Hardshell Trousers 2021
- Saturday 4th December 2021
By Bruce Goodlad
Hardshell trousers are the forgotten element in outdoor gear reviews, have a quick internet search and you won’t find anything of substance or anything recent. Maybe they aren’t sexy enough, maybe they are too difficult to review, maybe the manufacturers don’t want to send them out to review teams as they always get trashed. Though to be fair to the manufacturers, most stuff gets trashed and they don’t want it back.
When I am choosing my winter kit this is one of the most important pieces, the one thing that you are unlikely to change as you go through the day is your hardshell pants. The main reason is one of convenience, it is difficult to change trousers on the go, though you may want to change as the weather changes. This could either be through altitude gain – cold and wind – or simply that the weather changes and it starts to rain.
The easiest way to combat any of these issues is to have a pair of hardshell trousers with good ventilation options. You can then put them on at the start of the day and leave them on, you can then adjust your comfort and temperature using any venting options and vary what you are wearing on the top half of your body.
Trousers that come with full-length zips do make it easier to put them on and off so you may choose to do much of the approach in your undergarments putting the hard shell on when temperature or weather dictate. At any rate you will need to put them on when you reach the point where you want to put on your crampons. I would suggest this is the time to put on your harness as well when you are somewhere nice and comfortable. You wouldn’t be the first person to wish they had put their harness on earlier as you tumble to your death while trying to fit a harness on over your crampons on a small ledge at the base of a route.
So, what am I looking for in a pair of hardshell trousers/pant? The essential criteria is fit and this is personal and to a large degree more so than almost any other garment. You need to try some on, bend and flex, try high step-ups and if you can try them with a range of undergarments to see if they will work with your various options.
The next criteria to think about is the balance between weight and durability, this boils down to intended use. If I was planning a season of guiding in the Scottish winter mountains then I would look at a pant that was more robust than a pant I wanted for some icefall climbing in Norway and a bit of spring Alpinism where weight was more important than durability.
Many of us ski or ski-tour in the same pants we want to climb in, so making sure the pants will fit over a ski boot when it is in downhill and uphill mode is important. Personally, I find pants that will fit over a ski boot are too large and flappy at the bottom for climbing when I am more likely to trip over them or stab a crampon through them.
Some of the pants incorporate a Recco reflector. If you aren’t familiar with Recco this works like a radar reflector when searched for with a special device. In reality this is a body recovery device but it can reduce the time it takes a rescue to recover you and hence their exposure. It is no replacement for an avalanche transceiver.
The fabric laminate will determine the durability and breathability, three-layer laminates are the standard for hard shell climbing pants, but the actual face fabric will dictate how much abuse a pant can take in a granite chimney in the Cairngorms or Chamonix. We will discuss the construction and fabrics in each individual test. Other features such as zips and pockets are, to a degree, personal and vary from pant to pant so we will discuss these during the individual reviews.
The final thing before we get into the reviews is how we tested the different garments. Being fortunate enough to live in the Alps we have had our back garden of the Mont Blanc Massif in autumn to climb in, so we have been out and about trying the different trousers with a variety of boots and crampons climbing and mountaineering. At the time of writing, we didn’t have enough snow for much meaningful skiing though I did check all the pants featured for their suitability with ski touring boots.
Mammut Nordwand Pro HS Pants
RRP: £500 Weight:675g
A full-featured pant made from a three-layer Gore-Tex Pro shell, these pants are a blend of different face fabrics, with stretch in the knees and a great cut to allow fantastic freedom of movement. There is a ¾ length zip that is fitted on a slant down the leg – this adds to the freedom of movement as opposed to a straight leg zip which tends to get an awkward fold at the knee. The ¾ zip is great for ventilation as it is really easy to pull the zip down, the position of the zip made it easier to design a clean waist that is really comfortable with a harness. The only negative to this is that you have to step through the waist to put the trousers on, this isn’t a problem but just something to be aware of.
The trousers come with easily removable braces, some love braces others don’t, personally I am not a massive fan but they are so easy to remove this is not an issue. There is an elasticated waist that is easily adjusted with Velcro on either side, the inside of the waist at the rear has a mesh panel to help with moisture management. At the front of the waist there are two pockets, these are positioned well to work with a harness and are easily big enough to carry an avalanche transceiver. To finish off the waist area the fly has a two-way zip which makes answering the call of nature with a harness on pretty easy.
Moving down the leg there is a large Dyneema crampon patch on the inside of the ankle, a narrower strip continues round the outside of the leg so these trousers should last. There is a calf-height volume adjustment then another one on the ankle, there is also a press stud at the base of the zip. The bottom of the leg is cut longer at the heel which helps keep any snow and weather out, there is an internal gaiter that extends below the calf, there are two possible sizes adjusted by a zip, this copes with the size difference between a mountaineering boot and a ski boot. I was concerned by the ankle size being a bit big while climbing but I haven’t put my crampons through them yet.
While the Nordwand is neither light nor cheap, this is an impressive pair of pants. They are comfortable and robust and are a rare thing in that I would happily use them all winter for both skiing and climbing. The pants come in blue, orange or black and are also available in a women’s version.
Patagonia Dual Aspect Bib
RRP: £380 Weight: 312g
The Dual Aspect is a very different beast to the Nordwand – these are definitely designed with lightweight Alpine performance rather than durability in mind (not to say they are not durable just less so than above). The pant takes a bit of consideration with how to put it on when stepping through the stretchy mesh bib.
The leg cut combined with the light three-layer H2NO fabric – the fabric has 100% recycled face fabric and a PFC free DWR coating – is really comfortable to move and climb in, there is a zip gusset at the ankle which when opened will just fit over an open ski boot, but only just. There is a reinforced ankle for scuffs from crampons and skis. On the right thigh there is a zip pocket that could take a transceiver, a folded map or a route description, there is also a ‘stash’ pocket inside the bib which is big enough for a phone.
At the rear of the pants there is a drop seat which is great and works really well, the zip has a double pull on it so can be used for ventilation when on the move, there is a fly that has an interesting diagonal cut while in theory this a really nice piece of design I just didn’t find that it worked well for me and wasn’t that easy to use with a harness on.
Now I come to the part of the bib that I struggled with, the bib. If you are the perfect Patagonia size for the bib I’m sure it works really well, for me it didn’t really work, the legs were a great length but the torso was too short irrespective of the stretch, this made the bib uncomfortable and there is no space for anything but a base layer under the bib section. There is no option to remove the bib (which is why it is so light) other than with a pair of scissors which you are not going to do to make them work for you.
These are a great pair of light comfortable pants with the big caveat that you need to try them on as the bib will not work for everyone, personally I would not risk buying these online as the sizing is so specific. Available in a women’s model.
Rab Muztag GTX Pants
RRP: £330 Weight: 460g
Designed for maximum protection when out in foul weather the Muztag is constructed from a three-layer Gore-Tex Pro shell, their most robust laminate. While perhaps not as robust as the Mammut Nordwand Pro, the Muztag is 200g lighter and a fair bit cheaper. The pants have a 7/8 length zip on each leg with a three-way zip. One at the base of the leg that can be pulled upwards to ease putting the pants on and off, then two zippers can be moved up and down the leg then opened to give a desired level of ventilation. The two zippers that are together are different colours and one has a rubber tab, this may seem like a small thing but this attention to detail makes the pants significantly easier to use as you always pull the correct zipper in the correct direction.
While we are on zippers, the fly has an upward as well as a downward pull, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record (that metaphor may not work in this day and age) this is a cheap addition for a brand and makes a pair of pants so much easier to use when wearing a harness. If we head down to the base of the leg there is some excellent reinforcement on the inside of the ankle with a band that extends round the inside of the pant at the point of maximum wear – unless you use your knees a lot when winter climbing.
The ankle size is great for climbing and is shaped round the inside of the ankle to keep your feet clear and visible for climbing and maximizing protection. With the ski boots I tried, these were a bit small to be used for ski touring (boots undone in ascent). Moving up the legs the articulation and cut round the knee are superb making these pants incredibly comfortable to climb in. The area round the waist is nice and clean with Velcro adjustments, belt loops and a microfleece lining at the small of the back to wick any moisture away.
The pants come with removable braces and there are three press studs at the fly, this may seem excessive, but I thought these were great as the waist does not come undone no matter how extreme your moves through the day. These are a great pant and at this stage in the test I thought they had found a great blend between weight, durability, and performance.
Salewa Ortles 4 GTX Pro Pant
RRP: £400 Weight: 510g
If you want to stand out in the mountains then these may be the pants for you, available in boring black or ‘pale frog’ AKA ‘Kermit pants’ I thought the colour was awesome. I really enjoy taking photographs when in the mountains and climbers with strong colours make photographs pop and can really bring an extra dimension to an image rather than just blending into the fabric of the landscape. But that’s just me, if you like black they come in black.
Whatever the colour the pants are constructed from Gore-Tex Pro shell with a hardwearing face fabric. The pants have an interesting two-section side zip, this allows you to open the top third of the pant to put them on easily, this is really worthwhile as the high waist (think low bib) is a bit awkward to get on without the zip as the pant is shaped round the hips. There is an elasticated panel at the small of the back that keeps this area really neat and keeps any draughts out.
The fit at the waist can be fine-tuned using the Velcro adjusters and there are attachment point for braces. The cut is great for climbing with great flexibility and freedom of movement. The high cut is not what I would have chosen going into a shop but I really liked it. The high side zips make them easy to get into and these top zips have zippers at both ends that allow you to ventilate on the walk-in.
There is a gusseted zipper that extends from the top of the calf to the ankle, this has enough adjustment to bridge the space needed between a mountaineering boot and ski touring boot. The inside of the ankle has reinforced patches and the legs can be unzipped from the bottom up. If I have one suggestion for the designers at Salewa it would be to make the thigh pockets just a little bit bigger. I love the thigh pockets, they are really useful and it’s where I usually carry my avalanche transceiver but this would be too slim to fit it comfortably and can we please have an upward pulling fly. These are a great pants that will take you through any adventure this winter.
Arc’teryx Beta AR Pants
RRP: £400 Weight: 465g
AR stands for All Round and that’s exactly what these pants are, great all-round pants, constructed from Gore-Tex Pro shell in a robust face fabric. Arc’teryx were one of the first (maybe the first) company to use narrow seam taping, zipper garages and many more features. As a result, I love reviewing their kit because I know that everything will have been so well thought out with great attention to detail.
Fit and cut is superb with a really neat waist that is adjusted using a built-in webbing belt, the neatness of the waist makes the pants very comfortable with a harness. There are long zippers on the outside of the thigh that extend from just above the knee to the hip – this is great for venting and doesn’t add the stiffness of a full-length side zip. On the thigh there is a good-sized thigh pocket on the right leg, the zip is protected from climbing scuffs by a flap, the way this is stitched ensures that it always flaps down over the zip.
The pocket has been sized to take an avalanche transceiver and there is a sewn webbing loop that a transceiver can be clipped to, this is a really small feature but to me as a ski tourer as well as a climber would swing me towards these pants. When wearing a transceiver, it is essential to keep it at least 30cm away from electronic devices so having a decent thigh pocket with a clip makes it easy to wear this on my thigh then have my phone with my route description, digital map camera, etc in my chest pocket.
Moving down the leg there is a superb crampon/ankle protection patch, having been testing Arc’teryx pants for many years they use one of the most robust patches I have tested. The outside of the lower leg has a zipped gusset which allows the difference in size between mountaineering boots and ski touring boots, there is also an elasticated drawcord at the ankle to keep any draughts out.
If you want one pair of pants that will do most things in the mountains then the Beta AR is a brilliant balance of weight, comfort and performance and for Arc’teryx the price isn’t that horrific either.