A Tale of 3 Trousers: Lightweight kids’ pants for carry-on family travel

I have yet to find any company marketing lightweight, quick dry, travel friendly clothing for kids. Can I be the only parent who prefers to fly light?

Children’s relatively small clothes do pack up more easily than those of a big and tall man, but choosing wisely makes a noticeable difference in the total volume and weight of luggage for a family of four or more.

In my experience, many kids also get dirtier than adult travelers. The ability to wash a garment in a sink and have it dry overnight is vital for happy travels with my own sons.

Today, I’ll compare three pairs of lightweight trousers marketed for boys in Medium an American child’s size 10-12. My criteria for this search included:

  • lightweight fabric suitable for summer travel
  • neutral color that can be dressed up or down
  • quick dry fiber suitable for hotel sink laundering.

With apparently no one setting out to design “travel clothing” for children, the best approximation I’ve found for the lower body is “hiking pants.” Many options on the market were excluded for my purposes because the outdoor companies really love “convertible” trousers with zip-off lower legs.

Zippered knees never pass for dressy in my opinion.

I ended up with the following specific styles, ordered from REI and Amazon.com at the prevailing retail prices of mid-May 2019. And all are still being sold as of February 2020.

Links go to the manufacturers’ own listings for the first and third pairs that aren’t store brands regardless of where I purchased my pairs.

First, the good news. If I had been in a hurry and purchased just one pair, any of these dark grey trousers would work for my son as daily wear pants that could pass as “decent” clothing to wear out to dinner on vacation. Note: I wouldn’t have him wear these to a wedding or a truly elegant occasion unless we’d had a drastic wardrobe catastrophe and had no time to shop for proper formal wear.

As one would hope from quality hiking clothing made by well-known brands, all are sturdy, well-sewn, and free of obvious defects.

KÜHL Renegade Pants

Arguably the most stylish of the bunch, the KÜHL trousers have the narrowest cut from seat to leg. These are also the longest trousers, making them the best bet for taller kids or those who prefer a fitted style.

boys nylon travel pants comparison - 1

Aside from aesthetics, here are the most notable features of the KÜHL Renegade Pants according to this function-before-fashion oriented mom:

  • Traditional style with a snap and zip fly, but, even for big boys, the waistband includes an interior button-plus-elastic adjustment
  • UPF 50+ makes them sun safe for summer trips
  • A DWR finish
  • At least one pocket with zipper to teach my child smart travel habits for protecting his valuables and documents
  • Hang loop on the exterior back for conveniently keeping clothes off the floor in a crowded family hotel room

Fabric: DURALUX 95% Nylon, 5% Spandex with DWR | 5.3 oz/sq. yd; 170 GSM

KÜHL Renegade Pants next to clear outer shipping bagKÜHL Renegade Pants arrived packaged in a standard thin, clear plastic shipping bag like most mail-ordered garments.

Features (copied from KÜHL advertising)

  • 7 total pockets: 2 front hand, 2 Velcro closure back, 2 zippered side, 1 3D cell phone
  • Kühlair Vent System on vertical zipper keeps skin kühl
  • Articulated knees
  • Gusseted crotch

The leg pockets on the KÜHL Renegades just barely pass my “look dressed up for dinner” test, but they would be just subtle enough. These are the pants with the most visible top-stitching on the pockets and seams, but it is still tolerably subtle. The hints of white and blue on the visible logos and external hang loop would be covered with a normal sweater or blazer.

boys nylon travel pants comparison - 15If a had a very tall child, having appropriately covered ankles would be more important to me than the casual nature of cargo or other leg-side pockets on trousers. My kid did think all the pockets were *ahem* “cool.”

In the end, I returned these because they cost more than the other options without having enough other points in their favor to justify the extra expense. Maybe I also felt a degree of bias against the obnoxious overuse of jokes about how “kühl” the damn pants were!

Additionally, I’d need pay more again to get them hemmed to fit my child.

boys nylon travel pants comparison - 12I suspect KÜHL’s relatively thicker fabric would dry in a similar time frame to the REI Mountainmakers, but I’m guessing. These are the darkest grey of all three pairs of grey trousers, with KÜHL’s shade bordering on black.

REI Co-op Mountainmaker Pants

My son’s vote for most comfortable fabric goes to the REI Mountainmaker trousers. These feel the most “like fabric,” he claims. I suspect he means “like natural fibers.” If your child has any sensory issues, this is the first pair I’d recommend you try for this reason alone, but they also feature a soft, flexible pull on waist made of a sweatshirt type rib knit.

The cozy waistband proved slower drying than the rest of the garment, as I’d predicted. If you sink- or tub-wash the whole pair, your child may leave the hotel with a slightly damp waist come morning, but the rest of the trousers should dry within eight hours.

REI Mountainmaker trousers hanging to dry on railingLaundering at home including a front-load washing machine spin cycle, they are almost completely dry by the end of a school day; I’ve worn clothes that damp from hotel rooms myself, and it isn’t too uncomfortable if the weather is warm.

In spite of the comfort waist, I think the photos show my son looking the most neat and tidy in the fit of the Mountainmakers. There is a seam at the back of the knee that can show up in certain light, but it is less noticeable to me in real life than it appeared in photos by the manufacturer.

If my son wears a sweater, the less traditional waist and small REI logo effectively disappear, and he should pass muster for most nice restaurants that would appeal to a family on vacation. Paired with a blazer, he could go anywhere in these trousers.

Fabric: 94% nylon / 6% spandex (bluesign® approved)

Features of the REI Mountainmaker pants:

  • Interior drawstring in a festive bright orange that doesn’t show but still makes me smile when I do the wash
  • DWR finish
  • UPF 50
  • Articulated knees
  • Gusseted crotch
  • Internal hanging loop in cheerful sunset colors, but not visible to anyone but the wearer and/or washer
  • Reinforced hem at the back of the ankle to prevent premature wear where many kids step on their own pants

Travel trouser kid dry REI Columbia - 3

The Mountainmakers lack a zippered pocket, which is too bad, but not a deal-breaker for a child his age. As should suprise no one, I still carry the passports when traveling with my underage kids.

I have used sew in zippered security pockets in some of my own preferred travel garments, and they would be a solid option to combine with REI Mountainmaker trousers if I really wanted my child to have a secure interior zip pocket.

The interior of the pockets is a quick-drain mesh fabric, but the quality of this particular mesh seems above average in thickness and durability. The same mesh provides the casing for the pretty, functional draw string.

Of the three pairs of trousers I compared, the Mountainmaker pants are charcoal grey: less dark than the KÜHL pair yet deeper and slightly warmer toned than the Columbia version.

travel trouser boy packaging - 1REI packages its Mountainmaker pants in the best way: minimally! They arrived tied with a simple strip of raffia without wasteful plastic over wrap. Hurrah!

I always wash new clothes before wearing anyway due to skin sensitivities, so I have no worries about typical warehouse or shipping dirt.

Columbia Sportswear Silver Ridge Pull On Pant

The Columbia Silver Ridge pants share the easy pull on waist of the REI contender, though these are a standard self-fabric-folded-over-wide-elastic-and-sewn type, not a knit. Columbia Sportswear, in my experience, tends toward a generous fit, and that holds true here. These trousers have the widest leg and the most room in the seat and hip of the three styles I bought for my son to try on at home.

boys nylon travel pants comparison - 9

boys nylon travel pants comparison - 8

Columbia Silver Ridge

boys nylon travel pants comparison - 10The Silver Ridge pants are sewn from ripstop 100% nylon. They advertise a “functional hip pocket” (i.e., they’re actually cargo pants), but I can overlook that offense in this case as this one is particularly flat. It is possible for my eye to slide past the cargo pocket, so I included them in this line up.

Columbia is the only maker who did not include a hanging loop on their trousers, and the hem on the Silver Ridge is not reinforced. These do have articulated knees and a crotch gusset like the others, however. All of this makes sense in light of the significant weight reduction between the Silver Ridge pants and the other two contenders.

Columbia Silver Ridge pants gusseted crotch detailThe articulated knee on the Silver Ridge pants includes that visible knee seam, but I barely notice it on a moving boy.

Columbia Silver Ridge pants articulated knee detailThe mesh pocket interior on these is lighter/thinner than those of the REI Mountainmaker trousers, but comparable to other, similar garments from major brands.

Columbia Silver Ridge pants interior mesh pocket detail

In the end, we did keep these as well as the REI Mountainmaker pants. My son liked them and the prices were reasonable. Both are in his regular rotation of school clothes. I also felt that the more generous fit of the Columbia style would serve as insurance against a sudden growth spurt right before our trip.

Hands down, I prefer the look of the REI Mountainmaker pants as a travel option for my child, but, had he filled out suddenly (kids seem to grown overnight, sometimes!), I knew the Columbia pair would provide extra room he might need at his age.

Columbia Silver Ridge Features per their ad copy:

  • Elastic at waist
  • Omni-Shade™ UPF 30 sun protection
  • Omni-Wick™
  • Quick dry

I don’t know whether Columbia’s nylon is really different and actually offers less sun protection than the other two (both rated UPF 50 to Columbia’s 30) or if these numbers merely reflected an amount of testing officially performed, but the Silver Ridge pants do feel a bit thinner and seem to dry a bit more quickly than the others.

Where function more definitively trumps style and/or for a kid closer to the top of his current clothing size range, the Columbia Silver Ridge trouser would be my first choice. These are the lightest, coolest shade of grey amongst the three pairs I tested.

TL;DR: Which should I buy for my kid?

If weight and drying time are you highest priority, choose the Columbia Silver Ridge trousers.

If “passing for proper dress pants” tops your list, buy the REI Mountainmakers.

For tall, skinny kids, try the KÜHL Renegade Pants first.

Kids with a heavier build, whether through the tummy or the seat, will most likely prefer the Columbia Silver Ridge style.

If sensory issues make your child hard to shop for, the softer, more flexible waistband of the the REI Mountainmaker trousers are your best bet.

All of these nylon trousers are sturdy, easy care, and dry quickly enough for use as travel pants. Styled appropriately, they can be worn out to dinner to nicer family restaurants.

Convertible trousers, like expandable luggage, strike me as a generally unhelpful novelty simultaneously increasing the odds of functional failure of a vital piece of gear while adding weight.

Also, every pair of pants I’ve seen with zippers around the knees looks less attractive on my sons than the same item would without that feature.

If you disagree, you will find the market well stocked with convertible trousers from which you may choose, for boys, at least!

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