Should You Do It In Jeans?

hand-drawn semi-rad chart titled "jeans as functional outdoor apparel"

The bumper stickers about politicians skiing in jeans were first created more than a decade ago, but skiing in jeans has a much longer history than that. Whether or not it’s a faux pas is arguably in the eye of the beholder (or the wearer), and the fact is, no one can stop you from skiing in jeans. And really, doing lots of other things in jeans. Are they the ideal pants for, say, running an ultramarathon? Or ice climbing? Well, I was thinking about that the other day. Here is an analysis, which no one asked for, of the appropriateness of wearing jeans for several selected sports:

Activity: Skiing
Ideal pants: Pants designed for skiing anytime after, say, 1970
How bad could it be in jeans? Hypothermia
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? Absolutely
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: Death by hypothermia because of wet jeans on a backcountry ski trip, OR, you have to quit skiing two hours into the powder day of the century because your jeans are too waterlogged

Activity: Whitewater rafting
Ideal pants: Shorts, sometimes a drysuit
How bad could it be in jeans? Pretty bad, minimum soggy butt the entire day
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? Sure
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: Swimming Lava Falls from the top in a blizzard in early January in denim

Activity: Ultramarathon running
Ideal pants: Running shorts, tights
How bad could it be in jeans? DNF bad; potentially ER-visit-level chafing
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? A 50K in the right weather conditions; if we allow jorts instead of just full-length jeans, then definitely
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: the Badwater 135 in dark indigo skinny jeans

Activity: Bouldering/rock climbing
Ideal pants: Anything that allows for unrestricted movement
How bad could it be in jeans? Too-tight jeans or too-loose jeans ruin your send, and also ruin your jeans
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? Definitely
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: You live somewhere far from Yosemite. You save money for months/years to finally take a trip to Yosemite, hoping to climb Midnight Lightning. You finally get to the Valley, and on your first day of climbing, you try Midnight Lightning. You get to the mantle, and your tight jeans prevent you from pulling through it. You fall, and somehow break a bone in your hand and your heel, meaning you can’t climb, or even hike for the rest of your trip.

Activity: Surfing
Ideal pants: Swimsuit, wetsuit
How bad could it be in jeans? Anywhere from not great to fatal
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? Kelly Slater did to promote his clothing company but I don’t think it’s supposed to be taken literally; if we allow jorts instead of just full-length jeans, then definitely
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: Drowning in cold ocean water because you chose to surf in flannel-lined jeans instead of a wetsuit

Activity: Backpacking
Ideal pants: Usually pants or shorts made of a lightweight, quick-drying material; sometimes rain pants
How bad could it be in jeans? Hypothermia
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? Definitely
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: You decide to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, packing no shorts, just two pairs of double-front denim work pants. It is unseasonably hot when you start your hike in the California desert (so your jeans become soaked in sweat and chafe), but also the biggest snow year in 50 years in the Sierras and the Pacific Northwest (you did not bring gaiters; you posthole and your jeans soak up moisture from the snow as you hike). It then turns out to be the wettest summer in fall in 50 years in Oregon and Washington, and as it turns out, jeans do not perform like Gore-Tex; in fact, they are basically the exact opposite of a pair of Gore-Tex rain pants, which you did not bring.

Activity: Competitive cycling
Ideal pants: Lycra + chamois
How bad could it be in jeans? Hot, sweaty, chafing, restricting movement
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? Of course, but very likely not quite as competitively. People ride thousands of miles in jeans every year, just not often at races in which everyone else is wearing cycling kits.
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: You are in position to win the Tour de France (without doping) on the morning of the final stage. You show up in non-stretchy bell bottom jeans, and you refuse to ride in anything but those jeans. Your jeans make you slow and keep getting caught between your crank and your chain. You lose, you get fired.

Activity: Ice climbing
Ideal pants: Warm, waterproof or at least water-resistant pants that are narrow enough at the bottom that you can’t catch a crampon point on them.
How bad could it be in jeans? Fatal
Could you do it in jeans and be just fine? Yes
Possible worst-case scenario in jeans: You wear JNCO jeans from 1998 and take a catastrophic factor-two fall while leading a multi-pitch route because you lost your balance when you kicked your frontpoint into the cuff of your enormous jeans. You die in JNCO jeans in the year 2020.

—Brendan

More stuff like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.