One thing I never really worried too much about was the fabric of my clothing while in the back-country. In part because I was never gone for more than a couple of weeks, and when I was gone for that couple of weeks, it was at Philmont where a staffed camp was always within walking distance and in part it was because I loved everything about cotton, disliked the synthetics and could not wear wool.
However, for the AT, or any extended trip, I believe it is more crucial than ever to concern myself with fabrics for several reasons. First, the more comfortable I can make myself during the day or night, the better chance I have to succeed. Completion of this trip will be more about the mental aspects, than the physical (unless an injury occurs) and therefore the more comfortable I can be during the day/night, the better my mental framework. Second, there will be times when I am on my own and need to stay warm and dry, so clothing choice can indeed have a health, safety and well-being impact. Third, some fabrics tend to take on and promote smells worse than other fabrics. If I was simply in the back-country for two weeks with others that were going to be in the back-country for two weeks, I would not concern myself with this aspect all that much. If everyone smells as bad as everyone else, so be it. However, the AT passes through a lot of civilized areas and even though the people in those towns may understand how bad a thru-hiker can smell, there is no need to revel in that and share with everyone around you. In fact, I think attention to hygiene while on a trek of this nature is of concern from a health standpoint as well and will have more on that in a different blog post.
I have heard many times while getting ready for Philmont that cotton kills. You’ll hear all sorts of self-proclaimed experts at backpacking say that, “remember, cotton kills.” It is like the catch phrase for someone that really doesn’t know much, but knows at least that much. I guess. The comment comes from that fact that cotton dries very slowly when wet and if you get wet wearing cotton in cold conditions the cotton will whisk away the heat from your body and you can develop hypothermia rather easily. There really is nothing worse than a wet cotton shirt in a cold mountain breeze. However, I have always loved cotton. The feel of cotton cannot be beat in my opinion, and the synthetics were always too, well, fake or something for me. I am just not a fan of the feel of plastic against the skin. So normally, I would take cotton shirts for backpacking. I also tend to sweat a lot. So the cotton shirts would endure a complete and total soaking each day of hiking, regardless of the weather. This causes two things. First, cotton does not dry easily, so upon reaching camp for the night, I would have to change my shirt and attempt to dry out the hiking shirt. Sometimes by the next morning it would still be wet, other times it would be dry (in the Boundary Water or Isle Royale it was almost always still damp, but in New Mexico or Colorado, where humidity was much lower, it would be dry by morning). The other thing about cotton is once it starts to smell (usually after the first full day of sweating in it) it would develop a funk that would become almost non-bearable. The synthetics I have tried, polyester, polyester blended with elastane and polyester blended with spandex all dry a lot faster than cotton which is a plus, but develop a funk seemingly faster than cotton and ultimately worse than cotton. Everyone said I need to wear wool. It is warmer than cotton when wet, does not develop a funk like cotton or synthetic and better regulates body temperature. My problem with wool is that my skin is very sensitive to it and generally speaking I have never been able to wear any wool without a complete layer under it to protect my skin against the itching. While hiking this would defeat the purpose completely. So I ordered my first Merino wool t-shirt.
Patagonia Men’s Merino Lightweight T-Shirt
I ordered this shirt and paid $69.00 for it. That seemed like a ridiculous amount to pay for a t shirt, but I really wanted to try wool. Upon unpacking it felt very soft in my hands. Better than cotton, and I was optimistic that it might work. As soon as I put it on I could tell that it would drive me insane with the constant subtle itching. I took it off and back it went.
After that I posted on one of the facebook groups looking for suggestions. I also re-read Andrew Skurka’s blog posts about clothing and wool looking for hints as to what might make this better. I was hoping that a woolen blend of some nature might work for me. I discovered that wool is measured by micron size. The micron size is the diameter of the wool, and the smaller the micron size, supposedly the softer (and less irritating) the feel. So I started to pay attention to micron size and the micron size of the wool in the Patagonia shirt was 18.9. On facebook I was directed to Woolx and Smartwool. I don’t recall if it was on Andrew’s site or in the comments on Andrew’s site or somewhere else, but the other option I was directed towards was Rab. Determined to find a wool shirt that would work, I ordered one of each.
Rab Meco 120 T-Shirt
This shirt cost me $70, so the same price range as the Patagonia. This is a blended shirt, 65% Merino Wool and 35% recycled polyester with Cocona. Cocona is activated carbon from coconut shells and is permanently embedded into the shirt at the fiber level. Cocona is lauded for many properties such as quick drying, temperature control against the skin and odor control. Anytime you stray from 100% wool, you will introduce the properties of synthetic materials into the shirt…such as odor issues, slower drying and less temperature control, so the blending of this shirt with cocona to mitigate those issues is a plus. I have worn this on training hikes, and I believe I have found my shirt. It dries quickly, and resists odor very well. I will continue to test this shirt, but most likely it will be my t-shirt and long sleeved shirt for the trip. I could not find the micron size of this shirt, but it many respects it does not matter as the shirt does not bother my skin. It is either the micron size or the blend of fabrics that makes this shirt bearable to me.
Smartwool Men’s PhD® Ultra Light Short Sleeve Shirt
This shirt cost $70 and was another blended shirt being 56% Merino Wool and 44% Polyester with a slight change in percentage for the mesh on the back of the shirt. As soon as I tried this shirt on I noticed the overall body itchiness that I had with the Patagonia shirt. I attempted to find out the micron size of this shirt, but it was not posted anywhere that I could find. Back it goes.
Men’s Merino Wool T-Shirt By Woolx
I bought this on Amazon as the Woolx site only had this shirt in Black when I wanted to order. By spring they will likely have a full range of colors available once again. It was $49, so a nice savings there. It is 100% Merino Wool, so I was very skeptical, but they had a full guarantee that this shirt won’t be itchy and I even had the option of washing it a few times before returning to give it a full chance. The micron length of the wool is 17.5 microns, which is smaller than the others, so there was hope. Out of the box it was soft in my hands and I was optimistic. Upon trying it on, it did not itch. I will also keep this shirt and subject it to further testing.
So now I have two companies that might supply my top layers for my trip. At the moment I think Rab will probably be my shirt of choice due to the blended nature of it and the cocona. Wool does not dry very fast, so I believe the blended nature of the Rab shirt will likely give it faster drying properties than the 100% wool shirt which is a bonus. The blended nature though could offset some of the odor control properties of the wool, but since it contains the cocona, my hope is that it retains the best features of both worlds: odor control, quick drying and temperature control. Am I asking too much out of shirt?