Fabrics for Outdoor Clothing

One of the most important things to consider when you start getting interested in enjoying the outdoors is the type of fabric your clothing and gear is made of. In this post we will talk only about clothing. One way to classify fabrics are in the general categories of “natural” and “synthetic”, although this does not really tell us much about their usefulness in an outdoors setting.

Natural Fabrics

Common natural fibres used in clothing are cotton, hemp, linen, leather, rayon/viscose, silk and wool, and of these cotton, silk and wool are the most common used in outdoors clothing.


I got most of my outdoors experience in the Scouting program, where early on I learned the phrase “cotton is rotten”. Cotton does have a place on your outdoor clothing gear list, but its uses are limited basically to the height of summer. And even then you have to be careful to still have better materials on hand. See Datapoints below for a good reason why not to wear cotton even in the height of summer.
Cotton can shrink when you wash and dry it. I do not give it any special treatment and dry on high.


I do not have any first-hand experience with silk mainly because it is so expensive, and I only really want to write from first hand experience. Therefore I encourage you to search google and come to your own conclusions. I will say only that it is used in some outdoors clothing and gear.

Rayon / Viscose

I wanted to mention this for a couple of reasons, the main one being that you do see a lot of clothing made from it and I’ve never really been able to find much about the properties of those fabrics in an outdoor setting. It is made from wood fibre so is considered a natural fibre, but it is so heavily processed that it is sometimes considered a synthetic. The little bit I have been able to find on its performance says that it is very similar to cotton, in which case I would treat it accordingly. Personally I avoid it completely just simply because I cannot find any information on its properties in an outdoors application, though it is probably worthwhile to pick some up at the thrift store sometime and perform some controlled experiments with it to gain some first-hand experience with how it performs.


Wool is the hair of a sheep, and closely related are Alpaca which comes from its namesake animal, and Mohair, which is the hair of an angora goat, and cashmere, a very fine wool from another type of goat. Wool and its cousins are widely considered to be a superior material for outdoor clothing for base, mid and top layers. Although for base layers most people will want to choose a type of wool that is less itchy.
Wool is sought after for its ability to keep you warm when wet, which is one of the two major reasons why firefigthers wear it. The other being that it has a relatively high burning point especially compared to synthetic fabrics with similar thermal properties.
Merino wool comes from a merino sheep, and is prized for having all the desirable qualities of wool, and not being itchy to wear. Mohair and Alpaca tend to be a lot more expensive than wool because they are finer and not itchy, and Alpaca has the added benefit of not containing lanolin so it is hypoallergenic.
Wool base layers are recommended basically in all seasons, though in warmer weather you obviously want a lighter weight fabric. I’ve been wearing wool socks year round for several decades now, and I find they keep me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Thick wool outer layers are also desirable in the winter - just this past winter I picked up a pair of Big Bill wool pants from Gostwear - and while they were expensive they were worth every penny especially because they are made in Canada. It should be noted that 100% wool is becoming increasingly difficult to find - the fibre is often mixed with 20% nylon for durability. In most cases this does not affect performance and I’ve even read some reports that it is not an issue with sparks from a camp fire. And the extra durability really is overall a benefit.
There are several well known companies that specialize in wool clothing including Icebreaker and Smartwool. Being the cheapskate I am, I get almost all of my wool from the thrift store where I have found some pretty amazing deals. My Big Bill pants being the noted exception.
Wool underwear, socks and top base layer I wash and dry with the rest of my laundry and have never had an issue with shrinkage. Other wool like sweaters and my Big Bill pants I wash in the delicate cycle and hang it to air dry. Wool sweaters will felt if you wash them in the normal cycle, and this alone causes a bit of shrinkage. And then if you dry them in the dryer they will shrink even more. This could be desirable for example if you bought an XL wool sweater and washed and dried it normally with the desire of producing a felted sweater that would fit someone in the M to L range.


Synthetic fibres are pretty much all made of one form or another of plastic, though their properties can vary significantly based on the exact molecular chain. So they cannot really be lumped together other than to say that they all will melt when exposed to fire so be careful around the sparks that fly off a camp fire. Most synthetics remain warm when wet basically because they are made of plastic and will therefore not absorb water, and most also dry relatively quickly once wet.

Polyester and Polypropylene

It is often said that polypropylene is a type of polyester and since I am not a chemist I cannot really say if this is true. I do know they are made of different materials but they do share very similar properties. In general both keep you warm when wet, wick moisture away from the skin as you perspire, and dry relatively quickly when wet. Polypropylene is considered to be the slightly better of the two regarding its thermal and moisture wicking properties, though there are some disadvantages as well. Polypropylene is slightly warmer and dries slightly faster, but it is also less durable and more prone to abrasion and stretching. I still have a pair of polypropylene socks bought almost 25 years ago, and they are stretched like heck but still make a great base-layer sock in spite of it. Polypropylene also has a lower melting point at 165C vs 260C for polyester.
I have mostly polyester in my stable of synthetics, with some polypro. Mainly based on what I find at the thrift stores.
There is a huge variety of woven polyester fabrics on the market which feel and perform slightly differently. Some feel heavy and rough to the touch, and others light and silky. Some of the heavier ones may lead to overheating in all but the coldest of conditions.
Note that fleece is made of polyester and is known for its warmth as well as its ability to wick moisture away from the body, and dry quickly when wet.
Polyester is used as base, mid and top layers and performs well in all applications.
I wash and dry all my polyester and polypro with all the rest of my laundry. Wash cycle does not matter much. I always choose the hot cycle on the dryer. With the lower melting point of polypro some might be concerned about higher dryer temps, but the maximum temperature of the average home dryer is a lot lower than the melting point of polypro.
Polyester has better breathability and wicking than Nylon but is not nearly as durable. 


This is a brand name from Helly Hansen and is their name for polypropelene


Coolmax is a brand name high-end polyester fabric whose fibres are produced with a different cross-sectional shape than regular round fibres. Their marketing department says this allows it to perform better than regular polyester at both heat retention and moisture wicking. Whether or not it really does is up to you.
Wash and dry with the rest of your polyester.


I’ve been seeing this a lot on clothing tags the last few years especially in socks and have previously not been able to find out much about it. However when researching this article I did find that polypropylene is a type of olefin What that means in a practical sense is unknown, other than to say it is probably worth my while to pick some up and do some controlled experiments with the goal of documenting how it performs in various outdoors applications.


Some sources call this “artificial wool” and I can certainly confirm that at the thrift stores I am often fooled by the feel of an acrylic garment - fooled into thinking it is wool. It has most of the same properties as wool although personally I find it is so incredibly warm, and not as good at wicking moisture away from the body, and that this leads to sweat building up which is not good. This is experience with socks that are close to 100% acrylic. I do find that in a 50/50 combination with wool it performs extremely well on all fronts, and in combination with wool adds durability to the fabric in a similar fashion to the addition of nylon.
The only acrylic I have is mixed with wool, so I wash and dry it like wool. Otherwise there is probably nothing special to worry about.


There is a lot of outdoor clothing made from nylon, and for good reason - it is durable, does not absorb water, and modern incarnations of it are also breathable and quick-drying. Many of us will recall the nylon windbreakers of the 70s and early 80s which did not breath and were therefore warm and uncomfortable - causing sweating. Most of today’s nylon is woven in a way to overcome this, and is very comfortable and breathable. 25 years ago I bought a pair of MEC brand nylon pants and eventually got rid of them because they were just too warm. Last year I picked up a cheap pair of BC Clothing nylon pants from Costco based on recommendations from a host of other Scout leaders, and I really cannot say enough good about them including how quickly they dry. By itself nylon is best suited as a top layer and indeed that’s how manufacturers primarily use it. Though it does get mixed up to 20% with wool to add durability to base, mid and top layers.
Nylon is prone to produce static electricity.
I wash and dry my nylon with everything else, and there is no concern of high dryer temperatures.


There are some common blends of fabric that are worth mentioning on their own.

35% Cotton / 65% Polyester - G-1000

35 Cotton / 65 Polyester is a blend used a lot these days by work-wear companies like Dickies and Carhartt, Big Al and Big Bill. High-end Nordic outdoors gear company Fjällräven has a 35/65 blend they call “G-1000” which makes up most of their clothing. Last summer I picked up a pair of Big Al Camo Cargo Shorts from Gostwear which utilize this mix, and so far in the limited use I’ve given them I’ve been very impressed with their performance as outdoors wear. They are very comfortable and have worked well on the few backwoods trips I’ve worn them on. I will update this section as I collect more data. Last summer I also found an amazing deal on the clearance rack at Cabela’s and got a pair of Fjällräven G-1000 shorts for around $30 - they are $130 new! This summer I plan to run some tests and record some data comparing my Big Al camo shorts with the Fjällräven - should be interesting.
Fjällräven also sells Greenland Wax for use with their G-1000 garments. You buy it separately and apply to the garment in areas where you require more waterproofing. It is an interesting system which has been around for decades now, and the company has not decided to move on to something more high tech. There must be a reason for that, although admittedly the reason could be “the marketing department”. Maybe this summer I will finally get around to playing with some Greenland Wax, having picked some up last year. It is a mixture of paraffin and bees wax.
See Datapoints below for an experience I had in Fjällräven G-1000 shorts.

20% Nylon / 80% Cotton

Due to the high cotton content I’m not sure I would consider these to be real backwoods type garments, but companies like KÜHL are producing a lot of them. They are very comfortable and have a more durable feel to them as well. It might be interesting to experiment with Greenland Wax on these as well.

20% Nylon / 80% Wool

As already mentioned this is widely used to provide greater durability to a woolen garment. In general the combination works very well and gives you the best of both fabrics.

Acrylic / Wool

Mentioned above and often seen in 50/50 or 60/40 combinations. Performs as well as wool with extra durability.


Cotton on a Chilly Day in July

In the summer of 2015 on our 5 day canoe trip in the La Verendrye nature reserve in Quebec just north of Ottawa, we set out on July 2nd on an unseasonably cold day, in a slow, steady drizzle. I was wearing my Scouts Canada 100% cotton “red shirt”, and barely an hour into the trip I was extremely cold and actually shivering. We had pulled over to the shore of the lake across from Le Domain to wait for other canoes that were struggling in the winds, and I took the opportunity to change into a long-sleeved polyester shirt I had in my dry bag. Pretty much instantly I went from shivering to warm, and stayed that way over the next 4 to 5 hours it took to get to our first campsite - all the while in a steady, cold drizzle. At about the 4 hour mark we were at our first portage and 3 of our Scouts including my own son were in tears, cold, miserable, and wanting to go home. In all 3 cases they were wearing a lot of cotton in spite of our advice to the contrary. We dug into their backpacks and got out some good polyester clothing and had them duck into the woods to change. The change that took place was not just in their clothing - again almost instantly they warmed up, their mood brightened, and they were raring to go.
But the very next day was a blistering hot July day, and a cotton shirt soaked in water was the perfect thing to keep cool while paddling. Even though “cotton is rotten” is a good rule of thumb, it still has a few limited use cases in an outdoors setting.
I would never even consider cotton in fall, winter or spring unless it was around 35% cotton and the rest polyester and nylon.

Capsizing in the Ottawa River in May

In spring 2018 on our first Scouts canoe outing of the season we went to Westboro Beach on the Ottawa River. Since the water was still very cold we paddled upstream and remained very close to shore. I was wearing a pair of MEC polyester boxer shorts underwear, Fjällräven Barent Pro shorts, a a thrift-store Nike 100% Polyester long-sleeve thick weave base layer, and a pair of NRS neoprene paddling boots cut a few inches above the ankle.
Due to a combination of factors our canoe ended up capsizing and let me tell you that water was cold! I remembered the training videos which said that the first 30 to 60 seconds you would be in shock and have trouble breathing, and that the most important thing to do during that time was to just convince your body to calm down since it would pass. It was a pretty scary minute, but it did pass after which I felt fine, and the two of us started swimming our canoe to shore after blowing our emergency whistle and setting the emergency plan into action.
It took us 2 or 3 minutes to get to shore, and once there my priority was on my paddling partner since I felt fine and he was not doing as well. After he was dealt with from our emergency bags, I did not feel a need to change clothing. The thick-weave long sleeve shirt was doing its job and I was quickly warm again. Below the waist I was not as warm but I was not cold either, and of course my feet were fine in neoprene. So we pressed forward and paddled another 30 minutes back to the put-in after doing a full assessment of the situation.
It was not until I was out of the canoe and on the beach that I started to feel a chill from my shorts, and I did start to shiver a bit. I did not have a change of pants unfortunately, and in hindsight I would have warmed up more quickly if I had just taken off the G-1000 shorts and stayed in my polyester boxers. I went swimming in those in the fall in some water that was not quite as cold, and they did well at warming up quickly once out of the water. But even with the 65% polyester the cotton in the shorts was making me cold. I threw a light weight wool sweater on after removing my PFD, and this helped me warm up in spite of the shorts. At this point in time the air temperature was around 13C or 14C.
I’d been trying to think of a good test of my Fjällräven shorts, and looks like I got one. These will definitely have a place in my outdoorswear, and I look forward to trying them again in a simlar situation when it warms up again. The other items in my wardrobe performed extremely well during this incident.

No comments:

Post a Comment