Finding the right outdoor gear is easy, as long as you know what you are looking for. Which is why I wanted to help you figure that out, by comparing in detail the world’s two most popular fabrics – polyester and cotton.
Both are widely used, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Sure, you would buy cotton t-shirts, but should you buy a cotton jacket? And does it make sense to own polyester underwear?
Read on to get the answers to those questions, and learn all there is to know about cotton and polyester, and their use in outdoor gear!
In 1973 a man named Eli Whitney invented a machine that was about to change the world. The cotton gin is a machine designed to quickly separate cotton fibers from the seeds, allowing for greater and faster production of cotton, as opposed to manual separation.
This caused the production of cotton in the US to rise to several million bales per year in the mid-19th century, which also increased the need for cotton plantations and slaves. By 1860, more than two thirds of cotton supply in the entire world came from American slave labor.
Production of cotton remains a very important part of the US economy even today. The climate in the south of the country is pretty much ideal for growth of plants.
Cotton is a natural fiber, which grows around the seeds of cotton plants. The fibers are almost pure cellulose – the typical percentage of cellulose in cotton fibers is 95%, but the average range is between 88% and 96%.
Once they are harvested, cotton fibers are sent to textile miles, where they are spun into cotton yarns. Those yarns are then woven into cloth, commonly known as cotton fabric.
Cotton fabric is one of the most widely used fabrics in the world. It is used in anything, from socks to coffee filters. In addition to that, cotton fibers can be woven together to create entirely new fabrics like velvet, jersey, corduroy, flannel, denim and more.
There are several reasons why cotton is the most used type of fabric in the world. It is breathable, easy to clean, soft, comfortable and durable. The strength of cotton fabric increases when it is wet – a feature unique to this fabric.
Unlike synthetic fibers, cotton is entirely biodegradable. This makes it environmentally friendly, which is crucial in our day and age.
It can easily withstand heat, bleaching and detergents, making it easy to manipulate. The fibers can be dyed any color, and they will retain that color really well. This is easily one of the top reasons why this particular fabric is so popular.
However, cotton also has several negative properties, which is why the material is not so popular for outdoor gear. It absorbs water and is very slow drying, so it’s not a great material for wet weather. Cotton fabric also wrinkles quite easily, and clothing made from cotton needs to be ironed before almost every wear.
In addition to that, cotton fabrics will shrink the first time they are washed, unless they are previously treated against this. Some textile manufacturers will actually wash the fabric beforehand, in order to avoid delivering a damaged product. This is usually known as pre-shrunk cotton.
I have the habit of checking the composition of every single clothing item that I’m considering purchasing. And I’m always looking for high cotton content – my favorite jeans are 98% cotton and my favorite t-shirts are 100% cotton.
The same goes for underwear, socks, bedsheets and pretty much anything that is going to touch your bare skin. Those items should have an exceptionally high content of cotton, precisely because it is a soft and breathable material. And also because it is hypoallergenic, and it is not going to irritate your skin.
But that’s where I draw the line. I love my denim jacket, but I’m not going to wear it if it’s pouring outside because I know what to expect. Instead, i will go with a nylon or a polyester jacket that I know has great water-repelling features, and which will keep me dry.
In addition to that, if you make a habit of checking the composition of clothes before purchasing them, you will see just how many cotton blends there are. Who knows, there might be loads of them in your closet already, but you just never noticed. This will help you stay aware of what you are purchasing, and help you figure out which fabrics you actually like wearing.
The main reason why cotton is not more popular in outdoor gear is its high absorbency. The lack of water resistance and drying time are huge no-nos in the industry, so manufacturers opt for more rugged materials. But that doesn’t mean cotton is not at all used in your favorite outdoor gear.
In fact, cotton is frequently used in manufacturing of tents and sleeping bags. Cotton tents usually have a really long lifespan, and are considered a premium item. Their exterior is usually treated with some sort of water repellant, in order to increase the water-resistant properties of the fabric.
Cotton is also frequently used for sleeping bag liners, which we don’t normally recommend. The fabric absorbs a lot of moisture and dries slowly, so it’s not our favorite option. You know that feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night, soaking wet? And you feel cold and clammy, until you take off your favorite, soaking wet cotton t-shirt? Yeah, imagine waking up like that, but you’re in a sleeping bag in the middle of nowhere. That’s why we prefer silk liners.
Now, think about what would happen if you went hiking in your favorite cotton t-shirt, and the temperature suddenly dropped. You are a little sweaty from all the moving around, and your t-shirt absorbed most of that moisture. It is also really cold outside, and your clothes are not doing anything to protect you from the cold. This could actually lead to hypothermia and have serious health consequences.
Unlike cotton, polyester is an entirely synthetic, man-made fiber. And it is the number one man-made fiber in the world, when it comes to frequency of usage. Yes, polyester is that popular, and if you pay attention to your surroundings, you will see that it is everywhere. It’s in your favorite jacket, in that scarf you love and in the plastic water bottle you’ve been using for years.
Polyester was first patented in 1941, by a group of British chemists. It soon became very popular, mostly because of its resistance to wrinkles. Remember those shiny, plastic-looking suits from the 70s? Yup, that’s polyester at its finest.
The good news is that polyester changed quite a lot, since the time of the infamous suit. It has become more soft, comfortable and natural looking, and nowadays it blends right in with the more expensive fabrics. Sometimes it is impossible to tell the if a garment is made from polyester or cotton just by looking at it. But you can still feel the difference the second you touch the fabric.
One reason why polyester is so popular in various industries worldwide is that it is cheap to produce. It is derived from a chemical reaction that happens when you mix petroleum, air and water. There are several different types and ways of manufacturing polyester, but not a lot is known about them. Different companies prefer to keep their process of manufacturing polyester secret, in order to remain competitive.
Polyester is a very strong and durable material, so it is frequently used in items that go through a lot of wear and tear. There’s a good chance at least one backpack from your collection is made from polyester, as well as your softshell suitcase.
The material is popular in outdoor gear because it has great abrasion resistance. Polyester fabrics also feature really tight weave, which easily repels water. This makes is very popular for jackets, backpacks and other items that need to have at least some water resistance. This material can also become entirely waterproof, with some additional coating.
This is also a very warm material. It is used to create other fabrics – like fleece – which are designed to be lightweight but remarkably warm. And I can attest to this personally – my favorite (and warmest) blanket is made from 100% polyester.
Another reason why polyester is very popular in outdoor gear is that it retains its shape easily. Unlike cotton, it will not shrink, stretch or wrinkle.
But it has some negative properties as well, just like any other fabric in the world. Polyester retains odors, which is fine if we’re talking about perfume, but not that good if we’re talking about body odor. If your clothes start to stink, there’s a good chance they will still stink after several washes.
In addition to that, polyester is resistant to virtually anything except oil stains. Those are extremely difficult to get out, because of the nature of the fabric – the weave is very tight, and detergents are usually not able to penetrate the fibers to clean them.
But despite these downsides, polyester is still my preferred choice when it comes to outdoor gear. So, let’s talk about why that is.
Polyester comes in many different shapes and forms and it is used for pretty much anything, from water bottles to underwear. And that’s not always great – I would never recommend purchasing socks, underwear and summer clothes that are made from polyester.
Here’s the thing – when it comes to breathability, cotton wins that battle by a mile. In addition to that, polyester can retain body odor, which can be hard to get out even after several washes. The same goes for oil stains – due to the really tight weave, most detergents are unable to really penetrate the fabric and clean it.
So, imagine wearing a polyester shirt in 40+ degrees Celsius. It’s a given that you’re going to sweat, and polyester is not the fabric you want clinging to your body in that heat. It is not very breathable, and it retains quite a lot of heat. Just imagine the stench.
But, when it comes to jackets, backpacks, tents, hoodies and sleeping bags, polyester is the material you want. Precisely because it retains heat so well, it will do a great job at keeping you warm during cold winter hikes. And its water resistance will keep you dry, making it suitable for different weather conditions.
Polyester and its many blends are commonly used in the production of all sorts of outdoor gear. This is a strong and durable material, with excellent abrasion and water resistance, which is why it is perfect for this sort of thing. It performs very well in different weather conditions, and it lasts a long time.
Polyester is very popular in manufacturing of luggage. Suitcases, backpacks, duffel bags and travel totes are commonly made from this material, because of its excellent durability and abrasion resistance. The products are sometimes treated for extra water resistance, particularly in the case of backpacks.
This fabric is also very popular in jackets. High-end brands like The North Face and Columbia frequently use polyester in their outdoor gear, and they are known for making some superb products. And it is not just used to manufacture jacket shells; in fact, it is used for everything from lining to insulation.
Primaloft is one of the most popular synthetic insulations that exist, and is made entirely from polyester microfiber. The same goes for fleece; it is made from polyester fibers, and it is a material commonly used in hiking and trekking equipment. Fleece is very popular because it is exceptionally warm, making it one of our favorite materials for jacket linings.
The list of items just goes on and on. So, let me wrap things up by saying this – polyester is one of the top two materials that are used in manufacturing outdoor gear. This applies to virtually anything you can think of that you would wear on a hike, from your underwear to your backpack. And the other material is not cotton; it’s nylon.
Cotton is my personal favorite fabric. I spend a lot of time sitting in front of my computer and typing (shocking!), and I like to wear comfortable and breathable clothes. And so, I’m wearing cotton blend or pure cotton pretty much all day every day.
Except when I decide to get out of the house and hit the trails. Those adventures call for a more rugged, abrasion and water resistant fabric commonly known as polyester. It is my choice for jackets, backpacks, hoodies and even pants that I intend to wear on a hiking trip.
Polyester will keep you dry, warm and comfortable. Unlike cotton, it dries very quickly and it does not retain a lot of moisture. Which is ideal for sweaty hikes, rainy days and cold winters. The material is used in creating all sorts of outdoor gear, from thermal underwear to insulation in your mountaineering boots.
It is practically inevitable, so might as well embrace it. The next time you go shopping for outdoor gear, pay attention to fabrics and blends. Look for polyester and nylon, and avoid cotton at all costs. Unless you are shopping for underwear and loungewear.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.