What Does Moisture-Wicking Mean? Hiking Gear Jargon Explained

In this post we explain all, giving you a brief bio of moisture-wicking fabric and further insights into why it’s a must for hiking clothing!

Sara Hall Avatar
Written by: | Reviewed by: Kieran James Cunningham
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There’s no shortage of moisture-wicking garments in outdoor clothing options, but what exactly do they do? And why is it such a “must-have” in your hiking clothes?

If you’re not sure how to answer those questions, don’t sweat it, we’ve got you covered in the guide below. We’ll break down the jargon so you can understand what you’re actually looking at when you’re in the market for some new hiking garb, and also tell you which types of moisture-wicking clothing you should be shopping for.

Gear Jargon 101: “Moisture-Wicking”

In a Nutshell

Simply put, it means the fabric will move liquid – aka sweat – away from your skin during physical activity and dry out fast. 

How Does it Actually Work? 

The Science Bit

The literal definition of wicking is to draw off liquid by capillary action (movement of fluid due to adhesion, cohesion, and surface tension). A shirt, for example, will draw perspiration away from your body without you having to wipe it away. 

Sweaty t-shirt and backpack lying in the sun on rocks
Everyone knows the discomfort of wearing a non-wicking material on a hot, sweat-inducing day!

Certain kinds of fibers are woven in a way that will allow the sweat to move through the material, rather than permeate it. Once it’s drawn out, the sweat evaporates quickly on the outer surface.

Why Should I Wear Moisture-Wicking Layers? 

If you sweat during physical activity, like hiking, you’ll want a fabric that ensures your clothing won’t be sopping wet when you’re working hard. It will keep your skin dry, help moderate your body temperature, and keep you comfortable. 

Pro-Tip: Skip the fabric softener to get the most out of your moisture-wicking layers. Fabric softeners can leave a waxy residue and remove the fabric’s ability to draw sweat away from your skin.

When hiking, you want to wear these types of fabrics as a base layer to keep your body dry as you continue to exert energy.

Moisture-Wicking Fabrics Vs. Breathable Fabrics

While both types of fabric have similar qualities, they aren’t the same. If a garment is breathable, that means the fabric is woven in a way that allows air to get in and out. It might let your body heat escape, but not necessarily remove any sweat. Ideally, you want apparel that does both.

Types of Moisture-Wicking Fabric

1. Polyester

Synthetic fabrics are popular for workout clothing for the exact reasons we’ve discussed. Polyester fabric is breathable, stretchy, and naturally repels water, making it a great choice for hiking apparel. It’s also a more affordable option. 

closeup of killer whale logo
Synthetic fabrics are cheap, wick well, and are comfortable but tend to retain odors more than other materials. ©Kieran Cunningham/MyOpenCountry®

However, polyester does not control odor very well, so if you’re sweating a lot, prepare for that hiker stink. 

Another downside is the lack of insulation. Don’t expect polyester to keep you warm in winter if you’re using it as a base layer and make sure you add an outer layer or two.

2. Merino Wool

Wool has long been the go-to fabric for hikers. It’s warm, and has anti-odor, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties. It can pull vapor off your skin before it even turns into sweat. Although it does absorb water, wool releases it into the air so efficiently it won’t feel damp.

Merino wool (which comes from a specific breed of sheep) is softer, sturdier, and not as itchy (for some people) as regular wool, and is better at wicking moisture due to the slenderness of the fibers. Because it’s thermoregulatory, it helps to keep your body cool in high temps and warm in cool temps.

But all those positive attributes mean wool costs more than other high-wicking fabrics. It also tends to break down faster than synthetic fabrics.

Closeup of Icebreaker Merino wool shirt logo
Merino Wool is a soft and excellent moisture-wicking material. ©Kieran Cunningham/MyOpenCountry®

3. Polypropylene

As a lightweight, long-lasting synthetic material, polypropylene is great for hikers who need clothing to withstand some rough treatment. It’s extremely water-resistant and quick-drying, so you’ll stay comfortable, even in the summer. It also has some thermal properties to help keep you warm in cold weather. 

The downside is that Polypropylene retains odor, so it might take a couple of washes to thoroughly clean your garment. 

4. Nylon

Nylon is another popular and affordable synthetic fabric. It’s stretchy and lightweight, so hikers can save weight and retain flexibility on the trail. 

Nylon is a thin material, so while it’s a good choice for hot weather, it won’t keep you warm if the temperature drops. It’s often blended with other fabrics, primarily polyester, so you might find a mixed-material garment more versatile.

5. Bamboo

Bamboo’s unique natural fiber will absorb moisture, but won’t trap it, allowing perspiration to quickly evaporate. 

bamboo socks
Bamboo is super soft and comfortable. ©Kieran Cunningham/MyOpenCountry®

Bamboo fabric is also smooth and soft, so you’re bound to love the feel of anything you wear. It’s also a sustainable and eco-friendly option. 

There is also some evidence that bamboo is antibacterial and hypoallergenic, so it could be a good option for hikers with sensitive skin.

The downside? It tends to wrinkle and shrink, so take special care of your garments.

6. MicroModal

As a semi-synthetic, MicroModal is stretchy and breathable, so provides plenty of airflow and freedom of movement while out on the trail. It’s also soft and silky to the touch, so brands often use it in underwear. 

The fibers are produced from beech trees, so it’s another sustainable option for environmentally-conscious hikers.

The biggest downside is it’s pretty costly compared to other fabrics on the market.

What About Cotton?

Experienced hikers have a saying: “Cotton kills.” 

Cotton can soak up to 27% of its weight in liquid, meaning it’s a “moisture-absorbing fabric.” A cotton shirt, for example, will become heavy and clammy when you sweat. It will keep the dampness close to your body and remove any insulating capability. If it’s cold out, this can lead to hypothermia. 

Woman overheating wearing cotton on a hike
Cotton is the worst thing you can wear when hiking due to its moisture-absorbing properties

It might be great for lounging around the house, but on the trail, avoid cotton (and cotton blends).

What Does Moisture-Wicking Mean?

Whether you’re climbing a mountain, trekking through snow, or hiking mellow trails, it’s important to stay dry and comfortable during your outdoor activity. Now you know what moisture-wicking means we hope the information above will help when you choose the garments that will allow you to do just that! 

If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the comment section below! And if you’d like to share this post with your friends, go ahead!

Last update on 2023-05-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Sara Hall Avatar

Sara Hall is a journalist, photographer, and freelance writer in her professional life, and is passionate about camping, hiking, and backpacking in her personal life. Growing up in the rural mountains of Northern California, a love of the outdoors was instilled in her at an early age.

Her favorite adventures are often solo backpacking treks out in the wilderness. Or hiking most weekends on local trails. Or with friends and family discovering new campsites. As long as she’s exploring, that’s her new favorite trip.

For Sara, one of the best moments of every journey is turning a corner or climbing above a ridge and an epic view reveals itself. That moment is one-of-a-kind and no two people experience it the same way. That’s yours and yours alone.

She also loves to travel and take local and long-distance road trips.

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