April 24th, 2009
Now that the temperatures are getting much warmer here in the southwest, I feel it necessary to add my two cents to the great cotton versus synthetic debate on what to wear for hiking in the desert -- right up there in significance with the Kennedy/Nixon presidential debate. This clothing issue is very important if you are planning a hike here in the Southwest in the late Spring, Summer and early Fall. Many people, especially those who live in cooler and wetter climates believe that wearing cotton is one of the worst things you can do while engaging in outdoor activities. This is because as you sweat, cotton stays moist longer, thus zapping body heat from your body. But think about this premise in a climate where the humidity may get as high as 14% with temperatures of 115 degrees F in the shade. Do you want to preserve body heat? NO! You want moisture to keep you cool, and the longer you can stay wet, the better. As the moisture evaporates from your clothing, it works to cool your body. This is the whole premise behind perspiring. As perspiration evaporates, it cools your blood that is closest to skin level and circulates the cooler blood throughout your body - keeping your core temperature at its ideal 98.6 degrees F. Wicking material pulls this much needed moisture away from the skin, allowing the material to dry quicker. This may be more comfortable when hiking in cold and/or wet climates, but is not ideal when exposed to the hot, desert sun.
Wear Cotton Clothing for Desert Hiking
I am not saying to wear all cotton - denim is not ideal for hiking. A cotton t-shirt that you can get wet often is sufficient in keeping the core of your body cool. Let's take the Grand Canyon for example. I hike in the Grand Canyon year round. In the winter, I will wear wicking materials. However, the bottom of the canyon can get into the low 120's on some days in the summer. In order to stay cool, I take many breaks along Bright Angel Creek, taking my pack off and getting my entire body wet. My cotton shirt will keep me cool for at least a good 1/2 hour of hiking (nothing stays wet for long in the desert). Since the air is so dry, you still dry off quickly, so little to no chafing. Even if I did get some chafing, I would rather have that than heat exhaustion, or worse - heat stroke. So, next time you are planning that trip to the desert, such as in Arizona, during the hotter months of the year, just remember that the climate is much different out here than most other places in the US. Save some money and bring along your $5 cotton t-shirts on your warm weather hike(s) and forego the $50 Under Armour wicking shirt. You'll save some cash and your life.