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Cotton vs synthetic: What’s best for outdoor activities?

August 25, 2023

Going for a light-footed hike in a valley or embarking on a three-day trek in the mountains - no matter what activity you have decided on, choosing suitable fabrics for your outdoor clothing is crucial for a safe and enjoyable experience. The answer to the most commonly asked question of whether to go for cotton or synthetics is, "It depends."

The importance of textiles used for clothes for outdoor activities comes down to the delicate balance between the body's thermoregulation and the outer elements. In other words, the clothes should protect us from overheating and minimise the risk of hypothermia in given weather conditions. How our bodies respond to weather and temperature fluctuations depends on the materials used in our clothes. 

When we engage in physical activity, our bodies become warmer. To regulate this sudden increase in heat, our bodies produce sweat, which helps to maintain our body temperature. Sweat cools our skin by evaporating, which continues until we stop exerting ourselves. But what happens if the protective layer of clothing disrupts this process and the moisture remains close to the skin? Cotton tends to absorb moisture without releasing it into the atmosphere. However, this can be problematic for regulating body temperature. Synthetic textiles are more effective in this regard. 

Pros and cons of cotton

Cotton has been a companion to humankind since the beginning of our civilisation, as it is one of the first fibres that we learned to harvest and transform into textiles. There is good reason for this - cotton apparel is comfortable for everyday use due to its softness and breathability. It is also hypoallergenic, easy to wash, and affordable. Cotton is super absorbent and can soak up to 27 times its weight in water. Which can be very useful, but it is also one of the biggest drawbacks of wearing cotton during outdoor activities. 

Moisture-wicking is term frequently used in outdoor clothing to describe the ability to absorb and remove moisture. While cotton is excellent at absorbing liquids, it lacks the ability to release moisture, making it unsuitable for high-intensity activities such as summiting a mountain. A cotton t-shirt or pair of trousers that have absorbed sweat will remain wet and heavy for too long, causing discomfort such as skin irritation and feeling cold. When wet, cotton loses its insulating properties, leading to potential health risks such as hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when our core body temperature drops below 35 °C (95 °F) - not even 2 degrees below our normal body temperature! That is why the proper choice of clothing can be a life-saving factor. 

Cotton also has a few more drawbacks, such as the fact that cotton clothes wrinkle easily, and getting rid of the creases can be a nightmare. In addition, cotton fabric tends to lose its shape quickly, which means that your favourite t-shirt may not remain your favourite for very long. 

But can we think of circumstances where cotton is best for outdoor adventures? Actually, yes! If you are going on a trip to a warm climate that is either humid and hot or dry and hot, you should pack cotton clothing such as tops and bottoms. The high temperature will make you sweat constantly, but thanks to the excellent breathability of cotton, the air circulation and moisture trapped in the fabric will help cool you down. 

Pros 

Comfortable  

Breathable  

Absorbent  

Hypoallergic  

Cons 

No moisture-wicking properties 

Slow-drying  

Does not insulate well when wet  

Heavy when wet  

Prone to wrinkling 

Prone to losing its form  

Pros and cons of synthetics 

The term "synthetics" encompasses various types of artificial fibres, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and spandex. These fibres are produced from chemical components, hence their name, as they are synthesised in a laboratory rather than retrieved from nature like cotton or linen. 

One of the most common synthetic materials in outdoor clothing is polyester. It’s cheap to manufacture as the entire production process can be completed in a single factory anywhere in the world. There is no need to transport materials over long distances between plantations, mills, and factories. 

Polyester comes with many properties that are beneficial for outdoor clothing. Unlike cotton, polyester has excellent moisture-wicking properties. When you sweat during a hike, jog, or gym session, it evaporates immediately from the polyester fabric. The textile is also quick-drying, which we notice while exercising and during laundry – activewear is always the first to dry. Polyester is lightweight, which can feel like a second skin and makes packing easier if we want to travel light. Moreover, it does not require ironing as it doesn’t wrinkle. It is also an extremely durable material that will last many years without losing its properties – its durability is actually the main reason why the textile industry relies heavily on polyester. 

Although polyester has many advantages, it also has some downsides, mainly its somewhat limited breathability. Polyester fibres are lightweight, but they don't provide the same level of ventilation as natural fibres. As a result, natural fabrics such as cotton or linen are more suitable for activities in hot climates. We also cannot ignore the fact that synthetic fibres tend to get smelly as the textile structure won’t allow the water and detergent to do their magic during the washing cycle. 

Pros 

Lightweight  

Durable  

Quick drying  

Moisture-wicking  

Cons 

Can get smelly with time  

Worse breathability compared to natural fibres  

The best of two worlds 

The textile industry has been combining cotton and synthetic fibres in clothing to enhance the garment's properties and make it more versatile, as both materials offer numerous benefits. For instance, you can easily find tops and bottoms made of a blend of cotton and polyester, which provides both softness (courtesy of cotton) and quick-drying capabilities (thanks to polyester). A t-shirt made from this blend works well as casual wear and gym attire, making it an ideal combination for those constantly on the go or with limited drawer space.  

In summary, cotton and synthetic fibres possess unique properties and perform differently on our bodies. Choosing the appropriate fabric for your outdoor clothing depends entirely on your chosen activity and the weather conditions.  

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