Appalachian Trail Histories


Cotton Kills

Perceptions Based on Clothing

Everyone who backpacks on the Appalachian Trail is part of the same community, but that does not stop people from making presumptions based on clothing. Now, unlike when people started to backpack on the Appalachian Trail, if a backpacker goes out on the AT wearing street clothes they stand out and may be assumed to be homeless. Other presumptions are directed to the fiber content of clothing. A small example is not considering silk for backpacking clothing, but the biggest prejudice is against cotton.


National Park employees, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts all use the phrase cotton kills to remind people not to wear it when in the woods for an extended period of time. The main complaints against cotton are the time it takes to dry, stretching when it is wet, and chafing. Its characteristics can become dangerous in colder temperatures, which gave it the reputation of killing. Getting wet in the cold is dangerous no matter what material the person wears, but a fabric that retains moisture slightly increases the chance of hypothermia. Of all the fabric available today, cotton is one of the most uncomfortable to wear when wet, but before the invention of comfortable synthetics and non-itchy wool, cotton was the most comfy fiber choice to have next to the skin. Cotton decreased in popularity once there was a more practicable option available, and at the beginning the language about cotton reflected only that it was not the best choice. From 1973 to 1979 the language changed in Backpacker magazine to painting cotton as the enemy of backpackers.


Advertisements for synthetic clothing did not tote the evils of cotton, that appears to have happened in articles and advice for backpacking, but the commercialization of backpacking and other outdoor activities did contribute to the stigma against cotton. At its start in 1973 Backpacker magazine included an advertisement for Sierra Designs Tote Guide Books, it compares the foolish hiker to the well prepared one and tells a short story designed to make people not want to be the foolish hiker. This and other advertisements help perpetuate the attitude that the experienced outdoorsman uses the latest gear. The same attitude in regards to cotton helps explain why people switched over so quickly to synthetics.


Cotton is one of the worst fiber choices for backpacking clothing, but the degree to which that is true is grossly exaggerated.