“Cotton kills” is a popular mantra in the hiking community. But after James Dean and Marlon Brandon made jeans cool in the 50s, jeans spent decades as the clothing to wear for everything, including hiking. Just look at snaps from the 60s and 70s. Thus, the “don’t wear jeans hiking” seems extreme.
Wearing jeans while hiking isn’t a hard no. Denim is durable, has high UV protection, and is less likely to snag, making them an attractive choice when exploring areas with thorns and lots of brush. But there are significant drawbacks, including the material’s weight and hypothermia risk when wet.
Almost every 80s kid grew up hiking in jeans. My friend’s boomer father was backpacking in denim until the day he died, through the Rogue River Trail, Cascade Mountains, and vast swaths of Eastern Oregon. On the other hand, seatbelts were also not popular when he was a kid, yet we know they’re essential.
So can you go hiking in jeans?
Should You Go Hiking In Jeans?
You can hike in jeans, but there are drawbacks, such as chaffing, their slow drying time, weight, and they don’t wick sweat. Nonetheless, most of Generation X grew up hiking in jeans, and many Boomers will refuse to wear anything but when out on the trail.
Hiking in jeans is best for shorter hikes, as there is less chance of chaffing, and the wearer won’t be stuck in them too long if they become wet. For those who wear them for extended hikes, it is essential to pack a change of clothes made out of synthetic, moisture-wicking, quick-dry material for wet weather.
Best Seasons To Hike In Jeans?
The best season to sport your denim while out on the trail is spring and fall. The temperatures hit that Goldilocks spot of not too hot or cold. But you do need to stay alert for chances of rain, especially in spring.
Also, these are the two seasons ripe with ticks. Jeans are tough, if not impossible, for the Lyme disease carriers to bite through and give mosquitoes a challenge. However, this is only an advantage if you ensure ticks can’t crawl up the cuffs (tuck in the ends into socks or wear gaiters).
Worst Seasons To Hike In Jeans?
Hot summer days and denim are a wicked combination. Unfortunately, while denim offers some of the best UV protection clothing can provide, it is garbage when it comes to breathability.
Jeans heat up like a greenhouse, creating a clammy climate that is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous when temperatures drop, especially at night.
Winter is the second worst season to wear denim as it can freeze and is a health hazard when wet in cold temperatures. Boomers simply slap on a pair of long johns to provide warmth while enjoying denim’s durability. But unless those thermals are made of synthetic material, they are a hypothermia hazard.
It was not unusual to see somebody in the 70s, and 80s hiking in thermals and jeans, with rain pants, slapped over. However, even if they managed not to turn that outfit into an internal sauna, it was ridiculous. The hiker’s movement was restricted, leaving them with the grace of a suited-up astronaut stuck in gravity.
Hiking Pants Vs. Jeans
Hiking pants are always recommended over wearing jeans while out on the trail. However, outdoor pants are not perfect, and there are areas where denim shines. Thus, a hiker in jeans isn’t necessarily inexperienced or has the intelligence of a turnip. Instead, like my friend’s Boomer father, they have different priorities.
Jeans Look Better Than Hiking Pants
Jeans look better than hiking pants 99% of the time. Check out a cowboy sporting a fine pair of Wranglers, and imagine the same person in hiking pants instead. It isn’t that people look awful in hiking pants, but a pair of well-fitting jeans can look stunning. Unfortunately, there is no hiking pant equivalent.
Thankfully, outdoor gear has come a long way from its fugly beginnings. Then, the idea seemed to be that real nature lovers wouldn’t care about looks and valued only practicality. Thus, manufacturers seemed to go out of their way to make gear, including hiking pants, as ugly as possible.
Outdoor labels were especially brutal on women and seemed to go through the entire 90s not understanding cutting for women’s hips didn’t have to make her look frumpy. Thankfully, this has improved. The North Face Aphrodite looks even comfortable enough to Netflix and chill while still being cute.
Also, women’s hiking gear provides more options, including excellent hiking tights. But manufacturers still struggle with how to add practical details, such as a reinforced bum, without leaving people with…questions.
Jeans Are More Durable Than Hiking Pants
Jeans don’t snag or rip as easily as hiking pants, especially denim that wasn’t made for fashion trends. However, outdoor pants are not fragile like your average prom dress. In fact, it could be argued that modern synthetics offer superior strength to denim if they were compared weight to weight.
Jeans Have Superior UV Protection Than Hiking Pants
Denim has a mindboggling high UV value of 1700. Your average UV protection clothing boasts about having a factor of 50. UV 50 is an excellent rating and better than your average cotton shirt, which offers an average of 10. Also, adding layers increases protection.
Jeans Don’t Melt To Your Skin; Hiking Pants Can
Cotton can kill a hiker when it is wet. However, synthetics and fire are not a safe combination. High-tech materials can melt, sticking to the skin. Thus, even an ember landing on your thigh can cause much more damage if you are wearing hiking pants.
Cotton is not as safe as wool around a campfire, but it is better than a synthetic. If an ember falls on your leg, you can slap it out, and it might not even have had time to burn a hole through the denim.
Hiking Pants Provide Greater Freedom Of Movement Than Jeans
Hiking pants are lighter weight and move with greater flexibility than jeans. This is why you never see a gymnast in a leotard made of denim but do see them sporting high-tech synthetics.
Hiking Pants Don’t Chafe Like Jeans
Hiking long distances in jeans cause the wearer to develop blisters in places never dreamed possible. Common awkward areas to develop rashes, blisters, or raw skin include the inner thighs, waistband, and the creases of more delicate regions. Yes, there.
Hiking Pants Have Superior Moisture Wicking Than Jeans
Hiking pants are breathable, wicking sweat away from the body and keeping the user dry. Denim makes you sweat, and it holds it tight against you. Ick.
But this isn’t just about turning the wearer into a human Petri dish. As jeans absorb the sweat, they gain weight, making them an increasing burden.
Lastly, many areas can swiftly turn from a pleasant day to a miserable chill. If the jeans are damp, they become a hypothermia risk.
Hiking Pants Are Lighter Than Jeans
Hiking pants are lighter on the body and in the backpack. Jeans are excellent for taking up room in a bag and preventing you from floating into space. When backpacking for anything longer than two nights, saving weight and packing space in a bag becomes crucial.
Hiking Pants Sometimes Convert To Shorts, Unlike Jeans
Okay, jeans can be cut into shorts, and people often do it. But this isn’t an easily reversible conversion. On the flip side, many hiking pants can be turned into short with scissor-free ease and quickly turned back into pants.
For examples for men, check out:
For examples for women, check out:
Hiking Pants Dry Faster Than Jeans
Hiking pants come out of the washing machine already, mostly dry. In addition, even a soaked pair can sometimes dry in under an hour in the sun (but don’t do that unless it is an emergency as it is bad for the clothes). This is why swimsuits are made from synthetics and not canvas.
On the other hand, Jeans have an infamous ability to hold water for as long as Noah’s Ark needed to stay afloat. It’s impressive yet potentially deadly.
Should You Go Hiking In Sweatpants?
You can go hiking in sweatpants, but it isn’t a great idea. They don’t offer the benefits denim has while having many of the same drawbacks. However, sweatpants are comfortable. So if it is a short hike with zero chance of rain, it is often fine and will give the wearer more freedom than movement than jeans.
Should You Go Hiking In Yoga Pants?
Leggings and yoga pants offer excellent freedom of movement, are comfortable, and are often lightweight. Also, leggings and yoga pants are not always made of cotton, which means they sometimes have moisture-wicking properties.
However, they typically will not offer the UV protection of hiking pants or denim. Your average leggings and yoga pants are also not made to withstand the wear and tear of the great outdoors, so they could be shredded on rougher trails. However, they’re fine for your typical 5-mile paved loop at a popular tourist destination.
Lastly, regular leggings and yoga pants rarely have enough pockets. Of course, there are exceptions, but hiking gear tends to understand women need pockets better than most fashion and sportswear brands. Thankfully, the situation is improving, even in dresses. But it is taking time, and women are sick of waiting.
Some great outdoor leggings to consider:
However, while hiking leggings are incredibly comfortable and often look better than your average hiking pants, they are not as breathable. Nor do hiking leggings come with the ability to be unzipped into shorts. Lastly, they tend to leave the ankles and the lower calf exposed, which can leave you vulnerable to ticks.