I shifted the weight of my pack for the umpteenth time, trying in vain to avoid the rubbing of my pack and bra straps against the already mightily tender point in the front of my shoulders. We were a small party out on an autumn overnight hike, seeking sunshine in the Canterbury foothills. As I attempted to ignore my discomfort, it occurred to me that maybe there really was a solution to this niggling discomfort.
A better fitted pack would probably help, but it seemed to me that bra straps were the true culprit here. I asked the other adventuress in our hiking gang if, as a more prolific tramper than I, she had found the answer. Unfortunately, no. However it sparked a conversation on the type of underwear in general that we wore with our activewear. It hadn’t really occurred to either of us that other women did it differently as we had both just figured out, mostly through trial and error, what worked for us. We concluded that it could do with some more research, so I sent a short survey to all the outdoorsy women I know.
For the benefit of active women everywhere, here’s what I discovered. Note: This is not affiliated with any brands, it's simply pursued out of pure curiosity!
Hiking / Tramping
The majority of the outdoorsy ladies roll with a normal sports bra, with brands like Under Armour, 2XU, Warehouse or Farmers cheapies, and Knobby featuring, but there were several women who raved about the benefits of merino bras (and I’ve recently joined the fan club myself). Merino certainly doesn’t offer the same level of support as the synthetic option but when it comes to tramping the positives seem to make up for it. It keeps you warm even when you’re sweaty or damp, doesn’t get smelly over time, and it feels nice.
My first test of the merino bra waters was a Mons Royale purchase with wide, flat straps, a non-restricting fit, and designed for light support. There’s a niggly seam that sits in front of my shoulders, and the aforementioned compromise in support, so while it ticks the other boxes it doesn’t quite meet my *perfect* bra criteria.
A couple of ladies noted that they don’t wear a bra at all for hiking - obviously not an option for everyone or for every location - but it’s something I hadn’t considered before!
For the bottom half it’s a 3-way tie between merino, cotton and no undies, with only a few opting for synthetic. I probably wore my oldest cotton knickers tramping when I was a teenager, but following my discovery of running shorts and tri shorts they no longer make the cut for the packing list.
I was somewhat surprised by the popularity of cotton undies given the widespread “rule” about never wearing cotton next to the skin, for both comfort and hygiene reasons. But if that’s never been a problem, then it obviously works for those ladies. Personally, if I’m going to wear undies at all for hiking, I would opt for merino - it’s natural, moisture wicking and quick drying. Another 100% important requirement, highlighted by one of the rad adventure women, is this: “comfy undies that don’t go up my bum.”
One survey respondent listed seamless Elle Macpherson as their underwear of choice for tramping. A good reminder that the modern woman must always be prepared, even when venturing into the wilderness! ;)
A standard sports bra is the go-to option for most ladies when it comes to running - similar to the selection for hiking but with decent support being a crucial requirement. There were several special mentions to the Berlei and Shock Absorber sports bras for their exceptional performance in the support department.
After repping the tight and bright Nike Pro sports bras for far too many years I recently set my intention to venture beyond my comfort zone and (still hesitantly!) try another brand and style. This eventuated in the form of a flash purchase on Wiggle - you know, the one where you spend more money in order to get free shipping?! Tight and bright again, this time from Under Armour. It sure keeps those puppies strapped in, and of course looks cool, but I’m still on the quest for a more form-fitted, supportive bra to hit the trails in!
For running undies, it’s half and half between wearing some form of brief - whether that’s cotton, merino, synthetic, or bamboo - and wearing nothing. With so many options available for running bottoms that have built-in liners, wearing nothing certainly seems like an attractive option. I’m all for having one less thing to worry about. Personally, I choose to go knicker-less and normally with my Tineli tri-shorts. These are especially good if I’m going to get super sweaty as it prevents any chafing whatsoever!
MTB / Cycling
With cycling being a lower impact activity, particularly compared with running, the consensus is that any sports bra will do. It’s what we do with the bottom half that seems to be the most mysterious when it comes to cycling.
A couple of the survey respondents noted they wore cotton undies with bike shorts, but as another woman mentioned “underwear can equal a bad time with chafing”. The majority of women I reached out to were no-knicker wearers - which makes sense given that bike shorts are designed to be worn commando. However, this little unwritten rule isn’t exactly shouted from the rooftops and many of us learn the hard way.
Before entering into this whole cycling malarkey I was most definitely a ‘wear undies 100% of the time’ kind of girl. So, naturally, I wore undies with my bike shorts. I didn’t know anyone in the bike scene to tell me otherwise. I spent the first few months of riding, loving exploring new places and feeling the wind on my face, but experienced horrendous chafing and seriously questioned how on earth anyone could actually *enjoy* this for hours on end.
It was purely by chance that one day the penny dropped - I realised my fancy lycra shorts were designed to be worn without undies, and a bit of chamois cream can help too. That tiny nugget of knowledge changed my cycling life and I’ve been riding (mostly) smoothly and happily ever since!
If you’re interested in some further reading on general undercarriage comfort for riding, here are some useful comments from the Liv Cycling ladies https://www.liv-cycling.com/global/campaigns/how-to-deal-with-discomfort-down-there/19728.
For the most part, this section is with multisport paddling in mind. While the survey responses were anonymous, I do know there was at least one all-water extraordinaire paddler in the mix. Her advice for winter - don a fleece onesie under a drysuit. Now that sounds cosy!
As above with cycling, kayaking is another low impact activity so the bra doesn’t need to be as supportive. In winter some ladies go bra-less and go straight to the baselayer next to the skin - no one can tell under a paddle jacket and/or PFD anyway. Going bra-less or wearing a merino bra is something I’m going to try over the cooler months. With paddling, between the water and the sweat, I always end up getting a wet bra. Having that cold layer right against my chest when I start to cool down makes for an unpleasant, hurried and teeth-chattering transition from the water to warm clothes or a hot shower.
For the bottoms… the majority of paddling ladies opt to go with no undies, while a few choose merino, tog bottoms, or just any old pair of knickers under their tri shorts, bike shorts, or tights. In paddling the risk of nether region chafing is relatively low, but there’s a high chance of getting a wet backside. So it does pay to think about what kind of underwear you’ll be comfortable in when it gets wet!