Convertible Pants vs Shorts for Summer Hiking

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It’s summer. It’s hot but you don’t care because next weekend you’re going to hit the trail. Now you have to choose what kind of clothing to wear during your hiking trip. You’re dithering between hiking shorts and convertible pants and can’t decide which one’s better. Well, this article may help you choose.

We’ll discuss some of the most important advantages and disadvantages of carrying zip-off pants or shorts on the trail.

Convertible pants or shorts – what’s better for summer hiking?


The most popular fabrics for zip-off pants and shorts are cotton, synthetics (such as polyester and nylon) or mixed.

The traditional and heaviest material for trekking pants is 100 percent cotton. However, wearing cotton on the trail can bring you a lot of trouble. Since cotton absorbs a lot of moisture, it dries slowly which means that you’ll have to walk with wet pants for a long time before they get dry. Moreover, wet clothing conducts heat away from your body much faster than dry clothing, so wet clothing is a recipe for contracting hypothermia. In addition, cotton is not water-resistant or water-repellent (in contrast to most synthetic fabrics) and just a few minutes of rain would be enough for your cotton clothing to get wet. Cotton-polyester and cotton-nylon blends such as 65/35 or 50/50 are better; best is 100 percent synthetics, especially polyester/microfiber, because they are much lighter and faster drying, though just as hardwearing, windproof, and comfortable.


Most outdoor hazards are caused by the weather. You should always know in general what weather to expect during planning your hiking trip. If you’re going to an unfamiliar area, checking weather patterns for some time in advance can give you an idea of what to expect.

Weather variability can be a factor of prime importance when choosing between convertible pants and shorts for hiking. A trail where temperature fluctuations are not an exception but a rule requires that you choose your hiking clothing with caution.

Pants with zip-off legs are a good choice for variable temperatures because when it’s hot, you can easily zip off the legs to get convenient shorts (or zip on the legs when getting cool). Despite the extra zippers, it’s more economical to use convertible pants rather than carry an entire separate pair of hiking trousers. Carrying a pair of zip-off pants can be very useful in a big temperature change due to elevation since they can make your hike much more bearable.

Carrying shorts seems more reasonable on trails where the weather is expected to stay hot during your hike and/or you don’t have to protect your legs from intense sun or cold temperatures.

Sunny hiking nature


Wearing hiking trousers keeps your legs protected from hazards such as poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac or other allergenic plants. You can also be harmed by contact with stinging nettle. Although painful, it’s nothing to worry about, in general. A final plant to watch out for is devil’s club, whose stems are covered with razor-sharp spines that can break off and remain in the wound, causing inflammation.

Although rare, you do come across animals unexpectedly. Be careful because some animals pose more of a threat and need special attention. Insects are the ones most likely to be a threat – to your sanity if not your physical health. Convertible pants would protect your legs better than shorts in case you have to deal with mosquitos, blackflies or no-see-ums.


Shorts are typically worn for ventilation reasons, especially when hiking in dry, hot environments. If you choose the right pair, they’re usually very minimal and reliable.

As far as hiking is concerned, having comfortable shorts has some advantages. Firstly, they are cooler and offer great breathability, which is especially important when hiking in hot weather. Secondly, they allow freedom of movement, which is so important for hiking on any kind of terrain but especially on rough surfaces. Thirdly, shorts are a lighter option than convertible pants.

Convertible pants are often considered too uncomfortable. The main issue for backpackers is with the zippers. Especially annoying is when zippers happen to hit right on the knee. This means that zippers may be pressing into your knees when you kneel down. For some hikers, it isn’t a huge issue but it is definitely a disadvantage. For others, it’s a big issue and they prefer using shorts even on rainy days instead of zip-off pants. Another disadvantage of convertible trousers is that when you zip off the legs, they often convert into shorts that are too long hence uncomfortable in hot weather. Third disadvantage of convertible trousers is zippering. Unfortunately, the zipper may bust on your trip or you may have other issues with zippers causing pressure or abrasion on your legs.

When buying a pair of zip-off pants, the main thing to check is the fit. Some pants are styled for fashion rather than function and can be uncomfortable to hike in.


You need to cope with the terrain, which may mean negotiating steep cliffs, loose scree, and snow. Mountains are particularly notorious for creating their own weather. Mountainous steep terrain can cause a swift buildup of internal heat, especially while carrying a pack on sunny uphill sections. However, the high altitude also means that you and the environment can cool quickly, and more so if your clothes are wet from sweat. Zip-off pants are no doubt a better choice for hiking in an altitude because you can zip off your legs when hot and easily zip them on when it gets cold.

“Bushwhacking” is the apt word for thrashing through thick brush and scrambling over fallen trees while thorny bushes tear at your clothes and pack. It’s probably the hardest form of “walking” and it’s to be avoided whenever possible – though sometimes you have no choice. Don’t make the mistake of wearing shorts while hiking on unmaintained trails. Such trails can quickly become overgrown and it may turn out that you have to walk through dense thickets of thorny bushes and small trees. They won’t spare your legs and the least you can expect is discomfort, pain, and bloody legs.

Mountain forest hiking trail

Other considerations

We’ll outline just a few other important considerations. They concern durability, sizing and style, and pocket space.

When it comes to hiking gear, having products that last is essential. It’s very important knowing that your hiking clothes are durable enough to survive your hiking trip. The durability of a hiking product depends mainly on the material, terrain, weather, and duration of the trip.

Sizing and style are also among the important features that need careful consideration before choosing between shorts and convertible pants. If zip-offs are to be comfortable they need to be well designed and to fit properly. As a rule, it’s much easier to find comfortable shorts than convenient convertible pants.

A lot of hikers like to have at least one pocket with a snap or zipper for their wallet and money when traveling to and from the wilderness. Additionally, large thigh pockets are good for carrying maps. In this respect, convertible trousers deserve more credit than shorts.


Choose hiking outfit appropriate for season and terrain. Your pants need to guard you against the wind, wetness, cold, direct sunlight, and heat. The decision to wear hiking trousers or shorts is up to you. So let’s summarize the pros and cons of both.

Shorts give you ultimate freedom and are also cooler than pants. For example, this makes them suitable for a low-altitude summer hike. What’s more, for many backpackers, running shorts plus wind pants make a more versatile, more comfortable (sometimes even lighter) combination.

Convertible pants, made of quick-drying fabrics such as polyester or nylon, should be worn if you expect any drop in temperature or heavy vegetation along the trail. They’ll keep you warmer when the temperature drops as you gain elevation or the weather turns cold or windy. You may also save some pack space and weight by getting a pair of zip-off pants. Lastly, convertible pants need to fit properly to be comfortable.

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