Cotton is one of the most used materials for clothing as it is highly appreciated for being soft, non-itchy, breathable and durable. However, when it comes to clothing for hiking, mountaineering and other aerobic activities, cotton clothing has too many shortcomings to be efficiently used. Clothing for hiking should offer great temperature regulation as well as be quick-drying, moisture-wicking and odor-resistant. In the following we will explain why cotton is not a suitable material for hiking clothing. It should also be noted that cotton is one of the least sustainable fabrics there is, as the cotton plant requires enormous amounts of water.
4 reasons not to wear cotton for hiking
Absorbs too much moisture:
Cotton is extremely moisture absorbing – it can absorb as much as 2700% of its own weight in moisture. Competitive materials that are used for hiking clothing absorb much less moisture. For example polyester absorbs only up to 0.4% of its own weight in moisture, silk 30% and Merino wool 33%. As cotton clothing absorbs so much moisture, it doesn’t only become heavy when soaked with sweat but it also loses its ability to retain warmth (more below).
Poor at regulating temperature:
Clothing that offers great temperature regulation is able to keep you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. As the thermal conductivity of water is much higher than the thermal conductivity of air, this is only possible if your skin and clothing stay relatively dry – even when you are sweating. If your apparel gets soaked with sweat (or rain), your body heat is rapidly transmitted to it (in a process called conduction) and therefore you lose warmth very fast. Cotton clothing is especially problematic during the rest phases of hiking trips in cold conditions (or when you reach a windy peak) as it is often soaked with sweat and therefore it leads to rapid body heat loss. This can in severe cases lead to hypothermia.
Long drying time:
As cotton absorbs so much moisture it also dries very slowly. Hiking requires clothing that dries fast and thus reduces conductive heat loss, keeping you at your body’s natural temperature.
Cotton is in general heavier than competitive synthetic fabrics and because it absorbs so much moisture it gets even heavier when soaked with sweat.
What are the alternatives?
There are many alternatives to cotton – the most popular being polyester, Merino wool, nylon and silk. For more information about these materials please read our Comparison of Base Layer Materials. For those who really don’t want to give up on cotton there are also different blends that include cotton and synthetic materials. Such blends are Drirelease cotton, Charged Cotton from Under Armour and Dri-Fit Cotton from Nike. Some of these blends include a very high percantage of cotton, with the rest being polyester and/or elastane. Clothing made of these blends absorbs much less moisture than classic cotton clothing and therefore it dries faster (up to 8 times faster than other cotton clothing) and offers better temperature regulation while being soft and non-itchy to the touch.