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Know the Fabrics to Make Smart Outdoor Clothing Choices
Dressing for outdoor survival starts with knowing what fabrics to wear. Different fabrics have vastly different properties. Choosing the wrong type, or mixing clothes of different materials, can have disastrous results!
You may not be able to tell what a garment is made of by its appearance. A nice, furry, thick 100% cotton flannel shirt will be warm and cozy until it gets wet. Then that wet shirt could suck heat from your torso and cause hypothermia!
The other side of the equation is wool. My favorite fleece in the winter and usually not a bad choice for desert hikes in August. Wool traps heat, and while it provides some UV protection, the material prevents your body from cooling down.
So, buyers need to take note.
Before buying any garment, read the label and know what it’s made of. Ignore what’s trendy or popular (I know it’s hard – I have a 14-year-old daughter!) and base your purchases on the event and the clothing protection you need.
Here are some common fabric options:
* Cotton: Depending on where you live, cotton clothes could be killing you. Cotton is hydrophilic, which means it doesn’t wick moisture from the skin very well, and gets wet whenever it’s exposed to moisture.
These two 100% cotton pieces will keep you warm until you get wet. Then, this dress is dangerous to wear!
Once wet, cotton feels cold and loses up to 90% of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can remove heat from your body 25 times faster than it can dry.
Since I spend a lot of time in the Deep South, my favorite hot weather shirt is a midweight white 100% cotton navy surplus shirt. The shirt has a collar that pulls up over my neck and pockets with flaps and buttons. Cotton also has a certain amount of UV protection.
On very hot days in the canoe, soak a cotton shirt in water and wear it to cool down. Wetting your shirt with a few ounces of water can help prevent heat stroke when hiking in the desert. (Water can come from anywhere, including that algae-infested tank. Evaporation cools you down!)
The same properties that make cotton ideal for hot weather make it a killer for rain, snow and cold.
Typical urban casual wear might be all cotton: athletic socks, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, jeans, T-shirts, flannel shirts, and sweatshirts. This suit will keep you warm in the city, but don’t wear it to the backcountry! Once the cotton gets wet, you may be in trouble.
Don’t be misled by the looks and camouflage patterns of the 100% cotton hunting suit. These clothes are just what you need for pigeon hunting in the Mississippi heat in September, but they can get icy and soggy when wet or wet, just like any other cotton clothing.
* Polypropylene: This material does not absorb water and is therefore hydrophobic. This makes it a great base layer as it wicks moisture away from the body. The bad news is that polypropylene melts, so a campfire spark could melt a hole in your clothing.
* Wool: I live in central Oregon and wool is the norm six months of the year. A good pair of wool pants and wool socks are some of the first pieces of clothing we recommend to new Boy Scouts in our troop. For our winter Scout excursions, no cotton clothing of any kind is strongly recommended. Jeans are banned.
Wool absorbs moisture but retains warmth better than many other fabrics. Wool itself is also flame retardant.
100% Polyester: This is basically a fabric made of plastic, and it’s the good stuff. The material has good insulating and wind-blocking value and can be made in many different thicknesses.
100% Nylon: The fabric is very tough and can be used for the outer layer. It doesn’t absorb much moisture and evaporates quickly. It’s best used as some sort of windbreaker to keep your clothes from being damaged by the wind.
* Down: This material is not fabric, but fluffy feathers that are stuffed into clothing or sleeping bags. Down is one of my favorite insulations when dry.
But I don’t use down sleeping bags, and would be hesitant to wear a down vest into the backcountry because of potential moisture issues. When wet, down becomes hydrophilic and loses almost all of its insulating value. It can be worse than cotton in terms of sucking body heat away.
Plus, it’s nearly impossible to dry out a down sleeping bag or pajamas in the backcountry, even around a roaring campfire.
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