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Know the Fabrics to Make Smart Outdoor Clothing Choices
Dressing for outdoor living starts with knowing what to wear. Different fabrics have very different properties. Choosing the wrong type, or mixing clothes with different materials, can be disastrous!
You may not know what a dress looks like by looking. A beautiful, crisp, thick 100 percent cotton flannel shirt will stay warm and cozy until wet. Then that wet shirt can absorb heat from your body and cause hypothermia!
On one side of the equation is wool. My winter favorite, wool, is a poor choice for an August desert adventure. Wool traps heat, and while it provides protection from UV rays, the material will prevent your body from freezing.
Therefore, buyers need to be careful.
Before buying clothes, read the label and find out what the material is. Ignore fashion or fashion (I know it’s hard – I have a 14-year-old daughter!), and make your purchases based on the activity and clothing protection that is needed.
Here are some common fabric options:
*Coton: Depending on where you live, cotton clothing can kill you. Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning that it is not good at removing moisture from the skin, and can become wet simply by being wet.
These 100% cotton two-piece suits will keep you warm until you get wet. Then, it can become dangerous to wear this dress!
Once wet, cotton freezes and can lose up to 90 percent of its insulating properties. Wet cotton can remove 25 times more heat from your body than dry cotton.
Since I spend a lot of time in the Deep South, my warmest warm-weather shirt is a medium-sized, 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 UV protection.
On very hot days in the canoe, cotton shirts can be soaked in water and worn to keep you cool. On desert trips, help prevent heatstroke by using a few drops of water to wash your shirt. (The water can come from anywhere, including the algae tank. It’s the steam that cools you down!)
The same properties that make cotton a good choice for hot weather kill it in rain, snow and cold.
Casual urban clothing can be all cotton: sweatpants, Hanes or Fruit of the Loom, jeans, tee shirts, flannel shirts and shirts. This outfit might keep you warm in the city, but don’t do it in the back country! Once the cotton is wet, you may be in trouble.
Don’t be fooled by the look and feel of a 100 percent cotton hunting jacket. These clothes are what you need for a hot September dove hunt in Mississippi, but they get cold and damp when wet or damp, 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 sparks from campfires can melt holes in your clothing.
* Wool: Where I live in Central Oregon, wool is the norm for six months of the year. Wool pants and good wool boots are the first clothes we recommend to new Boy Scouts in our troop. For a winter scout trip, any type of cotton clothing is highly discouraged. Jeans are prohibited.
Wool absorbs moisture, but stays warmer than many other fabrics. Wool is also flame retardant.
* Polyester: It’s a fabric made from plastic, and it’s a good thing. The material has good insulation and air value, and can be made in many different thicknesses.
* Nylon: The fabric is tough and can be used as an outer layer. It does not absorb much moisture, and evaporates quickly. It is best used as a kind of windbreaker, to protect your clothes from the wind.
* Down: This material is not a cloth, but a fluffy feather wrapped in a garment or sleeping bag. When dry, it is one of my favorite insulating materials.
But I don’t use a sleeping bag, and I’m hesitant to wear underwear in the back because of potential moisture issues. When wet, the down becomes hydrophilic, and loses almost all of its insulating value. It can be worse than cotton if it absorbs heat from your body.
Additionally, sleeping bags or clothes are almost impossible to dry in the backcountry, even with a campfire burning.
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