With public interest in the outdoors on the rise, the selection of outdoor gear has become larger and more diversified as well, especially when it comes to the textile industry. Those trousers we referred to as outdoor trousers just ten years ago can now be clearly divided up into one of several categories according to the fabric it’s made of, the fit, its features and the intended area of use.
Because trousers, like other outerwear, have to fit with your layering system, personal preferences and how you intend to use them, we thought it’d be useful to give you some tips on how to find the right outdoor trousers to fit your needs. So, brace yourself as we delve into the jungle of softshells, hardshells, walking trousers, climbing trousers, running tights and much more.
Softshell trousers are characterised by their versatility. Made of elastic synthetic fabrics, these trousers are available with or without a membrane and with or without a lining. Softshell trousers with a windproof membrane are just as unsusceptible to rain as models without a membrane, but not waterproof. Those with a lining have a loose mesh or soft fleece lining and are best suited for use in autumn or winter
Softshell trousers are so versatile because they boast an excellent combination of breathability, weather protection (water-resistant and usually windproof) and comfort (elasticity, soft to the touch, no swishing noises). They are usually worn directly against your skin. You can also wear them underneath a pair of hardshell trousers or along with some long underwear in the wintertime as well.
Softshells come in numerous varieties, so choose a pair that is in line with your needs. As a general rule, the thicker, rougher and less elastic the fabric is, the tougher these trousers will be. Such models are usually a bit looser and best suited for mountaineering, ice climbing, alpine climbing, winter mountaineering and high-altitude mountaineering, ski mountaineering and demanding trekking.
Thinner models made of soft, stretchy fabric are more for (alpine) climbing in the summer and mountaineering, hill walking, trekking, travelling and cycling. They have a slim, ergonomic fit and will conform to your every move.
Softshell shorts and 3/4 length shorts are just as readily available as long trousers. There are even a few models that come with a zip-off feature. Some models are available in short or tall sizes as well.
Similar to their jacket equivalents, hardshell trousers are much more than just waterproof outerwear. As the name already suggests, hardshell means that the garment has a tough and protective outer shell. Hardshell jackets and trousers are primarily worn as the outermost layer and serve to provide long-lasting protection from the wind and rain. They are incredibly durable, breathable and have a smooth surface. On the interior, hardshells are usually fitted with either a fleece or mesh lining (lined trousers), a brushed laminate (3-layer trousers) or a smooth interior with a coating (2.5-layer trousers).
Such trousers are used as emergency weather protection (overtrousers) for all sorts of activities or as a tough pair of trousers built for use in harsh conditions. For protection from sudden rainfall, most would resort to a lightweight, compact pair of 2.5-layer hardshell trousers. These consist of a laminate with a membrane and have a smooth coating on the interior to protect the membrane. They are usually worn over a pair of cycling, walking, softshell or other kind of trousers in bad weather only.
Three-layer models are much more robust, since they have an entire laminate layer on the inside protecting the membrane. Such hardshell trousers are designed for long periods of use on your mountaineering, ice climbing, high-altitude mountaineering, backcountry skiing or challenging trekking trips. Since you have them on for the duration of the trip, you would usually only wear them with long insulated underwear or models made of fleece for cold conditions.
Lined hardshell trousers have a mesh or fleece lining on the interior and are good for virtually all areas of use. The same goes for three-layer hardshell trousers, but only in persistently cold conditions. These, of course, don’t necessarily have to be worn along with long underwear or fleece trousers. Hardshell trousers are generally baggier so that there’s room for more layers underneath.
There are some hardshell shorts as well. These are supposed to act as overshorts for summer activities, like cycling or walking, when rain is flying at you from the front and you just want to keep your thighs dry to prevent them from getting cold. Hardshell trousers usually only come in one length.
Trekking and walking trousers
Since softshell trousers can be worn for hill walking and trekking and there are even special softshells specifically made for these purposes, we’re going to use the term walking trousers for all trousers made of blended fabrics and intended for backpacking. These trousers are usually constructed from soft, usually non-elastic fabric, consisting of synthetic fibres like polyester or polyamide interwoven with organic cotton. This results in an incredibly tough, durable, breathable and soft pair of trousers. Depending on how they are made, these trousers offer moderate to strong weather protection (some even completely windproof) and are usually resistant to thorns, mosquito bites and other strains.
For better weather protection, some models are waxed as well. This natural treatment sticks to the fabric longer than synthetic treatments, making the trousers stiff and giving them water-repellent properties. The incorporation of cotton not only makes the trousers very soft but also serves to cool your skin. The synthetic portion of the fabric provides breathability, quick-drying properties and abrasion resistance. The trousers themselves are a bit looser, as walking trousers are rarely elastic.
For warmer conditions, there are also walking trousers made of thinner, usually non-elastic synthetic fabrics, but these do not fall under the category of softshell trousers. In contrast to softshells, these are not water-resistant but quick-drying and suited for backpacking in the summer. Due to their small pack size, these trousers are the perfect backup for adventures of all kinds. Trekking and walking trousers are available as shorts or long trousers. Plus, there are plenty of tall models and ones you can shorten yourself. 3/4 length shorts and zip-off trousers are available as well.
Trousers for specific sports
These trousers include climbing and bouldering trousers as well as running and cycling trousers/tights.
Climbing and bouldering trousers are usually made of slightly elastic cotton. Sometimes, polyamide, elastane, polyester or hemp is mixed in to improve the flexibility of the fabric or the amount of time it needs to dry. The thickness of the fabric is rather thin, the abrasion resistance high and the fit relaxed. As a result of the casual design, these trousers are great for slacklining, lying around on the couch or hanging out by the campfire in the summertime. The great thing about cotton is the fact that it has a cooling effect and makes the climbing trousers nice and soft. Climbing trousers are made to be nice and light, so they’re perfect for everyday wear in the summer or when travelling. Of course, climbing trousers are available in all lengths and can be shortened if necessary.
Running trousers come in either slim, but not form-fitting models, or skin-tight tights. Even though one has some clear advantages over the other, it’s mostly just a matter of taste which one you pick. If you’re looking for durability, the models with no elasticity are more robust and thus more suitable for runs in more rugged terrain. Running bottoms are made of a blend of synthetic fabrics and range from being hardly elastic (running trousers) to very elastic (tights). Breathability, comfort and light weight are the most important characteristics here. There are few models that are windproof (with a membrane) or that have been treated with a water-repellent coating. Most are fast drying. Running trousers are available in all lengths.
Cycling trousers are also available as tights (short, long, 3/4 length) or as shorts (MTB). Long trousers with a more relaxed fit are more of an exception in this category. Tights are suited for cycling trips of all kinds and are available with or without a bib. They are constructed from very elastic and breathable synthetic fabric and come with a chamois. The more relaxed shorts are made for mountain biking and available in various lengths (even above the knee). They are available as overshorts or shorts with removable padded inner shorts. These are tough and protect the padded shorts underneath from wear. Plus, they’re pretty casual looking.
Winter trousers are insulated trousers. These include the lined softshell, hardshell and walking trousers mentioned above as well as warm fleece, down and synthetic models. Fleece trousers are available as close-fitting trousers made of stretchy fleece or more relaxed models made of traditional fleece. They’re a great thing to wear underneath another pair of trousers or to relax in on cold winter evenings. As for down and synthetic trousers, they are particularly lightweight and very warm. These go over your trousers when you’re stationary and in need of warmth in cold weather or when building a belay station when ice climbing. These trousers have a much looser fit.
All jeans-like trousers, corduroys and casual shorts that are not climbing trousers fall under this category. These are great for slacklining or hanging out at the park, in town or at a bothy. They are usually made of cotton with some synthetics, and the fit is usually looser but not too baggy.
Some more important details on outdoor trousers
In addition to fit, fabric and model, other important factors to consider when buying outdoor trousers are the pockets and closures. For example, is there a side zip for an easy on-off? Are there belt loops or maybe even an integrated belt? Sometimes, a flat elastic waistband or just a drawstring (climbing trousers) will do the trick. Lastly, you may also want to look for reinforcements, elastic panels, ventilation openings, gaiters and reflectors for added comfort and safety!