After participating in search in rescue and spending years guiding in the backcountry, let me tell you that cotton kills.
Not that a cotton shirt will suddenly end you without warning while walking down the street – but in the backcountry, wearing cotton can make your chances of survival plummet in an emergency, or simply leave you very uncomfortable in poor weather.
Let’s take a look at why this is, what alternatives you have to cotton, and in what circumstances cotton may still be appropriate.
Cotton: Water-Loving to a Fault
Let’s put on our science hats briefly and take a look at the molecules that make up cotton. Cotton is mostly composed of cellulose, with hydrogen-oxygen (hydroxyl) bonds along the edges.
These hydroxyl groups are incredibly hydrophilic (water-attracting) and immediately soak up any moisture they come into contact with and funnel it directly into the cellulose molecules.
The result? Cotton has no natural protection against water, gets wet immediately upon exposure, and takes a long time to dry out. So now that we know why cotton gets so wet – thank you science! – let’s look at what this means to you as a hiker or camper.
Wet Clothes: The Killer of Fun
The most obvious drawback to cotton and its attraction to water is that it’s very easy to get wet in poor weather, and being wet immediately saps the fun out of most activities.
What’s more, cotton clothes need plenty of time in dry weather, hung up, and exposed to the sun in order to dry out fully. Needless to say, this is an incredible burden for most hikers and once your cotton shirt is wet, it’s probably going to stay that way.
Additionally, trying to hike in wet clothes can quickly lead to one of hiking’s nemeses – chaffing. Continually rubbing against wet material will irritate your skin to no end, leading to a painful rash or blister.
However, this moves from an inconvenience to downright dangerous when the temperatures drop. Moisture next to our skin cools us off – i.e. sweating – but wearing a damp shirt in chilly conditions will make you colder, and keep you that way.
We then encroach on the boarders of hypothermia in extreme conditions, which brings me back to our main point that cotton kills – when the weather and circumstances seriously turn against you.
So now it should be clear why most hikers and backpackers sneer at the thought of wearing cotton. Get sweaty on the trail, and you’re damp for hours or days. Hike in this damp shirt, and you’ll be cursing every step as your skin chaffes itself raw. And if cold weather rolls in, you’ll be shivering as the wet cotton saps all your body heat.
But now that we know why cotton isn’t the best choice, let’s pivot to some alternatives that will serve you well on the trail!
Generally speaking, synthetic nylon and polyester blends tend to be the material of choice for backpacking. These materials have been woven into hundreds of different branded names available on the market, but a few of the most popular are:
There are near-infinite choices out there, so always read up on what the material is designed to do. Ideally, we want a fabric that wicks moisture away from the body, is quick-drying, and resists bacteria (for odor control).
Synthetic fabrics tend to be my hiking material of choice. They dry quickly when wet – which is good news for hiking on a hot and sweaty day – and will hold up to the constant rubbing of hiking with a fully loaded pack.
While synthetic materials do a decent job of moisture-wicking and odor-control, they’ve got nothing on merino wool. This natural fiber is incredibly efficient at regulating your body temperature and preventing microbial growth that could eventually lead to some extraordinarily rank smells.
However, pure merino wool stumbles in terms of durability and will quickly show wear and tear if worn for hiking on a regular basis. Therefore, I tend to reserve my merino layers for at camp and sleeping.
But many brands offer merino wool blended with synthetic materials so you can get the best of both worlds. Excellent moisture-control, no odors, and durable enough for the trail. I highly recommend these blends for those exact reasons, but keep in mind that they will be among the most expensive options out there.
Despite evidence to the contrary, there are times when cotton is perfectly acceptable! This material has several benefits of its own to offer, so let’s take a look.
First off, cotton is very budget-friendly and much more affordable than higher-end synthetic materials. Along these same lines, cotton clothing is everywhere and very easy to find no matter where you are.
Additionally, cotton seems to stand up to long term use very well. This is partly because natural fibers – such as cotton – tend to resist bacteria better than synthetic materials. Consequently, cotton shirts won’t get stinky as quickly as synthetic options.
Additionally, DEET – the main ingredient to most bug-sprays – wreaks havoc on synthetic materials and can literally cause them to disintegrate with repeated exposures. Cotton, on the other hand, can withstand this chemical.
So as you can see, cotton indeed has its strengths!
When Cotton Is Acceptable
Considering all these points, cotton can still have a place at camp or while backpacking. For my part, I’ll admit that I very often include a cotton shirt in my pack on guiding trips for evenings at camp.
First off, it’s just so darn comfortable. There’s a lot to be said for slipping into a – relatively – clean and comfortable shirt after a hard day of hiking. Secondly, it can stand up to bug-spray, and I tend to apply this at camp as we’ll be sitting outside for some time.
That said, it’s still very important to slip into a rain jacket or wear a different shirt if rain is imminent. Remember, your shirt will stay damp if it gets wet!
There you go hikers. We’ve traced the roots of cotton’s unsuitability for hiking all the way down to the molecular level and then enlarged the picture to the practical implications of cotton’s affinity for water – namely perpetual dampness, chaffing, and coldness.
But you also know that there’s hope in synthetic, wool, and blended materials! These offer excellent moisture-wicking and drying properties, along with admirable odor control – which your entire hiking party will applaud.
We then finished up with cotton’s definite, but limited, strengths in terms of price and comfort. So what are you waiting for? Go get your hiking wardrobe ready and hit the trail!
Have fun and stay safe, eh?