Learn about fabrics to make smart outdoor clothing choices
Dressing to survive outdoors starts with knowing what fabrics to wear. Different fabrics have radically different properties. Choosing the wrong type or mixing clothes of different materials can be disastrous!
You may not be able to tell what a garment is made of by looking at it. A nice, fuzzy, thick 100% cotton flannel shirt will be warm and cozy until it gets wet. So that wet shirt can absorb heat from your torso and cause hypothermia!
On the other side of the equation is wool. My hands-down favorite in the winter, wool is generally a poor choice for a desert hike in August. Wool traps heat, and while it does provide some protection from UV rays, the material will keep your body from getting cold.
Therefore, the buyer should be careful.
Before you buy any item of clothing, read the labels and find out what material it is made of. Ignore fashion or what’s hot (I know it’s hard, I have a 14 year old daughter!), and shop based on the activity and clothing protection that will be needed.
Here are some common fabric options:
* Cotton: Depending on where you live, cotton clothing can kill you. Cotton is hydrophilic, which means it is not good at wicking moisture away from the skin and can become damp just by being exposed to moisture.
Both 100% cotton garments would keep you warm until they got wet. So these clothes could become dangerous to wear!
Once wet, cotton feels cold and can lose up to 90 percent of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can absorb your body heat 25 times faster than when it’s dry.
Since I’ve spent a lot of time in the Deep South, my favorite warm-weather shirt is a medium-weight, white, 100% cotton Navy surplus shirt. The shirt has a collar that can be turned up to shade my neck and pockets with flaps and buttons. Cotton also has a reasonable amount of UV protection.
On very hot days in a canoe, you can soak a cotton shirt in water and use it to cool off. On a desert hike, help prevent heat stroke by using a few ounces of water to wet your shirt. (Water can come from anywhere, including that algae-rimmed storage tank. Evaporation is what cools you down!)
The same properties that make cotton a good choice for warm weather make it a killer in rain, snow, and cold.
Typical urban casual attire is probably all cotton: sweat socks, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, jeans, T-shirt, flannel shirt, and sweatshirt. This outfit can keep you warm in the city, but don’t wear it out in the country! Once the cotton gets wet, you could end up in trouble.
Don’t be fooled by the camouflage look and patterns of 100% cotton hunting clothing. These garments may be just what you need for a September dove hunt in Mississippi, but they get cold and sticky when damp or wet, just like anything else made of cotton.
* Polypropylene: This material does not absorb water, so it is hydrophobic. This makes it a great base layer as it wicks moisture away from your body. The bad news is that polypropylene melts, so a spark from a campfire can melt holes in clothing.
* Wool: Where I live in central Oregon, wool is the standard for six months of the year. A good pair of wool pants and wool socks are the first items of clothing we recommend to new Boy Scouts in our troop. For our winter scout tours, any type of cotton clothing is strongly discouraged. Jeans are prohibited.
Wool wicks away moisture, but stays warmer than many other fabrics. Wool is also inherently flame retardant.
* Polyester – This is essentially fabric made from plastic, and it’s a good material. The material has good insulation and windbreak value, and can be manufactured in many different thicknesses.
* Nylon: The fabric is quite strong and can be used as the outer layer. It doesn’t absorb much moisture, and what it does evaporate quickly. It is better to use it as a kind of windbreaker, to prevent the wind from compromising your clothing.
* Down: This material is not a fabric, but fluffy feathers stuffed inside a garment or sleeping bag. When dry, down is one of my favorite insulating materials.
But I don’t use a down sleeping bag, and I would be hesitant to wear a down vest in the field due to possible moisture issues. When wet, down becomes hydrophilic and loses virtually all of its insulating value. It can be worse than cotton when it comes to absorbing heat from your body.
Also, it is virtually impossible to dry a sleeping bag or down garment in the field, even with a roaring campfire.