Nothing is better than running down the trail with a feeling of levity and strength, without even noticing the clothes you’re wearing. The best running shorts are the ones so comfortable that you don’t even have to think about them. While comfort is subjective, there are certainly qualities in all high performing running shorts.
In the sports of trail running and ultrarunning, where we seek out ridgelines and forests for long days out, many of us want a pair of shorts that will store supplies for long adventures.
At the end of the day in trail running and ultrarunning, the combination of feel, function, and personal style is what makes a great pair of shorts. To compile this buyer’s guide, we tested men’s running shorts from some of the best known brands in trail running and ultrarunning, some companies in men’s general fitness, and even some whose reach is outside the core running community. We tested the shorts on trails in Colorado on trails and mountain ranges from Boulder to Silverton and beyond. This guide is for trail runners seeking the best shorts in a variety of categories including budget, fabric technology, storage, comfort and much more.
- Best Overall Trail Running Shorts: Patagonia Strider Pro Running Shorts 5”
- Best Ultrarunning Shorts: Adidas Terrex Agravic Pro Trail Running Shorts
- Best Storage: Ultimate Direction Hydro Short
- Best Styling: On Running Lightweight Shorts
- Best Basic: Hoka One One Performance Woven 5” Short
- Best Value: Path Projects Graves PX 5″ Short
- Most Comfortable: Tracksmith Session Shorts
- Best Material: Arc’teryx Motus Short 6
- Best Liner: The North Face Flight Stridelight 2-in-1 Short
Best Overall Trail Running Shorts: Patagonia Strider Pro Running Shorts 5″ ($69)
The Patagonia Strider Pro Running Shorts 5″ are the unanimous favorite of four testers on the iRunFar team. In some ways, it is the short-to-end-all shorts, as one member of our team has run only in these for the past five years, his allegiance unchanged, even with an old pair worn to pieces. The price is reasonable at $69. With a hygienic feature (HeiQ anti odor treatment) not found in other shorts at a similar price and the most stable pocket set-up of all the models we tested, this wins best overall trail running short. In two lengths, five inches and seven inches, the brief liner provides a secure ride, and the fabric is the perfect weight — substantial enough not to ride up, yet feels lightweight and airy. In the five pockets, we carried gels, keys, a light, a packable jacket, and even a large cell phone in the rear back pocket.
Unlike many multi-pocket shorts, when loaded down the Strider Pro rides well and doesn’t bounce around too much. A popular feature of the Strider Pro is the drawstring on the outside of the waistband, a subtle but very useful solution to the chafing or rubbing of interior drawstrings. It is surprising that Patagonia, who does not specialize in running clothes, has managed to make a pair of shorts highly appealing to trail runners. As one of the most loved outdoor-apparel companies, the brand has shared the outstanding performance, fit, and details with its running shorts as it has for its other trademark pieces.
- Inseam: Five inches
- Liner type: Brief
- Aggressively priced considering all of the fabric technology, recycled content, and manufacturing transparency
- The outer drawstring is a subtle but ingenious feature that prevents rubbing
- Sizing runs small; I have a small waist but big legs and find my normal medium a bit restrictive
Best Ultrarunning Shorts: Adidas Terrex Agravic Pro Trail Running Shorts ($75)
This Adidas Terrex Agravic Pro Trail Running Shorts are our favorite for ultramarathon distances. It has the most versatile storage at one of the lightest weights of any short we tested. These shorts use a brief liner that is very comfortable and didn’t chafe, even during hot and sweaty runs.
Three pockets (two side and one zippered back) line the waistband and we tested fitting them with everything including a regular sized iPhone, gels, and a folded shirt. The storage works well and the drawstring cinches extremely tight to keep extra weight in place and to keep the shorts from bouncing. Two pole straps on the back allow you to carry collapsible poles, and on-the-go stowing and removal is very smooth.
The feel of the shorts is downright airy, as the subtle side splits help the short’s breathability. Adding to the heat dissipation are stretch mesh side panels. Finally, the shorts are part of Adidas’s sustainability effort, made of 75% recycled materials.
Overall, this is a brilliant short for ultramarathon distances and shorter runs due to the storage amount and excellent air venting. It feels like a split short (though it’s not truly in that category) and moves breezily with you. The brief is not the most supportive but doesn’t slip or ride around.
- Inseam: Four inches
- Liner type: Brief
- Material is sourced from recycled plastic water bottles
- Mesh side panels keep shorts dry and moving freely
- Although awkward looking, a phone can be stored in the front pocket without moving around
- Size up! This was one short I tested where I was glad I tested a large as opposed to my more common medium
- Trekking pole loops aren’t useful for the majority of runs and don’t serve a great second purpose
- Drawstring cords are excessively long and slightly irritating at the waistband
Best Storage: Ultimate Direction Hydro Short ($100)
These second-edition shorts have come a long way in the two years since their debut. While the original Ultimate Direction Hydro Short was a good introduction to the brand’s “wearable gear” — a very fitting name for apparel that has built-in carrying capabilities — there were negative reviews of the original model. In that first iteration, the fabric in the crotch was known to chafe, and while the belt (the most crucial component to keeping these shorts from sliding off your butt while loaded with water and gear) worked, it was problematic. Now, this second version has a magnetic clasp and a belt that allows you to cinch from both directions instead of only from the left like the original version.
In the original model, there wasn’t enough stretch in the belt for many people to hoist the shorts over their hips. This has improved, but the stitching components are still a little tight and it’s easy to hear the stitches stretching or slightly tearing if you pull too hard putting them on or off.
Like the original Hydro Short, this updated version is blue but it’s a bit more jewel toned than the original, which is an improvement in style. The performance is quite remarkable considering a runner can carry 24 ounces (600 milliliters) of water in two 300ml water bottles included with and specifically designed for the Hydro Short. These small, hard bottles are unique and you will have trouble trying to jam non-Ultimate Direction bottles in the pockets. The weight carrying system doesn’t cause the short to bounce or stretch, and using the pockets on the move is no trouble. There is a third pocket in the center back. There is a comfortable inner brief with a pouch feature that is a massive improvement over the original.
The Hydro Short is a thoughtful, meaningful, and innovative product that eliminates the need for a waist belt or hydration pack for most trail running distances.
Ultimate Direction doesn’t use any proprietary fabric technology like Polygiene or recycled materials. Its products are not bluesign certified and there is no consumer transparency about where or by whom the shorts are manufactured. But they are arguably the most innovative shorts we tested.
- Inseam: Four inches
- Liner type: Two-in-one inner brief
- Extensive storage, carries very well, and doesn’t bounce
- Water bottle pockets can be used for anything, not just the included bottles (for example, a wind jacket)
- Nice styling and this second generation includes a “Hydro Hammock” liner, which is comfortable and supportive
- High cost
- Stitching tolerance is awfully tight; must be handled a little more carefully than any other short when putting on or adjusting
- Some might find the bulk around the waist cumbersome
Best Styling: On Running Lightweight Shorts ($79)
Style is personal and highly subjective, but to me, the On Running Lightweight Shorts are the best looking in this buyer’s guide. On Running always emphasizes aesthetic components of their products, and thus is appealing to the general fitness-focused public, not only runners. You see the brand being worn by celebrities and fashionable icons — people far outside the core of the trail running community. Compared to stalwart mountain and trail brands like Black Diamond or La Sportiva, On Running looks more at home in the athleisure category, similar to Lululemon or Fabletics.
Despite the sometimes negative connotation of athleisure, I’ll add that I once finished fifth place in the Monte Rosa Sky Race in Italy wearing a pair of On Running’s shoes, so I believe the brand is legit. A high performer in the mountains and trails, On Running is even a supporter of the phenomenal American trail racer, Katie Schide.
The Lightweight Shorts have a real “business up front/party in the back” vibe since the front, with its faux fly detail and luxurious looking fabric, belies any visible tech. However, the back with its black color contrast is perforated and very breathable. It turns out the front fabric is highly technical as well, without being too flashy. The shorts have no zippers or hard points so when you’re on the ground stretching, there are no irritating points. This is a small but appreciated detail that other brands in this guide rarely offer.
The elevated styling and feel of theses shorts makes them stand out, particularly at this price.
- Inseam: Seven inches
- Liner type: Brief
- Super luxurious fabric that looks and feels fantastic
- Great breathability to shed heat during hot runs; weight is very low
- Drawstring is comfortable and mostly hidden but it’s sewn together and doesn’t tie
Best Basic: Hoka One One Performance Woven 5” Short ($68)
Hoka One One is now a full fledged running apparel brand after making its footwear industry-shattering debut with its mega-cushioned shoes. What many of us love about Hoka’s footwear has translated very well into the Hoka One One Performance Woven 5” Short. When I find a good pair of Hoka shoes, I tend to run in them over and over, ruling out other options as the comfort and cushion make my legs feel fresher day after day — more so than other trail running shoes.
During testing, the same rote conditioning of Hoka shoes translated to these shorts. I have labeled them best basic short, as even though there are some nice details, the short looks and feels very pared down. The fit is slimming and the inseam is on the average side at five inches.
The aesthetic is similar to shorts you’d wear around town in the summer rather than a high-tech running short. Like The North Face Flight Stridelight 2-In-1 Short reviewed in this buyer’s guide, the best part of this short is the hidden thigh pocket that is about the size of a plus-sized iPhone. This pocket is sewn to the inner short so it’s invisible from the outside. I used this pocket to carry my phone but also to store an empty softflask and screw-on filter for filling up at creek crossings. I also really loved the subtle split detail on the sides which helps the short move with you, especially on steep climbs.
Many outdoor apparel companies like to tout their trail-to-town styling and I have and will continue to feel comfortable being out in public after a run in these shorts.
- Inseam: Five inches
- Liner type: Two-in-one inner brief
- Slim-straight fit looks great on the trails and while out in public
- Slightly generic item without interesting tech details or development story
Best Value: Path Projects Graves PX 5″ Short ($47)
Path Projects is a brand unlike any other in this buyer’s guide for two reasons: the first is that they are a direct-to-consumer running apparel company which enables them to sell their gear at much more aggressive prices. The second reason is their commitment to “independent suspension.” This is Path Project’s self-described method of pairing an unlined trail running short with a separate base liner short: runners wear two independent pieces that have freedom to move and be adjusted without one affecting the other.
The system is not a gimmick. I have been running in these shorts for more than a year now. The Path Project Graves PX 5”Short is only $47, which makes it the least expensive trail running short in this buyer’s guide. But the short doesn’t skimp on quality of material and innovation.
It’s the only short here with two side zippered pockets and one large enough in the rear center to carry a plus-sized iPhone. It is capable of carrying a lot of gear and weight and without being attached to an inner liner, and the fit is much more stable than other shorts when weighted similarly.
The real charmer with this short is the main body fabric. It’s a technology called Toray Prime Flex: a new, partially corn-based material that uses much less water for production. It’s also very breathable and soft against the skin. Toray Prime Flex is notable for durability, which I unfortunately tested when I tripped and “superman-ed” around a switchback, landing directly on my hip against a slab of rock. I was bloodied and bruised under my shorts but remarkably these shorts were not damaged at all.
- Inseam: Five inches
- Liner type: None, as it’s recommended to pair these with a Path Projects base liner sold separately
- High quality and durable materials at an affordable price
- Can be worn as a very light, airy, and unlined short or paired with an inner brief of your choice
- May require sorting out the liner/undergarment to wear with them
Most Comfortable: Tracksmith Session Shorts ($68)
Nothing is more comfortable against the skin than a well-aged cotton t-shirt. But running in a cotton shirt is disastrous at managing moisture, standing up to odors, and staining. Since their inception, Tracksmith has resolved to bring back the simplicity of early cotton running apparel with more modern touches. What the comfort of a soft cotton t-shirt does for your upper body, the Tracksmith Session Shorts help mimic for your legs.
Though the Session Shorts are the most basic of all running shorts in this buyer’s guide, they are the most comfortable. Unlike a simple cotton athletic short, the shorts are made by an Italian factory in a blend they call “Veloce,” which means “rapid” in Italian. Similar material and manufacturing processes are showing up in many cottage brands’ running and cycling apparel, and for good reason: this Veloce fabric blend (86% nylon and 14% elastane), is incredibly soft but has features like ultraviolet protection and moisture-wicking technology.
These shorts have a heather finish and a five-inch inseam with only one small pocket on the rear center. These are the shorts to use when you want to leave the phone at home and just escape into the rhythm of running with nothing but some shoes and shorts.
- Inseam: Five inches
- Liner type: Brief
- Incredibly comfortable fabric, high quality finish
- Super soft and comfortable liner that is also quick-drying
- A very basic short without all but the most essential, key-sized pocket
Best Material: Arc’teryx Motus Short 6 ($89)
This spring has been full of short and intense trail sessions as I seek to improve my time on the local competition mountain, Mount Sanitas. These interval workouts combined with my sweatier-than-average disposition result in soaking-wet shirts and shorts. My most-used shorts for these efforts are the Arc’Teryx Motus Short 6. The outer short is made of a material that is nearly impenetrable to sweat and moisture. Despite their lack of name-brand water-repellent technology, I’ve been hard pressed to notice. I finish workouts with a soaking t-shirt and drier-than-average shorts.
Like most Arc’teryx products, the construction and material choices are high end. Simply picking up the short reveals a product that no other short in this buyer’s guide can compete with. The quality is palpable. The outer short fabric is a little stiff and uninviting until worn. Fortunately I haven’t taken a hard fall on the shorts but I suspect the durability of the fabric will withstand multiple years of wear. The stiff outer short is paired with a very soft and comfortable inner short.
The pocket configuration is most similar to Patagonia Strider Pro Running Shorts 5″ reviewed above with one small gel-sized pocket on each side of the hip paired with a bigger pocket on the rear center that is large enough for a phone. The pockets are nearly hidden though so trying to find them on the move is difficult. Arc’teryx calls the fit “trim” and though many two-in-one trail running shorts have an almost baggy look, the Motus shorts stay very close to the body.
- Inseam: Six inches
- Liner type: Two-in-one inner brief
- Extremely streamlined and form-fitting two-in-one short
- Arc’teryx offers transparency in where these shorts are manufactured
- Small reflective details provide visibility after dark
- It’s difficult to access the pockets on the go
- For longer distances, plan to pair these shorts with a running vest
The North Face Flight Stridelight 2-In-1 Short is far and away the best of the bunch when it comes to liners. The fabric is silky and feels incredibly smooth against the skin. The liner is a brief style with claimed compression, but that tightness is not noticeable. The liner stays dry and comfortable thanks in part to the outer short with its excellent breathability, including microperforations which help with air flow.
The liner is very supportive without being restrictive. On technical downhills with lots of bounce, the liner keeps everything in place, including items around the waist in storage. The pocket configuration is integrated around the middle back with two side storage and a rear zippered pocket. The best pocket is the one built into the thigh section of the inner short. It’s hidden and is exactly the size of a plus-sized iPhone.
The North Face’s long running FlashDry technology is exceptional. It backs up its claims about being a second skin, pushing moisture out to evaporate before it stymies the runner with dampness or irritation. These shorts are expensive, but the all-around features and particularly the liner make the price tag worthwhile.
- Inseam: Three inches
- Liner type: Two-in-one inner brief
- Nice details like phone-sized hip pocket on the inner liner
- Feathery light feel and incredibly soft
- Outer short breathes very well
- High cost
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose A Pair of Men’s Running Shorts
Running is a fabulously low tech and low cost sport compared to other endurance activities. (Hello, cycling!) And while it’s true that all you need to go for a run is a pair of shoes, the next most important gear is running shorts. For this we have seemingly endless options: shorts that are very short or very baggy, shorts with lots of storage or none at all, shorts with brief liners or boxer liners, and all with patterns and colors to suit every individual’s style.
Brands who manufacture men’s shorts for trail running and ultrarunning specifically though seem to have settled among a few consistent criteria: shorts that are five to seven inches in length, are always lined (either with a brief or a two-in-one inner brief), include at least one pocket big enough to carry a phone, and, at least in 2021, come in masculine earthy tones like navy blue, dark green, or, most often, plain-old black.
Outside of this criteria, if your preference falls to three-inch split shorts with a cheetah print, you won’t find much from brands who have traditionally catered to trail runners and ultrarunners.
Trail running and ultrarunning shorts style have seen some outliers over the years. From Courtney Dauwalter and François D’haene’s long, baggy Salomon shorts to Kilian Jornet’s bright white spandex shorts from the Western States 100 back in the day, the pendulum swings in our sports, but not too far from the middle.
Our testing included no specific spandex or compression shorts, pocketless shorts, or super light three-inch shorts. Pockets in running shorts are a tradition but in the old days it was one small pocket for your house or car key and that was it.
Particularly for trail running and ultrarunning, as well as with the advent of massive cell phones, pockets have proliferated for everything, including bottles, food, and trekking poles.
Along with quick-drying and moisture-wicking fabrics, running shorts are often made from technical outer fabrics that resist abrasion. And many of them stand up incredibly well to hard falls on dirt or rock or from snagging against bushes and trees. This combination of durable textiles that also are breathable are what make trail running shorts more expensive than their road counterparts. Fabrics made of blends of polyester and elastane, Tencil, CoolMax, DWR, Powermesh, Polygiene, and four-way stretch are not mandatory but preferred materials for managing moisture, odor, and abrasion. Some shorts also provide paneling in sensitive areas to block wind or cold or perforations in specific high heat zones for added breathability.
It used to be that trail runners were noticeable by their shorts being longer, signaling a more casual and outdoorsy approach. Nowadays trail running shorts are most commonly in the five- to seven-inch range, with many brands offering five inches. We only tested one running short that was as short as three inches.
To support the loads carried in modern trail running and ultrarunning, managing the weight of phones, food, water, and other gadgets depends on how secure and stable the waistband is. A poorly constructed waistband means the difference between the loads in your pockets bouncing and your shorts sagging or a nice and tight fit around the waist with all of your goods held firmly.
Waistbands are another point of friction between the short and your skin, which over time can become irritating or painful. Some brands we tested here have opted for outer rather than inner drawstrings or even magnetic-closure buckles. But for most shorts, you still find a very simple, practical, and old-school drawstring that can be cinched, knotted, and tucked inside the short.
The types of storage offered in trail running and ultrarunning shorts are diverse but generally plentiful since we might need access to everything from hydration, food, phone, hat, gloves, and more on the fly, and not everyone wants to take off their running vest to reach for essential gear. Pocket sizes range from a small key pocket, to a phone-specific pocket, to tiny gel storage pockets, to, generally, one zippered pocket for security. Some brands have really innovated in their storage designs, specifically making pockets for water bottles or hidden pockets which are located on the thigh/hip portion of the inner short on two-in-one shorts.
Liner Versus No Liner
Nearly all men’s trail running and ultrarunning shorts include a liner, and so it boils down more to which type of liner you prefer. There are shorts with a liner brief (like underwear), or a two-in-one short with an inner liner that is more like a boxer brief. One brand we tested offers an independent system of boxer brief and short, which is subtly innovative because both components move independently.
Comfort comes down to how the liner moves moisture, how well it locks in male anatomy, and how the material prevents chafing. Two-in-one shorts are often a little heavier and don’t move moisture as well but their benefit comes from not having potentially irritating seams around the leg openings like a brief, and offer a little more coverage for modest trail runners. Chafing around the thighs can be minimized with a two-in-one short’s inner brief. When constructed well, trail running shorts’ brief liners are very airy and lightweight. Some runners with sensitive skin or while trail running in conditions that go from wet to dry may find an anti-chafe cream or balm helpful to combat skin irritation (an inevitability for even the most comfortable liners).
Reflectivity has become a near requirement on road running shorts as a simple way to be seen by traffic at dark. Because trail running happens in the pedestrian-friendly confines of nature, reflectivity is a much more rare detail on our shorts. On some shorts we tested, very subtle reflectivity is included, sometimes just on the logo or at the split on the leg openings.
Shorts for trail running and ultrarunning don’t have to be just ones that claim they are for the job. Many trail runners break the mold by wearing spandex tights (the kind more often seen in track and field) or one- to three-inch shorts lacking liners and pockets (like a road marathoner) and in everything in between (like shorts from Target or the Amazon Essentials brand). The nice thing about buying a pair of running shorts from a manufacturer who really understands the sport is the thoughtful touches, better materials, and more humane manufacturing. These factors add cost and nearly all of the shorts we tested fall within between $70 and $100, and all within $30 of each other.
While this sounds like a lot of money compared to shorts from Amazon ($20), Target ($24), or BOA’s 1” Elite Split Short ($29), you gain storage for carrying the essentials that trail running and ultrarunning demand and the toughness that shorts made for harsh conditions provides.
Why You Should Trust Us
To compile this buyer’s guide, we researched a wide variety of running shorts, and tested 15 pairs in total. We reviewed shorts from known brands in trail running and ultrarunning, along with recognizable companies in men’s fitness. All the shorts were tested on trails in Colorado. Five testers from iRunFar’s review team contributed to this guide. The primary tester’s body type is six foot, four inches and around 180 pounds. Almost all shorts tested were men’s medium or large.
Frequently Asked Questions about Men’s Running Shorts
What shorts are best for trail running?
Trail running shorts are for the most part only different from road running shorts in two ways: volume of storage (pockets) and liner type. For example, the three-inch split short is most commonly associated with speedy roadies looking for “barely there” comfort with no pockets (or at most, a small hidden key pocket) and an optional inner short or brief. Often that barely there sentiment isn’t just a metaphor for “lightweight,” it’s a preference. While the only road running shorts we tested for this buyer’s guide were from Hoka One One, we only tested a single liner-free short and it was difficult to find a company that offered one.
Trail running short liners tend to come in equal variety between brief and liner, with the latter sometimes offering compression. Since trail runners often run long distances while exposed to the elements, trail running shorts also include fabric technology unnecessary in their road running counterparts, such as water-repellant tech, ripstop, or other durable fabric, and heavy duty waistbands and drawstrings to keep loaded-down shorts from bouncing. Quick-drying material is also featured to help mitigate the effect of chafing and odors.
Reflective elements are also more rare with trail running shorts, compared to the road running counterparts.
Are certain shorts best for ultrarunning?
The sport of trail running is diverse. Different runners like steep, short trails, while others prefer less vert and more distance. Some like to mix it all. Since ultrarunning combines all of these aspects, the best shorts for trail running requires long-term comfort, the right amount of storage (to complement storage from handhelds or packs), and, potentially, rare features like trekking pole holders or shirt loops. Additional drying technology is helpful. Several brands in this buyer’s guide included special venting zones and extra perforations. Length isn’t a crucial factor when selecting ultrarunning shorts but one should focus most on quick drying materials, storage, and durability.
Should I wear running shorts with a liner?
You’d be hard pressed to find a trail running short without a liner and wearing underwear beneath running shorts is a quick way to chafe and cause irritation. (Don’t do it!) Fortunately the liners of trail running and ultrarunning shorts are made for moisture management, heat transfer, and for providing support in the groin. A supportive liner is essential since we’re often leaping or jumping onto rocks or over tree limbs and running steep downhills with lots of bouncing. The liner is meant to cradle the midsection and prevent discomfort. We tested both brief-style liners and two-in-one inner short liners. The benefit of a brief is moisture management and minimal fabric to reduce overall weight while offering better comfort in hot conditions because of less material. Two-in-one shorts offer similar fit to boxer-brief underwear. Tight fitting and sometimes extending beyond the outer running short, liner briefs can offer mild leg compression, added support, and warmth during colder runs. Also, liner briefs are sometimes used to help reinforce shorts with a lot of pockets and thus a lot of weight to carry. Liner briefs reinforce the harness to create stability under load.
What can I do to prevent chafing?
Sizing your trail running shorts correctly is the single most effective way to prevent chafing. All modern trail short liners use synthetic or wool fabrics which are exceptional at moisture transfer and drying. Brief and two-in-one liners are both adept at preventing chafing though some runners will prefer a longer inner short to avoid any rubbing around the inner thigh where the leg seams are on briefs.
When fit correctly, chafing should be minimal. Too small or too big, and you will find that the bulk of extra fabric or the cinch of fabric is too tight and might lead to rubbing, chafing, and discomfort, especially when it becomes wet. Shorts with outer drawstrings, while rare, are also effective at reducing discomfort from rubbing at the waist and this should be considered before purchasing a trail running short.
Call for Comments
What’s your favorite men’s running shorts? Leave a comment to share yours so we can consider it for a future edition of this article.