What to wear hiking or running: performance fabrics compared
Author: Stephanie Ford Date Posted: 9 August 2019
The difference between the right fabric and the wrong one can be chafing, blisters, B.O. or feeling the heat or cold more than you should. Here’s the lowdown on our favourite performance fabrics for hikers and runners.
Deciding to do something outdoorsy is easy. Choosing what to wear when you go hiking or running has gotten more complicated. There are so many performance fabrics on the market - with pros and cons for each. Needless to say, it’s worth investing time into working out which hiking or running fabric will work the hardest for you.
Natural Performance Fabrics
Choosing natural fabrics means choosing fabrics that are durable, biodegradable, and resistant to dirt, mould and odor. Here are a few of the most popular natural materials used in running and hiking apparel:
Merino wool is a performance powerhouse and one of our favourite materials for hikers and runners. It’s durable, odor resistant, breathable, naturally protects you from UV rays, moisture wicking and it doesn’t itch or cause allergic reactions. Plus, its moisture wicking properties mean that it’ll keep you warm in the cold and cool on hot days.
Its resistance to odor and antimicrobial properties make it perfect for longer hikes and for runners who don’t want to wash their clothes every day. Can you imagine only needing to pack two pairs of underwear and socks for a week long hike? What about wearing a shirt for 7 days without washing it? Merino wool makes that possible. You only need to rinse merino wool apparel (as opposed to washing it in detergent) and let it dry for it to be as good as new again.
Merino wool is a little more expensive than other performance fabrics. But you don’t need to buy as many t-shirts, socks, or pairs of underwear to survive the week. Plus you’ll save on water and laundry liquid - so the outlay is usually worth it.
When to use merino wool for hiking or running:
Merino is perfect for longer hikes or runs in cooler climates and for those who prioritise natural fibres and/or reducing their plastic consumption.
Cotton was once the choice fabric for outdoor enthusiasts from warmer parts of the world. It’s durable, affordable, hypoallergenic and really comfortable - but it does have some shortcomings that make other materials better suited to hiking and running.
In colder climates, there’s a saying that ‘cotton kills’. It refers to the fact that cotton tends to absorb moisture instead of wicking it away for evaporation. By retaining this water, cotton can make you feel warmer in the heat and cooler in the cold, which is less than ideal when you’re exploring the great outdoors.
When to use cotton for hiking or running:
If you want to use cotton during a hike or run, make it a relatively short one on a comfortably cool to warm day. Otherwise, take advantage of cotton blends - like cotton/polyester - for performance fabrics that will keep you comfortably dry.
Tencel (aka Lyocell)
Tencel belongs at the border of natural and engineered performance fabrics. It starts its life as a eucalyptus tree, before being transformed into a wonderfully soft material via the marvels of modern production techniques.
Tencel is durable, biodegradable, antibacterial, economical to produce and is known for its cooling properties and its ability to transport moisture away from your skin. It holds colour really well, so it is naturally a favourite amongst brands hoping to infuse a bit of colour into their performance apparel. Blends featuring Tencel, like Icebreaker’s Cool-Lite summer series which combines merino wool with Tencel, have also become quite popular.
When to use Tencel for hiking or running:
Blended with other performance fabrics in your summer running or hiking apparel.
Down offers an excellent weight to warmth ratio and is easily compressible. It comes from the warmth trapping layer on birds, so it is naturally designed to withstand frigid temperatures. Despite this, it’s not waterproof and loses most of its warming features when wet.
When to use down for hiking or running:
I’ve only used down for running in temperatures lower than -25 degrees and even then it was in a pinch. If you aren’t in seriously cold areas, down isn’t a good choice for running.
Hiking is another matter. If you’re heading anywhere that you’re likely to be chilly at the end of the day, down is a solid choice. Just be sure to have a waterproof layer to throw on top if you’re expecting to be out in the rain!
Engineered Performance Fabrics
By far the most common and affordable performance fabric used in running apparel and clothes for hiking is polyester. It’s a durable, lightweight, non-absorbent plastic cloth that repels UV rays and provides some insulation when wet. But it has one major drawback - it gets stinky, so it requires regular washing.
Here are some forms of polyester that are awesome for outdoors activities:
CoolMax is a polyester fabric engineered by the world’s largest integrated fibres company to be used by athletes doing extreme physical activity in tough conditions. It dries faster than Merino wool and is incredibly lightweight, durable and moisture wicking.
The true strength of CoolMax lays in the innovative shape of its fibres. They’re slightly oblong, not round, and have a larger surface area than comparable materials - so the sweat that’s wicked away from your body evaporates faster. This keeps you cool and dry in the heat. The fact that CoolMax is quick drying makes it a great choice for t-shirts and underwear for running and hiking on hot days.
CoolMax also offers superior cushioning, alongside light compression and support, making it an amazing choice for socks. Leading sock brands, like Injinji and Bridgedale, regularly use CoolMax in their performance socks. They’re an awesome addition to the sock repertoire of any endurance runner or hiker.
When to use CoolMax for hiking or running:
CoolMax is a good choice for hikers who want to stay cool but don’t care if they get a little stinky after a few days in the great outdoors. It’s lightweight, so you can carry a few shirts without burdening your backpack too much.
PolyPro was developed in the 1950s and began to be used in thermals after people discovered that it stays warm when it gets wet. It’s affordable, durable, moisture wicking and dries really fast - all of which make it perfect for use in thermal undergarments.
PolyPro is also used in heavier socks for colder conditions - usually as part of a blend. Combined with merino, it’s great for keeping feet toasty during winter runs or multi-day hikes in autumn.
When to use PolyPro for hiking or running:
PolyPro is an awesome choice for those looking for thermal wear for shorter trips or conditions where you’ll have access to washing machines (or don’t care what you smell like).
Fleece is warm, breathable and lightweight - so it’s a great layer for extra insulation. With many of the same benefits, fleece is often touted as the cheaper sibling of wool. It won’t protect you against the wind or wet though. In fact, it’ll get cold and heavy in the rain.
While fleece might sound like a natural fibre, it is typically made from polyester. It’s therefore less biodegradable than wool. Many brands use recycled plastics to make fleece products a little more environmentally friendly - so read the product descriptions for eco-conscious purchasing.
When to use fleece for hiking or running:
Fleece is perfect for running or hiking in the dry, still cold. You’ll need to combine fleece with wind or waterproof layers for windy or wet days. I swear by my wind-resistant fleece lined leggings for winter runs both above the arctic circle and in chillier parts of Australia.
Performance Fabrics for Rainy Hikes or Runs
While it’s incomprehensible to some, getting outdoors in the rain can be really enjoyable in the right gear. Balancing resistance to water with breathability is the first step towards being comfortable on your rainy hike or run.
How to read waterproof labels:
Waterproof fabrics usually have a label with a range of numbers of them. Here’s what they mean in practical terms:
|0-5,000MM||Suitable for shorter periods in light rain or dry snow.|
|6,000-10,000MM||Suited for days in light rain or moderate snow. Perfect for fair weather snowboarders and skiers or hikers expecting showers.|
|11,000-15,000MM||Suited to periods of time in moderate rain or snow. You’re likely to get wet over time at pressure points like where your backpack’s straps sit or when sitting down.|
|16,000-20,000MM||Suitable in heavy rain or wet snow. You’re likely to have wetness soak through at pressure points.|
|20,000+MM||Suitable in heavy rain and wet snow under very high pressure. If you’re getting into the backcountry, it won’t hurt to aim for breathable garments rated at 20,000MM+.|
There are a number of other factors that will affect how wet you get - like whether the zips have storm covers and whether you can tighten any entrances (like your sleeves).
No item is going to fully protect you from the rain - water will seep in as time passes. The higher the quality of your gear, the longer this will take.
Here are some of the better fabrics for waterproof jackets and pants:
Gore-Tex markets itself as the gold standard for waterproof materials and has variants that are lightweight, packable, windproof, breathable and insulated. It was the first waterproof-breathable technology to enter the market and the brand has become synonymous with quality waterproofing.
Gore-Tex works best in colder temperatures. It’s a solid choice for hikers and campers getting outdoors in months other than summer. If you’re looking for protection from summer showers, I’d recommend something a little more breathable.
As the name suggests, eVent gear is highly breathable. Its point of difference is that it’s able to transfer moisture without first getting wet, so it outperforms Gore-Tex in this regard even when comparing two items with the same breathability rating. However, it does require regular washing (more so than Gore-Tex) to maintain its waterproof properties.
If you want a hard shell jacket that won’t leave you feeling sticky or damp, eVent might be a better choice for you than Gore-Tex.
NeoShell fabrics blur the line between hard shell and soft shell jackets. As you might’ve guessed, clothing made from NeoShell is incredibly breathable and flexible. These characteristics make it the fabric of choice for many mountaineers and alpine climbers.
It’s not made using the same process as eVent and Gore-Tex, so NeoShell clothing does tend to lose some waterproofness over time. It often isn’t as durable or as windproof either and it’s very expensive.
Driza Bone are an iconic Australian brand that have moved from a staple for bushmen and rangers into a fashion statement. Prince Charles purchased Driza-Bone jackets (yes, plural) during his 1977 visit and, today, they are relied on by Olympic teams, sailors and urban adventurers alike.
The jackets are made from oilskin, which is a material relied on by sailors working in really nasty conditions (it’s also known as “foul weather gear”). It’s highly waterproof and maintains some breathability.
It is comparably heavy, so it’s not well suited to running or longer term hiking. Endurance horse riders, sailors and those going on wet day hikes love them though!
These are a go-to jacket for those who want some protection during sweaty activities. They combine an insulating layer with a water-resistant outer, making them warm, breathable and flexible. A soft shell jacket is my pick for running in cold weather or light, dry snow.
Soft shell jackets aren’t as good at keeping out the wet as hard shell jackets. If you’re headed somewhere that’s more damp than cold, I’d recommend choosing something that offers more rain protection - particularly if you’re thru-hiking. There’s nothing worse than being saturated (and grumpy) when you’ve still got a long, rainy day of hiking ahead of you.
Now that you know what you want to look for in your hiking and running gear, check out Wildfire’s extensive range of performance apparel at www.wildfiresports.com.au. If you know which fabric you want, type it into the search bar.