What Does “Moisture Wicking” Mean?
Simply put, moisture-wicking is the process of moving moisture away from your skin during any physical activity. A moisture-wicking fabric has two main duties: one is quickly transferring sweat to the fabric’s top layer, and the second is quickly drying out so that your sweat doesn’t soak through the fabric. Wearing fabrics that are moisture wicking makes physical activity much more enjoyable and comfortable because it allows your body to regulate its temperature and your clothing won’t have that sticky, damp feeling afterwards.
Article Quick Links: How Moisture Wicking Works | When To Wear | Materials & Fabrics
How Does Moisture-Wicking Work?
Capillary pressure and permeability are the two properties that are typically used to predict wicking performance in a fabric.
Moisture wicking is dependent on capillary action, which is the movement of liquid (or sweat) through small spaces within a fabric caused by the molecular forces between the liquid and the fabric.
Permeability is the measure of a fabric’s ability to transfer moisture through itself, and is determined by a variety of sizes of spaces within it and the connections between them.
Why should I choose “moisture-wicking” clothing?
When you are engaging in any activity outdoors that involves an increase in heart rate, that typically means you will be sweating to some degree. These specific fabrics intend to keep your skin dry once your body stops producing sweat. You will generally want to have moisture-wicking fabric on any layer of clothing that touches your skin. An example of this would be your base layer, the first layer.
When should I wear “moisture-wicking” clothing?
Anytime you are engaging in strenuous physical activity where you are likely to sweat is a good time to wear moisture wicking layers. Activities such as hiking, running, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, walking, yoga, etc.
Moisture wicking materials become essential when:
- Adventuring in cold environments
- Long duration activities where sweating will take place
- Any activity where you will be getting wet
Synthetic fabrics naturally resist the penetration of water, making them extremely moisture wicking. Many base layers meant for outdoor activity are synthetic fabrics such as nylon or polyester.
- Good breathability
- Dries quickly
- Easy to dry while wearing
- Tough and long-lasting – highly durable
- Doesn’t retain heat well in cold temperatures
- Less odor resistant than other fabrics
#2. Merino Wool
Wool is also considered to be a moisture-wicking fabric. Wool absorbs small amounts of liquid into its core, but allows moisture to exit through the fabric. The surface of wool fabric keeps your skin less saturated when sweating.
- Keeps your skin dry
- Good breathability
- Odor control
- Not as long lasting as other fabrics
- Can be pricey
#3. Synthetic & Wool Blends
You’ll find many manufacturers creating blends that utilize wool and synthetic materials. This is done to increase comfort, and take advantage of wool fiber and synthetic fiber benefits. These blends can be great options for a wide variety of activities.
Common Blends Include:
- Wool, Nylon, & Spandex mixes
- Wool and nylon mixes
- Wool & Spandex
- Bamboo, Polyester & Wool
Fabrics to Avoid
Cotton is the #1 non-moisture wicking fabric on the market. You will want to avoid wearing cotton clothing during any type of physical activity where you will be sweating. Cotton becomes easily saturated in sweat, failing to dry quick enough. This will initially eave your body feeling overly hot and sticky, but once your body naturally cools itself down, you will begin to feel cool and clammy.
Summer vs. Winter
Should you be wearing moisture wicking clothing in the colder months? The answer is yes. It is important to keep your skin unsaturated and as dry as possible in both seasons.
Lightweight layers made from breathable, moisture-wicking materials work best to keep your body cool and most importantly, dry. Zip-away pants are also great for summer, as they help keep you protected from insect bites and poison ivy, while providing the option to wear them as shorts when it’s hot out.
There are 4 layers of clothing to consider when dressing for any winter outdoor activity that involves an increase in heart rate; the base–layer, the mid-layer, the insulating-layer, and the outer-layer.
Base Layer – Your first layer should be your long underwear or “base layer”. This layer should fit snug against your skin and be made out of a nonabsorbent material. The base layer works by diligently wicking away sweat and water in order to keep your skin dry.
Mid-Layer – The mid-layer works by trapping the air and preventing it from circulating and pushing away any body heat you’re producing through evaporation. Synthetic fabrics and merino wool work best here.
Insulating Layer – For extremely cold conditions, an outer garment with multiple inches of thickness is highly recommended. Down, Polarguard, Thinsulate, and Primaloft are all types of insulation that are used in an insulating article of clothing.
Outer Shell – The #1 most important part of the layering system is the outer-shell. This layer has the ability to add up to 25 degrees of warmth or more when worn in cold and windy conditions.
To learn more about layering, read our complete guide to layering clothing.
Most moisture-wicking garments should not be used with any type of fabric softener, whether that be in liquid or dyer-sheet form. Fabric softeners create a waxy residue that doesn’t mix with the fabric’s finish.
Andrea is a writer, hiker, and adventurer from New England. She enjoys snowboarding, sunrise hikes, winter, night hiking, traveling, and photography.