We’ve all heard the old maxim ‘cotton kills’ before.  Maybe you heard it from a grizzled Scoutmaster like I did; maybe you found it deep in an online forum discussion about beginning backpacking skills.  Regardless, it’s out there and there’s definitely merit behind the phrase.  So, what does Sierra Designs do in response to such age-old wisdom?  Why, they upend it with a pair of specially treated DriCanvas shorts.

Sierra Designs DriCanvas Shorts Features:

  • Cotton/polyester blend with DriCanvas coating
  • Moderate fit
  • Zippered security pocket
  • Low-profile right drop-in pocket
  • Full-length gusset
  • 9.5 inch inseam length
  • 10oz total weight
  • MSRP: $65

Sierra Designs DriCanvas Shorts Review

Dricanvas Shorts Offer Killer Cotton Performance

Sierra Designs set out to define a space in the outdoor gear world which they label as “intelligent minimalism.”  It’s the guiding set of principles which has taken them through a radical redesign (err, elimination) of their existing product line and is leading to some of the radical gear we’ve already seen like their new Stretch Windbreaker and the Mobile Mummy.  So, what could intelligent minimalism bring to a pair of humble cotton shorts?

… well, the short answer is: intelligent features and minimalistic design.  Go figure.

Sierra Designs DriCanvas Shorts Review

The DriCanvas shorts are distinguished from their mundane cotton brethren by their remarkably sleek aesthetic; with streamlined pockets and a conservative (9.5 inch) inseam, there’s definitely not a lot of excess material here.  The right leg features a drop-in pocket with a discrete fabric cover to secure valuables.  The other leg has a very deep pocket which is accessed via a low-profile zipper; they’re externally symmetrical and definitely don’t look bulky.  Two flat rear pockets, secured by a button each, round off the shorts.  Overall fit is very moderate; I’d say the waist size was spot-on and the shorts wear comfortably over a pair of biker thighs.

The real heart of the matter is, by default, the fabric – is cotton really a viable technical fabric?  Sierra Designs says ‘yes’ and even claims that the cotton/polyester blend, when coupled with a DWR coating, can perform ‘like a synthetic.’  That’s a big claim.  The actual fabric weave is 58% cotton, 39% polyester and 3% spandex; clearly, there’s a whole lot more than cotton in these shorts.  The key factor here is whether or not the pants feel like a canvas cotton pant like the ones I had back in Boy Scouts.  People love that feel because of the rough durability that we knew was a hallmark of the textile.  Happily, Sierra Designs has captured the classic feel; to my hand, it feels exactly like a canvas short without any of the other additives.

Sierra Designs DriCanvas Shorts Review

This unique fabric blend forms the foundation for most of the pros and cons of the shorts.  On one hand, the fabric mixture isn’t inherently very stretchy – to offset this, Sierra Designs included a full-length crotch gusset to aid in range of motion.  Good for climbing?  No, but just fine for scrambling.  Beyond range of motion, we want to know what happens when the pants get soaked.  I’ve happily worn the shorts through several squalls and, occasionally, the sprinklers at a nearby park; the net result is very similar to what we see in DriDown.  A good hydrophobic coating has taken a material that traditionally suffers substantially with moisture and toned down those negative attributes.  The canvas doesn’t bead water up like a rainshell, but it does a good job of keeping that water on the surface.  When moisture does eventually soak in, the result is nothing like how traditional cotton seems to drink in rain and hold it there.  Instead, comparatively little rain ends up in the fabric and that helps them dry out faster, too.

I know the water-resistant properties of the short are supposed to be the big-ticket item, but what I was most impressed by was actually how well they resist dirt and stains.  I’ve sat down in fire pits to shelter my kindling from the wind with these and, after standing up and a brief dust-off, the shorts looked almost good-as-new.  I’ve also spilled red sauce on them but I was able to carefully clean up the mess before it had a chance to really interact with the fabric.  So, in this sense, the fabric’s treatment is a really substantial boon in helping them look sharp after multiple days in the trail.  I was really, really impressed and surprised.

Sierra Designs DriCanvas Shorts Review

Sure, they’re a bit dirty – but for having sat in a campfire pit these guys are looking pretty darn good.

As far as how the shorts performed on the trail, there were three particular traits that I noticed.  For one, the shorts are built with an extra-wide rear belt loop to avoid irritation under a pack.  That was something that I’ve never actually appreciated until I tried these shorts, which really did come with a comfort advantage.  Additionally, the edge of the fabric against your waist is nice and soft and doesn’t create angry red lines under a waist belt.  My only performance quibble is that the left pocket is deep and rubs up right against the back of my knee.  With weighty object in the pocket, the tendons in the back of my knee became irritated over many miles.

Sierra Designs DriCanvas Shorts Review

Note the extra-wide rear belt loop.

The Good:

  • Classic canvas feel without the ‘lethality’ of traditional cotton
  • Sleek, simple design sheds ounces and looks sharp
  • Inseam gusset helps the shorts move well for adventures
  • Comfort features (belt loops and soft fabric edge) are tangible boons in the field

The Bad:

  • Cotton has very little inherent stretch, despite the polyester/spandex additives
  • Left pocket is so deep that its contents irritated the back of my knee.

 The Bottom Line:

Sierra Designs continues to impress; the DriCanvas shorts are just another excellent product in a very impressive rollout.  The shorts definitely check all of the boxes – comfort, durability and function all exist in harmony.  People who don’t like canvas’ texture should avoid these pants, but for people like me who want the feel but with some of the technical benefits of synthetic these are an excellent choice.

Buy Now: Available from Backcountry.com

About Author

Kevin Glover is an outdoorsman living, climbing and biking in Spokane, WA. Originally from the Nevada high desert, he moved to the PNW for its mild winters and allergen-free summers. He has guided throughout the Cascades and Enchantments for Peak 7 Adventures.

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