How to Find Hiking Pants That Fit

Or: how not to embarrass yourself in public

hikers uphill rear view
ZenShui/Laurence Mouton/Getty Images

Most of the common-sense rules for trying on everyday pants apply to hiking pants, too. If the pants legs pool around your ankles or the seat sags annoyingly, it goes back on the rack. But the types of activities you're likely to be doing outdoors -- physically intense, and probably requiring a greater-than-usual range of motion -- mean you should put your hiking pants to a few extra tests. Skip these, and you might find yourself experiencing a whole new definition of exposure on the trail.

Before I get to the tests, here's a quick list of terms you might encounter when you shop for hiking pants:

  • Articulated knees. The knees are cut to allow full range of movement without bagging.
  • Gusseted crotch. Extra fabric in just the right places so you won't split your pants if you straddle a creek. (In high-quality pants, this won't create obvious bagging or sagging.)
  • Hiking pants sometimes also come with a DWR coating -- a type of waterproofing -- or an SPF rating if they're tightly woven enough to protect you from the sun. Some are also impregnated with insect repellent.
  • If you run across any other terms you're confused about, check my hiking glossary for quick, in-context definitions.

Trying On Hiking Pants

Comfort and freedom of movement are key. If any aspect of the pants is even minorly annoying or uncomfortable as you walk around the store, it's going to be really infuriating by the time you take your 10,000th step along the trail. (Just for the record, that's only about five miles.) So even if you think you know your size, always try new hiking pants on before you buy them, or be ready to return them if they don't fit.

Once you've got them on, here's how to test your hiking pants for fit and freedom of movement:

  • Sit down. If the pants feel tight across the seat at all, ditch them or try a larger size.
  • Bend and flex your knees. Then lift one knee at a time, close to your chest or as close as you can get them. If at any time the pants bind, they're not going to make you happy on the trail.
  • Squat down as if you were tending a fire or inspecting something on the ground. Check the cuffs on the pants -- they shouldn't ride up significantly and expose your lower legs to the weather. Then check the back of the pants to make sure your butt is still covered. Low-rise pants are nowhere near as popular with outdoor equipment manufacturers now as they were a few years ago but a few of them are still out there, ready to moon your unsuspecting buddies when you bend over to tie your boots or crawl into your tent.
  • Finally, duplicate any other motions you can reasonably expect to do on your hikes. For example if you do a lot of scrambling, bring your knees up toward your chest or step up and down on the dressing room bench a few times to make sure the pants won't restrict your movement at all.

Last word: If you're shopping online, I highly, highly recommend making a list of the pants you want to buy, then hitting your local sporting goods store to try them on and figure out which size you need. Pants sizes are not standardized among manufacturers (at least they aren't for women's hiking pants), so a size 8 in one brand may be very roomy while the same size is embarrassingly tight in another brand. Doing the try-on test beforehand saves you time in the end, because you won't have to worry about shipping returns back and forth.

Now that you're set for pants, do you know how to make sure your jacket and hiking boots fit correctly?