How to Choose the Right Winter Hiking Pants

A backpacker with winter hiking pants and a dog walking in the snow

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Winter hikes can be amazing, but staying warm is key, and one vital piece of gear is often overlooked: winter hiking pants.

In this post, we’ll explore the world of winter hiking pants, and help you choose the right ones for a cozy cold-weather trek.

Interested? Let’s get started.

Key Takeaways

  • Opt for softshell pants for dry, moderate conditions around freezing, ski/snow pants for extreme cold below 0°F (-18°C), or tights for milder temps down to 25°F (-4°C).
  • Prioritize key features like insulation, water resistance, windproofing, breathability and mobility through articulated knees and gusseted crotch.
  • Consider useful extras like adjustable cuffs, secure pockets, reflectivity for visibility, lightweight and packable materials.

Types of Winter Hiking Pants

When it comes to choosing the right winter hiking pants, it’s important to know that there’s a variety of options available:

1. Softshell Pants: Softshell pants are versatile, known for their flexibility, breathability, and resistance to wind and water.

Winter Hiking Pants: Softshell Option

They offer a comfortable fit and are usually suitable for use in cold weather, ranging from 30°F (-1°C) without a baselayer to 10°F (-12°C) with a light baselayer.

  • Pros: Ideal for dry, fair weather conditions. They provide insulation without excessive bulk and allow for ease of movement.
  • Cons: Softshell is a woven fabric and is not fully waterproof, so it may not be suitable for heavy rain or extended periods in the snow.

2. Ski Pants: Ski pants from nylon and polyester are designed for winter sports and provide excellent insulation. They are often bulkier but offer superior warmth and protection.

Winter Hiking Pants: Ski Pants

In fact, with a good baselayer, most high-quality ski pants can be used comfortably in extremely cold conditions, even as low as -22°F (-30°C).

  • Pros: Great for extremely cold conditions. Insulated ski pants can keep you warm even in freezing temperatures.
  • Cons: Bulkier and less flexible than softshell pants, which can be less comfortable for uphill climbs.

3. Winter Tights: Winter tights, often with a fleece lining and wind-resistant outer fabric, are a lightweight option. They are suitable for milder winter conditions or high-intensity activities.

Winter Hiking Pants: Winter Tights

With winter tights, it’s important to be cautious about what the manufacturer considers ‘winter,’ but most high-quality ones can handle temperatures down to 25°F (-4°C).

  • Pros: Comfortable and offer flexibility for strenuous activities. Can be paired with additional layers if needed.
  • Cons: May not provide sufficient warmth in very cold conditions without layering. These are a viable option if you plan to engage in high activity levels during the day and are confident that you’ll reach a warm cabin by the end of the evening.

4. Alternative Options: Some winter hikers opt for unconventional choices, such as running leggings, jeans with thermal layers, or summer hiking pants with added insulation.

It’s difficult to assess anyone’s alternative setup, but the winter options mentioned above are designed for a reason. I wouldn’t recommend taking a DIY setup in temperatures below 30°F (-1°C), as it can lead to getting wet and encountering unforeseen issues.

  • Pros: These alternatives can work well for specific conditions and personal preferences if you are on a budget.
  • Cons: Choosing alternative options requires careful consideration of warmth, breathability, and moisture management. In this case, it really depends on how much you trust your baselayer. I would only consider this kind of setup if you have a high-quality merino wool baselayer.

How to Choose Winter Hiking Pants

Three hikers on a winter trail, all staying warm and wearing winter hiking pants

When shopping for winter hiking pants, focus on these key features for cold-weather comfort and performance:

  1. Insulation: Look for pants with adequate insulation suitable for the temperatures you’ll encounter. Check the previous section for guidance.
  2. Water Resistance: Water resistance is important to keep you dry in light rain or snow. We recommend synthetic options, as they are easier to maintain. Look for pants with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating and taped main seams. However, if you don’t mind the extra maintenance (such as waxing), you can check out eco-conscious options from brands such as FjällRäven.
  3. Windproofing: Windproof protection acts as a barrier against biting winds, keeping you warm and comfortable during windy hikes or on exposed terrain. Check the product description to ensure the manufacturer has included this feature.
  4. Breathability:Breathable pants allow moisture (sweat) to escape, keeping you comfortable during strenuous activities and vital in emergencies to prevent hypothermia.
  5. Fit and Mobility: Look for pants that provide enough freedom of movement. Pre-shaped knee sections and elastic regions can enhance mobility.

Next to these key features, also consider additional features that can elevate your next trip even further:

  1. Adjustable Cuffs: Adjustable cuffs let you customize the fit around your boots, accommodating different footwear styles for various winter conditions. Keeping snow out of your shoes is essential.
  2. Pockets: Consider the number and placement of pockets. Zippered pockets are useful for small essentials like a map, phone, or snacks, especially if they are waterproof.
  3. Weight and Packability: Lightweight pants are great for long hikes, but they should still be durable and weather-resistant. Look for pants that can pack down small inside your backpack. Keep in mind that for winter camping, there are special down pants that pack down very small, allowing you to use lighter pants during the day and switch to the warmer down option at night.
  4. Visibility: For safety during low-light conditions, pants with reflective elements can help improve visibility during dawn or dusk hikes.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, winter hikes are beautiful, but staying warm is crucial, and that’s where winter hiking pants come in. We have explored various options, but it ultimately depends on the temperature.

Opt for tights in relatively warm weather, softshell pants in moderate cold, and ski pants for extreme cold. Alternative options are best avoided unless you’re experienced. Remember, the right baselayer becomes increasingly important as the temperature drops.

As you prepare for your next winter adventure, keep in mind that the right pants can make all the difference in keeping you warm and comfortable.

Looking for an ultralight baselayer? Check out our TOP 5 guide for the lightest options for both men and women.


What pants should I wear hiking in winter?

When hiking in winter, selecting the right pants is crucial for comfort and safety. Opt for insulated hiking pants designed to keep you warm in cold temperatures. Look for materials that offer water resistance to keep you dry in light rain or snow. Windproof pants are essential to protect against biting winds, especially on exposed trails. Prioritize breathability to prevent moisture buildup from sweat during strenuous hikes. Ensure a good fit and mobility with features like pre-shaped knee sections and elastic areas. Adjustable cuffs accommodate various footwear styles. Pockets, especially secure zippered ones, come in handy for storing essentials like maps, phones, or snacks. Additionally, consider the weight and packability of the pants for longer hikes, and for safety in low-light conditions, choose pants with reflective elements.

Do you need thermals for winter hiking?

Absolutely, thermals are a crucial addition to your winter hiking attire. These specialized base layers offer vital insulation, moisture-wicking capabilities, and temperature regulation. By trapping body heat and wicking away sweat, thermals keep you comfortably warm without overheating during your hike. They also play a pivotal role in the layering system, allowing you to adjust your clothing as needed to stay cozy. With various weights available, you can choose the right thermal for the conditions, making them a versatile and comfortable choice for winter hiking.

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Why you should trust us

At Hikinglite, we're all about helping you hit the trails with lightweight and ultralight outdoor gear that won't weigh you down. Our crew of content creators? Real outdoor enthusiasts who've logged countless miles on the trails.

Leading the pack is our editor-in-chief, Alex Jardine – an ultralight evangelist who's hiked over 10,000 trail miles across the globe. He's basically a walking outdoor encyclopedia. This dude loves testing out the latest and greatest products, so you can trust his recommendations are always well-informed and reliable.

We treat all our suggestions like advice from close trail buddies. No fluff, just real insights from folks who live and breathe the outdoor life.

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