Hikers wearing softshell pants

Best Softshell Pants for Cold Weather Hiking

An inadequate pair of outdoor trousers can cause discomfort during cold-weather hikes. And when I say inadequate, I’m not just referring to lightweight sweatpants. Heavy-duty ski pants also fall under this category. These are often overkill.

From my experience, softshell pants are best suited for the job. If you want to avoid chafing and restricted mobility, but still benefit from the robustness of outdoor trousers, go with a pair of softshell pants.

You can’t look far beyond a pair of softshell trousers when it comes to warmth and comfort. The best softshell pants are weather-resistant and durable, but still breathable and stretchy enough for hiking.

Here are my top 5 recommendations:

Best Softshell Pants: Arc’Teryx Gamma AR Pants

Arc'Teryx Gamma AR Pants

Specs

  • Fabrics: 46% Polyester, 46% Nylon, 8% Elastane
  • Weight: 17 oz
  • Water resistance: DWR Finish

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Pros

  • Wind-resistant
  • Versatile
  • Water-resistant
  • Look good
  • Comfortable

Cons

  • Pricey

The Gamma AR pants are both weather-resistant and comfortable. They are noticeably tougher than the average pair of softshell pants and more resistant to tearing on branches and thorns. Overall, I am very pleased with the Gamma AR pants.

The Gamma AR pants have somehow found a way to stay relatively lightweight, considering the weather protection they provide. They were really easy to wear: not only on the trail but also as lounge pants around the camp.

Mobility and Comfort

These pants have an excellent fabric blend. It increases the stretchability quite a bit as it contains a higher-than-typical proportion of elastane. Given how durable the pants are, it is all the more impressive.

The extra thick fabric and the gusseted crotch make the Gamma AR a highly functional as well as comfortable pair of pants. The pants allow for solid mobility thanks to the articulated knees and the straight leg fit.

I really liked the thoughtful features these pants offer. The blunted corner of the snap closure at the waist is one such feature that stands out.

Unlike most hiking pants, the Gamma AR pants don’t have a sharp point in the fabric that rubs and pokes the stomach.

To reduce abrasion, the interior of the waist features a soft liner. If you are carrying a backpacking pack, this especially comes in handy.

Breathability and Venting

The Gamma AR pants lack breathability due to the tightly woven fabric. However, the pockets are medium gauge mesh, so the pants do have a few notable vent points.

They are lightweight, and I was able to easily roll up the pant legs and secure them using the elastic cord in the ankle—another major venting advantage. Moreover, I didn’t have to stop too often in order to pull the pants up.

Style and Versatility

The Gamma AR pants are great in both backcountry and “front country” settings, are a comfortable travel option, and excel in windy or wet weather. They shine for their versatility.

Even though they are ideal for cold weather, the roll-up cinch cord makes them comfortable to wear even when the mercury rises.

And the pants are still great for everyday outdoor use, despite their somewhat technical aesthetic. Not only do they perform well on the trail, but they also look great in an urban environment.

Weather Resistance

The super-effective DWR coating (along with the tight fabric weave) makes the Gamma LT the best softshell pants for cold weather hiking. I found myself in some consistent rain during testing and these pants held up beautifully.

This would’ve been a problem for many other softshell pants that I’ve tried. And, even though they are not 100% waterproof, the pants beaded water quite well in my controlled spray test.

The Gamma AR also dry out fairly quickly because they don’t absorb a ton of water. I was also impressed with their wind resistance.

I like pairing the Gamma AR pants with high-ankle boots. You can create an almost completely weatherproof seal by securing the pants around the top of your footwear.

The only downside of these pants is the price. In general, Arc’Teryx is very expensive.


Mountain Hardwear Chockstone/2

Mountain Hardwear Chockstone/2

Specs

  • Fabrics: 91% nylon, 9% elastane
  • Weight: 11.5 oz
  • Water resistance: DWR Finish

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Pros

  • Zippered pockets
  • Integrated belt
  • Comfortable fabric

Cons

  • Pricey

The Mountain Hardwear Chockstone are true high-comfort pants. These pants are pleasantly weather-resistant and fairly breathable. Not only are these softshell pants great for hiking in cold weather, but they are also great for many other high-stretch activities.

Comfort and Mobility

These pants are highly stretchable and comfortable mostly thanks to the high content of elastane.

Moreover, the way in which the inside-facing material is woven makes the Chockstone pants feel even softer. In terms of reducing abrasion, this makes a huge difference.

The articulated knees and the gusseted crotch allow for great freedom of movement. I also liked the cut. It’s not loose, but it’s not slim either. I was able to dial in the fit of the waist with ease thanks to the included belt.

Breathability and Venting

To throw some heat, you can unzip the mesh-lined front and rear pockets. It’s a simple way of venting, but effective.

The elastic cord in the ankle will secure the pant legs in place if you opt to roll them up. Many softshell pants have the same feature, but only a few models execute it well.

Even though these pants are warm, they are light and loose enough to prevent overheating when the temperature rises.

Style and Versatility

The Chockstone pants perform well on chunkier trails as well as on flats and gradual switchbacks. During my test, scrambling and high-stepping were not a problem.

I highly recommend these pants for water-adjacent or water-based sports (like fishing and canoeing) as well as for climbing.

The pants can double as casual happy hour wear even though they come with a tech look.

Weather Resistance

I was pleased with the initial water resistance of the Chockstone pants. But the water eventually found its way through the material in consistent, moderate rain. This is usually how it goes with most highly stretchable fabrics.

However, I didn’t feel that moisture as quickly. I got a bit more time before it made it to my skin due to the fact that the inside-facing fabric absorbs water. However, this also means that the Chockstone pants take more time to dry.

The slightly thicker fabric provides average wind resistance. All in all, I found these pants to be great for autumn hikes.


Outdoor Research Cirque

Outdoor Research Cirque

Specs

  • Fabrics: 50% nylon, 43% polyester, 7% spandex
  • Weight: 22 oz
  • Water resistance: DWR Finish

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Pros

  • Comfortable
  • Adjustable tabs at waist
  • Great mobility
  • Durable
  • Warm

Cons

  • Could use more pockets

Cirque II is the latest version of one of my all-time favorite softshell pants. They are specifically designed for people who like to venture outside in the cold. The pants include everything the Original Cirque model had, plus a bit extra.

Comfort

The 90D softshell fabric provides excellent protection against wind and rain. And, despite being thick and tough, the material allows for great freedom of movement.

The unique fabric blend used in the Cirque pants is quite comfortable. I really liked the tricot liner, it feels nice against the skin. On top of feeling soft, the liner offers extra insulation.

I didn’t even need to wear a base layer when the temperature was down to about 20°F. However, the pants are not versatile enough to be worn on hot days when the temperatures are above 60°F.

Features

This model has one of the most impressive sets of features that I have seen on a pair of pants. I particularly liked the adjustable waist. To help keep the wind and snow out, the pants come with a drawcord and a bootlace hook on the cuff.

The zippered tight pocket and the avalanche beacon pocket are also nice details. However, I find the lack of back pockets to be a bit surprising.


Marmot Scree

Marmot Scree

Specs

  • Fabrics: 90% nylon, 10% elastane
  • Weight: 17 oz
  • Water resistance: DWR Finish

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Pros

  • Stylish
  • Warm
  • Great weather-resistance
  • Comfortable
  • Good fit

Cons

  • Moisture builds up in pockets

The Marmot Scree is an extremely breathable, comfortable, and weather-resistant pair of pants. I’ve been using these pants for over a year now, and they have performed exceptionally well in 4-season weather.

Comfort and Fit

Thanks to their thick but soft fabric, the Scree pants are a pleasure to wear and easy to move in. The articulated knees allow for great freedom of movement. I also like the tapered fit. The zippered cuffs at the ankles have always prevented the wind from running up my legs.

Breathability and Weather Resistance

I never felt the wind cutting through the material. This is all the more surprising considering that the Scree pants are one of the most breathable softshell pants I’ve ever tried.

Usually, “most breathable” translates to “least water-resistant.” But I don’t think that’s the case here.

The DWR coating won’t protect you from heavy rains, that’s for sure, but you won’t have to worry about mild precipitation penetrating the pants.

The only real downside of these pants is the moisture build-up in the pockets. Often, when the temperature was a bit higher, the pockets felt clammy. This isn’t a problem when the pockets are left unzipped.


REI Co-Op Activator 3.0

Rei activator pants

Specs

  • Fabrics: 63% nylon, 26% polyester, 11% elastane
  • Weight: 14 oz
  • Water resistance: DWR Finish

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Pros

  • Durable
  • Well-positioned zipper pockets
  • Warm
  • Comfortable

Cons

  • Lack versatility

The REI Activator pants are made of a unique polyester, nylon, spandex blend that is weather-resistant on the outside and soft on the inside. I love how comfortable these pants are in cool temperatures.

Comfort and Mobility

The Activator pants allow for wearer mobility despite their weight. The higher-than-average elastane content makes the pants extra stretchy and comfortable.

The gusseted crotch isn’t especially roomy, but it also increases mobility. I also appreciated the articulated knees.

When it comes to comfort features, the only thing missing is a waist liner. However, the pants are still comfortable enough without it.

I was very pleased with the inner fabric in the seat and legs. It feels very nice against the skin and prevents chafing even on longer adventures.

Compared to most other softshell pants, the waist sits a bit higher. But I found this to be a good thing when wearing a backpack over the pants. They don’t get pushed down.

Breathability and Venting

The REI Activator pants are not especially breathable, as their primary strength is their warmth, but they do have a few venting options.

The pockets are lined with mesh and the cinch cord in the ankle allows you to roll up the pants up the calf. It’s a useful feature when the weather is variable.

Weather Resistance

In 30°F temperatures, the Activator pants are super effective and warm. They shine when the sun doesn’t.

I was also impressed by how wind-resistant the Activator pants are. Moreover, the pants didn’t feel cold even when the wind was pressing the inner fabric against my body.

The DWR finish offers sufficient protection against moderate to heavy precipitation.


Buyer’s Guide for Softshell Pants

Hiker stands in softshell pants

Material

 

Typically, softshell pants are made of a tightly woven synthetic fabric that provides insulation and blocks light rain and wind. This is usually a blend of polyester, nylon, and elastane.

When shopping for softshell pants, one phrase you will certainly come across is “ripstop.” Ripstop is one type of woven fabric. Ripstop pants are reinforced using a special technique. This makes them tougher and more durable.

It’s important to pay attention to the density of the softshell fabric, especially if you plan on hiking in cold weather. The denser (thicker) the material, the warmer the pants.

To better repel rain, softshell pants should be super smooth on the outside. On the inside, the pants should feature a brushed lining (for warmth).

If you want to get softshell pants that are more stretchable, go with a model that contains a higher percentage of elastane.

Weather Resistance

Softshell fabric

Even though they are quick-drying, softshell pants don’t provide the same level of water and wind resistance as hardshell pants.

However, some softshell pants are treated with a DWR (durable water repellent) coating. Some models also use a wind-blocking membrane.

Softshell pants that feature a wind-blocking membrane are still much different from hardshell pants. They block wind while still offering a certain level of breathability. Still, they are not as breathable as plain softshell pants.

Keep in mind that the DWR finish will eventually wear off. But you can always reproof the coating by using a DWR spray.

Weight

Hikers wearing softshell pants in autumn

Naturally, the density of the material affects the weight of the pants. Thicker softshell pants are warmer, but also heavier. You don’t want to be wearing pants that are too thick when hiking in cold weather.

So, it’s important to find a model that offers a good warmth-to-weight ratio. In my opinion, the pants should weigh between 15 and 25 oz.

Sizing

Woman wearing softshell pants

You definitely want good mobility in the knees, but you should still avoid pants that are too baggy.

A little bagginess will provide you with just enough ventilation to prevent you from overheating. But your pants should still be snug enough to keep you warm. You don’t want a pair of pants that will be flapping in heavier winds.

Pockets

Hiker puts a map in his pocket

Of course, almost every pair of hiking pants has pockets. But not all softshell pants have pockets that are easily accessible and secure enough.

What I mean by this is that pockets should be zippered and of the appropriate size and depth. For instance, if the pockets are too deep, finding your stuff can be a struggle.

Good organization is a big plus for me, but I don’t like overloading my pants with excess bulk when I am hiking. A simple tight pocket in addition to the front or back pockets is enough for me.

Other Features

Man wears hiking pants

Finding the right fit can be difficult. Again, you want a pair of pants that doesn’t feel too baggy; a pair that offers an agreeable cut.

There are only a few brands of softshell hiking pants that hit that spot for me. Most Arc’teryx, Outdoor Research, and Prana pants that I’ve tested offer an athletic fit that isn’t too tight.

I’ve also noticed that Columbia and REI have changed the fit of a number of their models in order to catch up with the competition.

If you don’t want to worry about getting the fit right, it’s best to get a pair of pants that has an adjustable waistband or integrated belt. An integrated belt adds extra bulk, but it’s more user-friendly than a drawstring closure along the waistband.

Other useful features to look for are gussets built into the crotch and articulated knees. A gusset is a diamond-shaped patch that is designed to improve general fit, comfort, and range of motion. Articulated knees also improve range of motion by creating a natural bend in the knee area.

If you need to buy more clothing for your next outdoor adventure, and not just hiking pants, check out this list of outdoor clothing brands.

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