Stop Hating on Cotton
Cotton isn’t for the backcountry, but it has a spot everywhere else
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Whoever came up with the phrase “cotton kills” had a lasting impact on me when it comes to cold-weather outerwear or insulation layers. For decades I’ve shied away from cotton, even as an everyday cool-weather fabric, in favor of wool, polyester, nylon, and down.
I still exclusively wear wool or synthetic fabrics in the backcountry—for their wicking, anti-stink, and cooling properties—but a couple years ago I thankfully rediscovered the magic of cotton as an outerwear fabric. That renewed love is mostly thanks to Huckberry, the online retail store that’s made a big push around their Flint and Tinder-branded, flannel-lined waxed trucker jackets. As a journalist, I bring lots of skepticism to any product that’s being advertised incessantly, but once I got my hands on the jacket I quickly realized the appeal.
Free Gear UpcyclingWhen it’s time to upgrade your gear, don’t let the old stuff go to waste–donate it for a good cause and divert it from the landfill. Outside’s partner, Gear Fix, will repair and resell your stuff for free! Just box up your retired items, print a free shipping label, and send them off. We’ll donate 100 percent of the proceeds to The Outdoorist Oath.
It’s made from a tough-as-nails waxed cotton canvas that completely cuts the wind, keeps rain and snow at bay for hours at a time, and holds up to tasks as rough as cutting down trees or wrestling with thorny brush without worrying about nicks and tears. Inside, a cotton flannel liner adds warmth. During the fall the jacket is plenty cozy over a just t-shirt. Once temps drop, it’s the perfect layering piece over a sweater and vest. More recently, I’ve also been testing Flint and Tinder’s unlined Bighorn waxed cotton jacket, which I ordered one size too big to wear as an indestructible waterproof shell over anything, including a down jacket.
Now that I’ve rediscovered cotton, I’ve been on a mission to find all the other great gear made from this timeless natural fabric. Here are five other pieces that I highly recommend.
Relwen Cord Workshirt ($198)
Your grandpa was right to love corduroy. The cotton ridges create a timeless look and feel, but they also add a significant amount of warmth. I wore this shirt well into November when all my other cotton shirts had since been relegated to my summer box. I also ordered it one size too big so I could use it as an overshirt and layer it over a thin midlayer like my Patagonia R1. It plays well as a work shirt because it won’t shred when abused, but once washed, it also looks polished at a dinner party.
Onsen Towels ($100 for two)
Yes, you could walk into Target today and get two towels for half this price. But the those towels would be made from regular cotton terry that feels too artificially soft to start, take forever to dry after a shower, and eventually stiffen over time. Thanks to a special waffle weave on the Onsen towels, plus the use of high-end, environmentally-friendly cotton, they absorb water like crazy but also dry surprisingly fast—fast enough that my wife and I can use one towel each morning as we get ready for work. The cotton is naturally soft to the touch and has never lost that softness even after hundreds and hundreds of showers and baths.
Duer Performance Denim Slim ($139)
The story here is that cotton often plays well with other materials. These jeans are made from 70 percent cotton, which makes them comfy and durable. But they also have 28 percent polyester, which helps them move moisture, and two percent spandex, which helps with stretch. There are lots of stretchy jeans on the market, but I prefer Duer’s version because their tailoring is so spot on that it looks good in nearly any situation. I wear them bike commuting, hiking, climbing, or just out for a neighborhood walk.
Chup Fair Isle Sock ($35)
I, like many of you, now spend more time at home than I ever have thanks to relaxed work-from-home rules. These have become my everyday sock because I love the feel of cotton on my feet, and because the wild folk-art-inspired patterns add a little flourish to my stay at home outfit. Made in Japan on knitting machines invented hundreds of years ago and finished by hand, the socks are plenty durable and should keep your feet comfortable for years to come—at home or in boots.
Filson Rugged Twill Medium Duffle Bag ($575)
Yes, that price makes my eyes water, too. But the reason to invest here is that you get an absolutely bombproof duffel made from a rugged twill cotton that’s been refined over hundreds of years to stand up to anything short of someone knifing the bag. Add leather straps and you get a piece of luggage that will last the rest of your life. As they say: Buy one, cry once. And sure, you could invest in a much less expensive but still pretty durable Patagonia Black Hole instead, but sometimes it’s nice to have gear that doesn’t scream “I love to play outdoors.”