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Cotton Doesn't Kill

Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally featured on THE ROCK FIGHT podcast and is available to listen to in the player below.


Today I’m picking a fight with…COTTON KILLS…because a cotton t-shirt is my favorite thing to wear outside.

Coming of age for outdoor adventure in the 90’s in the northeast part of the United States of America meant that you could count on three things: humidity in the summer, ice in the winter and the green aproned employees of Eastern Mountain Sports telling newbs like me that if I wear a cotton t-shirt in either season I. Would. DIE!

So I bought what they told me to buy: Bergelene, the EMS in-house version of Capilene, and I wore it all of the time. When I earned my own apron and joined the ranks of EMS, I did the same thing that had been done to me: Oh, hello there budding hiker or climber or kayaker, let’s get you set up to go outside. And what will you be wearing to the beginning of all of your exciting new adventures? NOT COTTON OR YOU WILL DIE!

Then I moved west and into the drier air of the Rockies where I quickly learned that there were times that wearing cotton wasn’t just ok, it was actually the best option.

Subsequent moves back east and to the Pacific Northwest made me realize that no matter where you are, there are climate differences that necessitate base layer evaluation and depending on what is happening out of your particular doors, there are definitely times when a cotton t-shirt will be just fine.

The reason I’m talking about this? Cotton Kills is still a thing. Google it right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. You’ll see articles and posts referencing this mantra as recently as a May 2022 post by the outdoor themed website ‘SKY ABOVE US’. The opening of that post actually says that wearing cotton in the outdoors ‘may kill you’.

Why do we do this? Why do we insist on boiling things down to something so hyperbolic and skip the nuance of the topic? We now have so much knowledge around gear and apparel that we can create a welcoming environment for anyone who is interested in venturing outside and yet we double down on phrases invented in the name of safety but are a total vibe killer.

Plus the funny thing is that ‘cotton kills’ is rooted in educating the beginner but the situations in which cotton could truly become a liability are ones that a newbie would likely only find themselves in after learning the basics and acquiring the proper kit.

Read the weather and the terrain, make a solid plan and then make a smart decision about what to wear. Now if you excuse me, the sun is out, there’s not a cloud in the sky, so I’m going mountain biking in my favorite cotton t-shirt, if there is not new episode next week you can accept that as proof that I was wrong, and my shirt murdered me in the middle of my ride.

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