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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 fabrics have radically different properties. Choosing the wrong type, or mixing clothes of different materials, can be disastrous!
You might not be able to tell what a piece is made of by looking. A nice, fuzzy, chunky 100 percent cotton flannel shirt will stay warm and cozy until it gets wet. Then that wet shirt can suck heat from your torso and cause hypothermia!
On the other side of the equation is wool. My winter favorite, wool, is generally a bad choice for a desert hike in August. Wool traps heat, and while it provides some UV protection, the material will keep your body from getting cold.
So buyer beware.
Before buying any item of clothing, read the labels and find out what the material is. Ignore fashion or what’s hot (I know it’s hard, I have a 14 year old daughter!), and shop based on the activity and clothing protection that will be needed.
Here are some common fabric options:
* Cotton: Depending on where you live, cotton clothing can kill you. Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning it doesn’t wick moisture away from the skin and can get wet just from exposure to moisture.
These 100% cotton two-pieces would keep you warm until they get wet. Then this clothing could become dangerous!
Once wet, cotton feels cold and can lose up to 90 percent of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can absorb body heat 25 times faster than when dry.
Since I’ve spent a lot of time in the Deep South, my go-to shirt for the heat is a mid-weight, white, 100% cotton Navy 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 reasonable amount of UV protection.
On very hot days in a canoe, a cotton shirt can be soaked in water and worn to cool off. On a desert hike, help prevent heatstroke by using a few ounces of water to wet your shirt. (Water can come from anywhere, including that algae-rimmed stock tank. Evaporation is what cools you!)
The same properties that make cotton a good choice for warmth 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 dress can keep you warm in the city, but don’t wear it in the country! Once the cotton gets wet, you could be 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 hot September dove hunt in Mississippi, but they get cold and damp when damp or wet, just like anything else made of cotton.
* Polypropylene: this material does not absorb water, therefore it is hydrophobic. This makes it a great base layer as it wicks moisture away from the body. The bad news is that polypropylene melts, so a spark from the campfire can melt holes in your clothes.
* Wool: Where I live in Central Oregon, wool is the standard for six months of the year. A good pair of wool pants and wool socks are the first items of clothing we recommend for new Boy Scouts in our troop. For our winter scouting trips, 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 a good thing. The material has good insulation and wind stopping value, and can be manufactured in many different thicknesses.
* Nylon: The fabric is quite durable and can be used as an outer layer. It doesn’t absorb much moisture, and what it does evaporates quickly. It is better to use it as a kind of windbreaker, to prevent clothes from being compromised by the wind.
* Down: This material is not a fabric, but fluffy feathers stuffed inside a piece of clothing 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 wear a down vest on my back due to potential moisture issues. When wet, the down becomes hydrophilic and loses virtually all of its insulating value. It can be worse than cotton in that it absorbs body heat.
Also, a sleeping bag or down clothing is virtually impossible to dry in the country, even with a roaring campfire.
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