One of the best things about the co-op is the thriving community of gearheads, dirtbags, bird nerds, thru-hikers, peak-baggers, storytellers and more who work in our stores and headquarters, guide our trips and teach our classes. In this monthly series, we’ll tap into that expert knowledge to answer some of your burning questions about terrain, gear, safety, etiquette—anything! The co-op has your back.
Hiking in anything spandex—like yoga pants, cotton leggings and running tights—is a noticeable trail trend. It makes sense—they’re comfortable, they fit well, and they’re already in your closet. On the other hand, technical hiking pants are designed for the trail, and as my imaginary grandpa likes to say, cotton’ll kill you faster than a rattler in a thunderstorm. Instead of Gramps, though, I turned to Liz Meschio, a 26-year-old REI Outdoor School instructor for some sage advice.
Liz is an experienced long-distance hiker, and to my surprise, she told me she hikes only in running shorts. “Plenty of people still wear pants and stuff, but I’m just one of the people who don’t,” she says. “I hiked the entire PCT in a pair of running shorts and a moisture-wicking tank top.”
Liz favors shorts because they’re ultralight and well-ventilated, and they even have built-in underwear so she can skim a few more ounces off her pack. But she’s not recommending them per se—she believes people should find their own sweet spot in terms of trail clothes. “What works for me might not work for everybody, you know?”
There’s another reason Liz eschews more traditional hiking pants. “I’m 6 feet tall and I’m Italian, so I have a lot going on as far as curves,” she says, pointing out that hiking pants tend to be tailored for straight legs and narrow hips, which doesn’t work for all body types. “Sometimes there’s just not clothes that fit a curvier person. The seams rub on your thigh. So that’s why they go to spandex and running tights.”
This explains so much. Nothing takes you away from the communing with the forest more than the chafing of the seams. Except maybe hypothermia. While cotton-spandex leggings may be more comfortable, what about moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, quick-dry, UV-protected fabric? Don’t we need that stuff to survive?
Liz says it depends on how far you’re going and how long you’ll be out: If it’s more than three days, leave the spandex at home. “Yoga pants and running tights get super funky really quickly,” she says, “and you can get an infection in a place where you definitely don’t want one.”
If you’re going for an overnight or a day hike, Liz recommends tights that are made for triathlons. Tri tights provide more technical performance than regular running tights or leggings. “Maybe that’s just a little in-between place you could go,” she says.
With all spandex, durability is another factor to consider. “If you need to bushwhack, those tights are gonna tear,” Liz says. “If you’re doing scrambles, those things are going to get torn up. The terrain, the environment, that’s all stuff you’ve got to look at. If you’re going to be climbing up a rock wall, or slogging through mud, or you’re going to be in a really buggy area, they make clothes for that. They make gaiters for river crossings. They make insect-treated clothing. It comes down to a person’s health when they’re out there.”
Infections, ripped pants and bugs all sound uncomfortable. But what about Gramps? Can wearing cotton leggings really be dangerous? Absolutely, Liz says. “Cotton does kill.”
Liz says the thing with cotton is when you sweat, moisture is absorbed and stays next to your skin. If there’s a sudden downpour or an unexpected river crossing, your cotton-spandex pants are going to get soaked. When the temperature drops and you’re still wearing those wet clothes, that’s when it gets dangerous.
“Yeah you’re going to get hypothermia,” Liz says. “Unless you can immediately get out of your wet clothes and into a sleeping bag that’s the proper temperature for the outside air, you’re looking at being in some pretty big trouble.”
Technical hiking pants wick your sweat and dry fast, but they can still get soaked if, say, your friends decide to throw you in a lake. “If you wring them out and hang them, they will probably be pretty close to dry in the morning, so at least you have something to wear,” Liz says. “But that cotton’s not going to be dry.”
Does she run into resistance on this front? Sure. “People are like, ‘Well I wear cotton to the gym, and it’s fine,’” Liz says. “Yeah, you’re in the gym for an hour or two. This is a little bit of a different situation. Anything cotton is just a one-way ticket to a hot, damp, rash-filled experience on the trail.”
Ultimately, on the question of hiking in yoga pants, Liz says: “There’s nothing wrong with wearing leggings or tights on a day hike. Sure, whatever! Try it out, see what happens. I would guess 50 percent of people are going to be like, I need more technical stuff.”
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Meet the Expert
Elizabeth Meschio is an employee at the REI store in Dallas, where she teaches the REI Outdoor School classes Backpacking for Women and Hiking the PCT. She is an experienced thru-hiker and companion to an aspiring canine thru-hiker; most recently she completed the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015.