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Traveling and Living Lightly - Clothing Selection Criteria

Traveling and Living Lightly started the discussion of looking at life from the perspective of a traveler as well as some of the goals that I both need and want to meet with the gear I carry.  This article continues the series by examining the selection of clothing.  Your needs may be different from mine, but the types of criteria are likely very similar.


The choice of clothing fabrics can be very important to achieving your goals, here are some of the characteristics and trade offs to consider.

  • Moisture retention - some fabrics absorb and retain moisture while others wick the moisture to the surface allowing it to dry much more quickly when you hang it up or even while you are wearing it.  In some cases, the fabric simply can't absorb much moisture.  When your clothes are wet they typically provide little or no insulation, so the more quickly they can be dried, the better off you are when you are in cold and wet environments.  Fabrics which tend to retain moisture rather than wicking it to the surface are a bad idea if you are likely to need good insulation.  Another advantage of wicking fabrics and low absorption fabrics is that you can dry them relatively quickly by just hanging them up or laying them out to dry, which may reduce or eliminate your "need" to use mechanical drying and save you money in the process.
  • Insulation - insulation is mostly about small pockets of trapped air, so thicker "fleece" type clothing usually provides good insulation, however, it also provides significant weight and is usable only in colder environments.  My approach is that all clothing should be wearable in hot weather, and for cold weather you just put on more of it, wearing multiple shirts and/or pairs of pants.  People who camp/hike a lot refer to this a "layering".
  • Sun protection - the way some fabrics are created makes them an effective sun block, helping to prevent sun burn, skin cancer, etc.  If you don't like wearing sun screen and/or have light skin, this may be an important consideration.
  • Odor and bacterial growth - fabrics which hold moisture for long periods can promote bacterial growth and odor, making it desirable to wash your clothes more often.  Some fabrics such as wool actually are anti-bacterial, in addition to their moisture-wicking capabilities, reducing the need for washing unless there is actual visible dirt on them.  It is important to note that regardless of fabric, once it is dry the odor will be significantly reduced or eliminated; however, with most clothing, once it is moist again, the odor is back at full strength very quickly.  With anti-bacterial fabrics, after some period of time the bacteria are dead,  so if you wait long enough, you are essentially starting fresh when you put it back on.
  • Durability - obviously some fabrics are tougher than others, and if you are going to be hiking through brush and rough terrain, tough clothing may be a necessity if you don't want to be naked when you reach the other side.  On the other hand, if you stick to trail hiking and don't engage in other activities which cause rough treatment of your clothes, less durable clothes may be a better choice given the other trade offs.
  • Weight - weight is always a consideration for travel, though not so much of an issue for clothing at home.  Tougher and more insulative fabrics tend to be heavier.
  • Skin reactions - some people and fabrics may not go together well, allergic reactions to the fabric or chemicals it may have been treated with can be a problem in some cases.  Wool fibers in particular cause reactions for some people, though the finer the wool fibers are, the less likely people are to have a reaction.  In some cases, switching to wool from a different kind of animal may be a reasonable solution if you want to use wool but have a bad reaction.
  • Care - how difficult is the maintenance of the fabric and what can it be exposed to.  Can the fabric be washed and dried mechanically?  Does it need to be ironed after washing?  Is it a problem if it gets wet in the rain?  Is it resistant to stains and/or how difficult is it to remove stains?

There are no "perfect" fabrics, it is likely there will always trade-offs to consider, here is some information about a few common fabrics.  I have pointedly not included many other fabrics such as bamboo, hemp, etc. because clothing selections in these fabrics are very limited or even nonexistent in most places where I live and/or travel, so they are not practical choices and I have been unable to verify some of the claimed properties:

  • Cotton
    • durable
    • cheap
    • retains moisture, it is slow / difficult to dry out
    • In extreme circumstances hiking in cold weather (which can occur any time of year in mountainous areas), if the cotton you are wearing gets wet, the difficulties in drying and lack of insulation during that time can get you killed.
  • Silk
    • extremely light weight
    • low moisture absorption
    • very strong
    • fabrics are generally very thin so they dry quickly
    • care requirements for keeping it looking good can be a problem for travel, depending on the specific type of silk fabric
  • Wool
    • good moisture wicking
    • naturally anti-bacterial
    • some people have problems with skin reactions and/or itching, though this is mostly a function of the diameter of the fibers, extremely fine wool fibers cause far fewer problems for most (but not all) people.  Finer wool from animals other than sheep may be a reasonable (though more expensive) alternative for people with this problem.
    • Merino wool has become very popular recently and is probably among the best in trade offs for all of wool's features.
    • Wool knits may have problems with unraveling if the fabric is damaged, though a small iron-on patch or other treatments can be used to prevent the problem after it has been damaged.  Light weight knits tend not to be very tough.
  • Synthetics (polyester, etc.)
    • low moisture absorption
    • generally cheap, though some of the new materials are fairly expensive
    • readily supports bacterial growth and odor problems are often significant depending on the particular fabric
    • chemical treatments used in some of these fabrics have given some people skin reactions
    • light weight
    • tough
    • some of the "features" such as stain resistance, odor control, etc. are chemical surface treatments which will actually wash out over time, leaving you with just a plain old synthetic shirt.

Color Selection

No, I'm not about to give fashion tips here, I'm not even remotely qualified to do so, however, there are a few practical considerations.

  • Given the limited amount of clothing you will own/carry (depending on your goals), you should be comfortable wearing any combination of the colors of clothing you will carry.  Make sure you include everything in this consideration, not just shirts / pants / skirts / dresses, but belts, shoes, socks, even swimming suits.
  • Ideally the colors would be suitable for all activities and environments you will be in.  This may not be strictly necessary, but it is important to at least realize that a black shirt is a bad idea to wear outside in full sun in 100 deg. F / 37 deg. C. weather.


  • Pockets / storage - how much stuff do you carry with you?  If you are traveling, it will probably be even more, so pockets are important, not just having some, but:
    • how many
    • how deep
    • do they have closures (flaps, zippers, buttons).  Pockets are of no use if things fall out of them every time you sit down.  My preference today is for zippers on all pants pockets except the standard front pockets you find on most pants.  In particular I would prefer zippers on cargo pockets as Velcro doesn't seem to do a good job.
    • are they located in useful places
  • How many different functions can it perform for you?  The more different ways you can use an item of clothing, the fewer items you will need.  Swimming trunks (depending on the design and your preferences) can be used as short pants, a spare pair of underwear, or even running shorts.  Long pants with removable legs can be used for running or swimming as well as short or long pants.


Price is important, but the correct evaluation is not always as obvious as it seems since more expensive clothes may save enough money in other ways to more than make up for the cost difference, for example:

  • If your clothing doesn't need to be cleaned as often (odor killing and/or stain resistance), then you save money on doing laundry as well as the time you spend doing the washing.
  • If your clothes wick, are low absorption, or for some other reason dry more quickly when hung out, then when doing laundry they can save money if you skip using a mechanical clothes dryer.
  • If clothes are tougher, they may last much longer than the cheaper clothes, again saving money.
  • If having the right clothing for the activities I engage in saves my life, maybe it was worth the extra price.  Of course, if you don't like my writing, you may not think so :-)

Other Criteria

  • What do you already own?  It may be less than ideal, but if it is close enough to what you want, why waste time and money looking for and buying something new?
  • Are there chemicals in the fabric (either natural or synthetic) which may be potentially harmful to your health?
  • Does the manufacture of this product cause environmental problems?

Since there is no perfect fabric or article of clothing, it should be obvious that a variety of clothing will be necessary.  In the next installment I will review the actual clothing I carry with me, the reasons I chose these items, how I use them, what I like and dislike about them, and what I would change if I could.