Hi guys. I thought I would put in my 2 cents on a topic I have heard a lot about over the years. This is from my experiences and thoughts and I would appreciate others opinions on the subject. For me, it is all about learning and growth.

Does Cotton Kill?

In my experience, it depends how I wear it.

The armies of the world have been wearing cotton shirts and trousers for centuries and still do today. From the amount of wars being fought around the globe I would say that most soldiers are not dying from wearing cotton. It depends how they wear it.

Cotton next to the skin in hot climates is helpful. It absorbs sweat and holds it against the skin which helps cool the body as that sweat evaporates. Cotton next to the skin in cold climates will still absorb sweat and hold it against the skin but it will not evaporate very well. When you stop working or walking your body cools down. The sweat also cools, sucking more warmth from your body, causing your temperature to drop even lower. If your temperature drops too low you can get hypothermic (low heat) leading to a dead you if not reversed.

Wearing a cotton hat or bandana in hot or cold climates will function in a similar way, but with likely worse results in the cold due to the higher amount of heat that can be rapidly lost though the head.

Cotton socks are a poor choice in any climate. They absorb the sweat from your feet and keep it there leading to blisters. Use wool socks or synthetic mixtures from outdoors stores.

A Thermal Base Layer top and bottoms (Long Johns) made of Polypropylene or Merino Wool is usually what I wear next to my skin. In cool (not cold) climates I may wear a cotton shirt over my base layer top. This acts as a wind break, reducing heat being whipped out of the base layer by the wind. The cotton also absorbs sweat from the base layer, taking it further away from my skin. The light weight base layer fabric is protected from holes and tears by the tougher cotton fabric.

I almost always wear cotton trousers in various climates. My legs are not dead yet from wearing them.

Wet cotton does not hold heat but will suck the heat away from your body and your other layers of clothing. If you are working or walking, your raised level of body heat can keep damp cotton clothes warm, but as soon as you cool down so does the damp cotton and you can get cold incredibly quick. If you cannot dry the cotton by a fire or change to a dry garment it could start you on the road to hypothermia.

Take off the wet clothing, dry your skin and put on dry clothing or climb into your dry bedding. The military used to train its people to put damp garments between the sleeping bag and thermal mat or sometimes inside the sleeping bag at the bottom by the feet. When the garments are put on in the morning they could still be damp but warm. We would get working or walking straight away to keep the clothing warm. The bedding would soak up some of the clothes moisture, reducing the beddings ability to keep us warm. As long the clothing was not soaking wet we could sleep comfortably through the night and dry out the bedding the next day. If there were no other way to dry the clothing and it had to be worn the next day, this method might be useful.  

Cotton as a protective outer layer in dry weather can be as good as any other fabric. If the rain starts coming down, separate the cotton clothing from your body by a couple of layers of breathable moisture wicking clothing (polypropylene, wool, micro fleece) or a single thick layer, then cover up with your rain coat or poncho.

Some things to consider. What works for the military may not always be the best for us bushcrafters. The military routinely work in extreme locations under high pressure to accomplish specific goals within strict time limits. Pushing themselves and their clothing to the limit is necessary. We have the time to take slower, more thoughtful steps. The military go-bush for a living, often staying out for many weeks at a time. It can be hard for us to match their experience levels. They routinely practice bushcraft principles as part of their lifestyle. We would love to but most of us don’t get the same opportunities. I like to take things slow, keeping aware of myself and my environment and making any adjustments as I go.

So, does cotton kill? I think it can but it depends how we wear it. By having a knowledge of our fabrics, operating within their and our limits and keeping continuously alert as to our physical and mental condition we can utilise cotton as an asset to our bushcraft experience. What do you think? Thanks for the forum guys.

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Comment by Dave C on September 30, 2014 at 22:11
I've heard this saying too and I'd have to agree with it, the wind goes right through it and if it's cold and wet it will wick the heat out of you and you'd be better with it off...

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