While you’re considering what pants you should wear for winter hiking, you need to remember the three things that all of your winter hiking gear should offer. Those three things are keeping you warm, dry, and on-the-go. While it might seem easy to assess what you should use for base layers and waterproof shells, figuring out what your legs might need while they push you up a trail requires a bit of extra thought. (Our 3 recommendations are below)
After all, you don’t want to pick something out that is too bulky or heavy, since that can slow you down significantly. You don’t want to wind up making yourself overly heavy when you have six miles of hiking left to do to get to the top of a summit.
So, as you consider what you’ll need in pants for your winter hiking adventures, remember that you probably won’t get all the protection you need from just one layer of pants. In fact, if you tend to hike during very cold weather temperatures, then you might need to purchase a pair of snow pants.
On the other hand, if you like to hike around where you might need to perform a bit of bushwhacking, then you’ll need something that’s a bit more durable.
The main goal you’ll need to focus on when figuring out what pants to wear for winter hiking is to find light, comfortable pants comprised from materials that offer warmth. You’ll also need to consider keeping some type of soft shell waterproof pants in your pack in case of winter rain.
We’ll cover some layering strategies for winter hiking below, and also address some of the best winter hiking pants you’ll find on the market today.
Layering Strategies When Winter Hiking
When you’re layering your pants for your winter hikes, you’ll need to remember that you want a strategy that will keep you not just warm, but also dry. So, you need to factor in the rainy, snowy weather as well as your own perspiration. Remember, it’s better to have too many layers so that you can shed them if you don’t need them than it is to be so unprepared you wind up cutting your hike short.
You’ll want to make sure you over prepare rather than under prepare. If you can’t find hiking pants that meet a one-size-fits-all approach, and you probably won’t, then you’ll want to pack in your daypack the extra layers you might need. As the weather changes and gets colder, you can then adjust and test out how your body is responding to your clothes.
Then, you can adjust to your body’s needs during the winter as you see fit.
As you approach winter layering for your hiking pants, you’ll need to account for a few layers of clothes. First, you’ll want a base layer that goes next to your skin. Next, you’ll need a mid-weight insulating layer, whether it’s fleece or puffy. Last, you’ll need a weatherproof shell. At the very least, you’ll need a next-to-skin base layer of clothes, and an outer layer.
Base Layer: Exertion Levels and Sweat
As you prepare to assess your winter hiking pants layers, you’ll need to start with a next-to-skin base layer. Your base layer of pants needs to focus on keeping up your body temperature and wicking sweat, so you’ll need to think about your exertion levels as well as your perspiration.
Remember, you are likely to sweat more when you are moving. So you’ll perspire more frequently as you hike. During the colder wintertime, you’ll need to make sure you purchase pants that wick moisture away and keep you dry. If you purchase a base layer of winter hiking pants that doesn’t wick away moisture, then you’ll wind up feeling very wet and cold as you hike.
The best types of base layer pants are made from materials that wick moisture away and keep your skin dry, like merino wool and synthetic fabric. The worst types of materials for winter hiking pants as a base layer is cotton. Cotton cannot wick away moisture and tends to stay damp after you start sweating.
Also, depending on how cold the climate is where you tend to hike, you’ll need to figure out how thick you want your base layer. To many, the thickness of a base layer depends on personal preference. People that tend to perspire often should use a lighter synthetic layer for their skin’s base layer. However, people that typically feel colder during the winter hiking months might need something that’s a bit thicker.
Insulating Layer: Fleece or No Fleece?
Your middle layer for your winter hiking pants will help you figure out if you should utilize fleece or not. That’s because the middle layer you use should focus on trapping your body heat and keeping air close to you so that you stay insulated and warm. Most insulating layers are made of materials like fleece, wool, or down.
What type of material you should use in your insulating layer depends on the climate where you live and where you’ll be hiking. If you live in a wetter climate, then you should skip the down. Down does not retain its insulating properties when it gets damp.
So, if you find yourself living in a wetter climate or a humid area, then you’ll want something that is an alternative to down. That could include an option for fleece, which helps keep you not only warm, but also dry. Unlike down, it doesn’t tend to become less insulating when it gets wet.
Outer Layer: Waterproof or Not?
If you tend to hike often when the weather is wet, rainy, snowing, or windy, then you’ll need to make sure you have a waterproof layer for your outer shell. That way, you’ll stay dry no matter what type of climate you encounter. You’ll want an outer shell of hiking pants that resists water but still ventilates well. Stay away from pants that are too heavy and don’t breathe well.
Types of Fit
When you’re layering your winter hiking pants, you’ll need to factor in those additional layers as you figure out the types of fit you’ll need. Remember, your base layer will fit naturally to your normal size. Your mid-layer may need to be slightly larger to account for the base layer. Last, your outer layer might need to be an additional size up to account for the two layers underneath.
How you decide to layer your winter pants can affect how the pants will fit you overall. So, make sure you factor in the additional space necessary for the layers you’ll have on as you hike.
Recommended Winter Hiking Pants:
Snowshoeing vs. Cross-Country Skiing vs. Hiking – Many hikers wonder if they need a different type of pant if they like both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. If you tend to ski often on the cross-country trails, then you might want to purchase a pair of pants designed for cross country skiing. However, you’re probably wondering what the major differences are between the two options for hiking and skiing.
In all honesty, there isn’t a huge difference between the two types of pants. Hiking pants typically fit more loosely and feature a rugged style. On the other hand, cross-country ski pants tend to fit tighter and make it easier to move while cross country skiing.
Best Overall Winter Hiking Pant: Mountain Hardwear Yumalino Pant
If you’re looking for plenty of style and durability with your winter hiking pants, you’ll love the appearance and warmth offered by these pants. You’ll wind up staying warm anywhere you hike, and you’ll also have pants that look great when you are out on the town.
These pants are comprised from a long-lasting, stretchable nylon material. They also come with windproof technology and a DWR finish that makes them resistant to water and snow. Plus, you’ll also get a pair of pants with a wide, comfortable waistband.
Best Active/High Exertion Pants: Prana Winter Zion Pant
Prana’s Winter Zion Pants have a minimalist look and feel to them, but they’re great for the person that just wants one pair of pants to wear at work all day and then hit the trails with at night. You’ll get a nice pair of pants that can be worn around the office.
Yet, these pants are still comfortable enough to help you out on the trails when you go for a long day hike. You’ll get pants with a four-way stretch fabric that will offer you a full range of motion as you move, which also makes them great for the active hiker that uses a lot of exertion. Also, these pants offer a cargo design which will give you plenty of pockets to keep all of your items safe while you are on the go.
Also, these pants are slim-fitting, which means they can also work well for cross-country skiing, too. You’ll also be able to go out and hit the town with them, since they offer a nice hint of fashion.
Best Extreme Cold Winter Hiking Pant: Outdoor Research Cirque Pant
If you live in a colder, wetter climate, then you’ll want to consider purchasing the Outdoor Research Cirque Pant. You can use these pants for both skiing at high altitudes and hiking in very cold climates. Since these pants are made to work well for skiing or hiking, you’ll get a full range of motion.
They also come with both wind and water resistance built in them. They repel moisture well, so you won’t need to worry about feeling wet. Also, they stretch well, and are designed to move as you move.
As a longtime outdoor enthusiast, Dr. Krisitna Nelson has long enjoyed writing about outdoor hobbies and nature. She’s lived in several communities that have outdoor enthusiast clubs, and she has written about outdoor equipment and products for several years.