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#121079 - 09/17/09 12:50 PM Fabrics: How much cotton is too much?
Steadman Offline
member

Registered: 09/17/09
Posts: 510
Loc: Virginia
I'm getting back into the sport after a 15 year absence - and it has changed with the advent and acceptance of leave no trace. I understand the need to move away from cotton clothing to stay safe/warm, especially with out large fires to dry out if need be.

So... how much cotton in a set of pants or a shirt is too much?

Most fabrics are blends, so at what point (% cotton) does the downside of cotton outweigh the benefits of synthetics (low weight/fast drying/insulates when wet)?

As a point of departure, most military stuff (BDUs, working uniforms) is 50/50 cotton/poly; REI claimed that 20% cotton was the cut off, but I'm not sure if they are trying to sell me something...

Sincerely

Steadman

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#121087 - 09/17/09 01:20 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steadman]
kbennett Offline
member

Registered: 10/27/03
Posts: 820
Loc: north carolina
I don't know about any hard and fast rule, but the only cotton of any sort in my hiking kit is my two banadanas. My clothing is either synthetic, wool, or down.

Yes, the military BDUs and work clothes are a blend. Not sure if that is a good comparison.
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#121089 - 09/17/09 01:35 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: kbennett]
BrianLe Offline
member

Registered: 02/26/07
Posts: 1149
Loc: Washington State, King County
Agreed, I'd look a bit harder for clothing that has no cotton in it. I've done some hard walking in clothing that's a mix of cotton and synthetics and it still has some of the downsides of cotton.

A common piece of advice people often get is to shop at thrift stores for backpacking clothing, and just look for synthetic stuff, but indeed sometimes it can be hard to find stuff that doesn't have some cotton in it. You can instead look for sales on no-cotton clothing from actual outfitter stores, such as http://spadout.com/, http://www.sierratradingpost.com/, or http://www.rei.com/outlet.
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#121093 - 09/17/09 02:33 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: BrianLe]
Steadman Offline
member

Registered: 09/17/09
Posts: 510
Loc: Virginia
The issue isn't finding new gear - I can do that. I even invested in some of the new synthetics for weight reasons (when they were on sale) buying fleece and base layer type stuff.

The issue is assessing the adequacy of what I have given new constraints.


Edited by Steadman (09/17/09 02:33 PM)

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#121096 - 09/17/09 04:08 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steadman]
Echterling Offline
member

Registered: 08/21/09
Posts: 52
Loc: USA
I prefer poly/cotton pants (5.11 taclite as I indicated in a thread about trail pants) for bushwhacking. Pure synthetics aren't durable enough in my experience, unless they are very thick and stiff from a high fabric weight per yard. . . like cordura. I tend to try to find the 65 poly / 35 cotton blends with kind of a "midweight" per yard. The 50/50 stay too wet in my opinion, but can be quite comfortable as they breathe really well.

The poly/cotton blend does get wet and stay damp. In hot dry weather (desert) that can be an advantage. In hot humid weather (jungle/rainforest), it really doesn't matter what you wear, you'll be soaked all the time no matter what.

In the cold, I change what I wear a lot. I tend to stick with all synthetic.

In extreme cold, cotton shells are common because they are windproof, breathable, and there is no liquid water to worry about. I personally don't use the cotton shells, but they are pretty common.
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#121103 - 09/17/09 06:01 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steadman]
BarryP Offline
member

Registered: 03/04/04
Posts: 1574
Loc: Eastern Idaho
My thoughts on cotton:
For 3-season use, I stay dryer and cooler with a 50/50 or 60/40 poly cotton blend than I do in an all-nylon or all-polyester/nylon shirt.

A main factor is the weave. The style of weave determines the sweat wicking speed.
For poly-cotton, I look for a very thin button-down shirt. I get these at JCPenney for $8.00. I have a fancy nylon shirt from REI with pit vents and back vents and I still cook in it compared to my JCPenney shirt.

My socks have no cotton because that weave holds water forever.

I like poly-cotton underwear because of the feel.

Jeans in the winter are cold here in the humid Midwest because they conduct the cold well. Plus jeans are just ridiculously heavy. Synthetics are much better here.

In hot humid summers, I love Egyptian cotton sheets. That’s all I use for sleeping. That’s the lightest type of cotton.


Anyway, you hear the phrase ‘cotton kills’. And it does sometimes. But if you know what you’re doing, you can use the cotton qualities to your advantage. It does take some experimenting in all types of weather.

-Barry

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#121113 - 09/18/09 12:04 AM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: BarryP]
OregonMouse Offline
member

Registered: 02/03/06
Posts: 6405
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
I've had enough bad experiences with cotton that I wouldn't take any at all. However, cotton knit does have its place for desert hiking in hot weather--get a T-shirt sopping wet and let it dry on you. That assumes there are water sources, of course!

Cotton, even in a 50/50 or 60/40 blend, absorbs lots of water, gets horribly heavy when wet and takes forever to dry. When it's hot and the humidity is high, cotton gets soaked with perspiration which doesn't evaporate. A good wicking synthetic will be more comfortable. Check the athletic departments of Target, KMart or WallyWorld for alternatives that are less expensive than but just as good as the expensive stuff you get at REI. Wicking shirts, running shorts, nylon track pants. Some like to head for the nearest thrift store for oversized silk dress shirts to wear for hot weather hiking.

_________________________
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey

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#121116 - 09/18/09 12:28 AM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steadman]
Paul Offline
member

Registered: 09/30/02
Posts: 778
Loc: California
How much cotton is too much depends on you and on the piece of clothing in question. If it's an insulating garment, no cotton ever - cotton is a poor insulator even when dry, and terrible if wet. But if it's a shirt or shorts for warm weather that you're going to sweat in, some cotton is not a problem - although the better synthetics work better for me. I did lots of hiking in all-cotton dress shirts - with the long sleeves, you can cover up from the sun without getting too hot - and later in polyester-cotton blend shirts, which wer better. Now I don't wear any cotton on a backpacking trip - I do carry a cotton bandana, specifically because it is so absorbent, and handy for wiping glasses, which synthetics seem to be bad at.

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#121680 - 09/30/09 08:14 AM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steadman]
Wolfeye Offline
member

Registered: 01/11/07
Posts: 413
Loc: Seattle, WA
Here in the NW, I've gotten soaking wet enough times to avoid most cotton. It gets cold & clammy, and tends to eventually wick moisture from wherever it's coming from (worn out rainjacket armpit, typically) throughout most of the garmet.

If it's a warm day hike, I'll usually wear a cotton shirt because it breathes better than synthetics. Other than that my only cotton clothing is usually my sunhat. Soaking it in water helps to keep the head cool.

I don't know what the weather conditions are like where you live. If it was dryer around here, maybe I'd shy away from cotton less. As it is, I like synthetics.

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#121722 - 10/01/09 02:39 AM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Wolfeye]
TomD Offline
Moderator

Registered: 10/30/03
Posts: 4963
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
As you can see from the preceding responses, whether or not cotton is appropriate is all about weather. In hot desert conditions, cotton is fine and probably the best thing you could wear. In cold, wet weather, it is worse than useless and I mean that literally-it has no insulating power, sucks the heat from your body and stays wet.

In extreme cold, as Echterling noted, cotton is used for outerwear, but we are talking sub freezing weather and usually sub zero. Many deep winter campers prefer it to synthetics because it breathes really well and is much more flame retardant. That is important around campfires and stoves, which deep winter campers often use. It is also used for winter tents as well such as those made by Snowtrekker.

Having said that, none of my winter gear is cotton, including underwear, because I'm not out in super cold weather and not using a campfire.

So, the answer to your question is "it depends."


Edited by TomD (10/01/09 02:40 AM)
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#121731 - 10/01/09 11:19 AM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: OregonMouse]
BarryP Offline
member

Registered: 03/04/04
Posts: 1574
Loc: Eastern Idaho
“Cotton, even in a 50/50 or 60/40 blend, absorbs lots of water, gets horribly heavy when wet and takes forever to dry.”

Well, none of my shirts absorbs lots of water, gets heavy or takes forever to dry. I even swim in them since they’re light and dry fast. It’s all in the weave. There are very thick weaves (bad), and very thin weaves (excellent). Pick the thin weaves..

For example, my back, while backpacking, will be damp. It would be soaked if it wasn’t for the shammy I put in my GG Murmur. Anyway, during a 30 minute lunch/break, my shirt becomes totally dry (with 70% humidity). When I wear my REI Sahara shirt (totally nylon), my shirt never dries--- and I sweat a lot more (under same conditions). So that shirt is becoming a relic in my closet. It even has vents to breath; but it keeps my body too hot and doesn’t regulate my temperature well. Thus I have fell in love with JCPenney shirts and some Boy Scout shirts.

Another side point; this could just be me, but I have noticed that BO is not near as strong on cotton shirts as on synthetic shirts.


-Barry

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#121820 - 10/03/09 08:12 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: BarryP]
Steven Offline
member

Registered: 08/25/09
Posts: 24
Loc: United States
I don't suppose you will share the details on which shirts you are getting from JC Penny for $8.00. A quick search of their website didn't help.

Thanks

Steve
_________________________
Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation. It is better to be alone than in bad company.
George Washington

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#121842 - 10/04/09 12:59 AM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: BarryP]
OregonMouse Offline
member

Registered: 02/03/06
Posts: 6405
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
Barry, you're right about the thin blendeed fabrics. If your cotton/poly shirt is a thin fabric, no problem. If it gets soaked and you get cold, you can always change to a synthetic base layer, and the cotton/poly combination will dry fast. What's really scary is when people try to use heavy cotton for insulation, such as heavy sweatshirts or sweatpants or bluejeans. That can be a sure ticket to hypothermia.

My daughter absolutely insisted on wearing bluejeans for her first backpacking trip. You know, the teenager (13) insisting on a fashion statement! The trail went through waist-high grass, which was sopping wet, and after two hours she was on the verge of hypothermia (of course she didn't say anything, but fortunately I realized what was going on). I got the tent up really fast, got her soggy jeans off, bundled her in her sleeping bag (with my bag as a quilt on top) and pumped her full of hot cocoa. She wasn't quite to the stage where I needed to crawl in with her, but it was close! After that trip, she was quite willing to go to the local military surplus store for a pair of Air Force tropical weight pants (50/50 polyester/wool). That was in the mid 1980's, and I still have mine. The fabric wears like cast iron! I don't know if such bargains are still available, but they are worth investigating.

On the other hand, in the late 1940's and the 1950's, cotton and very itchy wool was about all we had. I spent hours each evening drying my jeans in front of the campfire.

I am extremely grateful for the breathable and wicking synthetics that are available now!




Edited by OregonMouse (10/04/09 01:01 AM)
_________________________
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey

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#121854 - 10/04/09 10:14 AM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: OregonMouse]
phat Offline
Moderator

Registered: 06/24/07
Posts: 4107
Loc: Alberta, Canada
Originally Posted By OregonMouse

My daughter absolutely insisted on wearing bluejeans for her first backpacking trip.
...
On the other hand, in the late 1940's and the 1950's, cotton and very itchy wool was about all we had. I spent hours each evening drying my jeans in front of the campfire.


Some of us were dumb enough to do the jean thing into the 80's. If it's all you have it'll work. just count on a wet and cold butt... blush
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#121920 - 10/05/09 02:37 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steadman]
Steadman Offline
member

Registered: 09/17/09
Posts: 510
Loc: Virginia
To help continue the conversation, the military still uses poly/wool blends for some of their uniforms, so poly/wool in a dress pant type weave is still available.

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#121922 - 10/05/09 04:19 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steven]
BarryP Offline
member

Registered: 03/04/04
Posts: 1574
Loc: Eastern Idaho
Steve,
I never bought from their website. I buy straight from the physical store. It is the Stafford brand. And within that brand there are several types of weaves. I pick the thinnest weave.

In fact, during Saturdays for some reason, you can score some really good red-tag sales. I just got 3 more Stafford shirts for $5 each! They usually sell for $18 but I don’t pay this price. They are on sale a lot. They NEVER sell for $30 like they claim.

I love multi-use shirts. I backpack, bike, go to church, mow lawns, work, play sports in my Stafford’s.

I.e., I spend $5 to $8 for my new shirts.


-Barry


Disclaimer: I wish Stafford was paying me for this.

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#121941 - 10/05/09 08:59 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: Steadman]
kevonionia Offline
member

Registered: 04/17/06
Posts: 1322
Loc: Dallas, TX
Here's a 12-pack of non-cotton, wicking t-shirts for $25.

I ordered a bale and it looks like I got a lifetime supply, even after giving away several to friends.

I like them, although when you get coated in a multi-day patina of dust in dry conditions, you're virtually invisible on the trail. I'm thinking about ordering a set of the large counterfeit North Face or Arc'teryx iron-on faux-embroidered logos direct from China so that I'll be seen and have other hikers thinking I paid $50 for the shirt. wink wink

(Note concerning the comments on that link: they are NOT heavy-weight; they're light. I think they meant durable.)
_________________________
- kevon

(avatar: raptor, Lake Dillon)


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#122693 - 10/20/09 12:20 PM Re: Fabrics: How much cotton is too much? [Re: TomD]
oldranger Offline
member

Registered: 02/23/07
Posts: 1735
Loc: California (southern)
Even in deserts, cotton has some of the same drawbacks. It can get very cold at night, due to the extreme temperature variations of dry air. Coolmax is much superior in my experience, even for hot days. I use cotton in bandannas (for keeping glasses clean), in a full rim boonie style hat (useful for saturating with water during the day - its long drying time is a plus in this application) and oh, yes, for dressings and bandages.

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