Here it is, boys and girls. The epic rant of a lifetime. On a subject for which I hath even more fury than a woman scorned.
I have spent the last decade searching high and low for one particular piece of ultralight performance apparel that, for some bizarre reason, has yet to be made with sufficient craftsmanship to suit my obsessive demands. I would point out that every category of high-tech performance apparel includes an endless morass of outrageous garbage, through which I must sift each year to find acceptable items, but this one is an even deeper, filthier cesspool than any I have thus far encountered.
The best travel underwear is…
Each and every iteration on the subject of quick dry underwear is deeply, irreparably, inexcusably flawed. For something that should be so damn simple that even the most haphazard of product marketing and design teams should be capable of devising such a piece, they somehow manage to fail in spectacular fashion each and every time. (Get it? Fashion? Oh whatever, you liked it!)
I have gone through just about as much as I can handle at this point, having purchased, worn, and gotten sick of perhaps a dozen different iterations of so-called “best travel underwear ever,” and have been spurned so many times that I may abandon the search altogether, never to love again.
My underwear drawer is filled with insufficiently designed pieces, which would be so easy to design properly, that I stare at it like a cemetery of shattered dreams and ruined lives, each morning hanging my head in misery at the ordeal that shall soon befall me for the day.
And those are just the ones I’ve kept. Imagine the horrors of those I’ve thrown out. (And I’ve thrown out quite a few.)
I am going to hang each and every manufacturer out to dry, in a fit of unrepentant fury that has accumulated over a decade of buying $30 performance underwear whose horrific design flaws have smashed my once upbeat demeanor into the spiteful beast that stands before you today.
Allow me to begin.
Best Travel Underwear Contestants:
1) Ex Officio Boxer Briefs
If there’s anywhere to start, it’s right here. Long proclaimed as the best travel underwear on the planet, Ex Officio boxer briefs are lauded as the one-and-only solution to any and all of your backpacking underwear needs, whether it’s outdoorsy adventurousness or hostel-hopping cultural expeditions. Thousands of 5-star reviews greet prospective shoppers at every turn, listing virtues befitting the craftsmanship of the divine.
Unfortunately, they kinda suck.
Three deal-breaking problems eliminate this one as the perfect travel underwear for me, and should for others as well:
- The fabric is textured on the outside, and thus produces a great deal of friction against a pair of pants. They’ll move around in awkward directions, and you’ll find yourself rearranging quite often. A slicker fabric would solve this problem instantly.
- The fabric won’t retain its shape, expanding as you move and creating increasingly annoying fit problems with every step. By the end of the day it’ll fit completely differently than it did at the beginning.
- The fit is oversized. Yes, that’s right. I have no qualms about this issue diminishing my manliness. And besides, according to the measurements, I should be a size medium, but I went with a small, and it’s still too big. And because of the shape retention issues and high-friction fabric, I find myself adjusting over and over again throughout the day. And since it has no “pouch” to speak of, it allows for a great deal of…drift.
Two of these three problems can be solved if you’re large enough, since you can just get a size or two down (and then deal with the subsequently tighter waistband), but you can’t possibly get a snug, athletic, “immobilizing” fit if you’re small to begin with. And, again, the friction will move everything around all day anyway.
As this is perhaps the most popular travel underwear on the planet, it’s important to point out that most people are happy with them. But if you read the negative reviews, you’ll notice they most often mention a baggy fit. This may very well be a subjective concern, but if you’re fairly small, it’s just an absolute dealbreaker. These will fit loosely, and become increasingly loose as the day goes on. And it’s incredibly annoying.
2) EMS Techwick Boxer Briefs
These use the exact same fabric as the Ex Officios, but they turn it inside out, and they’re about a size and a half smaller. This solves two problems: The opposite side of the fabric is significantly smoother, thus sliding more easily against a pair of pants, and the snug fit keeps everything in place.
Unfortunately, they opted to ruin everything by screwing up something else:
- The waistband is way too tight. Even in the appropriate size, it’s significantly smaller than you might expect of a boxer brief, and it’s far less stretchy. You’ll feel it compressing your stomach all day, rather than forgetting it’s there.
- The waistband folds over itself in half in the front, thus putting twice as much pressure over half the surface area. It’s incredibly annoying. You can see from the reviews that this is a consistent problem, and I’ve never seen this happen on anything else.
Granted, you could solve problem #2 by wearing them inside out, but then you renew the friction problem of the Ex Officios, and then the soft brushed side of the waistband will be on the wrong side. This is just plain ridiculous. Get a better waistband, guys. Everyone else has one.
Update: They’ve updated this product, with a different waistband. I haven’t tried it in person to know how it works, but it might be worth checking out, as it’s otherwise just fine!
3) Arcteryx Phase SL Boxer Brief
If there’s anything Arcteryx does well, it’s getting the fit right. Usually. In this case, it was great. These boxer briefs do a few things very well; they keep everything snug, and everything, ahem, surrounded, and thus protected.
I’ll admit that this one isn’t horrible. But the fabric is all wrong.
- The fabric doesn’t stretch. That’s right. Of all the items you’d need to have a stretch fabric, it would be underwear. Arcteryx employs something they call “mechanical” stretch, which, after wearing it for a while, I can safely say is synonymous with “no stretch.” You can pull the fabric and it’ll expand, sure, but it would fit and stay put better if it had real stretch. It’s not horrible, but that’s not much of a compliment.
For a company that charges quite a premium for their products, they should have no flaws whatsoever. These cost twice as much as many others (and the others aren’t cheap!) and it’s just flawed. Underwear should have such an effortlessly stretchy fabric that I forget I’m wearing them, which would also help it stay in place. It’s certainly not bad, but it could easily be better.
4) Patagonia Everything
I like Patagonia. They pioneered a great deal of outdoor clothing and other products, and continually push for environmentally sound production methods, while simultaneously donating a percentage of their income to sustainability and conservation projects. I’m happy to spend a little extra on Patagonia, knowing the money goes to worthwhile endeavors that preserve the natural world.
Unfortunately, their underwear sucks.
I have thus far used 3 of the 4 boxer briefs that Patagonia has produced in the last half decade. All of them were terrible.
- Capilene 1 Silkweight Boxer Briefs: No stretch. Seriously, no stretch. They can expand a little, but they expand, and since they have no elastic content whatsoever, they won’t contract afterwards. This means they’ll be a certain size in the morning, pulling against your every move, and become a half a size bigger by the end of the day, failing to keep everything in place as they should.
- Capilene 1 Stretch Boxer Briefs: These are Patagonia’s attempt to resolve the issues of the non-stretch fabric that ruins the usefulness of all their other products. Unfortunately, they ruined the fit. Instead of having a single seam in the crotch, as would be the case with most boxer briefs, they have two: One placed slightly towards the front, and one slightly to the back, and thus rather than zero seams running over very sensitive places, you get two. This might not have been so bad, depending on how they were placed, but they discontinued this one anyway, so oh well.
- Capilene 2 Lightweight Boxer Briefs: Again, no stretch. I really have no idea how anyone can justify making boxer briefs without stretch. These, however, use a loosely knit fabric, which expands quite easily when pulled in different directions. Unfortunately, they don’t contract back into place. And since the fabric has a highly textured surface like the Ex Officios, they’ll migrate all over, particularly because they’ll become so loose over the course of the day.
The problem seems to be that they used the same fabric for underwear as they used for t-shirts, which was incredibly stupid. T-shirts don’t need to be super-stretchy, but underwear does. It’s like they were just too lazy to come up with something new that would actually work.
To their credit, I returned several of these to Patagonia and they provided me with a refund. But plenty of others I simply threw out, because I kind of felt bad returning used underwear for a full refund. In the future, I’ll consider it a lesson provided for their benefit.
5) REI Everything
As is the case with Patagonia, I like REI. They stand behind their products 100%. If you don’t like them, you can return them. Which is exactly what I did.
- REI Boxer Brief: These would appear to be a cheap alternative to some of the big name-brand quick dry underwear, but I hated them, and so does everyone else. These have been available for the last several years, with a rating of 3 out of 5 stars the whole time. This means that for the last several years, no one decided to improve this mediocre product, or everyone else said no. As for the actual problems, they move around way too much, had scratchy seams, and long-term users say they fall apart. I returned mine long before I could find out how well they hold up, because I hated them so much.
- REI Boxer Jock: Check out the extra seam right in the middle. Guess what body part goes there?
I really don’t get it.
6) Merino Boxer Briefs
I’m including every manufacturer in this category, as the issues will largely be similar.
I’m an obsessively huge fan of merino wool, as it’s basically a magical fabric of mystical performance properties that produces some of the world’s best performance apparel, all from a humble fluffy sheep.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a good choice for travel underwear. It’s true that it has natural stretch, excellent moisture management, and exquisite anti-odor properties, but in my experience, it’ll fail under the brutal conditions that travel underwear so often experience:
- Merino is fuzzy. Although merino wool is strong, It’s not slick and smooth the way polyester can be, meaning it’ll suffer from even higher friction, and thus fall apart even sooner. There’s simply too much movement down there for it to survive.
- Merino wool is warm. You can get around this problem by using only the thinnest fabrics, but then…they’ll fall apart even faster.
- At up to $50 a pair, combined with insufficient durability, you’ll burn through your travel budget just by replacing your undies.
Don’t get me wrong. Merino wool is probably the most comfortable fabric for next-to-skin luxuriousness that I’ve ever experienced. I think merino wool underwear would make more sense for hikers, who need a pair or two for a weekend getaway, but not for ultralight travelers taking 3 or 4 pairs for 6 months of travel, in which case they’d see high-intensity use, and I expect they’d just fall apart. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
Further stupid travel underwear issues
I’m going to round up a few other problems I’ve encountered while I’m at it:
- “Seamless” boxer briefs are a filthy dirty lie. Look up any boxer brief claiming to be “seamless” and then take a look at the crotch. You’ll find a seam. And because of the patterns used, this seem is placed further forward than the standard right-in-the-middle seam, meaning it goes right over a very sensitive body part and is incredibly stupid. Instead of making it seamless, they simply relocate the seams into a terrible position. They also quite often skip the elastic waistband, so they won’t stay where you put them.
- Leaky fabric die turned my legs black. Yes, really. They stayed that way for days, no matter how many showers I took. Plus they fit wrong anyway.
- Elastic content based on color. I’ve seen a certain company that employs 3 different fabrics in the same product, each with a completely different percentages of spandex, dependent on what color it is. Um, why?
- Fabric quality based on color. My current favorite boxer brief is actually from a cheap company whose products aren’t particular spectacular, but they did this one correctly. Unfortunately, only the green was soft, whereas every other color was significantly scratchier. And they discontinued the green, so I’m screwed.
- Legs that go down to the knees. Um, you know, eye of the beholder and all that, but does that fabric serve any additional advantage other than costing me more and taking up extra space?
- Billboard logo waistbands. I refuse to advertise your brand for free unless your product is flawless. Get back to work.
- Designed for a woman. Yeah, there was no extra room in front. Nice job, guys.
I cannot sigh loudly enough to express my frustration.
What the best travel underwear in the world would be
I actually can’t imagine how so many multimillion-dollar established brands have failed to hit the mark so many ridiculous times. I don’t even think there’s anything particularly complicated about it, but somehow they manage to screw it up in embarrassing fashion a billion times in a row.
But it’s simple. The best travel underwear on the planet would include:
- Spectacular, and snug (but not restrictive) fit. This isn’t rocket science. Every ordinary underwear brand already has a very simple, very straightforward boxer brief style that looks exactly the same as all the other ones. The reason people buy them by the millions is because they work. I think part of the problem with a lot of major brands is they try to make theirs look unique, thus screwing up a rather tried-and-true format that pleases millions. I’m happy to see unusual patterns, but only if they’re good. There should be no stupidly located seams, no awkward angles, and certainly no “lateral drift.”
- Effortless stretch. Do I even need to mention this at all? Oh wait, yes I do. Because nobody can do it correctly. They either make it not stretchy at all, which is a ridiculously stupid crime against humanity which I would ban from the globe if I were to become a tyrannical dictator, or they make it overly loose, so it gets stretched out over the course of the day, and refuses to snap back into place, thus ruining whatever fit it may have had. Perfect stretch would stay in place all day, but move so easily that you forget it’s there.
- Slick fabric. To eliminate friction entirely, which helps prevent the underwear from migrating, the fabric needs to be smoother than Elvis. No excuses.
- Quick-drying properties. It’s got to include a high percentage of polyester and/or nylon. Although I like certain luxury fabrics like bamboo, modal, and Tencel, and they can make super comfortable underwear, I don’t think they’d be suitable if you have no washing machine. Fine for casual use at home, or apartment stays, but not long-term, ultralight travel during which sink washes might happen frequently. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this one.
- Anti-odor treatment. Admittedly I have not encountered this problem with any of the above items, and it’s so standard at this point that I don’t bother to check anymore. Good job, guys. You’ve got 1 point so far.
I sure hope I find ’em someday. But I have my doubts. I might just have to go out into the world and make the best backpacking underwear in the universe and laugh in their faces instead of buying their garbage.
Sounds like a plan, actually…
Update! I have hereby found the perfect travel underwear, and they are only $13. Thanks to a reader tip, I’m switching all of my underwear over to the new one, and I’m never going back. I’ve drawn up a thorough review of why they might just be the best men’s underwear ever, and I am overjoyed. No longer shall I wallow in the pit of despair that is the atrocious wasteland of overpriced performance underwear! No longer I say! Ahahahahaha!