The best outdoor shorts are the ones you’ll wear the most. They have to be versatile: The right pair won’t stop you from scrambling up scree on a hike and are built from fabric that’ll last for years—but they also have to look good enough at the bar after your adventure. With that in mind, I put seven athletic, lifestyle, and outdoor-specific styles head-to-head to crown the ultimate outdoor summer shorts.
For the tamer, everyday portion of my test, I wore each pair of shorts on my daily two-to-five-mile hike with my daughter. Then, to really put them through the paces, I enlisted Ben Chew, owner of CrossFit Ashland, where I work out three days a week. Chew’s been coaching CrossFit for ten years and is a fanatic about mobility exercises. He assigned me a workout circuit of five wall balls, five knees to elbows, and a 100-yard run, all done as quickly as possible on repeat for five minutes. “We want lots of knee, hip, and trunk flexion; lots of opening and closing of all those joints the shorts are covering; and the forward-backward motion of the hips and legs of the run,” Chew says. “That should give us an idea if these shorts catch on the hips, knees, or thighs.”
The Winner: Kühl Renegade 8-Inch ($70)
I was blown away by how stretchy the Renegade shorts are despite their hefty, durable soft-shell fabric. They moved nearly as well during deep squats as the Lululemon shorts below (which were built from considerably lighter material) and didn’t restrict my movement at all while sprinting. The eight pockets blend in well and were particularly handy for stashing receipts, a small snack, and some sunscreen during hikes. Details like the reinforced double-layer thighs, belt loops, and the single sturdy loop in the back of the shorts—which made them crazy easy to hike up—put the Renegade at the top of the list.
The Runner-Up: Outdoor Research Wadi Rum ($60)
The Wadi Rum and the Renegade shorts really were neck-and-neck in this test. The front zippered pocket coupled with side and back pockets hit the sweet spot between too many and too few. The exterior of cotton and Cordura offered a slightly less technical look than the Kühl shorts. I loved the combination of a button and drawstring waist to dial in the fit. At the end of the day, the Renegade shorts snuck ahead because they were a little more mobile. If you are deciding between these two, note that the Wadi Rum fits in more easily at your office’s casual Friday, thanks to the muted exterior and slightly longer ten-inch inseam.
Best Crossover: Patagonia Men’s Stretch All-Wear Hybrid 18-Inch ($69)
The All-Wear Hybrid shorts are basically a cotton version of the Patagonia Light and Variable boardshorts I’ve loved for years. Constructed with 98 percent organic cotton and 2 percent spandex, these were the most comfortable next to skin. I also appreciated the supple feel during the five-mile hike, where I experienced precisely zero chafing. The lack of a gusseted crotch (both the Renegade and Wadi Rum have that feature) and the slightly less-stretchy fabric meant this pair didn’t move as well as the two above—otherwise they would have been in the running for the top spot. With that said, the low-profile, no-nonsense cut and look of these shorts make them the pair I will most likely dress up with for summer dinners with the in-laws. Note: Consider sizing up in the waist. I tested all these shorts in size 32, and these were the tightest of the bunch.
Most Comfortable: Outdoor Voices New Sunday ($65)
Okay, I have to admit that I almost didn’t include the New Sunday shorts because they are specifically marketed as being on the leisure side of the “athleisure” trend. But they turned out to be the most comfortable shorts I have ever worn, hands down. I’ve had this pair for more than six months, and they’ve become my go-to shorts for everything from surf trips to running errands with my daughter in tow. The polyester-spandex feels suppler than cotton and boasts four-way stretch, with accommodating leg openings and a just-right 7.5-inch length. They felt great during the workout, and I’d even venture to pack them as jammies while traveling. I went on a surf trip to Baja last August and brought these in lieu of swim trunks. Whenever I wasn’t in a wetsuit, I wore these and a straw hat. I’ve never been so comfortable.
Best Looking: Myles Apparel Momentum 2.0 8-Inch ($58)
What made the Momentum shorts stand out is that despite being made from a quick-drying, four-way-stretch nylon-spandex blend, they could definitely pass as cotton pants and dress up some. While the mobility was excellent, I ended up docking points on overall performance because they chafed a little—noticeable even on the 100-meter runs. It’s worth noting that there’s a lined version (I tested the a pair without the liner), which would likely alleviate the problem.
Best for Workouts: Lululemon Pace Breaker ($63)
The Pace Breaker shorts were the most traditional athletic style of the bunch. True to the company’s fitness heritage, they also moved the best during the circuit workout. They were the only shorts I tested with liners (I usually find them annoying unless I’m running or in the gym), but I have to say that Lululemon’s OOM (Out of Mind) liner doesn’t get clammy or bind up during deep squats or runs, while still providing ample support for the undercarriage. The Pace Breaker was also the most breathable pair of the bunch, thanks to its absurdly lightweight fabric and half-inch-wide strip of breathable mesh around the back. The only reason they didn’t place in the top three was that the lightweight material likely wouldn’t survive a bushwhacking hike.
Best for Brunch: Path Projects Brim FT ($49)
I really liked the look of the Brim FT as “fancy” summer shorts, but that also made me skeptical that they’d work in the gym because of the tight cut around the thighs and generally casual design. I was happily proven wrong when the stretchy polyester didn’t hinder my hips while I struggled through wall balls. If you’re in the market for shorts that look at home at the country club but can still move, these are your best bet. Be warned, though, as they were susceptible to the cardinal sin of shorts: plumber’s crack. The Brim FT completely bared my ass when I bent down for a squat, threw up my legs during knees to elbows, or just bent down to pick up my keys.