Learn about fabrics to choose smart outdoor clothing
Dressing to survive the great outdoors starts with knowing what fabrics to wear. Different fabrics have radically different properties. Choosing the wrong type or mixing clothes made of different materials can be disastrous!
You may not be able to tell what a garment is made of just by looking at it. A nice, fuzzy, thick 100 percent 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 winter favorite, wool is generally a poor choice for a desert hike in August. Wool traps heat, and while it does provide some protection against UV rays, the material will keep your body from getting cold.
Therefore, the buyer should be careful.
Before buying any item of clothing, read the labels and find out what the material is. Ignore fashion or what’s hot (I know it’s hard, I have a 14 year old daughter!), And make your purchase based on 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 that it is not good at absorbing moisture from the skin and can become damp simply from being exposed to moisture.
Both 100% cotton garments will keep you warm until 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 heat from your body 25 times faster than when dry.
Since I’ve spent a lot of time in the Deep South, my favorite shirt for warm climates is a mid-weight, 100 percent cotton, surplus navy blue 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 hot days in a canoe, a cotton shirt can be soaked in water and used to cool off. On a hike in the desert, help prevent heat stroke by using a few ounces of water to wet your shirt. (The water can come from anywhere, including the algae-edged storage tank. Evaporation is what cools you down!)
The same properties that make cotton a good choice for hot climates make it a killer in rain, snow, and cold.
The typical urban casual attire is probably all cotton: sports 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 in the country! Once the cotton gets wet, you could end up in trouble.
Don’t be fooled by the look and camo patterns of 100% cotton hunting clothing. These garments may be just what you need for a September pigeon 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 an excellent base layer, as it absorbs moisture from the body. The bad news is that polypropylene melts, so a spark from the campfire can melt holes in your 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 we recommend to new Boy Scouts in our troop. For our winter exploration excursions, any type of cotton clothing is strongly discouraged. Jeans are prohibited.
Wool absorbs moisture, but stays warmer than many other fabrics. Wool is also inherently fire retardant.
* Polyester: It is essentially fabric made of plastic and it is good. The material has good insulating and windproof value, and can be manufactured in many different thicknesses.
* Nylon: the fabric is quite strong and can be used on the outer layer. It does not absorb much moisture and what does evaporate quickly. It is better to use it as a kind of windbreaker, to prevent the wind from endangering the clothes.
* Down: This material is not a fabric, but fluffy feathers tucked inside a garment or sleeping bag. When dry, down is one of my favorite insulation materials.
But I don’t use a down sleeping bag, and would hesitate 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 in absorbing heat from your body.
Plus, a down sleeping bag or garment is virtually impossible to dry out in the field, even with a roaring campfire.