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To Jean or Not to Jean? The Great Travel Pants Debate

Travel pants (travel trousers to my UK friends) are controversial clothing items, believe it or not. They have both supporters and detractors among women travelers.

There are two main arguments: one is between wearing travel trousers and wearing a travel skirt, which some of us (myself included) prefer in hot climates.

The other argument - and the one I debate below - is about pants versus jeans: some women swear by their jeans, while others wouldn't dream of wearing denim on the road.

But first, for those of you who have come here looking for travel pants - not jeans - here are three of my recommendations. 

Clothing Arts pickpocket proof travel pants for women

1. Pick-Pocket Proof travel pants by Clothing Arts - I use these (they're impregnable!) And... pockets.

Clothing Arts

Outdoor Research Women's Ferrosi Pants

2. Outdoor Research Ferrosi Pants are super comfortable (recommended by a fellow traveler).

Amazon

Royal Robbins Womens' Discovery Pants

3. Royal Robbins Discovery Pants are also next in line for me - dry fast and wrinkle-free (for warm weather)

Amazon

In addition to these, I would absolutely take a look at the quick-drying series of trousers from Ex Officio, as well as visit the REI shop for their own branded travel pants.

The great jeans vs travel pants debate

There are plenty of good reasons to wear jeans when you travel:

  • they fit well
  • they look good
  • you'll fit in with everyone else in town
  • they're comfortable
  • you can easily dress them up for city wear or going out
  • they're durable and last a long time
  • you can get them dirty and no one will notice...
Jeans - best for travel?Jeans or travel pants?

If your travels involve mostly cities and relatively clean public transport, by all means, take your jeans. In fact, you must!

But if you're planning on exploring the rainforests of Borneo or tramping along the edges of the Sahara or the Gobi, think again or you may be cursing your jeans in no time.

I spent a year traveling across Africa - without jeans. Here's why:

  • they're hot and you sweat in them
  • they retain humidity
  • they take forever to dry (and there are few things more revolting than slipping on a pair of wet denims)
  • they rub against your skin mercilessly if it's hot or humid outside
  • they're bulky to pack
  • they won't wash easily in your hostel's sink...

To me, that's enough to tip the balance. I travel in skirts when it's too hot outside because the air circulates better in a skirt and keeps you cooler. But that's me.

Just for fun, look through a few travel forums and you'll be amazed at the debate this simple question can generate.

So what will it be then, to jean or not to jean?

If you're taking jeans, go for it. If not - here's what you should look for.

So while the jeans controversy rages on in other places, let's see what makes (or doesn't make) a good pair of travel trousers.

Here are my few no-nos for travel pants

  • Pants that zip into shorts - ugly, and soon they'll just look like they don't match anymore. They'll also instantly single you out as a tourist.
  • Colors that get dirty easily (the worst culprits are white and black).
  • Pants that wrinkle easily. Unless you're staying in a good hotel you won't necessarily find an iron lying around and lets face it, why would you want to spend your travel time behind an ironing board?

Here's what you SHOULD look for

First, deal with the above. Plus...

  • Good travel pants should be made of fabric that breathes easily. You don't want your pants to stick to your body the moment the thermometer goes up.
  • Check the waistband. If it doesn't have a bit of elastic in it, it should at least be wide and comfortable.
  • If you're headed to the tropics, in my opinion they should be moisture wicking, to lap up that moisture whenever you do sweat (and if it's hot, you will). Many travelers would prefer to stay away from the new synthetic fibers and stick to natural cloth such as lightweight cotton. I'm fine with the new blends but it's a personal choice.
  • Your pants should be lightweight, not only to keep your luggage weight bearable but also to wear comfortably. The best clothes are the ones you don't even feel you're wearing.
  • They should pack easily and dry quickly, in a few minutes in the sun. There's every chance you'll get wet at some point.
  • If you're heading to a cold climate, don't necessarily take warm pants - try a pair of light silk or wool long underwear instead. They bunch up into a tiny ball and will keep you warm if the weather turns. When you get back into the heat, you won't be lumbered with a heavy and useless item of clothing (and you can mail your longjohns home).
  • If your weather is in-between - basically cool - and you're planning on roughing it a bit, give some thought to a pair of teflon-coated pants (no, they're not as stiff as they sound). They're stain resistant, a big plus when you're not carrying your entire wardrobe, and don't wrinkle easily. They're also sturdy so a good alternative for temperate climes.
  • Your pants have to stand up to wear and tear - good seams, possible reinforcements where needed...
  • If possible they should have pockets, especially hidden ones sealed with zippers or velcro. I have a great pair of Clothing Arts travel pants (see no.1 above) with an internal velcroed pocket where I can store papers and money, my cellphone and everything under the sun (by 
  • Pants should fit. Seems obvious, right? If they're too long you'll get them caught in your sandals or trip over them with your hiking boots. You can also catch them on things and rip them or worse, fall. So a nice trim fit, no excess.
  • Of course they should look good! That's right: you may wear them on the bus or train during the day but if you want to travel light you'll also want travel pants that are versatile. If you're backpacking you won't have a dozen outfits for every occasion. Even if you're traveling with a suitcase you won't want extra-heavy luggage you'll have to lug up and down the world's hills and stairways. But make sure they're not too fashionably tight - or they'll be uncomfortable, especially in the heat.

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