Help me pick a wicking shirt
May 14, 2010 4:10 PM   Subscribe

Help me find a shirt to wear on the Appalachian Trail this very hot summer.

60 year old guy here.
My daughter and I are going to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail this July and August.
My problem is that I am a human furnace; I just use a sheet to sleep with in Summer and add a light blanket to that for the winter. I wear golf type shirts the year round. I love the cold.

I'm looking for a upper garment that will act more like an air conditioner than an insulator. I know I am going to have to get over the notion that something made of plastic is going to keep me cool.

I've got an REI # so any brand recommendations from there will work But I will go most anywhere to get a shirt that will help me keep my cool.

I did a search and nothing really hit the spot answer-wise.
posted by looknevada to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I like the Eddie Bauer workout clothes. They're some polyester material that wicks away sweat and evaporates it, cooling you off. I'm sure you can find similar stuff at any sports shop or big box store.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:25 PM on May 14, 2010

Do NOT wear a sleeveless shirt. While this may sound like a great idea, in reality it is a backpack chafing disaster.
posted by sanka at 4:33 PM on May 14, 2010

Maybe take a gander at what sierra trading post has to offer? Lots of performance oriented hikerly stuff! Wicking! Keeps off bugs! Good luck!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 4:38 PM on May 14, 2010

If you are going to be out in the woods in summer, I would recommend an all cotton long sleeved shirt - a thin cheap one is best and I seem to recall that it should be in a light color. You can always wet it down if you get too hot, but cotton wicks sweat away and long sleeves can be just as cool as short.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:46 PM on May 14, 2010

Personally, I think anything that's not a cotton t-shirt, or that you pay more than $10 for, is marketing hype...
posted by Jon44 at 4:47 PM on May 14, 2010

There's a saying, "Cotton Kills", in that if you get cold and wet in a cotton shirt you can become hypothermic. I have a Mountain Hardware Wicked Tee that is my go-to hiking shirt. My girlfriend likes Smartwool but they're pretty pricey.

Warning: synthetics tend to get pretty stinky.
posted by ghharr at 5:12 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Under Armour Heat Gear
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:23 PM on May 14, 2010

I'm not sure where you'll be along the trail but sun protect is going to be secondary only to heat retention when considering a shirt. I tend towards the hot side too, and I have found two strategies that work.

One is to wear only a baggy long-sleeved shirt like this. It has the ability to keep the sun off when you need it, and you can unbutton it and role up the sleeves when you need to get the heat out. However, whether or not this works with your pack and prevents skin erosion like a sock does on your foot depends on your body, your pack, and the variables of the day.

The other strategy that I have found that works is to use a bicycling jersey like this. The zipper in the front allows for control over ventilation, but it does not allow for as much control over sun exposure because of the short sleeves. However, it should prevent skin erosion more effectively than the baggy shirt.

Regardless of what strategy you pick, always wear your sunscreen, and avoid cotton clothes because the sweat will not dry from them over the course of a night. I generally carry both shirts.
posted by 517 at 5:29 PM on May 14, 2010

If you wear one of those plastic shirts, you'll smell awful after a day, and it'll get worse. Wear something made of natural fibers for your next-to-skin layer; silk, cotton, or wool.

I know "cotton kills", but your over layer - a sweater or something - is the one that definitely shouldn't be cotton. The underlayer being cotton isn't the end of the world, although you're going to want two underlayer shirts, to swap out every day. Same with underwear.

If it fits you, go with wool.
posted by talldean at 5:30 PM on May 14, 2010

I really have to disagree with all the "synthetics smell" hate. Some do, but I have never had this problem with the higher quality stuff. I also really question the people who suggest bringing cotton at all, because it never dries. If you sweat in it during the day and take it off at night, you will still have a notably damp the next morning. I've never tried silk, but I can tell you that wool is heavy, itchy, and thermally inferior to just about any synthetic. Synthetics are just better at shedding water and retaining heat than any natural fiber I've tried.

That being said, I never wear synthetics off the trail, I actually don't like them, but they do have their place.

In regards to the original question: You may also want to consider something warm. A 60 F evening with a stiff breeze can be much cooler than you think when you've been on the trail all day. Regardless of your normal sense temperature, have at least a 100 weight, long-sleeved fleece as a back-up for the warm part of summer (Personally I use a primaloft vest in addition to a long-sleeve short and wool cap). Certainly have a properly temperature rate sleeping bag and sleeping pad or the best case scenario is that you will suffer every morning at around 4:30am.
posted by 517 at 5:49 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hike and bike in these shirts by Mountain Hardwear. Patagonia makes an even lighter shirt out of capeline.

These garments are like magic, with the only caveat being that they will eventually smell very strongly of you and it will not wash out.
posted by jimfl at 5:56 PM on May 14, 2010

Under no circumstances should you wear cotton! Cotton absorbs & retains water. Cotton rots. Cotton swells when wet, closing off air flow from your skin. Go to ANY hiking forum, and ask the old-timers & serious hikers if they recommend cotton. They do not!

Similarly, since you sound a bit like me (I sweat when I look at a picture of the sun), you'll want to stick with skintight shirts. Those won't trap any pockets of air to warm up, and will allow the wind to course along your wet skin. The downside is less protection from mosquitoes, but that's what Deep Woods Off(tm) is for.

UnderArmour(tm) is nice, but a tad expen$$$ive. There are a multitude of knockoffs for 1/3 the cost that are also very nice (although, to be fair, I haven't done a side-by-side comparison). Pick one that brags of having anti-microbial fiber. To test one out, I wore it to bed every night one winter (on nights I was alone, anyway), without washing. I sweat a lot at night. It never stank.

Despite what talldean suggests, natural fibers (especially cotton & silk) will tend to grow fungus. The UnderArmour-type cloths do not. I'm not sure what he means by "plastic shirts", unless he's referring to polypropylene, which is notorious for holding B.O.

THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF HIKING COMFORT ADVICE: Never ever ever sleep in your day clothes. They are wet with sweat (even if you can't tell), and you will chill to the bone. I once wore nothing but undies to bed; my belly knees calves feet hands head back shoulders were fine, but my midsection was ICE!

To help keep your clothes from stinking, hang them overnight from the tent poles or a tree (if it won't rain) to air out.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:58 PM on May 14, 2010

A Patagonia Capilene 1 shirt would be good. (Their Capilene material comes in numbers 1-4, with 1 being the lightest).
posted by Diplodocus at 6:20 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

As I understand it, cotton is bad for cooler weather, but great at keeping you cool in hot weather. I also don't get the "not drying" thing. Every light cotton shirt I've worn in the summer dries almost immediately. If it's cold out, by all means, wear something else - but I have to say that I've never worn a cooler shirt than a big cotton button down.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 6:27 PM on May 14, 2010

a backpacker here- I'm a big fan of Duofold t-shirts for hiking.

here's an awesome deal at

Duofold shirts are a polyester/cotton blend. They wick and dry quickly, but don't have the plastic-y field of a full synthetic shirt. They fit like a regular t-shirt, not skin tight. I often sleep in them during the hottest part of the summer because they are so comfortable.

Another hot weather hiking tip, since I tend to be a furnace too- headcovering is essential. I usually do a loose baseball hat, with a piece of fabric pinned to cover my neck and ears. Have a great time!
posted by nowoutside at 6:36 PM on May 14, 2010

I have one of these Adidas shirts and it's awesome, lighter than air and was much cheaper than hiking specific shirts. Also it washes well and does not stink like Capiline does. In the desert I used a cheap white long sleeve button up cotton shirt and have for years and have yet to die of hypothermia. I (obviously) bring non-cotton clothing to change into if it gets cold.
posted by fshgrl at 9:23 PM on May 14, 2010

I have a number of synthetic (mostly REI brand) t-shirts - the wicking hi-tech/hiking kind - and while they do retain smell after a few wearings, well, you're on the AT. I've never met a through-hiker who wasn't...fragrant after a few days on the trail. But it's a "good" fragrant; it's the scent of honestly made effort, not the kind of smell one attains from being scared or wicked drunk. I really really love them for hiking when it's hot out. I'm never going back to hiking in a clammy-with-sweat cotton t-shirt again.

And the hi-tech kinds of shirts roll up/crumple up really small, so you can bring a few with you and switch them out. Keep an eye on REI's online outlet for decent deals.

(And okay, you're a furnace, but I've also had occasion to use the wicking shirts as a base layer when it's cold out, and they're great for that as well.)
posted by rtha at 9:25 PM on May 14, 2010

I like a cotton tee. The reason that is terrible in the cold is the same reason it is great in the heat.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:33 AM on May 15, 2010

I came in here to recommend Patagonia capilene 1, but I see someone has beat me to it. It also packs very tight.
posted by drlith at 6:35 AM on May 15, 2010

I wear a lot of quick drying athletic shirts when I run, bike, or other types of exercise, but when I'm camping, nothing works better than a lightweight wool shirt. My favorite is a SmartWool one I bought on clearance. My reasoning for wool is that it handles the nighttime drop in temperature better than dri-fit/technical shirts. So during the day when it's hot, it wicks well and feels great, but as the sun goes down and the temperature drops I don't feel nearly as cold as I would in a technical shirt. The shirt should fit closely so it can maximize contact with your skin.
posted by advicepig at 10:06 AM on May 15, 2010

I don't hike, but I work out in the yard a lot in a hot climate. I've been looking at shirts that have a cold water circulation system, like this. No idea if it is a good idea or not, but it sure looks interesting.
posted by CathyG at 4:57 PM on May 15, 2010

I also don't get the "not drying" thing. Every light cotton shirt I've worn in the summer dries almost immediately.

The Light Fantastic, the difference is between "feels dry to my touch" and "is dry" (that is, has a moisture content in balance with the air). Cotton feels dry long before it has given up most of the moisture it has secreted away in its hollow fibers. This water lowers the insulation factor of the cotton (although not enough to announce immediately to your fingertips, "I'm wet!"), and worse, will slowly evaporate, long after the sun goes down or you have cooled off.

I can't find the original thread in's forum ("Moisture absorption in textiles"), and this is my SECOND FRACKING TIME trying to post this information, but basically: Richard Nisley studied how long various fabrics took to dry (with a definition of reaching 105% of their original weight), after a brief soak, and hanging in identical still air. Cotton took 5+ hours. (Polypropylene & wool weren't good, either.) Capilene & other modern synthetics took 1-2 hrs. And that's at room temp, normal humidity. If it's been cool & raining for days on the trail, your cotton will *never* be fully dry.

Case closed on cotton.

On hikes, the ability to stay warm is your number one safety concern. You can shed layers to cool off, drink risky water (and maybe suffer diarrhea, but survive), live days without food, get by on an hour of broken sleep - but if you are cold at night, hypothermia is an enemy you cannot negotiate with.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:46 PM on May 16, 2010

Found the source article.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:28 PM on May 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.
Lots to think about.
posted by looknevada at 7:26 PM on May 16, 2010

Wool. Merino wool. I *love* hiking in my icebreaker gear. Both warm and cool at the same time. I will never hike in anything else.
posted by bellbellbell at 4:52 PM on May 24, 2010

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