Best Materials for Hiking and Travel Clothes

Hiking and travel clothes for men and women should be bought based on material, not on layer placement, usage, or even climate. The material properties should allow for multiple uses in multiple climates. This approach is critical for traveling and hiking to minimize the number of garments and weight. The best materials are merino wool and linen. Synthetic materials should be avoided when possible and minimized when needed for a specific supporting role. 

    All I write here are personal facts from years of hiking and travel.  I have found statements from non hikers and non travelers range somewhat factual, to myths, to erroneous.

Natural material benefits far outweigh synthetic’s for travel and hiking. The primary materials are merino wool and linen. These are the original high-tech performance fabrics. Other natural materials such as alpaca, cotton, leather, rubber, hemp, and metal can be blended for specific use cases. Ideally there is should be no synthetic content at all. This includes heavily processed natural-origin materials such as viscose and bamboo. 

Yet many manufacturers add synthetic fibers for stretch (Spandex, Elastane, Lycra) and durability. But it’s not necessary when merino wool and linen garments are woven correctly. For example, when it comes to stretch merino wool is naturally four-way stretch and linen with it’s open weave moves with the body. 

Synthetics should be avoided because of the following negative attributes;

  • negative environmental impact when manufacturing, cleaning, and disposal
  • heavy
  • bulky
  • flammable
  • poor clean-ability as studies have shown that stains and odor/acne causing bacteria remain after washing
  • poor breathability
  • lack of adaptability to changing climate

So for me there are no positives to synthetics because my experience has shown natural materials outperform synthetics in every use case.

Positives of merino wool and linen show they're superior material travel and hiking clothes. 

  • high breathe-ability
  • temperature regulation, cooling when it’s hot and warming when it’s cold
  • move moisture away from the body, minimizing bacteria growth that can cause odor, heat rash, and acne
  • environmental friendly being regenerative, sustainable, recyclable, and biodegradable
  • hold up to 40% of their weight in moisture, whether it’s sweat or rain
  • anti-static and block up to 50% of UV rays
  • fire-resistant
  • natural elasticity
  • when woven properly, both are durable with linen being the strongest fiber on the planet
  • merino wool is resistant to pilling when properly cared for and linen is virtually lint free

Even the negatives of merino wool and linen are actually positives of the fabrics. Many people feel the odor of wet merino wool is bad, but in reality the stronger the smell the more of the natural beneficial oil is present, signaling higher quality wool. 

For linen it’s the wrinkles that turn off some people. Yet here again the wrinkles are a result of linen’s natural beneficial oil. So the more wrinkle prone the linen garment the higher the quality. 

These natural oils also protect the materials fibers from stains. The more oil in a merino wool or linen fiber, the longer it takes for a stain to soak into and adhere, if at all, to the fibers. If all these benefits aren’t enough, there is still lightness and packability. 

Lightness and packability of merino wool and linen are must haves for traveling and hiking. Whether traveling by air, car, bike, or on foot, garments need to be a light as possible to carry the maximum amount in minimal space. Merino wool and linen are very light materials, especially compared to other materials such as synthetics, cotton, and leather. 

Merino wool and linen get their lightness from the strength and durability of their fibers. This allows clothes to be woven very thin, yet still strong and durable. As critical as lightness and packability are to traveling and hiking, their value multiplies when combined with their additional benefits of multi-use and multi-wear.

Multi-use means merino wool and linen garments can be worn in more than one climate and for more than one activity. Merino wool and linen perform great in warm or cool climates, as well as the transition between climates. Everyone has been told that layering of garments is best for changing climates. The problem is most people’s clothes aren’t made of the right materials for layering to be effective. 

    Merino wool and linen are the perfect layering materials because of their thinness, lightness, breathability, and moister wicking ability. And because the materials are so light and thin, they are easy to carry and pack into minimal space.  

Multi-wear aspect of merino wool and linen provides significant value when traveling and hiking. Merino wool and linen clothes can be worn many (generally 7-10) times between washes. This saves time and money laundering as well as extending the life of the garments by minimizing twists, pulls, and abrasion typical during the laundering process. Multi-wear also means fewer garments need to be taken on trips and hikes. 

Very few materials feel as soft and light on the skin as merino wool and linen. Merino wool can be a silky as silk and as soft as cashmere. Linen may start out stiff, but softens with each wash. With its open weave, linen is woven with minimal fibers for a level of softness and lightness that is unattainable with other materials.  

Merino wool and linen are healthy for your skin. Chaffing, rashes, and blisters are caused by clothing that traps moisture and rubs against the skin. Merino wool and linen prevent these from happening due to their softness, breathability, and moisture wicking. By not trapping moisture (rain and sweat) against the skin, odor and acne can be prevented. Merino wool and linen’s antibacterial and antimicrobial properties help prevent infections and fungal growth.

Fashion is not sacrificed for traveling and hiking with merino wool and linen garments. They can be made into garments of any style and take dye well. Linen is well-known for formal clothes such as suits. I’ve also owned sport coats constructed of merino wool. These materials go sun up to sun down and make you look fantastic. Unlike many luxury materials, with proper but simple care merino wool and linen will last many years of traveling and hiking!

Ease of care of merino wool and linen make for great travel and hiking materials. Merino wool and linen garments truly can outlast synthetic clothes with proper care. The beauty of having all your garments made of these materials is the care is the same. Clothes made of merino wool and linen can be worn several times before washing. To extend the time between washes, after each wear turn the garment inside out and hang to air out. Any place there is moving air will pull out moisture and odor, but 15 minutes in the sun is the best because UV rays are the best disinfectant and brightener. Even if you spill something on your garment, resist the urge too wet or scrub the spot with some home remedy you read on the internet. The natural oils reduce the likelihood that a stain will be permanent and the sun is an amazing stain remover for natural materials. After several wearings or if the spill is really bothersome it’s time for a gentle wash. 

    Hand-washing is always best but a washing machine can be used. Either way use cool water for merino wool and warm water for linen soaked in pure Castile soap. Tea tree oil is beneficial for its antimicrobial properties. 

    When washing by hand place the garment in a clean sink, tub, or bucket and fill with cool water. Add a few drops of Castile soap. It is a gentle cleanser with natural oils that will clean but not damage the garments fibers or strip out the beneficial oils. It’s also great for your skin. Add a couple drops of tea tree oil for additional antimicrobial benefits, especially if your water isn’t as clean as you’d like. Rinse in cold water. 

    If using a washing machine, add Castile soap (¼ cup or 59ml) and 3 drops of tea tree oil with clothes. Set to delicate, warm water for linen and cool water for merino wool, and fill the machine to maximum water capacity with two rinses. 

    After washing gently ring out excess water and hang over a clothesline or drying rack. Don’t use clothespins or hangers as this may cause unwanted stretching or loss of shape. If possible, hang in the sun for 15 minutes, turning over once. The sun brightens, speeds drying, and aids in removing any lingering odor.  Don’t leave in the sun longer as colors will fade. 

    Whether washing by hand or in a machine, unbutton buttons, zip zippers, and turn inside out. Zipped zippers prevent snagging and damaging fabric. Washing a garment inside out reduces wear. Following these care guidelines will ensure your clothes stay beautiful for a long time. 

In future articles I’ll discuss specific clothing items and their use case. In the meantime, purchase a garment made of each material and enjoy the great benefits!