Guide to Clothing Materials for Hiking and Backpacking

Men's Yellow Crew Neck Shirt
Average read time 4 min

I’ll open with – modern-day technical clothing will not complete your trip or climb. It will not determine success.

Having said that, it won’t hurt.

If you look back in the history of hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering, clothing choices would be considered cumbersome and maybe dangerous today. However, many successful expeditions were completed using natural materials, such as canvas, silk, wool, or leather.

This is important as you must understand that you must depend on your intelligence and skills to stay safe in the field. Never get lulled into the mindset that your equipment will keep you safe in all conditions; it won’t.

With the swiftness of “new” technology hitting the marketplace, and how manufacturers roll out and drop product lines, you might think that only the latest and greatest will do the trick. This is far from the truth.

I use everything until it wears out and then some. In fact, finding ways to extend your gear’s life makes you a master over your gear, not the other way around. Having said this, you’ll need clothes that meet the demands of your environment.

Materials

Cotton

Let’s get this out-of-the-way. Cotton is frowned upon in the hiking community. The reason for this is that when cotton gets wet, it loses its insulation value. You don’t have to get wet from rain or snow, and your own perspiration is enough to collapse the fibers and kill the insulation value. Additionally, cotton takes way too long to dry to be of any good use.

Cotton does allow evaporative cooling. However, during periods of high humidity, this cooling is impaired and can increase heat-related illness risk. With saying like cotton kills, cotton cools, we know it’s also comfy. During summer, I always bring one shirt backpacking to sleep in. Simply my preference. Outside of sedentary activities in the backcountry, leave cotton at home. Don’t die from hypothermia.

Recommended reading: Hiker’s Hypothermia In The Summer? Are You Safe?

Why is cotton so absorbent?

“A cotton fiber is like a tiny tube formed of six different concentric layers. As individual cotton fibers grow on the plant, the inside of the ‘tube’ is filled with living cells. Once the fiber matures and the cotton boll opens up to reveal its puffy white contents, these cells dry up, and the fiber partially collapses, leaving behind a hollow bean-shaped canal, or ‘lumen.’ This empty space holds lots of water.”

Appalachian Mountain Club

Wool

Wool as an insulator has qualities that other materials don’t. As a mid-layer, wool will keep you cozy warm, even in the most frigid places. When wet, it will keep its insulating qualities. Know that wool is hefty & bulky when dry. However, when the wool gets wet, it’s very heavy. Some people also don’t like the feel of traditional wool, but with an underlayer of silk or polypropylene, you won’t notice it.

However, Merino wool has almost replaced traditional wool thanks to its soft, non-itchy “ultra-fine” fibers. One other advantage of wool is that you can wear it for several days without retaining significant body odor.

Silk

Silk is an almost forgotten material. It is less expensive than it was in the past and is warm. As a base layer, silk really performs well. If you find it indicates it is “treated,” the silk has been chemically modified to enhance wicking. To avoid odor, you should launder silk after every use.

Down

Down is warm, very warm. Its major downside is that when wet, it has no or little insulation value. Newer products are trying to resolve this by making the down more water-resistant, we’ll see. For now, it is a great choice in dry cold environments.

Synthetics

Polyester and polyester blends are popular materials today (nylon, polypropylene, spandex, or rayon). Even when wet, with its insulation value, ability to dry quickly, and varying degrees of evaporative cooling, it is a good choice for many conditions. When buying, look closely at tags. Watch for mixes of materials; it is not uncommon to find items as a 50/50 blend of cotton. Synthetics come in different weights for insulating quality. In general, you will find:

Ultralightweight: For mild to cool conditions. Also called micro weight.

Lightweight: Cool to moderately cold conditions.

Midweight: Moderately cold to cold conditions.

Heavyweight: Cold, frigid or blustery conditions.

To wind-stop or not, this is the question? 

WINDSTOPPER® or Windbloc® and like materials are promoted extensively. They are also very expensive. My read on these materials is that they are great for gloves and facemasks. The way the material works alters evaporation and using it on core body areas may lead to too much sweat retention. I would rather use my shell as a “wind blocker” when needed.

Waterproof – breathable materials

GORE-TEX® is the most well-known of the waterproof-breathable materials. Other names are H2No®, NanoPro’s™, DRYVENT™, and System Three.

First, let’s dispel something; these materials and not “waterproof.” If they get wet enough, so will you. Having said that, if you follow proper care recommendations for the garment, you most likely won’t reach that point. You are more likely to get wet from strenuous exertion that causes you to sweat beyond the material’s capacity to let water vapor to escape. This is why the better jackets have venting options. Below is a primer on GORE-TEX®:

What is GORE-TEX

You don’t need the latest or greatest to complete successful and safe outings. The key is to pick the correct materials for the job. Remember, you’ll need different amounts of insulation at different times of the year as you do this. Using a layering system for thermoregulation is key because even with the right clothes and materials, not using them logically will put your health at risk.

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