You or your camper may be able to answer this question already, but let’s dig a little deeper. You have probably read all of our pre-camp literature about what to pack and what not to pack. You have probably recognized how much we stress synthetic or wool clothing for trips. You may have even heard the phrase ‘cotton kills’. So why does ‘cotton kill’ and why is synthetic or wool clothing best for wilderness travel?
Cotton is a wonderful fabric! The Fabric of Our Lives even! It’s comfortable, it’s cozy, and usually smells great, especially if it’s fresh out the dryer. Thus, it’s no secret why we all love to wear cotton. However, cotton has no place on wilderness trips. Cotton has one major weakness. If cotton gets saturated with water or sweat, it actually pulls heat away from the body. That precious body heat that keeps us at that ideal 98.6 degrees our bodies love. Cotton can be extremely dangerous in alpine climates where the temperature can drop quickly as the sun begins to set. So what happens if wet and saturated cotton starts pulling heat away from our body? Well, our temperature of 98.6 degrees can begin to go down slowly. A mild decline in body temperature isn’t a huge concern, and usually can be reverted quickly. More substantial declines in body temperatures can be very difficult to revert and result in mild to severe hypothermia. Wet and saturated cotton can contribute greatly to these declines. How do we protect ourselves from these situations?
Most of us are familiar with wool. Most often we are reminded of those itchy holiday sweaters or socks. Wool is an amazing and natural (non-synthetic) fabric. Many dress suits and coats are made of wool! It has water-repellent and moisture wicking properties, does not saturate easily, retains very little odor and can maintain its insulating properties even when wet or saturated. Pretty amazing, huh? Wool has come a long way and the outdoor retail industry has taken advantage of these properties. The most common type of wool used in outdoor apparel is merino wool. This wool is soft and comfortable, not itchy like we remember wool to be. Most are familiar with merino wool socks from companies like Smartwool®, but companies have branched out and started producing t-shirts, underwear, baselayers, performance sweaters and more! Check out outdoor companies like Voormi® or Icebreaker®. Wool does have one downside though, it is expensive. So if wool is not in my budget, how do I avoid cotton? Synthetic materials!
There are all sorts of synthetic materials out there. Some examples are polypropylene, polyester (fleece), and nylon. These fabric have very similar qualities to wool. The main similarities are that they are moisture wicking and can maintain insulation properties when wet or saturated. You likely already have synthetic apparel in your home! Play soccer? Your soccer jersey is likely synthetic! Run track or cross-country? Your shorts and jersey are likely synthetics! Synthetic apparel for the outdoors or for athletics can range in price but will always be more cost-effective than wool. Some popular companies like The North Face® or Patagonia® have their own proprietary synthetic fabrics and you’ll pay a little more for the brand. Brands like Duofold® by Champion® which can be found at normal department stores has nearly the same properties and will be much cheaper. Synthetic fabrics also have one downfall. They can really retain odor, especially since they are more often used for physical activity. This is one of the biggest advantages wool has over synthetic materials, it hardly retains any odor. If using synthetic apparel for outdoor activities, be sure to wash it promptly and frequently.
Hopefully, that clears things up in regard to why we require synthetic or wool apparel over cotton for wilderness backpacking trips. We have these fabrics available at our trading post as warm layers (fleece jackets and base layers), but we do not have shorts and t-shirts. Prior leaving for camp, be sure you have t-shirts and shorts for hiking that are made out of synthetic or wool fabrics!