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The Silent Killer in Every Closet

Posted by Tom "Ghillie" Miller on 2/21/2015 to Ghillie's Corner


There are dangers everywhere. Modern society is lucky in many cases; the ability to predict weather is better than it has ever been, medical technology is improving constantly, and anything else is being regulated to the government’s liking…almost. This is pretty close to true; I mean you couldn’t drink a 32-ounce soda in New York City for a while could you? It was because someone else knew what was better for you. This is not always the case though. We still have to make some of our own decisions, like what to wear. This can’t be dangerous though can it? I would be willing to bet that if you are reading this, you have a piece of clothing in your closet right now could kill you.


I am sure you are curious but I think you are probably familiar with this material. It is cotton, ironically marketed as the “fabric of our lives” even though it can be deadly. In all fairness, I wear cotton shirts all the time and as sure as I sit here typing this, I have never been killed by one of my shirts (or anyone else’s shirt for that matter). I promise. But clothing is a key factor in survival, especially when you are spending time outside in the cold. The threat of cold makes it important to dress in layers, but not just any layers. You should dress in appropriate layers of clothing made with safe materials and suitable for the environment that you are in.


What Makes Cotton Dangerous?


I should start by saying that cotton clothing is not a threat in only one environment. Cotton is typically something that becomes dangerous as cool temperatures sets in. This is not particularly reserved for cold weather during winter either, although it will typically be more likely to be a problem then. The function of clothing is to protect your skin but primarily keep you warm. This is done when clothes trap air against your skin. Cotton clothing poses a danger because when it gets wet from perspiration or any other liquid, it will not move the moisture away from your skin. What results is a scenario where the air pockets in the cotton clothing are filled with moisture and no longer offer any insulative properties and now you have cold, wet skin that causes your body temperature to fail to regulate, often causing a drop in body temperature and ultimately hypothermia if not remedied. Even if you do not get hypothermia, there is still the potential to get other cold weather injuries like frostnip or frostbite. If you are really unlucky, you might get one of these and hypothermia. These conditions are very dangerous, especially when outdoors and/or in remote areas. If not treated properly and quickly, hypothermia could lead to death which is why cotton has earned such a dangerous reputation among outdoorsmen.


This threat is not limited to just shirts, it is also important to know that cotton undergarments and pants can cause problems just as easily. It is easy to dismiss a little moisture but keep in mind that cotton can absorb up to 27 times its weight in moisture. That is quite a bit when you stop and think about it! Some fabrics are not labeled as cotton but are cotton, just by a different name. These cottons in camouflage (the meaning, not the pattern) include flannel, denim, duck, and corduroy. Also be wary of cotton blend fabrics. These should all typically be avoided for outdoor adventures, work, and play in cool temperatures. In addition to these materials, be on the look out for any materials that are made with bamboo or silk as well as manufactured materials like viscose, tencell, rayon, modal, and lyocell which are made with cellulose fibers and lose all insulation value if they get wet.


If Not Cotton, What?


This is an area where technology and innovation is on our side. As a result of development, there are many materials that are used to make clothing that are far superior to cotton for wear in the cold. Not only will modern materials wick moisture away from the body, they dry much faster than cotton ever can. There is also a not so modern material, wool, that is capable of moving moisture away from the body but does dry slower. On top of that, wool is not always popular because it can be somewhat itchy and people don’t like that for some reason. Here are the basics about other options:


Wool – Even when it is wet, wool will provide insulation and compared to cotton that will absorb 27 times its weight in water, wool will absorb no more liquid than 36% of its weight In addition to being itchy, it does not wick moisture away from the body as well as the synthetic materials that are available.


Polypropylene – Something unique about polypropylene is that it is actually a thermoplastic polymer fiber and that is why it does not absorb any fluid. Don’t let that thought scare you though, the clothing that is made with polypropylene (polypro for short) is very comfortable.


Proprietary Blends – Outdoor clothing manufacturers like Patagonia, REI, The North Face, Marmot, Under Armour, and Helly Hansen are all examples of companies who have developed their own proprietary blend of synthetic materials for base layer clothing. These are not the only companies that have base layer products available that are made of synthetic materials that do not absorb fluid but they are some of the big names in the industry.


Regardless of your choice, look for the materials listed above and avoid the previously materials like flannel, denim, lyocell, etc.


Dressing In Layers


Now that you have an idea of the types of materials to dress in, let’s talk about how to properly layer these materials because without this piece of the puzzle, it might not do you any good. There are three basic layers to be concerned with when going outside in cooler temperatures; the wicking (base) layer, insulating layer, and the shell (outer) layer.


Wicking Layer – The wicking layer is also known as the base layer. It is going to be the foundation of your clothing system and will be the layer that is right up against your skin and consist of either wool or synthetic material. This is the vital area to avoid cotton to mitigate the possibility of injury or even death. The wicking layer should, as the name implies, wick moisture away from the body and into the insulating layer of clothing where it will facilitate proper body thermoregulation (a fancy word for maintaining body temperature) and keep your skin dry.


Insulating Layer – As the intermediate layer, the insulating layer can provide you a little more freedom when it comes to the material you choose. Typically consisting of wool, goose down, or fleece, this middle layer will provide an extra layer and more space for air to be trapped that in turn will help you stay warmer. If you do choose goose down, make sure that it stays dry or it will become useless as an insulator and defeat the whole purpose of staying away from cotton in the first place.


Shell Layer – Also known as the outer layer, the shell layer will not be so much about wicking and insulating and more about keeping elements like the wind, rain, and snow out. It is important that the shell is also breathable enough to allow moisture that is wicking away from the body out as well. For extreme cold, there are shell layer jackets that also have insulation that will help keep you even warmer.


Don’t feel limited to only three layers. If the conditions require, you may be better served to wear four layers and conversely, if the weather is not real cold, maybe just wear two layers. Get used to what your body requires and use, a somewhat rare commodity these days, common sense as your guide.


Something else to keep in mind is that one way to avoid soaking your clothes when outdoors and dressed in layers is to strip outer layers as necessary to be comfortable but not in a position where you are sweating and causing that moisture to build up in your clothes. This is an important tactic when doing routine tasks like splitting firewood or when active like hiking, hunting, or bugging out.


It is worth knowing that cold weather injuries can be something that you are more prone to based on your medical history. As an example, if you have suffered from hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, or sepsis, you are at an increased risk for cold weather injuries. Other problems that can result in higher risk include alcohol consumption and abuse of illicit drugs, very young or very old age, and traumatic injury. These are all things to keep in mind and hopefully identified prior to them causing additional injury.


If for some reason you are in a situation where you do end up with wet cotton clothing, be aware of your circumstances. This will not be too big of a deal when it is mid-day in July and the temperature is 90 degrees outside but if the evening temperature starts to drop or it is winter and you find yourself with wet cotton clothes, take immediate action.

If dry clothes are available, change into them immediately. It may also be smart to dry your wet clothes if you can. If dry clothes are not available, try to get in front of a fire to dry out or get inside as soon as possible.


Hopefully you will never find yourself in a situation where you ever need this information but like many things, it is better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it. Come to think of it, that is basically a guiding principal of preparedness.

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