Undies. Drawers. Chonies. Tighty Whities. Unmentionables.
Whatever you call it, underwear is often overlooked when people begin outfitting themselves for hiking and backpacking trips. However, they are not only the literal foundation of your layering system, but they’re also situated right next to your delicates, so we’d argue you’re doing a disservice by making them an afterthought.
In the name of keeping your undercarriage well equipped for outdoor adventures, we’ve put together some tips for careful undie selection. While personal fit and style preference are important, there are two main nemeses to concern yourself with: chafing and cold. The former is that uncomfortable – and possibly hike-ruining – condition that occurs when friction and sweat create tiny little specks of evil salty granules that rub painful, raw spots into your skin. The areas most commonly affected are inner thighs, bikini line, and that delicate space between your cheeks. The threat of cold is fairly straightforward – if your chonies stay wet as the sun goes down, those very same buns that were burning in the morning sun will struggle to stay warm with the rest of your body as the mercury plummets. Let’s look at how you can manage these twin threats to keep everything copacetic.
Underwear styles are truly a matter of personal preference. For women, the traditional bikini cut is a tried-and-true favorite – but it can also lead to chafing when things get extra sweaty, especially if you’ve recently engaged in some regional hair removal. While topical anti-chafe applications like Body Glide can help the situation, some ladies prefer a boy-cut short to avoid creating sensitive spots – and some even go with bike shorts to prevent the dreaded Thigh Rub. A few ladies I know dig the less fabric-intensive thong, although these are harder to come by in technical fabrics.
To balance things out, I interviewed a selection of outdoorsy men – and they all swore by boxer-briefs. One guy explained, “For me, the boxer brief provides the right mix of comfort, support, and breathability. Whether it is peak-bagging or carrying a heavy multi-day pack, they are not too baggy or chafing. Finally, they are rugged and quick-drying, which make them perfect for quick dips in a high Sierra Nevada lake to either cool off or to rinse off grime and perspiration. In fact, on my High Sierra Trail trek a few years back, all three guys on this trip rocked these. We ended more than one day laying out by a river or lake drying off in nothing more than our ExOfficios.” A ringing endorsement, if I ever heard one.
The long-distance hiking crowd – men and women alike – often go for the 2-in-1 punch of running shorts with a built-in liner. The downside? Unless you’re hiking with two pair of shorts, this method doesn’t leave any room for washing, which threatens to increase your funk factor.
While we often talk about the importance of fabric selection when it comes to base layers, insulation layers, and outer layers, people seem to dismiss the importance when it comes to their skivvies. First, let’s get one thing straight – if you’re going to be hiking in the winter or anywhere that might experience windy, chilly conditions, leave the cotton at home where it belongs. This is going to sound dramatic (okay – very dramatic), but COTTON KILLS. Really, this just means that once it’s wet (i.e. once your butt starts sweating), it loses any ability to keep you warm. (Although, as one interviewee stated: “Nothing like clean, soft cotton on your skin after a trek.” (Emphasis mine).
Now, you might think that it’s no big deal if your butt is cold, but you’d be surprised at how quickly the body chills (doubly so if you’re wearing a sweaty cotton sports bra). For this reason, wool and synthetics are a much better option for trekking. There are pros and cons to both, of course. Wool fights back the funk and will act as an insulator even when wet, but it’s freakin’ expensive…and if you’re unlucky, moths can chew your money right down the drain. Still, I own some amazing pairs of Icebreaker, Smartwool, and Ibex, and some of these I’ve had for years. Synthetics are slightly cheaper, even more so if you buy non-technical fabrics, but the most inexpensive materials tend to perpetuate stank and may not hold up to repeated trail abuse. In this vein, I have a small army of ExOfficio bikinis at my disposal – they not only wick sweat, but also dry quickly after getting wet. Nearly every one of the gentlemen I questioned brought up this brand, as well, but I also got a love letter from one dude about Patagonia undies. He adores them so much that he even started buying them for his wife “so she can experience the magic of CAPILENE.” (Emphasis his).
There is, of course, the option to go au naturel. Describing the benefits here might be a little too intimate for this forum, but let’s just say that some people enjoy a nice, gentle breeze.
Finally, if you are sinking the equivalent of an entire electric bill into a few pair of underwear, you want to make sure those suckers last longer than your light bulbs. You’d obviously hand-wash them while on the trail (I took two pair on the PCT – I alternated every day, wearing one while the other was washed and hung on my pack to dry as I hiked), and this is the best method for cleaning techie fabrics at home, preferably using a light soap or detergent meant for unmentionables and/or babies. If you are brave (or lazy, like me), you can usually throw them in the washing machine (the gentle cycle is best), and then hang them to dry.
Hopefully this primer helps you stride forth onto the trail with a newfound confidence in your chonies! Of course, if you have more questions about unders, fire away in the comments and we’ll do our best to set you on the straight skivvy path.