soaked. If it rains, this will mostly travel down your trouser legs, onto your footwear, and then onto the ground. If you wear shorts, though, the rain travels down your legs, saturates your socks, and then soaks your footwear from the inside.

Hiking Pants Protect You From Abrasions

If you are scrambling up a mountain or hiking a torturous path, then even the most lightweight hiking pants will provide an extra level of protection to your skin. A fall in shorts might cause you to graze the skin off your knee or cut your leg whereas the same fall in pants may just hurt but not break the skin. As mentioned above, hiking pants provide a certain level of protection from thorny plants that may otherwise puncture the skin.

benefits of shorts vs pants for hiking

5 Benefits of Shorts Vs Pants for Hiking

The benefits of hiking in shorts instead of pants are less about protection and more about comfort. Here are some of the advantages of hiking shorts vs hiking pants:

Shorts Are Breathable

The most obvious benefit of wearing shorts to hike in instead of pants is the breathability when it is hot. When your legs are sweaty and the air is hot, even a slight breeze can make a world of difference to your body heat. Shorts allow your legs to take advantage of any wind to cool down and dry off much faster.

Shorts Give You Freedom

While many hiking pants are designed to give you full freedom of motion with articulated knees, stretchy fabric, and diamond crotches, shorts don’t need any of them. In shorts, you get the full range of motion with your legs without having to pay extra. You can lift your knees up as high as they will go and stretch your legs out into a full split if you can.

Shorts Are Lightweight

Less fabric means less weight and so one of the smaller benefits of shorts vs hiking pants is that they feel lighter to wear and also that they weigh less in your bag if you’re backpacking. While this may seem insignificant to some, it makes total sense to others. Shorts feel way lighter and cooler to wear as a result.

Shorts Create Less Friction

Shorts have way less friction on your legs than pants do and so feel way more comfortable when hiking in humid conditions. To explain what I mean, when it’s hot your pants will stick to the sweat on your legs and drag against your skin with every step. Of course, I am being over dramatic but you get the idea.

Because shorts sit above your knees in most cases, they just ride up your thigh when you take a stride with next to no friction or resistance. Whereas when you hike in pants, they ride up, but they move over your knee which causes friction.

Another form of friction hiking shorts don’t suffer from is the type that makes some synthetic hiking pants so noisy. Pant legs will often rustle as they brush past one another as you take a step but as this happens on the lower legs, shorts don’t do it. Just one more reason to wear shorts vs pants on a hike.

Any Shorts Will Do

Unlike hiking pants which can get expensive on the higher end, any old shorts will be ok to hike in most of the time. We would still avoid jean shorts but even they will be ok so long as they aren’t too tight. Some of our favorite hiking shorts are made for running/jogging and they are pretty cheap too. A good pair of sports boxer shorts are important to avoid chafing but other than that, you don’t have to go out and buy some special shorts if you don’t want to.

Hiking pants vs shorts downsides

2 Downsides of Hiking in Pants

The main downsides of hiking in pants vs shorts are that they are less breathable and more restrictive. What do we mean by that?

Hiking Pants Are Less Breathable

Hiking pants are less breathable than shorts which is a price you have to be willing to pay for the added protection. You can get lots of different hiking pants that have leg vents or zips you can open up when it is hot. In general, the more lightweight the fabric is the more breathable the pants will feel when hiking.

If your pants don’t have leg vents but do have zippable pockets a little tip I learned is to open all your pockets and pull the pockets inside out. This turns every pocket into its own air vent which is even better if your pocket lining is made from mesh. Another option is to simply roll your trouser legs up if it gets too hot with them on.

Hiking Pants Are More Restrictive

No matter how high-tech and stretchy the material is, hiking pants are more restrictive than shorts. There are no two ways about it.

The fabric will always pull up when you lift your knee or stretch your leg which has to happen when you hike. It may be unnoticeable in ideal conditions but if your pants get wet then you will feel them tug slightly as they stick to your skin. Stretchy hiking pants may not prevent you from performing the splits or rock climbing, they just have more resistance than shorts do.

3 Downsides of Hiking in Shorts

The downsides of hiking in shorts are almost the mirror opposites of the reasons why pants are better for hiking. Here are the main downsides as we see them:

Routinely Apply Sunscreen or Endure Sun Burn

If you are wearing shorts for hiking in summer then to prevent sunburn you will likely need to apply sunscreen every 4 hours or more. This is because as your legs sweat the sun lotion melts away and loses some of its value. Sunscreen doesn’t feel great to wear and isn’t much fun to put on for the same reason – it’s greasy and sticky.

If you choose not to wear sunscreen or forget to put it on just one time then you risk getting sunburn which in turn increases your chances of skin cancer. Another problem with using sun lotion is that if you miss a spot then you get a concentrated burn in that one place which can be very painful.

Plant and Insect Irritation

When you hike in shorts you leave your legs wide open for any creepy crawlies that might find them attractive as well as for plants to ‘get you’ with their spines or bristles. Sometimes you might have no option but to pass through a patch of stinging nettles, others you might not see them, either way, nobody wants to get stung.

No Weather Protection for Lower Legs

If you get caught out by bad weather when hiking in shorts, this is when you begin to regret not wearing pants. Cold legs are not the end of the world but wet legs lead to wet socks, boots, and feet. Any rain that runs down your legs gets directly absorbed by your socks which in very little time at all will soak down inside your footwear.

You can wear gaiters to avoid this and add some weather protection when necessary but pants don’t have this problem. Convertable pants are another way to wear shorts most of the time but still have access to pants when you need them. Waterproof pants are probably our favorite option as they are specialized in the one area that shorts struggle most with.

Should I Wear Shorts or Pants for Hiking

Should I Wear Shorts or Pants for Hiking?

Before we conclude whether you should wear shorts or pants for hiking, it is important to understand the considerations and exceptions you have to take into account. Here are some of the most relevant reasons to wear pants or shorts to walk, hike, or jog:

Do You Have Fair Skin?

If you have fair skin or know that you burn easily in the sun then you should wear hiking pants. The risk of forgetting to put sunscreen on, missing a spot, or not reapplying often enough is just not worth it. Hiking pants provide total protection for your legs and if you couple that with a sun hoodie then you hardly have to wear any sunscreen at all.


Women are not as restricted as men in that they have other options like leggings, skirts, and dresses (but mostly leggings). Leggings may actually be the most comfortable and protective option for women who are trying to decide between shorts and pants for a hike. Leggings eliminate chafing and don’t really rub up against your legs or cause much resistance but they can still get quite hot in the sun.


Men are free to wear whatever they like in this day and age, but leggings, lycra, and unitards are still not even an option for most heterosexual males. We are pretty much limited to shorts and pants in most cases with the exception of 3/4 lengths and kilts. Still, it is fair to say that men still have more options when it comes to outdoor clothing than women do – especially in regard to color choices.

It is worth noting that as far as we can tell it is much more tolerated for a man to wear some compression pants for hiking so long as they are worn underneath a pair of shorts. Without the shorts, eyebrows still get raised, but with them, it is as if all is forgiven.

Spring and Summer

In spring, summer, and even early autumn, wearing shorts makes the most sense in terms of breathability and comfort but this is often when the sun is at its hottest and all the plants and biting insects are out in force. If you are willing to make the sacrifice of leg protection then shorts are great. If you would rather stay safe and bite-free, then some lightweight pants with ventilation strips on the side would be our choice.

Autumn and Winter

Autumn and winter, or the colder months of the year, can get really, really cold in some places, and wearing shorts would put your life at risk. In other places, you could get away with wearing shorts all year round. Still, as a general rule, pants are better in cold and wet weather and are more suitable for wearing over the top of some base-layer pants.

Snow Pants are sometimes the best option for cold weather but may cause your legs to overheat when hiking. So the best option is to start with base layers and then a pair of hiking pants combined with some waterproof over pants like these we recommend for dog walking. It’s all about the layers.


Irritants such as grasses, poison ivy, stinging nettles, brambles, biting insects, ticks, and prickly bushes that aggravate the skin are reasons to wear some protective outdoor pants instead of shorts for trekking. While thicker fabric like that on jeans is better for thorny plants, it is too hot in summer. But even the thinnest hiking pants can provide just enough protection so that most plants don’t bother you.


So which are better for hiking, shorts or pants? The only way to answer this is to say; that pants offer the most protection and have limited downsides while shorts are more comfortable in hot weather although come with the risks mentioned above.

Will we wear shorts in summer? Of course, we will be wearing shorts in summer but with some preparation in mind. Mostly always bring a pair of lightweight waterproof pants or gaiters for some extra leg protection. Or to use sunscreen thoroughly and routinely without fail.

The hiking pants we do use in summer have leg vents on the thigh, mesh-lined pockets, and calf zips which help if you want to roll the legs up. The decision for me to wear hiking pants rather than shorts is heavily influenced by my skin type which is fair and means I burn easily.

So in conclusion, shorts for comfort at your own risk and pants for protection but reduced breathability.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this guide and it has helped you decide whether to wear shorts or pants for hiking.

Gear Assistant
Gear Assistant

This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

Gear Assistant