Why cotton is your biggest foe on a trek
This blog is a part of our Trekking 101 series, powered by ULTIMATE TREKKER – the Outdoor Leadership Programme for pro trekkers.
You must have heard people say, “Cotton Kills!” Ever questioned exactly why?
Grandfather’s advice on cotton being non itchy, breathable and durable might hold well for dry and hot weather conditions but not on mountains. Here is an explanation to why cotton is your biggest foe on a trek.
4Play aims to create awareness about the best practices, specific to the Indian outdoors. And enable you to step out with confidence. By making accessible an ocean of empirical knowledge gathered by the Indian Bear Grylls – Pranav Rawat himself.
Pranav Rawat is a seasoned mountaineer and an ice-climber, with a decade long experience as a summiteer. Pranav is also an UIAA certified Himalayan Mountain Guide and Wilderness First Responder, which makes him an unparalleled expert on climbing and trekking in the Indian Himalayas.
It is important to understand how landscape and altitude play a crucial role in determining what fabric to wear. As it exists in common knowledge, weather in the mountains changes at the drop of a hat. While it may be all sunshine and happiness one moment, a thunderstorm may dampen the weather in no time, ruining your trekking experience. Or it might just snow and leave things very cold and frozen.
To muddle through the cold and often wet conditions, the two primary characteristics of essential clothing fabrics should be
And cotton fares poorly on both these counts. Cotton’s extreme moisture absorbing properties (as much as 2700% of its weight) makes it a curse on treks.
On a regular day, trekking in the sun will cause you to sweat and the cotton in your clothing will absorb all this moisture. Later when the sun goes down and you will be relying on cotton to insulate you from the cold (as is commonly the case with mountain weather where the days are hot but evenings and night become chilly), it will fail.
Why? Because its air pockets which should have trapped air to insulate you, have now been saturated with your sweat. The outside cold air therefore quickly cools you down and you run the chance of catching severe cold or falling prey to hypothermia (which can occur well above freezing point). This scenario can potentially be fatal.
Another particularly nugatory property of cotton is that it takes ages to dry. The least that is expected from a clothing’s fabric on a trek is that it must be quick to dry so that as dusk falls, your moisture laden inner clothing quickly gets rid of the absorbed moisture thereby reducing conductive heat loss, keeping the body warm. And here is where cotton fails terribly.
But that’s not all, cotton has another drawback. It is heavy. Far too heavy for any trekker’s good. Moreover compared to an equivalent polyester fabric, cotton also becomes additionally heavy post absorption of moisture. And these are mannerisms you don’t want in trekking clothing.
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So what should you wear then?
Although cotton is preferable for low altitude treks or cross country, flat long hauls and higher altitudes demand fabrics which are breathable yet warm. Pranav recommends wearing polyester (absorbs 0.2% of its weight, merino wool (33% of its own weight) or nylon for base layer. Cotton and polyester blends can also be worn albeit with a lower percentage of cotton.
Polyester has better quick drying abilities (upto eight times faster than conventional cotton fabric), regulates temperature well, is non itchy and soft for the skin. Nylon too has quick drying propensity but is not as hydrophobic as polyester. One major downside of nylon is that it traps bacteria and causes foul odor but that can be kept at bay by sticking to wool, which Pranav recommends is one of the best alternative for high altitude treks.
If you have ever been on treks where cotton left you cold and damp, do share your story below.
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Author: Pranav Manocha
Pranav is a Nepal earthquake survivor with a flair for marketing. Beginning with a Quote T-Shirt business with a school friend after grade 12, he did his graduation in Literature from the University of Delhi. In his free time he loves reading Camus, trail riding and skinny dipping in rivulets around Manali.