Jeans. The world’s greatest stylistic achievement. Rugged. Comfortable. Dependable. Gloriously adaptable to the whims of fickle fashion nonsense, anywhere in the world.
Soft shells. High-tech fabric that’s tough on the outside, but soft on the inside; comfy, stretchy, weather-resistant, super-breathable, quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant miracles of the textile industry that’ll make you never want to wear cotton ever again.
Thus, as you may find yourself pondering at this moment, combining the two would represent something of a traveler’s holy grail; a super-comfortable, low-maintenance article of clothing that’ll look great at all hours of the day and night, and shrug off whatever shenanigans you subject them to, whether it’s an impromptu rock climbing session, or spilling beer all over yourself. Soft shells were developed for mountaineering, to handle sharp rocks without getting a scratch, but work perfectly for scruffy backpacker travel as well.
For many years I dug around all over the depths of the internet in search of soft shell jeans, but they remained infuriatingly elusive. Silly-looking hiking pants could be found all over the place, but dammit, why couldn’t they look normal?!?!
In the last several years, my psyche has healed, as the options available in this category have increased, from zero to more than zero, and I could not be more pleased.
What can a soft shell do for me?
I’ve written previously on the advantages of soft shell fabrics, listing several soft shell pants (with slash pockets) that’ll work great for all sorts of international adventures, particularly if you want to minimize the number of items you’re bringing along, and subject them to extreme weather conditions. They’re terrifyingly pricey, but they’re going to work better (and last longer) than just about anything you’ll be able to find:
The good: Soft shells are soft and comfy on the inside, but super strong on the outside; they’re super stretchy, like yoga pants or pajamas; they’re highly weather resistant, shrugging off most rain (and beer, wine, coffee, and so on), but remain extremely breathable; they can be hand-washed in a sink, and hung up to dry by morning, and resist wrinkles quite well, making them vastly more practical for ultralight travel than a pair of cotton khakis. And even when compared to standard hiking pants, they still win; they’re stronger, more weather resistant, stretchier, and usually quite a bit more comfortable. The fabric is usually a bit thicker and more substantial, so they feel more like “regular” pants, and have none of the swooshy sound effects of most outdoor gear. So while most hiking pants just sit in the closet at home, most people who try soft shells for the first time refuse to wear anything else thereafter.
The bad: They’re really expensive…like, $200 for a single pair. Worth it? Maybe. The more you take advantage of their weather-resistant, quick-drying, super-durable features, the more it’ll make sense to invest in some, especially if you just want one thing that’ll work in all situations…except for what they can’t handle: Cat claws. Those furry lil bastards can latch on to threads and pull them out, and it can be tricky to get them back in. Get a protective blanket for your lap, FDR-style. But aside from that, they’ll last a lot longer and withstand much more severe conditions than just about anything else (both in terms of the abrasion-resistant fabric, and the stretchiness, which will reduce the chances of a torn seam), and you’ll have a hard time going back.
So I’ve rounded up all…that’s right, all the soft shell jeans I could possibly find, for a total of five (for men; options for ladies are listed towards the end). None have the blue/white varied color texture of regular denim, so when I say “jeans,” I’m referring specifically to the style of the pockets; horizontal hand pockets in front, and patches in back. Many of them use exactly the same fabric (known as Schoeller Dryskin), so they’re all good; you can just pick your favorite, and you’ll have a good time.
Soft shell jeans, for rugged adventures:
1) Outlier Slim Dungarees
These have been building quite a reputation as everyone’s new favorite pair of pants. They’re tough on the outside, soft on the inside, and they’ll handle the elements just as well as fancy social occasions.
The dark colors, slim profile, and simple features keep things decidedly pristine, making these somewhat more upscale in appearance than most other options. You could easily wear this with a suit jacket and look great doing it, even though the fabric is tougher than any pair of jeans you’re likely to find.
Outlier gave me a free pair of these to try out (check out a thorough review here), and they have all the great qualities you’d want in a soft shell, though with a slightly thicker, warmer fabric than most others; they’re also cut slim, and use 2-way stretch, rather than 4-way, so while they’re much stretchier than ordinary denim, you’ll feel some resistance when you lean down to tie your shoes.
The fabric also distinguishes itself with the use of thicker, visible yarns. After trying this out, I much prefer this method, as it allows a much more natural texture, both visually and to the touch. It also allows more breathability, by allowing a slightly more open structure than tightly-woven, finer yarns. If breathability is a necessity, that’s what you want. They can still be pretty warm, though, thanks to the inner lining. They’re better in cooler weather for this reason, but moderate weather is fine too. Warm days would be tricky, though.
- Price: $198
- Fabric: 82% nylon, 16% polyester, 2% elastane
- Fabric weight: 275 grams per square meter
- Pockets: Standard 5 pocket jean layout
Get them here.
2) Western Rise AT Slim Rivet Pant
These are a newcomer, but they’re really, really great. After all these years digging around for travel/outdoor/hiking pants, these have just about the most natural-feeling synthetic pant fabric I’ve found so far (on par with the Outlier Slim Dungarees), and happen to have the exact layout that is my personal favorite: standard jean pockets, but with a hidden zippered security pocket in the back right. They even have a smartphone-compatible 5th pocket (instead of that tiny coin pocket) for some extra storage. As they’ve also got 4-way stretch, they became an instant favorite of mine the moment I put them on.
These are a little different from most soft shells. They use thick yarns to boost breathability, and they don’t have the soft, brushed interior of most soft shells, so they don’t overheat as easily, making them a lot more versatile than I would have expected from a pair of pants at this weight. They’re pretty hefty, with a tough, structured, but natural feel, kind of like heavy-duty cotton canvas, but the unlined interior and thick yarns actually make them feel as comfortable to me as much lighter alternatives. I tend to overheat pretty quickly, so because of those factors, I’m having a hard time switching over to anything else after giving these a try.
- Price: $129
- Fabric: 97% nylon, 3% elastane
- Fabric weight: 280 grams per square meter
- Pockets: Standard 5 pocket jean layout, plus a hidden zippered back pocket (and the “coin” pocket is deep enough for a smartphone)
Western Rise reached out to me to see if I wanted to give these a try, but I had bought a pair for myself already (but I told them I wouldn’t say no to a second pair, which they were happy to send). Check out a review here.
Update: There’s a lightweight version live on Kickstarter! It’s 2/3 of the weight, with the deeper pockets I recommended. Just check out their site and you’ll see a link to the campaign.
3) Mission Workshop Signal 5-pocket pant
These seem to be perpetually sold out, but they certainly look really great.
With a slightly workmanlike aesthetic, including a pocket-knife pocket and a zippered thigh pocket, these are somewhat less dressy than others, but still casual and non-hikery.
Mission Workshop is actually a lot more well-known for their bags, but they’ve been making forays into high-tech clothing as well, and this is a good example; 4-way stretch and great weather resistance, in a slightly thicker fabric than their other pants they offer. They keep their fabric weight unlisted, but I’d save these for cooler weather, given how easily a double-weave soft shell pant can heat up, especially when you’re walking around and building up a sweat. Soft shells were originally designed for mountaineering, after all.
- Price: $225
- Fabric: Unspecified (Schoeller Dryksin version)
- Fabric weight: Unspecified (but on the heavy side)
- Pockets: Standard 5 pocket jean layout, plus one zippered thigh pocket, plus a mini pen pocket
Get them here.
4) Thunderbolt Jeans
These have actually been around for several years, long before other people started realizing how to make non-ridiculous clothing. Seriously, it’s so easy.
They’ve got the added bonus of including a hidden zippered pocket in one of the back pockets, making them extra travel-friendly, or handstand-friendly. They’ve also got a reinforced waistband, designed to stretch just a bit, but not enough to expand and fit differently by the end of the day.
They use a slightly thicker, heavier version of Schoeller Dryskin, which still has the 4-way stretch, but I would say this is probably more suited to cooler weather than hot summer hikes (very similar in feel to the Outlier Slim Dungarees). They actually felt like sweat pants to me when I tried them on, and there’s no way I could wear them in anything but winter.
They’ve also got a version labelled “Lite,” which I consider a lot better for hot-weather use, or even moderate climates, than the standard version. At 180 grams per square meter instead of the regular one’s 250, the light version is much better as a year-round item, especially if you expect to work up a sweat in the sunshine. Double-weave soft shells also adapt a lot more easily to cold weather than hot weather, since the inner lining retains some heat, so if you just move around a lot, you can survive a winter as well, if the rest of your gear can handle it too.
- Price: $200
- Fabric: 91% nylon, 9% Spandex
- Fabric weight: 250 grams per square meter (180 for the Lite)
- Pockets: Standard 5 pocket jean layout, back right pocket is zippered
Get them here.
5) QOR Gym Jean
This is a slightly more affordable option, from QOR, whose fitness and cycling focus mean these have some concealable, reflective elements along with the travel-friendly features.
Along with the regular 5-pocket jean style, they’ve got an additional zippered pocket in back, along a semi-concealed seam where it’s a little trickier to see than a regular zipper would be. I’d like it to be completely invisible, but it’s a lot better than others I’ve seen.
The fabric is just a bit noisier than others, and feels more synthetic than most I’ve tried, but it was otherwise quite functional. It’s also one of the lightest of the options listed here, and great for summer weather. It has 4-way stretch, and the new version (currently called the V2) has a clever elastic waistband that doesn’t look at all like the weird-looking elastic waistband that hiking pants are so infamously known for using, as they managed to make it completely invisible. The pockets are a little on the small side, and it has quite a slim fit, so definitely go a size up if you’re between sizes. It’s really just the appearance, and the slick, shiny, swooshy fabric that made me save this one as more of a workout item than something for everyday use.
QOR gave me a free sample to try out, though I had already ordered an older version before they made the offer.
- Price: $118
- Fabric: 88% polyester, 12% spandex
- Fabric weight: 186 grams per square meter
- Pockets: Standard 5 pocket jean layout, plus a back right zippered pocket (semi-visible)
Get them here.
6) Oliver’s Passage Pant
Oliver’s is a relatively new company that may not be on your radar, but among the options available is this 5-pocket soft shell pant, with nothing to indicate that it’s a high-tech item in any way.
The fabric is light, designed for warmer weather, but, as with the others, soft shells tend to warm up more easily than you might expect, especially if you’re really pushing uphill or moving quickly. This is why I tend to prefer lighter soft shells (unless they’re unlined), so lightweight versions like these can be used pretty much year-round.
The pocket layout is fairly standard, and although it has no zippered security pocket, its fifth pocket (usually referred to as the coin pocket) is designed to accommodate an entire phone, meaning that if you stash your phone somewhere else, you could easily store cash or cards in this deep, tight pocket that won’t be an easy target for pickpockets. 4-way stretch, a gusseted inseam, and a slim fit make it mobile and stylish. The seam layout on the back is a little unusual (known as the “yoke”) so give that a look to see if you’re fine with that. It’s the only unusual feature.
- Price: $168
- Fabric: 96% nylon, 4% spandex
- Fabric weight: Unspecified (described as light)
- Pockets: Standard 5 pocket jean layout
Get it here.
7) Seagale Active Stretch Jeans
Seagale is all the way over in France, which makes it a little bit tricky if you have to pay for international shipping, but if you’re anywhere over in Europe, this will actually work out even better for you. They’ve got a full range of head-to-toe gear, and are one of the very few companies over in Europe doing this sort of thing, so check them out if that’s local for you.
The Seagale Jeans use a 4-way stretch soft shell fabric, in a weight that’s closer to the midpoint of the spectrum, so they’d be great in moderate weather, and transition either to summer or winter, depending on whether you get easily cold or warm. I tend to get warm easily, and with the inner lining that will retain some heat, I’d prefer winter use over summer use with a double-weave at this weight.
They’ve got a casual style that’ll fit right in anywhere, and although they don’t have any extra security pockets, the “5th” pocket is extra deep, so you can stash extra cards or cash down there, effectively doing the job of a security pocket without the extra zipper, as no one’ll ever think to check down there. It’s a clever compromise that I think more people should do.
- Price: 120 euros
- Fabric: 89% polyester, 11% elastane
- Fabric weight: 230 grams per square meter
- Pockets: Standard 5 pocket jean layout, 5th pocket is extra deep for hiding credit cards or cash
Soft shell jean honorable mentions
I’m including a few other options that aren’t “officially” soft shells, but the category is so nebulous that I think it makes more sense to be inclusive than not, and some of these options might be just what you’re looking for anyway. All of these feature jean-style pockets, and casual styling overall:
- The Prana Brion pants (reviewed here) are likely to be the cheapest casually-styled pseudo-soft-shell pants out there, occasionally going for as little as $50. The fabric has 4-way stretch (although the vertical stretch isn’t much), and is quite thin, so they’re not likely to be as tough or flexible as some of the others, but they’re still quite good, and better suited to hot weather. They’re my first recommendation if you want something with light soft shell performance, but at a significantly lower price.
(That’s the only one available for now, that I know of.)
Ministry of Supply has a 5-pocket pant available as well, though I’m not sure if it’s a permanent part of the lineup. A few companies specialize in making cycling clothing that looks entirely normal (detailed here), with Makers & Riders and Swrve providing a few entries into this category that are worth a look as well (though often with bike-friendly features like slim-fitting legs).
Barbell Apparel has a soft shell pant with super stretch and an athletic fit; I wish they’d mention their percentage of spandex and include some closeup photos, but it’s there, and in many colors.
Anything for the ladies?
Well, maybe. I had a few options listed here, but most of them are now out of production. I think your best bet in the meantime is Betabrand, who offer yoga pants styled like dress pants, and some other options. Anatomie, Pivotte, and Outerboro should have some options, too. Western Rise makes the AT Slim Rivet Pants for women, too.
That’s all for now
Well, that’s all for the moment. As you can tell, I’m a big fan of jeans-style pockets, but always wanted some sort of fabric more appropriate for travel. “Real” travel jeans do exist (I’ve listed a few here, which have a blend of fabrics to achieve the blue & white color variation too look exactly like a regular pair of jeans), but these soft shells will offer even more serious performance, though with a different look than “real” jeans.
But either way, I’m happy (and so are a lot of other people) with the combination of the world’s best style of pants with the world’s most versatile performance fabric. They’re pricey, and they may be out of reach for most people, but the good news is that for the next decade, you won’t need more than one or two.