Materials 101: Comparison of Fabric Options for Backpackers with a Quick Reference Chart

Humans have evolved without fur to keep them safe and warm from the elements. Instead, they have developed skills to survive in other ways: such as the manufacture of various garments. This article has everything a backpacker needs to know about the most common fabrics used for travel clothing. It talks about the features, pros, and cons of natural, synthetic, and manufactured fabric types. It covers breathability, warmth to weight ratio, cost, durability, and  sustainability. There are quick reference charts so you can easily compare fabrics and find the best to suit your needs.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

In general, clothing descriptions are written by marketers, not scientists, who are trying to get you to buy their stuff. The verbage can get confusing or be deliberately misleading. Different materials have various benefits and shortcomings. Knowing what makes up a garment can tell you how it will perform. To help you make an informed decision, some of the most common fabrics and important features to consider are discussed below. 

What are the different types of fabric?

Fabrics can be divided into three main categories: The information in the comparison charts relates to 100% materials, not blends. 

NATURAL FIBERS: Fabrics made from animal proteins or plant fibers. 

  • Alpaca, Cotton, Hemp, Linen, Wool, Silk

: Laboratory created fabric made using naturally occurring cellulose and extensive chemical processing. It is also referred to as Regenerated Cellulose fabric because the process reconstitutes cellulose from plant stems and leaves into fiber. Manufactured fabric has characteristics in common with both natural and synthetic fibers, but it is generally considered a sub-type of synthetic fabric.

  • Bamboo, Lyocell, Modal, Tencel, Rayon

: Laboratory made material derived from petroleum, coal, and/or other chemical compounds.  

  •  Fleece, Microfiber, Nylon, Polyester 

Fabric Options for Travel and Backpacking: Details and specifics


Acrylic was created as an alternative for wool, it’s been engineered to help you stay warm. It’s best use is in temperate to cool climates as outer layers such as sweaters, hoodies, and hats.

  • Easy to care for. Wrinkle, fade, and shrink resistant. Does not attract moths. 
  • Average durability, but is less resistant to abrasion than other fabrics. The fabric may start to pill over time. 
  • Provides good insulation when dry, but will not retain heat when wet. 
  • Quick drying. 
  • Promotes static electricity, which can attract dust and lint. As a petroleum based product, acrylic will absorb oil. 
  • Often blended with cashmere and wool because of its similar softness. 
  • Can be specially manufactured for use in active wear, which can add other features. Those features provide added performance but wear out over time.
  • Poor breathability and absorbance (unless treated) makes acrylic terrible for muggy weather. 
  • Very flammable, so it’s best to avoid open flame on camping trips, or wherever.
  • After microfiber, acrylic releases the most microplastics when washed. 
  • The EPA has not has not classified acrylic as carcinogenic, but some studies have linked it to cancer in animals, whereas others have not.  
  • Poor sustainability. Acrylic can not be recycled effectively. 

Source: Acrylic is a synthetic fabric that contains 85% or more Acrylonitrile, a compound derived from polypropylene (plastic), which is derived from petroleum. Acrylonitrile is also known as vinyl cyanide. The rest of acrylic can be made of a variety of other chemical compounds- what manufacturers decide to include greatly influences its properties. It was developed in a lab in 1941 as an alternative to wool and became popular in the 1950s.


Alpaca is the recommended choice for cold weather clothing, especially for anyone looking for an eco-friendly option.

  • There are 22 official color shades of alpaca, so there is a variety of undyed options available. Two breeds of alpaca are used to produce wool, the Suri and the Huacaya. Suri fibers grow long and silky, but form into dreadlocks over time. The Huacaya fibers are similar to wool in that they are shorter, denser, and crinkly. 
  • Alpaca hair is hollow, making it an excellent insulator. Lighter weight and warmer than wool, and about equal with cashmere. Alpaca has one of the highest warmth to weight ratios of any fabric option. 
  • Fibers are only 18-25 microns in diameter, giving the fabric made from it a very soft feel. 
  • Moisture wicking and absorbent qualities make alpaca a great option for base and mid layers, especially in cooler climates. 
  • Alpaca is very durable. When cared for properly, it will last a long time- even as outer layers, like sweaters. It is more durable than wool and cashmere, in part because of it’s longer fibers.
  • Fibers can stretch slightly. 
  • Excellent at resisting wrinkles. 
  • Alpaca fights odor causing bacteria- so you have to wash it less frequently than other fabrics.
  • Has standardized fabric grades, ranked according to fiber size:
    • Grade 1 Ultra Fine: <20 microns “Royal baby”
    • Grade 2 Superfine: 20-22.9 microns “Baby”
    • Grade 3 Fine: 23-25.9 microns
    • Grade 4 Medium: 26-28.9 microns
    • Grade 5 Intermediate: 29-32 microns “Adult”
    • Grade 6 Robust: 32.1-35 microns 
  • Requires delicate care. Can shrink, but not as much as wool. 
  • Naturally flame retardant: it will burn, but stops when taken out of the fire. 
  • Excellent sustainability. 

Source: Alpaca fabric is made from the spun fibers of the aplaca’s fleece. Alpacas are domesticated herd animals native to South America. Their wild ancestors, the guanaca, still live around the Andes Mountains and Patagonia. Alpaca fleece is collected annually, which does not harm the animal. Each alpaca grows back up to 10 pounds of fleece every year.

Fun Fact

The alpaca is a relative of the camel. They often hum and vocalize, but communicate through body language as well.


Cashmere is for those who w-ant maximum warmth and comfort, no matter the price. 

  • Luxuriously soft and warm. The fibers are extremely fine at <19 microns- some argue that cashmere is the softest natural fabric. 
  • Up to eight times warmer than wool as well as slightly lighter, meaning cashmere has a fantastic warmth to weight ratio. It is a toss up between cashmere and alpaca as to which is the warmest fabric option. Either way, cashmere has an excellent warmth to weight ratio. 
  • Moisture wicking and absorbent: cashmere fabric is an excellent choice for super soft base and mid layers in even the coldest climates.
  • Naturally wrinkle resistant, any that form will disappear as the garment is worn.
  • Cashmere is naturally flame retardant. It does not combust like wood, but rather stops burning and extinguishes itself once removed from direct heat.
  • Has standardized fabric grades, sorted according to fiber size:
    • A 14+ microns
    • B 18-19 microns
    • C >30 microns

Grade A is the finest and softest, and therefore most expensive. Grade C has the coarsest fibers. 

  • Antibacterial qualities mean cashmere garments require fewer washings and resist getting stinky. 
  • Requires delicate care. May pill over time due to the shorter fiber length. 
  • Limited supply and huge global demand mean cashmere is a luxury, high priced item. 
  • Often blended with other fibers to reduce the price (which also affects performance). 
  • Moderate sustainability. 

Source: Cashmere fabric is made from the fibers of Cashmere, Himilayan Pashmina, Mongolian, and other types of goats. The fibers are collected annually (which does not harm the goat) and spun into thread which can be knit or woven into garments. Cashmere goats produce up to two and a half pounds of fleece each year, but as little as ⅓ pounds may qualify as cashmere. 

Fun Fact

Cashmere is named for Kashmir, a region in northern India. The area is politically unstable, so most cashmere is sourced from China and Mongolia. 

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Cotton is one of the most widely available and affordable clothing options. 

  • Perfect for a climate that is hot and dry. 
  • Has good breathability, which allows sweat to evaporate from your skin so long as there is decent air flow. 
  • Doesn’t do well in humid climates- it will hold on to moisture if the ambient air is too saturated, making you feel clammy and encouraging the growth of stinky bacteria. 
  • Retains a moderate amount of heat when dry, making cotton suitable as a base layer for low intensity activities in cool to temperate climates.
  • Not suitable for base layers in cold climates, especially for high intensity activities followed by breaks where you could get cold (skiing, snowboarding, high altitude hiking). 
  • Cotton has a poor warmth to weight ratio and does not keep you warm if it gets wet. 
  • Wrinkles easily. 
  • Retains odor so requires frequent washings. For long trips, consider leaving it at home.
  • Takes a long time to dry.
  • Poor sustainability, unless organic. 

Source: Cotton is made from the cotton plant, which happily grows in many areas of the world. The cotton boll (aka ball) is the fluffy, white material surrounding the seed of the plant. The boll is almost entirely made of cellulose which is harvested, spun into cotton thread, and woven or knit into garments.

Cuben Fiber (Dyneema)

Cuben Fiber (Dyneema) is the best choice for ultralight gear junkies who want to shed every ounce no matter the cost. But it’s applications are somewhat limited. 

  • Dyneema is waterproof, strong, and tear resistant, which makes it the perfect material for rain gear. Raincoats, pack covers, ponchos, and other rain gear options are available from many retailers online. 
  • Arguably the best strength to tear weight ratio of any fabric. Dyneema makes excellent stuff sacks and tents. 
  • Zero breathability. Condensation can become an issue unless there is good ventilation.
  • Damaged by prolonged friction and abrasion. 
  • Oil based material, made from fossil fuels. 
  • This relatively new tech comes with a hefty price tag. 
  • Supply is somewhat limited- uncut fabric is only distributed by a few companies. 
  • Cuben fiber will shrink and melt when exposed to high heat. 
  • Poor sustainability.

: Cuben Fiber fabric is a laminate of layers of polyethylene* fibers and polyester, and other components (such as catalysts, like benzoyl peroxide). Dyneema is the brand name for this material. It is also called DCF (Dyneema Cuben Fiber). 

*Polyethylene is the most commonly used type of plastic: it is used for water bottles, plastic bags, toothbrushes, toys and lego, cosmetic containers, and more.


Hemp is the fabric of choice for adventurers who need gear that can keep up with them throughout a long, rugged adventure.  

  • Absorbent**, breathable, and UV resistant (which protects your skin from sunburns and the fabric from fading color). Hemp is one of the few materials that is stronger when wet, so it’s great for the beach or scuba diving adventures. 
  • Excellent durability.
  • Hemp is a poor to moderate insulator, and it will not keep you warm if it gets wet. Which makes it okay for cool, dry climates but ideal for hot climates.
  • The natural antibacterial qualities and resistance to mold or mildew help to combat smells that could otherwise develop after extended wear and long storage in a backpack.
  • New hemp clothing may feel coarse, but softens with use. It can be blended with other fabrics to improve the texture. 
  • 100% woven hemp fabric does not stretch; neither does knit hemp fabric, but it will have slightly more give. 
  • Although hemp is a very practical clothing choice, it is marketed somewhere between a hippie and bourgeois product, and is therefore somewhat expensive.
  • Wrinkles easily.
  • Hemp Is easy to care for but can be damaged by harsh chemicals and a hot drier. 
  • Good sustainability. 

: Hemp cloth is created from fibers of the cannabis sativa plant. The plant has numerous uses in addition to textiles, such as paper, biofuel, shoes, sunscreen, food, and rope.

**“Water Absorption Behavior of Hemp Hurds Composites – NCBI.” 28 Apr. 2015, Accessed 4 May. 2020.

Fun Fact

The sails and ropes aboard the Mayflower were made of hemp.


Leather has long been a fashion statement. Although it does have practical uses, it’s too heavy for most backpackers to consider as a clothing option. Day bags and accessories are leather’s best application for travellers. 

  • Very durable and flexible, but inelastic, heavy, and not breathable.
  • Excellent wind and abrasion resistance. 
  • Leather is a good insulator because it does not let warm air escape. But that means any moisture from your sweat is trapped in there too. Leather is great in cooler climates. Do not wear it in hot, humid places. 
  • Can easily become moldy in humid climates.
  • Poor rain protection because it will eventually get saturated, however some types of leather are treated to improve water resistance. 
  • Leather can be treated in various ways to achieve a variety of performances.
  • Poor sustainability. 

Source: Leather is the treated rawhide (skins) of various animals, usually from cows, but also goats, sheeps, and pigs. The rawhides undergo a process called tanning to make it into leather.


Linen is ideal for hot and humid climates. Don’t let yuppy marketing fool you, linen is a durable and practical fabric choice. 

  • Famed for its comfort and breathability, linen is a great choice for hot weather travellers. Lightweight linen is excellent even in humid climates because it both absorbs and wicks moisture. 
  • Linen is actually stronger when wet than when it is dry, so it is great to wear around water- but only in hot climates. Linen does not keep you warm if it gets wet. 
  • Breathable and moisture wicking properties help reduce odors. 
  • Linen can only be woven. It may feel stiff at first and it does not stretch, but its texture will soften over time. 
  • Notorious for wrinkling easily.
  • Poor warmth to weight ratio.
  • Intensive manufacturing requirements bump up the price tag, but a quality item will last a long time. 
  • Good sustainability. 

: Linen is a natural material of woven fibers made from the flax plant. The stalks contain long strands of fiber which are processed and made into thread/yarn, cord, or twine. 

Linen is one of the oldest textiles.


Microfiber is the quick fix for backpackers who need decent performance for only a limited amount of time. 

  • The science behind microfiber works well, until it doesn’t. A lot of the magic with microfiber is happening at the microscopic level, so it tends to wear out (in as little as 50 washes in some cases). 
  • Specifically designed for a wide range of situations: hot weather gear, cold weather gear, and even towels. 
  • Quality varies widely. Go with a company you trust or you may not get the performance you were expecting.
  • Very soft texture.
  • Fairly quick to dry.
  • Untreated polyester does not absorb nor wick moisture. 
  • Untreated and heavier weight polyester does not breathe well.
  • Good warmth to weight ratio.
  • Oil based material, made from fossil fuels. It will absorb oil. 
  • Quickly gets smelly if not totally dry when packed away. 
  • Terrible sustainability. It releases massive amounts of microplastics when washed. 

Source: Microfiber is fabric made from minuscule strands (3-5microns in diameter) of synthetic fiber. It is a blend of various synthetic fabrics: commonly polyester, acrylic, or nylon but may include other materials.


Nylon is an affordable choice for extended trips in temperate climates. 

  • Durable and abrasion resistant. Nylon is a stronger fiber than polyester. 
  • Nylon wicks moisture, but is not very breathable, nor very warm: it is best for places where you won’t get too hot or too cold. 
  • Slightly absorbent, <10%, and moderately quick to dry. If specially manufactured, its absorbency can improve.
  • Can be made into very thin, lightweight garments. 
  • Easy to care for. 
  • Usually has other fabrics blended in to make nylon stretchy. 
  • Despite being an oil based material (made from fossil fuels), it is resistant to oils and it will not absorb them.
  • Nylon melts when exposed to high heat and can burn slowly- causing drops of hot plastic. 
  • Terrible sustainability.

Source: Nylon was created in a laboratory in 1935. It was the first synthetic polymer material. Two of its major components are hexamethylenediamine, a petroleum or coal derivative, and adipic acid, a mildly toxic compound.


Polyester is good for short trips and the budget conscious. 

  • Can be manufactured in a variety of ways to fine tune performance. For example, some is “split” allowing it to absorb water, otherwise polyester is hydrophobic by default. 
  • Untreated polyester does not absorb water, so it is quick to dry. 
  • Unless specially treated (or after the treatment wears off) polyester is a breeding ground for bacteria, which means it can get stinky. Bacteria like to grow on polyester, so it gets very smelly very quickly. 
  • Quality varies. 
  • Budget friendly. 
  • Oil based material, made from fossil fuels. Absorbs oils. 
  • Can melt at high heat. Polyester resists initial ignition (by melting first) but will burn slowly once ignited.
  • Terrible sustainability.

Source: Polyester was developed shortly after nylon, and was also called Dacron or “China Silk”. Polyester is a chemical polymer produced from petroleum and ethanol, among other things. It is the third most popular type of plastic, making up about 10% of the plastic market. It is often blended with other materials to make it stretchy or add other properties.

Polyester Fleece

Polyester Fleece is a lightweight way to stay warm in cool to very cold climates during leisure and low intensity activities…but it’s not the best option for managing sweat.

  • It’s soft, fluffy feel makes for cozy and warm outer layers.
  • Polyester repels moisture, which means it dries quickly. But the flip side is that it won’t wick away sweat. High end fleece that is specially treated for moisture wicking loses this ability over time. 
  • Fleece is specially manufactured to contain air bubbles, which make fleece an excellent insulator. It has an excellent warmth to weight ratio. 
  • Even though fleece does not absorb water, it can become saturated, and it will not keep you warm when wet. 
  • Fleece, like any other kind of polyester, can harbor bacteria and get smelly quickly. 
  • Oil based material, made from fossil fuels. Absorbs oils. 
  • Burns and melts when exposed to flame. Fleece is not ideal for camping trips around open fires. 
  • Terrible sustainability.

Source: Polyester fleece is made from PET polyester (the same kind is used for plastic soda bottles). PolarTech and PolarFleece are brand names for polyester fleece. Fleece is manufactured in the same way as regular polyester, but undergoes additional processing to change its texture: Polyester fabric is run through a napping machine to make it fluffy then sheared by another machine to a uniform level.


Rayon provides maximum softness in hot and muggy climates. Bamboo, Lyocell, Tencel, and Modal are types of rayon. 

  • The types of rayon vary according to the manufacturing process and each has slightly different properties when finished. 
  • Used to imitate silk, cotton, and wool.
  • Rayon is soft, breathable, and absorbent making it good for mid layers (and base layers in temperate-cool climates). 
  • Rayon is a moderate insulator and does not keep you warm when wet. These properties make it a less than ideal choice for colder climates, but are exactly what you want in hot and muggy places. 
  • Rayon thread is not stretchy, but cellulose in the fibers expand as it absorbs moisture, so rayon garments seem to stretch out when they get wet. The fabric will return to normal once it dries. Knit rayon garments have more give (stretch) to them compared to woven ones. 
  • Rayon should be washed on the delicate cycle in cold water. Rayon is damaged by bleach and the high heat of a dryer; it is prone to shrinkage. Hand washing is recommended, which works well for travelers. Some high end rayon is dry clean only. 
  • Rayon is moderately durable, but less so than many other options. 
  • All rayon is highly flammable.
  • Marketing can be misleading: Yes, it is made of renewable materials but the process of making it is far from natural. 
  • Poor sustainability.

Source: Rayon is the term for any fabric processed from the cellulose of plants- it was first produced in the 1800s.  Any plant that contains cellulose can be used to make rayon; marketers have assigned several names to the fabric according to its source (but this is not officially enforced). Rayon can be made from many types of wood, such as bamboo, oak, and eucalyptus, other agricultural products, and even seaweed. Most is made from wood pulp.

Rayon: Bamboo

Bamboo is a type of rayon and shares the same characteristics. It is a comfortable choice in hot and muggy climates.

  • See Rayon for more info.
  • Bamboo “kun”, the alleged antimicrobial component of bamboo fabric, is all hype. Once the bamboo’s cellulose has been processed into fiber, it loses any natural antibacterial qualities the living bamboo plant possessed. Bamboo may help to limit bacterial growth, but in the same way that any fabric with decent breathability and moisture wicking does. 
  • Subject of intense marketing: misinformation is common. Bamboo plants are eco friendly, but the process to make bamboo fabric is very far from it. 
  • Mechanically processed bamboo is more sustainable than chemically processed, but it is slower to make and equally energy intensive.
  • Poor sustainability. 

Source: Bamboo fabric is a form of viscose rayon. It is made from the leaves and parts of the trunk of bamboo, which is a type of grass, and a renewable resource. But all rayon, including bamboo, undergoes extensive chemical processing: the final product is almost pure cellulose, but it is exposed to a plethora of chemical compounds during manufacturing.

Rayon: Lyocell/Tencel

Lyocell/Tencel is the best choice for eco-conscious consumers that are limited by their budget. 

  • See Rayon for more info.
  • Lyocell/Tencel is the most durable type of rayon. 
  • Tencel is a brand of lyocell. It is produced by Lenzing AG- a reputable company committed to sustainable production and resource management. To be sure you are getting an eco-friendly product, look for the Tencel brand.  
  • Manufactured from eucalyptus and other trees using a unique method that limits hazardous waste. 
  • Called the 3rd generation of regenerated cellulose fabric.
  • Moderate sustainability. 

Source: Lyocell is a type of rayon thread produced by Lenzing AG, an Australian company. It mainly uses bamboo or eucalyptus pulp, but may also source from oak or birch.

Rayon: Modal

Modal is the best option for those who want the benefits of rayon without having to worry about taking care of it.

  • See Rayon for more info.
  • Arguably the softest type of rayon.
  • Modal is the easiest type of rayon to care for: it is the most resistant rayon to water and heat damage. However it can still be damaged by harsh cleaners such as bleach. 
  • Manufactured from beechwood trees using a unique method that limits hazardous waste. 
  • Called the 2nd generation of regenerated cellulose fabric.
  • Moderate sustainability. 

Source: Modal is a type of rayon thread mostly produced by Lenzing AG, an Australian company. It is made from the cellulose of beechwood trees.


Silk is a luxurious, well performing option for anything from warm to cold climates. It is good for travelers who plan to encounter a variety of situations and need a versatile, durable garment.

  • Luxuriously soft feel. Hence, the word “silky.”
  • The breathability of silk is greatly influenced by its constructions. Finer silk, however, tends to be more delicate. 
  • Silk is absorbent, but does not wick moisture. 
  • It is a good insulator and will retain body heat when wet. It has an excellent warmth to weight ratio.
  • Silk does perform well in hot climates (because of its breathability and absorbent qualities), but is even better suited to temperate and cold climates as a base or mid layer (because of its insulative and absorbent nature).  
  • Each fiber of silk is very strong, so a silk garment is very durable (when properly cared for). Silk fibers will elongate up to 25% before they break, but they are not elastic. However, silk loses up to 20% of its strength when wet. 
  • Silk has a higher heat resistance than wool. It is flame retardant, meaning it burns only as long as it is held in the flame, it will stop out once removed. 
  • Silk does a good job of protecting you from UV rays because it is highly reflective. But whatever UV light it does absorb, slowly encourages the breakdown of silk fibers. 
  • Requires delicate care; no harsh detergents or bleach. It is best to hand wash silk, which actually works well for many backpackers- just avoid scrubbing it too roughly as that could damage the fibers. 
  • Good sustainability.

Source: Silk is produced from the thread that makes up a Mulberry Silkworm’s cocoon. The cocoon is soaked in boiling water and a single fiber is collected from each cocoon. The fibers are fed into a spinning wheel and made into thread.

Fun Fact

Silkworm silk provided the benchmark for measuring linear density, dubbed the denier (the mass per unit of length). Therefore, silkworm silk = 1 denier = ~10 microns.

Spandex: aka Elastane & Lycra

Spandex is stretchy, which is why the name is an anagram for expands. It is almost always blended with other fabric types to add flexibility to them. Garments with spandex are best for comfort and allowing movement. 

  • Elastane is another name for spandex that is popular in Europe. 
  • Lycra is a brand name of spandex. 
  • It was invented to replace rubber in garments.
  • Can stretch up to 6 times its original length and still returns to normal. But over time, the ability to bounce back wears out. 
  • Damaged by harsh chemicals (like chlorine) and repeated cycles in a hot dryer- think of a stretched out swimsuit at the end of summer. 
  • Melts and then burns at high heat. But it does not shrink from flame the same way other synthetic fibers might.
  • Poor sustainability.

Source: Spandex is a synthetic, lab created fiber. It is made of 85% polyurethane, which is derived from petroleum. It is formed by combining a polyol (a molecule with more than two hydroxyl groups, such as polyester), with other chemical compounds, such as diisocyanates (TDI or MDI).


Wool (aka Merino Wool) is great for the adventurer who wants to prepare for any possible situation. It is particularly appropriate for temperate to very cold climates. 

  • Wool fiber absorbs up to 30% of its weight in water. Because of its chemical structure, the water gets absorbed into the center of the thread, leaving the outside (and your body) feeling dry. Wool helps minimize any clammy feeling from sweat. 
  • In addition to absorbing water, wool wicks moisture. So what isn’t absorbed, moves to the outside of the garment where it can evaporate. 
  • The absorbency of wool partnered with its moisture wicking makes it an ideal base layer material. 
  • Wool fiber has air pockets in it, which makes it an excellent insulator and thermoregulator. It even keeps you warm when wet. 
  • Wool is very warm for its weight (not to mention it’s other helpful qualities), making it a great choice for gram counters. 
  • Ultra lightweight wool (under 150gsm) has excellent breathability which, coupled with it’s moisture wicking and ability to absorb sweat, makes it a decent choice for hot and muggy climates. 
  • Has standardized fabric grades, sorted according to fiber size. The smaller the grade, the softer it feels. 
    • Ultrafine: <17.5 microns
    • Superfine: ≤18.5 microns) 
    • Extra Fine: ≤19.5 microns
    • Medium: ≤22.5 microns
    • Strong: ≤24 microns)
  • Wool fibers can stretch 30-50% of their length before breaking. 
  • Excellent at resisting wrinkles. 
  • Wool is antibacterial, so it fights odor and requires fewer washes. 
  • Flame resistant: it can burn, but will stop once removed from the direct flame. 
  • Wool is slower to dry than synthetic options. 
  • Some special care considerations. 
    • Harsh detergents and even castile soap will wash away the lanolin. Wool contains lanolin, an oil, that protects it from water and provides wool it’s antibacterial qualities. 
    • Wool, if not preshrunk, will shrink in the dryer. Quality suppliers always preshrink. 
  • Name brands charge hefty prices (and come with the guarantees to justify it), but there are many (slightly more affordable) options available online. 

: Most wool comes from the fleece of Merino Sheep Originally bred in Spain, Merino sheep are a popular renewable resource in Australia and New Zealand. The fleece is shorn annually (which does not harm the sheep) and spun into fibers to make wool cloth. A single sheep can produce up to five pounds of wool every year.

Fabric Attributes 

Fabric options and manufacturing methods differ widely from one company to the next. But there are a few attributes that all fabrics have in common. It’s a good idea to have a basic idea of what some common features are in order to make an informed decision. 

Color and Patterns

Light colors are great for hot climates: they reflect solar radiation (heat from the sun). But as a backpacker, white is not your friend. Unless you are okay with stains or spending a lot of time, energy, and money on laundry, opt for a cream or tan. If you don’t, it will end up there anyway. 

Dark colors are great in temperate to cold climates, but the darkest shades should be avoided in super sunny climates. They are the best for hiding wear and tear, but soak up every bit of heat from the sun.

A traveler’s secret weapon is patterns: they are usually a mix of colors and their designs help to camoflauge any stains (or sweat marks). Have fun with it, be confident- traveling is a great time to try out a new style.

Fabric Weight 

The mass of a fabric is measured in grams per square meter (g/㎡)- abbreviated as gsm. The higher the gsm, the thicker the fabric. And thicker garments tend to be more durable and warmer (but transfer less moisture). When shopping for cold weather clothing, look for a higher gsm, for example wool of 250-400gsm. For hot weather, lighter fabric is best, for example wool of 150gsm or less. 


Thick Fabric >250gsm

Thin Fabric <150gsm








Moisture Wicking



This chart shows how weight and construction (indicated by fiber size) affect what fabrics are best suited for. This table uses WOOL as an example. 

Wool Fiber Size

≤150 gsm


150-250 gsm


250+ gsm


400+ gsm



<17.5 microns 

Hot & muggy climates

Base layer

Temperate climates

Base layer

Cool climate

Base layer

Mid layer

Cold climates

Base layer

Mid layer


≤18.5 microns

Hot & muggy climates

Base layer


Temperate climates

Base layer

Mid layer

Cool climate

Base layer

Mid layer

Cold climates

Base layer

Mid layer

Extra Fine 

≤19.5 microns

Hot climates

Base layer

Mid layer

Temperate climates

Base layer

Mid layer

Cool climate

Base layer

Mid layer

Cold climates

Base layer

Mid layer


≤22.5 microns 

Hot climates

Mid layer


Temperate climates

Mid layer

Outer layer

Cold climates

Mid layer

Outer layer

Very cold climates

Mid layer

Outer layer


≤24 microns

Temperate climates

Mid layer

Outer layer


Temperate climates

Mid layer

Outer layer

Cold climates

Mid layer

Outer layer

Very cold climates

Outer layer

Construction: Knit vs Woven

There are two categories of fabric construction: knit and woven. Whether knit or woven, a loose construction improves breathability, whereas a tight knit/weave decreases it. 

Knit: A type of fabric made up of a single thread that is looped continuously. Knit fabrics are usually more flexible and less susceptible to wrinkles. The looping pattern of knit construction means there is more thread to give way when pulled into straight lines (whereas woven fabric is already straight). Knit fabrics can be pulled tight, but that is not to say that the thread of the garment is elastic: the thread itself doesn’t stretch out unless it has been blended with something to add elasticity, such as spandex. The problem with knits is that they may get runs or lose shape after too much stretching. 

Woven: A type of fabric made from multiple threads that cross at right angles. Woven fabric may be of any texture. Woven fabrics usually have little to no stretch (unless blended with spandex), and wrinkle easily.

Illustrates the difference between woven and knit fabric construction.


Goldilocks made some good points: you don’t want to be too hot, or too cold. 

Fabrics keep you warm by trapping warm air against your skin (loft) or by stopping the heat from escaping (insulation). There is no fabric that can make you colder by itself, but they can limit your exposure to heat and promote evaporative cooling (which you will learn about in Breathability and Moisture Control). Backpackers must consider what thermoregulation qualities they need in their clothing. 

  • Hot climates call for poor insulators- the less heat trapped, the better! Other features, like breathability and sun protection are more important when you are trying to avoid heat.
  • Cold climates need good insulators that keep you warm even when wet. 

Heat loss happens much faster in water than in air: roughly 25 times faster. Sometimes, that is a good thing: it helps keep you cool (which is why humans sweat). In other cases, staying warm if you get wet can mean the difference between a good or bad day, and possibly life or death.

Ultraviolet Protection Factor UPF

Every fabric provides at least some protection from the sun by the mere fact that it is an additional layer between your skin and the energy emitted by our galaxy’s star. Some clothing is marketed with UPF ratings. A rating of UPF 50 means the fabric will block all but 1/50 of UV radiation, or 2%. The higher the number, the better the protection. 

  • Fabric Weight: Thicker, heavyweight fabrics provide better UPF than thin fabrics. 
  • Color: Dark colors protect better than light colors.  
  • Coverage & Fit: Garments protect better when they cover you well but fit loosely; any time a fabric is stretched tight, its effectiveness at blocking UV is reduced. 
  • All fabrics have reduced UPF ability when they are wet.

Manufacturers can add compounds to improve the fabrics UPF. The rating for every garment will be different depending on how it’s made, what color it is, how well it fits you, and more. 

For more information about the importance of sun protection, read Sun Protection 101.

Antibacterial Treatments

Antimicrobial fabric is good for travellers because it limits odor-causing bacteria. So you have to wash your clothing less frequently and in the meantime, won’t be stinky. 

If a fabric claims to be “antibacterial” it means that it does not provide an ideal environment for microbes to grow. Marketers can apply the term “antibacterial” if the fabric is quick drying, breathable, or whatever, because -technically- reducing moisture content is one way to limit bacterial growth. But does the fabric fight bacteria because of properties innate to the fabric itself? Probably not.

A few fabrics (wool, alpaca, and cashmere) naturally fight bacteria growth because of the chemical properties of the material itself. Other natural fibers (hemp, linen) are so innately breathable and moisture wicking that okay, yes, they do handicap bacteria. Almost all other fabrics must go through some sort of additional treatment to become antimicrobial.

One popular antimicrobial treatment in textiles is called Silvadur: a silver-ion polymer. It is added to fabrics during manufacturing. Which means that after a certain number of washings, usually around 50, the technology will start to fail. 

Breathability and Moisture Control: What it actually means and why it’s important

Most humans are lacking in the fur department, so they drape themselves in fabric to protect themselves from the elements. Wearing clothes creates a microenvironment between the skin and the layer(s) of fabric. The conditions of that microenvironment directly affect comfort, a concept about which humans are very particular. No one likes being hot and clammy, nor the feel of biting wind on a frigid day. The best clothing option is one that helps you thermoregulate and manage moisture.

Liquids, like water, evaporate when they absorb enough energy from their surroundings to change state, from a liquid into a gas. The water molecules take tiny amounts of thermal energy (heat) with them as they go, leaving the area cooler because of it. Losing heat to water vapor is called evaporative cooling. Humans are naturally capable of evaporative cooling: it’s called sweating.

Adequate moisture management is influenced by several components such as breathability, weight and construction, fit, and how a garment reacts to water molecules.


Breathability refers to how well a fabric allows air and water vapor to pass through, so moisture (perspiration) can evaporate. When moisture evaporates directly from the skin’s surface, you get the maximum benefit of evaporative cooling, rather than it cooling the outside of the fabric.

Breathability is:

  • The best way to stay cool in hot climates because it allows for optimal evaporative cooling.
  • Not good for keeping warm. 
  • Affected by other features of the garment. 

In scientific terms, breathability refers to a fabric’s MVTR, moisture vapor transmission rate (also called WVTR, Water Vapor Transmission Rate). MVTR measures how much water vapor can pass through one square meter of fabric in one day.

MVTR = g/㎡/24hrs

Breathability is marketed as the holy grail of temperature regulation and moisture control. It is an important element, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Breathability is affected by the garment’s fabric weight, construction (seams, creases, openings), fit, moisture wicking, absorbency, and the hydrophobic nature of the material itself. A higher MVTR means better evaporative cooling.

Weight, Construction, and Air Flow

Weight and construction were introduced earlier, but to recap: how a fabric is manufactured, directly affects its breathability. Manufacturers carefully consider the end use of a product when selecting what fabric to use.

Weight: For a given type of fabric, a light weight construction is more breathable than a heavier weight option (see Fabric Weight). Heavier fabric lets less air in and less heat out.  

Construction: Loosely knit/woven fabric has a higher MVTR than tightly knit/woven fabric- it is more breathable. Think of how a screen door lets the wind in but a brick wall doesn’t. 


Fit refers to how clothing sits on your body. It is about more than how you look, it has very practical functions, especially relating to breathability. 

  • Loose fits allows air flow. Loose fitting clothing is good for hot climates and easy activities. 
  • Snug fits limit airflow, which helps insulate you and facilitates moisture transfer. In temperate to cool climates a snug fit is better.

Hydrophilic vs Hydrophobic  

Hydrophilic fabrics are those that absorb or wick moisture: they are attracted to water on the molecular level. Fabrics made from natural fibers such as alpaca, cashmere, silk, and wool are hydrophilic. Fibers containing plant cellulose such as cotton, hemp, and rayon are also hydrophilic. 

Hydrophilic fabric:

  • Absorbs and/or wick moisture. 
  • Moves water molecules in some way.
  • Improves comfort by absorbing sweat or moving it to facilitate evaporation.

materials are not attracted to water on the molecular level. They do not mix with or absorb water without special manufacturing and treatment. Hydrophobic fabrics are usually those derived from petroleum, an oil. Oil and water don’t mix. Polyester, nylon, and cuben fiber are hydrophobic fibers. Hydrophobic materials just push water around: think of trying to mop up a spill with a plastic bag- it just doesn’t work. 

Hydrophobic fabric:

  • Does not absorb water.
  • If breathable enough, does allow moisture to pass through it- it just doesn’t facilitate the process. Hydrophobic fabric may actually be better at evaporation if well ventilated, but only if well ventilated. Which is why synthetics fail in windless and muggy conditions. 
    • Great for outdoor activities where there is wind, like running and sailing. Bad for hiking in a rainforest. 
  • Makes excellent rain protection and outer shells.  

It is important to note that polyester and nylon may be specially manufactured and treated to make them absorb or wick moisture. However, the fabric is still an oil based product. After time, or if not properly cared for, treated fabric will lose any absorbent/wicking qualities as the fabric breaks down or gets clogged with oil (which nylon and polyester do bond to).

Moisture Absorbing vs Moisture Wicking

These terms refer to ways a fabric interacts with moisture, but their operation and functions are very different. 

Moisture absorbing means the molecules comprising the material bond to water molecules, temporarily holding on to those molecules until something, like evaporation, breaks its hold. Water molecules are positively charged on one side and negatively charged on the other. Fabrics that absorb water are actually electromagnetically attracted to the charge of a water molecule, so they stick together. Water permeates into a cotton T-shirt, rather than beading and rolling off like it would a nylon umbrella.

Absorbent fabric:

  • Helps keep you dry under layers of clothing. When there is too much in the way to allow for evaporation, absorbent fabric holds onto the water, keeping it off your skin.  
  • Traps sweat and moisture inside the fabric so you don’t feel clammy. 
  • Spreads water molecules throughout the fabric. 
  • May take longer to dry, especially if the fabric weight is heavy duty. 

Different materials can absorb different amounts of water. A fabric’s absorbency is reported as a percentage: how much water is absorbed compared to the mass of the fabric when it’s dry. 

Maximum absorbency is the maximum amount of water a fabric can hold before it is saturated and feels wet. 

Moisture regain is the amount of water a fabric can hold in “normal conditions”: at 70℉/21℃ in 65% humidity.

Together, maximum absorbency and moisture regain indicate the overall absorption performance of a fabric. 

Moisture wicking means the fabric moves water molecules from one area to another, by way of microscopic tubes, called capillaries. A capillary is like a straw that attracts the water up it electromagnetically. The ability to move moisture to the fabric’s surface facilitates evaporation. You have seen moisture wicking if you have ever used a paper towel to soak up water.

Wicking fabric:

  • Promotes fast cooling, called evaporative cooling.
  • Dries quickly.
  • Moves sweat away from the body’s surface and through the fabric.
  • Is a good feature for sports and sweaty activities.

Adsorption is when water molecules stick to the outside surface of a material, but do not penetrate within the material. Adsorption is similar to wicking in the sense that it moves water, but only along the material’s surface. Some synthetic fibers can be treated to add adsorption properties.

Fun Fact

The scientific term to describe material that attracts water molecules is “hygroscopic”. 

How Sustainable is each fabric?

Sustainability refers to how eco-friendly a product’s materials and manufacturing process are. Sustainability is a complicated issue and many factors affect it, such as: 

  • Natural vs synthetic origins
  • Water consumption
  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • Fungicides
  • Fertilizers
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Byproducts 
  • Dyes
  • End of life and disposal

Every product varies, so if you want to know what you are buying into, you will have to do your own research. There are far too many options to cover them all in depth. Beware that some companies try to capitalize on a consumers’ wish to “be green” by marketing their product in misleading ways….did someone say Bamboo?

Acrylic Sustainability: Terrible

Acrylic is made from a combination of harsh chemicals. Mostly, it is made of acrylonitrile, a petroleum (fossil fuel) derivative. It is processed with toxic chemicals, such as dimethylformamide, a solvent. Manufacturing requires sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid. It is also an energy intensive process. Unlike other synthetic materials, acrylic is difficult to recycle. 

Alpaca Sustainability: Excellent

Roughly 80% of the world’s Alpaca population live in their native climate within South America, mostly Peru. Most producers are small, local farmers using traditional methods. That means environmental effects are less concentrated in one area. Alpaca have soft feet, not hooves, which is less impactful on the terrestrial landscape, but they still produce byproducts such as methane gas, a type of greenhouse gas. As demand increases, farming is becoming increasingly popular in California. While production volumes are still low, the negative impact of alpaca fabric is low, but as demand increases, it will face the same issues of scale that wool and cashmere does. Alpaca can be recycled. 

Cashmere Sustainability: Moderate

Cashmere is made from goat fiber: it is natural, renewable, and biodegradable. The physical production of fleece into fabric is very clean compared to synthetics, but there are the goats themselves to consider. Cashmere is mainly sourced from Mongolia and China, where the harsh environment makes life on the goats hard (which is why they evolved the hair they did). As Cashmere demand increases more land is needed for pasture, the growing demand for food decimates the natural landscape and leaves many goats malnourished and literally out in the cold. Cashmere goats yield less than merino sheep, so more and more goats are needed to meet demand- and more goats means more methane waste and land destruction. As with all protein fibers (cashmere, wool, and alpaca) sustainability is an issue of scale, aka human demand. Cashmere can be recycled into new clothing.

Cotton Sustainability: Low, unless organic

Although cotton is a natural material, it has been called the “world’s dirtiest crop” because it is often grown with very detrimental fertilizers and insecticides, and it always requires a lot of water [more on the Ethics of Cotton]. 70% of the world’s fresh water goes to agriculture, and 3% of that goes to cotton, specifically. According to, it takes about 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. Cotton can be recycled but it is difficult. 

Shop for organic cotton when you can. Certified organic cotton means it has not been genetically modified and is grown without synthetic chemicals. 

Cuben Fiber (Dyneema) Sustainability: Low

Cuben fiber contains polyethylene, which is made from ethane (a hydrocarbon found in natural gas or as a by-product of petroleum refining), and polyester (basically another kind of plastic). Production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. DSM Dyneema, the company that produces cuben fiber, has sustainability goals to “reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40%, energy consumption by 20% and water use by 15%, all by 2020.”** However, they are not forthcoming with what those numbers actually represent. The manufacture of cuben fiber requires little water to produce. However, it is a kind of plastic, which means it does not decompose and if not properly disposed of could end up as pollution. 

**“Dyneema®: The Greenest Strength™ | Textile World.” 11 Jul. 2016, Accessed 3 May. 2020.

Hemp Sustainability: Moderate to High

Hemp may be phyto-remediative, which means it removes harmful chemicals from soil. The plant requires relatively little water (about 50% compared to cotton). It is usually grown without fertilizers, amd it is naturally herbicidal (kills off competing plants). Many companies process hemp with chemicals, which damage the environment, but a slower option is available mechanically (without chemicals). If a product was made responsibly, they will advertise the fact; if not mentioned, assume it was made via the chemical method. 

Leather Sustainability: Poor

Over 80% of leather is made from cows, which are notoriously bad for the environment. Leather must be tanned to be usable, which is most commonly done with very harsh chemicals, such as chromium (a heavy metal) or aldehyde, although more eco-friendly, plant-based alternatives do exist. The largest producer of leather is China, which further adds to leather’s carbon footprint because of transportation costs. 

Linen Sustainability: Moderate

The flax plant, which is used to make linen, is not known for needing much water to grow, and the plant has many uses. However, linen must be heavily bleached to get it white, and it is sometimes grown with harmful insecticides and fertilizers. When grown organically and left unbleached, linen is one of the most environmentally friendly cloth options.

Microfiber Sustainability: Low

Microfiber is basically plastic. It is made from chemicals, produced with chemicals, and doesn’t biodegrade. Every time a synthetic material is washed, it releases microplastics into the environment. 

Nylon Sustainability: Low

One step in the manufacture of Nylon requires Benzene, a known carcinogen. Depending on the type of nylon being produced additional harmful chemicals are used, for example nylon type 6.6 uses nitrous oxide, which depletes the ozone layer and is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In 1991, it was estimated that 10% of the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide came from the production of nylon.** Nylon requires 3 times as much energy to produce compared to cotton, is difficult to dye (contributes to water pollution), and does not biodegrade- however, it could, in theory, be recycled. Nylon releases microplastics into the water when washed. 

**“Nylon 6 and Nylon 6,6 | O ECOTEXTILES.” 5 Jun. 2012, Accessed 5 May. 2020.

Polyester Sustainability: Low

The main ingredients in polyester are ethylene glycol (aka antifreeze), a petroleum derivative, and terephthalic acid, another petroleum derivative. The two most common types of polyester are PET and PCDT (which stand for polyethylene terephthalate and poly-1.4-cyclohexylene-dimethylene). Manufacturing is a complicated chemical process that is energy intensive and uses lots of water. Not only are the chemicals used in manufacturing ecologically unfriendly, but polyester requires special dyes that are insoluble in water and may be mutagenic or carcinogenic. Polyester releases microplastics into the water when washed. It is not biodegradable but it could, in theory, be recycled. 

Silk Sustainability: Good

Most silkworms are usually fed Mulberry leaves; the tree is known for needing less water than cotton and few pesticides or fertilizers. Cleaning and preparing silk can call for several harsh chemicals, which, when improperly disposed of, pollute the groundwater. Manufacturing silk on a large scale requires significant mechanical processing, and therefore energy. Organic silk is even better because it uses organic Mulberry trees and dyes. 

Spandex Sustainability: Poor

Spandex is made from petroleum and is manufactured using a type of compound called isocyanates, which is known to cause cancer in animals and “potentially” in humans. Spandex manufacturing requires toxic chemicals, a lot of water, and the finished product is not biodegradable. 

Wool Sustainability: Good

Wool is a natural, renewable, biodegradable resource. To make fabric from wool, the fleece is harvested, cleaned, detangled, and spun into yarn. The process requires relatively little chemicals, water, and energy. The negative environmental impact from wool comes from raising the animals on a massive scale: Land is cleared for grazing, the fleece are treated with insecticides and fungicides, and the sheep produce methane (a greenhouse gas) as a waste product. Sheep are mammals which calls into question animal rights and the risk of cruelty. To summarize, a few sheep aren’t bad, but a zillion are. Many companies work to improve sustainability within their company and provide excellent products, such as IceBreaker. Wool clothing can be recycled. 

Fun Fact

65% of the fibers produced globally are synthetic, and 35% are natural. Sustainable synthetics make up only 0.07% of synthetic production**. Companies that make an effort to use sustainable synthetics include Patagonia, Nike, Target, and H&M.

“Synthetics & Sustainable Synthetic Fibres | Common Objective.” 29 May. 2018, Accessed 6 May. 2020.

Polyester Fleece Sustainability: Very Low

Fleece is made of polyester, so it has all the same environmental impacts, however it requires more energy because of the additional processing and releases massive amounts of microplastics when washed because. As a type of polyester, it may be made using recycled products; Patagonia claims its recycled fleece jackets are made from the equivalent of 25 plastic bottles.

Rayon Sustainability: Poor

Rayon is made from renewable resources, but has a questionable environmental impact when considering the manufacturing process. It uses more energy to produce rayon per unit than it does cotton. Rayon requires intensive use of chemicals to separate the cellulose and form it into thread. Dissolving pulp requires sodium hydroxide (lye/caustic soda) and carbon disulfide (a toxic, volatile liquid compound); Forming the thread calls for sulfuric acid, which is highly corrosive.

Bamboo Fabric Sustainability: Poor

Bamboo is a renewable resource that requires ⅓ the amount of water to grow that cotton does. It grows quickly and requires few pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. But, being a type of rayon, the manufacturing process requires heavy use of chemicals. Growing bamboo isn’t the problem, making it into fabric is. Certifications (like Standard 100 from Oeko-Tex) refer to the finished product, not the manufacturing process. 

Lyocell (aka Tencel) Sustainability: Moderate

Lyocell is produced using different chemical solvents (amine oxide vs sulfuric acid) and a different method than traditional (viscose) rayon. This method uses 80% less water during production than cotton does. Lenzing AG claims that most of the water can be recycled and that 95% of the chemical solvents are reclaimed (and thus not disposed of into the environment). However energy costs are still high. Lyocell is most commonly made from bamboo, and Tencel is most commonly made from eucalyptus: Both bamboo and eucalyptus are known for needing little water, pesticides, and fertilizers. 

Modal Sustainability: Moderate

Lyocell is produced using a similar method as Lyocell, but the source material is Beechwood. Beechwood trees can be grown responsibly, but not all modal producers do so.


Fabric production is a science. And there are lots of options. The best solution is not one choice, but rather, the combination of several options. 

In warmer climates, breathability and moisture wicking are important considerations to help you stay cool. As layers come into the picture in cooler climates, it’s important that base layers absorb perspiration, mid layers wick away moisture so that it can evaporate, and outer layers protect you from the elements, like wind and rain.

Natural fabrics offer excellent performance and durability, but require additional care and carry a hefty price tag. Synthetics are easy to find and have specialized performances at affordable prices, but added features wear out quickly.

Knowing the attributes of different fabrics allows you to make an informed decision about what is best for you. Good luck, it’s a lot to take in.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission or compensation if you click through and/or make a purchase. The opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own. 

Glossary of Terms

Cellulose: an organic compound made of a long chain of carbohydrate molecules. Cellulose is what makes up a plant’s cell walls. Humans can not digest cellulose (which you may have observed after eating corn).

Evaporative Cooling: water absorbs heat as it transitions from a liquid to a gas. Sweat works to cool you down because of evaporative cooling. 

Fabric Weight: reported as gsm, which stands for grams per square meter. The higher the weight, the thicker (and more durable) the material is. 

Humidity: the concentration of water vapor in the air, reported as a percentage of the maximum amount of water it can hold. Humidity is a relative measurement. It is affected by factors such as the air temperature (warm air can hold more water than cold air) and pressure (high pressure, like at sea level, can hold more water than low pressure). Therefore, a reading of 80% humidity on the top of Mt Everest, is much, much drier in objective terms, than 80% in Disney World. 

Hydrophilic: adheres to, i.e. absorbs, water molecules at the atomic level. Example: vinegar. 

Hydrophobic: repels water molecules at the atomic level. Example: olive oil. 

Maximum absorbency: is the maximum amount of water a fabric can hold before it is saturated and feels wet. Reported as a percentage of the fabrics dry weight.

Moisture regain: the amount of water a fabric can hold in “normal conditions”: at 70℉/21℃ in 65% humidity. 

Polymer: a substance made up of repeating units of similar molecules. A diamond is a polymer: it is a repeating pattern of carbon atoms bonded together. Wood, rubber, silk, cellulose, protein, and DNA are a few examples of naturally occuring polymers. Synthetic polymers include polyester, Teflon, polyethylene, and polyester. 

Comparison Chart of Fabric Types

Natural Fibers Comparison Chart

Best For Temperate to Very Cold climates Long trips Hiking Naturally flame retardant Eco-conscious consumers Temperate to Very Cold climates Long trips Hiking Warmth to weight ratio Naturally flame retardant Hot, dry climates Budget conscious No fuss care Hot, humid climates Durability UV protection Odor control Jackets Day Bags Accessories Hot and/or humid climates Durability Odor control Temperate to cold climates Naturally flame retardant Eco-conscious consumers Variable climates Long trips Hiking Naturally flame retardant
Best Layer Base Mid Outer Base Mid Outer Base Mid Outer Base Mid Outer Base Mid Base Mid Base Mid Outer
Problem Areas Damaged by harsh detergents and castille soap Vulnerable to moths Shrinkage Pilling Damaged by harsh detergents and castille soap Vulnerable to moths Shrinkage Warping Muggy weather Shrinkage Inelastic Initially coarse texture Heavy Inelastic Shrinkage Inelastic Damaged by harsh detergents Shrinkage Inelastic Damaged by harsh detergents Degraded by UV Shrinkage Damaged by harsh detergents and castille soap Vulnerable to moths
Source Alpaca Cashmere goats Pashmina goats Cotton plant Cannabis sativa plant Animal hide Flax plant Silkworm Sheep
Texture Soft Knit or woven Very Soft Knit or woven Soft Knit or woven Somewhat coarse, softens with use Knit or woven Varied Softens with use Woven, softens with use Very soft Knit or woven Soft Knit or woven
Affordability Very Expensive Very Expensive Affordable Somewhat expensive Expensive Expensive Very expensive Expensive
Availability Limited Limited Very common Available online Common, specialty items Available online Limited Common
Care Requirements Delicate Delicate Easy Easy Easy Moderate Delicate Moderate- Delicate
Durability Excellent Good Good Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent Good
Flame Resistance Good Good Poor Poor Excellent Poor Good Good
Odor Control (Antimicrobial) Yes Yes No Yes No Yes No Yes
Wrinkle Resistance Excellent Excellent Poor Terrible n/a (Will crease) Terrible Good Excellent
Breathability MVTR/WVTR Excellent Excellent Good Excellent Terrible Excellent Moderate Excellent
Maximum Absorbency 30% 35% 24-27% 20% Varies 20% 35% 30%
Moisture Regain 15% 15% 8.5% 12.4% 10-28% 12.4% 11% 18.5%
Moisture Wicking Yes Yes No Yes No Yes No Yes
Quick Drying No No No Yes No Yes Yes No
Insulation Excellent Excellent Moderate Poor Good Poor- Moderate Good Excellent
Insulation if Wet Excellent Excellent Poor Poor Poor Poor Good Excellent
Warmth to Weight Ratio Excellent Excellent Poor Poor Poor Poor Excellent Excellent
Biodegradable Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Synthetic Fabrics Comparison Chart

Best For Temperate to cold climates Fade resistant Rain gear Stuff sacks Ultralight Temperate climates Low maintenance Temperate climates Durability Variable climates Short trips Budget conscious Cool to very cold climates Light activities Weight conscious Stretch
Best Layer Outer Outer shell Mid Mid Outer Outer shell Mid Outer Outer Shell Outer Base Mid Outer
Problem Areas Properties vary Pilling Bulky Damaged by abrasion Very flammable Static cling Microplastics Damage from friction and punctures Zero breathability Limited lifespan Quality Varies Damaged by fabric softener Microplastics Inelastic unless blended Hot climates Muggy weather Properties vary Quality varies Absorbs oils Bulky Absorbs oils Microplastics Pilling Damaged by repeated drying or ironing
Source Chemical polymer Chemical polymer Chemical polymer: usually polyester + nylon Chemical polymer Chemical polymer Chemical polymer Chemical polymer
Texture Soft Silky Knit or woven Crinkly Plastic Very soft Knit or woven Soft Silky Knit Varies Knit or woven Soft and fluffy Knit Soft and stretchy Knit or woven Slightly lustrous
Affordability Affordable Expensive Affordable Affordable Affordable Affordable Affordable
Availability Common Limited supply and options Common Very common Very common Very common Very common
Care Requirements Easy Very easy Easy Easy Easy Easy Easy
Durability Moderate Moderate Moderate Excellent Moderate Moderate Moderate- Poor
Flame Resistance Poor Poor Poor Poor Poor Poor Poor
Odor Control (Antimicrobial) No No No No No No No
Wrinkle Resistance Good Poor Excellent Good Good Excellent Excellent
Breathability MVTR/WVTR Poor Terrible Moderate Poor Poor unless treated Excellent Moderate
Maximum Absorbency 0% 0% Varies by product Up to 700% 1.5-10% 0.4% unless treated 0.4% 1-1.5%
Moisture Regain 1.5-2.5% 0.4% Varies 4% 0.4% unless treated 0.4% 0.6-1.2%
Moisture Wicking No unless treated No Yes Yes No unless treated No Yes
Quick Drying Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Insulation Good Poor Good Poor Good Excellent Poor
Insulation if Wet Poor Poor Good Poor Moderate Moderate- Poor Poor
Warmth to Weight Ratio Moderate Poor Good Moderate Good Excellent Poor
Biodegradable No No No No No No No

Manufactured Fabrics Comparison Chart

Best For Hot to cool climates Cozy feel Hot and humid to cool climates Soft and comfortable Hot and humid to cool climates The eco-conscious on a budget Most durable type of rayon Hot and humid to cool climates Comfort and soft feel Relatively easy care (vs other rayons)
Best Layer Mid Base Mid Base Mid Base Mid
Problem Areas Shrinkage Delicate Weakened by water Muggy weather Very flammable Shrinkage Damaged by harsh detergents and fabric softener Hype Shrinkage Mildew Damaged by harsh detergents and fabric softener Damaged by harsh detergents and fabric softener
Source Cellulose Bamboo cellulose Eucalyptus, bamboo, oak, and/or birch cellulose Beechwood cellulose
Texture Varies Knit or woven Rough Lustrous Knit or woven Soft Knit or woven Soft Glossy Knit or woven
Affordability Affordable Somewhat expensive Affordable Affordable
Availability Very common Common Common Common
Care Requirements Moderate- Delicate Moderate Delicate Easy
Durability Moderate- Poor Moderate Good Moderate
Flame Resistance Poor Poor Poor Poor
Odor Control (Antimicrobial) No No No No
Wrinkle Resistance Poor Moderate Good Moderate
Breathability MVTR/WVTR Moderate Good Good Good
Maximum Absorbency 14-70% 38% 35-40% 35-40%
Moisture Regain 11% 13% 13% 11-14%
Moisture Wicking Yes, but very little Yes Yes Yes
Quick Drying Yes Yes Yes Yes
Insulation Moderate Moderate Moderate Moderate
Insulation if Wet Moderate Poor Poor Poor
Warmth to Weight Ratio Poor Poor Poor Poor
Biodegradable Yes Yes Yes Yes

Still Curious? Keep Reading

Time flies. It’s up to you to be the navigator.

― Robert Orben

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