Best Travel Underwear for Women of 2020
Best Overall Women's Travel Underwear
REI Co-op Active Bikini
Our Editors' Choice Award is reserved for the very best product in its class. The top scorer has to earn high marks in every category, and that's precisely what we found with the REI Co-op Active Bikini. These undies are super comfortable, complete with stretchy polyester that's both silky smooth and breathable. The fit is perfect: modest coverage without taking up too much room. At 0.6 ounces, they pack away nicely and don't overheat. We can take these undies anywhere.
One of the best things about this product is its value. It's only of the least expensive products we tested, which only adds to its overall impression. Modest price and best-in-class performance unite in this favorite pair of our testing travelers.
Read review: REI Co-op Active Bikini
Best Bang for the Buck
Under Armour Pure Stretch Hipster
Of all the products in this review, the Under Armour Pure Stretch Hipster stood out immediately. The single rear seam creates a uniform appearance (no panty lines!), and the material is considerably lighter, thinner, and stretchier than just about any other product we tested. There was a slightly higher chance of the material riding up, and we do wish there was a bit more coverage, but we just loved the feeling of the soft material on our skin.
The Pure Stretch also excelled in two other categories. Because of its thin design, these undies dried more quickly than other products we tested. At just 0.7 ounces, it's one of the lightest we tested, and its tiny build made it one of the most compact as well. While this wasn't always our go-to pair, the thing that truly made it stand out against the competition was its price. These undies are half the price or more of most other products in this review, a factor that we just couldn't ignore.
Read review: Under Armour Pure Stretch Hipster
Best for Wool
Smartwool Merino 150 Bikini
When we first laid our hands on the Smartwool Merino 150, we couldn't believe it was wool. What happened to the itchy, thick fabric? We're not sure how they do it, but Smartwool has created an incredibly soft, almost silky fabric with the Merino 150, and we couldn't be happier with these undies. The fit is great, with no movement to cause us to fidget, and the cut is cute without sacrificing full coverage.
There are a few reasons why you might want a natural wool product over a synthetic underlayer, and one of the biggest reasons is probably odor control. While we didn't notice significant odor buildup in any of the products we tested, wool is naturally odor resistant. If this is the main reason you're investing in some fancier, non-cotton undies, wool might be the perfect answer for you. And of the three wool models we tested, the Merino 150 Bikini is definitely the best. It's light, dries fast, and is super cozy against our skin.
Read review: Smartwool Merino 150 Bikini
Why You Should Trust Us
For this review, we assembled a team of the most well-traveled, adventurous staffers that we have and sent them all over the globe to put these undies to the test. Our lead tester and author, Lauren DeLaunay, took these undies to the mountains of Argentina, the beaches of Cuba, and the rain forests of Chile, where she hiked, climbed, and jumped in rivers. Oh, and did we mention the four flights and overnight bus ride to get there? When not in the southern hemisphere, Lauren spends a lot of time on the road, often living out of her van. And in the summers, she is a member of the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team.
We started this review by spending hours in stores and on the web researching the most popular, best-selling women's travel underwear models out there. We read scores of reviews, surveyed companies about their upcoming products, and eventually chose nine for rigorous hands-on testing. We wore each pair nonstop for a week to really see what it could handle. We ran, climbed, swam, slept, and traveled in them, getting to know their smallest of details so we could accurately report on our four scoring metrics. We decided that comfort, fit, drying time, and packability were the most important criteria, so we developed specific tests for each, including weighing each product and hanging them side-by-side to dry. After months of travel, we arrived home satisfied, confident that we had found the best products out there, ready to report back to make your shopping experience as easy as possible.
Analysis and Test Results
Throughout our many weeks of testing, we determined that there are four crucial metrics by which to judge each pair of travel underwear. We'll describe each metric below, including what we did to measure each category to reach objective conclusions. Because undies are a personal purchase, you may find that certain metrics are more important to you than we gave them credit for. As you reach each description below, make a note of anything that sounds particularly important to you, as you'll be able to look for the products with the highest scores in each metric.
The products in this review found themselves in a wide range of prices. For a single undergarment, we understand that even the most inexpensive of these could be considered pricey. We consider "value" to be the intersection of price and performance. Sometimes, a product performs so well that we argue it's worth the money, and sometimes we find that a less expensive product does the trick just fine.
We found something in this review that we haven't seen in many others: an Editors' Choice Award winner that's also one of the most affordable. In so many outdoor categories, higher prices allow for nicer materials and construction. But in this review, we found knockout performance in the REI Co-op Active Bikini, which is twice as cheap as some of its competitors. We judged this product price notwithstanding and were thrilled to find out that our favorite product had such great value. We awarded a Best Buy Award to the Under Armour Pure Stretch. We found these undies to be well-rounded and comfortable, with decent breathability and drying time. As the most affordable product we tested, we think it could be a great buy for shoppers on a tighter budget.
If you've ever been stuck on an overnight bus in South America or trekked through a humid island jungle, you know that comfort is the queen of underwear performance. Because our underwear makes such a high level of skin contact, comfort is paramount, and we came up with a few specific traits to look for when evaluating a product's overall comfort score.
The first thing we noticed, and therefore evaluated, about each pair of undies was the softness of the material. This may seem like a no-brainer, but after trying multiple pairs, we realized that there's a wide range of material textures, and each product has its own unique feel. In general, we prefer the silkier models to the itchy ones and the thinner materials to the thinner materials. The thickness of each product contributed significantly to its breathability, another one of the major factors of comfort.
Of all the models we tested, the highest scorers for comfort are the REI Co-op Active Bikini and the Patagonia Barely Hipster. These products have different feels, but both are silky smooth with comfortable waistbands. Both are light and airy with excellent breathability. We like the leg openings and waistband of the REI a bit more, but the Patagonia one is right up there in performance.
Three competitors tied for second place: the Smartwool Merino 150 Bikini, Patagonia Active Hipster, and ExOfficio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Hipkini. The Merino 150 was surprisingly soft and light for a wool product, while the Active was a bit heavier but silky smooth. The Give-N-Go is super soft with a great waistband. Because comfort is so important to the enjoyment of our undergarments, each product's "comfort" score was worth 30% of its overall score.
At first, we were going to include "fit" into the comfort category, but after months of testing, our testing team agreed that there were enough traits unique to "fit" that another metric was warranted. For this product, we looked less at the materials and more at the cut. To be consistent, we generally choose either bikini or hipster models, though many of these products have sister models in other shapes and cuts.
We dealt with an unfortunately high number of wedgies on this review and learned quickly that this was an instant deal-breaker. There are a few factors that cause wedgies, some of which remain mysteries to us, but one thing we figured out was that there was a strong correlation between the fit of the leg openings and the likelihood of wedgies. The Barely Hipster, for example, had tight leg openings that did a great job at keeping the garment in place, while the Icebreaker Sprite featured loose openings that nearly guaranteed a wedgie.
While all the models in this review had different waistbands, from the seamless one of the Pure Stretch to the thick band of the Active Hipster, there was no single shape that was most appealing, though we preferred a stretchy waistband overall. As you might assume, stretchiness was a huge factor in a product's "fit" score, and our favorite products were those that let us move freely while they stayed in place. The Active Hipster and REI Active Bikini achieved this well with ultra-stretchy fits and leg openings that were snug yet comfortable.
The time needed to air dry is an important factor in the overall score of a pair of travel underwear for two big reasons: sweat and washing. The ability of our base layers to dry quickly on the go is crucial to keeping us comfortable. Similarly, when we're on the run from city to city and have a plane to catch, a quick wash in the sink is the perfect remedy. But if our undies take too long to dry, valuable time could be wasted.
To test for this metric, we soaked each product in water and hung them to dry. We tried a variety of methods, including wringing out the garments by hand and with a towel and found consistent results across the board. In general, the thinner the material, the quicker the drying time. It's no surprise, then, that the Editors' Choice Award-winning Active Bikini and Best Buy Award-winning Pure Stretch were such high scorers in this category.What's the Deal with Washing?
We've mentioned washing on the go as an integral part of long-term travel, so we thought we'd pause here to add a few tips. Washing your undies in the sink is a great travel option. Usually, we run out of underwear way before we need to wash the rest of our clothes. So while the sink may not work for your jeans and jackets, it will extend the time before you have to make a trip to the laundromat. First, find something to plug the drain. Fill the sink with hot water and let the garments soak until fully saturated. Pour in some detergent and scrub each garment, using its own material to scrub dirtier sections. While there are some convenient single-use laundry detergents out there, we prefer a more versatile product such as Dr. Bronner's that can be used to wash our clothes or our hair. When space is limited, finding products that have multiple purposes helps save space.
One of our favorite drying methods is the towel-roll method. We used this consistently during our testing, and we'll never forget it! Simply lay your undies on a towel and roll. Then you can wring out the towel, forcing water from the undies into the towel. The products will be considerably drier than if you just wring them out by hand, cutting down on your drying time so you can get back to your adventures as soon as possible. We're also a fan of strapping our socks and undies to the outside of our packs while backpacking to get them to dry while not taking up too much of our time.
If you're going to wash your clothes in a stream or river, we recommend doing your research and using eco-friendly soaps. Ideally, you can use the water from a river to wash your clothes in a bag or bucket away from the water source itself. A dry bag works great for this purpose, and there are even some new "washing bags" on the market. These are basically dry bags with scrubby internal nodules. While we haven't tested them out ourselves, these could make for a great option if you're hitting the road for a long period without weight as a concern. We probably wouldn't carry this into the backcountry with us. Additionally, we're often surprised by how well a quick rinse and scrub without detergent does at getting the sweat out of our garments, keeping us fresher longer before we have to return home. No matter what method you choose, a quick drying time keeps you out there having fun longer, which is precisely why this metric was such an essential part of our testing process.
Because one of our major goals with the products in this review was to be able to pack them up or into the backcountry for extended periods, weight and compactness are of the utmost importance. That being said, the weight of each pair varies by fractions of an ounce, and differences in packed size are small when compressed in a travel bag or suitcase. We wouldn't use this metric as your sole or top deciding measure, but it's a worthy of tie-breaker status. It is for this reason that "packability" was only 10% of each product's overall score.
For weight, we put each product on our scale to see how they stacked up. The weights ranged from 0.6 to 1.4 ounces. At the top were the REI Active Bikini, Smartwool Merino 150, and Under Armour Pure Stretch, all at 0.6 or 0.7 ounces. Next, we had the Patagonia Barely at 0.8 ounces, and then the Patagonia Active at 0.9 ounces.
In addition to weight, our testing team looks at the compactness of each product. The thinner, stretchier materials tend to fold down to a flatter, smaller package, and some take up more room in our packs or suitcases than others. Again, these measurements are in fractions of an inch. While packability is undoubtedly important, evaluate potential purchases by their scores in other categories first and then use this metric to make the final call.
Fussing over your underwear might seem a little unnecessary, but after weeks on the road, we can tell you that comfortable travel undeniably starts with undies. From comfortable material to enough stretch to move, the construction of each pair of undies is critical to its performance. Being able to stay dry in a wide variety of climates is just as important as drying quickly after a hand-wash. During weeks of testing throughout multiple seasons, we found a few stand-out performers in performance, price, and material. We hope our suggestions help you journeys to come.
— Lauren Delaunay