Killer Cotton and why I’m back in Chambray.

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Home Forums General Forums Philosophy & Technique Killer Cotton and why I’m back in Chambray.

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    Jim W.
    BPL Member


    Locale: So-Cal

    I haven’t backpacked this year and have done little hiking.  So of course I shopped.

    My son is happy with his long sleeved REI Sahara shirt from two years ago so I ordered one for myself.  I noticed the fabric is heavier 92% polyester, 8% spandex.  His is lighter about 1/2 each nylon and poly with less spandex.  I did a hike last weekend and the shirt was nice, but hotter than I would prefer.  Expected highs were 69 but we had mid 80’s instead.  The shirt kept the sun and bugs off at 8-11,000 feet over 12 miles.

    I got thinking of my teenage years when “killer cotton” wasn’t a 7/365 issue.  We wore cotton in the summer and the best we could find for winter.  Most backpack trips in the Sierra didn’t involve hiking in the rain, it was usually more sun, bugs, and breezes that my shirt had to confront.  Depending on the temperature my chambray shirt and cotton bandana would either stay pretty dry because it wasn’t too hot and sweaty, or they would be doused by sweat and/or the nearest stream or lake.  Wind blows through chambray and when it gets wet or sweaty it helps to cool you right off.

    Over the past 25 years I’ve tried various “vented” shirts from Ex-Officio, Railriders, and a few other brands- probably 10 hang in my closet.  For the most part they’re pretty wind-resistant nylon and then try to make up for it with strips of mesh which sometimes hide behind flaps or zippers.  They’re mostly still hot unless the wind is blowing and they get pretty stinky.  Then I switched to wool but it has challenges too- my Sir Pendleton button-downs are very nice but can get rather hot too.

    After the new REI shirt I started thinking back to that blue cotton chambray shirt.  It was the coolest thing ever, reaching the peak of perfection right before it completely wore out.  It isn’t a layering piece.  If the weather turns cold and wet it’s just dead weight.  Until then on a hot day it’s a lifesaver.

    So I went shopping again.  A similar, open weave shirt is headed my way, this time with a hemp/polyester blend.  Hopefully the latest miracle “fadric” will be good.  Otherwise I’m going back to the real cotton… or maybe linen…

    BPL Member


    Locale: The Cascades

    Certainly let us know how it turns out.

    Nick Gatel
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern California


    Gosh, been a long time. Hope you and the family are doing well.

    I’ve been a fan of 60/40 poly-cotton blends for decades. Plus you can find them almost anywhere, so no need for backpacking-specific prices.

    Erica R
    BPL Member


    I love loose fitting light colored cotton in California or other summer weather. I use it for gardening and hiking. Yes, it’s a guys kurta, but so what?? If it gets really hot, you can dip it in a stream crossing and shiver as you put it back on.

    Diane “Piper” Soini
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Barbara

    I’ve secretly been wearing a cotton tank top on all my hikes for the last few years, fall, winter and spring, although this last hike I did wear a very thin spandex camisole that was pretty nice.

    My hiking partner on my last hike wore cotton knit tank top and cotton knit shorts (like the kind you used to wear for PE class). She also had what appeared to be cotton-spandex pants. And sometimes she wore something like that kurta above. Very light thin gauze-like cotton fabric.

    We experienced rain and hot weather, swimming and cold weather. Nobody died.

    Cotton doesn’t kill. It’s actually high-performance in extreme cold and in extreme heat. In extreme cold water will freeze and fall off. In extreme heat it will absorb water and cool you. It’s those mid-range hypothermia conditions where it might be problematic, but I think anything that is drenched and slow to dry will be problematic in hypothermia conditions. If it is thin and/or gauzy, it will protect you from sun without overheating you and will dry fast. Like your bandana.

    I no longer see any problem with cotton, but I have a lot of nylon and polyester things that haven’t worn out yet.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Colorado

    I always thought “Cotton kills” was hyperbole. For activities in conditions with little chance of getting cold and wet, I frequently wear a cotton or cotton blend shirt. Here in the desert where I do most of my hiking, I always wear a cotton/blend top. I recently picked up a cotton/linen blend long-sleeve dress shirt and it’s the coolest (temp, not style) shirt I’ve ever worn for hot weather hiking.
    Go cotton!

    W I S N E R !
    BPL Member


    I will swallow my pride and admit that not all backpacking is extreme. A cotton T under a cotton sweatshirt (and cotton everything for that matter) is one of the most comfortable combos I can think of…IF

    …it’s just a mellow outing and the stakes are not high for freezing/rewarming. Cotton on desert trips is quite nice.

    Wearing cotton in Montana on a multiday hike/hunt in late September is a different story.



    obx hiker
    BPL Member


    Ahhh cotton.

    “It was the coolest thing ever, reaching the peak of perfection right before it completely wore out.”  Amen            “Cotton on desert trips is quite nice.”  Amen Again.  “In extreme heat it will absorb water and cool you.” That water source would be inside you and then the sweat that comes out is absorbed by the cotton and then evaporates and you get evaporative cooling.  Good as long as you stay hydrated, not good on a high elev. hike when you come out in the open above tree line and the cooling ends up giving you the hypothermic shivers but great in the 4-corners in hot weather or anywhere that it’s REALLY hot. A cautionary note though. If it is like jungle conditions and so humid the evaporation is not going to occur then its like wearing a perpetually wet rag with skin crud likely to result. I wouldn’t think cotton would be OK in a place like Corcovado.

    We grew up playing in cotton. The bales were really fun. They were stored in these huge old warehouses like 200 x 400 and stacked 3 and 4 bales high (each bale @ 6″high)  and one of those warehouses (old # 2 we all called it) was for some reason neglected and instead of neatly stacked bales there were big sections where the bales were turned over and formed long caves and tunnels. Of course if a bale fell on one of us it would be a BIG problem but young boys will be boys. The dim light sneaking in under the rafters and various holes. Some really awesome games of capture the flag.

    In the early 70’s our part of the cotton growing world was the beginning point of the Bole Weevil eradication program. The whole approach was a very labor intensive system of carefully checking fields and responding if the “sex” traps dispersed through the fields collected boll weevils; like they do now in some places to check for potential disease carrying mosquitoes . My younger brother had a job checking fields. His boots got extremely muddy from tromping across all these cotton fields every day and his VW beetle was just a mudhole.

    So one evening my dad jumps into the Bug which I guess was blocking the drive; to run down to the store for something or other and discovers an illegal plant growing next to the gear shift in the accumulated mud.

    I guess the seed could have come from anywhere right?  We’ll be telling that story at his funeral if he lives that long.




    Elliott Wolin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia

    I too have worn cotton in the hottest weather, mainly so I could soak it so it would keep me cool.

    But it’s obvious that the fact that it stays wet for a long time disqualifies it for wet and cold conditions.  When wearing cotton around town and getting caught in a rainstorm I found cotton to be become extremely chilly and heavy, even under raingear or an umbrella, as it somehow manages to get wet despite my best efforts.

    No way I’d take it hiking or backpacking in similar conditions.

    Brad Rogers
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southeast Tennessee

    The point of the tightly woven nylon and polyester shirts is for bug protection – are the cotton shirts mosquito proof?    For times of year when mosquito aren’t an issue, I prefer more breathable options, like OR Echo, but they do get stinky as well.  Linen is nice, if it holds up.  It it got cold and wet, it would be pretty miserable, but as long as you have something else to change into you should be OK.

    Erica R
    BPL Member


    Yes, the kurta is mosquito proof. Depends on how tight the weave is. Linen is usually a loose weave. Cotton/polyester tend to be tight weaves.

    Some use wind shirts for bug protection. They are tight and work, but too hot for me.

    Spraying some DEET on my sun hat with mosquito proof top and pants are almost always enough for me, anywhere south of Minnesota and Alaska.

    Dave @ Oware
    BPL Member


    Locale: East Washington

    BITD the Chambray was bug proof only when you wore the thick Fishnet shirt underneath. If you really wanted to up your game at bug and brushwacking protection
    (at the expense of weight) you wore a hickory striped pullover of heavy cotton like the loggers.


    brian H
    BPL Member


    Locale: Siskiyou Mtns

    +1 on the cotton blends. my patagonia island hoppers have been my go 2 for a decade+

    35% cotton

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