Do You Really Need the Tech-iest, Most Advanced Gear on the Shelf When Camping?

Just before the first plump rain drops fell, followed by the biting sting of hail, the temperature dropped by a good ten degrees. We were just setting up our tents at a backcountry spot ten miles or so deep into California’s Emigrant Wilderness. It was our second day during one of my earliest backpacking trips and clouds had been building all morning as we hiked up to a spectacular valley, narrow and rimmed with 9,000-foot granite peaks; the PCT climbs up and out of the shoulder of this valley on its way north to spectacular Sonora Pass. 

When the air first chilled, I reached into my second hand Lowe Alpine pack—I’d initially bought it as luggage for a European backpacking trip—pulled out my trusty cotton surf-branded and hoodie and threw it over my head. 

“Wait, don’t you have a synthetic base layer or something? Fleece, maybe?” asked a more experienced backpacking friend who planned the trip. 

It was the first time I heard the phrase “cotton kills” and learned that in the alpine backcountry if you rely on cotton, you will die. Like, for real. It gets wet then it gets cold, then so do you, then you die of hypothermia. 

Since the rain was starting to sneak beneath the pine boughs above and I didn’t want to have any of those things happen, especially not death, I slunk into my tent and told my girlfriend (now wife) we needed to get better backpacking gear. 

For the next, oh, decade or so, I upgraded everything. Wool and synthetic base and midlayers. Ultralight down jacket. Nylon/spandex pants. Fleece, fleece, and more fleece. All performance, of course. 

Part of the constant upgrading was legitimately learning how I liked to hike and camp and at what levels of exertion and in which environments. But also part of it was trying to keep up with the Joneses. Mix in a splash of gear obsession, too. At some point, it became my outdoor kit—a synthetic fabric uniform, something I didn’t really think much about. Backpacking, car camping, didn’t matter. I just assumed I needed the best, newest, and shiniest, all the time. And that didn’t leave room for natural fibers. 

That was a stupid phase. 

I’m not entirely sure what changed, but I do remember I started backpacking in one of my favorite old torn cotton shirts. I’d sometime wear an old linen button-down—my lord that thing breathed. Cut-off shorts found their way into my packs. I brought a pair of jeans on a fall backpacking trip because they were comfortable around the fire at night and I didn’t have to worry about poking holes in fancy synthetic pants while busting up kindling. 

Gradually, still following the model of constantly testing and evaluating what I actually needed, and what actually worked, natural fibers started working their way back into the kit. 

I have little kids now and I’ve rarely backpacked these past four years. Now I just hightail up to the mountains in my truck, finding the loneliest Forest Service roads I can for a few days. Out there, all alone, I don’t want nylon pants. I don’t want a down jacket. I wear denim jeans and thick cotton flannels and a durable, warm hemp canvas jacket. Big leather boots. Or Bedrock sandals. My sleeping bag is even cotton again. 

Waxed canvas jackets are great.

I’m not suggesting you cram yourself into a Canadian tuxedo and head out to do the JMT or anything. But you know what? Pretty much everyone hiking and camping prior to the 1960s was in cotton or wool. They had just as much fun as we do now. They experienced the same highs, suffered the same lows. 

I am suggesting that you’re not gonna die if you wear a cotton t-shirt on your next hike. Have a cozy hoodie you like? Bring it on a summer backpacking trip. It’s fine. Jeans are pretty handy in the backcountry. You’d be surprised. Cable knit fisherman’s sweater? Heck yeah. Looks great around the fire. 

Words by Justin Housman


Here are some of my favorite pieces that rely on natural fibers:

Patagonia Work Wear Iron Forge Canvas Hemp Jacket – You can watch my take on it right here.

Filson – Can’t tell you what the model is because I can’t remember, but I rock a big, heavy cotton jacket stuffed with a little bit of down. Magnificent. 

Du/er – Wow. These are the jeans. My favorite are the Fireside Denim Relaxed. Comfy, durable denim with fleece sewn in for warmth. 

Wanna hear a longer take on why we feel like we need ultra-tech synthetic fabrics and why natural fibers are great? Listen to me on this episode of The Rock Fight podcast. 

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