Most backpackers have some sort of nylon pants in their collection.
Thin pants, breathe reasonably well, helps protect legs from light brush, sunburns, and insects.
They work well for hiking.
What don’t they work so well for?
Arguably dense brush and bushwhacking. And canyoneering.
But most importantly, from my perspective? They do not work well for heavy trail work.
The type of trail work where trail crews move heavy rocks, set logs, and build stair steps.
The type of trail work where you are kneeling in the dirt all day.
And we are working with heavy tools.
Where pants get scraped, poked, and prodded.
The solution is to wear heavier work pants.
The classic work pants that are something along the lines of Carhart work pants: Durable and tough as nails.
The classic Dickies are a more budget and lighter weight (and perhaps more comfortable in hot weather) alternative.
But there is a third option that works well. Something that can sometimes be found inexpensively in your local or
online eBay surplus store: Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) pants. Or more commonly as they are called today: “tactical pants.”
I don’t do anything with them in battle, and slogging in the dirt all-day is not tactical.
However, these pants make ideal pants for outdoor activities where you expect heavier wear and tear. In other words, they are work pants by any other name.
These pants are typically a 65/35 polycotton blend. Much like my hiking shirt of choice, the pants breathe reasonably well and are more durable than a pair of nylon hiking pants. They do not dry as quickly as the shirts since thicker fabric makes up the pant material. But most trail work is not done in the pouring rain; at least I hope not. 😉
These pants have reinforced knees and also reinforced in other prone-to-wear places. Useful for trail work! The ample cargo pockets are a feature many people find helpful as well.
Besides trail work, these pants work well for more intense bushwhacking or where a hiker can expect much abrasion. Better than straight-up cotton work pants since they cotton works pants get wet and stay wet. And better than most nylon hiking pants since the BDUs take more of a beating.
Various brands make the pants. Be wary of very cheap versions with suspect stitching. A surplus store is an excellent place to see the pants up close and personal. If buying online from eBay surplus store or similar, I’ve had good luck with the Propper brand in the past, and they are reasonable in price. Button fly versions tend to be less expensive than zipper versions.
Not a fan of camo? Me neither. The OD green look like old-school army pants. While gray and khaki look just like any other type of hiking or cargo pants, they blend in well and don’t have a military look as much.
Are you doing some trail work regularly? Keep the nice-and-light pants for hiking. But get yourself a pair of BDUs or similar. They are pants that are usually for a reasonable price and can work well for outdoor activities beyond trail work. Beat them up, thrash them, haul those rocks and move that dirt.
BDUs – They work.
UPDATE DECEMBER 2019: Based on the suggestion of the reader below, I’ve been using LA Police Gear Urban Ops Tactical Pants for about three-years now. I am not inclined to purchase anything with “tacti-cool” type connotations, but the comment below proved to be spot on the past three years. They’ve become my work pants of choice, are very comfortable, and since I no longer work in an office environment, they’ve become my everyday pants when not hiking. These pants come in enough different colors that they look like any outdoor pants vs. “tacti-cool” type wear. I wish they made a version without cargo pockets; I’d buy more pairs of these in a heartbeat. They are sub-$30 when bought directly through LAPG, too!