In the few months it takes most people to finish the Appalachian Trail, there’s undoubtedly going to be a lot of suffering. That goes without saying. Your feet are going to blister in your boots, your muscles will get sore, and you’ll probably get sunburned. It’ll be weeks between showers. The food won’t be that great. The list goes on. Hiking a trail like that is a game of compromises: How many can you endure? Which do you trade for others?
But if there’s one place not to compromise, it’s your junk. Your underwear might not seem like the most critical piece of gear before you head off on a pretty gear-intensive adventure. But trust me: After a couple of weeks without washing or changing your underwear, not much will seem more important. Which is why having the right pair of undies is critical, whether you’re headed out on a multi-month thru-hike or just going mountain biking for a weekend. Choosing the right ones for you can go a long way toward your morale.
The case for wool
A lot is made of the materials in any of your outdoor apparel and outerwear. Your cotton skivvies, while they might be budget-friendly, aren’t designed to hold up to sweat or moisture. They trap it, keep it close to your skin, and cool you down. On top of that, allowing any clothing, especially your underwear, to hold onto moisture for any amount of time when you’re not washing them is a recipe for funk. Polyester materials won’t cool you down if they’re wet and they’ll do a better job of moving moisture away from your skin, which makes them nice for shorter-duration, high output missions. But on long trips, they can still get pretty ripe.
Enter: wool. Don’t worry, wool has come a long way from the itchy sweater your grandma knit you as a kid. Merino wool in particular is incredibly soft and comfortable next to skin, and it retains wool’s natural abilities to repel moisture and stink, which makes it the obvious choice for a lot of outdoor layers like socks, but especially your underwear.
Outside of the materials making up your adventure underwear, pay special attention to the features and fit of each pair you bring into the backcountry. After a thousand miles, you’re going to notice a pair that doesn’t fit quite right. Also, keep your mind open to the idea that you might not need underwear at all. Consider shorts or pants that don’t require underwear. They can’t stink if you leave them at home. That said, going commando isn’t for everyone and underwear can go a long way toward preventing chafing during long days of walking, so start by considering these options.
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These Smartwools might be some of the most comfortable underwear ever to grace your nethers. They use a blend of merino and polyester that preserves the durability of synthetics capable of getting you through a long trip, without sacrificing the softness of merino and its natural benefits. You’ll get a little extra support from the double-front panel, the merino continues up onto the inside of the waistband for added comfort, and the seams are low-profile and won’t chafe.
Saxx does something — unique — with their underwear. The big differentiating feature is what they call the “BallPark” pouch: a series of mesh panels that keep your jewels cradled and separated from your thighs. Granted, it’s not for everyone. But if you’re into it, there’s nothing more comfortable. It cuts down on chafing, sticking, and the need for a lot of adjustment. The Viewfinders in particular are wool for long missions, though might be slightly warmer than some of the other pairs of underwear on this list.
Okay, after all that wool talk, maybe it's surprising that we’re lauding a pair of nylon and elastane underwear. But in especially warm climates where you’re moving a lot of moisture and you need something that dries quickly, you might prefer to sacrifice a little of merino’s stench management. The ExOfficio Men's Give-N-Go 2.0 boxers are also extremely durable: I’ve had the same pair for years.
The “Cool-Lite” fabric in these Ice Breaker Men's Cool-Lite Anatomic Zone Boxers is a sciency blend of merino, Tencel, nylon, and Lycra which does a fantastic job of wicking away moisture on warmer days while increasing airflow to keep you cool as you’re moving. These underwear are also some of the lightest merino boxer briefs around, perfect for packing along, but be wary of their longevity compared to some of the others here.
As I've said, polyester has its flaws when it comes to next-to-skin layers, but if you need something that can dry out quickly, it can’t be beat. The Outdoor Research Men's Echo Boxer Briefs stay extremely cool, easily handle sweat, and you can jump in the lake near camp in them, without worrying that they’ll still be wet by the time you crawl into your sleeping bag.
Of course, they’re comfy, moisture-wicking, and tough, but these Patagonia Sender boxers are also more environmentally friendly: They use recycled nylon to keep the hardy material out of landfills. They’re not necessarily the softest, most plush underwear on this list, but they’ll last a while and you can feel better about where they’re coming from.
That little bit of extra fabric down your thighs can make a big difference for thru-hikers, keeping chafing to a minimum. But if that’s not your style, traditional briefs can save ounce-counters some real weight and packing space: They pack down about half the size of most of the boxer briefs above. These REI Co-op Everyday Briefs are made from a polyester and spandex blend so they stay comfy, handle moisture, and don’t stretch out where you don’t want them to.