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Know the Fabrics to Make Smart Outdoor Clothing Choices
Dressing for outdoor survival starts with knowing what fabric to wear. Different fabrics have different radical properties. Choosing the wrong type, or mixing clothing with different materials, can be a disaster!
You may not be able to tell by looking what the garment is made of. A nice, fluffy, thick 100 percent cotton shirt will keep you warm and comfortable as long as it’s wet. That wet shirt then drains heat away from your waist, causing hypothermia!
On the other side of the equation is wool. My hands-down favorite in winter, wool, is usually a bad choice for a desert trip in August. Wool absorbs heat, and while it provides some UV protection, the material will prevent your body from cooling.
Therefore, the buyer must be careful.
Before buying clothes, read the labels and find out what the material is. Ignore fashion or what’s new (I know it’s hard – I have a 14-year-old daughter!), and base your shopping on the activities and protection the clothing will require.
Here are some common web options:
* Cotton: Depending on where you live, cotton clothes can kill you. Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning it is not good at wicking moisture away from the skin, and can become wet simply by being exposed to moisture.
These two 100% cotton jerseys will keep you warm until they get wet. Then, this dress may become dangerous to wear!
When wet, cotton becomes cold and can lose up to 90 percent of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can remove heat from your body 25 times faster than when dry.
Since I’ve spent a lot of time in the Deep South, my favorite warm weather shirt is a medium weight, white, 100 percent extra cotton Navy shirt. The shirt has a collar that can be turned up to flatter my neck, and pockets with flaps and buttons. Cotton also has a reasonable amount of UV protection.
On really hot days in the canoe, a cotton shirt can be soaked in water, and worn to keep you cool. On a desert hike, use a few ounces of water to moisten the shirt to help prevent heatstroke. (Water can come from anywhere, including that stock tank lined with algae. Evaporation is what cools you!)
The same properties that make cotton a good choice for warm weather can be deadly in rain, snow and cold.
Casual urban clothing may be all cotton: sweatpants, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, jeans, t-shirt, flannel shirt, and dress shirt. This outfit might keep you warm in the city, but don’t wear it in the backcountry! When the cotton gets wet, you can be in trouble.
Don’t be fooled by the look and camouflage patterns of 100 percent cotton hunting clothes. These clothes are my must-haves for hot September dove hunting in Mississippi, but like anything made of cotton, they get cold and stuffy when wet.
* Polypropylene: This material does not absorb water, so it is hydrophobic. This makes it a great base layer, as it keeps the sun away from your body. The bad news is that polypropylene melts, so a spark from a campfire can melt holes in your clothes.
* Wool: Where I live in Central Oregon, wool is standard for six months of the year. A good pair of wool pants and wool socks are the first items of clothing we recommend to new Boy Scouts in our troop. For our winter scouting trips, cotton clothing of any kind is strongly discouraged. Jeans are prohibited.
Wool retains moisture, but stays warmer than many other fabrics. Wool is also inherently fire retardant.
* Polyester: This is actually fabric made from plastic, and it’s a good thing. The material has good insulation and wind stopping value, and can be made in many different thicknesses.
* Nylon: The fabric is very durable and can be used as an outer layer. It doesn’t hold much moisture, and what it does drains quickly. It is better to use it as a kind of umbrella, so that your clothes are not exposed to the wind.
* Down: This material is not fabric, but rather, fluffy feathers stuffed inside a suit or sleeping bag. When dry, the foam is one of my favorite insulating materials.
But I don’t use a sleeping bag, and I’d be hesitant to pack a down gel in the backcountry because of potential moisture issues. When wet, the material becomes hydrophilic, and loses almost all of its insulating value. It can be worse than cotton as far as absorbing heat from your body.
Besides, a sleeping bag or suit is virtually impossible to dry in the backcountry, even with a roaring campfire.
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