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Why Cotton Can Kill You on a Hiking Trip

Sorry folks, the trail is closed.  You'll have to come back when you are properly dressed.
Sorry folks, the trail is closed. You'll have to come back when you are properly dressed. | Source

Cotton Kills Hikers

If you haven't heard the outdoor adage "cotton kills," pay attention and you may just save your life. Sure, cotton is fine to wear while shopping for groceries and looking "outdoorsy," but wear it in the great outdoors and it may kill you.

Every outdoor organization from the Boy Scouts to The Mountaineers warns vehemently against wearing cotton while hiking and backpacking. Despite multiple warnings from these experts, people perish each year from inadequate preparedness whilst in pursuit of outdoor adventure.

A guide friend of mine is so anti-cotton that he inspects each garment of everyone he is taking into the backcountry. He's been known to say, "take in an ounce of cotton, and pack out a cold body." A bit dramatic, yes—but is it well founded?

While teaching backpacking classes, my favorite illustration of the dangers of wearing cotton is to soak two pairs of pants—jeans and supplex hiking trousers—and let them sit out overnight. In the morning, the class gasps as the jeans creak and moan as I bent their frozen form in half. Meanwhile, I just shook the ice crystals off the hiking pants.

So which would you rather wear?

Cotton by Other Names

  • Denim
  • Duck
  • Flannel
  • 50/50 blends

Hypothermia: How Cotton Kills

Wearing cotton doesn't leach dangerous chemicals into your skin or make you more prone to being mauled by a rabid beaver, it kills through hypothermia. Hypothermia is a condition in which the body's temperature falls below 95 degrees; it results in death when untreated.

Most people think that hypothermia only happens while digging through five feet of snow, but often it occurs to unsuspecting hikers during marginal weather in the warmer months. According to Mountaineering First Aid, "Many hypothermia cases are reported in wet, windy weather with temperatures well above freezing."

Winter backpackers are usually prepared to combat freezing temperatures with multiple layers of technical clothing. Conversely, summer backpackers and hikers often skimp on warm extra layers and may wear inappropriate clothing that dries slowly and loses its thermal properties (cotton).

Wetness Equals Death

The major problem with cotton is that its hydrophilic nature causes it to dry very slowly and absorbs moisture like a greedy sponge. Conversely, materials like synthetics and merino wick moisture away from the skin and to the outside of the garment, where it evaporates.

So what does it matter if your cotton shirt is soaked?

According to the Appalachian Mountain Club, some forms of cotton absorb up to 27 times their weight. As a backpacker, you need to think carefully about anything that gains weight while outdoors. Like I said, cotton is a sponge.

Wet clothing conducts heat away from your body 25 times faster than dry clothing, so wet clothing (that favorite t-shirt of yours) is a recipe for contracting hypothermia.

Cotton: It's comfy when dry,

And cheap to buy.

But to wear it in winter,

It's a good way to die.

— John Dunn, "Winterwise"

Rain Droplets on Cotton

Notice how the rain droplets soak into this cotton shirt.
Notice how the rain droplets soak into this cotton shirt. | Source

Rain Droplets on Synthetic Shirt

As the rain begins to fall, rain droplets bead up on this shirt from Mountain Hardwear.
As the rain begins to fall, rain droplets bead up on this shirt from Mountain Hardwear. | Source

Loss of Thermal Properties

Cotton is an outstanding insulator while it is dry; that's probably why we love flannel sheets on our beds. However, once cotton becomes wet, it loses 95% of its thermal properties, yes it will make you colder, a lot colder.

On the other hand, most specialty hiking clothing retains its insulating properties while it is wet. I've been submerged in streams slightly above the freezing point, but was fine due to the technical clothing that kept me warm while wet.

If you do insist on wearing cotton while hiking, you should carry several additional layers to change into when your clothing becomes soaked.

Hoodies Are Most Often Cotton

In a survey of my local outfitter, I found that 90% of hoodies are made of cotton. This is unfortunate, because the hoody is a favored garment for warmth, especially amongst the younger crowd. If you love the style, check out Under Armor's synthetic hoody selection.

What Happens to Jeans When They Freeze

When to Wear Cotton

Besides wearing for casual use, does cotton have a place in the outdoors?

Many desert hikers extol the virtues of cotton while trampling through arid climates. The sweat from their body soaks the cotton shirt and the gradual process of evaporation cools their bodies during the day. As the cool desert night air drifts in, hikers switch to dry clothes to avoid hypothermia.

Still other desert dwellers dislike the clammy feeling of wet cotton as they hike, so they prefer to wear synthetics. Though cotton has great UV blocking qualities, many treated garments like Omni-Shade from Columbia are better than cotton at protecting you from the sun. Even the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends those sun blocking materials.

Comfortable Alternatives to Cotton

Though some people like to wear cotton because "it is comfortable," they haven't worn some of the newer materials which are more comfortable, wick better, and dry faster.

  • Synthetics

A synthetic hiking shirt is an awesome thing to have, though some people will balk at the expense. I've had one shirt from The North Face that has lasted over 16 years. It thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail with me, climbed mountains, and bike toured across two states. Talk about rugged construction.

Currently my favorite shirts are the Wicked Light shirts from Mountain Hardwear. It is awesome to hike all day and have a dry shirt at the end of it.

  • Merino Wool

In the early days of hiking, trekkers clad themselves from head to toe in wool—a renewable fiber that retains most of its thermal properties even while wet. As synthetics grew in popularity, people ditched the itchiness and weight of wool.

However, then companies started using Merino wool, a non-itchy super-comfy wool which keeps you warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Though many people love Merino socks (myself included) my favorite long-sleeved shirt is made from Merino by SmartWool. I have worn it for days at a time.

  • Cocona

Cocona comes from the husks of coconuts. Now that sounds comfortable doesn't it? Actually it is. After coconuts are shelled, the husks are converted into activated carbon (also used for water filters) and then bonded to fibers for use in clothing.

Cocona products are very soft and comfortable, plus they have excellent technical benefits. I've found that my shirts made with cocona dry faster and have better moisture management than most other hiking shirts. Though antibacterial treatments can wash off, cocona's benefits are renewed when you wash them, which makes it a very sustainable garment.

A Few Examples of Tragic Outdoor Deaths

Nobody ever said hiking was safe, but here are a few examples of hikers who perished in the wild. Wearing cotton clothing seems to be a factor in each unfortunate example.

In September of 2008 a hiking party on the Pacific Crest Trail near Tinker's Knob encountered rain and high wind speeds, despite a sunny start to their trip. One hiker died and three others were rescued. A responding SAR team representative credited the tragedy with, "They had gotten separated, and they were wearing cotton, which takes forever to dry." (Source: "Exposure suspected in death of Pacific Crest Trail hiker" by Barbara Barte Osborn.)

One of the earlier examples from the Adirondack High Peaks happened during a tragic Thanksgiving weekend. Despite having a new compliment of "appropriate gear," two hikers were clad in all cotton. After getting waterlogged in an overly ambitious pursuit, an exhausted hiker with soaked cotton clothing succumbed to a hypothermic death before help could arrive. (Source: "Thanksgiving Weekend Death in the High Peaks" by Princeton Outdoor Action.)

In September 2005, a man hiking in the Alaska Range near Fairbanks died from the effects of hypothermia. A State Trooper was quoted, "He was wearing all cotton, which is the worst fabric for cold, wet weather. ... The weather just got the best of him." (Source: "Body of Wyoming Hiker Recovered From Alaska Range," AP.)

A Simple Hiking Clothing Experiment

Two shirts out in the rain, my experiment.
Two shirts out in the rain, my experiment. | Source

So I read the accounts and experienced the lack of comfort in cotton-clad hiking, but was there a quick experiment I could do?

I glanced at the rain droplets gathering on my kitchen window and had an idea. I took two shirts, one lightweight cotton and one synthetic, and placed them on my lawn in a light rain. I let them sit for 40 minutes for a good old-fashioned soaking.

I wrung out both shirts as best I could, hung them on a line in an unheated area of my basement, and watched them dry. Watching a couple of shirts drip dry is slightly more exciting than waiting for the grass to grow, but a sacrifice in the name of "science."

The Mountain Hardware Wicked Lite synthetic shirt was dry within 3 hours.

The cotton t-shirt, a giveaway from National Trails Day, took 6.5 hours to dry.

The verdict: specialty hiking clothing dries more quickly than cotton. Given the facts that wet clothing creates heat loss and that cotton loses thermal properties while wet, cotton seems to be the loser in my mini-experiment.

A Comfortable Hiking Clothing System

Part of a comfortable hiking clothing system: North Face convertible pants, a Mountain Hardwear fleece and t-shirt.
Part of a comfortable hiking clothing system: North Face convertible pants, a Mountain Hardware fleece and t-shirt. | Source

So what do I wear for three-season hiking in the Northeast?

I always think of clothing as a system, and as the most technical part of my gear. This is generally what I carry.

  • Shell Jacket: The North Face Verto (water and wind resistant)
  • Warmth: EMS microfleece (zip neck)
  • Shirt: Mountain Hardware Wicked Lite t-shirt (one every three days)
  • Pants: EMS Supplex convertible pants/shorts
  • Shell Pants: Sierra Designs Microlight windpants
  • Boxers: Ex Officio Give 'n Go boxer briefs (one every two days)
  • Socks: SmartWool medium hiking socks (one pair per day)
  • Warm hat: Mountain Hardware neck gaiter
  • Glove: Seirus Hyperlite gloves

So Will Cotton Actually Kill You?

One of my hiking companions.
One of my hiking companions. | Source

Before accusing me and the entire outdoor industry of sensationalist hyperbolic claims, let's look at cotton one more time.

The fact is, many new and old hikers alike venture into the wild with cotton clothing and return unscathed. However, wearing non-cotton clothing is safer.

As part of risk management, you can't eliminate all risk, but you can make things safer. Surely, nobody plans on twisting an ankle or taking the wrong trail, but you can plan what you wear. You will have a safer and more comfortable time in the outdoors if you wear non-cotton performance hiking clothing.

© 2012 Dan Human

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Comments 76 comments

jblais1122@aol profile image

jblais1122@aol 4 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Very good information. Great hub! Voted up!


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Thanks for stopping by and commenting jblais1122!


bankscottage profile image

bankscottage 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Another Wicked Good Hub. Thanks for the advice. Maybe you first picture is correct and some of the serious hikes should have dress code police inspect hikers at the bottom. I can't believe what I see people hiking in. Just because it is warm and sunny at the bottom doesn't mean it isn't cold and wet at the top.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

At most trail heads, they post signs saying to dress appropriately and be prepared to stay the night. I'm surprised by the number of people that walk by them without paying any attention.

Thanks for the great comments bankscottage.


Doc Wordinger profile image

Doc Wordinger 4 years ago from Manchester, UK

Superb hub. I learnt the hard way that wet cotton is heavy, clingy and a terrible insulator of heat.

With the exception of the fells, it's pretty difficult to get yourself into a life-or-death situation when hiking here in England (although I almost managed it many years ago) and I probably wasn't fully aware of just how dangerous cotton can be until I read this hub.

Thanks for introducing me to Wicked Lite by Mountain Hardwear. I'll almost certainly purchase one next time I need outdoor clothing. How durable are they?


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

I can remember some pretty miserable and cold cotton soakings myself.

A walking tour of England is on my bucket list, so I'll find out - danger tends to find me wherever I go.

I have two of Mountain Hardwear's Wicked Lite t-shirts and one long-sleeved version. I've been using them pretty hard for about two and a half years with no failures yet.

Thanks for reading Doc!


cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 4 years ago from Western NC

I love the line, "sensationalist hyperbolic claims" - really good use of literary terms. Anyway, this hub is great and I don't think you exaggerated the shortcomings of cotton. I had to try to swim with cotton and I completely believe you when you say it absorbs 27 times its weight. Bathing suits and shorts are often made of synthetic fibers, too, and you don't see anyone complaining about their weight when people swim. Just another illustration of the value of synthetic fiber (or even wool). In any case, another great hub and great info here. Voted up and socially shared.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

I try to throw in a literary term here and there just to justify my degree.

You know you are right about swimsuits, many of the first bathing garments were actually made of wool. Wool doesn't absorb as much water weight.

As far as the up to 27 times - the AMC's claim sounds a little exaggerated, but I'm sure there are some tests that could prove that. I just know it gets heavy.

Thanks CC for reading and sharing!


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Thanks very much for this awesome information. I'm just a novice outdoors lover - you got a new and appreciative follower.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

You are quite welcome, I'm glad you liked my article. Thanks for reading and commenting Wesman Todd Shaw!


TotalHealth profile image

TotalHealth 4 years ago from Hermosa Beach, CA

Great article! I'm an avid hiker and enjoy disappearing into the mountains for trips lasting 3-5 days. I have a spreadsheet detailing all gear that I may need and use it religiously. At times, friends have laughed when I show up with an extra 10-15 pounds of gear, but later they cry when they realize they didn't plan appropriately, especially when it comes to proper clothing. Yes indeed, cotton is not the preferred material. Thank you for educating all of us.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Always good to meet someone who enjoys disappearing into the mountains.

As the old saying goes, "better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it." My biggest thing, always trying to keep pack weight down, is to make sure the gear and clothing I have functions even when the weather turns bad.

Thanks for reading and commenting TotalHealth!


Byron Wolf profile image

Byron Wolf 4 years ago

Wow. I had no idea cotton could be dangerous. Very useful and potentially life-saving hub.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

It is strange to think that a material as common as cotton can pose a potential threat to those in the outdoors. I'm glad you found it useful, thanks for stopping by Byron Wolf!


Darp profile image

Darp 4 years ago from Toronto

Thanks for posting this. Great information that needs to be known. Consider how many people think jeans are the perfect outdoors pants. You might want to look into the environmental aspect of cotton too. Apparently, with common growing practices, tonnes of pesticides are used to get a good yield.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

I was looking into the dangers of cotton pesticides a while ago, now that "organic" cotton seems to be the craze. Yes, most synthetics (even the recycled ones)are petroleum based, so there is an issue there too.

However if a synthetic shirt lasts five times longer than a cotton shirt, it seems that there is a potential environmental savings too.

Thanks for reading Darp!


Derp 4 years ago

Thanks for this awesome hub! :) I airsoft a lot even when it rains and sometimes i use some cotton shirts and trousers but now after reading this i will avoid using cotton when it rains or the ground is wet. No wonder why I sometimes get cold.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

That is for sure Derp, rolling around on the wet ground in cotton clothing will get you soaked for sure. Especially, if you go to lie in an ambush position afterwards.

Thanks for stopping by!


ptosis profile image

ptosis 4 years ago from Arizona

What about in the Arizona heat? I love cotton - everything I have is cotton. When I do go cold weather my absolute favorite underwear is Duofold. Cotton on the inside and merino wool of the outside.

But it's is true when skiing that the cotton scarf over the mouth is stupid. I love wool.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Most desert/hot weather/arid backpackers are wearing performance synthetics now - they protect you from the sun, breathe better, and keep you warm after the sun goes down. However, quite a few hikers wear cotton while it is wet and allow the process of evaporation to keep them cooler.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting ptosis.


Jay 4 years ago

Actually cotton is quit safe...and it feels much better too...use it with and alongside other naturals like wool and leather - intelligently..and at least for myself...I've enjoyed many hours/days in the outdoors without problems. ( rain, snow, heat, cold, etc...). Actually spent 8 years of my life in the military too with 70% of that time in the outdoors. In that case though of course they use in part issued synthetics, but you were free to supplement what you wore; and cotton was part of it for myself and others I knew; Again no problems with it.

I think this is a bit sensationalist.

Really dislike the feel of synthetics...so yeah I am biased.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

As we often said on the AT - hike your own hike. If you really want to wear cotton, wear cotton, nobody is stopping you. And, despite the sensationalism of the statement "cotton kills," on the whole wearing non-cotton in the outdoors is safer in most situations.

I for one, find performance synthetics and merino wool more comfortable when I'm out in the woods, especially here in the very wet Northeast. I guess we are all biased :)

When I was in the Army, our BDUs were a cotton/poly mix - it was fine in the jungle, even though they never dried. I was the opposite and traded the cotton undershirt and briefs for cool max - great for being in the field for a few weeks. For cold-weather we wore our ECWCS system: it was all gore-tex, polypro, and wool.

I totally see where you are coming from though Jay, this was just my two-cents on helping people enjoy the outdoors safely. Thanks for your service and thanks for your input.


brenda12lynette profile image

brenda12lynette 4 years ago from Utah

I will say I enjoy cotton when hiking in the Grand Canyon in August. There are places along Bright Angel to soak your clothes in freezing cold water and feels great against my burning skin!

Aside from that, I prefer actual legit backpacking clothes. Another hub with great hiking info, Dan!!


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Because cotton dries so slowly the process of evaporation can feel great on your skin when the temps are hot. It's a trick that many arid -climate hikers like to use. You just have to make sure you have something else to change into after the sun goes down.

Heck I wear backpacking clothes for going to the supermarket, so I guess you can tell which I prefer too.

Thanks for stopping by Brenda!


michyoung profile image

michyoung 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA

Thanks for the tips. I never thought that clothes made in cotton could be very dangerous when you are traveling or hiking. I always wear cotton whenever I travel or going in a trip. But after reading your hub, I would definitely avoid wearing it when I travel.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

It seems like many manufacturers make clothing to look "outdoorsy" without actually meant to be worn in the outdoors. It can be deceiving. Again, cotton has its uses, just be careful when you wear it.

Thanks for the comment michyoung!


lisasuniquevoice profile image

lisasuniquevoice 4 years ago from Michigan

Outbound Dan,

I never really thought about what my hiking gear was made of. I do know that you are right about not planning on twisting an ankle. It can happen anywhere, and if someone can't carry you, you may have to stay where you are for a long time.

Lisa


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Though usually nothing catastrophic happen, it is best to be prepared in case something does. One of the easiest ways, is to make sure we are dressed properly while engaged in out outdoor pursuits.

Good hiking Lisa and thanks for commenting!


Richard M. 4 years ago

I tried synthetics...they rip easier than cotton. Also I live in Hawaii so all of our hikes are WAY shorter and less intense than your mainland ones.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Richard, you are right that many synthetics tend to be flimsy when compared to the likes of materials like cotton-duck or canvas. However, some of the synthetic clothing I have tried though is much more durable and holds up to years of hiking abuse. The pants from Rail Riders are just awesome - pretty much bomb proof.

I had friends of mine stationed in Hawaii and they loved the hiking there, someday I'll make it out there.

Thanks - OBD


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

This hub is loaded with helpful hiking info. Nothing like experience as a teacher, and in this case, your school in this post is the place to learn those lessons vicariously--the best way. Thanks.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

I guess we always got lucky. When I was a kid, my family went camping and hiking just about every summer, and cotton was all we had. Lucky for us, we were on well-established trails within national parks on day hikes of not more than 3 hours round trip--not out backpacking.

We never got lost or separated, or injured, so luck was with us. The "what to wear" was a non-issue in those days. It wasn't until I was married with kids of my own that I learned that (back then) wool was the better choice.

This is a very well-done and thorough article. Voted up, interesting, useful and shared.


missolive profile image

missolive 4 years ago from Texas

Very useful info that may possibly save a life. Everything you said makes perfect sense. Thanks for the valuable info.


jennzie profile image

jennzie 4 years ago from Lower Bucks County, PA

I didn't know about the dangers of wearing cotton when hiking outdoors before reading this. Very well-written and informative. Voted up!


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

@ RTalloni This is why I try to share my experiences of what I've learned in the mountains, so that others can be safer in the outdoors. Thanks for reading!

@DzyMsLizzy The important thing is to get outdoors, and if cotton is what you have - you'll probably be ok... You survived, right. However, materials like wool and the wide variety of synthetics will make you much more comfortable (and safer). Thank you for commenting and for sharing!

@Missolive if just one person avoids a hypothermic death by wearing the right outdoor clothing, it is all worth it.

@Jennzie Thanks for the compliment!


Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 4 years ago from USA

I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know this about cotton, but then again, I live in the city and don't get out much! Voted up. I am smarter now.


greatstuff profile image

greatstuff 4 years ago from Malaysia

From reading your article, this advice applies to hiking even in tropical countries. This is new to me and thanks for sharing. Awesome writing.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Even walking a few city blocks in damp weather could have one rethinking their wardrobe. Glad to increase your smartness and thanks for reading Millionaire Tips!


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Exactly greatstuff, this surely applies to people hiking in the tropics. I lived in the Panamanian jungle during the rainy season and it is quite hard to get comfortable - having the correct clothing makes all the difference. Thanks for reading!


homesteadpatch profile image

homesteadpatch 4 years ago from Michigan

Great information that I never really thought about before. Certainly makes one second guess a trip in the cooler months wearing jeans (and not necessarily a hiking trip).


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

You are right homesteadpatch, that you don't have to be hiking to think about clothing materials. Just imagine of your vehicle breaks down while driving through the mountains in the winter - it could be a chilly couple of days.

When I travel I also, tend to wear my synthetic hiking clothing. It is lighter to pack and washes up more easily when it is time to launder them.

Thanks for reading and commenting!


tjdavis profile image

tjdavis 4 years ago from Moscow, Texas

Dan..thanks for this most important informative hub. I'm not an avid hiker, but I am an avid mountain back roader and this might just save my life one day.

Voted up and shared :-)


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

You are quite welcome tjdavis! Hopefully, you never have an off-road emergency, but dressing properly may help you to be prepared.

Thank you for reading and for sharing.


Green Art profile image

Green Art 4 years ago

Great information here! I was caught in the rain while on a long bike ride and my clothing got very wet and cold quickly. I was wearing a cotton t-shirt and shorts. I had a light weight wind breaker and put that on over my wet clothing. As the temperature dropped I began to shiver and my speech started to slur. Fortunately other riders with me figured out what was happening to me and we all stopped in a store where I could get warm and dry. The store we found sold clothing that repelled the rain. I was very lucky I didn't pass out on the side of the road. Voted UP and Useful!


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 4 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Just like in hiking, you found out how important the right clothing can be while cycling. I've found too that my body chills down differently while riding than it does while hiking. I once hit a cold snap on a multiday bike tour and ended up buying clothes to avoid freezing.

It was fortunate that others were with you and that you were able to find clothing when you needed it.

Thanks for sharing your story and for reading Green Art!


bisnar6665 profile image

bisnar6665 3 years ago from Irvine, California

I don't get out all that much, but your hub sucked me! Not a bad read.


WiccanSage profile image

WiccanSage 3 years ago

Great hub. I don't on any major hikes, minor day hikes in very familiar, very populated areas has been my speed, but I've thought about going on my beautiful state trail and am trying to learn. I didn't know there is anything wrong with cotton clothing, I learned a lot here. Thanks.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Don't get me wrong WiccanSage, cotton clothing has its place, but I'm sure you'll be more more comfortable (and safer) if you look at the alternatives. This would be especially true if you are planning on tackling some of the more remote trails that your state has to offer.

If you have any gear or clothing questions, feel free to ask me.

Good hiking!


Lori Murray profile image

Lori Murray 3 years ago

Hey OD ...enjoyed the read - I've recently launched myself back into hiking after 12 years - I live near the Adirondacks (NY) ...been shopping for a bit of 'technical' clothing - I noticed most of what Cabela's call hiking pants are predominantly cotton which I found odd. I'm currently only interested in day hikes (although I know Fall is in full swing & Winter is fast approaching). Sooo hard to find the right pants ... I noticed in the comments you mentioned using cotton/poly blends in the service but you said they never felt dry. I just ordered a pair of tactical pants (Black Hawk) - cotton/poly at 65/35 ratio I believe. One of the things this company highlighted was fast dry, water resistant (treated) ... I would think 'fast dry' would mean breathable - yet water resistant sounds the opposite. I'm wondering what your take is on this ...I have in the past, always hiked in nylon but need a plus size right now so have very limited options. TY!


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Hi Lori. Tactical manufacturers like Black Hawk and 5.11 use a lot of blends in their clothing lines for both durability and the occasional fire resistance. Bad things happen to nylon in fires and it is difficult to retain its properties while making it durable enough for military and law enforcement use. Of course anyone that has had a pair of Railriders will tell you all about the extreme durability of their synthetic pants. Most of the tactical pants have a hydrophobic coating, which treats the fibers to make them water resistant. However, breathability usually isn't compromised.

Try your pants out and see how you like them - I'm sure they'll be fine for hiking. Living near the Adirondacks, you may want to stop into one of the hiking specialty stores and see what they offer for pants. Off the top of my head, the following Adirondack outfitters are excellent: Old Forge: Mountainman, Lake Placid: EMS, Keene Valley: The Mountaineer.

Good hiking to you and thanks for reading.


elemenopy profile image

elemenopy 3 years ago from Oneonta, NY

I had no idea! I imagine this is important for outdoor winter sports as well. My teen is starting indoor track this winter, and for some reason the group runs outside in very cold temps. Good info to have.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 3 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

From what I've seen, most running apparel is manufactured with hydrophobic moisture wicking synthetics. This is one reason why athletic specific clothing usually costs more than your run of the mill t-shirt. But if your teen is getting cold on runs, forget the cotton waffle weave and opt for a set of polypro baselayers.

Thanks for reading elemenopy!


Edward J. Palumbo profile image

Edward J. Palumbo 2 years ago from Tualatin, OR

While hunting and photographing in marginal weather, I wore wool trousers and a polypropylene undershirt with wool overshirt and a down parka. A young man in our group, wearing the finest from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, looked at my red plaid shirt and commented, "That looks like 'old school' to me!" Guess whose teeth were chattering when a cold front lowered the temperature? Wool will still keep you warm when it's wet. Too soon we grow old; too late we grow smart. Great Hub, well written.


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 2 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

Like it has been said, when you are outdoors - it's survival not a fashion show. I find myself facepalming when I go backpacking and I see scores of folks dressed like department store mannequins, especially when I see them venturing above treeline. My wool baselayers are some of my favorite things to wear. Heck yesterday, I was snowshoeing in -20 windchills but I was still toasty warm.

Thanks for the comment Edward!


Blond Logic profile image

Blond Logic 2 years ago from Brazil

Very interesting hub. I live in a tropical humid climate and for us, cotton is a problem. Not only does it hold the sweat longer as you said, it also breaks down quickly due to the UV rays.


Justin 2 years ago

I live in Calfornia and wear cotton a lot hiking in dry weather. I find it to be the most comfortable and keeps me the coolest. I also like polycotton.

I've also been very wet and cold and truly understand the value of non cotton clothing in those situations.

The problem is new hikers don't know when it's inappropriate to wear cotton and get themselves in trouble.


Hezekiah profile image

Hezekiah 2 years ago from Japan

Very interesting and well written article there. I don't do much hiking but it has sure made me think for the next time I do.


Smart Guy 2 years ago

Synthetic fibers are made from oil. How wonderful that you want to enjoy the splendor of the outdoors by supporting the destruction of it. Man wore cotton in the outdoors and survived for millennia.


Edward J. Palumbo profile image

Edward J. Palumbo 2 years ago from Tualatin, OR

My ancestors wore animal skins for millenia, but better options have been developed. There's a place for wool, for goose down, for Gore-Tex, and certainly for synthetics. Man did wear cotton for millenia, usually in temperate or warm climates. Those who relied on it in cold, wett conditions did so at their peril. Should you find yourself in subfreezing weather and eschew every modern improvement in extreme cold weather wear, your hypothermic experience may change your opinion. The objective is to survive, to operate comfortably in challenging conditions...depending on where you live, that may mean compromising your environmental ethic to survive the threat of the environment in which you find yourself. Things to ponder.


Michael O'Connor 2 years ago

I find this to be just the opposite. When I wear synthetic materials I sweat twice as much and the shirts stay damp. while when wearing cotton it breaths and dries faster. I have been camping in snow at -10 to 0 degrees wearing only cotton and have stayed dry and warm. yet I have been camping in dry weather at 30 to 40 degrees wearing synthetics and was wet and miserably cold


Ana Koulouris profile image

Ana Koulouris 2 years ago from Chicago, IL

Not only is this a well-written article, it is very informative and interesting. While I'm not much of an outdoors-woman, the information you present can be useful during shorter outings into nature, not solely hiking and backpacking trips. Well done, Dan!


Outbound Dan profile image

Outbound Dan 2 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY Author

I am really falling behind in responding to my comments - thanks to all who have read and took the time to comment upon my article. I greatly appreciate it.

Even for non-backpackers, wearing climate appropriate clothing is important. Currently, I am thinking of the folks in my hometown of Western New York that were hit with a major snowstorm. Those people that spent days digging out from under six-feet of snow were thankful for having the right layers.

Though cotton may seem like a "greener" choice is selecting outdoor clothing, there are more environmentally friendly selections also boast better performance. Some of my favorite year-around baselayers are merino wool and cocona. Cocona is made from the carbon produced from discarded coconut shells - it is comfortable and performs well in all conditions. Within the synthetic market, manufacturers like Patagonia and Rab use recycled materials to produce their garments. Plus, despite its image, the general production of cotton is far from green with its immense use of pesticides and irrigation. According to an article in The Triple Helix, cotton crops account for nearly 25% of all the pesticides that the world uses. Hence the push for "organic" cotton from the environmentally conscious crowd. I do my best to think of the environment when I shop.

Thanks again, everyone for your great and thoughtful comments.


Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 2 years ago from Mississauga, ON

Great hub, Dan! Unfortunately, I learned the hard way. Adventuring in the deserts of the UAE (intermittently from 1996 to 2003), I found the disadvantages of cotton. Even though cotton gave a nice wet cool feeling till the sun was up, it soon led to cold effect. Changing the shirt and carrying extras was another hassle.

There is still so much of new information here that I can put it to good use. I believe a trip to outdoor adventure stores is due now.

Thanks again for writing such an informative hub as this one.


Elsie Hagley profile image

Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

Interesting reading. I always thought that cotton was excellence fabric as it's cool in the heat and it warms you in the cold. This article is the first time I have heard about it like this. It has made me stop and think about the subject. Thanks for sharing.


yehring 2 years ago

A lot of good information, but hate the phrase. Cotton has no more ability to kill than Teflon products breath. If you understand the limitations of cotton, then there are numerous applications for outdoor use. None of which would include high aerobic activity in cold weather however.

A couple technical issues with what you wrote:

1. The body does not conduct heat 25 times faster when wet than dry. Water has 25 times the thermal conductivity of air, so heat loss from the body is 2-5 times more quickly when wet than dry. 25 times faster is ridiculously fast and completely negates the efficiency of the human body in preserving heat. Its been miss-stated for a long time. These facts are from full immersion in cold water, not just wet clothing. Essentials of Sea Survival, Golden and Tipton. Best read on hypothermia and how the body loses heat there is.

2. Synthetic materials don't wick moisture away from the skin to the outside layers where it evaporates. There is so much wrong about this I don't know where to start. Synthetics wick by spreading out water molecules (water) so that the heat pump action of the body can convert it to water vapor again so that it can then evaporate or escape. A strong temperature differential from inside the clothes and outside make this process more efficient. The idea is not to sweat where your producing water, but to regulate clothing to keep it at the vapor level. That's where the efficiency of synthetics really come into play. Haven't figured that out for snowshoeing or Nordic skiing yet but that's the idea. The idea of breathing comes from vapor (not water) being able to escape your clothing due to the heat pump action of your body. Without that, the vapor stays. It doesn't get sucked out of your clothing by this idea that it breaths. Thank you Gore-Tex for coining that stupid phrase to describe this process. Cotton, as you stated, saturates water, doesn't allow it to spread out, and thus doesn't allow the heat pump of the body to return it to vapor and evaporate or escape. Synthetics have limitations too. Trying wearing nylon next to the skin while your sweating and you'll know what "cold soak" means. Nylon takes on the temperature of the surrounding air and when its wet and next to the skin, it can be a painful experience. Back to my original statement of knowing the limitations of your gear.

Thanks for the topic awareness, very well written, and very much appreciate the effort in getting the word out.


Adam 23 months ago

great article. knew cotton wasnt the best option, but didn't realise it was that bad. jeans and cotton pants were always off my list as well as hoodies, but never knew a cotton tshirt would be so bad. even with thermal base layer? gearing up for the milford track next year here in NZ and its known as a very wet area, so good advice


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 23 months ago from Long Island, NY

I'm an avid hiker but this is something I did not know. Just two weeks ago I hiked on a cold winter day and I realized I was all sweaty after walking 7 miles at a fast four mile-per-hour pace. Of course I was wearing cotton and now I know better. Thanks for the education from this well written and informative hub.


LiteraryMind profile image

LiteraryMind 22 months ago from Connecticut, USA

I found this information fascinating. It's perfectly logical and yet I never thought of it. This will change what I pack for my Alaska trip next year.


LiteraryMind profile image

LiteraryMind 22 months ago from Connecticut, USA

I found this information fascinating. It's perfectly logical and yet I never thought of it. This will change what I pack for my Alaska trip next year.


NewHiker 22 months ago

I heard something like "cotton kills" from an experienced hiker and bought a pair of hiking pants (made of nylon) - it's light, it's waterproof, it's tough. However, man, that almost "killed" me! Those "hiking pants" don't breathe and my lower body was soaked with sweat - this unexpected excessive sweating led to rapid dehydration, and I was stuck in the middle of a national park almost unable to move. Back to cotton jeans which keep my ass dry - that's perfectly fine for a day-hiker like me.


carrie Lee Night profile image

carrie Lee Night 22 months ago from Northeast United States

Learned something new and valuable today :) Thank you for sharing !


20 months ago

I had no idea how lucky I've been - nearly 50 years of hiking, camping and backpacking in cotton jeans - and - miraculously - I survived just fine.


Edward J. Palumbo profile image

Edward J. Palumbo 20 months ago from Tualatin, OR

W, Do you hike and camp in moist or wet weather in freezing or nearly freezing temperatures? If not, this is not a major concern for you. You may observe that cotton jeans or gym clothes do not retain heat and will not keep you warm when wet. If you fall through ice and find yourself in waist-deep water, as I have, those jeans will wick away body heat in very short order. In that situation, wool will continue to insulate you but cotton will not, and hypothermia is a deadly adversary. I'm glad you miraculously survived just fine.


J.M 19 months ago

Good to know.


bnayr profile image

bnayr 19 months ago from Manchester

Fantastic Hub, gave you a thumbs up! Keep up the great writing.:)


gohuntgame profile image

gohuntgame 19 months ago from Wahiawa, Hawaii

Awesome information. when I was Stationed in Fort Drum, Cold weather raining was a big thing, Not so much in Hawaii though, We would have death by Power Point training all the time. But in the end, it was good information that will save your life. Layer-Up and stay Hydrated = #HappyTrails and #SafeOutDooring Thanks Dan!!

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