You may see classic photos of outdoorsy-looking people, in the woods, mountains, or in the open plains with flannel shirts on, hiking boots, and a pair of jeans. Levi Strauss, back in the day, actually developed the blue jeans to westerners who needed a durable pant to wear throughout the day on the ranch. This must mean they are just as durable and apt for mountaineering and hiking, right? Wrong!
Hiking in jeans is simply not ideal. While this outfit makes for a nice spread in a clothing magazine or for being a lumberjack on Halloween, that is about all it is good for, especially with the development of other lightweight yet durable fabrics.
Under no circumstances should you take on a hike wearing jeans, unless you are thinking of a simple day hike in a mild temperature, and even then you should swap out the Levi’s for something like Patagonia’s performance jeans (designed specifically for outdoor wear, finished with water-resistant material, and are not 100% cotton).
Seriously, not even Cheryl Strayed wore jeans/jean shorts in Wild, and she was not exactly the most experienced outdoorswoman. To understand why you still see so many folks in magazines and in what seem like real photos on the internet wearing jeans while hiking, we need to understand the origin of denim and the blue jean. We will also guide you through how to select hiking pants that are alternatives to jeans that will serve you much better when you hit the trail.
Why are jeans a no-no?
Jeans are made of cotton. Cotton denim is not known for its water-repelling properties, nor for its ability to breathe. If you sweat on the trail (and let’s face it, who doesn’t) your denim jeans will absorb the moisture; if it rains, if you step in any puddles, and basically if you encounter any kind of wetness on the trail, your jeans will absorb it and then take forever to dry.
This can lead to skin chafing, blistering, and potentially, infection (blistered skin in a moist environment is a breeding ground for bacteria). Continuing to wear jeans while they are wet can also lead to hypothermia. it is commonly thought (by those new to the hiking scene, anyway) that you get hypothermia by hunkering down to camp on a snowy mountainside while it is sleeting – or, basically, being unprepared for really cold temperatures.
However, hypothermia actually occurs more commonly in generally windy and wet climates, with temperatures well above freezing. Have you ever gotten caught in the rain while wearing jeans, and wonder why you are freezing? That is because wet clothing sucks heat away from your body several times faster than dry clothing.
At least you can usually change out of your wet jeans and towel off fairly quickly when you are caught in a rainstorm, but you may not be so lucky on the trail- especially because the time you will be able to change will likely not be until you have made camp, and the sun will be almost, if not totally, down at this point.
Even if you are thinking, ‘well, I will wear jeans one day, and then change into other pants when they get wet’, you will still end up having to carry around a heavy, wet pair of jeans for the rest of your trip. Denim (cotton) can absorb up to 27 times it is weight. Can you imagine carrying that on your back? Not fun at all.
Where did blue jeans come from, and why are people still wearing them?
We see a history of denim fabric dating back several centuries to Italy and France. Most people who sported the denim look back then were factory workers, because of their durability. There were several variations and blends, though, and the denim blue jeans that Levi Strauss & Co. introduced to the U.S. had gone through several alterations to be the jeans we know today.
When Strauss started selling denim blue jeans in the U.S., again the primary buyers were factory workers, along with ranchers, farmers and miners in the U.S. “wild west”. These were the sturdiest kind of trousers available at the time, and for these kinds of professions, sturdiness was a necessity. They added the metal rivets at points of high stress, like the hip pockets, to reinforce the material and prevent it from wearing out too quickly there.
So, yes – denim is durable, and since the 1870s, has been adapted to be stylish, comfortable, and flexible to boot. What has not changed, though, is the makeup of the denim itself. It is still a cotton fiber, no matter which way you slice it. There are many photos circulating the internet that show people hiking wearing jeans, though.
Why is this? Jeans have been, since the 1970s, a symbol of coolness. James Dean actually started wearing them trendily in the 1950s when he made Rebel Without A Cause, and then Elvis came on the scene wearing them, and so did Marilyn Monroe. And, several years later, bell-bottomed jeans were all the rage.
Jean fashion has gone through many cycles since then, but regardless if they are high waisted, skinny or slim cut, or wide-legged, they are still jeans. Their popularity and thus ubiquity has of course increased the demand in the U.S. (and other Western countries as well), and so unfortunately this has driven down the quality of the denim used to produce jeans. A pro is that we now have things like jeggings, which are super flexible leggings made to look like jeans (another pro: they have higher proportions of spandex).
There are actually even jeggings that are made with no denim at all, but a blend of spandex, polyester, and sometimes rayon. While outdoor purists might still scoff at people wearing jeggings, they are certainly more acceptable than regular Levis. People still choose to hike in jeans mostly out of habit, or ignorance.
Those who are hiking in denim jeans out of habit tend to be a little bit older, and are used to hiking with such pants from back in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were almost no other good options for hikers.
When they came on the scene around this time, remember that they were considered to be for work (that is, outside, yard-type work or factory work) and play, and so because hiking is a recreational activity, jeans naturally made sense. This was especially true if you were hiking in drier climates because cotton does keep you cooler.
What fabrics to use instead?
From polyester to (merino) wool, spandex, polypropylene, to nylon – the options are numerous, and range in price. There are also cotton blends – as mentioned above, there are some companies who are putting out jeans made with a cotton/polyester blend and moisture-wicking fabric (Patagonia), or a cotton/polyester/spandex blend (prAna), and have reviews from people who have been out on the trail, gone bouldering, and done overnight hiking, and said that they loved being able to go from the office to the trail without changing.
These are honestly probably best for drier climates, though, since they do have more cotton in them than any other kind of material, and could still take awhile to dry. With the explosion of outdoor outfitters in recent years, too has come the explosion of hiking pants that are not jeans. These come in a variety of styles, cuts, and lengths, and are available at low-cost retailers like Wal-Mart to the more high-end ones like REI and Patagonia.
You will want to make sure, if you are buying a cotton blend (which most dri-fit fabrics are) that it is less than 50% cotton. This increases the dry rate, if you get absolutely pelted by rain, and the moisture wicking rate for sweat and other moisture.
There are still very few true three-season pants on the market, which leads to considering pants that are convertible to shorts combined with an outer shell-type rain pant. Rain pants are generally not very breathable, and so you will not want to wear them longer than you have to, but you will be happy you did.
Consider the following things
The typical climate and flora of the region(s)
Even in the desert, experts recommend wearing long, lightweight pants to prevent against sunburn. You can choose to wear shorts if you want – depending on the plants that grow there, you might be okay. If you know it is common for there to be small brambly bushes, for example, it may still be a better idea to wear pants.
It also tends to get fairly chilly in the desert when the sun goes down, so even if you opt for shorts on your hike during the day, you will be able to zip your pant legs back on once you have made camp for the night.
The particular weather conditions for the time you will be there
As the old Boy Scouts adage goes, “always be prepared”. If your area is prone to thunderstorms, consider bringing along a pair of durable rain pants you can throw on in a flash storm. If you are planning a through-hike or a partial through-hike on something like the Appalachian Crest Trail (ACT) or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), know that you will pass through multiple climate regions and once you get up into the northern Sierras, the weather can turn on a dime.
Your body’s tendency to sweat
We all know the helplessness of feeling chafing skin and not being able to do anything about it. Wet clothes conduct greater friction than dry ones do, and so are to be avoided as much as possible.
Think about wearing moisture-wicking base layers – underwear included! – to reduce discomfort and keep yourself warm in colder/wetter temperatures.
How long you will be hiking
You should be thinking about how many days and nights you will spend on the trail. This will of course influence the number of pants you will need to bring with you. Taking into account the climate(s) you will pass through, weigh your options and investigate the weight of different fabrics before buying.
Your budget for hiking clothes
Are you looking for something that will simply get the job done? If you are more concerned with usability than style, you will have a lot more options than if you are also looking to be on-trend on the trail. Spending more for durability and flexibility (i.e. use in multiple seasons/climates) can be worth it if you will be hiking for longer.
Day hikers can usually get away with lower-end products and with proper care, can make them last long, too.
How often you go hiking
This will more often than not directly impact your hiking clothes budget. It is worth the investment in higher-end, high-performance clothing if you know you will be using them a lot. A rule I use is that the number of times I plan to use the attire should be the same number of at least half the cost. If I am going on a long hike, I count each day on the trail as one use.
One user advised, “if it is a shorter walk without much exertion (i.e. no sweat), no rain or snow, not too hot or humid, and no river/stream crossings, and you do not mind possibly ruining the jeans, then they are fine.”
That sounds like a lot of requirements for things you can not always control (see: the weather). Also, remember how Levi Strauss initially intended the blue jean to be for miners, farmers, factory workers, etc.? Throw in daily casual wear, and those are the realms where jeans belong still.
Keeping this in mind, take less chances on having near-perfect weather conditions and make sure you are equipped with pants that are manufactured specifically for hiking. If you have to wear something resembling denim on the trail, opt for synthetic jeggings. At least they will not absorb as much moisture as through-and-through jeans.
What are your favorite pants for hiking? Have you ever gone hiking in denim jeans? Feel free to tell us more in the comments below!