Many people have heard the old chestnut that COTTON KILLS!!!!!!
If a person wears cotton in the backcountry, then somehow, they are putting their life in danger. That they become a hypothermic popsicle, turns fifty shades of blue, and the local Search and Rescue group will have to save their sorry ass.
The truth is cotton will kill. But mainly in certain conditions and with certain types of gear.
As with all “just so” nuggets of info, there is a certain amount of truth to the information.
In wet and cold conditions, cotton is indeed terrible. When wet, cotton loses all insulation value, takes heat away from the body, does not wick well, and takes forever to dry. And blue jeans, the beginners hiking pants of choice, are often uncomfortable over the long haul, don’t breathe well, and are miserable when wet.
But, as with many nuggets of conventional wisdom, it is a broad brush and a decent guideline but not entirely accurate.
While many people (myself included) will dissuade beginners from using cotton in the backcountry as it is a generally safer rule-of-thumb, there are times when cotton is okay or even preferable.
- I prefer thin poly-cotton blend dress shirts over “technical” shirts or nylon button-down shirts. I find the polycotton blends breathe better, are very adaptable (roll the sleeves; button them up and down as appropriate) dry fast, durable, inexpensive, and keep the sun and bugs at bay. I used to use hospital scrub shirts (50/50 blend) for many years, and they worked well.
Since moving to Colorado, I’ve used old thrift store shirts or even recycled “casual” dress shirts that are generally a 65/35 polycotton blend for my three-season hiking. I honestly prefer them over other options. On trips to Utah, New Mexico, and even the Canadian Rockies, my polycotton blend shirt dried very quickly.
- A bandanna is always welcome. A very versatile item; I wear it under my trusty (nylon-cotton) boonie hat and helps keep me cool as well.
- Though I don’t hike in them per se (nylon pants and shorts are lighter and more comfortable for me), polycotton pants are more durable than their nylon counterparts. Great for trail work or beating around in camp.
- I’ve never used it personally, but some very experienced winter trekkers swear by a cotton anorak for very cold and dry winter conditions. The theory is that it breathes exceptionally well and lets the sweat out while keeping the fluffy powder at bay.
- Of course, many people swear by cotton for hot and dry conditions such as desert hiking.
So, in conclusion… Yes, cotton can kill esp if used in cold and wet conditions. Plus, there are often superior alternatives available. But in some instances, cotton is a perfectly excellent choice and even the preferred material. It can be an inexpensive and effective alternative to more expensive options.
I doubt I’ll be hiking in blue jeans, wearing cotton base layers in winter, or sporting a cotton hoodie for any backcountry excursions.
But I suspect I’ll be using a polycotton blend shirt, my bandanna, and a trusty boonie hat for years to come. And I sure as heck will not trust nylon pants for any sustained trail work. 🙂
- Here are some actual lab tests to validate my ham-fisted rule of thumb findings.
But I have to say I’m with Paul on this one: for a measly $20 you can get a good-looking hiking shirt that’s lighter, more breathable, and dries faster (or just as fast) as the Kuhl or Montbell at a quarter of the price. Oh, and it won’t kill you.