Cotton kills?

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 excellent for drinking coffee…. 🙂

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.

  • 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.
peter o'toole - lawrence of arabia 1962

Not quite what I meant..but, I do love this movie!

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. 🙂

UPDATE 2019: 

 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.  

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8 years ago

So Cotton kills and synthetics stink, well kind of, but for me the main advantage of cotton and poly/cotton blends has been that they don’t easily catch fire. Try welding in a synthetic shirt and see how long it takes to catch fire how the molten plastic sticks to your skin when you put the fire out. I have never been a fan of 100% cotton clothes, but have worn blue jeans and cotton long underwear without incident, provided that I don’t get wet or sweat too much. In the heat and humidity of the midwestern summer, I much prefer… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

I would agree with you on cold and wet cotton being worse than synthetics, if you have to wear it dry. When cotton gets wet and it’s cold, you need to get out of the wet clothes and put on something dry. This does make cotton a poor choice cold, damp days, especially when some sweating is involved. I never could figure out why someone would want a cotton sweatshirt unless it’s to use as a towel. I have a few, but only wear them while working. I’m not really a proponent of cotton and I think that way too… Read more »

8 years ago

Somebody explain me this: lakes freeze only after the air is below freezing for a long time, right? And who hasn’t been swimming in the cold and have stayed comfortable while in the water, but frozen when getting out into the air? Water retains heat better than air.

4 years ago
Reply to  Frank

The phenomenon you’re talking about being cold when you get out of the pool is exactly the same mechanism that makes you cold in wet clothes. Would you rather be naked and dry or naked and wet in the cold?