Published on: 10/11/2022
One of the first questions new climbers have on their first day at the gym is – what’s with all the jeans? It’s a fair question. People transitioning from other sports see wearing jeans as distinctly unathletic.
Note: When discussing jeans for climbing, we refer to modern jeans made with stretchy material. Traditional jeans made with stiff, heavy denim are totally unsuitable for climbing.
Why Wear Jeans?
Durability and Grip
But not all sports eschew denim. Skateboarders and BMX riders wear jeans. And they do so for exactly the same reasons as climbers. Rock climbing involves a lot of friction. Stretchy pants made for other sports might have good flex, but they’ll rip, tear, and fray quickly when in contact with stone. Jeans with elastic content can be flexible enough to climb in while offering some basic protection to your skin.
The climbing gym is rough on pants too. PU holds are textured for grip, and the surfaces they bolt to vary from rough plywood to oriented strand board. Everything is covered in a healthy layer of chalk too. All of these factors make wearing typical gym pants unappealing to many climbers.
Jeans have good frictional properties. Climbers can use contact at their knees or any other part of the leg to grip the wall. And denim can stand up to this kind of abuse. It protects your skin from scrapes and grazes on sharp rock. Lighter fabrics will rip, causing cuts and bruises.
James Dean wore jeans, so they’re good enough for you, right? There’s no doubt that people wearing jeans while climbing project a certain attitude. Kinda like when the guy riding a rusty bike in shorts and flip-flops overtakes the lycra-clad peloton. Looking casual while crushing it is simply cool.
But this only works if you’re a crusher. And more importantly – no one really cares what you’re wearing. Like the rest of humanity, the rock climbing world inevitably metastasizes into factions, looks, and unwritten rules. But your average rock climbers (especially the veteran ones) aren’t too concerned with others’ sartorial choices. If you want to wear jeans while you rock climb – wear them!
It’s not unusual to see a rock climbing guide in jeans while showing a group around. The same guide might also be wearing a distinctly relaxed and comfortable-looking pair of shoes. This is because the routes these guides work on are not a challenge to them. Comfort is their number one priority.
Bouldering Gyms and Indoor Climbing
People are more likely to wear jeans in an indoor climbing gym. This is especially true if it’s a bouldering gym with no required harnesses. Jeans aren’t the most breathable, and they have many seams that intersect with the straps of a climbing harness. Wearing jeans with lots of safety gear can generate too much heat and friction.
But for bouldering indoors, jeans make a lot of sense. Slightly less so when bouldering outdoors, however. This will vary from season to season and region to region. But denim generally has poor breathability. Bouldering is a strenuous activity, and this lack of breathability means your jeans trap heat and moisture – especially outdoors in warm weather.
Out under the sun, walking from pitch to pitch, and wearing a harness can get hot and uncomfortable in jeans. Getting jeans wet is also a problem in an outdoor context. Denim takes a long time to dry. When out in unpredictable conditions, cotton is never an ideal choice. It has very poor insulating properties when wet. This makes jeans singularly unsuitable for epic trips and adventures in the wild. Take materials that have better water resistance and quick-drying properties.
Pros of Wearing Jeans
- Cheaper than climbing-specific pants
- Quickly look presentable in most business casual settings
- Go straight to social events after a climbing session
- Better protection than gym shorts
- Modern jeans often use surprisingly stretchy material
Cons of Wearing Jeans
- Even the stretchiest jeans can’t compete with the best climbing pants
- More specialized pants mean zippered pockets, improved breathability, and climbing-specific features
- Any normal jean is hot, slow to dry, and uncomfortable under a safety harness
- Denim is a poor insulator when wet
Types of Jeans for Climbing
While your vintage, heavy, stiff-as-a-board Levi’s 501 may look fantastic, they suck for climbing. Most brands now offer an excellent jogger-style pant that is craftily disguised to look like a pair of jeans. Typically, these will have a relaxed fit, an elastic, drawstring waist, stretchy material, and looser cuffs – perfect for climbing in jeans.
This point is down to preference. Some people prefer elasticated cuffs, while others go for loose cuffs that roll up while they rock climb. A looser cut allows you to roll up the ends by a few inches to keep the cuffs from catching. Elasticated ends mitigate the catching problem by virtue of their tight fit around the calves and ankles.
Jeans with a belted waist are less than ideal. Climbing involves folding and contorting your body in some unique ways. A belt less waist means more freedom of movement when pushing hard. For tricky bouldering, a pair of stretchy-waisted jeans is a good option. Their often affordable price point is also a plus. Having the listed features mean a sub-fifty dollar pair of stretchy jeans will be perfectly fine as pair of climbing pants.
The Elusive Perfect Climbing Pant
While you can effectively climb in stretchy jeans from Target, there are more dedicated rock-climbing pants. And we don’t mean hiking-style canvas pants, either. Those are light, durable, and offer good water resistance. But they don’t have the flex we’re looking for.
Thankfully, climbing companies have stepped in with some options for climbers who want to look smart and perform. Climbing pants from companies like Black Diamond, Mountain Hardware, and Prana have struck a sweet spot between form and function. The best of these are stretchy, breathable, fast-drying, and low-key enough to wear to a bar or coffee shop after your session.
But the reality is you’ll struggle to find a catch-all pair of pants for all climbing styles and all weather conditions. You could opt for a pair of ultra-breathable, stretchy pair of pants for indoor, unharnessed bouldering at the gym. And then have a second pair of climbing pants that sacrifice some flex and breathability for a tougher finish. This pair can accompany you on your outdoor climbing adventures. The perfect pair of pants for every single eventuality doesn’t exist – yet! We’ve heard Elon Musk is working on it.
Best Climbing Jeans
Patagonia Performance Fit
Patagonia offers climbing-specific trousers but is also an expert at crafting that casual pair with performance features. Their Performance Fit denim pant opts for a classic outline and fit. These jeans are also made with certified, organic, regenerative cotton, meaning consumers get all the ethical benefits of buying Patagonia.
The touch of spandex added to the material is what makes them suitable as climbing pants. These won’t be quite as stretchy as dedicated athletic wear. But climbing in jeans inevitably demands a small sacrifice in terms of flex. These hold up well, considering how smart they look.
But at a price tag north of a hundred dollars, these aren’t a cheap solution. They also look so good that some of us might be wary of taking them to the crag or gym. Who wants to get chalk, muck, sweat, and blood all over your smart new Patagonia? Maybe the hardcore dirtbags.
Patagonia Performance Twill Jeans
These jeans use a similar outline to the Performance Fit pair. This means they look timeless – no need to update every six months. The properties of stretch, weather resistance, and moisture-wicking make them an excellent candidate for rock climbing.
Polyester is a water-repellent material. This means the organic cotton/polyester mix doesn’t soak as quickly as pure cotton. It’s also significantly more breathable than standard cotton, dries faster, and has some insulation properties when wet.
The pant legs are snug, taper gently, and roll up easily to find the perfect length for climbing. These are stretchy too. Not quite as flexible as a dedicated pair of climbing or yoga pants. But for how good they look, there’s a decent range of movement. Walking uphill on long approaches will be comfortable in this breathable pair of jeans.
Black Diamond Forged Denim Jeans
Sponsors until 2021 of arguably the best rock climber on earth, Adam Ondra, the Black Diamond brand is globally recognized for quality. They are a spin-off of the Patagonia family. BD maintains the same focus on quality and durability as its parent company.
And forged denim jeans are probably the best climbing pant on the market today. These are actual rock climbing jeans, made for climbers who want one pair that does it all. Their durability and stretchiness are unmatched in the rock climbing space.
Cordura is a highly abrasion-resistant material, mostly used in protective motorcycle gear. These fibers are woven into the forged denim. This helps keep the weight and thickness of the material down, making these lighter and more breathable pants. A slim, tapered leg also means there’s no fabric in the way. The forged denim jeans are also designed to work seamlessly with Black Diamond hardware and harnesses. And there’s a dedicated brush pocket!
Bonobos Stretch Lightweight Jeans
Venturing away from outdoor-specific brands can also yield some results. Bonobos also offer a pair of jeans with enough flex to satisfy all your indoor climbing needs. Unlike some of the other pants on our list, Bonobos’ jeans are inexpensive. They may lack some of the climbing-specific features. But their stretchiness, slim fit, and lightweight material make them a good candidate for climbing wear.
Alternatives to Jeans
Mountain Hardwear AP Pants
Mountain Hardwear is a Canadian brand that makes stylish outdoor clothing with performance features. And we love these AP pants for climbing, hiking, and general outdoor use. A blend of cotton, nylon, canvas, and elastane gives these pants all the properties we’re looking for – lightweight, durable, fast-drying, and weather-resistant.
Articulated knees help with flexibility. And snap closures on the legs allow you to roll up the cuffs and fasten them in place. Two zipper pockets in the back keep your valuables safe while you rock climb. These are a good investment for any outdoor activity. Many people have spent years rock climbing in a single pair of these.
Prana Stretch Zion II
For the number of pockets, adjustments, and performance features crammed in here, the Stretch Zion II looks understated. Made from stretchy, tough, recycled nylon with elastic, this one pair covers most situations. Their proprietary ReZion fabric is breathable, ultra-light, and rated at UPF 50+ sun protection. It’s also durable and finished with a water-repellent treatment.
Some climbing features include snap-closed buttons for rolling up the legs, a ventilated gusset, several zippered pockets (that stay in place even when you’re upside down), and a key loop. They’ve also found a way to make all the internal seams remarkably flat. This is great when you need to wear a harness that would otherwise rub along the seams in your trousers. Wherever you rock climb, these Prana pants will work great.