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I realise this might be linked to this question, but hopefully is a little different.

In updating my 'outdoor work' wardrobe to 'hiking' activities, I'm now looking at base layers and am a bit confused by the issue around cotton. All the 'hiking' websites seem to strongly advise against wearing cotton base layers because they will cool your body down too much because they hold moisture and wicking synthetics are the preferred choice because they take moisture away so keeping you warm. Look over to the 'running' websites, however, and they all say not to wear cotton because it will trap heat by holding moisture and wicking synthetics are preferred because they cool you down. Basically, the exact opposite reason.

To the cynic in me this seems a little bit like clever marketing and a presumption in favour of modernity simply because it must be better, but I'm no materials scientist so I'm prepared to accept the counter-intuitive answer that cotton both warms you up and cools you down, just at the wrong times, but if this is the case I'd dearly like to know how.

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    See also: outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/11512/… – StrongBad Sep 11 '17 at 15:23
  • One particular situation where the moisture keeping property of cotton is an advantage is IMHO very hot weather: I sometimes deliberately soak my shirt (doesn't need drinking water) so I don't need to sweat that much. It all comes down to whether you can reliably predict that the cotton will be dry when you need it to be ;-) – cbeleites Nov 17 '18 at 14:59
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The problem with cotton for base and insulating layers is the fact that it tends to absorb moisture this can be a problem in both cold and hot conditions.

In cold conditions it greatly decreases the insulation provided by your clothing as water has high thermal conductivity and it fills up the air spaces between fibres whcih normally trap air and greatly contribute to insulation.

Equally in hot weather, especially humid conditions this trapped water can form a barrier which actually traps water vapour and reduces the cooling effect from sweating. There is also the fact that cotton becomes stiffer when wet and can get very uncomfortable and cause skin problems due to constant dampness.

To some extent the difference between hot and cold conditions depends on whether conduction of evaporation is the dominant mechanism of heat transfer.

In cold weather there is a big difference between body temperature and outside temperature so anything which reduced the insulation of clothing will make a big difference. However in hot weather this temperature difference is less so the evaporation of sweat is much more significant as this can still provide significant cooling even if the air temperature is close to skin temperature. However if you clothing is soaking up sweat and holding onto it the evaporation is on the outer surface of the clothing not your skin.

Having said that some cotton fabrics especially fine tightly woven ones like gaberdine and ventile can be very good as shell layers precisely because the fibres swell and hold onto water when they get wet and provide adequate if not total water resistance while and have good breath-ability when dry as long as they are cut fairly loose.

Equally fine cotton can be good in hot dry conditions where getting saturated with sweat is much less of an issue.

Actually one of the best base layer materials is merino wool it wicks moisture nearly as well as synthetics, is comfortable and warm even when wet and dries quickly. It also tends to work better in the long term than most synthetic base layers and can remain wearable for days on end without washing. In fact lightweight merino wool works pretty well even in hot weather.

So its not so much that cotton actively warms or cools you but the way that it reacts to moisture.

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Edit: A comment pointed out that I didn't answer the question. Dry cotton is a good insulator, and most cotton t-shirts are thicker on average than synthetic shirts. A typical cotton tee in dry weather will be warmer than a typical dry synthetic shirt.

Now start to work hard. The cotton takes a fair amount to soak through. So even after you start to sweat, it takes a while before evaporation is happening on the surface of the cotton. This cooling effect will continue after you've stopped working, as you have a considerable backlog of sweat in the shirt.

This has happened to me many times: I chug up the last thousand feet of scree to the pass sweating in the sun. Step, step breath. step step breath. Thinking, "I'm too old for this stuff." I get to the top. Of course there's a wind. Yes my synthetic shirt has some sweat in it, especially where my pack and straps sat.

I'm chilled. But not as much as I am with cotton. The greater porosity of the the synthetic meant I had a fair amount of direct evaporation. What sweat that's in the shirt moved to the surface (wicking...) and dried there. So I got more benefit right away when I started my upward trudge.

TL;DR: Because of cotton's water storage there is a bigger lag during variable activity. You can be too hot and too cold at various points in your activity cycle.

There is a reason people wear cotton in tropical climates. And on my canoe trips in summer, one item is a light weight light coloured (not white. beige or light green) long sleeve cotton shirt, as the best protection against bugs.

The problem with cotton is that the fibres soak up water and it takes a long time to dry. During that long time, the water evaporates, cooling you.

Scenario: You're on a hike in jeans and t-shirt. Squall line comes through and drops a quarter inch of rain in 20 minutes, followed by a cold front. The day drops from 70 F to 50 F, with a stiff wind. That wind evaporates the water in your clothes putting a layer of wet cloth at about 40 F next to your skin. Some of that is balanced by bright sun, but you are still cold, and working your way toward hypothermia

Change it to nylon pants and a polyester shirt. The pants don't bind as much, so your skin isn't next to a layer of wet fabric. A lot of that water drained through the fabric down to the cuffs and dripped off. The shirt because of it's fine weave (that's how they wick) will hold water on the fabric, but not in it. Take it off, wring it out put it on damp.

Net result: A lot less chilling.

Scenario: It's been drizzly all day. You are moderately soaked. Come into camp, build a fire. With wet jeans, you are steaming for an hour. With nylon wind pants you are steaming for 10 minutes.

Scenario: You're hiking and cross a stream. You lose your footing, and go SPLASH!. In cotton you are now carrying 5-10 pounds more weight that will gradually reduce over the next two hours. With synthetic you are carrying 1-2 pounds more weight that is dry to touch in 20 minutes to half an hour.

To me the problem of cotton isn't that it's 'cold' but that it stays cold and wet for long periods of time. In hot weather this is a win. Take off your shirt, soak it in the creek, pull it back on (gasp as cold shirt hits warm ribs...) and you are cooled for a while from the shirt's evaporation.

When running canoe expeditions I recommended two cotton tee shirts, and one synthetic. If the weather looked to be cool, or wet, or I knew that the day would include lots of in and out of the canoes tracking and lining, I would recommend to the kids that they wear their synthetic.


It doesn't have to be expensive. I have 5 drywick synthetic shirts now. Got them all at goodwill, paying about a buck more than a cotton tee would have been. One has a corporated logo, one has Carnival's logo. Nylon pants in the sports wear. I prefer to get unlined ones, as they are more versatile, but I have a couple pair with poly mesh lining that I use when working outside in winter.

I got one goretex Sierra Designs jacket at Value Village for $8. The liner has failed somewhat. Not longer fully waterproof, but I use it when I doing errands on rainy days.


There are certain other circumstances that cotton is fine in addition to the hot weather scenario. I pick up a couple of 'quilties' each fall. Cotton flannel outside, quilted dacron fiber inside. This is a nice combination when I'm working outside on my farm. Nice balance of wind resistance and warmth. I've used them on day trips snowshoeing. They are cheap, but they tear on sharp wood ends, and barbed wire fences. By the end of a year or two they are dog bedding.

But I would never take them on an overnight. Get them wet and they are a real challenge to get dry. At home I either hang them on a hook by the wood stove, or chuck them in the dryer.

Cotton gloves are the worst: A glove or mitten is almost always wet by the end of the day, or at least damp. It is very difficult to get the right balance of warmth and wind resistance. Hands go through a cycle of flushing with blood when you are cold, so their temp cycles too. When they are warm, they sweat, especially the palms. (Trick: apply antipersperant to your hands and soles of your feet to reduce the sweating and chilling issue)

  • This is a comprehensive summary of the 'hiking' view that cotton makes you colder, but what I asked was if anyone knew why running magazines all say cotton makes you hotter, for example this "Cotton clothing holds onto the sweat, becomes saturated, and slows the evaporative cooling process." from a running website. There are loads of other similar examples. How come when considering cotton for hiking, it's ability to hold moisture enhances evaporative cooling, but when considering cotton for running, it suddenly inhibits it? – Pseudonym Sep 12 '17 at 7:27
  • I don't agree that it makes you hotter. For the same fabric thickness, and fit I don't see any difference between cotton and synthetic in hot weather. – Sherwood Botsford Sep 12 '17 at 12:27
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    @Pseudonym I'd imagine that once the shirt is saturated, there is no benefit to continued sweating, as the shirt is evaporating as fast as it can. With a synthetic, the constant sweating replenishes the moisture (that evaporates much faster than from cotton), allowing for constant evaporative cooling. If you're not reaching close to the full saturation of the clothing though, I'd agree with Sherwood that the same thickness shouldn't have much of a difference – fyrepenguin Sep 13 '17 at 8:04
  • @fyrepenguin I think the drywick synthetics are only faster than other synthetics. I've never noticed them to be particularly better than cotton. I used to have an acryllic turtleneck that I used in winter. It was NOT wicking in any way. Soon as I started to sweat, I could feel the sweat on my skin. And adjusted clothing to vent more. The big advantage: At the end of the day, I was dry. – Sherwood Botsford Sep 13 '17 at 13:09

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