What to wear hiking: Steer clear of clothes made of cotton!

What to wear hiking is one of the most basic survival choices one can make. Too many beginner hikers spend more time and money on their gear than their clothing. Rarely do they ask what is the best hiking clothes one should wear for a camping trip.

Organic or not... cotton kills!

Organic or not… cotton kills!

Don’t get me wrong, there is no harm in spending on top equipment (I do it all the time), except for the fact, that when you cut corners on clothes and wear your used denim jeans with your 100% cotton shirt for a long hike, it can actually kill you.

Short hikes I can understand, but for all others, why not get one of those ExOfficio rapid dry undershirts?

Insulation will keep you alive

The basic function of clothes is to trap as much warm air as possible close to your skin. Unlike other types of fabric, when clothes made of cotton get wet, they stop functioning as insulation because the air pockets are now filled with water.

We all sweat when we hike (especially when hiking for fitness), some of us perspire more than others. When that happens all the perspiration from your skin will get absorbed into your cotton clothing like a sponge.

proper layering insulation when hiking

If the air around you is lower in temperature than your body, then you will notice that you feel cold and wet beneath your clothes. This is because any clothing made of cotton that you are wearing is now completed saturated, and because of that, it is no longer insulating your body from the cold air.

This is very dangerous. Beside ending up with severe disorientation and hypothermia, you can end up dead if you get too cold. In case you didn’t know already, hypothermia can happen in weathers much higher than freezing temperature, so don’t take your choice of fabric lightly.

Wicking & layering is key

You hear this often, wear clothes with wicking fabrics and wear them in layers. However, it doesn’t matter how many layers of cotton you put on, there will be no wicking water away from your body with that suspect. Put it bluntly, cotton lacks the quality necessary to wick away water from your skin.

Wicking fabrics, such as Patagonia Capilene or Terramar EC2, keep you dry by moving water from the wet spots to a dry spot. This process is called the capillary motion.

The combination of wearing clothes made of wicking fabrics as well as layering is the best and most effective way to stay warm during a hike, since the water will be wicked away from the skin and up the layers of clothes, thus helping keep your inner clothes dry and at the same time help your body stay warm.

Merino wool, a great alternative

Even though wool doesn’t wick like synthetic clothes, it does insulate when it gets wet, making it a good fabric choice for short hikes. I would still opt for a more synthetic blend of fabrics when choosing wool, as it does absorb a third of its weight in water. Go with wool made from Merino sheep when possible, such as the Minus33 Crew (perfect for cold weathers).

Cotton by any other name

Don’t be fooled by marketing jargon that labels cotton with fancy names. Look out for flannel, denim, corduroy, and duck. Also, avoid cotton/polyester blends that are not at least 85% polyester. They are still dangerous and can end up killing you, just a bit slower.

moisture wicking technology

Avoid these fabrics

In no particular order, avoid these fancy named products:

  • Modal
  • Rayon
  • Viscose
  • Tencel
  • Lyocell

We call them instant death. If cotton kills, then these bad boys annihilate. They are all manufactured from cellulose and provide zero insulation (when wet). To top it off, they get wet even quicker than cotton, so beware and avoid at all cost.

Also, don’t buy into the green marketing for garments made out of Bamboo. Most bamboo clothes are in fact made of the cellulose fabric, rayon, and come with all its disadvantages.

Last but not least, another highly absorbent fabric is silk. It might feel good to the touch, but silk also stops working as an insulation for your body when it gets wet.

Even in warm & hot weather

Many choose to stick with cotton when it comes to warm and hot climates. Wearing sweaty cotton can chafe, and the added water weight that gets sponged up by your clothing can unnecessarily weigh you down. Many of my skeptical friends switched to loose 100% nylon based t-shirt for their day long hikes and they are totally satisfied with the switch. You should at least give it a try. I know cotton breathes better but if you just put a loose ExOfficio shirt, you will see what I am referring to.

There are many guides on choosing the best hiking clothes, what to wear hiking, and which baselayer is good for which weather. With so many synthetic and wool clothing manufacturers it can be difficult to choose which is best way to keep your body heat during a hike. That’s why I like to keep it simple and stick to Columbia for most of my undershirts.