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Know the Fabrics to Make Smart Outdoor Clothing Choices
Dressing for outdoor survival starts with knowing what fabrics to wear. Different substances have radically different properties. Choosing the wrong type or mixing clothes of different materials can be disastrous!
You may not be able to tell what a garment is made of by looking. A nice, fuzzy, thick 100 percent cotton flannel shirt will be warm and cozy until it gets wet. Then the wet shirt can suck the heat out of your torso and cause hypothermia!
On the other side of the equation is wool. My firm winter favorite, wool, is generally a poor choice for a desert hike in August. Wool traps heat, and although it provides some UV protection, the material will prevent your body from cooling down.
So buyer beware.
Before buying any clothes, read the labels and find out what the material is. Ignore fashion or what’s trendy (I know it’s hard – I have a 14 year old daughter!), and make your purchase based on the activity and clothing protection that will be needed.
Here are some common fabric choices:
* Cotton: Depending on where you live, cotton clothing can kill you. Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning it is not good at wicking moisture away from the skin and can become damp simply by being exposed to moisture.
Both of these 100% cotton garments would keep you warm until they got wet. Then these clothes can become dangerous to wear!
When cotton is wet, it feels cold and can lose up to 90 percent of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can conduct heat away from your body 25 times faster than when it is dry.
Since I’ve spent a lot of time in the Deep South, my favorite warm-weather shirt is a mid-weight, white, 100 percent cotton navy surplus shirt. The shirt has a collar that can be pulled up to shade my neck, and pockets with flaps and buttons. Cotton also has a fair amount of UV protection.
On really hot days in a canoe, a cotton shirt can be soaked with water and worn to cool you down. On a desert hike, help prevent heat stroke by using a few ounces of water to moisten the shirt. (The water can come from anywhere, including the algae-lined storage tank. The evaporation is what cools you!)
The same properties that make cotton a great choice for warm weather make it a killer in rain, snow and cold.
Typical urban casual clothing is probably all cotton: sweat socks, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, jeans, t-shirt, flannel shirt and sweatshirt. This outfit can keep you warm in the city, but don’t wear it in the backcountry! Once the cotton gets wet, you may end up in trouble.
Don’t be fooled by the look and camouflage patterns of 100 percent cotton hunting clothing. These garments are just what you need for a warm, September dove hunt in Mississippi, but they get cold and clammy when damp or wet, just like anything else made of cotton.
* Polypropylene: This material does not absorb water, so it is hydrophobic. This makes it a great base layer as it wicks moisture away from your body. The bad news is that polypropylene melts, so a spark from the campfire can melt holes in your clothing.
* Wool: Where I live in Central Oregon, wool is the standard for six months of the year. A good pair of wool trousers and wool socks are the first items of clothing we recommend for new Scouts in our troop. For our winter scout outings, any type of cotton clothing is strongly discouraged. Jeans are prohibited.
Wool absorbs moisture but stays warmer than many other fabrics. Wool is also inherently flame retardant.
* Polyester: This is basically fabric made from plastic, and it’s good stuff. The material has good insulation and wind-stopping value, and can be made in many different thicknesses.
* Nylon: The fabric is quite tough and can be used on your outer layer. It doesn’t absorb much moisture, and what it does evaporates quickly. It is best used as a kind of windbreaker, to prevent your clothes from being compromised by the wind.
* Down: This material is not a fabric, but rather soft feathers stuffed inside a garment or sleeping bag. When dry, down is one of my favorite insulating materials.
But I don’t use a down sleeping bag, and would be hesitant to carry a down vest into the backcountry because of potential moisture issues. When wet, down becomes hydrophilic and loses virtually all of its insulating value. It can be worse than cotton as far as wicking heat away from your body.
Additionally, a down sleeping bag or garment is virtually impossible to dry out in the backcountry, even with a roaring campfire.
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