Home / Gear Reviews / Clothes and Footwear / REI Activator Soft-Shell Winter Hiking Pants

REI Activator Soft-Shell Winter Hiking Pants

REI's Activator Soft Shell Pants are breathable winter hiking pants with a gusseted crotch and articulated knees for ease of movement
REI’s Activator Soft Shell Pants are breathable winter hiking pants with a gusseted crotch and articulated knees for ease of movement

Finding a good pair of winter hiking pants that will keep you warm while venting excess sweat is one of the more challenging pieces of clothing for winter hikers to acquire. While beginner winter hikers can get by with layering a pair of synthetic long johns under a pair of full-zip rain pants, the combination lacks in terms of breathability, comfort, weight and freedom of movement. They’re often insufferably too hot when you’re winter hiking or snowshoeing, which generates a lot more heat than three-season hiking.

REI’s Activator Soft-Shell Hiking Pants, available for both men and women, are soft-shell pants for winter hiking and snowshoeing. They’re water resistant and highly breathable to prevent sweat build-up, with articulated knees and a gusseted crotch for freedom of movement. They can also be used comfortably for cool weather hiking in spring and autumn. I used the Activator Pants all last winter for hiking and they are keepers, even better than the REI Mistral Soft Shell Pants that REI used to sell.

Everyone’s metabolism is different, but I’ve found that soft shell pants alone provide the most comfort in terms of breathability, temperature regulation, water resistance, and wind resistance for winter hiking because they’re a single layer that’s easier to combine with others (See Winter Pant Layering for Hikers Who Sweat and KISS Layering).

The Activator Pants have three deep zippered pockets: two on the sizes and one in back, which are mesh backed for enhanced ventilation, and close with a front waist snap. The fabric is quite stretchy, which also enhances the pant’s comfort. The legs are slightly flared to fit over insulated winter hiking boots, but don’t have ankle zips. I think my favorite feature on these pants is the belt, which is sewn onto the waistband and cannot be removed or lost in the laundry. The buckle hooks into daisy chain slots sewn onto the waistband that prevent it from loosening. The buckle is also flat so it fits comfortably under a climbing harness or backpack hip belt.

REI's Activator Soft Shell Pants have a flat belt buckle that fits easily under a climbing harness or backpack hip belt for winter hiking
REI’s Activator Soft Shell Pants have a flat belt buckle that fits easily under a climbing harness or backpack hip belt for winter hiking

I’ve found the Activator Pants ideal for winter hiking down to about 15-20 degrees, when worn with 6″ Under Armour boxer shorts, insulated high-top winter boots, and super breathable high gaiters. While none of these are considered layers in the strict sense of the word, they do significantly boost the range of the Activators in cold temperatures, covering everything except my knees with a second layer of insulation. While I have worn silk weight long underwear under the Activators on extremely cold days, it’s not something I need to do very often.

You actually want to run a little cool when winter hiking or snowshoeing because your body is generating so much heat. That’s why it’s important to have extra layers handy when you stop, like a puffy insulated jacket or a pair of rain or wind pants that you can pull over your winter hiking pants, to slow the release of body heat. The combination will warm you right up if you’re standing still.

REI Activator Soft Shell Hiking Pants

Water Resistance
Ease of Movement


REI's Activator Soft Shell Hiking Pants are highly breathable cold weather pants suitable for winter hiking and snowshoeing. Warm and water resistant, they have a gusseted crotch for ease of movement and are available in a wide range of sizes for men and women.

Shop Now

REI’s Activator Soft Shell Pants are available in 30, 32, and 34″ lengths and in waist sizes from 30 to 42″, including women’s tall and petite sizes. If this is your first pair of winter hiking pants, I’d recommend getting them a bit shorter than normal since you’ll be wearing winter boots and gaiters: any bunching of extra pant fabric around your feet will be awkward and make your calves sweat significantly more.

Disclosure: REI provided the author with a sample pair of pants for this review, but I already own another pair from last year that I purchased with my own funds and just never got around to writing about them.

Written 2017.

Support SectionHiker.com, where we actually field test the products we review. If you make a purchase after clicking on the links above, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you.

Most Popular Searches

  • rei activator pants
  • yoga pants with pockets for women


  1. The Willow color is another 25% off the clearance price. $45 for softshells are a pretty good deal. Arriving next week. I prefer to wear a lightweight baselayer, so hopefully they will be good down to -10F.

    • Wearing my new REI activators now. Material is thinner than I expected. Thicker than my Patagucci stretchy pants, but still fairly thin. You seriously stay warm in these whenyou are hiking, Phil? You must run much hotter than I do while hiking.

      I can’t wait for some 20* days to try them out.

  2. This is exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve spent too much time sweating in my base layer and snow pants.

  3. Maker and Riders had an amazing pair of Polartec Neoshell pants that are the best 55 degree and below hiking pants I’ve ever used. Its fleece backed, extremely comfortable, has a gusseted crotch for freedom of movement, and they stretch. I’ve worn them down to 0-5F and been fine with a little movement. The temperature range they can go is kinda crazy.

    The best part. They’re waterPROOF. I’ve never had them wet out on me, and the face fabric dries extremely fast.

    From what I can remember they were originally made as cycling to work pants if the weather was bad. They excel at SO much more. They also look good enough to wear to most jobs.

    They still have some backstock left on the website, but once they’re sold out I dont think they’re going to make them again. Which is a shame.

  4. I use Kuiu Attack Pants and find them excellent. Attack Pants have hip zips too and I like that feature for venting. I only wish they had side tabs like Prana Zions or a built in belt like these.

  5. Sounds like they are worth checking out. I have a pair of GOLITE pants that I love and should have purchased 5 pairs when they folded. They have vents in the knees which are awesome. I wear gtex routers only for downhill skiing. For anything else they are perfect

  6. Not trying to rain on REIs parade (I DO love REI) But, I just went to the Eddie Bauer outlet in Kittery Maine, and scored a pair of super nice, Guide Pro Alpine softshell hiking pants, flexion fabric is super nice, I have regular summer hiking pants of this EB First Accent material, its great, moves and breathes incredibly.
    The Alpines retail for about $150, grabbed them for about $65 with their sale. Gusseted crotch, articulated knees, and lower pant zip for boot removal. Love em!
    These are great for winter hiking, mountaineering, and XC skiing. snowshoeing, ect. good deal.
    Im sure the REI Activators are really good too. they dont put their name on junk either.

  7. Rosemarie Coulthard

    The REI Activators are my go to Fall hiking pant & snowshoeing pant. Have several different versions as they have made improvements over the years.

  8. Wore these today at a soccer match. 39 degrees, 21 mph winds. Very impressed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *