I used to think Convertible Pants were only for nerdy dads. Then, I experienced waking up early for a hike in the 40’s, only to have it warm into the 70s by the afternoon. I quickly realized how great it can be to switch from pants to shorts, and anyone who travels very much can relate to being in drastically different climates between the beginning and end of the day.
If you backpack or take flights, then you know how carrying clothes for multiple scenarios can add up quickly. Carrying a couple pairs of convertible pants allows you to reduce your luggage, but still change your clothes (between pairs), wear pants all day (combine w/ thermal leggings for more insulation), wear only shorts on warm days, and of course switch between the two as needed.
Convertible pants are also great when you are leaving one city, with the knowledge that you will arrive somewhere with drastically different weather. It helps solve the question: “Do I dress for the ski lodge (or beach) knowing I’ll look funny before I arrive, or do I try to change in an airport bathroom?”
It is with this in mind that I wanted to review a few pairs of convertible pants that I recently tried out. I only purchased one pair and have not been able to test their durability (ie: over 1 year of hiking & washing), but I hope sharing the key points I considered will help others out as well.
I considered 3 pairs of pants:
A few things to consider about hiking and travel pants in general before I dive into specific traits for the above models of convertible pants:
Quick dry fabric is important. Sweat and river water can each get clothes wet, & if you are backpacking, you do not want to have to pack wet clothes that you wore the day before. If you decide to wash your clothes (biodegradable soap in a river) then you will want your gear to dry ASAP. (This is also why specialty socks & underwear can be worth the extra cost)
Darker colors can hide dirt. Hiking often leads to dirt on clothes. I’m not talking unsanitary mud or food spills, just ordinary dirt from sitting on rocks or grass. If you are backpacking & reusing your clothes for multiple days without a thorough cleaning, it can be nice to hide those less-clean spots.
Zipper Pockets are great! Pocket design is something to consider, because hiking often leads to leg angles that do not come up in everyday use. Lifting a leg high to climb a small rock wall can cause loose items to fall out of open pockets, so zipper pockets that keep everything secure are important. These are also great for keeping your wallet in while in a foreign city. Velcro and button flaps on pockets are also good, but nothing is as secure as Zipper pockets.
Consider shorter pants than your normal jeans. I normally wear 32″ length pants & jeans, but for hiking pants I go with 30″ inseams. Many trails are muddy or have shallow streams, so it is nice to have pants that don’t hang too low. If you are wearing hiking boots, then no one will ever notice that your pants are a little short.
Now, lets dive into the rundown of the specific models of convertible pants, starting at the most expensive.
What I liked:
Stretch fabric was very soft, and would be great while hiking. Slightly thicker material than the others would be better on cold days, which I do not think would be a problem when converted to shorts. I really like this material.
Ankle zipper allows for opening the bottom of the pants. There is also a snap to keep this closed, if needed. This could be used to vent a little air, without fully removing the lower zip-off portion.
Zip-Off part opens toward the rear, which could allow you to vent without fully un-zipping. I do not think this is going to come up often, but it is something I considered. The other pairs all open from the side going forward, which would trap your knee in a half-unzipped scenario.
What I did NOT like:
Poor pocket design. The rear pockets are open, without anything to secure a wallet. The only a zippered pocket is small, under one of the leg cargo pocket flaps, and I do not think a wallet would fit inside.
Cost. These are around $100, well above the other options.
(The Kuhl Liberator Convertible Pants are more common, the difference is that they do not have the very nice stretch material. They are also thicker material like the Renegade, so would be better for colder weather but take up more room when packed. The Liberators have more zipper pockets, reducing that negative about the Renegade. Overall, I decided they are too heavy for packing while backpacking, along with too expensive.)
What I liked:
Lower leg zippers come all the way up to the Zip-off part, meaning they easily detach even if you are wearing hiking boots.
Entire left cargo pocket is zippered under the flap, so one full size cargo pocket can be very secure. Rear pockets are velcro flaps, so they are mostly secure. Right cargo pocket has a small drop in pocket (similar to “3rd pocket” on jeans), which could easily hold a pocket knife for quick access.
Waist is partially elastic, making them a comfortable option between belt & no belt. This would come in handy if I used them for swimming.
REI has a great return policy, allowing a no-questions asked return within 1 year of purchase.
(I previously bought a camping coffee filter from them, and after using it I decided I wanted a different type. They gave me a full refund knowing it had been used. REI is a Co-op, not a for-profit-corporation, which means each member is an owner, and the profits are returned proportional to each members’ purchases – I bought my pants with part of my $150 member dividend/store credit).
What I did NOT like:
Cost, at $65 they are still more expensive than the Columbia convertible pants, and they are very similar in design and material.
What I liked:
Cost. Amazon sells these for $35, meaning you could have 2 pairs for $5 more than the REI pair, or 3 pairs for $5 more than the Kuhl pair.
Includes a belt. I already own one of these belts from a previous pair of Columbia shorts that I bought, and it is very useful. Lightweight and low profile, it is great to use with any pair of shorts while hiking or swimming.
Easy access to Zipper cargo pocket. I prefer this zipper cargo pocket to the REI version. Some people may like REI’s hidden zipper pocket, but I like quick access that is not hidden under a Velcro flap. This is a very minor thing, but worth mentioning.
What I did NOT like:
Nothing about these was really a negative, they just do not have some of the added features of the others.
I decided to go with the REI Sahara Convertible Pants.
I really like the lower leg zippers that allow me to take the Sahara pant legs off easily without taking off my hiking boots. I might be able to slip the others off around shoes, but I would be risking getting mud or dirt on the inside of my pant legs (think about taking shorts off with shoes on). This was my main deciding factor between the 3 pairs of paints.
Cost was also a factor, but as mentioned above, I had a credit with REI that would cover any of the pairs of convertible pants, along with 20% off discount for any full priced item. That meant I was comparing $35 out of pocket for the Columbia to shop at Amazon or $0 out of pocket to shop at REI, where the Columbia pair was $48 (after discount), vs $52 (after discount) for the REI brand.
If I get a second pair of convertible pants, I will probably go with the Columbia version. I have a pair of their non-convertible hiking pants, and a pair of their shorts, and I am happy with the look, performance, and durability of Columbia gear.
I hope this helped out. Even if you don’t get any of these, think about the different factors when shopping for your next pair of hiking pants, and let me know if I missed any.