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What is moisture wicking material and why is it important?

A woman and a man walking through a forest
A woman and a man walking through a forest (Image credit: Getty)

If you’ve done any browsing of outdoor gear in the past 20 years, you’ve no doubt come across the term ‘moisture wicking’ – after all it appears on descriptions for everything from base layers and running jackets to socks and underwear. So what is moisture wicking material, exactly, and why is it important?

In a nutshell, moisture wicking material is a quick-drying fabric that draws moisture away from the surface of your skin through small spaces (called capillary action) and towards the outer layer of the fabric where it evaporates, leaving your skin dry. Just imagine a candle wick drawing melted wax up from the candle and then evaporating it into the air and you’ve got the idea. Moisture wicking materials are typically synthetic, such as polyester or nylon, and have been engineered and treated by the manufacturers to do their job.

The patent for moisture wicking material was filed in 1998, though some claim that Under Armour founder Kevin Plank was already marketing moisture wicking technology two years earlier while he was a university student. Either way, moisture wicking fabrics seem to be here to stay and they’re worth considering if you love the outdoors.  

Woman wearing synthetic t-shirt

A woman hiking on a large rock with the sea behind her (Image credit: Getty)

Why do I want the moisture drawn away from my skin? 

Before moisture wicking material made its way into our base layers and running tights, most of us wore cotton clothing on the trail and quite frankly, it was pretty uncomfortable. It’s okay to sweat when you’re running or hiking uphill, but the moment you stop for a breather or arrive at camp, you cool off and suddenly you’re out in the cold air with a clammy shirt sticking to you that won’t dry off. It’s a recipe for discomfort, or worse, getting cold.

Moisture wicking materials won’t stop you from sweating – nor do you want them to – but they get the sweat off your skin and they are quick drying which means you’re not hanging around in damp clothes.

That's great, but what if it's hot out?  

Sweating is your body’s natural cooling mechanism. It works by evaporating the water off your body – if the sweat stays on your skin, you don’t cool you down which you’ll know if you’ve ever spent time in tropical climates. But if you’ve ever hiked in the desert, you’ll know that you cooled down much faster once you started sweating, even if it was hot out to begin with. That’s because the dry air was able to absorb more of the moisture from your skin than humid air can. Moisture wicking fabrics simply speed this process up, so they’re useful in hot climates too. 

The best trail running shorts should be lightweight, breathable, moisture-wicking

A man stretches his quads while on a run in the forest (Image credit: Gertty)

Are there any downsides to moisture wicking material? 

One downside of synthetic moisture wicking materials is that they tend to get smellier than fabrics like cotton. This is because their structure traps the bacteria that comes from your body via your sweat, but more recently brands have started incorporating anti-microbial technologies into their fabrics to help with that. 

What about other materials like wool? 

Wool is a natural alternative to the synthetic fabrics and does wick moisture nicely. It also doesn’t get as stinky as synthetics and is better for the environment. The downsides to wool are that it tends to come with a higher price tag, and it may not hold up as long or as well as synthetic materials do.

There are also blended moisture wicking materials, like merino wool and bamboo. These are a blend of synthetic and natural materials, which many argue offer the best of both worlds in terms of moisture-wicking and odor control.

Smartwool socks by a toasty fire

(Image credit: Smartwool / Ellis Brigham)

When do I want moisture wicking fabric? 

You want to wear clothing made of moisture wicking material for all aerobic activities where you will break a sweat like trail running, hiking, biking and skiing. In winter months, all of your layers don’t have to be moisture wicking, but the one closest to your skin should be to ensure you stay dry and warm. In summer months, you can wear a single layer of lightweight moisture wicking gear to stay dry and cool. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.