Rain, snow, wind, heat…what doesn’t this beautiful earth throw at us? We survive by knowing the basics, whether we are out in the wilderness for the day or six months. “Där finns ingen dålig väder, bara dålig kläder” is an old Swedish saying meaning that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. And while that is only partially true, it is an important component to survival and comfort.
When you walk into a outfitter or look in your closet, do you wonder how to pick clothes that are appropriate to your next outdoor adventure? Do you even wonder why it is that you are warmer in certain sweaters? Fabric can change everything. Specialized clothing isn’t cheap and you can’t afford to experiment from scratch. You need a starting point to find out what feels good, what you like, and what will keep you safe.
It’s not all life or death either. I will be extra frank for a moment, if you go out into the woods with the wrong underwear, you come back itching and with problems that can cause you months of discomfort.
Here’s the details on the most common fabrics found in outdoor clothing and why you should use them or not. Plus, some random and interesting facts for knowledge geeks like myself. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to leave them below. I will be happy to help.
I have these knee length summer skirts, that my mom wore when she was pregnant with me (30 something years ago – I can’t believe they have survived!). They are soft and warm and have nice 1970s hippie patterns on them. I cannot make it through a steamy beach day without one of them. Cotton is cooling and feels soft against your skin. It is unsurpassed for everyday comfort but I would never wear it on a hike. If you encounter any extreme weather, you will find cotton extremely useless and possibly dangerous. When wet, it takes a long time to dry and you will be freezing while it does. It can even be hidden in clothes sold at outdoor stores. Less expensive long underwear/thermals can be cotton/polyester blends.
This is my favorite fabric because I am always cold! It is not the lightest, cheapest or fastest drying but it makes up for it by being the warmest. Wet or dry, it is a barrier for heat. Keeping it in or out while absorbing a third of its weight in moisture. It takes higher temperatures to burn wool than other fabrics and it will not melt, so it is less likely to catch fire while you are tending to your blaze or camp stove. I think hiking socks are a must-have in wool, because your feet WILL get wet. The only exception is to choose a lighter weight synthetic sock during the summer. Wool is also slightly antimicrobial, resisting odor during long trails between showers. Stinky feet don’t make for sleeping bag romance.
Polyester is a synthetic fabric derived from petroleum or recycled plastics. It won’t shrink like wool or cotton but it does absorb oil better. My personal experience has been that underarm odor doesn’t wash out of polyester after a certain length of trail, but my wool thermal shirts are still fresh enough to wear out to lunch. It will keep you warmer when wet than cotton and it will dry faster than either wool or cotton. It feels soft and elastic, retains its shape well and can be found in a variety of thicknesses from thin underwear, long sleeve shirts and fluffy fleece jackets. It is also usually less expensive than wool or silk.
Ultralight backpackers often prefer silk long underwear for summer use because it is the lightest of the options. I am not a fan. Do you recall the 80s and 90s silk shirts and how crunchy they got after you washed them once? Silk doesn’t work much nicer in long underwear. It also feels excruciatingly cold when you first put it on and forget ever getting any smells or stains out. I don’t like it so much that I have no gear to photograph for you.
Nylon was the first synthetic fiber. It was used as an alternative to silk in stockings when it was first created in the 1930s. It was so popular that we now call those stockings, “nylons”. Being made from petroleum makes it durable and inexpensive. History places it in parachutes, tents and toothbrushes. The feel is more silky and cool than polyester, rivalling cotton for comfort in all but extreme heat because it doesn’t breathe as well. There is no shrinking or stretching, and it dries even quicker than polyester, so I enjoy it in my hiking tank tops, skirts, and pants/shorts.
PrimaLoft vs. Down
These materials not only fill great sleeping bags but now offer warmer alternatives to the bulky fleece jacket. They are both lighter and take up less space in your pack. Down comes from geese, in general (here are a list of companies who employ ethical means of getting these prized feathers). Once it is wet though, it loses its loft and you will be cold. Primaloft and other synthetic fills weigh a little more but perform better in damp conditions. Both these materials will also block wind better than fleece. There is a new coated Down called DriDown that is making it more accessible but I still prefer to go with a synthetic here in New England where the weather can be very volatile. I don’t want to stress more about hypothermia when I am hiking solo, since I am skinny and almost always cold. If you choose Down, just be careful to keep it very dry in your pack.
In the 1950s, Wilbert Gore developed an insulation for electrical wire. His son figured out that it could be stretched to form a synthetic material with pores. that are too small for water to pass in but large enough to let water vapor out. So it is breathable and waterproof, making it perfect for waterproofing rain jackets and hiking boots. There are some other good Gore-Tex alternatives in every price range. Gore-Tex is a good quality product but my budget doesn’t always allow me the luxury. Mid-priced store brand jackets just don’t cut it either. I prefer to either get the good stuff or go light and cheap, and replace more often. I am looking forward to seeing how some of the new competitors stack up.
Human intelligence is powerful. We always find a way to make the most of our ideas. Even the uses of the more traditional materials have been stretched and changed to make us more able backpack longer distances with less weight on our backs. So, layer up and enjoy the rest of winter!
*All the macro photography is of gear that I own and love including my wool thermal shirt, seen in the photo to the left, my favorite nylon hiking skirt and PrimaLoft jacket. I love macro photography The cameo is of my sweet cat, Arcee, who was more than happy to test out my cotton skirt when my back was turned.