To Wear Cotton or Not to Wear Cotton: That is the Question.


Written By: Jalapeño Gal

Recently a friend of mine, Tom, read an article titled, Beginning to Prep II. In the article, it has a list of items to consider putting in a bug out bag and it states “No Cotton.” So he asked me why not? Many people do not think about the types of clothes they should wear to protect themselves against the elements, or what might be their enemy in a survival/camping situation. Cotton can be the worst choice and can end in a deadly scenario.

Negatives of Cotton

So here is list some of the major reasons why cotton is a bad choice:

  • Weakens when exposed to sunlight.
  • Mildews and soils easily
  • Cotton is natural and therefore is a yummy snack to insects. (If you do not believe me ask the moths 😉)
  • It catches on fire very easily.
  • Hypothermia: According to Wikipedia: hypothermia is a condition in which core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions which is defined as 35.0 °C (95.0 °F).  Depending on the severity, the end result is usually death.  Hypothermia does not only happen in the cold as many people think.  When hiking in the summer, most people don’t wear a lot of clothing to cover their body and keep warmth in, or they choose cotton thinking it will be the coolest.  Cotton retains moisture, dries slowly, and loses its thermal properties, making you colder. So in warm, wet, windy weather your core temperature will drop.
  • Some cottons will absorb up to 27 times its weight.  For a hiker or camper, anything that gains weight is usually a no-no.  Wet clothing will also conduct heat away from your body, much faster than dry clothing, resulting in hypothermia.

It is natural to think that cotton would be an excellent source of back up clothing for your BOB, after all, it is soft, comfortable and affordable.  It also has a tendency to absorb water and liquids making it a very bad choice for any kind of activity you do where you would sweat.  Synthetic fibers do not.  Photographs of cotton fibers show them as hollow tubes, which insulate well, when dry, but which collapse when wet, becoming significantly less effective as insulation.  Clothes keep you warm by holding (insulating) the warmth next to your skin.  When cotton gets wet, it becomes like a sponge against your body not allowing the warm air to stay warm.  It then becomes colder than your bodies temperature, which is the leading cause of hypothermia for those who choose to wear cotton.

Wicking: By definition, wicking is a piece of material that conveys liquid by capillary action. (soaks up)

Cotton does NOT wick water away from your body.  This is why so many hikers believe in layering with the appropriate type of clothing materials made for hikers or sports activities that allow the water to move to the outer surface of the material and off of your skin.  This process allows the fabric to trap the insulating air against your skin and keep your body temperature warm if the outside weather is even a little cooler than your body should be.

There is a lot of controversy over the subject of not wearing and wearing cotton, and I believe it comes from the different climates.  I also believe that more than one answer can be correct given the situation.  As we all know….every situation is different and your decision should always be based on the circumstances, not necessarily an article you read.  Whether hot or cold, dry or humid, these things have a lot to do with how you dress and what fabrics to wear.  The desert is a perfect example of when it might be ok to wear cotton.

Desert Climates:

Note: The information I found below on desert climates was only based on people’s personal experience, not documented facts by professionals.

There are some disagreements about wearing cotton in the desert climates as well. Some hikers do not like the wet feeling of the sweat drenched moisture on their bodies, while others feel it keeps them cooler. In the desert where the humidity is next to nothing most of the year, the air is extremely dry and the sun relentless and high, thin cotton can be one of the best materials for staying cool and dry. An important note here is that experienced dessert hikers will ALWAYS change their clothes at night or when the temperatures start dropping to avoid hypothermia.

There are many other fabrics to choose from, beside cotton. Some are good, some are great, and some you should avoid just like cotton.

Fabrics to avoid:

There are fabrics that absorb moisture as fast, if not faster than cotton and should be avoided. They will lose all insulation when they become wet. These include: rayon, lyocell, tencel, viscose. Corduroy, denim, and flannel, are all made from cotton.

Acceptable fabrics to wear when hiking/camping:

A few of the fabrics that are preferred and safe to wear when going on a long hike or you are going to be exposed to elements are: merino wool, supplex, pertex, Gore-Tex, Under Armour’s Heat Gear and Cold Gear, Cool Max, and other synthetic fibers.


Base Layer: This is the piece of clothing you will have next to your skin, preferably somewhat tight, but still comfortable.  This first layer helps regulate your body temperature by moving perspiration away from your skin.  As stated, sweat that is trapped in your clothing leads to chills.  Your base layer should always be made of wool or a synthetic fiber such as one listed above.  For ladies, you can find bra’s and sports bra’s in these materials as well.

Middle layer:  This is your insulating layer that helps trap heat close to your body.  This layer should be made with a moisture wicking fiber as well.  Remember, the goal is to always be dry.  One suggestion is a fleece or wool vest/sweater for this layer.  REI suggests:

Classic fleece such as Polartec 100, 200 or Thermal Pro polyester and other synthetic insulation’s such as Thinsulate provide warmth for a variety of conditions.  These are popular insulators because they’re lightweight, breathable and insulate even when wet.  They also dry faster and have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than even wool.  Classic fleece’s main drawbacks are wind permeability and bulk (it’s less compressible than other fabrics).
Like thermal underwear, fleece garments are available in 3 weights for different uses:

  • Lightweight for aerobic activity or mild climates.
  • Mid-weight for moderate activity or climates.
  • Expedition-weight for low activity or cold climates.

Examples: For high-energy activities such as cross-country skiing, biking or running, choose lighter-weight fleece to avoid overheating.  Tights or tops made of Polartec 100 or Polartec PowerDry are excellent for this.  For very cold conditions, try thicker fleece such as Polartec 200 or 300.
Wind fleece such as Polartec Wind Pro polyester or Gore Wind Stopper adds a high level of wind resistance to fleece.  It accomplishes this via a hidden membrane that does not affect breath-ability or the other things we love most about fleece.

Top/Outer Layer: This layer is what will protect your other two layers from rain, snow and wind.  This could be considered the most important piece of clothing.  If water, snow or wind has access to your base and middle layer, then your body temperature can drop.  Without proper ventilation, moisture cannot escape and evaporate so it then condenses on the skin.  This layer should fit somewhat loosely and not restrict your movement.

There are different types of outer layers you can buy.  You can find water-proof or water-resistant breathable outer layers.  Both of these are comfortable in most weather but are geared more towards wet, cold weather.

Then you can find water-proof non breathable outer layers.  These are waterproof and windproof.

Next we have what is known as a Soft Shell layer.  This is known for its emphasis on breathability.  It is an outer layer and insulation, so it is basically a two in one, your middle layer and your outer layer.

Last we have what is called an Insulated Shell.  This outer layer has an insulated property in it that makes it great for wet, cold weather but limits its function in different temperatures.

So can cotton kill you?  It certainly can, depending on the whether you are in at the time, so why not be safe and think about adding synthetic clothing to your gear?  You can never really say what will or will not happen on an adventure, and there is no way to eliminate all the dangers out there, but you definitely can increase your chances by playing it safe and educating yourself as much as possible.  As always, please feel free to leave comments and suggestions down below.

Keepin It Spicy,

Jalapeño Gal


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