Army surplus underwear – the long distance walker’s dream?

Published 19 June 2022

This article is not pants.

Three years ago I wrote about choosing underwear for long distance walking. You can go back and read it. I’ll wait.

If you can’t be bothered, the summary is simple. I suggested quick drying underwear. The kind marked with words like “active” and so on. Sold for wearing at the gym and other sporting activities. Excellent because they dry quicker.

In the comments to that piece, Dave made a suggestion:

Try the British army anti-microbial. Wicking, anti_microbial and fast drying. Made of a black stretchy lycra stuff. Pick them up on fleabay and army surplus shops online.

Dave Gee, comment on Choosing Underwear for Long Distance Walking

It’s taken me a while, but recently I took the plunge and ordered a pair. Dave’s comment didn’t suggest what underwear he was recommending, but I could only find one style anyway, so ordered that. They’re a pair of skintight shorts, coloured black, and unisex. One design fits all.

Opening them out of their packaging, the first thing I noticed was that they were quite heavy. The heaviness was no doubt something to do with the padding around the pelvic region. Yes, that is a word I never expected to write on this website. Nor, to be honest, the next couple of paragraphs either.

The padding is there for a reason. Let’s not forget these are Army surplus, and are therefore ultimately designed for needs of the Army members that wear them. And one of those needs is protection from explosions and shrapnel. Probably not much of a concern when you’re in barracks, but more so when you’re out in battle.

It turns out that the modern army uniform features three layers of pelvic protection. Combined together, the system can repel a bullet. No, I haven’t tried this.

It starts with the kind of shorts I now own, worn as underwear. To this end, the shorts are made of a material that’s 10% silk as that makes a good defence against that shrapnel. Who knew?

None of this is particularly needed by the average walker doing the Coast to Coast or the Pennine Way. Although I guess it may make sitting on a hard rock for a bit to eat, a bit more comfortable.

The author wearing army surplus underwear. And lots of other clothes.

Trying them on revealed the shorts to be rather comfortable. I’m more of a briefs style person than a shorts, but they fitted well and far more comfortable than I expected. The design of them is a little long for my liking, the legs getting close to my knees. That would make them less than ideal for wearing under shorts, so summer wearing seemed less likely.

Still, the proof is all about how they perform in walking conditions. To this end, I put them to their paces on two different walks in different conditions. First was on a very cold day walking the GM Ringway in January. The second was a warm and sunny day in March, whilst walking the Sandstone Trail.

Out and about, they moved all the right ways as I walked up hills and along roads. They refused to ride up like skin-tight fitting shorts often do on my legs.

But what I did notice was that the padding meant they were a little on the warm side. This was okay whilst out and about in the snow. But on the Sandstone Trail, with temperatures getting up to a balmy 15°C, well they were getting a bit on the sweaty side. I’m not sure I’d like to wear them in the height of summer.

What about washing and drying?

In my original piece, the drying time was something I’d called out as important. If you’re doing a weeks walking you don’t want to be carrying seven sets of underwear if you can wash and dry some as you go along.

So a key part of the test was washing. This seemed to be where the shorts really fell down. The first wash was prior to wearing them, and I noted the drying time was slow, even on a heated rail. I had concerns they wouldn’t be dry in the morning if washed in the evening. This I put to the test overnight on the Sandstone Trail. Washed in my hotel bathroom late afternoon, I left them to dry on a radiator, checking them at regular intervals. About four hours after washing, they were still quite damp.

The following morning they were – thankfully – dry. But I dared not think how they would have dried had the radiator been turned off.

I confess I was a little disappointed. I’d hoped from Dave’s description that they would perform well. Of course I can’t guarantee these were the same kind Dave presumably owns and rates. They were just the ones I could find.

Still, for winter walks, they’ll be a comfortable alternative for days when my thermal long-johns are perhaps overkill. The warmth will be handy then. But for long distance walks, the drying time, weight and warmth rather puts me off. Sadly they’re unlikely to be in my pack for summer walks.

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