Garments for hiking are often labeled as quick-drying. However, many hikers don’t know why they should use quick-drying clothing and what benefits such clothing brings. In the following I’ll explain why you should wear quick-drying clothes for hiking and factors for the drying time of different garments. As the drying time of garments depends on the materials out of which they are made, I will also compare the drying times of different materials that are used for sports apparel (polyester, Merino wool, nylon etc.).
Drying time of clothes has impact on
Hiking consists of periods of high intensity exercise (going uphill) followed by periods of low intensity exercise (going downhill) or rest. During the high intensity phases perspiration increases and your clothes become soaked with sweat (especially true for garments worn next to the skin – i.e. base layer and underwear). Wet garments drastically increase the conductive heat loss – the body’s heat transfers to wet garments much faster than to dry garments. As a result, the body temperature decreases which can be hazardous in very cold conditions (especially while going downhill or taking a break) and uncomfortable at more moderate temperatures or in windy weather.
If your next-to-the-skin garments are wet, the friction between them and the skin increases and causes discomfort; especially in the thighs, armpits and shoulders (if you are carrying a backpack) area. Many hikers have problems with inner thigh chaffing because they are wearing inappropriate underwear (i.e. underwear that absorbs too much moisture and dries slowly). While this might not be hazardous, it can be annoying to the point of ruining your hiking trip.
Wet clothes are much heavier than dry clothes due to the water/perspiration in their fibers. Some materials are very absorbent and thus even a lightweight t-shirt can become heavy when soaked with sweat. Keep in mind that while hiking an average male has a sweat rate of 500 to 1000 milliliters per hour (read more about this in our article How much water to take on a hiking trip?) and if all this sweat gets absorbed by clothing that is not quick-drying, the clothing eventually becomes very heavy. Heavy garments are not just uncomfortable – they also impair your performance.
Factors in the drying time of garments
The drying time of a garment depends mainly on how much water the garment absorbs (a garment is dry when the water has completely evaporated from its fibers into the air). The thicker (denser) the garment, the more water it absorbs. Therefore, thick garments take longer to dry than thin garments but as they are warmer, they are nevertheless required for hiking at low temperatures. However, sophisticated insulated garments are made of materials which are relatively thin while providing great warmth (read more about insulated clothing in our article Comparison of Mid-layer Materials). Such garments typically dry very fast while still providing great warmth.
Some materials (fibers) are hydrophilic, while the others are hydrophobic (water-repelling). Hydrophilic materials absorb water and thus dry longer than hydrophobic materials. An example of such material is cotton. Hydrophobic materials resist moisture and thus absorb very little water – in most cases only a fraction of their own weight. Therefore, they dry very fast. An example of such material is polyester.
Drying time of different materials
Polyester is the most commonly used material for sports apparel – exactly because it absorbs only up to 0.4% of its own weight in moisture and thus dries super fast. Polyester fibers are also fairly durable and thus polyester can be knit into very thin fabrics. However, polyester also has downsides; it offers poor odor control and limited breathability (also depends on the thickness of the fabric). Therefore, pure polyester is not the best fabric for hiking – especially when it comes to multi-day trips.
Merino wool absorbs up to 33% of its own weight in moisture but due to its unique fiber construction it provides decent warmth even when wet; only the inner part of each fiber absorbs water while the outer part, which touches your skin, is hydrophobic. Therefore, Merino garments feel less clammy against the skin when they are wet than garments made of other materials. Wet merino garments have little impact on comfort and heat loss and are highly recommended for hiking despite the fact that they take longer to dry than for example polyester garments. Merino wool is, however, not as resilient as polyester or nylon (read more in our article How durable are Merino garments?) and therefore you will often find that thin Merino garments include a small percentage of synthetic fibers (nylon or polyester) for better durability . Such garments dry faster than pure Merino garments. To learn more about drying time of polyester and Merino wool check out our article Does Polyester Really Dry Faster Than Merino Wool.
Nylon is like polyester a hydrophobic material and absorbs very little moisture in its own weight. Nylon is slightly more durable than polyester but on the other hand it also provides even poorer breathability and odor-control. Nylon is typically used for pants due to its durability. Often it is blended with other fibers (merino wool, polyester, spandex etc.).
If you are into hiking, you have probably heard that cotton kills. Well, that’s not completely true (at least I haven’t heard of any confirmed dead solely because of wearing a cotton t-shirt) but people make such comments exactly because cotton takes forever to dry. Cotton fibers are extremely water absorbent and therefore cotton clothes are unsuitable for hiking. Some studies claim that cotton absorbs up to 25 times its weight in moisture – even though I find this number exaggerated. This basically means that a t-shirt with the weight of 150 grams would weigh 3900 grams after being soaked in water – and that’s for sure not true. Nevertheless, avoid cotton garments when it comes to hiking as there are many better materials available.
So, why should you wear quick drying clothes for hiking? Quick drying clothes reduce the heat loss (which is especially important in cold weather), increase comfort and remain lightweight throughout the hike. Therefore you should make sure to check which materials a garment is made of before you buy it. For base layers I recommend garments made of polyester (for short hikes) or Merino wool (for long hikes). As a mid-layer use a garment that is made of polyester fleece (like for example Polartec) rather than of Merino wool – thick Merino wool mid-layers tend to become heavy when soaked with sweat.