Finding a good pair of winter hiking pants that will keep you warm while venting excess sweat is one of the more challenging pieces of clothing for winter hikers to find. While beginner winter hikers can get by with layering a pair of synthetic long johns under a pair of full-zip rain pants, the combination lacks in terms of breathability, comfort, weight and freedom of movement. They’re often insufferably too hot when you’re winter hiking or snowshoeing, which generates a lot more heat than three-season hiking.
REI’s Activator Soft-Shell Hiking Pants, available for both men and women, are soft-shell pants for winter hiking and snowshoeing. They’re water resistant and highly breathable to prevent sweat build-up, with articulated knees and a gusseted crotch for freedom of movement. They can also be used comfortably for cool weather hiking in spring and autumn. I used the Activator Pants all last winter for hiking and they are keepers, even better than the REI Mistral Soft Shell Pants that REI used to sell.
Everyone’s metabolism is different, but I’ve found that soft shell pants alone provide the most comfort in terms of breathability, temperature regulation, water resistance, and wind resistance for winter hiking because they’re a single layer that’s easier to combine with others (See Winter Pant Layering for Hikers Who Sweat and KISS Layering).
The Activator Pants have three deep zippered pockets: two on the sizes and one in back, which are mesh backed for enhanced ventilation, and close with a front waist snap. The fabric is quite stretchy, which also enhances the pant’s comfort. The legs are slightly flared to fit over insulated winter hiking boots, but don’t have ankle zips. I think my favorite feature on these pants is the belt, which is sewn onto the waistband and cannot be removed or lost in the laundry. The buckle hooks into daisy chain slots sewn onto the waistband that prevent it from loosening. The buckle is also flat so it fits comfortably under a climbing harness or backpack hip belt.
I’ve found the Activator Pants ideal for winter hiking down to about 15-20 degrees, when worn with 6″ Under Armour boxer shorts, insulated high-top winter boots, and super breathable high gaiters. While none of these are considered layers in the strict sense of the word, they do significantly boost the range of the Activators in cold temperatures, covering everything except my knees with a second layer of insulation. While I have worn silk weight long underwear under the Activators on extremely cold days, it’s not something I need to do very often.
You actually want to run a little cool when winter hiking or snowshoeing because your body is generating so much heat. That’s why it’s important to have extra layers handy when you stop, like a puffy insulated jacket or a pair of rain or wind pants that you can pull over your winter hiking pants, to slow the release of body heat. The combination will warm you right up if you’re standing still.
REI’s Activator Soft Shell Pants are available in 30, 32, and 34″ lengths and in waist sizes from 30 to 42″, including women’s tall and petite sizes. If this is your first pair of winter hiking pants, I’d recommend getting them a bit shorter than normal since you’ll be wearing winter boots and gaiters: any bunching of extra pant fabric around your feet will be awkward and make your calves sweat significantly more.
Disclosure: REI provided the author with a sample pair of pants for this review, but I already own another pair from last year that I purchased with my own funds and just never got around to writing about them.
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