A Guide To Boardshorts For Surfing
What makes a pair of boardshorts good for surfing? Lightweight materials, minimalist design, and a fast-drying, stretchy fabric will maximise comfort and keep boardshort rash to a minimum
Boardshort rash ranges in severity from a mild inconvenience via serious discomfort to debilitating pain; in particularly extreme cases it can ruin your session or even your surf trip. Your choice of boardshorts is therefore not an entirely trivial one, especially if you’re a surfer in the UK whose tender epidermis is unaccustomed to the rigours of surfing without a wetsuit.
But what makes a pair of boardshorts good for surfing? As a rule of thumb, there’s an inverse correlation between the amount of absurd marketing neologisms and the degree of chafing sustained on the inner-thigh and ball-bag region. Other promising signs of a comfortable and rash-free surfing experience include an exorbitant price tag and a sporty, some might say flashy appearance.
As for specific elements of design to bear in mind, these are the main ones:
Boardshorts For Surfing: Material
Basically the lighter the better. Lighter fabric simply offers less resistance, which means not only freer, less inhibited movement but also less friction: it slides more easily across your skin and doesn’t hang so heavily upon it. Less friction equals less rash.
Today's technical boardshorts, ie. boarshorts designed primarily with performance in mind, tend to feature a blend of polyester and elastane (lycra) or in some cases nylon and elastane. The elastane usually makes up between 5 and 25% of the fabric and accounts for most of the stretchiness (see below).
Yesteryear’s boardshorts were generally made either out of nylon or cotton. Nylon is still used ahead of polyester in some boardshorts, even in some highly technical ones; it is harder-wearing than polyester but absorbs more water. It is also much harder to source recycled nylon fibres, and so while 100% recycled polyester is fairly common in boardshorts, an equivalent nylon fabric doesn’t yet exist.
Cotton is relatively cumbersome, becomes heavy when wet, and takes a long time to dry, but has a casual look and feel that is still preferred by some surfers. Many boardshorts, particularly those with an emphasis on fashion or use on land, incorporate a little cotton into the fabric, and some still use 100% cotton, although these may compromise your reproductive organs.
Boardshorts For Surfing: Stretch
Most surfers — not all — prefer fabric that is also a little stretchy, which likewise increases freedom of movement and reduces friction. Stretch fabric is either 2-way stretch or 4-way stretch, ie. stretching both crosswise and lengthwise.
Boardshorts For Surfing: Drying Time
Lightweight materials are likely to be relatively quick-drying anyway, but the process can be sped up by a durable water repellant (DWR) or hydrophobic coating, utilised by almost all of today’s high-end boardshorts. Wandering around in damp shorts will contribute greatly to irritation of the skin; quick-dry fabric will save your balls the purgatory of long, soggy walks to and from the beach. It will also reduce absorption of and friction with water, resulting in a less cumbersome pair of boardshorts when surfing.
Boardshorts For Surfing: Seams
Seams can rub unforgivingly against your skin, so their prominence and positioning should be taken into account. Some boardshorts hide seams by strategically placing them where they’re less noticeable; others have glued, taped, or welded seams, which chafe less than those that are simply stitched. The more minimal the seams, the less chance of sustaining a rash.
Boardshorts For Surfing: Length
The main benefit of longer boardshorts is the protection afforded the lower-thigh when moving between a sitting and a prone position. Some consider this protection unnecessary, or find that the fabric of the boardshorts irritates the skin rather than protects it; others object on aesthetic grounds. Boardshorts that extend right down to the knee and beyond are liable to get in the way and restrict movement.
Boardshort length is given in inches, and refers to length of the outseam (ie. the outer side). The original boardshorts of the ‘60s and ‘70s rarely exceeded 16", but in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, obscenely long boardshorts (21"+) became the norm, a trend that has since reversed somewhat. Boardshorts in the 18"-21" range are generally considered optimum from a purely functional perspective.
Boardshorts For Surfing: Waistband
High-tech waistbands will be lightweight, skin-friendly and secure, ensuring they stay in place in even the heaviest waves without causing chafe. A good fit around the waist is still the most important thing, however, no matter how advanced the technology. Elasticated waistbands are generally less functional, and rarely found on technical boardshorts.
Boardshorts For Surfing: Closure & Fly
A drawcord at the waist is preferable to buttons insofar as it makes for an adjustable and thus more secure fit. Normal laces have a tendency to come undone in the surf; a drawcord studded with silicone, as found on most premium boardshorts, will hold better.
Cumbersome flies, meanwhile, are basically kryptonite as far as your genitals are concerned. Technical boarshorts eschew zippers, velcro, or buttons in this area, often substituting lycra or neoprene for a softer finish; some use a single-layer construction, almost eliminating the fly altogether.
Boardshorts For Surfing: Pockets
To further reduce bulk and unnecessary fabric, the vast majority of technical boardshorts have either a single side- or back-pocket, sealed by a zip, a button, or velcro. This is perfect for surfing but a drawback on land, where you’re likely to wish you had more space to put stuff. Hybrid boardshorts or more casual, classic designs tend to feature standard side-pockets.
The bulkier the pocket, the more it will cause irritation. Performance-wise, a side pocket probably gets in the way less than a back pocket, although the heat-welded pockets sported by high-end boardies are barely noticeable wherever they're positioned. Zips arguably look worse but are by far the most effective method of closure, ensuring everything within is safely contained, although all pockets should have a key leash inside.