Saturday, December 09, 2006

Performance garments and 'cotton kills'

I really like the wicking performance garments for hiking and other outdoor activities. I was quick to adopt the various types of polyester and have several tops and bottoms of various fabrics, thicknesses and lengths. I wear these not only as base layers but also use the heavier tops especially as a sweater. Even in the warmest, driest weather I usually wear a coolmax tanktop under my cotton tee-shirt.

A little searching on the Internet will find many references to 'cotton kills' for outdoor performance clothing. I'm not suggesting that anyone should wear cotton for hiking, but idea that cotton itself is the problem is overly simplistic. When I started hiking, snowshoeing, and x-country skiing in the late 1960s, nearly everyone I knew used 100% cotton waffle-weave long underwear. There really wasn't much else readily available, wool and silk blends were expensive and hard to find and often the wool was too uncomfortable to wear against the skin. Cotton jeans and flannel shirts were also common and parkas were cotton/nylon or all cotton. Hikers, hunters, etc. regularly spent extensive time in the backcountry dressed largely in cotton with some wool and they didn't all die of exposure (hypothermia). I don't know whether the proportion of backcountry users which had problems with hypothermia was greater then or not, I do note that people still succumb even with better clothing. Like many things, people need to be aware of limitations, think, and be prepared for the unexpected. The last couple of times this topic has come up on Usenet's rec.backcountry, others have commented that cotton has its place for outdoor use.

I still use a cotton tee-shirt for most hiking, to protect against abrasion from my pack, against insect bites, sun, and wind. I often use cotton jeans in dry areas. Cotton is tough, wind resistant, cheap, and in low humidity disperses sweat better than many other fabrics. I really do like my wicking underwear and performance fleece and use wool blend or polyester blend pants for wetter, colder hiking. And again, I would not advise anyone to go out into the backcountry with cotton garments, but I don't like the overly broad statement that 'cotton kills', unpreparedness kills.

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