OUTDOORS

Hiking In Jeans: Can You Get Away With Denim Outdoors?

Hiking in jeans
Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

Everyone would agree that jeans are one of the best things to come out of the United Statesnext to Elvis Presley. On a more serious note, jeans are incredibly sturdy and definitely something you’d want to wear on a construction site. But, hiking in jeans?Could you pull it off?

Well, long story short, it’s mostly frowned upon in the hiking / backpacking community, and there’s a good reason, though there are some arguments in favor, and we’ll explain both in a bit more detail presently. So, strap your backpack on, Bilbo, ‘cause we’re going on an adventure!

The Ups and Downs of Wearing Cotton Fabric

If you’re stuck with either jeans or sweatpants for your first camping trip, you might as well not go. Well, that’s what any seasoned hiker or backpacker would tell you if you asked one.

The thing about jeans is that they’re made of denim, which is a very thickly weaved cotton fabric. Now, although it does look great, it’s definitely not something you’d want to wear in the boonies.To put it like this – it will keep you cool, but not in a good way.

Young backpacker relaxing to enjoy the view

It used to be that denim was worn by prospectors and farmers going about their daily jobs, mostly due to its durability and breathability,until it became a sort of a fashion must-have. These days, you can’t imagine a night out in town without seeing at least a dozen people wearing them.

Denim: The Good Stuff

First off, let’s dispense with the positive things about jeans, denim and cotton in general, before explaining why you don’t want to wear them out in the boonies. Cotton fabrics are great since they’re quite breathable and soft, so you’ll be comfy wearing them.

Also, cotton is quite durable and does a great job of resisting abrasion, and if you’re wearing a thick weave like denim, you’d be hard pressed to put a tear in it (which is why it was popular among prospectors and is still popularamong construction workers).On that same note, it’ll go a long way to protecting your skin from cuts and scrapes.

Male hiker walking with hiking pole

With that said, yes, jeans could indeed be of use for hiking, as you won’t get snagged onto long grass, bramble and brush, or trying to get up off the log you’ve been sitting on around the campfire.They might also be decent protection against mosquito bites, but that’s pretty much it.

Another good thing about denim and cotton in general, for that matter, is that it’s hypoallergenic, so if you have sensitive skin, this isn’t a bad choice.If you’re going to get scraped and bitten out in the woods, you might as well make sure the pants aren’t giving you an itch, right?

Family hiking in countryside wearing backpacks

While we’re on the subject and making allowances, cotton t-shirtsare actually decent for hot weather, but you will have to make sure you have something to change into when you stop for the day.

Denim: The Bad Stuff

You’ve probably already heard from seasoned hikers and backpackers a certain saying –cotton kills (even Boy Scouts warm against wearing cotton in the backcountry). As any old adage, this one’s rooted in experience, and here’s why anyone who’s at least half-serious about hikingshould be aware of it.

The biggest issue with cotton (and, by extension, jeans) is that it takes an eternity to dry, especially thicker blends such as denim (OK, an eternity might be a little too long, but you get the idea). If you’re not worried about that icky feeling of damp clothes on you, know it gets worse.

If you have jeans on, they’ll act like a big sponge and soak every bit of water around you – rain, puddles, rivers (making crossings either impossible or a very naked prospect), as well as your sweat. This is uncomfortable in mild and warm weather, but in cold, it might indeed kill you.

Hiker crossing river at mountains

You see, the thing about wet fabric is that it conducts heat away from your body much faster than dry fabric (about 25 times as fast, in fact), and, well, cotton has a problem with drying, as we already mentioned ad nauseam.

It doesn’t matter if the source is external (rain, sleet, crossing a creek, you get the idea) or internal (your own sweat glands), you’re in for some bad time.

See also: Best Rain Pants for Hiking: Essential Rain Pants Buying Information & Top 8 Reviews

Worse yet, cotton is notoriously bad at wicking the moisture away. Instead, it soaks it in (up to 7 per cent of its own weight), so if you’re trekking out in a pair of jeans and sweat (and you will, make no question about it), your jeans will eventually turn into a slab of ice.On the flipside, you can use your jeansas ashield if a bear attacks you.

So, to be fair, we should revise the old adage we mentioned somewhere up there – it’s not that all cotton kills, it’s just that wet cotton kills. And jeans chafe.

Woman hiker in the forest read the map

As suggested by the rump sentence up there, yet another bad thing about jeans is that, despite cotton’s being quite a breathable fabric, denim is too thick and stiff, making you sweat profusely and keeping that stank trapped there. This, in turn, will inevitably lead to chafing and, in worse scenarios, blisters and sores.

So, if you’re determined to go hiking a la Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street (the 80s show, obviously, not the 2012 movie), make sure to bring all the provisions necessary. Think talcum powder, lubes (no giggling, please) such as Vaseline, even coconut oil.

Woman in blue jeans

On that note, here’s what you’ll want to do to minimize the risk of chafing – shave the nether regions regularly (yes, it sounds counterintuitive, but it works), wear loose fitting clothing, and, above all, take care of personal hygiene (also, keep a bottle of talcum powder on hand). Also, check out our review of the top backpacking pants to give you more choices in your next hiking adventure.

If Not Jeans, Then What?

In the 70s and 80s, you either wore wool or cotton (that’s why you’ll see loads of photos with people sporting mutton chops and denim), but we have a much wider choice today than back then. And the good thing is that it’s not prohibitively expensive, and it’s becoming more and more affordable by the day.

See also: Best Winter Hiking Pants: Features to Consider & Best Hiking Pants Reviews

Depending on when and where you plan to hike, there are different scenarios you need to prepare for. Painting with a (very) broad brush, you need to have something breathable for when it’s hot and something layered when it’s cold.

Again, denim could be good here if you’re working a way through some thorny underbrush, but then again, despite it’s made of cotton, it’s not very breathable, so the chafing problem remains.

You could be lucky here and get back home with just mild irritation, or pull out the short straw and have to be treated for open wounds. It’s just not worth the risk.

On a similar note, despite being thick and then some, jeans are just not that warm. They’re great for a day of hard work outside, but not so much for trail. Instead, you should go for layers and repeat it as a mantra – layers, layers, layers (guess your and everyone else’s mom was right, huh?).

You should go for a pair of wicking leggings or any brand of long johns of your choosing, plus the hiking pants we mentioned above. Of course, you’ll sweat despite being cold outside, but the wicking material in the leggings should pull the moisture away from your body.

Group of hikers at mountain

What’s this wicking business we’re talking about, you wonder?In a nutshell, today we have specially designed fabrics that perform to specific requirements. Wicking fabrics are meant to keep you fairlydry even in the most extreme situations, such as negotiating rivers or getting stuck outside in a downpour.

This goes a really long way to reducing the risk of hypothermia in cold weather, but also downplaying the discomfort of wet clothing during warmer days.Remember the chub rub, skin irritation, rashes, blisters and sores? Yeah, thought so.

Most of them should dry off in no time, and you can speed up the process if you walk wearing those. Of course, you should always make sure to pack a change of clothing and use it whenever you make a pit stop.

Short of going for specially-designed synthetic fabrics, you could just opt for something made of wool – it does almost as good a job wicking away sweat and water. Plus, wool retains its insulating properties even when wet.

On the flipside, it does get quite a bit heavy when soaked, but it’ll keep you warm until you get a chance to change clothes or get a fire going (or both, which is by far the most preferable scenario).

Is There A Place For Jeans On Hikes?

Short answer?Yes, if you’re going on a short day hike, by all means, wear jeans. The key word here is “short”. As long as the weather is fair, you have goodconnection to the outside world and you’re not going alone, wearing jeans on day hikes is just fine.

If you don’t plan on exerting yourself (so, not sweating much), you’re confident it wouldn’t rain or snow, if it’s not too hot or too humid, and as long as there are no river or creek crossings, and if you don’t care about ruining your pants, you’re golden. However, it doesn’t sound like much of a hike, now, does it?

Female hiker on mountain

Of course, there’s also the coolness factor to consider – jeans may not be great for a night in the boonies, but they’re prefect for a night out in town. So, if you can carry the weight, pack them up for long hikes, even, and wear them around the campsite when you hit a checkpoint or stumble across civilization.

What To Do If You Do Get Wet Wearing Jeans?

Pray to God you have something dry to change into as soon as you’re able. That would be the TL;DR version – for a longer, there are a couple of tips that you might’ve already seen Bear Grylls do.

Let’s say you did opt out for jeans – once more we have the two scenarios, hot and cold weather. Let’s discuss the warm weather first – how did you get wet? How far are you from a campsite or any human settlement? These will all affect your decisions. Why not check our list of the top quick-drying backpacking pants to help you with more options?

Hiker get across water

Say you’re hiking through rain in jeans, but it’s summer – you don’t have much choice but to slug on and hope it stops before you reach your destination. If, however, it’s fall or even late afternoon in August, you better find a shelter, change clothes and get a fire going.

On the other hand, if you need to negotiate a river crossing, take your jeans off and hold them above your head, or, better yet, pack them in the backpack (it should keep it reasonably dry or even completely dry if you have a waterproof pack). If you did make the mistake and went in fully clothed, change clothes as soon as you get out and air dry the pants on the go.

If you’re going hiking in jeans while it’s cold outside – don’t. Just don’t do it.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it, the pros and cons of hiking in jeans. Make a mental note of the fact that the latter heavily outweigh the former, and spread the awareness.Yes, you look great in jeans, and yes, there are hundreds of people that used to hike wearing jeans back in the 70s, 80s, and there are some even doing it today, none of them worse for wear.

Hiker man walking

However, nobody wants to become a statistic, and the risk is too greats. Plus, even the minor inconveniences about wearing jeans are not that minor if your butt has anything to say about it. Bottom line – fair weather and day hike, jeans are alright, longer and cold, you’re far too bold.

For more tips on how to choose the best backpacking pants, check out our piece on this topic to find out.

What are your experiences on the issue? Do you think we left out something? Feel free to leave a comment and share your opinion with our other readers. Until then, happy trails!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.