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Core Backpacking Clothing || Go Suit — Item 4: Running Shorts

If shorts are a reasonable option, I'll wear them, and nothing matches the performance of running shorts.

If shorts are a reasonable option, I’ll wear them, and nothing matches the performance of running shorts.

So long as I’m not bushwhacking, being pestered by biting insects, or needing to protect my legs from intense sun, in warmer conditions I wear shorts. But I don’t wear “hiking shorts” like the Mountain Hardwear Canyon Short or “convertible pants” like the prAna Stretch Zion Convertible Pant that can be made into shorts. Instead, I wear running shorts, which offer superior freedom of movement, ventilation, and moisture management. Particularly as a lifelong runner, I cannot withstand the inferior performance of hiking shorts; which:

  • Constrict my legs due to long inseams and a lack of stretch;
  • Become hot and sweaty due to lack of ventilation and fabric air-permeability;
  • Do not dry quickly because they are normally made of relatively thick and heavy woven nylon; and,
  • Are usually too loose in the waist, since the static/no-stretch waistband cannot make up for intra-trip fabric stretch or weight loss. A belt helps, but can result in bunching of the waistband.

Running shorts are Item 4 of the Core 13, a 13-item collection of backpacking clothing that can be mixed-and-matched to create appropriate clothing systems for every set of 3-season conditions.

Running shorts are not universally appropriate. If you're expecting bushwhacks, bugs, and intense UV, pants may be a better option. I learned this lesson a few times, including during a short but heinous manzanita bushwhack in Idaho. This photo from a few weeks later shows the damage.

Running shorts are not universally appropriate. If you’re expecting bushwhacks, bugs, and intense UV, pants may be a better option. I learned this lesson a few times, including during a short but heinous manzanita bushwhack in Idaho. This photo from a few weeks later shows the damage.

Fabric and features

Running shorts normally have an integrated liner, eliminating the need for underwear. The liner should be made of silk-weight polyester with a small spandex component (10 percent) for improved stretch and fit. The shell should be made of silk-weight polyester, perhaps with some nylon for additional durability. I’ve never seen high-end running shorts without a liner, designed instead to be used with standalone underwear, though this would be welcome: it would give me a choice of underwear and it would increase dry times. For backpacking, I like an inseam of 4-6 inches, and 1-2 inches shorter for pure running. However, those unaccustomed to short shorts may be willing to sacrifice some range of motion and ventilation for a longer inseam with a little bit more leg coverage.

Traditional hiking shorts, left. Running shorts, center, my preferred pick. And tight shorts, right, which are functional but socially awkward.

Traditional hiking shorts, left. Running shorts, center, my preferred pick. And tight shorts, right, which are functional but socially awkward.

My picks

Every runner has a favorite pair of shorts, but there is no consensus choice. If you have a run specialty store nearby like Flatirons Running Inc. or San Francisco Running Company, it’s worth visiting so that you can try on multiple pairs. If you shop online, I recommend buying multiple pairs and keep the one or two that fit best.

It’s the winter and, personally, I’m in between running shorts. My favorite pair had been the Salomon Light Shorts, which had a non-restrictive 4-inch inseam and a super comfortable wide waistband. But after two years of regular use — and, during the warmer months, daily use — they needed to be replaced. I took advantage of off-season prices to pick up the the Brooks Infiniti Notch II Shorts and The North Face Better Than Naked Shorts but I’m awaiting warmer temps to use them.

For temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s, I’ll often run in tight shorts. My favorites are the R-Gear SpeedPro Compression 7-inch Short and the Under Armour Heatgear Sonic Compression Short. But neither short leaves much to the imagination, especially the thinner UA shorts, and I consider such shorts to be socially unsuitable for the trail. I know Ray Jardine disagrees, but most backpackers must be on my side or it’d be more common.

31 Responses to Core Backpacking Clothing || Go Suit — Item 4: Running Shorts

  1. Will March 16, 2015 at 7:16 am #

    I starting going with running shorts last year – definitely an improvements over hiking shorts or convertible shorts! I’ll still use the convertibles from time to time when temps are in the low 30’s and I’m not sure which way I’ll want to go. Anything above that and I just commit to the running shorts, and carry warm tights or something similar to wear at night. This means no option for switching to pants during the day though, which sometimes hurts! My legs got quite shredded during an unexpected bushwack because of this in The Bob last year. Good times!

    • Andrew Skurka March 16, 2015 at 7:39 am #

      On trips where I expect an amount of bushwhacking that is just my limits, I will bring a pair of pants and wear them over my shorts. Running shorts don’t make great underwear (too much bunching) but it’s fine for limited use. As a specific example, I did a 60-mile loop last summer with about 7 nasty miles of bushwhacking (scratchy low-elevation California chapparel). The pants were leg-savers there, and they were also useful in camps in order to keep the chill off, exactly why you bring “warm tights or something similar.”

  2. Dave F March 16, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    As someone who recently switched from traditional “convertible pants” to running shorts, my biggest grievance is a lack of any useable pockets. On most models, if they even have pockets, they’re always up close to the waistband which means they get buried under your pack’s hip belt. I totally understand that design for running since you don’t want anything bouncing around against your leg, but I wish somebody would make a hybrid style for hiking.

    I thought REI might have cornered this market with their Fleet running shorts, which come in a 6″ and 9″ inseam and have mesh pockets lower on the leg. I’ve used them on several trips now and they’re exactly what I was looking for in a hiking short. Unfortunately it looks like REI made a poorly designed running short vs. a brilliantly designed hiking short, because the old model is now on clearance and the new model ditches both leg pockets and instead places 1 up closer to the waistband like most other running shorts. Oh well. I guess it’s time to pick up some spares since they’re on sale.

  3. Dave F March 16, 2015 at 9:25 am #

    I’d also add that if you find an underwear solution that works well for you (i.e. preferring a certain cut, material, etc.) cutting the liner out of running shorts is a perfectly viable option as well. It’s also useful on long distance hikes when you want to wash your underwear but don’t necessarily need to wash your shorts too. If you have separate pieces you can still wear the shorts while you wash/dry the underwear, vs having to take off both just to clean the liner.

  4. ChrisG March 16, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    I like compression calf sleeves to protect my legs when wearing shorts. I do not believe calf sleeves provide the advertised performance and recovery benefits but I will still wear them on my longer day and overnight adventures.

    Pros: They do a decent job protecting my calves from post-holing through late season snow, light bushwhacks, and climbing through tree fall. The calf sleeves are usually cooler than pants and there is nothing to catch.

    Cons: Your legs are not completely protected but I find my calves take the majority of damage.

    You will have to decide if looking like a dweeb is a pro or con.

    • Andrew Skurka March 16, 2015 at 10:20 am #

      I hadn’t really thought about that idea. I suppose for some UL leg protection for just-in-case bushwhacking, they’re about as good as you can get.

      Hey, man, anything I can do to make myself look like a running dork is a win in my mind (or not).

  5. Nathan M March 17, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    Hey Andrew, I picked up some “Better than Naked” shorts and I love those things. They are by far the most comfortable running shorts I’ve ever worn. They’re right there bordering on socially awkward to so it makes them a bit fun. Thanks for all of the great information, you’ve got me hunting around and building wish lists when y clothes need replacing. Keep up the great work!

    • Andrew Skurka March 17, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

      Funny you describe them (with their 5-inch inseam) as “bordering on socially awkward” since I just bought a few pairs of running shorts with 3- and 3.5-inch inseams. Now that’s socially awkward, unless you’ve been wearing such shorts for over half your life. They’ll be for running, not hiking; for hiking, I think 4-6 inches is a decent balance between range of motion and social acceptance. If you disagree, I’m sure you would at least agree that they’re better than standalone compression shorts.

      • Cameron N. March 19, 2015 at 9:08 pm #

        I wear 1-inch split leg inseam shorts hiking, and to the gym no less, and honestly I’ve never received anything but compliments. I think it may depend on where you live. Being in the PNW I don’t many people will bat an eye, but maybe this would be different in other areas.

    • Sean July 1, 2015 at 5:57 pm #

      I just got a pair of the better than naked shorts and I dig them too. I usually rock Under Armor or other light compression shorts on hikes and there’s always a tiny little patch way up high that chafes on my thighs in those that always means I’m like… tucking fabric to prevent chafing (Or when in company I constantly hitch my pants to tug a little more fabric up). The Better than Naked shorts don’t do that though. First time I put them on I got total coverage on my inner thighs and no room for hot spots. I was *very* impressed by that alone.

  6. Justin March 20, 2015 at 6:30 pm #

    For the ultimate in aeration, coolness, etc for hot weather, non bushwacking/low bug trips i make my own kilts. One of my favorites is a thin, very breathable hemp/polyester/spandex blend (seems to be the same exact fabric that Prana uses for some of their clothes). Wicks extremely well, good odor control, good cooling properties, feels dry fairly quickly.

    • Andrew Skurka March 20, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

      Any liner under there, or commando?

      • Justin March 21, 2015 at 11:13 am #

        It depends on the conditions. If it’s very windy for example, i will wear some wicking self treated antimicrobial nylon (i soak it in a borax solution and let it dry with some residue from same on), polygiene treated wicking polyester, or perhaps some flax-linen underwear.

        I don’t have huge thighs (they are non rubbing) so i can go commando if conditions permit. Nothing feels better on a rather humid and hot day without much breeze. Unfortunately some materials which are otherwise great, are a bit rough and chaffing to the sensitive skin of the male parts. I’m always looking for fabrics that have a good combo of feeling comfortable, wick well, dry fast enough, and have at least decent odor minimizing properties. Unfortunately, a lot of the specialized fabrics are not available in buy for the yard for MYOG type stuff. 🙁

        • Ben April 21, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

          Where do you source this material, and what is it specifically if you don’t mind sharing.

          • Justin June 13, 2016 at 11:45 am #

            The material I talked about above, I sourced from an online store called Hemp Traders.

            Here is a link to the specific fabric:http://www.hemptraders.com/HP5813A-p/hp5813a.htm

            Hemp, btw is very similar to Linen in most ways, except that it tends to be more coarse and it protects against UV better.

  7. John May 25, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    Knee-high gaiters for hot bushwhacking, while wearing shorts make a huge difference. I’ve got one friend who thinks trails are for sissies (ha!) and every hike is bushwhacking. And if I’m going to be crawling around in caves, a couple pair (elbows and knees) of cheap closed-cell foam knee pads from the hardware store make a huge difference.

  8. Wyoming June 12, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    Another alternative which is very close to the running shorts option is the loose boxer style swimming trunks.

    I have many thousands of miles of hiking in these and they work great. They dry quickly, have long leg length to prevent chaffing, and an inner mesh liner so that one does not need underwear. Most have draw strings for adjustment but get a pair that starts tight in the waist. No pockets but I hate pockets on shorts worn where I am using a hip belt anyway.

  9. Jimothy June 21, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

    Great advice to wear running shorts, Andrew. Out of inertia, I had warn hiking shorts while backpacking (of course that’s what one wears while hiking!), then found running shorts so much more comfortable. It was a “duh, why didn’t I think of this earlier?” moment.

    I found the Brooks Infinity Notch II at a good price on Sierra Trading Post (always use a coupon code). I like them a lot and find the boxer brief liner much more comfortable than the brief style line most running shorts have.

    However, for a multi-day trip, I still am a fan of wool because I can get pretty funky down there in synthetics. I also picked up a pair of Smartwool PhD running shorts with a wool liner (again from STP), and they aren’t nearly as comfortable as the Brooks, but they do leave me stink free, so I’m torn.

    Perhaps the best option for me is to find a comfortable pair of wool boxer briefs, and pair them with a comfortable, light weight, and quick drying pair of shorts with the liner cut out. However, that’s a fairly costly proposition, so it’s not I’ve tried yet.

    I may try Justin’s Borax idea, since I find the Brooks shorts so darn comfortable. I’ve also had some luck with a tea tree oil soak, but that only lasts for a day or two.

    • Justin October 30, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

      The borax treatment doesn’t last very long, especially if you’re sweating a lot. Ok for weekend trips, but you want something more durable or permanent for longer trips–polygiene, wool or alpaca, linen, etc.

  10. JohnH October 31, 2015 at 4:36 am #

    Just out of interest, I was hiking the HRP this summer, so Spain and France, and at least half of those in shorts were wearing compression shorts. They seem to be in fashion there, and certainly looked neater and more athletic than ordinary shorts, either the zip-off or running variety. Best worn with a longish shirt..

    • Calvin October 18, 2016 at 9:37 pm #

      I too have seen the compression short’s worn more often. I was able to purchase a few split 1″ running shorts for cheap to be worn over with a shorter style compression short. I removed the liner from the shorts. It’s like a 2 in 1 short; just detached. This is my preferred way now while hiking wearing shorts.

      Cut and length of the shorts do matter for comfort. I remember one lady with a multi-day pack just having to constantly adjust her Nike Tempo shorts from riding up the front.

  11. SusanS January 2, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

    Any thoughts on the alternative of skirts for the ladies? When it’s hot, I like using a skirt (super breezy) and put on merino trail running leggings underneath when it gets cold, but the leggings are not great protection when it comes to bushwhacking.

    • Andrew Skurka January 2, 2016 at 11:21 pm #

      I don’t know of any leggings that can handle heavy brush. If you know there will be some on your trip, my recommendation is to add nylon pants to your kit. And underwear, too, if you don’t already wear them under your skirt.

  12. Julie April 15, 2016 at 5:52 am #

    Never tried hiking in running shorts, might try that out this year! The only hiking shorts I’ve liked is the “Haglöfs Lizard II Shorts”: no movement restrictions at all and fit me really well, but probably won’t breathe as good as running shorts (though better in wind).

  13. Jerry May 5, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    Have you ever had a problem with the better than naked zipper pocket and a backpack hip belt?

    • Andrew Skurka May 5, 2016 at 10:10 am #

      It depends on where your backpack sits. If it sits on the zipper, that could create pressure. Easy solution: remove the pocket with some scissors.

      • Jerry May 14, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

        Can you just cut the zipper out? I’m ok with cutting the pocket out, but what about the zipper and the zipper pull?

        • Andrew Skurka May 15, 2016 at 8:07 pm #

          Unless the pockets is very oddly constructed, it should be easily removable.

  14. Calvin July 6, 2016 at 9:14 pm #

    I always pack a pair of long pants if encounter lots of brush. Depending on temperature, I have done multi-day hikes wearing running shorts. I find the 3.5 to 4 inch inseams to be fine. Also, the Better Then Naked” shorts work well. I wore 2 inch inseam 3/4 split running shorts on an outing once. It work well while climbing and hiking over a rocky boulder covered country to a certain extent. I did find this short style to bunch up too much.

  15. Dave from KC July 20, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    I’ve used running and other athletic shorts for hiking for years. I switched over to plain Nike athletic shorts a few years ago since the pockets are bigger and I wear ex officio boxers, so lined running shorts weren’t useful for me as they are for those that don’t wear undies. I hiked Philmont last year and my son and we were two of the very few that wore “non-hiking” shorts. I have plenty of convertible pants (zip off legs) with bigger cargo pockets from rei, Columbia, and north face, but the athletic shorts work best for me. You can usually find a huge selection of running, soccer, tennis, or other athletic shorts at dicks sporting goods or other sporting goods stores.

  16. Josh Spice September 30, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

    lol, the RJ part 🙂

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