Outdoor clothing seems to get more lightweight and high with each passing moment, and while it can be difficult to argue against its performance, virtually all new gear screams “I’m really fit!” in a way that not all of us are comfortable with.
Some of us prefer the long-lasting performance of old-school gear and the retro vibe that comes with leather hiking boots instead of synthetic and wearing flannel shirts for mid layers. Then you’ve got the classic outer layer of a waxed cotton jacket, once a staple amongst outdoorsy types and nowadays largely relegated to English aristocrats for tramping around the countryside in their wellington boots looking for pheasant. But for a long time, many of us were perfectly happy to wear waxed jackets to fend off the rain, and a mighty good job they did of it too. So is waxed cotton a worthy contender for your retro hiking wardrobe? We take a look at the pros and cons of this time-tested fabric.
What is waxed cotton?
Waxed cotton is cotton that has been treated with a waxy substance, either paraffin or wax made from natural beeswax. The concept dates all the way back to the 15th century, when British sailors discovered that applying oil, and later wax, to their sails made them more efficient. Soon, they were making their own clothing out of waxed material which kept the water out and the wind at bay. Super handy at sea.
Fast forward to the 19th century and waxed cotton started making its way into outerwear intended for sporting, a charge led by legacy companies like Barbour and Mackintosh, which made jackets for farmers and outdoorsmen.
Waxed jackets remained popular in rainy locales through the 20th century, but in recent decades have been retired in favor of more high tech hardshell jackets made with breathable, waterproof membranes treated with DWR such as Gore-Tex.
Is waxed cotton waterproof?
Waxed cotton is highly waterproof, which is why it was so favored by men at sea, and it does an excellent job of fending off even driving rain without wetting out the way your waterproof jacket eventually will in a deluge. Furthermore, waxed cotton is windproof, so even though it may not be as padded as your favorite down jacket, it does provide some decent warmth when you’re hiking in the cold.
Is wax cotton breathable?
Yes and no. Unwaxed cotton is very breathable, but of course the wax fills in all those pores that would otherwise let rain in, and the reason this technique worked so well for ship sails is because waxed cotton isn’t very breathable. There are small pores which allow water vapor to pass through, but it’s definitely not going to be as breathable as a more modern hardshell that uses a breathable waterproof fabric like Gore-Tex.
Perhaps what makes the problem worse is that many waxed cotton jackets are lined with a non-breathable fabric, such as polyamide, which makes them less breathable than they would be otherwise. They’re good for a tramp in the woods, but you might start to feel the heat on a steep climb.
Are waxed jackets good for hiking?
So, waxed cotton jackets are unbelievably waterproof and windproof, and they’re a little breathable, so does that mean they’re good for hiking in a driving gale, or are they better for throwing on to pop down to the local bodega on a blustery day?
Well, the main qualities of a waxed cotton jacket that makes it a little less ideal for hiking, in addition to not being ultra breathable, are that it’s heavy, bulky and stiff. By heavy, we do mean heavy. A waxed cotton jacket on its own might weigh several pounds, though they are coming out with lighter versions, while hardshells can weigh as little as five ounces. A waxed cotton won’t easily stuff into your backpack either, so you’ll probably want to plan to wear it, or carry it. Then there’s the stiffness – when you buy a waxed cotton jacket new, you can set it on the floor and it will stand up by itself. This doesn’t bode so well for tying around your waist, when you’re scrambling, taking a backpack on and off, or tangling with trekking poles. However, with use, waxed cotton jackets do become more pliable.
What waxed cotton jackets have going for them is that, like leather hiking boots, they’ll last a lifetime if you take good care of them. Taking care of them, though, is another task, as the wax doesn’t last forever, so you’ll need to re-wax them once a year. This might sound like a lot of work, but Nikwax sells a product called Wax Cotton Proof, and if you really want your high tech hardshell to hold up, you’ll actually want to re waterproof it regularly too, so don’t let maintenance be the deciding factor.
Ultimately, it depends on what you want to do in the jacket. If you’re a heritage hero and already own one and you love the look and feel of it and you intend to do some not-too-strenuous walking in the rain, it will give you some great benefits for that extra weight and bulk. That said, if you want to move fast and far without your gear bogging you down, you should definitely look into a more modern jacket. You’ll just have to be prepared to silently signal “I’m really fit!” at every passing hiker.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.