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Know the Fabrics to Make Smart Outdoor Clothing Choices
Dressing for outdoor survival starts with knowing what clothes to wear. Different fabrics have radically different properties. Choosing the wrong type, or mixing clothing from 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 percent cotton shirt will keep you warm and cozy until it gets wet. Then that wet shirt can suck 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 walking through the desert in August. Wool retains heat, and although it provides some UV protection, the material will prevent your body from cooling.
So, the buyer should beware.
Before buying any item of clothing, read the labels and find out what material it is made of. Ignore fashion or what’s trending (I know it’s hard – I have a 14-year-old daughter!), and shop based on the activities and protection of the clothing you’ll need.
Here are some common fabric choices:
* Cotton: Depending on where you live, cotton clothing can kill you. Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning it is not good at wicking moisture away from the skin and can become damp just by being exposed to moisture.
Both of these 100% cotton garments will keep you warm until they get wet. Then these clothes could become dangerous to wear!
Once wet, cotton is cold and can lose up to 90 percent of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can draw heat away from your body 25 times faster than when it’s dry.
Having spent a lot of time in the Deep South, my go-to shirt for hot weather is a mid-weight, white, 100 percent cotton navy shirt with an excess. The shirt has a collar that can be pulled up to shade my neck, and pockets with flaps and buttons. Cotton also has a reasonable amount of UV protection.
On really hot days in the canoe, a cotton shirt can be soaked in water and worn to cool off. On a desert hike, help prevent heatstroke by using a few ounces of water to moisten your shirt. (The water can come from anywhere, including an algae-lined tank. Evaporation is what cools you!)
The same properties that make cotton a good choice for hot weather make it killer in rain, snow and cold.
A typical urban casual outfit is probably all cotton: sweatshirt socks, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, jeans, t-shirt, flannel shirt, and sweatshirt. This outfit might keep you warm in the city, but don’t wear it in the background! When the cotton gets wet, you could end up in trouble.
Don’t be fooled by the look and camouflage patterns of the 100 percent cotton hunting clothing. These garments may be just what you need for a hot September dove hunt in Mississippi, but they become 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 your clothing.
* Wool: Where I live in Central Oregon, wool is standard for six months of the year. A good pair of woolen trousers and woolen socks are the first items of clothing we recommend to new Scouts in our troop. For our winter scouting excursions, any cotton clothing is not recommended. Jeans are prohibited.
Wool absorbs moisture but remains warmer than many other fabrics. Wool is also inherently fire resistant.
* Polyester: This is essentially a fabric made from plastic and it’s a good thing. The material has good insulation and wind resistance and can be made in several different thicknesses.
* Nylon: The fabric is quite strong and can be used on the outer layer. It does not absorb much moisture, and what it does evaporate quickly. It is best used as a kind of windbreaker, so that your clothes are not compromised by the wind.
* Down: This material is not fabric, but fluffy feathers stuffed into a garment or sleeping bag. When dry, down is one of my favorite insulation materials.
But I don’t use a sleeping bag and would be hesitant to wear a down vest in 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 absorbing heat from your body.
Plus, it’s virtually impossible to dry a sleeping bag or item of clothing in the backcountry, even with a roaring campfire.
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