clothing for cold and wet

I’ve had good luck with wool, polypro, and capilene keeping me warm when wet. Has anyone out there had any experience with acrylic or other synthetics when cold and wet? It’s cheaper and wears better.

My two favorite backpacking shirts for cool weather are both cheap, fuzzy acrylic shirts, I think they came from K-mart years ago. Even in near freezing temps, I can get soaking wet from carrying a load in steep terrain. But I can take off one of those acrylic shirts, shake it hard a couple of times, and it is almost dry. I can’t get that kind of performance out of wool, fleece, polypro, capeline, or any other fabric I’ve tried. Test for yourself by soaking your various types of clothing in a tub then seeing which garmet feels driest after a few shakes. I think you’ll be suprised how cheap acrylic beats the high cost overhyped fabrics. Mine are getting a little ragged (they aren’t extraordinarily tough) but I’m having a hard time finding a replacement. I like button-up, or full-zip shirts and jackets – no slip over anything. Being able to open shirts and jackets to adjust to changing temps or exertion is a necessity.


hard to find synthetic shirts
that dont have cotton…

Dickies do pretty well for drying though…think they are 65 percent poly and 35 cotton.

Wet and cold isnt an issue now…Its a dry cold and my arctic cotton anorak is cozy…minus six.

Of course I couulld fall into the lake…its not quite frozen yet.

Otherwise I am a wool person and that cold wet rainy spring weather I live in my drysuit.

Polartec so beats wool
Just thought I’d plop that in before all the wool die-hards chime in.

Put 'em in gore tex over polartec and you will end complaints about cold and wet.

Is there really a difference between polartec and cheaper fleece? The cheap fleece does pretty well, too. But I had one particular polartec shirt that kept me warm after being wet so well and so often that I got sold on that name, and it has never disappointed. I’m also sold on polypro., although it’s cold for a time while the water drains out of the fabric. A key to both these fabrics is that the threads do not absorb water. Water will get between the threads, so the fabric gets wet, but they dry quickly because it is just a matter of water draining or evaporating from the spaces between the threads. And the high-tec, higher priced versions of these materials feature hollow thread, so in theorey, they insulate even when wet.

Wool lovers, try this. Put on a garmet straight out of the washing machine. I frequently do that with polartec. You can tell a difference as soon as you pick up the garmet, the heavy one is the wool, the light and fluffy one is the polartec.

I’m still undecided on whether some of the newer, cheaper breathable/waterproof materials will function and hold up as well as gore tex, but I am sure that gore tex makes a huge difference over materials like coated nylon. It’s pricey, though.

Gore tex and polartec are the nexus for one of my favortie expressions: “there’s no bad weather, just bad gear.”


The best I have used when wet is polypropylene. I have some biking tights and a couple of thermal underwear tops made of the stuff. I have used them under my wetsuit for a little added warmth while scuba diving. I have also used them biking and paddling.

Good fleece

– Last Updated: Nov-20-08 4:28 PM EST –

Preferably Malden Mills because the owner was so great to the workers when the mill burned down and had to be rebuilt. But I've tried a number of combos, and good fleece (and microfleece) seem to do the best at staying functional when they are pretty sweated up. Polypro takes a while to get wet enough to be a problem, but once at that point the fleece is better. Tho' the polypro dries more quickly if you pull down the top of a drysuit at lunch.

I have also had good luck with Hind's stretchy acrylic/spandex layers, whatever they make this stuff of it works, and some two layer duofold. But neither of these do as well for me as good fleece and polypro.

One exception though is my feet - lofted old fashioned wool socks seem to do the best there, work wet or dry - alpaca wool (whoops) nearly as good.

Silk blends are a waste for me - I picked up a pair of bottoms on sale to see and it really didn't work out.

good on…
Thanks, that’s what I need to know. I’ve got some old acrylic sweaters but field testing can be a miserable experience. They are certainly much easier on the pocketbook. My only concern is that these seem to be heavier (weight wise) when dry and I also wonder how heavy they get when wet.

I’ve got nothing against synthetics, but

– Last Updated: Nov-20-08 12:28 PM EST – about less disengenuineness here. I have NEVER heard anybody claim that wool will outperform synthetics when it comes to quickly letting water drain out of the fabric. Further, I've never heard anybody say that's a key point about staying warm. The only reason I've ever heard as a justification for using wool in wet situations is that it keeps you warm, so how about we address that point instead?

You offerred your washing-machine experiment, so let me offer an experiment that actually means something in real life. Go fall through the ice someplace (or just soak yourself with the garden hose if you have no ice), when the air temperature is good and cold, 0 to 10 degrees would be a good range, then walk around for about three hours. Do it with both clothing types - wool and your choice of synthetic. Then come back and say that wool isn't as good as synthetic. I propose that you will be "a little heavier for a little longer" in the wool, but I promise you won't be colder. My experience suggests you will even find that you are warmer with wool. Wetter, yes; colder, no.

Once again, I'm not bashing synthetics, and I own plenty myself. But wool under rain gear or wind-shell clothing has never caused me to worry about excess moisture. Face it, if the moisture is present, it takes up the same amount of space regardless of your clothing type, and must exist SOMEwhere. If the fabric won't hold on to it, it will just form puddles somewhere in your clothing. As it is, I don't find wool to be the least bit uncomfortable when it gets wet, and the nicest thing is that it will never start to stink as a result of perspiration or a good soaking. It'll smell like a wet dog (a clean wet dog, not a dirty one), but it won't turn into a crazy mechanism for unbridled mass-production of bacteria like synthetics (why do you think synthetic-fabric makers are spending so much on solving the odor problem?).

I usually do not get in water that cold, brrrr. Sometimes I travel from the deep south to the colder mountain streams, maybe 50 to 55 degree water. I’ve been rained on in BWCA in about 40 degree air. Those few times are hard to justify spending on expensive clothes if acrylics will do. There’s some mail order sources for 100% acrylic sweaters and such that is a big cost savings over wool and polypro.

I read somewhere that wool, when
it is first soaked, releases heat. Of course that suggests that, in order to dry completely, it may need to soak up extra heat.

I think the performance of wool depends a great deal on how the wool has been treated and woven. I have had some wool garments that performed very well when wet, and others that were no better than acrylic sweaters.

I prefer polypropelene under drytops. Wicking garments tend to feel sodden because, under a drytop, they get a thin layer of water over their wicking coating, and that water doesn’t evaporate fast enough from a Goretex drytop unless I am not exercising. Polypro has no water affinity, and extra water vapor will be found mainly as temporary condensation on the inside of the Goretex.

the booze must be talkin
You are comparing apples to oranges and completely disregarding the importance of weave.

Some wool is not washable and will felt as it has not been dehooked. Some is short and thick wool that feels like a lump when you get it out of the wash.

Alpaca is a great insulator but feels like that too. However merino wool is a long thin fiber. Closely woven it does not absorb water due to the natural lanolins.

All fleece is not equal…being a fine use of recycled plastics including that completely unnecessary bottle of eater it too has a different makeup. Some is very thick, some is thin but very densely made. Cheap fleece is just like cheap wool…it weighs a ton when wet.

And Goretex is useless for me when doing hard work…for some of us heavy “sweaters” its overhyped and when it gets dirty it ceases to work. It requires a fair amount of maintenance and a reapplication of a durable water repellent is required periodically to keep GoreTex working.

Boozetalking…I ran out of sherry last night on that turkey shoot…so to some extent I am joshing you…the cupboard is empty!

When you look for an expenditure on clothing especially insulating layers look at the potential price per wearing.

I have Polartec long johns and tops too and find they just dont last as long as my wool ones. They start to bag and stretch and dont come back to shape. For me wool is a better fabric…I use the same item for summer and winter.

If you are fleece shopping consider the cut of the garment. Baggy cut fleece provides some ventilation for releasing sweat and letting your wicking layer work and tighter fleece is better when you are cold and sedentary and need to preserve core heat.

So its much more than the material itself.


– Last Updated: Nov-20-08 1:36 PM EST –

...used to sell shirts and pants made of acrylic, called "worsterlon" (the new worsterlon II stuff is different' I think). I've had several of the shirts. Spendy, but not as spendy as good wool. They worked pretty good when wet, but not as good as my best wool shirt (which would have been twice the price if not on sale). They have held up pretty well, but I wouldn't say they wore better than good wool either.

I use or have used a variety of wool, polypropylene, acrylic, polyester and blends. The biggest factor I have seen is the avoidance of ANY cotton. Second in importance would be quality of weave and stitching. It's pretty easy to avoid the undesirable fabrics if you just look close at the labels and the construction. Most of the time, I wear polypropylene under wool (no cotton anywhere) and sometimes poly/polarfleece/wool if it's real cold. I have fallen into the river while duck hunting from a blind, and just shook off the water and continued hunting with comfort at sub-zero (F) temps.

What was said about synthetics stinking is absolutely true. I never wash most of my wool. One shirt is washable wool, and looks so good that I wear it for hunting *and* for more civilized activity - so it gets washed even though it doesn't necessarily need it. Other than that, my wool stuff just gets shaken and brushed, and it still looks and smells the same as it ever did. (no wool underwear or socks for me ;-) ) The wool *is* heavier though.

edit: I don't know how any of this stuff compares under goretex - I just wear it all uncovered and let it do it's thing when wet. I suspect - though I don't know - that under goretex, the synthetics might be better than wool. Correct?

extra features

– Last Updated: Nov-20-08 2:25 PM EST –

Many cheap synthetics might do the job compared to higher name brand synthetics. What you get in the higher priced and better manufacturers is better seams and stitching, odor reduction formulas, and in some cases, fabric designs that wick moisture from an inner layer to an outer layer. So is a $50 Capilene shirt more effective than a $10 Walmart sporting goods synthetic special. They will both offer advantages over cotton, but the capilene shirt might be around a lot longer and make people getting close to you not hold their nose.

I happen to love Polartec Power-dry. One would think it is the same material no matter who uses it. But my Patagonia R.5 shirt made with it feels far better when sweated up than the LL bean version of it. Same material so not sure why the difference.

few follow ups

I agree with you on the sweating up in Gore tex. If you are really working up a good heat, I have never found any of the breathable products could keep up with it. That’s actually what made me a polartec believer. I used to ride bikes and ride hard. After experimenting with different rain gear I finally gave up. I’d always end up wetter on the inside than out. I found the polartec shirt I used to wear as an intermediate layer made a great outer layer. It got wet, but seemed like the water just accumulated on the outside, and almost as soon as the rain stopped, the shirt would be dry.

And Guideboatguy, you sorta got me. I have been swimming in rivers when there were blocks of ice floating along with me, but it was always in polartec. I’d finish the trip without changing. So I know how polartec works, but I have not given wool equal time, because I don’t wear much wool. If it is actually better, I just don’t know it. Tons of paddlers swear by wool, and I just thought they were crusty old timers who, like me, found something that they knew worked and were not about to change. I sure like the smartwool socks.

On the stink issue, I’ve always been impressed that my clothes didn’t stink. I used to commute by bike and I’d sweat up that polartec twice a day for five days running. And sometimes I’d ride on Saturday, go into the laundry, pick out that same damn shirt, give it a sniff test and think, “this material is amazing, how can this not stink?” But I’ve seen it written over and over that the material is odoriforous. Maybe the stuff I had/have was treated. I wore that shirt hundreds and hundreds of times, and I would have thought a treatement would have worn off. Sadly, after 20 years, the material has gotten thin between the shoulder blades, and the shirt needs to be retired. So far, I’ve pulled it out of the trash two times, saying to myself, I can wear it one more time.

But good points, all. I learned something (besides keep an open mind) from your posts.


remember the first poly pro?
I wore some of those old blue Lifas with the stripes on a fourteen mile overnight ski…we were backpacking in. On night two there was considerable mention of a foul odor in the bunkroom.

When I got home I immediately threw them in the washer and dryer without actually reading the label for care.

As a result I was the proud owner of a poly pro rock, with white and blue stripes. It still stank.

In biking days, I used polypro as a base layer, and the long john pants I used as tights over bike shorts. I was never about style points–just what worked for me. The garments started off with such a nice feel and fit. I should be thankful that my house was full of helping hands, and though I tried to do launder my own gear, eventually, one of those helping hands would put the polypro in the dryer. They weren’t ruined, but shriveled and hard to the touch, they were never the same. I guess I wasn’t there in the beginning, because I never had any that were completely melted.

The blue striped polypro makes a funny story, but I bet you didn’t laugh at the time. Thanks for sharing.