Underneath all of your technical layers, there’s one piece of clothing that gets worn all year-round, on all types of outdoor escapades: your adventure underwear*. (*unless you’re team commando – we’ll talk about you too). I fielded your questions on outdoor underpants, and despite common knowledge about your rain gear and down puffies, there’s a lot of guesswork going on in the underwear drawer.
What’s the best fabric to wear? Gynecologists say that cotton’s best for your lady bits, but as they say, “cotton kills.”
I preface this by saying I’m a panty person. I’m not an OBGYN. But I’ve heard doctor’s refer to lady parts as a “self-cleaning oven” and doesn’t need much beyond basic hygiene – unless you’ve got a condition or medication that throws off you’re hormones and/or microflora. That being said, some materials are more comfortable than others:
- Cotton has a good reputation because it’s soft and breathable, which is ideal for everyday undies that you’re wearing to work or around the house. But cotton absorbs sweat (meaning the fibers soak up moisture and hold onto it vs. wicking, where capillaries push moisture to the surface to dry). This leads to the two grossest words in the English language – moist panties – which can lead to chaffing or an imbalance in your microflora. Modal is a semi-synthetic fiber that performs very similarly to cotton, but with a softer, more luxurious feel and better durability.
- Synthetics got a bad rap as hot & unbreathable thanks to the old polyester leisure suits of the 70s. In the past few decades, some brilliant textile engineers have made this category diverse and high-tech (including new innovations like period panties). Here’s a few tips to navigate the category:
- Skip lace & satin pieces. If pieces are built to be sexy & seen, they’re probably built for a different type of “performance.”
- Thinner is better. All else being equal, thin fabrics will hold less water and dry faster than thick fabrics.
- Look for performance claims like “wicking” or “quick dry.” These are claims where the manufacturer has to have lab-backed data in order to make these promises, otherwise they risk FTC lawsuits. There are no hard & fast standards for the claims, but brands set them themselves, and the standards tend to align with the brand’s price point. For more info on how wicking works, these guys speak to some of the science, but it’s generally hard to know as the customer how well a garment wicks until you try it on or wear it for a workout.
- Seamless and Microfiber options are solid. If you’re not interested in investing in performance sport underwear, these fabrications do a pretty good job of wicking, drying, and fitting comfortably. Most everyday brands won’t call out their wicking properties, but that’s mainly because they don’t pay for the extra testing to back it up.
- Merino might be the holy grail of outdoor skivvies. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not just for cold weather. Merino holds a little bit of moisture and releases it as your body warms up, so they help you regulate your temperature in hot weather too. They breathe, they naturally wick, and the thin ones dry almost as fast as synthetics. The downsides? They’re expensive at close to $30 a pair for women’s. Droughts in Australia have made wool auctions competitive, and prices are climbing. As people are priced out of wool, manufacturers are getting more and more democratic with their cuts and colors, so there aren’t as many options. And wool’s not quite as durable as synthetics, so they require a little more care during the wash process with mild detergents and temps.
What the heck is anti-microbial and does it work and should I like it?!
I have a lot of thoughts about antimicrobials that I will save for a later post, but basically, they’re silver salts that have been recycled from electronic waste. Silver interferes with the reproduction & growth of bacteria, and while scientists are still researching the exact mechanism, there’s a lot of info on how it works here. Antimicrobial treatments are designed to fight odors in synthetics, since the smelly type of sweat, Micrococcus, thrives more in synthetics than wool (which is why wool gets such a good rap for being naturally odor-resistant). Antimicrobial treatment only works in the garment, so you don’t have to worry about it wiping out the good bacteria in your lady parts. But that also means that your lady parts will still smell like you’ve been working out or gone a few days without a shower when you’re out on a backpacking trip.
The problem with antimicrobials is that there are some concerns about antimicrobial stewardship, or the idea that we should protect antimicrobials because there aren’t many new ones in the pipeline. The threat is by no means as big as issues like antibiotic overuse in commercial farming, there is concern that heavy use of silver antimicrobials could have implications for the long term use of silver in the medical field (like in catheters and silver-treated wound dressing). There’s still a lot of research left do be done, but generally, if you expose bacteria to the same thing long enough, it’ll most likely develop resistance to that treatment. And that would be a bigger problem than a little BO.
Manufacturers love treatments like Polygiene because it’s a margin booster. Their sales packets cite that customers are willing to spend 152% more on odor-treated garments, and the treatments themselves are fairly cheap. But there are other cheaper, less risky ways to manage odors like:
- Pack an extra pair of skivvies. Change into your fresh, dry pair at night. Or even better, go commando until the morning. Let your hoo-ha breathe. Getting out of your sweaty, damp underwear means less odors and less risk of infection. They weigh less than an ounce. You can afford the pack weight.
- Take some wipes. Baby wipes & hygiene wipes use surfactants that basically makes it easier to wipe the bacteria away from your skin instead of killing it. Likewise, use a biodegradable surfactant like Dr. Bronner’s to wash your underwear if you’re out long enough to do hotel room or backcountry laundry.
- Use white vinegar for what I call “deep stank” – those BO smells that linger after laundering. Vinegar is a fairly potent disinfectant. It just isn’t classified that way by the EPA since it doesn’t kill 99.99% of bacterial species, including some major dangerous ones that can make you sick. So while I wouldn’t use it for medical sterilizations, it does a number on the Micrococcus living in your base layers. Mix with water, soak, and then wash as usual.
- Embrace the stink. As a reminder, these bacteria are largely not harmful beyond their odors. BO shouldn’t be that much of a game changer on how you feel about your outdoor time. If it is, try a new hobby or make some new fun friends.
Any cuts to stay away from? Because I personally find thongs perfect for ultra-light packing.
Thongs get a really bad rap. The modern, American thong was developed to just barely comply with nudity rules in NY clubs in the 40s, so there are generations of women who believe they’re just wrong (the Google search “is wearing a thong unhealthy” is closely followed by questioning whether or not thongs are sinful). When thongs went mainstream in the 90s (thanks, Monica Lewinsky & Sisqo), a bunch of Puritans wrote health pieces about how thongs were bad for your health and would transfer bacteria from “back to front” or cause micro-tears in your rectum. If your underwear has that much “travel,” it doesn’t fit and is likely too big. If your underwear bothers your butthole, it doesn’t fit either and is likely too small. Wear comfortable that fits, no matter the cut, no matter whether you’re out on an adventure or hanging around town. The only downside with thongs is that they do take a bit longer to dry compared to other cuts since it’s in closer contact with your skin.
There are some benefits to coverage, though. Manufacturers are starting to make boyshorts with a few inches of coverage, which can help with chaffing or add a wicking layer under non-wicking bottoms (like rain pants or soccer shorts/Patagonia Barely Baggies).
Otherwise, it helps if your undies and your bottoms play nice together. Low rise pants should be paired with low rise panties, and vice versa. The amount of construction & binding in your underwear should counter the construction in your pants. Breezy running shorts? Go with a sturdier binding (that elastic around the legs & waist). And those new laser cut styles? (Like this). Customers rail on the fact that they don’t stay in place, but they’re not designed to be worn under a sun dress. If you do, you might lose them. But they’re great for tight pants like leggings where the garment can keep it in place, and as a bonus, there’s less elastic squeezin’ on your bod.
What about hiking commando?
If you’re wearing a pair of wicking pants or shorts, you might not miss them. But it’s likely a recipe for swass if you’re wearing a pair of snow pants or rain pants that aren’t going to wick moisture. Also, for the ladies, bodies expel more discharge when you’re working out hard (more abdominal pressure, more heat, you’re likely standing, so there’s more of a gravity effect). For a multi-day trip, it’s much easier to pack clean undies than it is to pack clean pants, so undergarments may be key to feeling fresh for your full trip.