So as many of you may know (though few of you may care), I get obsessed with ultralight travel gear, particularly when it comes to stylish travel clothing that’ll work just as well on the trail as it will in my doomed efforts to impress my peers in the midst of social situations. Try as I might, I’m still looking.
One particular area that’s always been challenging has been travel pants. You’d think this would be pretty simple, since pants have been around for thousands of years and haven’t changed a whole lot in the last century, but the chasm between casual clothing manufacturers and performance apparel companies leaves no part of the Venn diagram with any overlap. With bizarrely few exceptions, travel pants are oddly challenging to find.
“But there are plenty of great travel pants out there! Why are you so damn picky?”
Because I’m right, you low-standards bastards.
The problem with most travel pants
Part of the problem is that no outdoor clothing company seems to make travel pants. They make hiking pants. And they’re totally unsuitable for travel. They don’t seem to realize that when it comes to travel, form is function.
For many backpackers, travel includes a wide variety of activities, from outdoor hikes to pub crawls. Most people pack a couple outfits for wilderness experiences, and a few outfits for stylish occasions, meaning each outfit will handle only half the challenges.
But why can’t they do both? All you need for high-tech performance clothing is the right fabric. And all you need for decent style is not screwing things up. It’s actually quite simple. And if they can handle both, you can carry half as much gear, which is how I was able to go for 9 months with a 20 liter daypack.
Yet many outdoor clothing companies seem to regard fashion with disdain, dismissing the need for stylish apparel, thinking it’s useless up on the mountainside. So they stick extra zippers all over the place, embroider the garment with half a dozen logos, and maybe add some reflective trim and racing stripes for good measure.
And then those items become completely useless when your buddies invite you to a wedding or whatever. If you don’t want to look silly, you have to pack extra clothing.
Those outdoor gear companies think they’re designing everything to operate at the highest level of efficiency, but if they’re horribly deficient when it comes to style, then you have to pack twice as many outfits. Which means…and I can’t stress this enough:
Beauty is actually a performance advantage.
What my perfect travel pants would be
It’s actually quite simple. Use good fabric, and don’t make it ugly. Yet somehow it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Here’s what I look for:
- Performance fabric. I look for quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant, breathable fabric that also feels more or less normal, so I’m not yearning for a decent pair of jeans. If possible, no cotton. A few natural fabrics might work nicely (hemp or Tencel maybe), but they’re so stupidly rare that nylon and polyester are pretty much all that’ll work right now. Stretch fabrics can be useful, particularly for slimmer cuts.
- Casual styling. No visible zippers, no logos, no zip off legs, and no built-in belt. Cargo pockets can be fine, as long as they don’t look weird, though I think it’s good to have at least one pair of pants without them. And it’s not like zip-off cargo hiking pants aren’t useful, but at the very least I also want something that looks like a regular pair of khakis or jeans.
- Hidden security pockets. Emphasis on hidden. I think two is probably enough; one zippered back pocket for a wallet, and one zippered hand pocket for a camera and maybe a passport. This allows you to skip the money belt, which makes things more comfy. I prefer jeans-style pockets, so nothing falls out when I sit down, but they’re oddly rare.
For some reason this trio is oddly difficult to find in a single pair of pants. Plenty will hit two out of three, but in school, that’s a D, and that’s just one step away from an F. Get it together, guys.
A few of the best travel pants for men (that I know of)
So it’s not all bad. A few companies actually make travel clothing, aka regular clothing with performance fabrics, without sticking silly zippers all over the place. Way to go, guys! Everyone else on the planet is stupid!
I’ve rounded up a few examples of excellent men’s travel pants, which hit the mark, or come extremely close. I can’t say this is a complete list of the absolute best pants which make everything else look dumb, but I’ve spent enough time trying to find suitable items that they probably do.
1) Rohan Fusions
If you look nowhere else, Rohan will probably outfit each and every one of your needs just fine, particularly when it comes to pants, seemingly all of which have minimal adornment and multiple hidden zippered pockets.
While options are numerous, I’m mentioning the Fusions because they appear to be the most normal-looking of any of the options they offer. They look just like a regular pair of pants, but with hidden security pockets and performance fabrics; though they’re also one of the lightest, so check out some of their alternatives, too.
Rohan is a UK company, but they’ve expanded to the US as well, and I hope they find their way into outdoorsy stores, because they’ll upstage a great deal of the competition. I’ve heard “ugh, travel clothing is so ugly” way too many times to count.
Annoyingly, they provide easy-to-see photos of the front of all their pants, but not the back. This displeases me.
Update: They recently sent me pair of their Jeans Plus, which are travel-friendly jeans with hidden security pockets and performance features, while still looking just like regular jeans. Check out a review here.
2) Bluffworks Pants
I would like to point out that this list has thus far included only one major company, and will now mention a tiny startup that didn’t exist a few years ago because that’s how hard it is to find good travel pants.
Bluffworks was started by a guy who got sick of having to iron his fancy office pants all the time. Knowing there was a better way because he had used travel clothing before, he made his own pair of office-appropriate performance khakis that didn’t need any babysitting, and started his own company. Ironically, this means he no longer needs any low-maintenance office clothing, which was the whole point in the first place. But oh well. Besides, now I can have some!
They’re wrinkle-free, quick-drying, lightweight, high-performance pants, and they look normal. I received a free pair to review, which you can read about here. They’ve got 6 pockets, 2 of which include hidden zippers, which are particularly useful for traveling.
They’re probably my favorite of everything I’ve tried, and they’ve just added a relaxed fit version. Since they’re a non-stretch fabric, relaxed sounds better to me, especially when sitting down on a 17 hour plane ride or something.
You can buy them here.
Update! Bluffworks have added a new version, with a soft, stretchy fabric, and they feel GREAT. Read about them here. I’m pretty convinced that they’re the best option of anything out there right now. I definitely prefer the stretchy version, and I might eventually refuse to travel with anything else.
3) Tilley Street Chic Pocket Jeans
Back to the big companies. I’ll begin by pointing out that although Tilley calls these “jeans,” I am of the opinion that color is more important to the definition of jeans than pocket layout. If you wear a shirt outside your pants, no one can see the pockets anyway, and they’ll call them khakis. But I digress.
These pants use a quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant, breathable, stretchy fabric, without including silly zippers all over the place.
Plus they include a hidden, flip-out security pocket, which is handy when you’ve got jeans-style pockets, since the back pockets don’t seem to include a zipper, so a hidden pocket would be a handy place to hide a wallet.
Tilley has some other normal-looking pant options as well, and although they cater to an older crowd, plenty of the items could work for all sorts of people. They’ve told me they’re working on including photos of back pockets on all their items, so hopefully we’ll see that soon.
Minor update: I got a test sample of these, and they’ve got a super-rugged, but soft, comfy, normal-looking fabric. They’re really great, though with a higher, tighter waist than most others.
You can buy them here.
4) REI Adventure Pants
This product has seen some updates since I last tried them, which include the understated style, travel-friendly security features, lots of colors, and a much softer fabric. These are also a great budget option, as they are the cheapest option of anything listed here.
The fabric is very light, and appropriate for summer or other warm-weather travel, and the security pockets are all over the place; these pants feature a total of 7 pockets, 3 of which are zippered (back right, front left hidden hand pocket, and a thigh pocket). The thigh pocket is the only one that’s potentially noticeable, but it’s concealed well enough that you’ll probably be fine with it. These also have a small loop up on the waistband for hooking something in, like a wallet or a camera, so it doesn’t fall out; you could just use regular belt loops instead, but not if the hook you’re using is so big that it interferes with a belt.
They describe it as having a “relaxed” fit, and although I think that’s true of the legs, I found it to be a little more snug in the waist and hip area; not “tight,” but more like a regular fit than a relaxed one, which is worthing keeping in mind, given that these use a non-stretch fabric.
Get them here.
5) Royal Robbins Global Traveler Pants
We’re heading into iffy territory here, since I wouldn’t call these entirely normal-looking, but the couple tweaks Royal Robbins have added are fairly covert. They look mostly normal, and for some people, a little pizzazz is fun anyway.
As you can hopefully see from the photo, they’ve got two zippered pockets; one on the back, and one on the thigh. They’re fairly hidden, so I think they’ll pass for normal most of the time.
The fabric is lightweight, quick-drying, comfy, and Teflon-coated for stain and water resistance.
Royal Robbins are one of the few companies that make travel-specific clothing, though their selection often includes plenty of cotton and crazy zippers. I can generally find something of theirs that’ll work, though.
Get them here.
Wait, that’s it?
Yes, that appears to be the end. I don’t know why it’s so cartoonishly difficult to find men’s travel pants, but for some reason or another, every outdoor company insists on sticking silly contraptions all over the place that scream “Look, guys! This zippered pocket is where I keep all of my most expensive things!” Argh. And I haven’t even mentioned the crime against humanity that is our current world’s lack of travel jeans, though a few good ones do exist (listed here).
There might be more out there somewhere (anything from the site Travel Smith will be good, if somewhat dressy), but I’ve spent so much time digging that I’m tired of putting the effort into getting into other people’s pants. They should be trying to get into my pants. The bastards. Besides, the above options are plenty good if you’ve been on the lookout for awesome men’s travel pants. These’ll do it all.
In the meantime, the above options will take you around the world in style. And really, who wants to go around the world out of style?
Alternate option: Soft shells!
So in the last several years, options have been springing forth all over the place for soft shell pants sewn in a casual style. What’s a soft shell, you might ask?
Well, the fabric was actually developed for mountaineering, built to withstand rigors of jagged rocks, rainstorms, thorn bushes, and spilled coffee. They’re super tough, weather-resistant fabrics that actually feel…perfectly pleasant. Soft, stretchy, comfy, weather-resistant, and super breathable, soft shell pants are kind of the Holy Grail of travel-friendly leg wear.
Soft shells will offer a superior stretch as compared to anything else; no matter how you move, whether it’s yoga poses or sitting cross-legged or leaning down to tie your shoes, soft shells will follow you wherever you go, and will never feel restrictive. Beware: Once you switch to soft shells, you may never go back. They’re that good. They’re pricier than anything listed above (up to $240 per pair!), but they’re tough enough that they’ll last a long time, and they’ll get style compliments, too.
Quite a few companies now offer these office-appropriate, highly functional choices, all of which would be perfectly suited to the rigors of travel; however, they rarely have security pockets, which is why I excluded them from this roundup, but if you don’t mind excluding this feature, take a look at this list of super stylish soft shell pants, and another list of soft shell jeans (one of which has a security pocket; the Thunderbolt Jeans).