We took some of the best travel underwear around the world to find the top boxer and briefs. For four months we tested through wringer or hotel sink to test for durability, drying speed, comfort and odor control. Our testers took them hiking, biking, caving and swimming, from the dreary North Pacific to the azure Mediterranean Sea. All of the premium styles we tried were a huge step up in comfort from the average cotton pair and they had other benefits as well. Supremacy in packability, drying time, and odor resistance to name a few. Read on to see the rationale behind why we preferred certain designs over the others.
Waistband is soft and has offset seams
Wool fabric resists odors
If you've got to have the best underwear in the world, then the Smartwool NTS Micro 150 Boxer Brief is it. In the most important category, comfort, they were the clear winner with a superior fit and softer waistband than any of the others. From fly to tuckus, the seams are thoughtfully located and flat-locked to prevent chaffing. They are the only pair where the waistband stitch has been offset to the side, away from the center of the back where a backpack might rub. Like all merino wool garments, they are naturally resistant to odor, with better performance than the proprietary coatings on all the synthetics tested. However, nothing is perfect; they do have a few deficiencies. In our air dry test they finished in the middle of the pack. Though with a total time of four and half hours, they'll dry overnight. The more practical weaknesses are durability and cost. Merino wool is a delicate fabric and it's unlikely these will last as long as the synthetic options. At $48 per pair they are also the most expensive option in an already overpriced field. We do believe, however, that the added comfort they provide warrants the slightly higher cost. Overall, these are an exceptional piece of clothing. The price is outrageous, but if you have a wallet that allows, this Editors' Choice award winner is a great luxury to have.
More affordable than the competition (and frequently on sale!)
Not the quickest to dry
Big, heavy, and less comfortable than others
Our testers could not confirm the popular sentiment that the ExOfficio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs are the ultimate travel underwear, but they did appreciate them as a comfy and functional option at a less obscene price. Don't get us wrong, $26 is a lot to pay for a pair of undies, but it's 45% less than the exorbitantly priced Smartwools. We like the durability of the ExOfficio's blend of spandex and nylon and the sturdy construction. While not as comfortable as many of the others tested, they are still a huge improvement over the regular cotton stuff you're probably wearing. The Aegis® Microbe Shield™ anti-microbial treatment is effective at combating odor and its fourth place finish in our air dry test was still completed in under 5 hours—quick enough for them to dry overnight. There is a reason these are getting so popular. There are a few reasons.
Supportive enough for sports endeavors
Lacks a fly
Too snug for comfortable lounging
For a company that takes its naming conventions so seriously Phase Series: Moisture wicking base layer, SL: Superlight, Arc'teryx messed up a little bit here. Although they call these a 'boxer', they are the snuggest pair tested, and we'd classify them a 'boxer brief'. Arc'teryx is excused though; they're Canadian. Regardless, we're glad we still gave these a shot because they ended up being the best option tested for active pursuits. Whether it's hiking, biking, running, or team sports, fast-paced activities can jostle your most delicate parts. The fit on the Arc'teryx Phase SL Boxer is snug yet cozy and gives the most support of any pair tested. Credit for this should probably go to the stretchy 70%-30% polyester-polypropylene blend and the unique fabric dart sewn into the crotch. This tailors the fit to provide space and support for your body parts that need it most. It doesn't look very stylish, and it eliminates the possibility of a fly, but it did the best job of keeping the boys in place. Also, it is the lightest option by a large margin and the second fastest to dry. This wouldn't be our first choice for 'backpacking through Europe', but is our favorite for hiking through the woods with heavy objects strapped to our backs—i.e., actual 'backpacking'.
The 2nd most comfortable pair tested
Fastest drying underwear we tested
Good odor resistance
Light and packable
Not the best waistband
Not super durable
Short warranty period
There is a lot to like about the Icebreaker Anatomica. They were the fastest drying in our tests and the second most comfortable pair we tested. They do a great job of resisting odor build-up. They were among the lightest and most packable models we tested. All that said, the competition was fierce. For wool lovers, the Smartwool models just performed better. Also, the durability was poor. That combined with a relatively short warranty period makes it a little hard to cough up $45.
Do You Need Travel Underwear?
"17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of award-winning underwear. (Ok, maybe two.)"You might have seen this attention-grabbing advertisement in a magazine from the seat pocket in front of you. It's the clever marketing ExOfficio flooded airline, and outdoor publications with that effectively led to the creation of this entire category of clothing: travel underwear. These high-priced garments have gained popularity and now many other companies are making their versions. But what is travel underwear? And why do you need to spend an arm and a leg to get a pair?
Travel underwear is underwear designed for the demands of traveling. When traveling it can be expensive or time-consuming to do mechanized laundry, so this type of underwear is made of quick-drying fabrics that give you the option to wash them in a sink and have them air dry in a few hours. Assuming you're too busy for even hand laundry, the fabrics used are anti-microbial and designed to resist odor. If you have to, they can be worn for a few days at a stretch without getting stinky. Many brands also try to make these undergarments small and light, so you can stuff more pairs into your suitcase or backpack. However, by far the most significant advantage of travel underwear over the cheap cotton stuff is comfort. The difference can be dramatic and has convinced many a skeptic to stomach the cost and convert.
Due to the popularity of the term 'travel underwear' we're going to use those words, but these are just premium undergarments designed to fit and perform better than the traditional options. The qualities that make them useful for travel, like comfort and hydrophobic fabrics, also make them well-suited for outdoor adventures or activities close to home.
Types of Travel Underwear
Before we began this review we first had to overcome the age-old question: boxers or briefs? Like Pepsi or Coke? Britney or Christina? It is a very personal question that can provoke great emotion on either side. For a moment it seemed as if this review wouldn't even get off the ground. Fortunately, many fashion designers have softened their hard-line positions in this debate and settled on an elegant compromise. Combining the best of both styles, a long inseam with a snug fit, they created 'boxer briefs' and these now comprise more than 40% of the US underwear market. They are the overwhelming favorite among young people, particularly those with active lifestyles. For these reasons we selected the boxer brief style for the majority of the underwear we tested. We hope shoppers strictly interested in only boxers or briefs will still find some value in the information and opinions we've gathered here.
A more practical and less contentious decision beyond boxers vs. briefs is the type of fabric used to make them. Cotton is pervasive in the favorite low-cost brands, but its propensity to absorb moisture makes it impractical for outdoor or travel use. It takes forever to dry out and in cold conditions will draw heat away from your body, increasing the risk of hypothermia. The only sensible fabric options then are wool or synthetics. Both are breathable and wick moisture away from the skin. Fast drying times and comfort are also achievable with either one. Merino wool—a soft variety of wool and the only reasonable option for wool underwear—is superior in breathability and odor control to synthetics but can be expensive and delicate. Synthetics, like polyester and nylon, are cheaper and more popular but less comfortable to wear when wet. It is a difficult decision and many people have their personal preference. We think it's best to consider the intended use and match high-performance fabric.
Criteria for Evaluation
Comfort and Fit
The single largest benefit of premium travel varieties over regular cotton underwear is comfort. This is achieved through many different ways. The most noticeable difference initially is the fabric. Premium travel underwear is made of either merino wool or synthetics and, as we've mentioned already, these materials have substantial advantages in damp conditions. Unlike cotton, they wick moisture away from the skin, effectively moving moisture to the outer surface of the garment, and reducing the uncomfortable clinging sensation of wet fabric. Merino wool has an additional advantage. Tiny irregularities on the surfaces of its fibers can absorb some moisture. This can lead to the pleasant phenomenon in which the clothing feels dry to the touch, but by weighing it on a scale you can prove, that it is, in fact, wet.
To further enhance comfort these undergarments are constructed to be stretchy. All the brands we tested used stretchable knits or blended their fabric with some percentage of elastic fibers, like spandex or polypropylene. The type of stitches and thread they are sewn with is also designed to enable stretch. These features combine to make underwear that is less constricting and adjusts to your movements better than traditional styles. The inside of the premium waistbands feature brushed or terry fabric to ensure softness. Stitch layout is devised to improve fit and place the seams away from your most sensitive areas. This attention to detail continues in the higher priced offerings with seams that are flat-locked to prevent chafing.
So far we've discussed only the comfort of travel underwear over cheap cotton options, but how can we distinguish between the different travel underwear choices? The differences were subtle but, after prolonged use, noticeable. Our testers thought the thicker waistbands of the Patagonia and ExOffico pairs, although not uncomfortable, were less pleasant than the flexible waistbands of the other brands. Issues with fit also distinguished these second tier options from the leading picks. Our reviewers felt the cut of Patagonia model was slightly too tight, while ExOfficio, too baggy. Amongst our favorites the competition was closer. Arc'teryx's snug styling was appreciated for active uses but considered too constrictive for casual lounging. Merino wool's cozy feel made it the preferred fabric of our staff. Between the two wool options, the quality of the stitching and a softer waistband placed the Smartwool version ahead of the Icebreaker. Anyone who detests tags will appreciate the absence of these scratchy pests on the Patagonia SW Boxer Shorts and the Arc'teryx Phase SL. The Icebreaker and Smartwool do have washing instruction labels, but they're easily removed. Exofficio stitches their tag in well and it takes some care to remove.
Apart from comfort, one of the biggest advantages of travel over regular cotton underwear is the shortened drying time. It can be tricky during an extended trip to find the time or equipment to do your laundry in a machine. Quick-dry travel underwear gives you the freedom to wash your most stressed garments on-the-go, in a sink or stream, with the confidence that in a few hours they will be dry enough to wear again.
On active or tropical adventures, where sweat and humidity can sabotage your entire ensemble, there are added benefits to comfort with quick drying times. Under these conditions, any fabric would get wet and cling and sag. Hello, misery. But traditional cotton drawers would take forever to dry back out. With synthetics and merino wool, there is at least the hope of them getting dry again while being worn. Additionally, the wicking properties of these fabrics make them less terrible to wear when wet.
All manufacturers say their products dry quickly, so to examine these claims we conducted a rudimentary drying test. On an eighty-degree day in the low humidity (20%) of central Oregon, we soaked all of the pairs in the sink, gently wrung them out, and hung them up to dry. For the sake of science, the author twiddled his thumbs while waiting to record the time when each felt dry to the touch. Times listed in the matrix at the top of this page could be altered dramatically by changes in temperature, humidity, or sunlight, but they do serve as a guide to the performance of each pair relative to the others.
Taking just four hours, the Icebreaker Anatomica was the first to dry out. The rest of the field followed close behind taking between 4:15 and 5:15 to finish. With such a close finish, any pair could be expected to dry overnight when adequately wrung and hung. Therefore, it shouldn't be a huge part of your purchasing decision. In the test, we also included a couple pairs of cotton skivvies we had lying around. Their drying times ranged from five and a half to seven hours.
During our research for this review, we stumbled upon a smart way to further increase drying speed. It's called the towel roll trick and we saw it decrease drying times by more than 50%. To begin, lay the underwear flat on top of a dry towel. Like a layered fabric burrito, tightly roll the underwear and towel together into a cylinder. Firmly wring this towel-underwear combo out. The moisture from the underwear will be forced out and absorbed by the towel. Additionally, the towel helps protect the underwear fabric from the strain of the wringing. Then, hang the underwear up to dry. In tests with the Smartwool NTS Micro 150 Boxer Brief we saw this towel roll method cut drying time from four and half to two hours flat. Impressive.
Beyond comfort and drying time we think odor control is the third largest advantage of travel underwear. Nearly all the time, but especially during travel and exercise, underwear is subjected to warm and moist conditions. This environment is ideal for growing a stinky colony of bacteria. Without regular washing you begin to lose friends, and soon your long-awaited vacation becomes an expensive trip to loneliness and despair. But hey, at least your cotton underwear was cheap.
Travel clothing companies have addressed this issue by using special fabrics or anti-bacterial coatings. The keratin protein structure of merino wool is naturally resistant to bacteria. The wool of these soft sheep barely absorbs odors and clothing made from it, like the Smartwool and Icebreaker offerings, can last a long time between washes without getting stinky.
Synthetics are more problematic. For many years the stench problems that built up in polyester garments were known by their wearers and anybody within a fifty-foot radius. It was a bad situation and many people avoided this fabric for solely that reason. Manufacturers have addressed this issue by applying anti-bacterial treatments to the fabric, usually by embedding or coating them with silver ions. Compared to early synthetic clothing, these treatments do a good job. They are still inferior, however, to wool's natural odor resilience and will eventually start to smell. Each of the three synthetic pairs we tested uses a different proprietary coating. They have complicated names like "Aegis® Microbe Shield™" or "Polygiene® Permanent Odor Control", but they all performed about the same.
A secondary, less significant, benefit of the materials used to make travel underwear is they are often smaller and lighter than traditional undies. The difference is not always substantial, but if your backpack starts to overflow, this can be one more way to save weight and space.
The ExOfficios were the heaviest tested with comparable weight and bulk to baseline cotton pairs, even heavier than some. All of the others we reviewed were lighter and should offer some benefit over regular drawers. For example, at 2.0 oz, the lean Arc'teryx design would allow you to carry five pairs for the about same weight and space as only three pairs of the 3.4-oz ExOfficios.
This weight and space savings is relative of course. Underwear is already small and easy to pack, so any gains made with them may not make a big difference in your overall luggage size. For this reason, packability only makes up 15% of our overall rating. If weight and bulk are really important to you, we heard men's thongs are making a comeback…
At such high prices, you would probably expect outstanding durability. All the pairs of underwear we tested were very well made with quality materials and stitching, but many of the attributes that make travel underwear particularly functional also negatively impact durability. Quick drying speeds are achieved by thin fabrics; thinner fabrics are inherently weaker. The same is true for packability, where reductions in size and weight ultimately limit the overall strength and longevity.
Durability is particularly a concern for merino wool. Though this natural fiber is known for its softness and breathability, it is also delicate and must be laundered with care. In our tests it was wearing through faster than the synthetic options. The Anatomic boxers by Icebreaker tore the only hole we saw on any pair we used.
The cheaper synthetic options from ExOfficio and Patagonia weighed more and were less comfortable, but performed better in durability. No big mystery as to the reason why; the materials used are thicker and more substantial. This aspect further enhances their overall value and should be considered by anyone thinking about sustained, long-term use.
For all our gripes though, we were impressed with the quality of the products we tested. Shoddy waistbands are a favorite complaint with low-cost, mass-produced, underwear, but they were never a concern here. We didn't observe any unraveling threads or fibers.
Each of these companies does provide some type of warranty, ranging from one year (Icebreaker) to lifetime (Patagonia). We would trust any of them to refund defects in materials or workmanship. Normal 'wear and tear', however, is universally exempted.
How We Test
We sent these underwear to the far corners of the world. Two pairs were sent to shiver during a sixteen-day expedition to Alaska's Ruth Glacier as another basked in the temperate Mediterranean glory of the Greek Isles. All these underpants faced the grind of commercial fishing on the Bering Sea, and the nightmare itinerary of six assorted flights to return to civilization. Throughout the process we tried to ask our friends and acquaintances about their underwear preferences. Although it usually descended into crude joke making, we did learn a lot. They spoke of suffocating waistbands and world-class wedgies. Too often we discovered the unsettling truth about who liked to 'go commando'. One surprising thing we heard from many guys is that a fly is not necessary. However, for a smaller percentage, the absence of an opening on the Arc'teryx design was a definite deal breaker.
In the end we did our best to evaluate this highly personal field of underwear choice objectively. It's why we suffered through the boredom of an air dry test and spent hours researching the subtler points of stitch class 600, flat-lock seams. Ultimately, this review is still the opinions of the review editor, but we did try to make it fair. All underwear tested was purchased by OutdoorGearLab on the retail market. There was no financial incentive to review any garment better than another.
From comfort to dry time, the conveniences of the underwear in this review can make a big difference in the avid traveler's pack. With the rise of popularity in this garment, it can be difficult to know what features are important and just how much money to spend on them. We hope that you can use the tests and analyses from this review to determine these factors and find out what pair truly meets your needs.
— Ross Robinson