There are three things you need your winter hiking gear to do: keep you warm, dry and moving. Most of us can figure out the top between base layers and waterproof shells, but when it comes to the body part you’re driving most up a trail—your legs—bulk adds up fast. After all, no one wants to commit to another four miles to the summit when your layers have you waddling like the Michelin man.
The real key is understanding you don’t have to have full protection in one outfit. Harsher conditions may call for snow pants, while off-trail hikes that involve bushwhacking and rock scrambling ups the need for durability. But for the most part, unless it’s a wash out-type of day, the goal is to aim for pants that are light, comfortable and made from a material that will keep you warm, while stashing reassurance in the form of a soft shell or rain pants in your pack.
Here’s all the gear you need to hike through any winter precipitation.
Best For: Skinning, off-resort skiing and snowshoeing
Entry Level: Columbia Men’s Bugaboo II
If you want to buy just one pair of pants for all your winter needs, opt for snow pants with a lot of movability. This Columbia pair hits all the key features for trekking, skiing and snowboarding: Fully waterproof with no-leak seams, solid baseline insulation, built-in leg gaiters — and the articulated knees offer great crossover for hiking. The fleece lining and lack of vents mean these risk being a little too toasty on a bluebird day and they won’t hold up year in and out — but you really can’t beat their sub-$100 price point.
The Upgrade: Patagonia Descensionist
These snow pants billed for backcountry terrain makes them excellent for hiking sans skis. A hard and soft shell-hybrid, the Descensionist have excellent stretch, breathability, featherlight weight and three-layer waterproofing. They’re finished with a DWR coating, so they’ll keep you plenty dry if the sky opens up. Made from a nylon and polyester weave, you’ll need a base or mid-layer underneath, but the lack of stifling insulation makes them wonderfully versatile. And, because they’re Patagonia, they’ll last you years on the trail or slopes.
Soft Shell Pants
Best For: Windy summits, slushy shoulder season hiking
Entry Level: Columbia Royce Peak
We love that these soft shells come in varying inseam lengths to keep even tall guys dry — and with stretch fabric, articulation and gusset details, they allow for full range of motion. The pants are water-resistant, not waterproof, so definitely pack a pair of rain pants to throw on just in case. They aren’t heavy-duty enough for severe winter weather. But the windproof technology and slightly heavier nylon mean these pants will keep you warm with a base layer all winter or solo during the shoulder season.
The Upgrade: Outdoor Research Cirque Pant
These highly technical soft shells are made for ski touring at high altitude, so they’re unrestricted in movement, resistant to wind and water — though, as you’d expect from the Seattle-based company, even their water-resistance repels moisture well enough to avoid needing rain pants until a real downpour comes along. The stretch fit is ideal for movement, and a slim cut makes them easy to slide into gaiters.
Best For: Flash storms or a chance of rain on hikes
Entry Level: Marmot PreCip Pant
Super lightweight and compact, these rain pants will easily stuff into your pack and, once the rain or snow starts, the nylon ripstop material and seam taping will keep your mid-layers dry. We love the ankle-side zips and snaps to help the pants over bulky boots in a rush. The downside: The thinner fabric that makes these so great for carrying on long hikes is more prone to tearing and the pants aren’t the most breathable. But, unless you live in the PNW, you’re probably only wearing rain pants for the short, wet portion of a hike, so the price point and key features outweigh the cons.
The Upgrade: Arc’teryx Beta SL Pant
Rain pants are notoriously hot and stuffy — it’s the price you pay for the luxury of staying dry — but Arc’teryx proves that for a little more money, dressing for downpours can be an almost comfortable experience. These superlight, completely waterproof pants are made with breathable Gore-Tex fabric and strategically-placed waterproof zippers, keeping the rain out but allowing quick heat release in between squalls. The elastic waistband is comfortable, and the relaxed fit offers enough room to layer underneath. The lace hook drawcords at the ankle let you tighten the pants around your boot, further keeping mud and moisture out and the hems, lower leg, and insteps are all reinforced for a longer lifespan — where your gear gets beat up most.
Best For: Three-season hiking, hunting
Entry Level: First Lite Obsidian Merino Pants
If you’re hard on your gear but feel restricted by most thick, dependable fabrics, you need heavy duty pants explicitly made for mobility. The Obsidian pants were crafted for hunting, but inspired by rock climbing and mountaineering. The result is a killer hybrid of serious durability, uninhibited movement and three-season warmth. They’re made from 90 percent stretch merino, delivering great temperature regulation (and odor control) and, along with strategic stretch nylon panels, let you crouch, jump and climb with ease. Their DWR finish will keep you dry while the merino helps wick sweat away as your heart rate shoots up and the temperatures drop. Throw a pair of gaiters over the bottom and rain pants in your pack and these trousers will buffer against anything a basic winter hike throws at you.
The Upgrade: Fjällräven Keb Trousers
This bestseller from the Swedish trekking company lives up to its reputation of quality technical hiking gear. The secret is in Fjäll’s proprietary G-1000 fabric, which is tightly woven and quick-to-dry for wind- and water-resistance and durability. Most of the pant is made from the G-1000 polyester and cotton blend, but the knees, butt and front of legs are all paneled with the softer Eco fabric for more mobility and the bottom of the legs have a second layer of material to stand up to any chafing from your hiking boots. The rear and knees are pre-shaped and have reinforced seams for optimal durability and mobility as you scramble over sharp rocks or through the brush. There are pockets for storage, fabric panels to minimize chafing where you want help most and, best of all, zippered vents from the knee to hip and along the calves to let heat out on temperamental days.
Crossover Lifestyle Pants
Best For: Casual offices, casual hikes, dry days on the mountain
Entry Level: Prana Winter Zion Pant
These pants are minimalist and built for the guy who wants to have one pair of pants for casual Fridays that turn into belay pants on Fridays. They’re simple enough to almost pass in public as a pair of chinos and so comfortable that you won’t want to take them off after a full day of scrambling or hiking. Technically designed for climbers, the four-way stretch fabric allows full range of motion. The low-profile cargo pockets are convenient for day hikes, while the slim cut, zipper and pockets (all real, not just for the look) allow them to blend in when you’re grabbing a bite after. Plus, they’re fleece lined—just enough to keep you toasty on the trail but not so much that you’ll overheat inside.
The Upgrade: Mountain Hardwear Yumalino Pant
These slick-looking, fleece-lined pants will keep you warm on the trails without soliciting a second look on the streets or in a casual business meeting. Made from durable, four-way stretch nylon, they’re windproof and warm. We especially love that they’re finished with DWR, so that light snow will slide right off. The wide waistband makes them comfortable to wear all day (and less cumbersome under a trail pack), yet they have the zipper and pockets of real pants.