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Natural vs Synthetic Clothing for Outdoor Adventure Wear

A couple of campers on a mountain ledge.

Purchasing a clothing article for your outdoor pursuits can be overwhelming.  There are a variety of brands, styles, purposes, price points, and materials.  What seems to be an easy decision walking in turns into an eye churning experience walking out.

Sure, there are some folks who know exactly what they want, find it, purchase it, leave, and are happy.  The rest of us, well, we want to make sure we’re getting what we want and understand what we’re buying.

The outdoor gear industry is experiencing a surge in business – especially in clothing, which is considered soft goods.  The soft goods industry now caters to the extreme adventure crowd to the casual explorer.  As a result, the variety of clothing options are great.

Since the variety of options available are too numerous, the focus here is really on the material. Once a person has a better grasp of the material, making decisions may come easier.  Here is a breakdown of the most commonly used materials you can find in your clothing options.

1. Down Feathers (natural)

Two hands holding a bunch of down feathers.Down feather filling in outerwear, blankets, and sleeping bags have been around for ages. The weight to warmth ratio is difficult to beat.  In other words, for how light the material is, it traps a great amount of heat.  You will notice that sleeping bags, blankets, and even jackets, use a numerical rating system: 850 fill.  The number is important.

Without getting into the technical parts of how the down is rated, the higher the number, the lighter it is and the higher the capacity to trap heat.  It also correlates to the quality of the down.  To achieve a higher fill rating, the clusters of down has to be light and lofty to make the cut. This means, usually, more expensive.

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PROS: Light, compressible, high warmth value, long-lasting, cost.

CONS: Useless when wet, needs maintenance (do not keep down compressed and patch holes ASAP), difficult to dry in the field if it gets wet.

2. Polyester (synthetic)

A guy wearing a retro polyester suit.

Polyester was a game-changer.  It is a synthetically derived material that has made its way into the outdoor industry without resistance.  It is a great material as it naturally repels water.  As we know, having materials that repel water/sweat in the outdoors is a huge benefit.  The polyester material used these days is different from the glamorous polyester used back in the day (think 1960’s suits). The material has transformed itself to being diverse and forgiving of a material.

For example, PrimaLoft® was designed for the US Army but is now synonymous with the outdoor industry.  It is essentially a specific type of polyester that is compressible, retains heat well, and even insulates when wet.  PrimaLoft has also been able to blend in natural fibers, such as wool, to effectively meet high-performance needs.

Another use of polyester is a fleece.  Fleece also has made its way into our closets.  As we know, not all fleeces are equal.  Nonetheless, for the purposes of understanding this material, it is polyester known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  Yes, this can also be derived from plastic bottles.  It is a material that is long-lasting, water-resistant, has great thermal properties, and even keeps you warm if the material gets wet.

One major downside is that the fleece is known to shed microfibers by the thousands, either by washing it or through time.  The impacts of this are unknown but something to keep an eye on.

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PROS: Naturally water-resistant, lightweight, compressible (not as much as down), keeps you warm even when wet.

CONS: Heavier than its cousin material “down”, not as compressible as down, microfibers are known to shed.

3. Wool (natural)

A herd of wool sheep in the pasture.

Wool needs little introduction.  It has a long history of garments. Wool is derived from animals. Similar to polyester, wool also has different forms.  Sheep wool is the most common, but cashmere and mohair come from goats, angora from rabbits, etc.

Wool also comes with different qualities, usually determined by the source and its ability to crimp (attach to one another).  The finer the wool, the higher its ability to crimp.  For example, merino wool is soft and has a high crimp, which is why it itches less to some people.  Coarse wool has a little crimp.  Of course, there are many other factors that classify the wool but you get the point.

Wool is considered a sustainable material as the herd animal has the ability to grow many coats.  In addition, unlike cotton, wool requires less water and fewer chemicals to grow.  Processing wool can be intensive but can have less impact on the environment compared to other materials.

Wool has great thermal properties (some wool keeps heat in while others are used to keep heat out).  Wool is not hollow fibers so its ability to hold water is high.

PROS: More sustainable material, hypoallergenic, resistant to odor, traps heat, long-lasting, has low flame spread (compared to other fabrics)

CONS: Absorbs water, hard to dry if saturated.

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There are many other types of material out there but the 3 covered here represent a majority of materials used in outdoor clothing.  Hopefully, this will provide additional insight when it comes to selecting a piece of outdoor clothing.  There is no “does it best” material out there.  Until we can figure out how to make the perfect material, select one that meets most of your needs for now.