I was recently on a hike and I was talking with a fellow hiker about keeping yourself warm but dry when out on the trail. They happened to be wearing a cotton tee as a base layer and so they weren't the most comfortable as we had just finished a rather steep climb. Needless to say, their cotton tee was damp with sweat and of course cooled down as we hit a lighter pace. Not the most comfortable place to be in, especially in winter, that's for sure.
As we discussed this I suggested to them that they should get some base layers and tees made from material with good wicking capabilities. I pointed to my North Face Crew Tee which I was wearing at the time. They were a bit confused as they didn't know what I was referring to when I mentioned ‘wicking'. I of course then started to explain what I was referring to.
Later when I got home I thought about it some more and realized that I refer to wicking throughout the site here on several posts and while I may have given a cursory and brief explanation about what wicking is, I thought it might be useful to delve into the subject in a bit more detail for clarity. In particular, to review what is the best moisture wicking material.
So, before we get to that let's start from the beginning …
What is Wicking?
Wicking, when used in the context of clothing fabric, in the easiest way I can put it, refers to the ability of that fabric to move moisture away from the body and the fabric itself. This can help keep the body dry and cool even when the person sweats from exertion. It's worth noting that many base layers can also act as a very good insulator too so it's worth keeping that in mind when choosing the kind of base layer that best suits your needs.
How does Wicking Work?
Wicking works by utilizing a thing called capillary action. This means that the fabric is made up of tiny little tubes, like capillaries in your body, that the moisture can move up into, away from your skin and released into your outer layers of clothing or the air.
If you think of a wick in a candle, think how the wick draws the wax up the wick to the flame to be burned. The principle of wicking fabric is pretty much the same.
So, to try and give a real life example of this …
You are on the trail wearing a wicking base layer. You start to sweat and so you create an environment of high humidity between your skin and your shirt or tee. Sweat moisture begins to gather on the underside of the base layer. This high humidity, or wet air, close to the skin will then try to move towards a lower humidity environment where the air is dryer.
Wicking fabric helps all this to happen as the fabric make-up encourages the moisture to move along the fabric, the aforementioned capillary action, to the outside where it can spread out and evaporate when it finally reaches the lower humidity on the outer layer.
Wicking fabric, means that the fabric has tiny capillaries in it which are large enough to let moisture, like sweat, be pulled away from the skin and out and away.
Wicking fabric is used in all manner of outdoor activities from running to hiking and is used across all seasons but is particularly effective in colder temperatures. It can act as a good insulator, in terms of heat, too.
You can check out a full post on layering for winter here but as a quick summary of layering, for hiking in cooler temperatures you have:
- Base Layer – The layer closest to your skin and so where wicking capability is most needed. You want to let moisture, sweat, be able to get away from your skin but also have a layer element of insulation to keep heat in.
- Mid Layer One – Can be a shirt or a tee; ones with more breathable capabilities are preferable
- Mid Layer Two – This layer is mainly for warmth so a fleece is a good example
- Outer Layer – Waterproof hiking jacket and waterproof hiking rain pants which are ideally all breathable
Note: layer's can sometimes be optional as they may not be needed depending on the temperature.
What is the Best Moisture Wicking Material?
On a scale of one to ten for the best functional materials for wicking, with one being bad and ten being good, I would place cotton sitting at one. Definitely a no-no right next to your skin, and for hiking gear in general, as it absorbs moisture and so keeps it next to your skin.
On the good end of the scale at a nine or ten you have synthetic fibers like polyester, polypropylene and natural fibers like merino wool. For base layers I use both ones made from synthetic based fibers as well as ones from merino wool, or a combination of the two to try and get the best of both worlds.
I find base layers and tees made from synthetic fibers easy to clean and they have a very quick drying time. On top of that they are also very lightweight and packable. On the downside, they can hold body odor more than merino wool but for me personally, this has never been a major issue.
It's worth noting that merino wool acts slightly differently than the synthetic fibers in terms of wicking. merino wool, which comes from merino sheep, is much softer than standard sheeps wool. It can absorb some moisture into it's fibers while still being able to breathe well, while also acting as an excellent heat insulator, holding heat within the fibers at the same time. Merino wool can also be better in terms of odor as it can fend of bacteria better than synthetic fibers.
I got my first merino wool base layers only quite recently as I was previously more than happy with what my synthetic polypropylene ones had to offer. However, after I started using merino wool base layers this winter, I have to say, I am a major fan!
The merino base layers feel excellent against the skin, that bit smoother and more comfortable. It also really does feel that bit more toasty and snug in merino wool than a purely synthetic base layer. In saying all of that though, in terms of merino wool vs. synthetic base layers, I still use my old synthetic layers as well as the merino wool ones as I think they both have their own merits and special capabilities to offer.
So that's it for today. A short post but hopefully an informative one if you've been wondering what all this talk about ‘wicking' is about, and what the best moisture wicking material is! Hopefully it at least gives you an idea of what it is and how it works and what to look for. If you're planning to do a lot of hiking, or any outdoor activity, all year round, it's good to be familiar with what wicking is. If you need base layers, you should look for gear made from material that has good wicking capabilities e.g. polyester, merino wool, a mix, etc.
I recommend trying a few different base layers and so on out, and see which one suits you best for your needs depending on the activity you need it for.
What are your base layers made from, synthetic materials? Do you prefer merino wool? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.