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 wicking is referred to throughout the site here on several posts, and while we may have given a cursory and brief explanation about what wicking is, we 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.
However, it is worth noting out that in certain conditions and in certain climates, like a desert, cotton can have an advantage in that the retention of moisture helps keep your body cooler for longer. That’s an exception though.
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.
The table below ranks out some of the common materials that tops, tees and base layers are made from, in order of their wicking capability, at least how we rate them.
Note, some materials in certain circumstances can have an advantage over others in certain circumstances, which we explore a little more below the table.
|Merino Wool||#1||*Our top choice!
*Merino wool Breathes well and has excellent
moisture wicking capability
*Lightweight and can be versatile enough to
be worn in summer i.e. a lighter construction
*Best in terms of odor control, face it, its next
to your skin, it’s going to get sweaty
|*Arguably not as long lasting or durable as other materials like nylon
*Can be pricey when you get a quality Merino Wool base layer or top
|Polypropylene / Nylon
|#2||*Our 2nd choice as synthetic materials like
Polypropylene and Nylon have truly excellent wicking capability
*Breathability is good but will vary based
on the construction, weave, etc.
*Quick and easy to dry while wearing
*Tougher and longer lasting
*Typically the most wallet friendly functional
base layer or top
|*Not as soft and comfortable as Merino wool
*Tends to retain odors
*Can tend to get chilly in tough conditions, doesn’t
retain heat well
|Silk||#3||*Really nice on the skin
*Soft, lightweight and so comfortable to wear
|*Not as moisture wicking (although there are some
silk / synthetic combos than can work well)
*Like synthetic materials, retains odors more
*Typically requires a lot of TLC as a material e.g.
hand washing, so not practical
*Can be pricey
|Rayon||#4||*Has a nice silk type feel
*Can hang well
|*Doesn’t wick away moisture as well as polyesters
*Can require dry cleaning (Not practical)
|Linen||#5||*Very durable and easy to care for
*Typically has excellent breathability
*Can be great for hot weather
|*Like cotton, it absorbs moisture (doesn’t wick away moisture or dry)
*Wrinkles very easily
*Doesn’t retain heat well
|Cotton||#6||*Easily the winner in terms of cost
*Comes up Trumps in terms of care,
a basic wash cycle will do the trick
*Soft and comfortable to wear
*Pretty durable with decent breathability
(until it gets wet)
|*Absorbs and retains moisture
*Poor wicking capability, especially when wet
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 sheep’s 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 (As mentioned in the paragraph above re: certain circumstances where one may be better than the other).
Our Top Merino Wool Base Layer Pick: Meriwool
The Meriwool men’s merino wool midweight baselayer Crew is a very functional and affordable base layer, an excellent choice for the trail.
Buy the Meriwool men’s merino wool midweight baselayer on Amazon now!
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?
INOCENTE OCITI says
Wow, this is great, I was looking for some literature to solve some assignment I had at hand, now am just concluding. Great site
Glad you found it useful 🙂
I know this is a little late to the game, but, I look was taught the control losing water, is very important thing. In 105+ weather, losing sweat, means losing water fast. Wouldn’t cotton be good in retaining water, and allowing for more controlled evaporation? I know this is what they do in the Saharan desert. What are your thoughts?
Hey Parker, thanks for your comment and bringing up an interesting point. As far as wicking goes, cotton does seem to be a poor performer in comparison to other natural and synthetic materials like merino wool, polypropylene, etc. However, in terms of whether good wicking capability in hot places like a desert is a desirable thing for a hiker, you raise an interesting point in that, do you actually want the moisture to wick away in those conditions.
I can only comment mainly from a point of research, as your comment made be want to look into it more, as I have only actually hiked in desert conditions a handful of times, in places like the Sahara and Death Valley. All those hikes were relatively short too, given the heat. I live and hike mainly in a temperate / maritime climate.
Back to your point, from looking into it, it seems that in those types of conditions, like deserts, there is an argument that cotton could be a better material to wear in that, as it retains moisture better, it keeps sweat closer to your body, not letting it wick away as easily, and that then acts as kind of cooling blanket to your core, effectively keeping your core temperature lower. It also seems that in those types of conditions, wearing clothes with good wicking capability wicks the sweat away too quickly, so it doesn’t have the chance to cool your body as it is supposed to. That certainly seems like it could be advantageous in those conditions, but if you are hiking in cooler / wetter climates, then it would seem to nullify any potential advantage.
Again, many thanks for raising this very interesting point with regards to this.
Thanks for the article. I’m just getting into backpacking/hiking, and the local store gear guru recommended silk as a sock liner in my boots, underneath a merino wool blend sock.
You didn’t mention silk, but is it a wicking material also, or was the recommendation just for comfort?
Hi Paul, you’re welcome, glad you found it useful. That’s great you’re getting into backpacking/hiking, you have a lot of enjoyment ahead of you 🙂
Silk should have decent wicking capability, I’d say it would be reasonably comparable to Merino Wool in that regard, it is probably more expensive than Merino Wool or a synthetic option. Silk should also be quite comfortable too. I have never used silk sock liners so can’t attest to how good they would work from first hand experience. However, silk is pleasant on the skin, breathable, warm, and should be quite comfortable, so I can see the logic of using silk sock liners with merino wool socks, so probably worth trying it out. I think a silk mix could be good e.g. 50% silk with nylon, spandex, or whichever. Hope that helps.
Don Hermanson says
Using silk under wool socks gives good protection against blisters. It is a common recommendation for those who “walk a lot” in boots, etc., such as in the military
Hi Don, thanks for adding that in, its good to know. I typically put Vaseline on my feet before my hike to keep the blisters at bay. I will definitely have to try out the silk socks as a liner.
Found this for Brenton
Merino wool is also far more fire resistant than comparable products with 570-600°C before it ignites compared to 255°C for cotton and 252-292°C for polyester
Thanks for adding that in Tony, much appreciated.
Nice article — thanks.
Have you any information on hydrophobic / hydrophilic coatings?
I’m interested in making my own gear. I need zero heat retention but maximum evaporation for tropical climates.
One thing I’ve read on quite a few websites that are discussing or selling moisture-wicking clothing is “the fabric has a special coating / treatment that improves the moisture-wicking capabilities”. This sounds great- maybe a hydrophilic coating on the inside to absorb moisture away from the skin, and / or a hydrophobic coating on the outside to somehow aid the evaporation process…. until I read (and this was the Internet, so just how wildly inaccurate it is anyone’s guess) that many ‘special coatings’ get washed off – sometimes even after only 10 or more washes!
While the choice of fabric and the weave probably still are moisture-wicking in nature, just how less effective will the garment then be?
But, more to the point, WHAT exactly is this mysterious ‘special coating’ that I’ve read about on many websites? Moreover, can I buy a can of it to re-coat my clothes? Is it being kept quiet because it’s quite easy for people to make this themselves (like old recipes for waterproofing boots and gear, instead of spending 20 dollars on some spray on product)?
I’d be interested to hear if a simple coating of …mystery product X… can be applied to our own, homemade products.
Hey Johnathan, that’s cool you’re going to make your own gear!
The ‘special coating’ you’re coming across is likely some kind of DWR (Durable water repellent) coating. Your comment about ‘special coatings’ getting washed off’, sounds correct to me. Some materials that are treated with water resistant / repellent treatments, like a DWR coating, do need to be retreated after a period of use. For example, I retreat my hiking rain gear usually once, maybe twice if it gets a lot of use, a year.
In terms of having zero heat retention and waterproof capability on the outside, my best guess is similar to your conclusion that you would need the wicking capability of some kind of synthetic material on the inside, which could also help with keeping you cool, combined with a DWR coating on the outside. I’m not sure about having a hydrophilic coating, water loving, on the inside in that regard, the right material with good wicking capabilities might be enough. I could see how you would need a Hydrophobic, water repelling, coating on the outside if you need to keep moisture out though.
Many gear brands develop their own type of coating ‘technology’, but I’m sure they must all be of a similar ilk in terms of constituent chemical make-up.
You can buy products to recoat your cloths, I use reproofing products myself. The company I use are called Nikwax. I use a range of their products like their wash-in cleaning and reproofing as well as the spray on reproofing. I also use their products for my hiking boots too. You can maybe check through their product range and see if anything what might work for you. They have a range of products for different types of clothing e.g. rain gear, boots, etc.
Now, I should add here that I use those products for garments that are already made with breathable and waterproof capabilities. If I understand your comment correctly, you want to make your own clothes with those capabilities from scratch. That could be a very different matter, and I have never done that.
The idea intrigued me though 🙂 … so I did a bit of looking. As you’ve been searching online too, you have maybe come across some of these but I’ll add them here for reference in case they may be of use.
I found this company called Hydrobead – They seem to have some products that can be applied to clothes, not sure how good they might be in terms of breathability though but might work with the right constituent fabric. You could also contact a company like this and ask them for some advice, they might have what you need, or at least be able to point you in the right direction in terms of making your own gear.
I came across this product from a company called Hendlex, it could be worth further investigation or again contacting the company to ask for more information.
Next, I found this which is a thesis on the ‘development and study of waterproof breathable fabric using silicone oil and polyurethane binder’ … A long title for sure 🙂 could be some useful information in it though on the chemical make-up of coatings.
As mentioned, I’ve never made breathable or waterproof gear myself from scratch so not 100% sure what would be involved. I think you’d need to do a fair bit of experimenting to see what might work. I’d be fascinated to hear how you get on with this, so please do drop back when you have made your own gear, I’d love to hear how it panned out.
I hope that helps.
Donna Rothfeder says
I saw a show here a lady had used a whicking material to draw moisture away from the hair. The material was made into a roller for long hair. Supposedly a woman could sleep in it because the material is soft. Could this merino wool serve such a purpose. Sorry guys a woman’s question.
My honest answer is that I have absolutely no idea 🙂 I don’t know anything about the finer points of rollers unfortunately so can’t really comment.
What I can tell you is that in terms of hiking gear, merino wool is an excellent choice for a base layer. It is snug, feels good on the skin, adds a nice bit of warmth, and it performs well when wicking moisture away from your body keeping your skin dry. I can also tell you that when I backpack in colder times of year, I also sleep in my merino base layers. However, I’m more interested in the snug and warmth aspects of the material when in my sleeping bag as opposed to it’s wicking capability. Unfortunately, I can’t say how the material might work with hair, although I have never come across it being used for such a purpose. I hope that is of some help to you.
Hi, I am after some advice about these types of fabrics. I would like to find a moisture wicking fabric to use as an undershirt at work. The issue I have is that it also needs to be fire retardant – or at least not likely to shrink-wrap to my body if the worst were to happen!
Do you know of any fabrics that can achieve both moisture wicking and a decent level of fire-resistance?
I can’t honestly say I know much about the fire resistance element you require as it isn’t something I look for. However, I found the DRIFIRE Military Army Flame Resistant Moisture Wicking Silk Weight Long Sleeve Shirt. It is made from 85% Modacrylic/15% Viscose, materials I haven’t come across in terms of hiking gear so new to me. It seems to have the same wicking capabilities as standard athletic gear but with the additional element of fire resistance. Maybe check out Drifire’s website too, probably a lot more information there on how their gear works and you can see if it could meet your needs. I hope that helps.
I just wanted to explain that merino is the preferred wool because of it’s fine fibers. This allows it to have a larger surface area for evaporation and a denser fiber count to pull away more moisture. This makes it ideal for a wicking fabric.
Hi Bethany, thanks for adding that in, it’s much appreciated. I will update this article soon I think as I have been using Merino Wool base layers hiking this last Winter and I have to say, I love them. I still like and use the synthetic base layers too, but the Merino wool ones are really nice. They feel great against the skin and they’re that bit more snug than the synthetic ones as well.
i was glad i clicked on this was very informative
Glad you found it useful.
“Wicking” is actually a very complicated subject. And I don’t claim to be an expert But the common material with the highest wicking ability is cotton. In other words, if you hang a strip of cotton with the bottom of it in a bath of water the cotton will wick the mosture higher up the strip than other materials. The problem is that cotton is so good at wicking it will hold a tremendous amount of moisture. When cotton is saturated some other effects come into play, like heat conduction. And it takes a long time for all that moisture to evaporate, which results in it being cold, clammy, and uncomfortable.
At the other extreme is polypropylene. Polypro will not wick or hold any significant moisture. As a cyclist climbing in cold weather (50F is my lower cycling limit), polypro is very hot on the way up (the cloth is not saturated so it is a very good insulator) and on the way down it is very cold because the moisture on your body is able to evaporate very quickly because the fabric doesn’t hold any water. Part of this may be the weave of the particular polypro shirt I have. Polypro is also very stinky.
I like merino wool. It is a good middle ground between the two extremes, although this applies mostly to exercising in cold weather. And it doesn’t stink, at least not much. You can wear it for a month straight with minimal stink.
The term “wicking” as used in the clothing industry is a bit of a misnomer. I confess that I am such a wool junkie that I don’t try many synthetic fabrics. Synthetic (like polyester) is definitely better in hot weather, Wool is a good insulator when when wet, which of course doesn’t work to your advantage when it’s hot. But when you are trying to balance the evaporation rate in cool or cold weather it is great.
Hi Doug, thanks for your comment.
You make some very good observations. I always thought of wicking in terms of moving moisture away from the skin and the material itself. However, I do see what you mean in that a strip of cotton will wick water much faster up a strip than any other material, it just takes it a lot longer for it to evaporate away from the material as well.
The base layers I use when hiking are 100% polypropolene and I have been happy enough with them to date. I utilize layering a lot with them though depending on the conditions. I haven’t had any noticeable issues in terms of smell with them, they seem to wash out pretty good (I am sniffing one that I just washed after last weekends hike to be sure lol 🙂 ) but I am generally only using them for day hiking so they only get 5 to 7 hours of use before they’re back in the wash bucket. I imagine cycling steep hills would generate a lot more sweat than hiking though.
The timing of your comment is good as With winter coming upon us again, I am about to take the plunge into the wonderful world of merino wool and I’m glad to hear that you’re recommending it. Some fellow hikers I know swear by it too. I have looked around and some of the base layers I have found look quite pricey, which is fair enough if they do a good job. I was wondering though, having used them yourself, are there any particular merino base layers you would recommend? Any particular brand? Is there anything in particular to be wary of or to watch out for when buying one?
Dom Wells says
Ah I always wondered how wicking was done, now I know. Thanks a lot for this guide.
No problem Dom, glad you found it useful 🙂
Now that was informative, actually it was captivating. I’d never heard of wicking before! Now I’m trying to relate it to my camping and fishing needs. Very interesting indeed! Thank ya’ Colm!
Thanks Randy. Great to hear you found it interesting.
Yes, wicking is pretty cool. The technology behind it is impressive and it ultimately makes my hiking trips way more enjoyable keeping me dry and comfortable!
I would guess there would be all sorts of uses for it in the fishing and camping worlds. You’ve got me thinking now too 🙂