EXTRA,  GEAR,  Gear Advice,  July 2023

Pants vs shorts

Do you favour sleek, quick-drying, performance-focused trunks, jammers and budgie smugglers or the modest coverage of swimming shorts? Jonathan Cowie and Joe Minihane weigh up the pros and cons of pants vs shorts.  

All those in favour of… pants

On beaches, lake shores and river banks a sartorial interloper is threatening our liberal swim culture. Swimmers fought for over a century for the freedom to wear practical swimwear, and yet the forces of repression and prudery are on the rise. Sinister cabals of puritans are infiltrating our swim groups to normalise the wearing of board shorts.

The budgie smuggler (so named because it looks like you have a small parrot stuffed down the front of your trunks) was invented in 1959 by Australian surfer and designer Peter 

Travis for Speedo. Designed to be comfortable for swimming in, they immediately caused a sensation. Much like the bikini, the budgie smuggler sparked a moral panic and in 1961 swimmers wearing them were arrested for offending public decency. But they soon became a popular symbol of Australian beach and surf lifesaving culture. Ubiquitous worldwide in the 1970s and 80s, they fell out of favour in the 1990s but now they are back on trend. 

For swimmers, however, they never fell out of favour. They are simply the most comfortable and practical garment to swim in. Why would you want to swim with great swathes of material flapping round your thighs and dragging you down? And then when you get out you are sitting in a puddle of damp drawers for hours until board shorts dry. Budgie smugglers are sleek in the water and quick drying when you get out. If you are a performance-focused swimmer then swapping board shorts for trunks will make you more streamlined and improve your swim times.

If you are a wild dipper who swims for the experience of being close to nature, why let a pair of droopy old drawers get between you and the delicious feeling of water on your skin?

To be honest, I would rather not wear trunks of any kind but if I must wear something then budgie smugglers are my number one choice. Throw off the shackles of dull prudery and embrace the joy and freedom of the budgie smuggler! Whether you’re skinny, fat, or gym-pumped, celebrate your body and liberate yourself from the drudgery of board shorts. Who cares what your body looks like, wear something that is designed for swimming comfortably in. The clue is in the name: board shorts should be worn on boardwalks not in the water. Take them off now!

All those in favour of… shorts

I am not a man afraid to strip down in very public places in the name of going for a swim. I do it pretty much daily on Brighton beach. In the past I’ve done so in front of gawping crowds on the banks of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and a gang of bemused hikers on a particularly bitter day at Grasmere in the Lake District. I’m told by my dad this has always been the case, right back to bracing trips to the North Norfolk and Dorset coasts as a kid. If there’s an opportunity to take a dip, I’ll take it. As long as I’ve got a proper pair of shorts, that is.

When it comes to short shorts and trunks, I feel completely, hopelessly exposed. I am lucky enough never to have struggled with my body image, although I am very much not your archetypal muscled swimming champion. I tip the scales at around 60kg and can count the hairs on my extremely pasty chest on one hand. Yet whenever I pull on a pair of trunks, I feel as if the world is watching, even though I know, deep down, no one cares.

I felt this most recently on a trip to Brighton’s swanky new Sea Lanes. It was a chilly morning, around 5.45am, and I had the pool to myself, a lifeguard in a Dryrobe my only company. Searching, bleary eyed that morning through the drawer into which my swimming kit is stuffed, all I could find was a pair of hardly worn, extremely yellow trunks. There was nothing else available and so, begrudgingly, I snapped them on and headed for the water.

I’ll give them this – they helped me glide through the water and gave me the sense that my front crawl looked the part. But my jammers do that too and all without leaving me feeling as if I’m swimming in Y Fronts. 

A lot of this comes back to self-esteem. Despite writing a book about wild swimming and having proselytised about cold water for over a decade, I still don’t consider myself a ‘proper’ swimmer. I am a dipper, a plunger, a mostly heads-out-breaststroker. Just writing this, I know that seems absurd. But I seem to derive my gumption, my willingness to swim wherever, whenever, from my faded green shorts. They’ve come to the water with me all over the world, from the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey to Lake Zurich to the plunge pools of the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. They are, I realise, my power source. The things that turn me from a mere mortal into a true outdoor swimmer.

NOW READ: ‘Best jammers, briefs and shorts for outdoor swimmers’. Whether you’re after a flexible fit for training, thermal fabric for core warmth or a lightweight hybrid short for impromptu dips, we’ve got you covered with our guide to the best jammers, briefs and shorts for outdoor swimmers.

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.