The other day a friend of mine asked me about getting a pair of hikers for sailing his Thistle. We sell a number of different types of hikers and the price spread across the choices is fairly wide. "So which ones should I get?", he wanted to know. It's a pretty fair question I think. Hikers are something you don't "have" to get but they sure make life a lot more comfortable on a lot of boats. There are a lot of style choices here and it can be daunting trying to find the right hikers for someone. A lot of things depend on personal preferences; full leg coverage vs. above the knee or suspender style vs. shorts - in the end it's up to what people like best.
What are the choices? We have hikers from SEA (Sail Equipment Australia), Zhik, Magic Marine & Sailing Angles. The SEA pairs and the Zhiks seem to be a bit more popular than the other two so we'll focus on those. What do I consider to be hikers anyways? I think anything with a stiff batten-style pad on the back of the thigh qualifies as hikers. So not just extra neoprene padding but a plastic or otherwise reinforced patch that will stay stiff and support part of your weight as you hike out.
The SEA hikers are the workhorse of the options. They're relatively inexpensive but they're well made and have enough style choices to get the right thing for a customer's needs. The price range runs from $120.95 for the cheapest short neoprene hikers up to $174.95 for the 3/4 length Airprene pair. Basically the choices are to have the knees covered or not and to have neoprene or Airprene. Airprene is basically neoprene with a bunch of little holes in it so it's less hot than a solid neoprene suit. Note that I said less hot - you're still wearing a layer of neoprene over most of your body and if it's a hot day you're gonna be sweating. These things aren't magic. I have a pair of the short neoprene hikers that I wear on the Laser. I think if I had to do it over again I'd get the knees covered...it's not a big difference but it adds some extra warmth on those early spring / late fall days and keeps your knees from getting all banged up.
The downside to the SEA hikers is that the batten pockets are sewn on to the outside of the leg and are not movable. The edge of the pocket sometimes catches on the edge of the deck or cockpit as you slide in and out of the boat and that tends to eventually be a wear spot. It also means that if the wearer isn't quite the same size as the person the pants were sized to fit (professional laser sailor types - so pretty tall and strong guys) than the batten pocket might not line up where it should on your leg. Do these details matter? Yes but if you're not going to wear the hikers that much they probably don't outweigh the cost benefit of the SEAs.
Zhik offers by far the biggest variety of choices in hikers. They have everything from shorts to a full length farmer john suit available with hiking pads. Unlike other suits they do not have battens sewn into the suit but use the Zhik PowerPad system. The battens are on a seperate piece that slides into a pocket in a sleeve that then slides over the thigh & the suit pulls over top of that. This allows the user to position the pads where ever they want them and makes for a custom fit. They have 3/4 hikers that are fairly standard style-wise. The pant and short hikers are pretty cool - I've talked to a few customers that were really into getting the shorts for sailing in Florida. I also have a pair of the Superwarm skiff hikers that I plan to break out for the local Laser frostbite series next weekend. At $193 for the shorts and $299 for the 3/4 hikers they're not exactly cheap.
Are they worth it? To give a non-answer I think it depends. If you're going to sail your Laser all year round and do some big regattas and you wear your hikers every time you go out - they're probably worth it. If you want something different like a farmer john or pants than they're a great choice. But my friend who is just going to wear them for his Thistle and probably won't wear them unless it's a real windy day (although in the Thistle I'd probably wear them every day with that skinny rail). For him I recommended the SEA hikers - he probably doesn't need to spend the extra money on the Zhiks.
As for the rest of the hiker range the Magic Maine Energy Hikers are interesting because they're the only ones to have a pre-curved piece of batten material sewn into the suit. The batten pocket is also attached on the inside of the leg rather than the outside to prevent snagging. Sailing Angles offers some similar hikers as well as a farmer john style suit for colder weather sailing. These are certainly not the only brands out there either - there are plenty of other good hikers from companies like Rooster, Gill and others.