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.
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.
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.