The honest truth? The best rock climbing pants are the ones you feel good in. In fact, America’s pioneering climbers, including Yosemite legends like Yvon Chouinard and Warren Harding, were partial to canvas workman’s pants, thrift store slacks, and painter’s pants—anything that let them move freely.
That said, when you’re really pushing your limits, it can make a big difference to have rock climbing pants that fit well, stretch with you, and protect your legs from bumps and scrapes. Then there’s the matter of weather resistance. If you’re on a wall for extended periods of cruddy weather, hypothermia is a real concern. The best rock climbing pants for rainy or snowy climates are made with water-repellent coatings or quick-drying materials—something you’ll be hard-pressed to find in garden-variety jeans and leggings.
Rock climbing pants today come with a number of features to improve comfort and mobility on the wall. To help you choose the best rock climbing pants for your needs, we’ll go over the following in this guide:
- Common Materials
- Features to Look For
- Fit Considerations
Rock climbing pants contain a variety of materials, each with its pros and cons. Many fabrics contain a blend of two or more materials for a wider range of characteristics.
One of the original climbing pant materials, cotton provides amazing breathability. Cotton fabrics also tend to have some stretch and good tear resistance, especially when woven into a canvas or denim. Cotton pants are also easy to wash and dry and don’t retain odors over time. The biggest downside of cotton-based pants, however, is that they absorb water and are slow to dry, which could leave you chilled in a damp environment. And if you’ve ever watched the knees blow out of your favorite pair of jeans, you’ll be familiar with cotton’s other downside: It’s prone to wear and tear over time.
Nylon is used in a lot of climbing gear, from your rope to your harness. It offers some stretch and good durability, especially when it’s densely woven. Some drawbacks: Nylon absorbs water—not nearly as much as cotton, but more than polyester—and can be slow to dry. Nylon also tends to retain body odor and doesn’t breathe as well as cotton.
Polyester is another common ingredient in rock climbing pants. It’s strong and abrasion-resistant. While it performs similarly to nylon in most cases, polyester does repel water instead of absorbing it. Like nylon, polyester is prone to getting stinky after a few wears, and it’s not as breathable as cotton. Bonus: Polyester is easier to recycle than nylon, so you’ll likely see some options that contain recycled polyester.
Softshell refers to woven synthetic fabric. As the name suggests, it’s softer than a conventional hardshell fabric, but provides some (not total) wind resistance and water repellency. Softshell pants tend to be lightweight and stretchy and abrasion resistant, and are a good option for technical terrain in variable conditions. Many also come with a brushed or fleece liner, which can make them a great choice for winter climbing.
Spandex or Elastane
Elastane (sometimes referred to as its brand name Spandex) adds stretch. On its own, elastane is not very durable—just think about how easily leggings tear when they snag on a sharp rock. However, elastane is a great addition to a blended fabric, in which other materials provide durability and elastane provides the stretch.
DWR (Durable Water Repellent) Treatment
Many climbing pants come with a chemical treatment that repels water. Keep in mind that DWR is most effective when it’s new: After several washes and a little abrasion, the coating will begin to wear off. When possible, look for “PFC-free” or “short-chain” DWRs, which are less toxic to the environment. And if you don’t plan to do any wet-weather climbing, consider purchasing pants without a DWR coating at all.