I’m not sure who most companies make shorts for. The women I know are constantly on-the-go, sweating, swimming, clambering down canyon walls, leaving their clothes in a pile on the beach and hanging them to dry by a campfire. They’re climbing, running, riding, and often living minimally out of a vehicle or a backpack. They’re unafraid to show a little leg but definitely uninterested in showing any more than that when they’re busting a move at the crag. They need shorts that move with them, that don’t stretch out after days without washing but don’t fit too tight, and that are cut for athletic bodies.
After years of disappointment in fitting rooms and failed online shopping attempts, this spring I set out to find the perfect shorts: something to take me from the mountains to the coast and back into town for a beer without a hitch. Shorts suited for activity are usually designed without concern for appearance, and shorts designed for appearance aren’t well-suited for activity. And despite the fact that fit ladies often sport a narrow waist and strong glutes and thighs, shorts are typically designed the other way around–for slender legs and a wider waist. (There are entire companies devoted to combating this, designing pants and shorts for athletic bodies).
I was on a mission to find shorts that would fit and flatter a variety of bodies, that work as hard as they look good, and that would hold up through all the abuse of an adventurous summer (or 10). You could also say I was looking for a unicorn. Here’s what my (unscientific) research turned up.
The Best Hiking Shorts
My all-time favorite hiking-specific shorts are the Royal Robbins Backcountry Shorts. After 7 years of wear, including countless day hikes and backpacking trips, they haven’t ripped, frayed, or lost a button yet. Made of a super lightweight material, these shorts dry rapidly, only pick up smell when they’ve really been put through the ringer, and are very breathable. They’re cut wonderfully; wide at the legs for lots of movement, high waisted so you don’t end up with harnesses or backpack straps right over your waistband, and a little higher in the back to keep your pants from sliding down with your backpack as you walk. Though they’ve got tons of pocket space–including three velcro pockets and one zippered pocket–and can comfortably carry bigger items like a map or a compass if necessary, they’re streamlined (no cargo shorts for me, thank you). Almost miraculously, these are my most practical get-after-it shorts and my most flattering.
The Best Water Shorts
When I’m beach-bound, the ultra-classic Patagonia Baggies can’t be beat. These aren’t board shorts (though I’ve surfed in them happily); but rather a crossover hike-beach-raft-kayak-lounge-swim short. Quick-drying with a relaxed fit, they’re perfect to throw on over a bathing suit to hike into remote beaches, or if you’re feeling modest and want to swim without, you know, wearing underwear in public. These are my ultimate kick-back shorts, fitting similar to a men’s bathing suit and made of a similar material, but they’re just as happy in a beach chair as they are on a hiking trail or in a kayak. If you’re looking for something a little more feminine, the Barely Baggies sport a 2.5-inch inseam (to the Baggies’ 5 inches) and a lower rise, and play just as hard as their big sisters.
The Best Round-Town, Do-Anything Shorts
If I had to choose just one pair of shorts to bring on a road trip, international journey, or weekend escape, I’d pick the Patagonia Stand-Up Short, hands down. They took me from the deserts of Utah to the rocky trails of the French Riviera and back to the climbing walls and bike lanes of Brooklyn, New York without a hitch. This classic was named for the super-stiff canvas the originals were cut from–so rigid the shorts stood up on their own. The modern version is made of a durable, slightly stretchy canvas blend (organic cotton with just a little spandex), meaning they’re uber-comfortable for everything from hiking to biking (though they aren’t very breathable). A great crossover short, their simple design makes them perfectly cool for wearing around town, too. The length’s just right: not too long and not dangerously short. The best feature is the huge back pockets, which are designed to carry like a cargo pocket but to lie flat and flattering when empty. Plus, they’re well-cut for women with butts and thighs, never clinging unflatteringly to my legs. That said, they’re cut basically straight-up-and-down (so they gap a bit at my waist) and the spandex tends to stretch out, so don’t forget a belt.
Other shorts we love
Gramici’s Original G Short is a true classic, built for climbing. One-hand adjustable waistband, a hidden elastic belt, super-soft cotton, and a long fit and high rise make them perfectly comfortable underneath a harness. The simple, straightforward design has hardly changed since their inception in 1981, and though they’re happiest at the crag, these shorts will serve you well hiking, camping, and relaxing. I’ve even dressed them up for a day in the office. On sale from $25-55.
Without a whiff of park ranger, UPS driver, or cargo-short-wearing-Dad, the Patagonia Happy Hike Shorts are the best-looking, lowest-profile hiking shorts on the market. They’re super-breathable (comparable to running shorts) and stretchy, with a low-rise waistband for those who don’t dig the high-waisted look. Note that these shorts are cut straight up-and-down, so if you’re built more like a ski racer and less like an ultra-runner, you might want to skip ’em. $55
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