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I have pretty much always worn 100% cotton shirts when hiking but I have been reading more and more about the amazing "wicking" properties of other fabrics.

Is there one that will keep me cooler than 100% cotton when hiking the the desert?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Despite the convention, "cotton kills," in the desert those same properties (slow drying, water retention) are useful for keeping you cool by slowing down the near instant evaporation experienced at such high heat and low humidity. Your goal is to make that moisture work as long for you as possible.

Since "water is 24.5 times more conductive than air," (according the an answer found here) water will conduct your body heat away from you more rapidly, making you cooler. Synthetics aid in wicking that heat-sapping moisture away and making it disappear -- which is what you want when trying to stay warm, but NOT what you want when trying to stay cool.

I also soak my shirt in water whenever available, and am always astounded by how fast it dries (even cotton).

So, to summarize: Long sleeve light colored thin fabric cotton is leagues better than any synthetic.

(Originally posted as part of this answer then copied here and expanded.)

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I'm curious also how linen or linen/cotton blends fare compared to 100% cotton. –  manoftheson Jan 11 '13 at 3:06
    
@manoftheson About the same in my experience - often the linen is a looser weave allowing for more breatheability but less water retention. There's a reason its popular in tropic areas like India. –  LBell Jan 12 '13 at 1:30
    
@LBell Always keeping your clothing wet could cause sunburn, like said here –  EverythingRightPlace Jan 26 at 21:20
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