Getting the best hiking pants for you is a careful balance of proper fit, material, mobility, price, and durability. With cold weather hiking pants in particular, the material is critically important.
Getting hiking pants made of the right material insurances that you will remain warm, dry, and comfortable on the trail during cold weather.
1. Outdoor Research Cirque Pants (Top Pick)
For our money, the best cold weather hiking pants out there are the Outdoor Research Cirques. These pants are lightweight, comfortable and extremely warm. They are also wind resistant, water resistant (note: not rated waterPROOF), and suited to a number of outdoor activities–climbing, skiing, hiking and more.
The material is a nylon, poly, spandex weave, giving you a lot of performance. The nylon lends a lot of durability, polyester does a great job of warming, and spandex obviously gives you a better stretch and shape retention.
Perhaps the greatest thing about these pants is the way they fit. They are the gold standard in mobility, giving lots of stretch in all the critical areas. The knees are articulated, inviting your legs to naturally bend without resistance. The crotch is gusseted, so you can stretch and climb as far as you want to without ripping or putting undue strain on them.
Outdoor Research makes these pants for both men and women, and both are fantastic. The only drawback to these pants is their relatively high price (you’ll basically see these in the $150 neighborhood). If you are serious about your outdoor time in the winter however, it’s money well spent!
2. Singbring Mountain Pants (Best Budget Cold Weather Hiking Pants)
While we absolutely LOVE the Cirques (above), not everybody can afford to just shell out $150 on some hiking pants (particularly if you are just barely getting into cold weather hiking).
If this is the case with you, the Singbring Mountain pants are an excellent alternative. Constructed of a smart-performing soft shell polyester, these pants are fleece lined and very comfortable. They’re also less than $40.
Like the Outdoor Research Cirques, they aren’t technically waterproof, but they are water resistant and extremely warm. Many folks report using these in rain and wet grass, and have them perform extremely well. Once again, these come in both men’s and women’s styles, to ensure the best fit.
One thing to note–these pants come from a Chinese manufacturer, so the instructions and a lot of the packaging is difficult to understand, but they can be washed in cold water and hung dried.
3. Duofold Heavyweight Thermals (Best Tights or Base Layer)
Remember, throughout the ages, layering has been one of the best techniques to protect against the elements. A smart set of layers offers better protection and comfort than any single layer ever will, because it allows the hiker to adapt to conditions throughout the day.
As comfortable as hiking pants can be, they can never hold a candle to straight up hiking tights. Engineered specifically to give you a snug yet unrestrictive fit, hiking tights offer you a minimal layer between your skin and the elements.
Also called leggings, yoga pants, a base layer, tights or thermals, their job is to wick away moisture from your body, and provide you with a small amount of warmth. As winter hiking pants, tights alone aren’t gonna cut it. But they’re a critical part of a solid layering system.
Our favorite hiking tights for women and men are the Duofold Heavyweight Thermals. These polyester tights have a small amount of spandex in them (4%), to help with shape retention and mobility. They also have a drawstring closure, so you don’t get circulation issues from an elastic waistband that’s too tight.
A tagless label in the back is another detail from Duofold that we appreciate. It seems like a tiny thing, but anybody that’s had one rubbing against them for a day on the trail will know what we’re talking about.
One quick word of caution: if you are looking for a performance cold weather base layer, make sure you get the “heavyweight” Duofolds, not the medium weight. The medium weight have far too much cotton in them to be a good-wicking winter base layer.
Soft shell vs. Hard Shell…. or both?
It’s also important to know, that there is a fork in the road with winter hiking pants; namely, soft shell vs hard shell. Folks in the soft shell camp generally choose flexibility and comfort over higher levels of rain and wind protection. The opposite is true of the hard shell folks. Of course it’s a little bit more nuanced than this, but in general this is the rub.
In extreme weather conditions, there is a place for both–and leggings. Base layer, soft shelled insulation layer, and finally a waterproof hard shell. A 3-part layering system is pretty rare to use for hiking purposes. In all but the absolute most extreme weather, 3 layers will result in excessive sweat and too much restriction to be able to hike well.
Still, if you will be stationary for a large chunk of the day, 3 layers is a comfortable approach to cold weather.
What is good material for cold weather hiking pants?
First things first: avoid cotton like the plague. For all it’s virtues in other respects, cotton is NOT a great fiber for cold weather. Why? Because it’s “hydrophilic”, which means that it absorbs and retains water. With exposure to wind and air, water cools down, which ultimately means that you you’ll be freezing your butt off in the winter (if you’re in the sweltering summer heat, this happens to be a good thing, which is why cotton is excellent for hot weather).
Keeping this in mind, there are a few other main fabrics to think about in hiking pants:
Nylon: Think durability. This is what most shells and outer layers are made out of.
Polyester: Think warmth. Polyester is a great insulator, and a decent moisture wicker.
Spandex: Think comfort. It stretches, it holds shape, and helps you to get a great fit and feel. It also adds longevity to clothing.
Not sure you specifically need cold weather hiking pants? Check out our complete comparison and hiking pants review here.