I’d always scoffed at “high-tech” swim trunks, assuming cheap shorts that hung halfway down your butt were surfing's accepted norm.
But that opinion changed the first time I pulled on a pair of O'Neill Superfreaks in college. I couldn’t believe how comfortable the $60 trunks were as they stayed around my waist without restricting my movements. They were also more durable and faster-drying than their cheap counterparts. I’ve bought technical swim shorts ever since. And—if you’re at all active in the water—I suggest you do the same.
To test the summer’s best swim trunks, I took five pairs surfing in Sayulita, Mexico, and kayaking down a 277-mile stretch of the Grand Canyon. My main considerations—how quickly the shorts dried and how well they moved. Here are the results:
Howler Brothers Horizon Hybrid Shorts ($65)
Although the Horizon Hybrid is not a dedicated swim trunk like the other shorts I tested, it still performed incredibly well during my three consecutive days of testing on the Colorado River.
The shorts’ nylon ripstop material was quite durable, and dried about as quickly as the fabric in the 21-inch-long Patagonia Houdini (below). The only downside: the sturdy fabric caused some chafing during long hikes.The zippered fly, exterior belt loops, metal buttons, and large draining pockets are all nice touches. Plus, these nine-and-a-half-inch shorts looked just as good in a kayak as they did afterward at the bar.
One final note on sizing: the Horizon Hybrid runs a bit small. I normally wear shorts with a 32-inch waist, but I ordered these in a 33 (per Howler Brothers' suggestion) and they fit perfectly.
Lululemon El Current *Lined Short ($88)
Best for Aerobic Exercise on Dry Land
The four-way stretch of the nine-inch-long El Current swim trunks made them move better during steep side hikes than any of the other trunks I tested. The "swift ultra" exterior fabric didn’t impede my movements while climbing, and proved quite durable even when scrapped against rough sandstone.
The liner was very supportive, perfect for long runs. But I also found a major downside: these shorts don’t dry quickly. The liner stayed wet throughout the three days I wore them, making for a brutal case of boater’s butt. Kayakers, take note.
Patagonia Stretch Houdini Boardshorts ($83)
Best for Rugged Adventures
The Stretch Houdini is like the love child of a classic boardshort and a technical trunk designed for rocky scrambling. Thanks to a childhood spent surfing in Southern California, I prefer longer shorts—at 21-inches-long with a trim cut so as not to look baggy, the Houdini fit me better than any of the other trunks on this list.
The two-way-stretch fabric was noticeably more restrictive than the material in the El Current, but performed better on side hikes than its other close competitor, the Outdoor Research Backcountry Boardshort (below). All the seams were welded, making me much more comfortable as I paddled.
Chubbies Offshore ($TBD)
Best for Showing Off Your Thighs
These 7-inch-long shorts earned me ridicule from my raft guide buddies on the Colorado, ("Nice shorts, do they make them in men's sizes too?"). But my surfing buddies in Mexico loved them.
Regardless of your opinion on short shorts, they’re definitely making a fashion comeback. Plus, less material means they won’t restrict your movements as much as a 21-inch-long board short will.
The thin, mesh liner on these shorts dried considerably faster than the liner in the El Current, and was supple enough to prevent chafing during long hikes. Although the Offshore didn’t stretch at all, it was perfect for climbing through slot canyons because there was no extra material around my legs to catch on rocks. The Offshore shorts will be available on Chubbies' website in a few weeks.
Outdoor Research Backcountry Boardshorts ($65)
Best for Spending the Day in the Water
The Backcountry Boardshorts are built from a lightweight fabric that dries quicker than any other fabric I tested. This was a huge bonus, as I spent long days in the water getting in and out of my kayak.
The button attached to the waist closure and Velcro fly made these shorts really easy to pull on and off, and they fit snugly around my waist and thighs without being skin-tight. I was also a fan of the integrated belt loops, which didn't snag on sticks or rocks. The belt loops accommodated a thin belt that could hold a small water bottle or Leatherman.