A great pair of shell pants can make an incredible difference in the level of your comfort while hiking or climbing! Shell pants are not just great for rain and moisture, they are also great for wind! Many times the light fabric of a convertible hiking pant is just not enough to stand up to heavy gusts on a windy day.
After two decades in the back country, I have worn my way through more pairs of shell pants than I can remember. If you have been reading shell pant reviews you know there is a lack of good information out there (plenty for shell jackets, though) so this is where my article will focus!
Before we get into my Top Picks, I want to take a moment to discuss the idea of “Waterproof and Breathable” and also talk about hardshell vs soft shell pants. These are terms that are thrown around a lot in the outdoor world and can be misleading!
HOW DOES A FABRIC BECOME BOTH WATERPROOF AND BREATHABLE?
At the most basic level, a fabric will become “waterproof and breathable” in one of two ways. The fabric can consist of two or more layers, one of which is a membrane that has been specially constructed to allow water to pass in gas form but prevent water droplets from crossing. This is done by layering waterproof microfibers on top of each other to produce pores between the fibers that will not allow liquid water to enter.
DWR (durable water repellent) is also applied to tightly woven fabrics to increase their waterproofness. This can wear over time and generally will allow water to enter at high abrasion areas after heavy use over the course of months or years.
Both laminate membranes and DWR coatings can be easily replenished using special chemicals available from your outfitter or Amazon.com!
Nikwax is my favorite brand but there are a couple of competitors that work well, too.
HARDSHELL VS SOFTSHELL PANTS
Ah the eternal debate continues! Let’s start with my definitions:
SOFTSHELL PANTS are constructed of layers with or without a membrane included. They are not fully waterproof but most are windproof. I consider softshell pants to be water-repellent, so with only a light rain, you are good to go!
HARDSHELL PANTS are constructed of layers with a waterproof, breathable membrane. These are fully waterproof and are the highest level of protection a hiker, mountaineer, or climber can use in the back country.
RAIN PANTS OR RAIN SHELLS are a special subset of hardshell pants that are generally less insulated and FAR more economic. They may or may not have a membrane but most will come with a DWR treatment. Check out my article on BEST RAIN SHELL PANTS here!
LIGHTWEIGHT HIKING PANTS are sometimes confused with soft-shell pants. Hiking pants are just that; fabric pants without a membrane, treatments, or layers. For a great article on hiking pants and convertible pants for men, check out my post here.
When should you use softshell pants and when should you use hardshell pants? This requires a multifaceted answer taking into account your activity, precipitation expectations, how hard you are working, and the duration of your trip. Let’s go over a couple of potential situations.
If pack weight and precipitation are issues you need to be mindful of, such as during a multi-day trek or climb, hardshell pants will perform all of the tasks that soft shell pants do for about the same weight. However, in warmer climates a stout pair of hardshells is absolute overkill!
If wind is an issue on a shorter trip, like in the Rockies above tree line bagging your weekend 14’er, softshell pants will be a great option for a bit more comfort. Softshell pants are better at blocking wind and light rain than convertible hiking pants.
Another major benefit of softshell hiking pants is stretch and flexibility – your hardshell will move with your body, but it is tough to engineer the same amount of flexibility into a pair of hardshell pants.
I find on longer trips I can not justify the extra weight of a pair of softshell hiking pants, but on shorter trips, this is a very comfortable option!
INSIDER TIP: IN SUB-ZERO temperatures, you will find me in a pair of softshell hiking pants with a pair of hardshell pants as my outer layer. So while there are specific situations in which one or the other will serve your purposes better, it will not hurt you to have both in your closet for future expeditions!
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A GREAT PAIR OF SHELL PANTS
The specific brand of shell pants you purchase is not as important as the construction. Here are a few key points I like to check anytime I pick up a new pair of shells.
1. REINFORCED: This means that extra fabric has been included in the high abrasion areas like the gluts and knees, and around the bottom heel cuffs.
2. QUALITY STITCHING: With the shells in your hands, manipulate and stretch the seams; does it spread out wider than it should, and are the seams uniform and well backed?
3. MEMBRANE: While GORETEX® is the industry leader in waterproof, breathable membranes, many companies are coming out with competitive membranes that are testing at the same level.
4. FIT: Not all shell pants are created equal! If your range of motion is restricted, your comfort level and efficiency in the back country will be restricted as well. Try a couple models to see what best fits your body.
5. TO BIB OR NOT TO BIB? An option on many models of hardshell pants is to have a overall or “bib” configuration that loops webbing over the shoulder. I personally LOVE this because of the comfort it affords and also the fact that it closes than pesky gap between the jacket and pants that seems to form as the hip-belt and harness works my jacket lip up!
OK, now that we have a good idea of what to look for, let’s begin with my TOP PICKS for best men’s hardshell pants!
Best Men’s Shell Hiking Pants
BEST HARDSHELL PANTS #1 – THE ARCTERYX BETA AR
The Arcteryx Beta AR is my favorite balance between lightweight and durable. This is a hardshell that will last for years if properly cared for!
Arcteryx consistently produces what I consider to be the highest quality GORETEX® products on the market. There is simply no describing the feel of Arcteryx gear; in everything that this company does, quality and craftsmanship is the highest priority. This is a pair of hardshell pants that will see you through the roughest weather!
- Three-layer GORETEX® construction.
- Articulated knees and fully gusseted crotch makes this an extremely flexible hard shell!
- Molded Zipper Garages
- Powder cuffs under the hem
- Reinforced in all the right places for that lengthy glissade!
- Quality comes at a price (although in the case of Arcteryx, completely justified!)
- No backing on the full length zippers – will chafe when used without other layers
BEST HARDSHELL PANTS #2 – THE ARCTERYX ALPHA SV BIB
I did mention how great Arcteryx is, right? I have placed the SV in my number two spot simply because this is meant for severe weather and I find the Beta AR to to be versatile. With the athletic fit of the Alpha SV BIB I like to size up for a full layering system, base layer, fleece mid, and down puffy. I do this so my down stays fully lofted.
The Alpha SV is the hardshell you want while headed for more complex, multi-day hiking or mountaineering expeditions, back country explorations in wintertime, or any time when you need to protect yourself as much as possible.
- EXTREMELY DURABLE N80p-x face fabric ensures extended performance
- 100% nylon
- Added N155p-x reinforcement in high wear areas
- Bellowed chest pockets
- Seamless integration with other Arcteryx products
- Bib is not removable
BEST HARDSHELL PANT #3 – THE OUTDOOR RESEARCH SKYWARD BIB PANTS FOR MEN
Outdoor Research is on level playing ground with performance with Arcteryx and in their jacket lines tend to match price; however, these Skyward Bib Pants are an absolute STEAL at only half the price of the comparable pants in my #2 pick!
What I love about these OR Skyward shells is the removable bib. You actually get the functionality of both bibbed and non-bibbed pants. These hardshell pants are extremely versatile and a great value, too!
- Electro-spun membrane
- Fully seam taped for extra protection
- Removable Bib for maximum versatility!
- Internal Gaiter
- Articulated knees
- Can run short for larger people, even the tall version!
BEST SOFTSHELL PANT #1 – THE REI ACTIVATOR SOFTSHELL
The REI Co-op is one of my favorite brands; they tend to do everything well! After decades of selling other brands of outdoor gear, they have dealt with their far share of complaints and returns. Each REI product feels like it addresses the majority of the concerns of the customer. The evolution of this brand is certainly consumer-driven!
If you are looking for REI shell pants, especially REI soft shell pants, look no further! The Activator is a softshell pant ready to protect you on those windy, misty days out in the back country!
- Nylon outer resists light rain
- Bonded hems for high abrasion areas
- Gusseted for free range of motion
- Not always available in Tall or Short
- Integrated belt has been known to catch on your backpack’s hip-belt
BEST SOFTSHELL PANT #2 – THE RAB SAWTOOTH SOFT SHELL PANTS
The weave on these RAB Sawtooth pants is just divine; you need to feel this fabric between your fingers to truly appreciate how RAB clothing is masterfully constructed. I love the basic lines, 4-way stretch capabilities, and fit of the Sawtooth, and at under $150, this is an excellent deal, too!
- Matrix DWS fabric is seriously light weight!
- Hem drawcord is super comfy
- Sun protection 30SPF
- Regular fit so relaxed and comfortable!
- Reinforced kick patches
- Snap and hook closure on front can rub you wrong at times
- DWR finish needs periodic care
BEST SOFTSHELL PANT #3 – THE MARMOT SCREE PANT
Ah, scree. This word brings back fond memories of a 2015 summit bid on Aconcagua. At such high altitudes there was no plant growth to speak of and I took a page from the porter’s books on the way down (after a successful summit on day seven). The scree was nearly vertical, and purely uniform, so it was possible to “ski” down the slope at an incredible speed! While I try to avoid this on lower elevation climbs because of the plant life, this was a nice break after a grueling climb!
The Marmot Scree pants are placed at number three only because I like the fabric on my first two picks more. This is a great option for anyone looking for soft shell pants and I can assure you the Marmot Company stands behind their products like no other!
- Marmot M3® soft shell is water repellent and breathable
- Ankle Zippers
- Zippered Cargo Pockets
- Comfortable, regular fit works with light layers
- GREAT summer alpine pants!
- Does not come with an integrated belt
- Be sure to remember to zip the wide pockets or risk losing the contents on the trail!
So now that you have your shell pants, go take them on an adventure! Happy Trails!