Moisture Wicking

Moisture Wicking 101: What It Is And Why You Need It

There are a lot of new outdoor gear innovations andIf you’re wondering to yourself, ‘what is moisture wicking?’ Don’t sweat it: we’ve got the answer for you.

Moisture-wicking is the ability of a fabric to move moisture away from the body and to the exterior of the material, where it can evaporate more easily. It is commonly used in outdoor wear, as it helps keep the wearer dry and comfortable during physical activities.

Moisture-wicking materials are made from high-tech polyester, which, unlike cotton, does not absorb water. Instead, these fabrics are designed to pull moisture (like sweat) away from the skin, dispersing it across the surface of the fabric, so it evaporates quickly.

Table of Contents

How Does Moisture Wicking Work?

Moisture-wicking works through a process known as capillary action, combined with the unique properties of the materials used. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. Capillary Action: This is the key mechanism behind moisture-wicking. In fabrics, capillary action occurs when moisture (like sweat) is drawn out from the skin and into the material. This happens because of the microscopic capillaries formed by the weave of the fabric, which are just the right size to draw liquid through them.
  2. Material Properties: Moisture-wicking fabrics are usually made of high-tech, synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, or polypropylene. These materials have two essential properties:
    • Hydrophobic (water-repelling) on the inside: Close to the skin, the fabric does not absorb moisture, encouraging the transfer of sweat away from the skin.
    • Hydrophilic (water-attracting) on the outside: The outer layer of the fabric is designed to spread the moisture out over a larger surface area, which speeds up the evaporation process.
  3. Evaporation: Once the moisture reaches the outer layer of the fabric, it is exposed to the air and begins to evaporate. This evaporation is crucial as it removes moisture from the fabric, keeping the wearer dry. It also has a cooling effect.

How Moisture Wicking Works

When Should You Wear Moisture Wicking Materials?

Moisture-wicking materials should be worn during activities where you expect to sweat or be exposed to moisture, as they are designed to keep you dry and comfortable.

Here are specific scenarios where wearing moisture-wicking materials is beneficial:

  1. During Physical Exercise: Whether it’s running, hiking, cycling, or any form of rigorous physical activity, moisture-wicking materials help manage sweat, keeping you dry and comfortable.
  2. In Warm or Humid Conditions: In hot or humid weather, these materials can help regulate your body temperature by efficiently moving sweat away from your skin and allowing it to evaporate quickly.
  3. In Cold or Wet Environments: When engaging in activities in colder climates, such as skiing or mountaineering, moisture-wicking base layers are crucial. They prevent sweat from cooling on your skin, which can lower your body temperature and lead to discomfort or even hypothermia.
  4. For Layering in Outdoor Activities: Moisture-wicking materials are excellent as a base layer under warmer clothes. They keep the skin dry and prevent the discomfort and potential risks associated with sweat getting trapped under layers of clothing.


Whenever you’re sweating and uncomfortable, moisture wicking apparel is likely a good idea and will help more than hurt you.

Types of Moisture Wicking Materials

Here are five of the most popular materials that wick moisture away from your skin to keep you cool and comfortable while hiking, climbing or camping.

Polyester

Polyester is a synthetic fabric widely used in outdoor and athletic apparel. It’s favored for its versatility and efficiency in wicking moisture, making it a common choice for activities where sweat and moisture management is key, such as hiking or running.

Pros:

  • Lightweight and durable.
  • Highly effective at wicking moisture away from the body.
  • Quick-drying and offers excellent breathability.
  • Often treated with antimicrobial agents to reduce odors.

Cons:

  • Can retain body odor if not properly treated.
  • Less environmentally friendly due to its synthetic nature.
  • May feel less natural against the skin than natural fibers.

Nylon

Nylon is another synthetic fabric, known for its exceptional strength and durability. It’s commonly used in outdoor gear and wear, such as backpacks and rain jackets, where toughness and moisture management are essential.

Pros:

  • Strong and stretchable.
  • Quick-drying and good at moisture-wicking.
  • Maintains warmth even when wet.

Cons:

  • Not as breathable as other fabrics like polyester.
  • Can feel warmer, potentially uncomfortable in hot conditions.
  • Larger environmental footprint due to its synthetic origin.

Merino Wool

Merino wool is a natural fiber renowned for its temperature-regulating properties. It’s often used in outdoor activities that span a range of temperatures, such as mountaineering and camping, due to its unique ability to maintain comfort in both warm and cold conditions.

Pros:

  • Excellent in temperature regulation.
  • Naturally odor-resistant and soft.
  • Does not itch and wicks moisture effectively.

Cons:

  • Generally more expensive than synthetic materials.
  • Less durable than synthetic fibers.
  • Slower to dry compared to synthetic options like polyester.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene is a synthetic fiber that excels in transferring moisture away from the skin. It is often used in layering for outdoor activities, serving as a base layer that keeps the skin dry.

Pros:

  • Highly effective at moving moisture away from the skin.
  • Does not absorb liquid, making it extremely lightweight.
  • Typically very durable.

Cons:

  • Can retain odors over time.
  • Less breathable compared to other fabrics.
  • Texture may not be comfortable for all users.

Blends (e.g., Polyester-Merino Wool)

Blends combine the benefits of different materials, often mixing synthetic and natural fibers. They are used across a variety of outdoor gear, aiming to offer the best of both worlds – the durability and moisture-wicking properties of synthetics with the comfort and odor control of natural fibers.

Pros:

  • Offer a balance between the benefits of different materials.
  • Can provide both durability and comfort.
  • Suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities.

Cons:

  • Might dilute some individual fibers’ strengths.
  • The effectiveness of the blend can vary depending on the ratio and quality of the fibers used.
  • Personal preference plays a significant role in their suitability.

Washing and Caring for Moisture Wicking Apparel

Here are some quick tips to ensure your moisture wicking clothing lasts you a lifetime:

  1. Read Care Labels: Always check the manufacturer’s care instructions first.
  2. Use Cold Water and Mild Detergent: Wash in cold water with a mild or sports-specific detergent to preserve the fabric’s integrity and functionality.
  3. Avoid Fabric Softeners and Bleach: Skip fabric softeners and bleach, as they can damage the moisture-wicking properties of the fabric.
  4. Gentle Wash and Air Dry: Opt for a gentle wash cycle and air dry the garments. High heat from dryers can degrade the material.
  5. Separate from Cotton: Wash moisture-wicking garments separately from cotton to prevent lint transfer.
  6. Turn Inside Out: Wash the clothes inside out to protect the fabric’s surface and ensure thorough cleaning of sweat-exposed areas.

My Favorite Moisture Wicking Clothing

Here are three of my favorite articles of moisture wicking clothing for hiking, climbing, and camping outdoors in the Rocky Mountains and beyond.


1. Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino Base Layer

These popular merino wool leggings are a lifesaver for skiing, snowshoing, winter climbs, and other snowy adventures in the mountains. They keep you warm with an extra insulating layer while wicking away moisture from sweat generated as you hike, climb, or ski. Every winter adventurer should have a pair of these thermals.

Buy for Men | Buy for Women

 


 

2. Darn Tough COOLMAX Full Cushion Boot Socks – Men’s

These socks aren’t cheap, but they’re the best you can buy. Their made of 39% COOLMAX polyester and 30% nylon, with some acrylic and spandex as well. They’re ideal for long hiking, backpacking, or climbing days in the mountains and help keep your feet dry and warm by wicking away the sweat you generate.

Buy for Men | Buy for Women

 


 

3. The North Face Summit Pro 120 Crew Base Layer Top – Men’s

This base layer from North Face is made of a polyester FlashDry wicking material that is lightweight and has low-profile seams that are ideal for packing on multiple layers. It’s ideal for cold weather climbs in the mountains all year-round and as a winter weather base layer when temperatures dip below zero.

Buy for Men | Buy for Women

Other Moisture Wicking Fun Facts

Here are a few other interesting facts about this essential type or clothing for outdoor adventures.

Layering Efficiency: Moisture-wicking materials are excellent for layering systems in outdoor activities. They serve as an efficient base layer that keeps the skin dry, enhancing the performance of mid and outer layers in regulating body temperature.

Odor Resistance: Some moisture-wicking materials, especially those blended with natural fibers like Merino wool, have natural antibacterial properties that help reduce the buildup of odor-causing bacteria.

Quick Drying in the Field: If moisture-wicking clothing gets wet due to weather conditions or water activities, it can dry significantly faster than non-wicking fabrics. This is a crucial feature for comfort and safety in outdoor environments.

FAQs

Q: What does wicking moisture mean?

A: Wicking moisture refers to the ability of a fabric to draw moisture (like sweat) away from the body and transport it to the fabric’s surface, where it can evaporate more easily.

A: Moisture-wicking fabrics allow moisture to move through the material and evaporate, primarily designed for sweat management. Waterproof materials, on the other hand, prevent water from penetrating the fabric, keeping you dry from external moisture like rain.

A: Yes, moisture-wicking materials are effective. They are engineered to quickly move sweat away from the body to the outer surface of the fabric, where it evaporates, helping to keep the wearer dry and comfortable.

A: Not exactly. While both terms are related to comfort during physical activity, moisture-wicking refers specifically to the movement of sweat away from the body, whereas breathable fabrics allow air to circulate through them to prevent overheating.

A: Moisture-wicking is beneficial, especially during physical activities or in warm conditions. It helps in regulating body temperature by keeping the skin dry and reduces the risk of discomfort and skin irritations.

A: Cotton is not effective at wicking moisture. It tends to absorb moisture instead, becoming heavy and staying wet for a long time, which can be uncomfortable and unsuitable for active wear.

A: Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon are typically the best for moisture-wicking. They are engineered to transport moisture efficiently and dry quickly. Merino wool is also a good natural option for moisture-wicking.

Additional Resources

Looking for more information about moisture-wicking clothing? Here are some websites and articles I found helpful while writing this blog. If you have a link you think we should share, leave a comment below!

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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