The Sheep, the Goose and the Water Bottle
Photo credit: Annette Ng
When I moved to Calgary, Alberta, over fifteen years ago, I finally felt at home. The mountains captivate me and are the backdrop to my adventures. It is through hiking and snowshoeing that I find both my Zen and sense of wonder. My goal as an Apprentice Interpretive Hiking Guide is to create a fun, meaningful experience, while sharing an appreciation of the outdoors with others. Although still in the germinating phase, I co-founded Show Me the Rockies Hikes and Tours Ltd. – a company focused on inspiring others to connect with nature through guided theme-based hikes.
Choosing between clothing made with natural fibers vs. synthetic materials
Written by Annette Ng
What to wear?
One question I often get from novice hikers is what type of clothing to wear. There is really only one consensus- no cotton. In the mountain or woods, it is one of the worst performing fabrics. It holds water, takes a long time to dry, and feels cold when wet. Other fabrics that have similar properties to cotton are rayon, viscose, lyocell, modal, bamboo and silk, so avoid these as well.
If not cotton, what fabrics should you wear for hiking? They basically fall into two categories: natural materials and synthetics.
Natural materials include wool and down. Wool, often merino (a finer type of wool), is typically used in base layers (wicking layer), mid layers (insulating layer) and socks. Down is normally found in mid layer jackets. There are other natural fibers that perform similarly, such as milkweed, but since they are not
as readily available, I won't discuss them further.
Synthetics include materials such as polyester and acrylic. They also include synthetic insulating fleece in addition to patented insulation such as PrimaLoft®, Thinsulate™ and Polartec®. Outer layers, those that protect us from rain and wind, are typically synthetic, so let’s focus the discussion on base layers and mid layers.
Wool, down and synthetics, all have good breathing properties, transporting moisture away from the body, so this is generally not the deciding factor. For me, I want the most practical, cost effective solution.
How fast does the fabric dry? How does it feel and perform when wet?
In situations where you're caught in the rain or sweaty from exertion, I really appreciate that synthetic material dries much faster than wool.
Down jackets are another natural option. My experience with down is that it is not comfortable for active use. On a typical hike, the body tends to overheat in down, even in winter weather. It is better suited for low level activity or for the extreme cold of mountaineering. It also clumps when wet – which reduces its insulating properties. To counteract this, some down products are treated with a water repellent coating. However, a synthetic insulation will still insulate better and dry faster when wet.
What about cost?
Wool and down are generally more expensive than synthetics. For the novice, the cost of accumulating gear
can add up, so synthetics are a great option. Technological advancement in synthetics has come a long way. They are more durable than wool and will last as long as down, making them a good investment.
What about the environmental impact?
Since synthetics are petroleum based products, those concerned about their carbon footprint may feel conflicted. It's important to remember that all production comes at a cost to the environment, even if it is natural. Many synthetic manufacturers use post-consumer recycled content (water bottles) to reduce their environmental impact. Look for Bluesign® fabrics, a system of responsible, sustainable manufacturing.
There are also special wash bags, such as Guppyfriend™, that filter out some of the microfibers that loosen during the wash that would otherwise end up in the water system.
For hiking, due to their cost effectiveness, faster drying properties and better performance for active use, I recommend synthetics over natural materials such as down or wool. Other hikers may prefer wool for its odor resistance or down for its superior warmth. All fabrics have their pros and cons and will perform better depending on the conditions. Fortunately for vegans, options are numerous.
I always tell novices that athletic clothing will initially suffice, as many already own some. As their hiking journey progresses, they can add more items as required. The importance is to avoid cotton, be prepared with layers and enjoy the journey!