Many years ago, when I was on the verge of setting forth on a nearly-year-long adventure throughout the international urban wilderness, during which I would brave everything from below-freezing winter snowstorms to body-temperature-and-beyond burning summer sunshine, I though to myself…wouldn’t it be really great to have high-tech clothing that can handle all sorts of temperature and weather fluctuations, breathe really well, dry really fast, withstand a rainstorm or two, hold up to serious abuse, and look really great, all at the same time?
Yes, it totally would. Too bad it didn’t exist. The only options available were ridiculous-looking hiking gear, or cotton khakis. The world was a terrible place.
The semi-imaginary solution: Soft shell pants
What was even more annoying is that clothing like this could exist, because the fabric had already been invented, decades previously. The only remaining problem was the sheer stupidity of the human race, who insisted on making any and all high-tech clothing look as ridiculous as possible, so that it was completely out of the question to look good and feel good at the same time, and you’d have to pack twice as many things, because humans are stupid.
I have yet to fully recover from my wounds.
The world has since changed. A few small companies have figured out that all it takes to make high-tech clothing that’s snazzily fashionable is just making it that way. They build stylish outfits out of mountaineering fabrics, and the results are often the kind that will make you want to throw out the rest of your clothes, especially if you’re an ultralight travel junkie, and you need gear that’ll handle anything life can throw at you.
And when it comes to pants, one of the best fabrics around is known as a soft shell. It offers the perfect blend of comfort, durability, and weather resistance, making them about as versatile as pants can get. Let’s discuss.
What are soft shell pants?
The term “soft shell” has something of a murky definition, but it’s best understood in relation to a “hard shell,” which is a totally waterproof layer, like a rain jacket. Soft shells, by comparison, are highly water-resistant, but softer, and far more breathable.
But I mean really water resistant. Take a look at how a soft shell fabric handles a liter of water, compared to ordinary cotton:
That’s technically all it takes to qualify, but it just so happens that most soft shells are also soft, strong, stretchy, comfy fabrics that look good, feel good, and can withstand just about anything, from a rock climb to spilled beer. They were initially designed for serious mountaineering, where jagged rocks and rainstorms might come thundering down at any moment, and serious climbers needed something that could hold up to the challenge.
But they’re also far comfier than you might expect. Many soft shells feature a double-sided fabric, with tough nylon on the outside, but a softer, more pleasant texture on the inside, which, along with super stretchiness, makes them feel downright luxurious. They’re also immensely breathable, and the textured inner surface reduces next-to-skin surface area contact, meaning that even a damp fabric won’t feel too clammy.
They’re most often seen in jackets, but they actually make even more sense for pants. Since your legs are usually vertical, total waterproof performance isn’t quite as important (but stretchiness is), and the soft shell tradeoff means you’ll get super tough, super comfy, super breathable pants that’ll shrug off the rain a million times better than a pair of jeans, and feel good the whole time.
In other words, they’re exactly what pants should have been in the first place, and you’ll wonder why we all bothered with khakis for so long. I have found nothing on the face of this earth more comfortable and functional in such a broad range of conditions as soft shell pants.
They do, however, have three downsides:
- They’re pricey…around $200 for a single pair. Since a lot of the fabric is made in Switzerland and sewn together by small companies, they’re not going to be cheap, though due to their higher durability, they can be a great long-term investment, especially for people constantly tearing holes in their pants.
- They’re weak against cat claws. While soft shells are highly abrasion-resistant, they’re not as cat-claw-resistant; you know that “massage” thing they do? They dig claws in, and pull threads out; and since soft shells have stretchy threads, they’ll actually get stretched out, and can be difficult to work back in. Grab a blanket to cover your lap if the cat wants to claw-massage you.
- They’re usually ugly. And I mean really ugly.
This last problem, however, has recently been solved:
5 (or so) stylish soft shell pants for men, for indoors or out
I’ve rounded up a list of the best soft shell pants out there, all of which are styled to look like a perfectly ordinary pair of pants, making them equally capable of outdoorsy adventures and boardroom-appropriate professionalism. Quite a departure from the extraneous-zipper-festooned mountaineering pants of the outdoorsy crowd, but still just as functional. Oh, and sometimes they even make them for ladies, too. Take a look:
1) Outlier New OGs
Originally envisioned as a bike-to-work pant that had to work just as well while cycling through the rain as it would in an office setting, Outlier’s original garment (thus known as the OGs) certainly started things off in style. Office-appropriate details and colors mean you could easily attend a wedding in them, and head straight to the climbing gym afterwards.
The two buttoned back pockets use a downward-facing welt, thus holding your wallet a little more securely, while still resembling an ordinary buttoned pocket.
They also have 4-way stretch, meaning they stretch horizontally to fit your body, as well as vertically; when you lean over to tie your shoes, they’ll stretch in the seat and knees, which is exactly what you’d want them to do, and it provides a level of comfort I have thus far not encountered elsewhere.
Available in 1″ increments, with a 34″ inseam.
- Price: $240
- Fabric: 80% nylon, 10% polyester, 10% elastane.
Get them here.
(Women’s options available as well, though not in the same style)
2) Outerboro Motile Pants
Perhaps the dressiest of all the options listed here, the Motile Pants come from Outerboro, a Taiwan-based newcomer who seems to be expanding quickly, adding new options all time.
The Motile Pants use classic dress-pant styling, whose tiny details (double-welted back pockets, tabbed waistband, slim fit, office-appropriate colors) all add up to give it perhaps the most formal appearance of any soft shell pants you’re likely to find, while still providing the 4-way stretch that you’d need for running and jumping around in them.
Available in 1″ increments, with a progressively longer inseam as waist sizes go up.
- Price: $148.
- Fabric: 63% nylon, 26% polyester, 11% elastane.
Get them here.
(There’s a women’s version known as the Motile Breeze, though it uses a lighter fabric)
3) Ministry of Supply Aviator Chinos
Easily the most affordable of the options listed here, the Aviator Chinos from Ministry of Supply also happen to be available in the broadest range of colors (currently six, compared to just two or three from others), and you also get to pick between a slim or standard fit, making them feel practically customized, at least in certain ways.
Features include two back pockets (no buttons), and a waistband liner designed to keep your shirt tucked in, which also prevents the waistband from expanding throughout the day. The size you get is the size it’ll stay, which is a feature I find incredibly useful.
Only available in 2″ increments, but with standard as well as slim fit options. Inseam lengths increase with waist size.
- Price: $118
- Fabric: 89% nylon, 11% elastane.
Update: These are being phased out, to be replaced by the Aviator 2, which is made of 100% polyester, but retains the same 4-way stretch capabilities.
Get them here.
(Currently for men only)
4) Mission Workshop Division Chino
Mission Workshop is actually more widely known for their waterproof backpacks and messenger bags than their clothes, but they’ve been adding some impressive entries into the world of functional and fashionable clothing, and this is one of them. I am fairly sure this is the same fabric as the Outlier New OGs, with the 4-way stretch that makes acrobatics so easy.
Ever-so-slightly more workmanlike in appearance than some of the others, the Division Chino has a semi-secret zippered thigh pocket to give you extra storage space, and what appears to be a belt loop in the front pocket, which I assume is for hanging things from a carabiner. It’s perhaps just slightly less office-appropriate than the other options, depending on what sort of office you work in, but it has a modern aesthetic that I think looks pretty nice, and it’s certainly just fine for Casual Friday, or any setting even just slightly less than formal.
Two back pockets with no buttons, plus the semi-hidden zippered thigh pocket.
Only available in 2″ increments, with a 34″ inseam.
- Price: $225
- Fabric: Not listed, but I think it’s the same as the Outlier OGs (80% nylon, 10% polyester, 10% elastane).
Get them here.
(For men only)
5) Ninox Carson Chino
Recently added to the Ninox lineup is the Carson Chino, which uses the same Schoeller Dryskin fabric as the Outlier New OGs and others, with a professional appearance for use in town, at the office, or on the trail.
These have two regular hand pockets, and two back pockets, one of which has a button, while the other is open.
It’s available mostly in 2″ increments, (there’s also a size 33), with a 34.5″ inseam.
- Price: $219
- Fabric: 80% nylon, 10% polyester, 10% elastane
Get them here.
(For men only)
As you can see, options are far more numerous than the zero I had on that extended adventure in the Dark Ages of soft shell pant absence. Nowadays it seems there are so many options to choose from that narrowing it down to just one seems like quite a challenge, particularly when it’s a long-term investment with a significant initial cost.
The good news, however, is that many of the options use the same fabrics and casually-styled features, so even if all you do is pick the one you think looks the coolest, it’s hard to go wrong.
I’d be happy to see options with hidden, zippered security pockets, which would make these somewhat more suitable for adventure travel (I’ve listed examples of good travel pants here, all of which have hidden pockets, though they’re not soft shells), though buttoned pockets work quite nicely as well, and if you’re using a money belt, you don’t need to worry about it.
I’m also a huge fan of jeans-style pockets, because I can’t stand when coins and phones fall out, and I’ve drawn up a list of soft shell jeans, all of which are great.
In the meantime, go forth into the urban and/or sylvan wilderness, and adventure onward. In style.