Fibers for Outdoor Gear

When you buy outdoor wear, you may focus on looking sharp, on having pockets and compartments on every possible part of your body, or on getting a great deal. But don’t forget the fibers!

What is your camp shirt made of? What materials make up your hiking boots? Are your socks knitted from prehistoric or space-age fibers? If you don’t know, have a look at those labels. It makes a difference!

Wool

Animal fibers were probably a close second to woven grasses in every culture where they weren’t the earliest choice. Sheep’s wool is one of the most popular animal fibers for clothing. It has an amazing ability to insulate, even when wet, so it keeps you warm and dry in the winter and cool and dry in the summer.

Wool can also include cashmere (from special goats), mohair (ditto), alpaca (from alpacas), and so forth. Fur from angora rabbits, yaks, and New Zealand possum is sometimes blended with wool for super-warm luxury fabrics. Few of us go climbing in cashmere, but you could.

You have to pay attention when you wash wool (unless you choose superwash wool, which will not turn into felt), but it has earned its place in the pantheon of classic performance fibers.

Read more about wool:

Cotton

Cotton is soft, cool, and comfortable. It’s made by twisting together fibers from the cotton plant which have been carded, or straightened out. Different kinds and qualities of cotton have different lengths of fiber and very different characteristics.

Cotton is extremely absorbent, which is a nice feature in a towel but not so good in clothing for outdoor sports. Soaking wet jeans can make a hike or float trip less fun and even dangerous.

Cotton is very breathable, but it can stretch out and it can wrinkle. Because of this, it’s often mixed with fibers like polyester and spandex, which can change the feel and performance completely.

Cotton may not be the best choice for socks when you’re engaged in outdoor sports, but it’s great for shirts, pants, shorts, sun hats, and underclothes.

Read more about cotton:

Silk

Silk is stronger, for its weight, than steel. It’s also luxuriously soft. It’s an excellent choice for underwear and outerwear alike. It comes from the cocoons of silkworms, and is understandably a pricey choice.

It has excellent insulating qualities and is very absorbent — it’ll absorb 30% of its weight in water before it begins to feel wet.

Before synthetic fibers, silk was the best or even the only choice for lightweight warmth. It’s still a popular choice. Take care of it and it will last practically forever.

Read more about silk:

Synthetics

Synthetics include high performance technical fibers, but they’re basically all polymers… that is, plastics. They can be hydrophobic, which means they are seriously waterproof and will even wick moisture away from your body.

They can be extremely lightweight, prevent sunburns, and reduce smelliness. They’re like the super heroes of the fiber world.

But they don’t stand up well to sparks from your campfire.

Read more about synthetics:

The knowledgeable staff at Uncle Sam’s can help you sort the down from the merino! Just ask.

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