The Case For Pants > Shorts on the PCT
Pants are better than shorts for hiking on the PCT. There. I said it.
I hiked over 2,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018. I started out in Nike running shorts, mostly because I thought hiking pants would make me look like a huge nerd and all the thru-hikers on my Instagram feed seemed to be wearing lil shorty shorts. I wanted to fit in, so Nike shorts I wore.
It only took 109.5 miles for me to realize, as much as I love the ease and airiness and figurative cool factor of running shorts, they weren’t gonna work out for me. Not for this hike, not for this trail. Not for this Irish-ish lass. I bought a pair of super lightweight Adidas Terrex joggers from the Airstream-turned-gear-store parked at the Warner Springs Community Resource Center and never looked back.
The clothing a person wears on a thru-hike is going to be an intensely personal choice. Unless you’re down to carry a ton of unnecessary extra weight, your hiking outfit will be what you wear all day, every day, for four to six months. You might change out of it to sleep, you might choose not to. Comfort and practicality for any weather conditions you may encounter are key factors to consider. For me, shorts didn’t cut it, and I’ll tell you why.
The Pacific Crest Trail winds through the deserts and dry, exposed mountains of Southern California for roughly the first 750 miles heading north from the Mexican border. After that, the trail crosses the high passes of the Sierra Nevada where the sky is obnoxiously clear and, depending on the time of year, snowpack reflects the sun’s rays back up from underfoot at altitudes where you can really feel it. Even in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, where the tree cover is more consistently thick, I still found myself on an open ridge exposed to the sun at least once a day.
I don’t tan, I burn, so sun protection was a big consideration for my thru-hike. When I was wearing shorts in the first 100 miles of the desert, I was exhausted by the sheer amount of sunscreen I was having to rub all over my body to feel confident walking through constant UV annihilation for 10+ hours a day. If I continued at the rate I was going through the stuff, I would have ended up spending way too much money on sunscreen, not to mention all the time it takes to cover two entire human legs in the stuff. Those minutes add up to valuable hiking time, and I would rather spend four seconds pulling on a pair of pants in the morning to protect my legs from the sun.
I still carried sunscreen, but I only carried a little bottle that had enough to rub a dab on my face every day, since my face was pretty much the only part of my body that was ever exposed while hiking. In order to protect my legs with sunscreen alone, I’d have to carry a large enough bottle to provide full coverage for multiple days at a time. That means it’s heavier than a small bottle and has to be replaced a lot more often (I made one 2.9-ounce tube last from Lake Isabella to the end of my thru-hike, only using it for my face, neck, and ears).
The other reason I preferred wearing pants over slathering my legs with sunscreen is that it ends up getting really gross. I don’t mind being dirty; in fact, I prefer it, but I draw the line at having layers of dirt and crumbs sandwiched between multiple days’ worth of white shmear between showers. It’s greasy and sticks things to my skin and gear that otherwise wouldn’t stick. It attracts insects and other critters with its scent (yes, even the brands that claim to have none). You’re going to get dirty on trail no matter what. You’ll kick dirt up into your pants walking all day and eventually, the layers do build up. But at least if you’re wearing pants and not rubbing sticky lotion all over your legs all day, you can keep a little more stuff off your legs.
This brings me to my next reason to #choosepants.
The Stuff That Gets on You
The pokey little twigs. The spiderwebs. The dirt and dust and cold wetness from dewey trailside plants in the morning. The gnats and flies and bees in NorCal that seem to live for nothing other than the salt of your skin. They’re seemingly innocuous, but when you’re rocking bare legs and you’re someone who, for whatever reason, just would rather stuff not get on you, they’re annoying.
And then there are the things that can actually hurt you. The mosquitoes (mostly just annoying but also can lead to serious disease and, less seriously, nasty itching-induced scars), the ticks, the poison oak and ivy and sumac and poodle dog bush!
If you’re wearing shorts, you have to be a lot more careful with where you walk and sometimes even get off trail to go around large concentrations of overgrown poisonous plants you would certainly brush against if you stayed on the trail. If you’re wearing pants, you can plow through these things without worrying.
Pants also saved me from having to use DEET on the PCT, something I’ve been opposed to since I learned of the chemical’s endocrine-disrupting evil powers. I wore pants that were loose enough that a mosquito that landed on me wouldn’t be able to bite through the fabric straight into my skin.
The Cold and Heat
I guess I thought I would be hot with pants on in the desert. I guess that’s why I started out in shorts. Well, I wasn’t hot. In fact, I felt a lot cooler once I switched to pants. The thing is, you’re going to be hot out there no matter what you’re wearing. However, if the sun is beating down on your bare skin, you’ll be hotter than if you’re wearing one thin, lightweight layer.
The key is to choose the right pants. Leggings aren’t a good idea for when it’s hot and exposed outside. They’ll stick to the skin and turn a sweaty situation into a swampy one real quick. My preference is a super lightweight, minimalist nylon jogger. No zipper, minimal pockets, no bells and whistles or convertible length bullshit. Nothing more or less than a very thin, breathable layer of fabric that’s comfy and easy to move in and quick to dry should they get wet. A light color is preferable for maximum heat fighting power. Bonus points for a pair with UPF protection.
For the cold, it’s good to have a layering strategy. I’d estimate about 85% of my days on the PCT went like this: Shivering cold until the sun comes up, swelteringly hot throughout the day, then really cold again when the sun starts going down. Probably 13% of days were just cold the entire day, and I’ll leave a 2% margin in there for the days I assume happen but I can’t seem to remember that were warm through the night.
Pants are great for a summer thru-hike on a trail like the PCT that will certainly feature cold weather, but probably won’t feature much fresh snow or rain (note my use of the word probably). I packed a pair of thin, merino wool base layer pants for sleeping, and if I was hiking in freezing cold weather I could just layer those under my hiking pants. I saw people hike in just their base layer pants or base layer pants underneath shorts, but a pair of long pants over the top of your insulating sleep pants will provide a little extra warmth and windshield and protect your sleeping pants from getting too dirty, which is important for keeping your sleeping bag clean, which is important for its long-term durability and effectiveness. See, I only care about cleanliness when it serves a non-cosmetic purpose.
Though inclement weather is the exception on the PCT during peak hiking season, you may find yourself walking through an afternoon of sleet in Southern California, a thunderstorm in the Mojave Desert, or a three-day spitting cold snap in Washington (I experienced all three). I carried rain pants for most of my thru-hike, but since the cold/wet weather I endured was neither super intense nor super long lasting, I rarely used them and wouldn’t pack them on my next PCT hike, unless I expected to be in Washington late in the season when rain becomes more of a certainty. I found my thin pants to be plenty water resistant, and, when paired with my base layer pants, warm enough to render additional rain pants redundant. For a trail like the AT where hikers experience alternating downpours and muggy humidity, rain pants might make more sense, but if you’re on the PCT and already wearing pants, you don’t need to carry an extra pair for rain.
I loved the pants I picked up in Warner Springs, and I ended up wearing them up until the midpoint of Washington, when my dad came to visit and we traveled up to Whistler in Canada, where I fell in love with a pair of pants at the Arc’teryx store and replaced the old ones. My Adidas pants were a little too loose to begin with, and by the time I replaced them I’d lost so much weight I was having to hold them up with the belt of my fanny pack. That combined with all the holes added up to a necessary, if bittersweet, goodbye.
The Arc’teryx pants I bought in Whistler were a fantastic upgrade, and I do say upgrade because, at $119 they were not a budget pick. I bought them in black, the only color they had, and it was only OK because it was September at that point, and the heat wasn’t so bad. I wish they came in a different color for desert hiking, but the black has been great for life post-trail. I wear these pants at least once a week for climbing, teaching yoga, and general life living, so it was definitely worth it.
Here are the Adidas pants I started with (hard to find, I think they stopped producing them), and the Arc’teryx pants I switched to toward the end of my hike:
I’m looking for a new pair of pants for my next hike, and my requirements are as follows.
The pants should be:
- Very lightweight
- Full-length or ankle-length. Not dragging the ground but definitely not capri-length.
- UPF if possible
- Treated for bugs is even better
- Low-profile, comfortable waistband
- At least one pocket
- No zippers or buttons at the fly, just a drawstring tie or elastic waist
- Ability to zip open the calf is a plus
- Water repellent ideal, definitely not waterproof
- Available in a light color for hot conditions
Here are more options for durable, comfortable, lightweight hiking pants for backpackers choosing the long road.
- Patagonia Women’s High Spy Joggers, $79, 5.7 ounces
- Cotopaxi Ara Jogger, $80, 8 ounces
- The North Face Women’s Aphrodite 2.0 Pants, $70, 8 ounces
- ExOfficio Bugsaway Della Jogger, $85, 7.9 ounces
- ExOfficio Women’s Bugsaway Damselfly Pants, $80, 7.8 ounces
- Outdoor Voices RecTrek Pant, $85, 11.2 ounces
- Arc’teryx Sabria Pant, $119, 6.7 ounces
- Janji Transit Tech Pants, $98, 6.5 ounces
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