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Polyester vs. Nylon Clothing for Hiking

The Perspective of a Textile Scientist and Self-Described Fabric Snob

What makes hiking clothes hiking clothes? It’s not just about garment construction - it’s about the fabric itself. I’m Judy, founder of LightHeart Gear, a company devoted to developing the best lightweight hiking clothes. A lot of research goes into product development and fabric selection. Polyester and Nylon are some of the most widely used fabrics for hiking clothing for good reason. Let’s walk through the history of the development of these fabrics, and why you may choose polyester or nylon, depending on your climate and activity. 

Judy, wearing a lightweight wool t-shirt and nylon button down shirt.

Judy, wearing a lightweight wool t-shirt and nylon button down shirt.
 

Development of Nylon and Polyester

Nylon is the first synthetic fiber developed. In 1930, nylon was accidentally discovered when research chemist Dr. Julian Hill produced a gooey blob of material while studying the behavior of molecules and polymers. Although his research head deemed his discovery useless at first, Dr. Hill found he was able to draw out a long thin strand of material that remained flexible and soft and was remarkably strong. It became known as the 3-16 polyester super-silk fiber, the forerunner of nylon. DuPont – the company Dr. Hill worked for - soon patented the product, and by 1939 they had turned it into what we now know as nylon with the first nylon stockings on the market. It was hailed as synthetic silk. 

Polyester soon followed in 1941, and in 1945, DuPont bought the patent for it. In 1950, polyester clothing began to hit the market.

How Nylon and Polyester Differ, and What That Means for Hikers

Both nylon and polyester are most often made from crude oil, but have different properties regarding moisture and oil absorption. The biggest difference to the hiker is that polyester fabric is oleolphilic, or able to absorb oil and not water. So let’s cover some FAQs for these common hiking fabrics.

Polyester vs Nylon: Odor Retention

Body odors are oil based and since polyester fabric absorbs oil and not water, human oils bind to polyester fabric and don’t let go. After you launder your polyester shirt it may smell nice and clean, but once it warms up to body temperature being worn, that smell, well, there it is. You just cannot get the “hiker stank” to go away and stay gone! Nylon fabric on the other hand is NOT oleophilic, so when you wash your clothing the smell goes away completely.

VERDICT: Nylon is a better choice to avoid hiker stank.

Polyester vs Nylon: Water Absorption, Moisture, and Heat Retention

Polyester is hydrophobic, meaning it will not absorb water. In comparison, nylon absorbs a little bit of water, but only about 3 – 4%. So technically, polyester will handle moisture and dry faster since it is more hydrophobic than nylon. Also, water requires more heat energy to warm, so nylon feels colder when wet and stays wet longer. Although not much fun in winter, this could be a benefit in hot climates as the evaporation of the moisture in the fabric cools the body.

VERDICT: Polyester is more of a quick-dry fabric than nylon.
VERDICT: Polyester retains heat better than nylon.

Polyester vs Nylon: Moisture Wicking

What is wicking?
Wicking is the transportation of fluid and is driven by temperature and humidity gradients. For example, if the climate inside your shirt is warmer and more humid than the outside air, moisture will be driven away from your body. This action can also be accomplished by the construction of the fabric. Capillary action can pull fluids from one side of the material to the other with different thicknesses of threads in the garment.

Wicking and Fabric Construction
But first, how is polyester and nylon thread made? In very basic terms, the liquid form is pushed through a spinner so that tiny strands or threads are pushed out. If the threads are stick straight, you would end up with flat smooth fabric. This wouldn’t be the most comfortable fabric to wear so they change the shape of the thread. They make the inside hollow and give kinks and shapes to the outside to create a more cottony, softer feel. These shapes are also what helps moisture travel along the surface from one side of the garment to the other, aka wicking moisture. This works wonderfully if you are sitting around at home not exercising, or in a lab setting when they are testing the material under very controlled conditions.

Woman hiker admiring the view

So, Is Wicking Fabric Good for Hiking?

When out on the trail hiking you SWEAT. Sweat is not moisture vapor, it’s buckets of moisture. It does not make one bit of difference what material you’re wearing - it’s going to be soaked with sweat regardless. In other words, wicking properties will not keep up with the amount of moisture you’re producing. Now, one of the nice properties of polyester and nylon is that they both dry pretty fast since we’ve learned they are both mostly hydrophobic.

Fabrics such as cotton, rayon, silk and wool love to hold onto water – they are hydrophilic. It’s for this reason they say “cotton kills”; Cotton doesn’t dry out quickly. Wool – which can absorb a lot of water – dries very slowly but has the amazing ability to keep you warm even when it’s wet. (SIDE NOTE: I can attest to this with first hand knowledge when I fell in a creek late one evening. The temperature was in the 40’s with a slight breeze and no sun. As long as I kept walking (and not even very fast or hard) I was warm. I was wearing wool long johns - top and bottom).

My Personal Fabric Choices for Hiking

It depends on the environment! I prefer a long sleeve loose button down NYLON shirt if I’m going to be in open exposed (above tree line) areas. In hot, humid, shady areas, I’d rather wear a very lightweight wool t-shirt. (Wool will not hold onto the hiker stank either.)

What you wear is personal preference, and everything we’ve mentioned has their place and use – yes, even cotton t-shirts on hot summer days! They will get soaked with sweat, but the evaporation can cool you. I have called myself a “Fabric snob” in the past – I find textiles to be a fascinating subject – so I just wanted to educate you on what goes in to each individual fabric type to help make picking out your hiking outfits in the future even easier.